We have updated our Privacy Policy, effective May 25, 2018, to clarify how we collect and process your personal data. By continuing to use this website, you acknowledge that you have read and agree to the updated Privacy Policy.

Hazlitt Magazine

I Tried to Fast it Away

Ramadan this year was a sacred starting point for me in the process of letting go. It’s helped me understand that my anger can, and will, illuminate me.

'I’ve Never Been That Chill About Being Alive': An Interview with Melissa Broder

The author of The Pisces talks astrology, fish sex and filling existential holes.

The Tag Team

These ten friends have been playing the childhood game for decades—and each year, the stakes get higher. Now, their contest is being immortalized on film.


I Tried to Fast it Away

Ramadan this year was a sacred starting point for me in the process of letting go. It’s helped me understand that my anger can, and will, illuminate me.

Friday, June 15 marks the last day of Ramadan this year, a sacred month for Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan occurs on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, once a crescent moon has been detected. Muslims worldwide, if able, practice good deeds to become a better Muslim, and abstain from pleasures, sin and food as an act to become closer to God. Ramadan has long been understood to me as a month-long opportunity to pause. I grew up fasting. As a child, I was told I only had to complete half-days. I would break fast at school at noon while everyone ate lunch. It was always a great way to find out which other students shared my faith. By the time I reached high school, I became more selective about when I would fast—it was entirely out of convenience, and I would spend more time trying to find ways to pretend I was completing my fast than actually doing so. Sometimes I would hide snacks in my room, or school bag, feeding myself before Meghreb. Ridden with guilt, I would make sure I ate after everyone else or request to make my own meals. But by the time I reached university, my questions about Islam, and religion altogether, steered me clear of any guilt about missing a day of fasting. I began to critique my faith rigorously. Most of my twenties have been a back and forth about faith, especially when relatives were murdered back to back. At some point, I had no faith in faith anymore. I had no hope for this dunya (meaning “world”). I did not know how to. I’m happy I went through that period of questioning—it brought me closer to Islam. By 2015, my relationship to my faith, once again, was shifting: I was fasting again. I was re-teaching myself how to pray. I was asking questions. I was trying to learn more. I began to accept that I don’t need to make sense of it all in order to have faith. You just have it or you don’t, and that doesn’t need to be explained. Last year was the first time in several years that I did not fast for Ramadan. I was not well, and I wasn’t admitting it to myself. I lost my grandmother, was struggling through my first year in a doctoral program, had a family member try to move to Somalia the day that Trump’s travel ban was announced. Meanwhile, I was navigating my first real experiences of gendered violence on my body—twice, in one month—while my face and name made headlines across publications in my home city for helping Black women get into academia. I didn’t have the energy or capacity to recognize any positivity in that moment. I was overwhelmed and I wanted to get out. By the time Ramadan had arrived I was swamped with rerouting my life from my home city of Toronto to Montreal, without much consideration that I would be living without my community, family, and friends during one of the most vulnerable moments in my life. It was the first time I really felt alone. Every day felt like it was getting harder to breathe. I was depressed. I was angry.  * I tried to run it awayThought then my head be feeling clearerI traveled 70 statesThought moving around make me feel betterI tried to let go my loverThought if I was alonethen maybe I could recoverTo write it awayor cry it awayAway, away, away, away, away, awayAway, away, away, away, away— "Cranes in the Sky," Solange A year later, I moved back to Toronto into a beautiful home—it’s spacious, full of sunlight, swarmed with plants, in a secluded area. It’s the most quiet and peaceful space I’ve ever lived in.  My time here for the past few months has allowed me to reflect heavily on what space means to me, especially as a Black Muslim woman who grew up in a household full of men. I’ve never felt that I’ve had space that was rightfully mine. I never felt a spiritual ownership of a space or home. I’ve always had somewhere to live—alhamdulilah—but until this house, I never felt like I had a home. Like last year, this year was chaotic. I started off the year mourning my uncle who was murdered in a Mogadishu bombing in October. It was the birthday of his son, Masud, who was murdered four years prior in Toronto. I really began to wonder about the disposability of Black life. I was overwhelmed with the realization that death in my family, and community, seems to rarely be the result of natural causes. I began to ask where it’s safe to be Somali. It was the first time I realized how easy it is for Black girls to disappear—and how easy it is to want to. My current home has felt like the first step towards peace in a long time. But this home is situated in one of the whitest neighbourhoods in this city. Once, a guest and I stepped out of my house to sit outside in the sun. My neighbours were watching their children while they were playing with their toy water guns. As we moved around my house, the children started probing us with questions, occasionally pointing the water guns in our direction with innocent, unknowing smiles. They asked why we were there, because they didn’t think we belonged. At one point, they gently asked us to leave. Their assumption was that we were labourers—perhaps cleaners or nannies in the area. That is, after all, these children’s only understanding of how women of colour exist in this world. My friend and I were completely puzzled as to how to tell children they were being inappropriate. We were even more puzzled by the lack of intervention by the adults who were present.  Our live-in landlord was also present as the children probed my friend and I without intervention. They said nothing. As someone raised in Scarborough, a multicultural borough in the east end of the city, my current neighbourhood has definitely been a difficult readjustment. But inside my home, I am at peace, and at the least, we all deserve that: a peaceful home, if we are so fortunate. In a city with an incredibly inequitable housing market, finding an affordable and lovable home is already difficult enough. I was lucky to have finally found something I adored and could afford in Toronto. Two weeks after I moved into this house, I found out it was being sold. The first day that I fasted this Ramadan was the day I woke up, looked outside, and saw a “sold” sign outside of our house. An hour later my roommate broke the news to me: we were moving. I was angry. I wasn’t just angry about the sale sign, I was angry that I finally had something that felt like a little bit of peace, and I wouldn’t have it anymore. I was starting off my Ramadan angrier than I had already been. It’s one thing when hardships come our way because, perhaps, there is some spiritual lesson that the universe or God (or whatever faith system you have) brings to us to grow from. And then there are hardships that come your way merely because this world is trash, and your fate is nothing but the result of structural power.  For the past year, I have tried to find meaning in what feels like an ongoing plateau of unfortunate events. I am accepting that there is no spiritual lesson to be found in experiencing gendered violence. There is no spiritual lesson in dealing with anti-Blackness. There are no spiritual awakenings that come with murder. * A few days after I received the news that I would be searching for a new place to live (for the fifth time in the past year), I broke my fast by listening to music. I was fuming while I walked from my house to the subway station, observing the neighbourhood I would no longer be calling home, and I figured that my anger was not useful to a productive fast that day anyway. “Mad” by Solange came on. I’ve heard this song, and the album in its entirety, damn near a million times. But with good music, there is always something new to be discovered or observed, regardless of how much the work has aged. For the first time ever, I paid attention to the lyrics of the first few lines of the song, and continued to repeat them during my twenty-minute commute from High Park station to downtown Toronto: You got the light, count it all joyYou got the right to be madBut when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way— "Mad," Solange They were the words I needed to hear in that moment. As Audre Lorde says, “my anger is a response to racism.” My anger is always valid. It’s loaded with details, understanding and information about the structures of this world. However, despite how valid my anger is, it harms no one but me. It chips away at my heart, my health, and my spirit—no one else’s. It slowly kills me. That’s the catch. Black women are given every valid reason to be angry existing in a world that continuously renders us invisible, and yet, we are projected as too angry for society in order to erase any validity to our very real frustrations. The “angry black woman” archetype functions to conceal the realities of the day-to-day violences that are projected onto us. I’ve spent too much time trying to validate my anger, or have it be validated, that I’ve failed to realize the necessity of letting it go.  “Anger is loaded with information and energy...”-Audre Lorde And so, I’ve come to understand Ramadan as having another advantage: it is a time for me to address and sort through my anger. I wasn’t able to fast every day this Ramadan, but I tried my best. Ramadan this year was a sacred starting point for me in the process of letting go. It’s helped me understand that my anger can, and will, illuminate me. I’m ending this Ramadan knowing that I don’t need to just be well. I want and need to learn the tools to help me proactively stay well—a shield, if you will—to help me continue to get through this life. This may seem pessimistic, or, perhaps, realistic: but I am painfully aware that there will be more shitty times, much like there will be good times, too. I want to be prepared for both. A part of me suspects that the anger I have carried with me for the past year is the result of an accumulation of traumatic events that I haven’t healed from. As my brother likes to remind us, it’s not normal how much my family, or our community, has danced with death. There is a lot I have been carrying with me throughout my life. There is a lot that I need to let go. I was never taught the blueprint of self care. I’ve been making it up along the way, as many of us do. And by chance, or by luck, I’ve been surviving. But we can’t always afford luck. For the first time in a long time I no longer lack hope that I will be better. I believe there's more to life than this. There is better than this. I have so much work to do before I arrive there, and inshallah, I will. In the meantime, all I can control is my body and my mind, and in this life, I must protect them both. I’m beginning to believe that the past year was the universe, or God, or something, telling me to slow down; to find the tools of self-care; to love myself better, and be patient with myself. That I won’t be able to continue to live peacefully until I locate adequate tools of self care. My anger has been whispering for me to listen to myself and my body more. It’s telling me to find ways to let go. And, thankfully, it was Ramadan that finally helped me hear it.  Outside of abstaining from eating food, or committing any sins, fasting is a bit more specific for me. I like to call it my fix-up month. For thirty days I (try) to find ways to re-centre myself. I’m cognitive of who I speak to, how I speak to people, how I speak about people, and how I speak to myself; I pay closer attention to the energy I receive and the energy I release into the world. We often talk about protecting our energy and space from others without really reflecting on the energy we bring into the world ourselves. Ramadan helps me make sure I am aligning myself to be the person I want to see in this world, and to remind myself that I should continuously hold myself to that standard. I listen to myself more. I am softer with myself. I talk to God more. I feel more free. Ramadan might not always necessarily bring me peace, but it always brings me clarity.  “My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.”— Audre Lorde 
‘I’ve Never Been That Chill About Being Alive’: An Interview with Melissa Broder

The author of The Pisces talks astrology, fish sex and filling existential holes.

How do you fill an existential void—carved out by anxiety, depression, a general sense of malaise—within yourself? Everyone has their fixes:  food, drugs, alcohol, sex, mindless scrolling through Instagram, obsessively checking your horoscope, a dogged exercise regime, drunk texting an ex. This question is fundamental to Los Angeles-based author Melissa Broder’s new book, The Pisces (Hogarth). In it, PhD student Lucy has been writing her dissertation on the Greek poet Sappho for nine years when she inadvertently breaks up with her longtime boyfriend in a failed attempt to get him to commit. Newly single, depressed and under pressure to finish her thesis, Lucy moves to Venice Beach to dogsit for her half-sister over the summer. In Los Angeles, Lucy fills her voids with one-off Tinder dates and crappy sex in fancy hotel lobby bathrooms. Then she meets Theo, a young, bronzed swimmer who actually turns out to be a merman, and falls obsessively in love with him. Broder has written four books of poetry and is the person behind the viral Twitter account, @SoSadToday, where she posts dark and funny ruminations like, “autocorrect ‘weekend’ to ‘sitting alone in the dark’” and “should I eat, nap or masturbate: the musical.” In 2016, her Twitter spawned the essay collection, So Sad Today, in which she writes in unflinching detail about her own experiences with depression, anxiety and romantic doom.  When I call Broder a week before The Pisces comes out, she’s channeling her own anxiety by eating miniature cheesecakes while sitting behind the wheel of her car stationed in the grocery store parking lot and buying the same pair of shoes and then returning them over and over again. We talked about the big business of self-care and wellness, why she has a love-hate relationship with astrology, The Shape of Water and fish sex.  Samantha Edwards: When did you start thinking about The Pisces?  Melissa Broder: After I finished writing So Sad Today, I still really wanted to explore this theme of love as addiction and why fantasy love can be so much more intoxicating than earthly love. I was on the beach in Venice, where I was living at the time, and reading this book called The Professor and the Siren by a dead Italian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s about a man who falls in love with a mermaid. It dawned on me how much the human-mermaid relationship really embodies this dichotomy that I was trying to explore. But why is it always a mermaid and a man? Why is it never a merman and a woman? The story was born for me right there. I don’t write often from a personal standpoint, so I’ve always imagined that it’s harder to write personal essays because you need to put yourself out into the world. It’s feels more vulnerable. Is it harder to write as yourself than as Lucy? I wouldn’t say it’s easier. There’s a lot of me in Lucy, as there always is some of yourself in your characters. I feel really fondly for Lucy. She’s become a companion of mine. I never understood when fiction writers talked about their characters as people. I thought, “you’re fucking weird.” Now I’m writing the screenplay of The Pisces and it’s so fun because I get to be back in this world. It’s almost like writing fan-fic. How do you see yourself in Lucy? We’re both really sad and don’t understand why fantasy isn’t reality. We’re both perplexed that you can’t just will life to be as you imagine it to be. We also both have addictive tendencies. I have a broader range of addictions than Lucy. Lucy can sometimes get a little too drunk, but it’s fine. I cannot just have “some” white wine. I’ve been sober for thirteen years. But I think when it comes to sex and love, Lucy’s journey is very much one that I have. I have not fucked a merman, but I definitely grappled with the question of, “Can you fill the existential hole with romantic obsession?” I wanted to ask you about holes. In The Pisces you write a lot about filling holes, whether they’re literal, like mouths, vaginas or assholes, or cosmic and existential. In the first essay in So Sad Today, you write about being a baby and needing so much breast milk from your mom so you could sate a hole. What do holes in all their varying forms mean to you? I think the awareness of feeling like something is missing or that there’s an emptiness within has dictated a lot of choices I’ve made in my life. I tried to use a lot of different things to sate those holes. Through experience I’ve come to realize that there’s no amount of validation, drugs, alcohol, food, success or the right pair of shoes that’s going to be that lasting caulk. It’s really an inside job. That being said, I’m a human being and I’m always going to reach for shiny shit. I’m probably always going to try to fill that internal hole with outside stuff. I’m not expecting to reach any sort of enlightenment where I come to peace with my own emptiness all the time. But I do continue to come back around to this place where I’m like right, it’s an inside job and the solution is spiritual. I’m probably always going to continue to have these awakenings and mistakes, but for me, that feeling—whether you want to call it depression or an existential hole—has been a real, powerful force. It’s something that I’m very aware of so it infuses everything I write. How old were you when you first had that awareness? I always say that I could have probably used a drink right out of the womb. I’ve never been that chill about being alive. [I’ve had this awareness] from a very young age, but I do have some very visceral memories. I have a memory of being on a beach when I was probably around twelve. That’s when I was very familiar with my holes. I had so many crushes at that point. My longing for boys was off the charts. But I remember sitting on a beach and seeing all these beautiful other girls around me and they were all wearing bikinis and I was not having a good time with my body, it was very Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The sun was beating down and I remember the level of discomfort and darkness that I was feeling. I just thought god, I wish I could be one of them. Another one, aged 12, was hooking up with—okay, I’ll change his name, I don’t want to give his real name—hooking up with “Josh Goldberg” in the phone room in a hotel at a bat mitzvah. We were slow dancing to this song by the Righteous Brothers and then we made out and it was so amazing, and then the next day being like, “I wonder if I’ll ever hear from him?” For a moment, that hole had been filled and then on the other side of the filling of that hole, what it had done is expanded the hole and oh my god, I’m hungrier than ever. Lucy is in group therapy with a woman she calls “Chickenhorse” who constantly talks about being trigged by seemingly innocuous stuff, like newsboy caps. In one session she says she feels “re-traumatized” because her mom doesn’t like her dogs. And she’s always the victim. “Trigger warnings” are so present in our vernacular in 2018 and how we preface stories, and I get the importance of that. And while I did feel sympathy for Chickenhorse, I also found her really annoying in how she always made herself the victim. That’s the thing. I have compassion for Chickenhorse’s suffering, but her constant use of the same words to sort of signify that suffering makes it hard to connect. It’s the McDonaldization of suffering. As someone who really cares a lot about language, Lucy is just like, “Why are they using all the same words?” Psychobabble can be a turn-off. What do you think about self-care as this… The self-care industrial complex? Yeah, this idea that it’s something that you can buy. The big business of self-care and wellness. When I was in my early twenties I was really into New Age culture. I also was doing a lot of psychedelics and smoking a lot of weed. I worked at at a tantric sex and wellness non-profit in the Bay area. I saw the business side and I think it really clued me into the performative elements of the business. And I’ve always been skeptical of any modality that purports itself to be “the only way”, especially if there’s a lot of money being made. That being said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the monetization of learning a new meditation modality or being a healer. I get really skeptical when some humans claim that they have a patent on the truth. How did working at the tantric sex wellness place affect your views on self-wellness? It showed me that anything can be snake oil. I think that as a person who always had insecurities, I was always looking outside of myself for the answer. I really thought any psychic, astrologist or tarot card reader knew more than I did. When I was nineteen I went through a breakup very similar to Lucy’s breakup, and I studied astrology as a way of attempting to manipulate the universe into bringing me love. I’ve kind of given up on astrology in a lot of ways. I think it’s a very reductive way to look at the universe. But I’m also like that person who is a lax Catholic, yet still secretly believes in hell. For me, it’s like ah, astrology is bullshit, but I’m never going to fuck an Aries. In The Pisces, Lucy reads her horoscopes from like five different sources until she finds one that she likes. I think a lot of people, myself included, read our horoscopes in that way. Like if I don’t like what Astro Poets on Twitter or astrology.com tell me, I’ll go some place else until I find a horoscope I think is relevant to me and what’s happening in my life.   I don’t read my horoscopes anymore, but within like ten minutes of meeting someone, I’m always like, when’s your birthday? It’s like a tic of mine. I see astrology as more like archetypes now. It’s symbolism and as a poet I can totally get with that. We’ve all accidentally read the wrong horoscope and thought it really applied to us, like oh wait, they were describing Sagittarius, but I’m a Virgo and it sounds so much like me. We all want to make sense of the world.  There have been some think pieces recently about how mermaids and mermen are having “a moment.” I know everyone probably asks you this, but have you seen The Shape of Water yet? I haven’t, but I was on an airplane and The Shape of Water was one of the movie choices so I put it on and fast-forwarded through it. I just wanted to find the fish sex, but I couldn’t find it so I just turned it off. When you heard about the premise of The Shape of Water, were you like, oh my god, there’s something else coming out with fish sex going on? I was like, I’m so fucked. I didn’t hear about it until it was already out. And then when it won an Oscar I was like, no one is going to read my book. But then my agent was like no, it’s good, people will be prime for fish sex. [In The Shape of Water], isn’t he a weird slimy creature? He’s not a merman. I’d say he’s definitely more fish. Yeah, he’s gross. He looks like an amphibian. Yes, very amphibious. He’s also kind of buff, but definitely not sexy. Why do you think people are attracted to this idea of finding love in these creatures? On the planet right now, everyone has all the answers. We have access to information at the tip of our finger tips; there are so many think pieces telling us what to think and what to believe. The ocean is still this totally mysterious realm. When you think about all the dating apps, we know so much information about people before we even meet them. With the ocean, it’s the opposite.
‘Sci-Fi Music Felt Like a Vast, Interconnected Mythology’: An Interview with Jason Heller

Talking about the Seventies, the inside-baseball debate over sci-fi vs. SF, and who’s carrying the torch of sci-fi music today with the author of Strange Stars.

Jason Heller’s Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded (Melville House) explores a genre that spread across rock, jazz, disco, metal and funk: sci-fi. The cover image—David Bowie’s face against a starry backdrop—immediately contextualizes the musical use of a term that we’ve been comfortably attaching to genre work in literature, film and television for decades. Heller, a Hugo-winning novelist, makes a compelling case for the importance of sci-fi to some of the greatest music of the seventies, from Kraftwerk to Sabbath to Funkadelic. Heller is a former record store employee, and it shows: he’s seemingly heard everything, and as I was reading, every time I thought I’d found a gap in his cataloguing of sci-fi music’s proponents—Hawkwind, say—I was usually about two pages away from his detailed exploration of the band’s relationship to British sci-fi writing legend Michael Moorcock. The book can be used to generate an endless cosmic playlist, and perhaps most usefully, gives us a way of thinking about musical genre that transcends the usual categorizations: Heller’s book groups music according to the aesthetic and thematic concerns of the artists who made it.  Naben Ruthnum: I liked that you got into instrumentation as a component of sci-fi music—that this form of music is not just defined by lyrical content. This is especially obvious when you write about synth-centric artists such as Kraftwerk or Klaus Schulze. But earlier in the book, you talk about Pink Floyd leaning away from sci-fi music as Roger Waters took the reins. I thought this might be an interesting place to pin down a definition of sci-fi music. Is the Floyd shift away from sci-fi music a matter of refocused lyrical concerns, after the departure of original vocalist and creative force Syd Barrett? Jason Heller: I think Pink Floyd definitely sought to redefine itself after Barrett’s departure, and justifiably so. They could have tried to replicate his mix of mythical whimsy and astrophysics, but that would have been a losing game—at the same time, they didn’t make a sharp left turn, but gradually expanded the scope of their lyrical concerns while retaining vague elements of the cosmic. This is one example of a very tough struggle I had while conceptualizing Strange Stars: How do I define this stuff? Should I only include music with lyrics, and specifically lyrics that reference sci-fi works and/or tropes? Or should I also include music that’s instrumental but has a strong sci-fi vibe and even sci-fi-centric song titles? That issue dovetailed with another I was having: Do I restrict this book to pop music, so no jazz or classical, or do I define pop music on seventies terms, which would definitely include jazz, thanks to the huge jazz-fusion crossover of the decade?  I wrestled with all these things before realizing I should approach this a little more intuitively than giving myself hard-fast rules on what I could include or exclude. My working definition of sci-fi music while I wrote Strange Stars was simply: Music that was directly inspired by or paralleled, consciously or otherwise, what was going on in science fiction of all media during that time. I didn’t include classical music or soundtrack composers, as I felt that was something altogether different, a dynamic that functioned less organically and spontaneously than the back-and-forth between pop music and other sci-fi pop culture of the seventies. On the page, British and American sci-fi had quite a different evolution, and as a result, UK and US sci-fi in the seventies and eighties were rather different beasts. Strange Stars tracks the differing evolution of sci-fi music in the UK and the States: SF music gained British traction before it caught on in America. Just a note on SF vs. sci-fi as the terminology I use in Strange Stars: I come from the science fiction scene, where SF is definitely preferred, as opposed to sci-fi, which is viewed by some in a snooty way as something the uninformed or clueless might call science fiction—or the lowest class of science fiction itself. It’s such an insider-baseball argument, and I was writing this book for a general readership, so I stuck with the more recognizable “sci-fi,” regardless of any objections a couple of snobs here or there might have. Also, to a general readership, “SF” means “San Francisco”—and since the city of San Francisco is mentioned a few times in the book, I thought that a good ninety percent of my readers could potentially be thrown off by all the “SF”s in the book. Ah! You argue that “Doctor Who” and other mainstream culture staples in the UK paved the way for sci-fi music on that side of the Atlantic, while sci-fi stayed cult in the United States until 1977, with the Star Wars explosion. Initially, I bucked against this argument—to me, American sci-fi has been part of the pulp lifeblood of the country’s culture since long before Lucas. How did you come to your conclusions on when sci-fi became undeniable in the States? I think that may be an oversimplification of what I say in the book. I don’t say that sci-fi was underground in America until Star Wars—only that sci-fi music wasn’t very marketable as such in America until Star Wars came out, and when Meco’s disco version of John Williams’s theme went platinum, which opened the floodgates for sci-fi music on a commercial level. Of course, Star Wars did elevate sci-fi cinema dramatically as well; almost overnight, sci-fi became cool instead of fringe, mainstream instead of niche, in a way it had never been before. There are many degrees of underground through aboveground, with each sci-fi medium being a unique spectrum, and those affected how and why sci-fi music was made in the seventies. And that’s what I explore in the book. Got it. And as for Continental Europe—you talk about Magma, Kraftwerk, and many other European bands—was this branch of SF music distinct, and unified in any sort of scene, or were these just different groups with different stories? And did the evolution of SF music in Europe have parallels in European SF writing? Well, I write at length about krautrock and how it was distinct, unified scene. As for European sci-fi bands as a whole being united in some way, no, it was more of a country-by-country thing. And most of the European bands were drawing from American and British sci-fi, which dominated the markets at the time, even in Europe. These authors—Moorcock, Ballard, Dick, Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin, and so on—made up the canon of 20th century sci-fi as it was defined at the time, and the European sci-fi bands wanted to be part of that conversation. At least those who paid attention to the sci-fi canon and weren’t more ambitiously crafting their own sci-fi mythos out of whole cloth, like Magma. You mention that sci-fi music in the eighties wasn’t so much about spaceships as “about technological advancement in mass media and the impact it might have on society.” Did this trend continue in sci-fi music? What is sci-fi music about now? Sci-fi music tapered off in the late eighties and early nineties, barring a few outliers like Queensrÿche and Voivod, who reconnected metal with its sci-fi roots in totally unique ways. The music of the nineties wasn't as interested in science fiction, at least musically, with exceptions like Kool Keith's Dr. Octagon; it was a decade more about turning inward than pondering the outer unknown. But the 2000s brought a huge new wave of sci-fi music, from Coheed & Cambria to Deltron 3030 to where we are now, with Janelle Monae and clipping. being recognized for their sci-fi concepts both within the music industry and within the sci-fi community. And that music reflects some of the more pressing concerns about technology and the future that we have today: posthumanism, cloning, the internet, and a whole other host of themes that are more cyberpunk in nature. For the most part, it's metal, hip hop, and R&B that are carrying the torch of sci-fi music today, but those seeds were planted in the seventies when those genres first began channeling science fiction.  You credit your editor with keeping this book from becoming an encyclopedia of the bands and artists that fit into this genre, and I was wondering how you both made sure that you were writing the story of SF music, and not a catalogue of its proponents. Were there throughline arguments you kept in mind with every chapter? A conclusion you were aiming towards, or one that you started with?  I was being a little self-deprecating by saying I originally was going to write an encyclopedia about sci-fi music. My original proposal encompassed all of popular music from World War II on, with each decade comprising a chapter. It wasn’t going to be an encyclopedia per se, but it would have read a bit encyclopedically, since I would have had very little page-time to devote to each artist—I would have had to basically rush through and draw my conclusions more generally. So, my editor at Melville House, Ryan Harrington, asked me, “Can you narrow this idea somehow? And find a stronger narrative that runs through it?” Bowie was always going to be the primary figure on Strange Stars, so it took me about ten minutes of brainstorming before I realized that zooming in on the seventies was the way to go. Not only could I bookend the that decade with “Space Oddity” in 1969 and its sequel, “Ashes to Ashes,” in 1980, I could probe the transition of sci-fi music from novelty to self-conscious art and back to novelty again. And in doing so, I was hoping to tell a kind of alternative history of Bowie’s life and career in the seventies, one that is often touched on in his biographies but never fully depicted—that is, Bowie as an author as well as an avatar of science fiction.  The book makes it clear that Bowie’s primacy as a figure of sci-fi music is undeniable—and his large role in your own cultural worldview seems just as prominent, from your brief discussion of your relationship to his music and Bowie-as-icon in the first few pages of Strange Stars. To what extent did your interest in sci-fi on the page and screen predate and feed into your developing interest in sci-fi music?   My earliest memories of science fiction are watching reruns of the original Star Trek with my grandfather when I was a tiny kid in the early seventies, and also shows like “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Then Star Wars hit, and I was hooked forever. I grew up very poor, and all these images of advanced technology and humankind transcending their surroundings—and even their bodies—captivated me. A lot of people view science fiction as escapist, and of course that's anything but the truth. I was inspired to seek out science fiction novels, and I joined the ubiquitous Science Fiction Book Club, which advertised in magazines frequently back then. Between that and the public library, I was by the early eighties this precocious ten-year-old devouring Frank Herbert, Andre Norton, Roger Zelazny, Fred Saberhagen, Frederik Pohl, Robert A. Heinlein, and so many other sci-fi masters. The first sci-fi record I ever owned, though, was one I cover in Strange Stars: Meco's disco version of Star Wars. But by the early eighties, science fiction everywhere in music, and I remember Peter Schilling's new-wave hit "Major Tom" really grabbing me when I was around twelve. Of course, it's a song that stars Bowie's Major Tom, and I was getting into Bowie at the same time—so sci-fi music felt like some kind of vast, interconnected mythology to me, one that, in those pre-internet days, was something I had to discover on my own. 
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
The Tag Team

These ten friends have been playing the childhood game for decades—and each year, the stakes get higher. Now, their contest is being immortalized on film.

On a Saturday afternoon in February in downtown Seattle, Chris Amman, a neatly dressed fifty-two-year-old financial services professional, had the strange feeling he was being hunted. After spending the morning attending to a few things in the office, Amman had a one o’clock meeting in a bar named The Brooklyn, on the ground level of his building. He’d chosen the location knowing it would be relatively quiet at that hour, all the better for detecting anything out of the ordinary. The day before, he’d paid a visit to get the lay of the land, suss out its blind spots and points of entry. He spent some time looking online for more information on the person he was scheduled to meet. His story checked out, but Amman remained suspicious. Entering The Brooklyn a few minutes after the hour, he scanned the space, gazing past a man at the bar with a mullet, eyeing the group in the back. He spotted the journalist, whose picture he’d seen online, and walked over to take a seat. Niceties were briefly exchanged. He ordered a beer. And then, just as Amman was beginning to relax and feel safe, the man with the mullet rose from his barstool and stalked purposefully over. “Hey, aren’t you—” he began. Amman looked up at the approaching figure. It took a moment for recognition to dawn. Then he made a run for it. He didn’t get far. The man with the mullet gave Amman a light but effective whack on the upper back. “Tag!” he said. “You’re It.”  *  In all the usual ways, they are just like ten normal middle-aged guys. Mostly scattered around Seattle and Spokane in Washington, they have wives, children, jobs, grown-up responsibilities. When they get together, they drink a few pints, smoke cigars, watch basketball, regale each other with stories and call each other by time-honored nicknames (Amman is Lepus, Rick Bruya is Bruiser, Joe Caferro is Beef). Unlike most adults, however, they have been playing an unprecedentedly epic and continuous game of “tag,” the beloved children’s playground game (called “tig” or “it” by some), for more than thirty years. They call themselves the Tag Brothers. On that Saturday in February, Amman was the latest to become “It” in a long line of Its—the most recent victim of likely the most enduring Itness ever, passed on, and on, in a decades-long, criss-crossing relay of taggers and tag-ees. This is not your typical schoolyard game of tag. The Tag Brothers plan and execute tags with the seriousness and dedication of resourceful adults. Their movements put one in mind not of the tomfoolery of schoolchildren but the merciless cunning of hitmen, participants in The Most Dangerous Game, taking turns at being prey and predator, hunter and quarry. They gather intelligence on their targets, conscript accomplices, don (often ludicrous) disguises. They scheme, they stalk, they strategize. They engage in all manner of subterfuge and deception. When eluding their would-be taggers, they plant red herrings and false trails, lay low or hide out like fugitives. The story of the Tag Brothers was first covered in the Wall Street Journal on January 28, 2013, after a family friend tipped off a reporter at a party. It was a front-page story. “It Takes Planning, Caution to Avoid Being It,” read the headline. “Group of Men Have Played Game of Tag for 23 Years; Hiding in Bushes, Cars.” Amman hadn’t even thought to tell his family about the game until the article was published; he was more nervous about telling his boss. “You never know what someone is going to think about a group of grown-ups playing tag,” he says. There was a huge response to the Wall Street Journal article, and an enormous amount of follow-up coverage, in print, on radio and on television. In Shine: Rediscovering Your Energy, Happiness and Purpose, a self-help book by Andy Cope and Gavin Oattes, the case of the Tag Brothers was held up as an inspirational example of preserving the joy and innocence of youth. The takeaway lesson: “You can have a happy childhood at any age.” And, on June 15, Tag, a movie inspired by the story, starring Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress, Isla Fisher and Rashida Jones, hits theaters. With all the press attention in 2013, the game intensified. This year, with the new movie on the way, the game kicked up several notches more, with a noted increase in smack talk. As a number of them told me, “No one wants to be It at the premiere.” In February, I traveled to Seattle to embed myself with a covert tagging operation (on hearing my plan, one of them said, “You’re like Wolf Blitzer”), but also to hear their stories and observe their much publicized, outsize friendships first-hand. I quickly got the impression that, for some of the Tag Brothers, the game is a counterpoint to a more serious occupation or loftier calling. Mike Konesky is a consultant with IBM; Sean Raftis is a Catholic priest in Columbia Falls, Montana; Joe Tombari teaches math at the school where it all started; Patrick “Paddy” Schultheis is the chair of the corporate department of one of the biggest law firms in the country, overseeing four hundred corporate lawyers.  “My profession is very serious,” says Paddy. “But it’s important to me to remember I’m just a middle-aged guy who grew up in Spokane, with a bunch of really good friends.” * They were ten boys who attended Gonzaga Preparatory High School in the ’80s. They were an eclectic bunch. Some were varsity athletes, some were members of the trivia club, some held positions in student government. If they had one thing in common, it was a sense of humor and mischief, and a lunatic tendency to take it too far. Chris and Sean once hung a sign from an overpass that read, “Party at Konesky’s.” Mike got revenge by kidnapping Sean, strapping him to a stretcher and leaning him up against a street sign at the entrance to the school.  In 1982, they started playing tag, and playing it fiercely, hyper-competitively, like an extreme sport, with all the energy and single-mindedness of testosterone-addled adolescent boys. Whoever was It would be the butt of mockery and ridicule—playful, yes, but the way that getting strapped to a stretcher and propped up at the entrance to the school was playful. They were regularly late to class. Sometimes, they would sit in on classes that weren’t their own to avoid being tagged. Bill Akers once collided with a book-carrying sophomore girl in the hallway at full speed. She hit the ground; he kept running. “I found her after school to apologize, and she wanted to know why I was running. I said I didn’t want to be tagged. She said, ‘You guys are so immature.’ I was seventeen at the time.” Akers pauses for a beat. “Now I’m fifty-two. I doubt her opinion of me or us has changed.” In June, on the last day of finals, Tombari found himself It. His masterplan involved driving to Paddy’s on the pretense of collecting Akers’s copy of Of Mice and Men. With fewer than ten minutes left in the game, Paddy locked himself in his car, in his driveway. Tombari stood outside, helpless. To his horror and humiliation, he would be It for life. Or so he thought. A few years after graduation, during an informal reunion in the winter of ’89-’90, there was much fond reminiscence of schoolyard antics, the tag game in particular. And then, someone suggested—maybe not entirely seriously—that the game ought to be resurrected. Well, what if it was? How would it work? How could ten adults, dispersed around the country and with other things going on in their lives, set about playing a meaningful, enjoyable game of tag?  They devised and agreed upon three main rules. The game would only be played in February—from midnight February 1st to the last moments of February 28th, or 29th in a leap year. There would be no touch-backs, meaning a tagger would be immune to being simply tagged in return. And, if asked, “Are you It?,” one must respond promptly and truthfully. Paddy, a junior lawyer at the time, was tasked with drawing up a contract. The nine-page Tag Participation Agreement, dated January 27, 1990, and signed by all ten “Participants,” outlined and defined the game, even went to the trouble of defining what constituted a “tag”: “A valid tag occurs whenever (subject to Article II below) It intentionally causes his hand (right or left) to come into contact with the body or clothing of any other Participant.”  It went on:  “Tag shall be played by each and every Participant beginning, initially, on February 1, 1990 and ending on February 28, 1990. Thereafter, Tag shall be played during each and every February until the termination of this Agreement.” Everyone signed their own copy of the document and sent them to Paddy for safekeeping. *  By the end of January every year, whoever happens to have been It for the past eleven months is desperately raring to go. The other nine, meanwhile, are on high alert.  “Many of us played sports together in high school,” says Akers. “Feb 1 feels a little bit like being in the locker room before the football game starts. Adrenaline. A little bit of nerves.” Tombari compares it to being like a deer or elk at the beginning of hunting season.  Over the years, they have each developed and refined a personal evasive strategy and methods for thwarting enemy espionage. Every February morning, Amman lets his dog out his front door to sniff out anyone hiding in the bushes. He cuts back on social media, never disclosing his location, in fact posting false clues as to his whereabouts. He takes the freight elevator into work and has co-workers check if the coast is clear. Brian Dennehy avoids going out altogether and has even lied to family members about his travel plans. Bruiser locks himself in the house on the last day of the month. “Change your schedule, always be suspicious of friends and family and spread misinformation about your plans and whereabouts,” Amman says. “Always be prepared to tag someone else.”  A conscious effort is made to tag evenly, democratically, among the group. Sometimes, especially towards the end of February, a would-be target will suspect, or glean from intelligence, that their time is running out. Sensing the sniper’s crosshairs closing in on them, they will often employ extreme evasive measures. “I knew I was at target on the last day in 2016,” says Beef. “I got a room in Tacoma and stayed two days until the month ended.” “I went to Mexico,” says Akers. “I told people I was going to Cabo when I really went to Cancun.” As for being It—the feeling is multifarious. As was the case back in school, there’s a certain amount of shame and dishonor associated with it. Not in an abstract way, either, but plenty of actual jeering and taunting. But that shocking sensation of having been gotten, the initial disgrace, eventually gives way to the bloodthirsty thrill of the hunt. “I hear music in my head,” says Akers. “Usually the Mission: Impossible theme song. Sometimes James Bond music. Or ‘Eye of the Tiger.’” But that assassin-like urge itself can gradually curdle into a sticky, sickly, burdensome feeling, a sense that the Itness is an oppressive weight or infection to be gotten rid of as soon as possible.  Tombari describes being It as like having something “flowing through your veins,” comparing it to possessing the powerful, corrupting ring in Lord of the Rings; Father Sean Raftis likens it to being a character in a Cold War thriller. No one, and nowhere, is safe. Over the years, there have been tags in public and on private property, in homes and in backyards and in places of work, in the street and in shopping malls and in airport terminals and at the movies, over drinks, over dinner and, in one case, over someone’s dead body. There have been too many instances of breaking-and-entering to count. Konesky once tagged Dennehy while he was in bed with his then-fiancée. (“That’s the G-rated version,” he told me.) Tombari tagged Paddy in the shower. (When Paddy told me the story a fellow Tag Brother interrupted with, “Where did he tag you?”) Father Sean has been tagged during mass (“He’s a sitting duck on Sundays”), while he himself tagged Tombari after springing, Jack-in-the-box-like, out of Konesky’s car trunk. (Tombari’s wife was so alarmed she twisted her knee and blew her ACL, the worst tag-related injury thus far. She was a good sport about it.) Bruiser once drove the one thousand miles from the Bay Area to Seattle to tag Beef while he was in the middle of a job interview—Beef didn’t get the job—whereas Konesky once flew across the state purely to acquire a tag from Beef so he could fly back and tag Tombari that same evening.  Just this year, Akers was reprimanded and removed from a pool at the YWCA by a lifeguard, after tagging Mengert during his children’s swimming lessons. Some of the more momentous tags have become enshrined in Tag history, their stories so frequently told that they are easily recollected by name alone: the aforementioned Trunk Tag, Home Invasion Tag and Shower Tag, but also the Hag Tag, the John Wilkes Booth Tag (which took place in a theater), and a tag dubbed The Michael Corleone Tag. The latter mirrored the choreography of the Louis’ Restaurant scene near the end of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone retrieves a handgun stashed away in the restroom, returns to the table and murders the rival gangster Sollozzo. The Tag Brothers’ version is similar, except that hiding in the restaurant restroom was not a handgun but Mark Mengert, currently It. “A thing of beauty,” Tombari remembers. Tombari owns around ten wigs, a lot of mustaches, and professional facial hair kits. “A few years ago, a large costume shop went out of business and I went crazy,” he says. “I am not much for disguises,” says Bruiser, “but have worn hats, overcoats and overalls. One time I wore a large ’70s-like poncho, cowboy hat, dark glasses and put myself in a wheelchair.” Akers has posed as a cowboy and a fast food drive-thru window worker, sported a fake beard and wielded a walking cane. Amman has dressed as a UPS driver (Dennehy opened his front door with no hesitation) and a pushy beggar, and keeps a change of clothes and a disguise in his car during the whole of February. “I lost my shame a long time ago,” says Beef, who has disguised himself as a nun, an elderly lady and a nurse. (“A redhead nurse,” he clarifies.) One February 28th, Mengert crashed a major college basketball game in full costume as an anthropomorphic bulldog, one of the team’s mascots. Swatting away the children who gathered around him, he maneuvered into the row behind Dennehy and, since his voice wasn’t audible through the enormous bulldog headpiece, handed over a note. “You’re it,” the note read. “Your friend, Mark Mengert.” Mengert’s glory and gloating was short-lived. That night, Dennehy managed to tag Akers, who mercilessly tagged Mengert back at a few minutes to midnight, when everyone else had made themselves scarce. It for another year. Friends, family and co-workers have all been drawn into the Tag Brothers’ complex web as co-conspirators and spies.  “My office manager Karen, secretary Deirdre and receptionist Cleo all know who the other taggers are, and zealously protect me during February,” says Paddy. “They do not disclose my whereabouts or schedules. Cleo keeps a Taser behind her desk, in case one of the Tag Brothers tries to blow past her in February to tag me. She is not afraid to use it.”  But loyalties and allegiances shift, even across bloodlines, with family members acting as double agents. One of the lessons of the game, says Akers, is that no one can be trusted. “Son, daughter, and wife have all betrayed me,” says Dennehy. “I don’t harbor a grudge. That’s what wills are for.”  It takes a special kind of chutzpah to sell out a priest, though one of Father Sean’s friends has done it. “Catholicism is about forgiveness and mercy,” he says, even-handedly. “So I readily forgave him.” For the Tag Brothers, there’s a lot of personal satisfaction to be gained from executing an especially creative or ingenious tag. But, sometimes, foiled or otherwise unsuccessful attempts are as fondly remembered as the successful ones, such as the time when Beef, with a fake mustache and wearing a hard helmet, was escorted away from Amman’s office by building security, having been pretending to “triangulate” the area. “I mean,” says Amman, “who would think that was suspicious in this day and age?” Another time, Paddy, rightly suspecting he was about to be ambushed at the airport, arranged for a driver to collect him—then exited via a different terminal and took his own car home. (Bruiser hovered near the driver holding up Paddy’s name, ready to pounce, for some time—one of several failed airport tags.) “I spent a week working with the chemistry teacher,” says Tombari, “trying to figure out how to start a fire on Meng’s car without it damaging his car, to try and get him to come out of his house. I never pulled the trigger on that one because I didn’t want to ruin the paint job.”  Konesky once flew from Washington to Boston and spent three days staking out Amman’s apartment, only to find out he was in New York for the weekend. Ultimately, however, there’s little disagreement about what has been the all-time greatest, most brazen tagging. On the afternoon of Friday, February 15th, 2013, at St. Aloysius Church, Spokane, Paddy was seated in the front pew at his father’s funeral. During communion, friends and family offered their heartfelt condolences as they passed him by. And then he felt a reassuring and familiar hand on his shoulder. “You’re It,” said Beef.  There was a pause. “Really?”  “Yep.”  *  As February began this year, Tombari was It. Tombari tags Amman, Amman tags Bruiser, Bruiser (dressed as an airport janitor) tags Akers as he is returning from Mexico, Akers tags Beef as he tries to help a (phony) stranded motorist, Beef tags Amman, Amman tags Paddy (after lurking in Paddy’s yard for some time), Paddy tags Akers, Akers tags Mengert at the YMCA swimming pool (allegedly yanking a lifeguard into the water in the process), Mengert tags Tombari (after a plan to tag Konesky is foiled), Tombari coordinates with Paddy’s wife and tags him in the shower (again), Paddy (hiding in the washroom stalls) tags Amman at a urinal, Amman tags Tombari, Tombari (dressed as an old man with a walking frame) tags Konesky… And then, in the third week of this year’s game and for the first time in its history, an outsider was used as bait—a journalist who’d reached out to Chris Amman for an interview for a story. I meet Konesky—currently It—across the street from The Brooklyn, about twenty minutes before he plans to tag Chris. “I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m fired up,” he says, scanning the surroundings through his Ray-Bans, which are part of a disguise that also includes a mullet and soul patch. He wonders if Amman will make a run for it. “If he takes off, I’m ready to roll.” Even I, with no stake in the matter—and a mere walk-on role in what is, remember, a children’s game—become tense and nervous as Konesky assumes his position and my meeting time with Amman draws closer. The tagging goes off without a hitch, much to the baffled amusement of the bar staff, and there are laughs and back-slapping all round. For a while, Amman has the red-faced look of someone who’s just been humiliated in public. “I’ve got some time, I’ve got some time,” he says, reassuring himself.  Before long, an evening’s truce is called, and several Tag Brothers have gathered for drinks. The first order of business is a blow-by-blow account of the afternoon’s tagging. They laugh hard and laugh often. February, I’m told, is often the only time many of them get to see each other. Without the excuse of this game, they agree, some of them might not be in close contact at all. “This game pre-dates everyone’s marriages,” says Beef. “We get a pass.” But Akers points out that, until the response to the Wall Street Journal article was so huge, none of them thought their friendships were that remarkable or special.  “When we were younger it was more of a fun thing,” says Konesky. “For me, definitely as we get older it’s really, really cool. It takes a little effort to stay friends with people, you know. I talk to a lot of people who don’t stay in touch with their high school friends anymore. And maybe they wish they had, I don’t know. I think I appreciate it more and more every year.” (Father Sean, who couldn’t be present, would later tell me via email that he’s had a series of severe diverticulitis attacks in the last few months. “The Tag Brothers were all in touch,” he said, “praying for me and expressing their love for me during that time. That helped save my life.”) After at least one round of drinks, I’m emboldened enough to ask the question: What’ll the game be like twenty, thirty, forty years from now? “You know what,” starts Konesky, “we could be in a home for old people, and we would be going down the hallways…” He mimes the wheeling of a wheelchair. “Where do we go from here? It’ll just keep going.” Sure, I say. But after that? How will the game end? “We’ve thought about that,” says Amman, looking less red-faced now. “Do you hand it down to your children?” He mulls it over. “It’s not going to be the same.” “Eventually somebody will die. Hopefully that person’s not It when they die.”  “I think there’s no disagreement about what happens. If the person who’s It is in a casket, then the previous tagger—”  Someone else finishes the thought: “It goes back.” There’s a beat. “Just the fact that we’re thinking about that is crazy.” “Well, at some point,” says Akers, “somebody will be It for eternity.” They all laugh. Five days later, on the night of February 28th, Konesky earned the “Championship Tag Belt” for a successful eleventh-hour tagging. Until next February, Akers is It.
At a Rest Stop Somewhere in Texas

You go to Buc-ee’s for the same reason you break up with someone: to pursue possibility, that narcotic promise of more.

On the drive I took from Texas to Chicago in early June of 2017, I stopped at every Buc-ee’s gas station that I saw. Buc-ee’s, a Southern chain, is a place for families and couples, or couples with family-sized appetites: you can wash down your gallon bag of wasabi peas with a cauldron of soda, or stand in line for kolaches the width a newborn. You can buy everything from camo t-shirts to gas grills, boot-shaped earrings to deer feeders. It is the Disneyland of gas stations. I was twenty-nine, and this was the first road trip I’d taken alone. The drive was onerous—almost sixteen hours, if traffic was kind—but with two duffel-sized bags of Buc-ee’s corn nuggets riding next to me in the passenger seat, nothing short of a four-car pile-up could dampen my good mood. I was off to spend the summer with the boyfriend I’d left behind when I moved to Texas. We’d been together nine years, though we had broken up twice, and there was the hope that this summer might mend us. Then he’d join me for a new life in Dallas, and all our problems would disappear. But the Midwestern summer meant to reconcile us broke us apart for good, and it was a miserable me that packed up my car and began the slow, hot return trip south. I left Chicago in the early morning. The August sky was the color of ghosts, and I watched as the city I’d once called home faded into the distance. As I crept closer to Texas, the sun—a bright hard cough drop—burned fuller and harsher, and the land began to widen and open up around me. I was stopped at a Buc-ee’s an hour outside of Dallas when my car battery died. I sat for a while with my hands on the steering wheel, trying to view my life in a positive way, and then I went inside and locked myself in a bathroom stall and cried, and the crying made me feel wonderfully dramatic, my sobs rising above the gushing faucets and flushing toilets. These were the cleanest bathrooms in Texas—everyone said so—and sitting atop a toilet that shone like a dinner plate, mops whipping vigorously beneath stall doors, I had to agree. I don’t know how much time passed before I finally stood, blew my nose, and flushed. I slid back the lock, its sharp metallic clack echoing off the spotless walls that were covered in glittering rhinestone crucifixes. The air stiffened as heads turned to look at me. At the sinks, I accidentally locked eyes with a little boy. “Look away,” I heard his mother whisper as I passed. He’s not even supposed to be in here, I wanted to say, but then I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror. I looked tired, distraught, my face a big white dumpling of sadness. I smelled sour, of tears and sweat that leaked through the armpits of my black dress, which was three sizes too large and engulfed me like a garbage bag. My red eyes lowered to the bleach-streaked floor, I hurried out of the bathroom and back into the warm fluorescent buzz. *  All summer I’d been reading about liminal spaces, and as I wandered the aisles, past long glass coffins of jerky and endless spitting soda fountains and towers of brisket tacos mummified in foil, I felt it—an eerie in-betweenness. To walk around Buc-ee’s as a single, unattached person is to experience your own invisibility. To delight in the Wonka-like array of taffies and trail mixes and gummies stretched floor-to-ceiling, only to realize that nothing—save for salad and hardboiled eggs—is sold in bags smaller than a five-year-old and think Well, I guess if I gave some to my cat, is to wake into your own dashed dreams. I was alone in the taffy aisle, bleary-eyed with indecision, when I felt the tears starting again, a hot clench deep in my guts. I left without buying anything.   Outside men were pumping gas. They looked like the men I’d always imagined lived in Texas, button-down shirts, dirty hands, pick-up trucks. I wiped my eyes and walked over to one. “Excuse me,” I said. When he turned from the pump, I saw that he was tall, with a face as strong as a brick. He looked like a man who would know how to fix something broken. “My car died. Can you jump me?” I said. His teeth, when he smiled, were broad and clean and made me shiver, though it must have been at least one hundred degrees outside. As I led him to my car, his boots clicking on the hot pavement, I thought of the psychic. It was my senior prom’s after party. She was the mom of somebody, and I remembered how she’d gripped my hand tight in her wrinkled one, palm up, and told me I would marry a cowboy from Texas. It came back to me as I watched this man lift the hood of my car and stick his head inside, his shirt tightening around the muscles in his back. “So do you live around here?” I asked. “Madisonville,” he said into the car’s belly. When I said nothing, he looked up, at the streak of blankness in my eyes. “You’re not from here.” It seemed an accusation, the way he pointed a jumper cable at my chest. I shook my head no. He grinned and said, “I knew it,” and I wondered what had given me away—the red square glasses that ate up half my face, maybe, which I wore to compensate for the drama I felt my features lacked. Or maybe my hair, the firm, organized bun jutting from the top of my head as if trying to catch a space signal. I leaned against my car, which was attached to this man’s truck with the cables, and he walked over and stood in front of me. “Jimmy,” he said, extending a calloused hand. I’ve always had a thing for crusty-looking men, and that’s what attracted me to this guy—the sense that he’d been roughed around. His tired cheeks and desolate eyes struck me as a welcome relief from the aggressive cheer in Buc-ee’s. We were kindred spirits in malaise.      He asked where I was from and I said Chicago. “No shit!” Jimmy looked at me in a surprised, impressed way. From his pocket he pulled out his phone and handed it to me; on the screen was a note he’d titled “Thirtieth Birthday Bucket List.” I scrolled through: see a play, ride bikes in a charity race, go to Chicago, read a Shakespeare novel. Novel. Jimmy was grinning at me, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. With horror I thought of my literature students, of how I was always crossing out story and writing ESSAY! in red pen on their papers. I needed to loosen up, I thought, to stop being so “exacting.” That was what my ex-boyfriend had called me. He’d thrown in “uptight” while he was at it, and the sting I’d felt only confirmed my worst suspicion: it was true. Against our backs my car hummed softly. Jimmy’s truck made violent gasping noises as it worked to power mine. He had a job in a warehouse, he said, doing something with machines. A fire at Christmas had burned all the hair off his knuckles and forearms. A few months before that, a forklift accident had shattered every bone in his right foot. This only restored my attraction to him. My ex-boyfriend had worked behind a desk. Who’s uptight now? I thought, eyeing Jimmy. I imagined those strong arms wrapping around me and carrying me into a new life. Jimmy asked what had brought me to Texas and I told him I was a professor. “No shit,” he said again—this time in a flat voice. He narrowed his eyes at me. “You’re young to be a professor.” “I’m the same age as you,” I said. “You think you’re smarter than me?” Jimmy’s voice was teasing, but his face wore a scowl. “Clearly not,” I said, gesturing to my dead car and trying to laugh, but Jimmy just stared at me. A minute of silence passed, my heart thudding, before he took my keys and turned them in the ignition; with a shudder, my car roared to life. “Well, thanks again,” I said as Jimmy handed me back my keys. I started to slide behind the wheel when I felt his hand on my arm. “Gotta let ‘er run a minute,” he said. The grin was back, pinned high like mistletoe. “I’m gonna get a sandwich. You want one?” “Uh, sure,” I said. I don’t know why he kept talking to me, or why I let him; even now, almost a year later, it embarrasses me to think of it. But my breakup had made me believe that something big could happen. I needed to leave my comfort zone, friends were telling me—hang out at restaurants and bars and strangers’ apartments. Put my face on the Internet! Still, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that there was something Jimmy and I recognized in each other, some desperation, maybe, that brought him walking back across the parking lot toward me, two massive, plastic-wrapped, pulled pork sandwiches in hand. Without a word he climbed into his truck and motioned for me to sit next to him. After I turned off my car and we settled in, he reached into the glove compartment and withdrew a small glass pipe.  “You smoke weed?” he asked. I didn’t, not really—something that, according to my ex-boyfriend, had contributed to my uptightness. But out here, over one thousand miles from home and surrounded by open space, it felt possible to be a different kind of person. My nerves were jangly, bright, as if I’d been plugged into an electrical socket, yet still I managed to accept the pipe and hold the lighter to the bowl. Looking through the window, I could see the sign with Buc-ee’s face—a beaming, chubby-cheeked beaver in a red baseball hat—and beyond that fields and fields and fields, all flat and brown as beer. In Chicago I’d felt cradled by the buildings, hidden; but here in Texas I felt exposed, that I would need to be brave.     We chewed in silence. “Do you think we can turn on the radio?” I asked. “You got it, lady.” It was he who brought up the subject of sex. One minute, I was asking him about his dogs’ personalities and the next thing I knew he was telling me about his ex-wife, who’d cheated on him. “A cock tease,” he called her. “A whore.” Jimmy also told me that she’d been an English teacher, like me, and that she’d slept with the entire high school—he was certain of it. “It’s like, one night she’s cooking you dinner and the next she’s swallowing some seventeen year-old’s dick. You know?” “Oh, sure.” I bit into my sandwich and looked out the window. On the sign, Buc-ee’s grin seemed suddenly sinister, his huge white teeth like two gleaming cleavers in his mouth. I stared at him as the pot dug its warm fingers into my brain. A minute of silence and then Jimmy relit the pipe, took a hit, and passed it my way.   “You have a boyfriend?’ “Yeah,” I said. “I mean no. Not anymore.” “You guys get into fights?”   “Like, arguments?’ “No,” he said. “Fights. With your fists.” I lit the pipe and thought of the spat I’d had with my ex-boyfriend before I’d left. It was the first time either of us had gotten physical during an argument, and it left me feeling like a complete idiot. I’d gone to shove him, but had tripped on the leg of a kitchen chair and fallen into the table, bruising my hip. Even our fights weren’t working, we’d laugh-cried later, as he helped me carry boxes to my car. But Jimmy didn’t care. The topic had only been raised as a transition, an excuse for him to brag about demolition derby. On weekends he drove for a local team, Orange Crush. “There’re always fights,” he said excitedly. “Hell, I’ve even seen husbands and wives up in the stands, just slugging it out.”   “But don’t they stop the races?” I asked. “That’s insane. I mean, what is this, Mad Max or something?” “You should come see for yourself,” Jimmy said. “This weekend.” “I can’t,” I lied. “I have a work thing.” Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Women,” he said, blowing smoke out of his nose. “Y’all the same.” He passed me the pipe, but when I peeked at him I saw that his eyes didn’t hold the anger that his voice did. He just seemed sad to me, and tired. “Look at us,” he said, letting out a long sigh. “A couple of dumped fucking assholes.”  I wanted to defend myself, or at least point out that I had done the dumping, not the other way around, but then there came a tap on the driver’s side window. “Fuck off,” said Jimmy, waving his hand. The man outside did not fuck off. He wore a red polo t-shirt with Buc-ee’s grinning face emblazoned on the left breast pocket, and on the right, a plastic tag that said Manager. Jimmy rolled down the window. There was no use denying anything: the truck reeked of weed. I guess the manager could have gotten us into trouble—called the police, had us ticketed for loitering or something—but instead he just told us to get lost. Jimmy and I parted without saying goodbye, me walking off to my car, and he heading, I assumed, toward home. I watched his truck pull out of the parking lot. Whatever allure he’d possessed had vanished, and now he was just another broken man in a truck, trying to make the day pass.    * I went back into Buc-ee’s. Inside, it smelled of barbecue and cleaning agents, a mopped school cafeteria. The mood was buzzy, animated, teeming with parents and children, their eyes wild and fingers dripping soda. A group of pre-teen boys rushed past me, waving wooden popguns. I watched them dart and fire at each other across shelves of camo hats. In front of the men’s bathroom stood a handful of women, waiting. One, a short brunette whose silhouette, in loose denim overalls, looked as shapeless as a kolache gave me a hard look before I realized I’d been staring. I walked past them to the coolers, grabbed a water bottle the heft of a ten-pound weight, paid, and went back outside, into the close heat. In my car, I drank the water and waited out the high. I shoveled corn nuggets into my mouth and wondered what might have happened had I accepted Jimmy’s offer. I pictured our house overlooking a wide front yard: the charming wrap-around porch, his truck parked in our winding dirt driveway.     When you’re young, it’s easy to believe in more, the idea that there is always something—or someone—better waiting for you. Instead of a filmmaker in Chicago, it might be a painter in Los Angeles or maybe even a cowboy in Texas. You tell yourself that you moved to Dallas for a teaching job, and that you could keep on doing this, year after year—another university, another city—because you think there will always be a job, a city, a someone for you. Until the day you wind up in a Buc-ee’s gas station, so lonely that you spend your afternoon flirting with a divorced demolition derby driver.    I’d always heard the sky is bigger in Texas. But as I looked out my window I wondered if this was really true or just something I needed to believe in, all that boundless blue. Outside, people were filing in and out of Buc-ee’s, their smiles gummy and eyes overfull, arms loaded down with more than they could carry. You don’t just go to Buc-ee’s to get your desires met. You go to Buc-ee’s for the same reason you break up with someone: to pursue possibility, that narcotic promise of more. It’s a faulty promise, maybe, but what else to do besides pretend and buy more corn nuggets? But that understanding would come later. At Buc-ee’s, there were one hundred gas pumps. Walls of candy. The cleanest bathrooms. And shining above it all, a beaver’s impossibly white smile and the words, Hold It. You Can Wait.
‘Anxious, Furious and Dread-Soaked’: An Interview with Lauren Groff

The author of Florida on the impact of landscape on the psyche, the political responsibilities of fiction, and playing with expectations. 

Lauren Groff’s work is complex and layered—there’s always a statement about the world contained within, like a prize in a Cracker Jack box. The New York Times bestselling author followed up her 2008 debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton—a family saga with a mythical lake monster at its core—with the critically acclaimed Delicate Edible Birds, a short story collection about the lives of American women. After writing Arcadia, a novel about a child named Bit who was born in a 1960s hippie commune and forced into the real world once his sheltered life collapsed, Groff’s welcoming, luminous prose gathered power. Her 2015 novel Fates and Furies, the story of a tumultuous marriage told from two sides, was the most talked about book in the US that year, and not just because Barack Obama said it was his favourite. Now, with the short story collection Florida (Riverhead), Groff has taken a setting that feels familiar and revealed its true self. Here, there is “golden sun pouring down over everything, all of it shimmering but untouchable, as if behind glass”; there are screens at night that “pulse with the tender white bellies of lizards”; there is a character hiding in her hurricane-battered house who has “always felt a sisterhood with bathtubs; without someone else within us, we are smooth white cups of nothing.” I recently discussed writing, politics, dread, and what the future holds with Groff—who seems to know better than most where the world has always been heading.  Marissa Stapley: There’s passion and anger in the stories in Florida—and there’s also bleak frustration, especially evident in the recurring novelist character, who worries about her children surviving in the world as it is. Is this writing a reaction to the current state of politics in the United States, and the increasing unrest (or, perhaps the permanent state of unrest) in the world at large?   Lauren Groff: Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. But most of these stories were written before things went so haywire, partially because when you live in Florida, you can live your daily life among the elements that made the political events take place. I saw it coming and was frightened out of my mind. But I'm also just an anxious and furious person, full of dread, so no matter what had happened in our electoral system, I probably would have written an anxious, furious, and dread-soaked book. This collection made me think about Florida in a way I never had before: less vacation theme parks and golfing presidents, more snakes in the toilet and a crocodile in the pond at the gated retirement community. It’s also so horribly beautiful, like a character itself. To me, reading about Florida in this way felt like your way of reclaiming the narrative—perhaps even reclaiming Florida from Trump. Was this purposeful?   Even though the stories in this book took twelve years to write, from a time in which the-one-who-can't-be-named was just a bankrupt buffoon with terrible hair, the placement of the stories into a slowly developing argument in the book is a deliberate response to the sense of horror and disaster that came upon thinking people at the end of 2016. I was tired of the novel I'd been working on, which felt so imbued with literary references that it was ingrown in a way that literature can sometimes be, and I felt that it was morally bankrupt in this brave new world to write hermetically sealed fiction. It was intentional to write a more political book, without it ever becoming polemical (I hope). You grew up in Cooperstown, New York, and wrote about it in your first novel, The Monsters of Templeton. Now you live in Florida, and are writing about that. Why do you so often choose to write about the place where you are?  Landscape is a powerful force on the psyche: your surroundings are part of your character. A person who has only lived atop a mountain, in the clear cold up there, will be different in vast and important ways from a person who lives on the flat pebbled marshes at sea-level. What you notice on a subtle daily basis changes the essence of who you are. And why France? Because Florida isn’t just about that particular state—a great many of the stories take place in France, too.   France is the imagined place of the self, the place the resentful and trapped Floridian believes to be closer to her soul. But, of course, you don't get to choose the places that dovetail into you. They choose you. So many experiences are universal, and authors strive to get it just right so people recognize themselves. And yet, there’s the potential for catastrophe if people do see themselves. Do you worry about this as much as I do?  I don't worry about it until the point where I show the work to someone else, by which time it's been through so many iterations that the original spark is buried. And then, with the understanding that strange eyes are going to look at it, there comes a sense of real obligation to see the work as though your source were seeing it afresh. I think these two impulses—rewriting and rigor—generally keep work from being hurtful. I think writers should feel free while composing to write about anything they want to write about, no matter how hurtful to someone else it could be. That said, they don't have to publish it, of course, and in many cases, they shouldn't: you should never intentionally hurt someone with your work. It's morally irresponsible to do so. It takes some time and a few mistakes to understand where the line is between publishing something that feels personal and urgent, and something that will hurt someone. Lord knows I've failed at this (I'm trying to make my amends). Do you find readers/friends/family often think, especially when you write about marriage or motherhood, that you must be writing about yourself? How do you feel about this?  I've resigned myself to the idea that people will read the real me into a fictional version—they tend to do this more with women writers, but not exclusively, of course—to the point where I deliberately play with this idea, because it's so deliciously fun.  Many of these stories have been previously published, in The New Yorker, Tin House, and literary journals. Was there a point when you began to feel the stories were connected, or did you always know you were writing a collection? Why a short story collection now, rather than a novel? I've written novels constantly since college, but I've also been writing short stories all along—it just takes a little more faith on the part of a publisher to get a collection of them in the world. Florida is made of stories that are very new, as well as stories that have been in the world since before my first collection; the final selection was made of stories that felt thematically linked and built into an argument. I love the novel form, but I think I love the story form better: the novel takes so long that unless you commit to it every single day, it just won't get written, whereas I keep a story in the back of my mind for years until one day it becomes so urgent I have to sit down and write it. It's a long swim versus a terrifying leap. I began to think of a collection of stories last year, after I wrote the newest ones, and saw how they drew the strands of the collection together.  More and more is expected of authors these days. It’s not enough to be brilliant on the page—you also have to be witty and wise in person, willing to engage on social media and on book tours, appear at various events. How much does this phase of the writing journey take out of you? Do you dread releasing a book into the world and then essentially reentering the world, or do you welcome it? I'm a true introvert, so even one event takes three days of wind out of my sails. A book tour of more than a week can take months out of me. You've caught me just a few weeks before my book is published, and I'm, honestly, anguished about it. I have to run about ten miles a day just to get to sleep at night—not so much because of the reviews (though I dread them so much that I can't read even a positive one), but because this thing that has mattered so much to just me for so many years suddenly becomes the property of the world. This is my fifth published book, so I'm not new to the process, and have put a few good systems in place to help me: my husband knows to shoulder more of the burden, my family is on red alert, and I'm pretty much resigned to not being able to write well for a long time, so I have some editing things lined up, et cetera. In the end, though, the kindness and generosity of readers—the emails, the hugs, the appreciative responses—is what gets me through the dark times of writing. I'm so grateful to readers, and to the massively important booksellers who keep the literary ecosystem alive, that I'd find it appalling ungrateful to refuse to tour. Do you have a favourite story in this collection? Is that like asking if you have a favourite child? And do you think you’ll go back to the novel for your next book—or is it too early to tell?  I do have a favourite story, yes—and each of the stories believes with very good reason that it is my secret favourite. I do plan to go back to the novel, but novels are recalcitrant things, best approached by slow sidling while squinting off into the far distance, so I have no idea if any will come under my hand before another story collection does.  
A Body Like a Home

Surgery can be seen as way to escape being a trans woman, the freedom to disappear into an “ordinary” life. But my scars, my complicated being, mean more than any illusion of freedom.

On the morning of my surgery, I wake up at 5 a.m. in Laval. Outside my window, the city is dark and coated in a heavy snowfall. The temperature is -14, a biting cold that seeps through the walls of the surgery clinic’s guest house. The room I’m sleeping in is painted a deep blue. In the reflected glow of my phone’s LED screen, the walls loom around me like an indigo womb. I get dressed in darkness. I go outside, order an Uber and head to the nearest twenty-four-hour convenience store. The driver is confused by my early morning adventure. He calls me “mademoiselle” and seems worried about my safety in the still predawn neighborhood. The radio is tuned to a classical music station, so Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” fills the car as we cross the bridge between Laval and Montreal. I try to look for the river, but it’s too dark to see anything but the car’s interior lights. We arrive at the convenience store. I get out and the Uber drives away. I buy cigarettes and smoke one in the parking lot. I order another Uber to go back to where I’m staying. The same driver returns to pick me up. He seems more concerned now. He tries small talk but I don’t speak any French and he only speaks a little English so we shrug at each other. When I get out of the Uber, he says, “Have a good day, mademoiselle,” and shakes his head at me. I wave as he drives away. I stand in the snow and smoke again. Dawn fills up the horizon. I am not thinking about surgery. I’m not thinking anything. I’m empty like the spaces between the houses and the sky. Snow, cold, and wind move through me. I disappear from everything until I go inside and start packing for the hospital. When I remember this moment later I’ll feel like a part of me is still smoking at dawn in Laval, waiting to be completed. * I want to hold space in my story about surgery to say that there are many ways to be a trans girl. For some of us, surgery feels like the only option for happiness. There are many trans girls who never want surgery and find joy in their existing bodies. I know several trans girls who are caught in the middle, trying to decide what path is right for them. The current approval system for surgery requires you to pretend that you know exactly what you want, but there are very few moments in life without hesitation or doubt. Wanting something you’ve never had, especially with a lack of information or supports around your decision, is a difficult truth to articulate. I started my transition thinking that I wouldn’t take hormones or have surgery but I changed my mind. An important part of my transition was learning to embrace my femininity and accept that it was possible for me to change my body. I decided to begin hormones because I cried when my doctor rescheduled my initial consultation appointment—the thought of waiting two additional weeks to even discuss hormones reduced me to tears. The further I went into my transition, the more I wanted for my body. I still remember taking my first testosterone blocker, a small white pill in the palm of my hand that tasted like chalk. After eight months on hormones, I began the process of seeking medical approval for surgery. I went through the interviews and the health checks. I packaged my forms and emailed the clinic in Montreal until they gave me a date. The current surgery regulations require you to have been on hormones and to have lived full-time as your gender for at least a year. I got my surgery date within four weeks of being eligible, a record for any trans woman I know. As I got closer to my surgery, I was bombarded with negative messages on social media and in person about my future vagina. Transphobia and its allies spread an enormous amount of misinformation about gender reassignment surgery—that we’re crudely chopping off our penises, that our vaginas are just open wounds that never heal—that creates a falseness around our possible bodies that feels like a heavy weight. Miseducation about gender reassignment surgery is a barrier to trans women seeking care and access to a procedure which recognizes our basic humanity. I believe that gender reassignment surgery is a right but I didn’t know what surgery would mean for me. Images of post-op vaginas from my surgeon are hard to find. Even my friends who’d had the procedure couldn’t really explain what would happen, so I made my decision without proper information about possible outcomes. I’m writing this essay to offer a small window so that other trans girls have more information than I did. There are many contradictions in my story, complexities that I can’t reduce into words. I don’t need my story to be perfectly clear, a streak-free window into my humanity. There are parts of myself that I refuse to show anyone. Society demands that trans women explain ourselves before we’re allowed the right to be called women, but I’m tired of explaining something that isn’t yours to understand. My vagina wasn’t created on a surgeon’s operating table. It grew inside me throughout my life. Surgery was a way to bring it into physical being, but it marks the middle of a process, not the beginning or the end. My body and gender are continuous. It was neither created nor ended by surgery, but reimagined. I am a living woman and this story is a record of my living. It is as messy, as incomplete, as flawed as I am. * I sit in the waiting room on a black sofa. I am minutes away from entering the operating room and about to meet my surgeon for the first time. The walls of the room are painted black. The light from the lamp barely illuminates the far corner of the room. I can see my reflection in the mirror across from me. I compulsively stroke my hair over my ears, trying to smooth out my curls. I want to look as feminine as I can when I meet the surgeon. I want his best work. I’ve learned men only give you their best when you look worth it. I don’t know how long I wait in the empty dark room, but it is long enough for me to start shaking from the cold air. My surgeon abruptly enters, walks over and introduces himself. Something in his eyes reminds me of my partner, W, a contained intensity. He takes me into a small examination room and has me open my gown to show him my penis. He looks for five seconds and declares that I have “lots of skin to work with.” He asks if I have any questions. I tell him my partner’s penis is seven inches and I need enough depth to accommodate him. I say I want a nice clitoris. I realize as I speak that I’m high from the medications that the nurses gave me. I want him to know that I have penetrative sex with male partners. I’ve heard stories that lesbian trans women are treated differently at the clinic and have worse results. I want him to think that my surgery will matter to some unnamed man’s pleasure. I say everything in my softest voice, flirting, casting my eyes downward and back up, playing shy. He smiles at my flirtations. “You realize you don’t need to have all of the penis inside you, right?” he says. “But I’ll do my best.” He places his hand on my right shoulder for several seconds, stroking up and down, then leaves the room. Our surgical consult has taken less than two minutes. A nurse comes to lead me into the operation room, a giant room filled with medical equipment and people in blue lab coats. No one acknowledges my presence in the room, as if I’ve walked into a stranger’s birthday party. The anesthesiologist has me climb onto the operating table and inserts my IV line. A nurse starts the spinal block which cuts off sensation from my lower body. The anesthesiologist tells me that I won’t remember anything after this moment, but I do. I remember them moving my legs into automated stirrups which lift me up into the air. They move a metal frame around my chest and drape it with a white sheet so I can’t see my lower body anymore. In fragments that come back to me slowly over the next two days, I have the image of the surgeon coming into the room. I can recall him begin to touch my genitals, moving my penis around while speaking to the nurses. I know I woke up during the surgery and cried out. I can see the anesthesiologist pressing his arms down over my chest, staring into my eyes and telling me to stop moving. He says to focus on him while a nurse frantically injects something into my IV line. I remember his bright blue eyes, the weight of his arms on my chest, and the white sheet moving in the ventilated air of the operating room. These are the opioid dreams of my becoming. They still haunt me. * I always knew I would have this surgery someday. I’ve been talking about it since I was a child. I had lived my entire life wanting something I’d never had, dreaming of the possibilities in my body. Other trans women use different ways to talk about this wanting. They say “fixing a mistake” or “aligning my body to my mind.” I use the word “miracle.” For all the times I’ve prayed to wake up in a different body, surgery would finally answer me back. People imagine their bodies as a certainty. They grow up knowing what each part does, naming it as their own. Absolute containers, permanent fixtures. We are born into our bodies and can’t escape them until we die. I don’t like this understanding of our bodies—it doesn’t correspond to reality. We get sick or injured. We change weights or heights. We modify our bodies with tattoos, piercings, and other bodies. We are not born into one shape, but many. My body is a conversation. It started when I was born, but there were mistakes made. People didn’t listen when I told them that my body wanted to change. No one asked me what I was, only assumed they understood my body better than I did. For most of my life, I listened to what other people told me. I accepted their limitations of my body. I tried to make my body thinner and stronger, using it to pleasure others in exchange for love. I starved myself and ran forty miles a week. My body broke through the denial. It demanded transformation. My thighs and breasts wanted to grow. The curve of my hips needed to reach out into the world. My body stopped listening to everyone else and told me who we really were. For the first time in my life, I listened to my body and its joy. I took hormones and sought surgery. My body and I let ourselves change. I surrendered my certainty and safety. My body held me when no one else did. Together, we imagined a possibility instead of an ending. This is the real story of bodies. Movement, joy, and release into new configurations. Our bodies do not need to be perfect or exactly as they were when we were born. We are not ruled by the shape we arrive in. We adapt, heal, and expand. Our bodies are not an ending, but a beginning. This is a truth I am willing to die for. * I wake up in the recovery room. I can’t feel anything below my waist. I drift in and out of sleep for hours but wake up when a nurse comes in to check my dressing. Sensation starts to return to my body and it hurts now, a dull tight ache between my legs. She starts to chat with me about her love life, telling stories of her boyfriend while she injects my IV line with morphine. I like her instantly. She discovers that my dressing is leaking blood, a sign that I have active bleeding. It’s a risk, she tells me, and she has to repack the site. It’s painful, so much so that I start to cry even with the morphine. I text W to distract myself from the pain, saying that I’m okay but still bleeding. I say how happy I am. As I type out the text, I realize it’s true. I can’t feel much, but I can feel that my penis is gone. The space between my legs is different now, lacking a small weight I’ve carried since birth. I’m free, I think, I’m finally free. W texts back a long line of fucks with exclamation marks. He says to keep him updated. I text him on and off again throughout the night, delirious with joy and medication. Right before I fall asleep again, I text him, “I have a vagina!!!!” He texts back, “yay you have a vagina!!!!” The ordinariness of our texts is contrasted by the bizarreness of the moment. I’ve spent two years talking to him about wanting this surgery. Once I sent him the only picture of a post-op vagina from my surgeon I could find and asked if it looked normal. This surgery is entirely my own, but it’s been a shared goal between the two of us for as long as we’ve known each other. Now he witnesses my becoming from an anxious distance, celebrating something we didn’t think was possible. I feel the space between my legs, tight and hurting. The nurses have packed ice around my dressing site. I think about how my morning started, alone in a blue room and traveling through a darkened city. The hospital room is bathed in the same blue glow of machines and distilled light. I’m here, I think, I’m alive and I have a vagina. It feels like coming home after a long trip to somewhere you never wanted to go. * In the week before my surgery, I’m consumed by a constant anxiety. I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. I cry in the shower. I stay up all night listening to gospel music. I disintegrate into worry and doubt. I escape into the Ativan my doctor prescribes me. It softens me into water and lets me sleep. W and I hang out on the Thursday before I leave Toronto for Montreal. My relationship with him has always been marred by intense highs and lows, with sometimes violent transphobic interactions, but in the time before my surgery, his love holds me together. I meet him on campus at his grad student office. We order bad Chinese food with neon red dipping sauce. I introduce him to chicken balls. We sneak out of the anthropology building to smoke and end up wandering the deserted campus, leaping through bushes. I pelt him with loose snowballs and chase him with cold wet hands. He walks me to the subway and I go home. When I get to my apartment building, I realize I’ve lost my keys. I call W and apologize. We meet up at Spadina station to retrace our steps. He isn’t mad at me, just kind and sleepy. We listen to music with his headphones while riding the streetcar back to campus. A sad guitar love song plays in my left ear while the bright lights of the streetcar make me blink. We check everywhere on campus but can’t find the keys. It’s too late to call my landlord so I go home with W. We ride to W’s stop in a shared tired dreaming. He touches my hair on the subway ride, flicks it with his hand and says how long it’s gotten. I smile and shrug back. W has known me since I was a boy, back when my hair was sheared short in the classic young twink gay haircut. Now my hair is shoulder-length, blonde, and curling at the bottoms. This moment of small intimacy is more powerful than any other, how it shows his love of me through my many transformations. We get to his house and climb the stairs to his upper-level apartment. I wander through his room, picking up scattered photographs and papers on his dresser and desk. I lay on his bed and stare at the ceiling. W gets out his vintage camera, loads it with film, and lies beside me. “Let’s take a photo to remember this terrible night by,” he says, holding his camera above our heads. We look into the camera together and he clicks it shut. I want to have the photo, even though I think it won’t turn out. It’s one of the last moments of me in this body and this life. In the morning, he reads me poetry in Spanish and makes eggs. It’s raining as we leave his house, so I open up my umbrella. My keys tumble out onto the ground. They were jammed inside the folds of the umbrella. I try to apologize to W but he shrugs it off. We ride the subway back together. He goes to school and I go home. I feel happy as I walk through my door and into my apartment. Something in this night holds me completely, lingers in my body throughout my surgery and into recovery. I take it as a small miracle, one of the moments I’ve been chasing since I transitioned. The everyday moments when I forget I’m trans. Where I feel ordinary and small but safe inside an intimacy I trust. Not alone, not othered, but held and possible. When I lie awake in my hospital bed in pain or when an overwhelming depression sinks over me, I think about this night to remember why I’m having this surgery. Perhaps the two things, being loved and having surgery, seem unrelated to someone who isn’t trans. How many times in your life have you read about a girl like me being loved? How many times have you heard about a trans woman being read poetry in Spanish by her lover in a sunlit front room? How often do you see a trans girl falling asleep on a boy’s shoulder in the subway at 1 a.m.? What about a harder question: How often do you think about a trans woman’s genitals? When you see a trans woman on the street or in photos, do you find yourself wondering what’s between her legs? When you read about a boy loving me, do you assume he’s gay? How frequently does the thought of my genitals slip into your mind when you look at me or hear me speak? Being loved and having surgery are linked for me, because the possibility of one relies on the other. I want to live a life where I don’t have to write an essay about my genitals or wonder what you’re thinking when you look at me. I don’t want to kiss a boy’s forehead in the morning when I wake up and worry that he’s afraid of his roommates realizing I slept over. I want to stay inside a moment of being loved as long as I can. Surgery doesn’t stop transphobia and is not a solution to the shame people place on trans women, but it does let me be present in my body without feeling an overwhelming sense of discomfort. I want to be a girl who can get undressed with a lover without feeling like she needs to apologize first. * After two days in the hospital, they move me and my roommate to the aftercare clinic. The clinic is attached to the hospital, a modern two-story house named after a butterfly. I am too weak for the five-minute walk over to the clinic. Every time I stand up, I have a rush of dizziness and almost faint. A support worker takes me over through the snow and ice in a wheelchair. When I arrive, two nurses walk beside me with their arms interlinked with mine to get me upstairs and into my room. They give me painkillers as soon as I reach my bed. I lie in silence in my new room at the clinic. My bed faces the large double windows. I can see the tops of trees in the window and the skyline. Large airplanes come and go constantly, close enough that I can make out the airline names on the planes. The airport is close to the clinic. Watching the planes descend across the skyline becomes my comfort there, something I do when I can’t sleep or feel overwhelmed. They remind me of life, how everything is in motion and possibility still exists. My time in the clinic is dictated by a recovery schedule set by my surgeon. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served downstairs at set times. Nurses come and go to check our vitals and give us pills three times a day. There are eight other girls in the clinic, all recovering from the same surgery, and one trans man. It takes me two days to start talking to the other patients but soon I become integrated into the social life of the clinic. We are a range of ages, backgrounds, and races. Everyone reacts differently to the surgery. Some girls have complications and struggle with pain. Other girls have no complications and seem to be without pain. I turn out to be one of the most active girls, moving around the clinic constantly and going for walks outside. I am rarely in my room, preferring to sit on the coach in the downstairs common area. My roommate spends her time sleeping or laying silently on her bed. I find the room suffocating. I have visitors almost every day. One of my friends in Montreal, another Indigenous trans person, hears that I’m staying in the city while recovering and sends me visitors from their social network, including their partner. My best friend’s wife, K, comes over every day, chatting with me and offering a gentle support. Two of my writing friends visit as well, one of them wearing a long black fur coat that raises the eyebrows of the nurses. I rely on these visits to survive, a thread back into my life. Other people can only support me so far. I’m ultimately alone in my recovery. Against the advice of nurses, I go for walks outside of the clinic, shuffling over ice and snow to stand close to the river. There is an endless rhythm of dilation, showering, pain medication, and meals that fills up my time. Of all of these tasks, dilation is the most complex. During surgery, the surgeon cut through the muscles of my pelvic floor in order to make space for my vagina. I have to re-train those muscles, unused to being opened and flexing, by inserting brightly coloured cermanic dilators into my vagina and holding them inside me for thirty mintues. In the rare moments when I am not doing anything, I try to process what is happening to me. Everything feels ordinary, but my body and life are permanently altered. There’s a complexity to my surgery which I don’t know how to say aloud. I imagined it would hurt more or that my life would suddenly swell with emotion. Sitting in the front room as the sun rises, I realize that I thought the surgery would change me, but why would it? I’ve always been a woman. The only difference between me now and the girl who walked into the clinic a few days ago is what’s between my legs. It is a difference that matters, both to me and others, but it isn’t the ending or beginning of my gender. It’s just another moment in learning more about who I’ve always been. * On my third day at the clinic, they remove the dressing from my vagina. I haven’t been able to see my vagina since the operation because of the blood-soaked gauze covering it. I sit on a medical examination table with my feet in stirrups. I hate this room, the sudden vulnerability of being naked and having my genitals exposed to the cold air. The nurse cuts away my dressing and uses tweezers to pull out the gauze. She tells me that they really packed my vagina tightly in order to stop the bleeding. It’s over in minutes. I walk back to my room. I still haven’t seen my vagina because the swelling of my pubic mound prevents me from seeing between my legs. My vagina starts to burn, a sudden increase in pain as the blood rushes back into tissues that the dressing had compressed. The pain overwhelms me. My roommate is in the shower, having had her dressing removed before me. I stand at the window, overcome by pain and the strangeness of the moment. I open the window, just a crack, and start to cry deep shuddering cries as tears run down my face. I don’t know what to do, so I just stand at the window and cry. My roommate comes out of the shower and hears me. She asks if I’m alright and I tell her through sobs that I’m fine. The pain is immense, the worst it’s been since they repacked my vagina after surgery. I stop crying and put on clothes. I go downstairs and ask for pain medication. The nurses try to resist me, but I insist. I go back upstairs and take the first shower I’ve had in five days. There is a mirror in the bathroom. I stand naked in front of it and see my vagina for the first time. My vulva is perfect. It’s swollen and bruised. Long lines of black and purple radiate out across my hips. I can see stiches around my clitoris and sutures lining the entrance to my vagina. I’m surprised at how ordinary it is, despite the obvious trauma of surgery. It looks like an everyday vagina that’s been in a bar fight. It fits my body as if it was always there. I stand and stare at my naked body for five minutes, shivering in the cold bathroom. * When people talk to me about my surgery, they usually want the graphic details. Some of my friends watched videos of the surgery online before I went. People are shocked and excited to hear about my vagina, strangely fascinated by the medical procedure and its outcomes. I resist talking about the details because it presents the surgery as an otherworldly event. In reality, the surgery is highly standardized, having existed for more than forty years. Part of the misinformation about the surgery is a fundamental misrepresentation of what the surgery does. There is a shroud of secrecy and discomfort about trans women’s bodies in general, and the surgery in particular. People email me and ask for pictures after surgery. They ask how much depth I have or what my clitoris looks like. When I challenge them on asking for such personal information, they are surprised to discover that I don’t want to share my body with them. While increased representation of trans women in media has contributed to a greater awareness of who we are, it also turns our lives and bodies into museum exhibits. Our rights and humanity are debated in the news while our deaths become sordid tabloid articles filled with misgendering and hate. Our bodies never belong to us. With my vagina, I promise to myself that I will try to protect it from anyone’s voyeurism or curiosity. After enduring so much pain and fear to have a vagina, I want something more for my body than exposure. The world may not let me have what I want, but I intend to try my best to keep myself safe. My vagina is sacred to me. It represents a vulnerability and a joy I don’t want to lose. It is more than a teachable moment—it is my humanity, a living and breathing organ that is worth more than your fascination. * I make it through the six days of recovery in the clinic. They send me in a taxi to the airport at 7 a.m. I’m so weak that I can barely walk to the cab. I almost throw up on the ride from the clinic to the airport. I’m traveling home alone, something I realize is harder than I expected. At the airport, I check into my flight and the attendants put me in a wheelchair. They seem to realize what’s happened to me even though I don’t say anything. They wheel me through security and take me to my gate. I wait for an hour in the wheelchair before boarding the plane. The plane ride home is a blur. I medicate with my painkillers in order to handle the discomfort of the plane. I feel every movement as sharp pains between my legs. My friend from the trans support group I attend meets me at the airport. He takes me home in an Uber. We eat cheeseburgers on my bed before I fall asleep from the painkillers. When I wake, I start the rhythm of recovery which will structure all of my days for the next three months. I wake up, I take pain medication, I dilate, and I take a bath. Rinse, repeat. Recovery is difficult because I float in my apartment alone. I take my medications and dilate when I’m supposed to. I try to eat, but struggle to eat more than one meal a day. People come over and leave. My relationships struggle to handle the strain of my recovery. I try to not ask anyone for anything. My pain medications make me emotional. W comes over one night and I end up crying on him, saying how hard it is. He tries to comfort me, but there’s only so much of my anxiety that he can hold. I push myself to become stronger. I spend three months on narcotic painkillers. They warp time around me. Each time I take another dose of Oxycontin, I feel more disconnected from my body and its healing. I need the medication to dilate and to sleep, but it drains me in ways I don’t realize until I’m off it. I worry about becoming addicted. Each time I take a pill, I feel guilty and ashamed that I still need them. I cry in my shower when new drops of bright blood fall between my thighs. I have less bleeding than other girls in recovery, but I still panic whenever new bleeding starts. I worry about my healing constantly even though the doctors tell me that it’s fine. I sleep under one blanket, imagining another life for myself. Maybe new things will come in the spring. Maybe I’ll find my way back into the everyday intimacy I want. * Two months into my recovery, a bad Crohn’s flare sends me to the hospital ER by ambulance. The intake nurse refuses to use my female name, tracking down my old male name in the hospital records. She calls me by a male name that I haven’t used in years. Even though my health card has my correct gender and name on it, she challenges me about my gender while I’m vomiting on a stretcher. She and the male paramedics joke about my surgery and my vagina. She asks them if they looked at my vagina to see if it looked like the “real thing,” teasing one of the paramedics that he’s into freaky stuff so maybe he would get a rise out of looking. Throughout my time in the ER, no one uses the right pronouns or name. They send me for diagnostic imaging. The doctor comes back and asks me what my vagina is. He points to the image of my torso, drawing a circle around my vagina as if it’s some unknown foreign object. No one understands what gender reassignment surgery is or if it’s complicating my Crohn’s disease. I’ve been vomiting for twenty-four hours now, unable to drink or eat and in intense pain. After much confusion, they release me back into the street. I end up in two more ER departments over the next week. At a different hospital, an ER doctor asks me if I’m a sex worker or addicted to drugs because I’m trans. I am still misgendered and treated as a man. They refuse to run tests on me or treat my pain, despite my continued vomiting and weakness. Male nurses and doctors expose my vagina and breasts to strangers in the hallways. No one asks me if I would prefer a female nurse or physician. Eventually, they move me to a hallway and I just leave. The final ER department that I visit listens to me and uses my correct pronouns. They treat me and do more imaging. No one understands my surgery or my vagina, but they take care to respect my body. I’m in the waiting room for seven hours. My best friend, another trans girl, stays with me and holds my hand. She advocates with the nurses and doctors for me. At 3 a.m., the doctor tells me that I have a partial bowel obstruction and need to be hospitalized. I spend the next five days in the hospital. I am unable to dilate because most of my time is spent lying in a hallway on a stretcher. W visits me and explains to the nurses that I need to dilate in order to maintain my surgical outcomes. The nurses come up with a solution by letting me dilate in a closet while one of them stands guard outside the door. After a week of being extremely ill and having my body dehumanized by strangers, I feel more exhausted than I’ve ever been. Somehow, I recover and survive. My body knits together, reshaping itself back into a unified whole. I go back to work and move on with my life. Finally, after a lifetime of waiting, I’m here in the world as myself. Nothing is really different, except the quiet voice that raised alarm bells every time I encountered my body before surgery is finally silent. It takes me three months of recovery to feel comfortable touching my vagina. Despite caring for it every day, I remain disconnected from it until I force myself to touch it. It is not a wound nor a scar. It is a soft and warm space inside me that is filled with pleasure and love. After so much struggle, my vagina is so ordinary that it shocks me. I forget about the difference in my body, mindlessly dressing in tight leggings and buying pads at the drugstore as if it’s always been my life. * The night before I leave for Montreal for my surgery, W and I go to see Call Me By Your Name. We don’t really like the film but we do enjoy the popcorn. He brings Milk Duds and Twizzlers, a working-class American gesture I love. We go for tea afterwards in the trendy café by my apartment. He holds my hand across the table, squeezes it while I tell him how scared I am. I ask him if I should cancel my surgery. “You don’t have to do this,” he says, “I’ll still be here either way.” I smile and squeeze his hand back. “I know,” I say, “but I feel like it’s the only way I’ll ever be free.” He stares into my eyes before answering me. “I don’t know what the surgery will change for you,” he says. “I can’t know what it’s like to feel the way you do.” I don’t know what to say, so we just sit with the fear moving around me. He traces his fingers down the length of my arm from my palm to my elbow before returning to hold my hand again. I want him to say or do something that will make me feel less afraid but I know that this surgery is something I have to face for myself. He walks me home and holds me in my apartment lobby. I press my face into his neck, wrapping my arms around him as tightly as I can. He sways with me for more than five minutes. When he lets go of me, I lift my hand up to his face and run my fingers down his beard to his lips. “I love you,” I say, terrified that it’s the last time I’ll see him. A sheepish smile slips over his face before he replies, “I love you too.” He walks away into the night. I go upstairs to my apartment and stare at my packed suitcase. I call a friend and talk to her before going to bed. I think about how much my life has changed since I transitioned. I’ve made a different life and now I’m uprooting it again for another change. As I fall asleep, I imagine coming home with a vagina. I imagine going to school to my new PhD program in tight leggings. I imagine spring and going to a lake in a bathsuit. I imagine myself happy and loved. I imagine feeling comfortable in my body. I hope for a better life and with that hope, I decide to have this surgery, whatever the cost may be. * Surgery is sometimes presented as way to escape being a trans woman. I know of trans women, more cis appearing than me, who’ve had their surgery and never identify publicly as trans again. A part of me longs for the freedom of disappearing into an “ordinary” life. To not face transphobia and its constant violence, to not worry what my lovers see in me, to not fear attack and criticism because of my gender. Surgery was not an escape for me. I have a vagina and a body that aligns with society’s expectations of a woman, but I am still a trans woman. Even if I disappeared, going “stealth” as it’s commonly called, I would carry the scars of my transition inside me. I would also have to surrender the gifts of my transness, each moment of everyday joy and pleasure that has fallen over my skin and passed into my spirit like rainwater into the ground. This complicated being means more to me than any illusion of freedom. I have a screen shot saved my phone. It’s a message from W to me, sent before my surgery after I let him know how worried I was. He writes, “It will be ok. I love you. I promise to help you as much as I can.” He reminds me that even if my surgery is hard or painful, it will only be for a short time. He adds, “Plus spring will come shortly after. You can grow into your vagina while all the other flowers are learning to bloom.” There’s a pink flower emoji and a bright red heart at the end. I keep the screen shot of the message because it reminds me of an important truth about my surgery. Nothing is entirely perfect, unmarked by its passage through the world. In every love, there is the inevitability of loss. Yet as W reminds me, in every pain is the possibility for pleasure. And in every winter, the promise of a new spring. * Three months after my surgery, W and I break up. The two years of our on-and-off relationship have cycled between care and abuse; his transphobia has always been present inside our love, a violence that has soaked into my body until every part of me is haunted by his ghost. I hoped surgery would resolve the transphobia and finally make him see me as a real woman. It doesn’t. When he sees my vagina for the first time, his face falls. He walks out of the room and doesn’t return for five minutes. We don’t talk about it for a few hours but when we do, he yells at me so loud that the restaurant server comes over to check on us. I cry alone in an alleyway, struggling to understand why he would hurt me in this profoundly vulnerable moment. We break up three weeks later. I can’t forgive him for this betrayal. I’m tempted to hide the truth of our breakup. It must seem like a distraction from the story about my becoming, a disclosure that contradicts how W supported me throughout my surgery, but it isn’t. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned from my surgery is how to accept the imperfections of our lives. Every day after surgery, I watched my vagina heal, going through stages of multi-color bruises and swelling. I bled through my sheets during nights and washed away post-operative fluids in the morning. It has taken almost five months for the swelling around my vagina to diminish. My scars, two slightly raised vertical incision lines, cup my labia and centre my vagina on my body. There is a small red mark just above my pubic hair that shows where my post surgical blood drain was. As time progresses, my scars fade away and become less noticeable, but they will always be there, visible to me if indistinguishable to anyone else. I feel the same way about my scars around my vagina as I do about W. The events that surround our becoming leave an imprint on us. The complexities of my relationship with W are not something I want to diminish in order to tell a better story. I can’t separate W from my surgery without denying the ways that transphobia and transmisogyny have shaped the woman I am. His love and abuse changed me as much as a surgeon’s scalpel did, leaving impressions in my body that diminish but will never fully leave me. Just as my vaginal scars identify me as a trans woman, so does the way that I instinctively flinch whenever a man touches me. The breakup and the violence of my relationship with W almost kills me, but I survive. I move on with my life and the process of healing. I write an essay about our relationship and his abuse. New lovers come into my life and I find joy in my vagina, learning to orgasm and feel confident in my body. I support other trans girls around me as they begin to plan for their surgeries. I answer detailed questions for them about the surgery and my vagina. Sometimes, depending on how much I trust them, I share images of my results with them. I try to remind other trans girls to believe in the possibility for our joy. Sometimes, when I touch the inward curve of my labia, I believe in it myself. * A body is a conversation between the past and the future. It is never stationary, but always moving towards a different way of being. What defines us as people is not the bodies we are born into nor the bodies we create, but the lives that we live through them. My life is more than my body but for the first time, my body feels like home. Miracles happen. They come in unexpected ways. They fall from the sky or are made by a surgeon’s hands. The trick about miracles and bodies is that they require faith. I’m not talking about faith in some omnipotent being, but having faith in our own possibilities. The truth is that the hardest part of getting my vagina wasn’t the surgery nor the recovery. It wasn’t the wait times nor the complications. It wasn’t even the risks or the pain. The hardest part of getting my vagina was believing I deserved to have one. I do. I always did and now, I have a life and body that feels entirely my own. I can’t explain to you what that means unless you’ve gone through what I have. That’s the real gift of surgery for me. Finally, after a lifetime of being told that I was wrong, I never have to explain myself to you again. * The apple blossoms along my street opened their fragrant petals on the same day as my first post-surgical orgasm. I don’t forget the winter when I brush their petals off my shirt as I walk past. I remember the long dormancy of the apple trees, how long they’ve waited to become and how much they’ve endured in that waiting. The bitter frosts, grey mornings, a quiet desperation in their roots. My surgery, the flowering trees, being loved in good and bad ways, waiting for bruises to fade into nothing, scars along the innermost part of me—these are my stories. They fill my body and animate my life. I am not an inspiration nor a monster. I am just a girl with apple tree petals in her hair, sneezing at their fragrant pollen as she walks to work. I light a cigarette in front of the trees and hide in the shelter of their branches. Smoke trails out around me, illuminating the borders of sunlight, my body, and the invisible currents of wind. I imagine myself five months earlier. I see myself standing in the pre-dawn light of Laval as snow falls around me. I open my eyes to where I am now. I’m still in both places, the here and the past. The new body, the old body. Laval, Toronto. Winter, Spring. Pre-operation, post-operation. Penis, vagina. In both moments, in every moment, I’m a woman. If you take one thought away from my story, let it be that one.
The Three-Headed Magic of Merchant Ivory

In their decades of collaboration, the company created films tethered in a new language for what it means to be a human of multiple descriptions.

Merchant Ivory is a hymn in Indian cinema. The production company’s legacy encapsulates the greats, and yet, for a collective that’s left such an imprint, they are still relatively obscure. I was first introduced to them via the classics—A Room With A View, with its Italian balcons, its wide luscious fields of green surrounded by cherry red poppies, a great expanse where young hearts could roam. It was a film that I turned to for warmth. I liked the glamor, the regality of it. What might be read as stiffness or too British, I read as fragility and prestige. I never understood why I related so much to its whiteness, despite growing up in an immigrant, non-white home. I was so enraptured by the storytelling, the minutiae of a glance. The restrained romance was almost relatable. I chalked this up to the storytellers, and never thought to research the team behind this film that left me feeling bright with relief. Merchant Ivory was in fact three people: a woman, and two men. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the main screenwriter, was a German Jew; James Ivory, the director, was an American; and Ismail Merchant, the producer, was a Muslim Indian. Ivory and Merchant were in love, together until Merchant died in 2005. * Ruth, though German, looks like Indira Gandhi. Beautiful, yet austere. Her eyes demanding in a stern way, sunken, with heavy dark outlines. I was moved by that similarity, by how we have more in common than sometimes we think. That so many of us bleed into each other’s DNA seamlessly, and the things we think make us archipelagoes of difference are what bind us to others. Ruth was born in Cologne, to Marcus and Eleanora. After seeing what happened during the raid on Kristallnacht, the family fled the Nazi regime, becoming refugees overnight. Ruth was twelve years old. Unable to acquire visas for the United States, they settled in London. This is where Ruth learnt to speak English, immersing herself in Charles Dickens and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Ruth survived the Second World War, but her life was swollen with pain. Her father committed suicide when he found out that forty members of his family died in the Holocaust. In 1951, years after her father’s death, she graduated from Queen Mary University and married Cyrus Jhabvala, an Indian architect. With him, she moved to Alipur Road in Old Delhi, and there, she also found her career. In 1913, E. M. Forster wrote: ''The unlovely chaos that lies between obedience and freedom—and that seems, alas! the immediate future of India.'' And, so, Ruth was thrust into her life in the East. According to the New York Times, a lot of people thought she was Indian. So much of her writing was immersed in Indian culture, with a gravitational pull; India her compass, her grounding. (Her novel, The Householder, set in New Delhi, would eventually bring Merchant and Ivory to her door.) But she was always an outsider, declaring in an interview with The Guardian in 2005, “Once a refugee, always a refugee.” You could feel her migrant legs, wobbly on the firm fragrant soil of the East, guarded, unsure, through the mirror of her writing. Novelist Anita Desai wrote about her: I made the discovery that she had found, in this ordinary, commonplace world I so belittled, the source for her art, the material for her writing, using its language, its sounds and smells and sights with a veracity, a freshness and immediacy that no other writer I had read had. The message was like an electric current: yes, this is our world, our experience, it can be our writing too. The distinction of the foreign home, and Ruth’s floating sensibility as she grasped to understand it, equipped her to see the varying dimensions of India’s delirium in the first years after its independence.  In her essay "Myself in India," she wrote, “I have lived in India for most of my adult life. My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year.” But, even still, she was, according to the novelist Pankaj Mishra, “probably the first writer in English to see that India's Westernizing middle class, so preoccupied with marriage, lent itself well to Jane Austenish comedies of manners." And so, using those two bridges, she thrived.  Soon she began writing pithy, smart short stories for the The New Yorker and sly comedies about Indian cosmopolitan lives, including the Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust. Even after moving to America in the ’70s, and settling in New York City, throughout Ruth’s work, as Pankaj explains, “India reappears as the promise of redemption to rich Americans.” It was this fiction so perfectly constructed that brought her to Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory. In the 1960s they approached Mrs. Jhabvala to write a screenplay based on The Householder, a story about the trials of a young Indian husband. In 2010, for The Guardian, Catherine Shoard wrote, “Few collaborations are so distinctive that the names of those involved come to denote a whole genre, rather than just a credit.” This would become one of those few. *  Ismail Merchant (born Ismail Noor Md. Abdul Rahman) was the son of Hazra and Noor. His father was president of the Muslim League, and refused to move to Pakistan, a contentious stance for a Muslim. This is perhaps why, inspired as a child at the age of nine, Ismail was known to have delivered an emotionally profound speech about partition, held at a political rally in front of crowd of ten thousand frustrated Indians wanting guidance and direction. This energy he brought to his studies, and eventually his passion for filmmaking. A friendship with Nimmi, a Muslim Indian film actress, introduced him to the hub of Indian film: Bombay. He originally wanted to become an actor, and was offered several modelling jobs and worked as an extra, but later changed direction to become more involved in the production side of things. At twenty-two he moved to the United States to study at NYU and received an MBA. He supported himself by working as a messenger for the United Nations, using the opportunity to persuade whatever wealthy Indian delegates he met to fund his future film projects. "The UN dining room became a platform for my raising funds for my movie," he said. "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything." Merchant had the pristine handsomeness that you expect of an Aligarh alumni. A stateliness, a kind of rugged, yet boyishly clean handsomeness. It evokes the India of the ’50s, the ’60s, after independence, brimming with hope and modernity. Immersed in a new world of art and culture, and inspired by Satyajit Ray, as well Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, Merchant made his first short film in 1960. He paid for it to be shown in a cinema long enough to be eligible for Academy Award consideration. The film received a nomination and was entered in the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. There, Merchant was invited to a screening of The Sword and the Flute, directed by James Ivory. The two became friends, and later that year went into partnership in business and in life. Friends describe Merchant as a highly persuasive man: a talented and infamous cook, he would host elaborate dinners to coax and charm any potential clientele, or funders for his movies. Once, he even smuggled a film crew into the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles by covering himself in robes, pretending to be the Maharajah of Jodhpur. He was able to adapt three books by E.M. Forster (A Room with a View, Maurice and Howards End), another three by Henry James (The Europeans, The Bostonians and The Golden Bowl) and two by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day and The White Countess), as well as one by Jean Rhys (Quartet), Arianna Huffington (Surviving Picasso), and, of course, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. * James Ivory was born in Berkeley, California, and raised in Klamath Falls by his parents Hallie Millicent and Edward Patrick Ivory, who were Catholic. Little is known about his upbringing. Ivory is, by all accounts, something of a mystery. In an interview, Jhabvala once explained a little about her friend and collaborator: “I thought Jim had quite a lot in common with Henry James,” she said. “The elegance, for one thing; nobility, for another; extreme attention to people and relationships and the slow and patient way that Jim has, and that Henry James has.” For Ivory, it seems it was always all about the art. Ivory’s most recent work, Call Me By Your Name, made him the oldest Academy Award-winner ever, at eighty-nine, for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film, written by Ivory with an indulgence it deserved, reminded me of Merchant Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice, about a gay man in Edwardian Britain directed by Ivory and adapted in collaboration with Kit Hesketh-Harvey. It was made at a time when homophobia was at a high, where the “AIDS-crisis tabloid hysteria” was rampant, destructive and terrifying. In contrast, there is something equally powerful about seeing Call Me By Your Name’s queer characters love without consequence. In a recent interview with The New Yorker, staff writer Sarah Larson asked Ivory if he struggled with coming out: “I didn’t. For some reason, in the same way it was not a struggle to give up my religion. You know, a lot of people give up their religion, but, oh, my goodness, they go through such agonies. I never did.”  * Ismail Merchant once told the New York Times: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory. I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"  Their films were, for the most part produced by Merchant, directed by Ivory, and twenty-three of the forty-four were scripted by Jhabvala. The initial goal of the company was "to make English-language films in India aimed at the international market,” and the actors came when they saw the name. Merchant Ivory films have starred Leela Naidu, Madhur Jaffrey, Aparna Sen, Shashi Kapoor, Maggie Smith, Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter, and many more. In total, they received thirty-one Academy Award nominations in their forty-four-year career together, including best picture nominations for A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992), and The Remains of the Day a year later, in 1993. They’ve catapulted careers, such as Jaffrey’s, who after portraying a bratty Bollywood star in Shakespeare Wallah (1965) went on to win Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Emma Thompson won her first (and only) Academy Award for Acting for her role in Howards End. Their successes, to me, as a person who experienced such gratuitous pleasure from their depictions of life and love, stem from their collaboration. There’s profundity in the way a well-oiled machine works, and when it comes to art, which can so often be a cathedral of boredom, or incessant churning of the same spectacle over and over again, there is something raw and real in what Merchant Ivory brought to the table. From Jhabvala’s roots in Eastern Europe, her experience of the trauma of being Jewish in a time of raging anti-semitism, to living as a foreigner in India, surrounded by an Indian husband and Indian daughters, demonstrates a unique resilience she brought to the acuteness and specificity that made the films so spectacular and fresh. Merchant and Ivory were able to gather their personal dedications and sublimate that love into stories that were unlike anything we’d seen before. From Merchant’s Muslim Indian isolation with a love of film, and Ivory’s American Catholic romanticism of storytelling, the marriage of these three individuals, and the purity of their experience and strangeness, translated into work unlike any cinema has seen since. They became masters of the colonial experience, tethered in a new language for what it means to be a human of multiple descriptions. In their togethering, they mirrored so many different identities, and that’s what made them stronger. Their collaboration hinged on the (outward) effortlessness and languid way they worked as a unit. Their specific experience aided their storytelling, never puncturing it. Each identity was important, each person had a role. Merchant Ivory films were shot from Delhi to New England to Paris. They documented the pernicious hypocrisy of wealthy capitalists, class struggle in India, social change in New York. The last film made by all three was Le Divorce (2003), a contemporary story about Americans in Paris based on Diane Johnson’s novel of the same name, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. This is what they did best, those three: they created, together, pastiching such emblematic and curious descriptions about what it means to be a person. From India, to Great Britain, to America to France, they created something larger than ourselves to hold us, to make space for us.
‘A Way to Overwrite the Ableist Narrative’: An Interview with Nicola Griffith

Talking with the author of So Lucky about the beginner-ish qualities of coming-out stories, how doing a PhD affected writing fiction, and learning to write characters with disabilities.

Nicola Griffith’s fiction abounds with detail, whether it takes place in seventh-century England (Hild), on a distant planet on which humanity has evolved (Ammonite), or within the complex social and economic dynamics of a near-future city (Slow River). Her books are powerfully immersive, and whether she’s bringing the reader into the distant past or the far future, there’s an almost tactile quality to their settings. That aspect of her style takes on an entirely different context in her most recent novel, So Lucky (MCD x FSG Originals). Narrator Mara Tagarelli opens the novel at a moment of internal contradiction: while she’s the head of an influential public health nonprofit, her marriage has suddenly collapsed. She is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Mara's evolving approach to dealing with this forms the bulk of the book. (Griffith has written extensively about her own life with MS, and about portrayals of disability in fiction.) When Griffith and I spoke recently, we discussed the process of writing So Lucky, the novel’s relationship to the rest of Griffith’s bibliography, and how it relates to ongoing discussions about disability and accessibility in the literary world. * Tobias Carroll: In the afterword to the novel, you talk about the fact the writing of this book came as a surprise to you. Where were you in the midst of working on another project when this emerged? Nicola Griffith: Well, I think of this as sort of misted avoidance behavior. I was about halfway through the sequel to Hild and I started to do a PhD. And then I got halfway through my PhD, and started to do this novel. And then, I finished the PhD, and now as soon as all this publicity stuff is done I'll be returning back to Menewood, the sequel to Hild. And I got a little stuck on Menewood, so I did a PhD. And I got a little stuck on my PhD, so I did a book and then I finished. So that's one way to look at it. And the other, of course, is that I actually wrote a version of this book a very long time ago. And I actually sold it. It was a novella and I sold it and I decided before it was published to pull it from publication, because there was something about it that made me unhappy. I wasn't pleased with it at all. Have you ever heard of the term narrative prosthesis? I don't think so, no. Okay, well it's a term used by two disability scholars, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder.11Mitchell and Snyder also wrote a book on the subject, which was published in 2001. And it talks about how a lot of fiction about disabled characters uses disabled people, basically, as a metaphorical opportunity. Their narrative purpose, if you like, is the educational profit of a non-disabled character. And one of the things that one does in narrative prosthesis is that you eliminate the disability. Basically, you eliminate, the way people used to do in queer fiction. So, you know, death, suicide, leaving your lover so that she can be with a man in order to be more normal, that kind of thing. Or you fix them, which means being cured, having your problem overcome somehow. And disability is always the disabled person's problem in these books. Or you have an epiphany that makes everything magically feel better. And I realized that what I had done in that original novella was, do this magical epiphany thing and then everything was better. I just realized that that was such bullshit and I couldn't stand it and I pulled it. But I didn't know how to write it, so I stuck it in a drawer and forgot it for a very, very long time. Until I was in the middle of my PhD and I suddenly realized that I now knew why I had been so uncomfortable with this story. Not just the narrative prosthesis, but because it was a kind of disability coming-out story and I've always had less than friendly feelings towards coming-out stories. I find them a little beginner-ish. In So Lucky, you're writing from the perspective of a character who's going through a lot emotionally and physically, and is also an incredibly forceful character. What was it like to internalize that, to write from that perspective as opposed to something more detached? It was interesting. Most of my novels are very relaxed and dense at the same time. And they're large. But this felt much more like a spear thrust than normal. I had a very specific thing I wanted to address. It wasn't all about how systems work or what it means. It was about how this particular moment feels. In that sense, it's much more like a short story than a novel. It's a moment, it's a sort of extended downplay moment, but it is a moment, as opposed to a distant look at something. A lot of my novels, they're very much centered in the body, and how we learn about the world through our body. But there's also, as you say it, a certain distance from what that means, a certain analytical stance. And I did not have an analytical stance writing this novel, at all. It just came pouring out, like this torrent. I wrote the first draft in two weeks. It was this raging current, and I had two and a half weeks. I sent in the first draft of my thesis to my advisor. And then I was like, well what am I gonna do for two and a half weeks? Oh, goddamn, I'm gonna write that story I've been meaning to write. And it just came roaring out. Did you find that your process for writing this differed from, say, writing Hild or writing one of your earlier novels? Oh, sure. I didn't do any research at all. I did a little bit of research afterwards, but really not much. This is the least researched thing I've ever written. I researched even my short stories more than this. This was very much, I had a thing I wanted to say and so I just sat down and said it. And then afterwards when I was rewriting, I would think, okay, I need to know a little bit more about that and I would go find out something. But now, it was a totally different process. I knew what the ending image was. And I knew how it started. But the rest was kind of a mystery to me. I also knew that there was this scary part with, basically, people hunting down disabled people. Because that was actually a moment from my own life in the ’90s. I was cooking something and CNN was on in the background and I heard about this torture case, and I was super shocked. So yeah, on some level that actually happened. I don't know the person's name or where they were or anything. But the fact of the facts, someone with MS was essentially tortured and killed in their own home... That's real, yeah. Oh, god. Yeah, it really woke me up, I can tell you. It made me realize for the first time how it would feel to be a victim. I'd never felt like a victim before, but that moment just made me think, oh my god, yeah, I'm the kind of person that people would maybe think [of] in terms of victimization now. You're writing about a character who is very angry about certain things in society, where you may share that anger. But in the novel, there's also this sense that Mara is perhaps using anger as a sort of a defense mechanism and as a coping mechanism. How do you balance that sense of outrage with having this particular character's outrage as a dramatic element? I knew when I sat down to write this that everyone would say, oh my god, it's autobiography. And of course, I know it's not, but I very much used elements of my own experience in there. But I tried to think, okay, how can I make this about a person that I would understand but that who is not like me? And so I chose this kind of brittle, defensive anger, because that's not how I approach the world. I can get angry, but it's very fast and it's not a stance to the world. It's usually, something happens that really pisses me off, I get pissed off and then I forget about it. But Mara is much more brittle. She feels a little less secure than most of the characters I’ve ever written. Most of the characters I write come from a place of quite high self-esteem. And Mara, on the surface, has that, but I think there's something a little more fragile underneath that. In So Lucky, you're returning to Atlanta as a setting, which you'd previously used in The Blue Place. What was it like returning to a city that you had used as the central point of one of your previous books, in a very different context? This is another way in which this book is really different. It could be set almost anywhere. There is nothing very particular about it. There's mentions of neighborhoods, there's Lake Lanier. But really, it could be pretty much anywhere. It certainly could be in, say, North Carolina or somewhere like that. Somewhere that's about the same kind of temperature. It's very non-specific. It didn't really matter to me. So in that sense it was kind of an easy thing. This is where I was first living when I was first diagnosed, so it just seemed like the default setting. It wasn't a conscious choice at all. When the book was finished and when I was talking to my editor about it, he said, "So why Atlanta? Why not Seattle?" I said, "I don’t know, just seemed like a good idea at the time." Also, because the very first time I thought about this story, when I wrote it twenty years ago, I was having thoughts and making notes for the draft, at the same time I was actually writing The Blue Place. So there's a mix there. And if you actually read the book carefully—I don't bother doing a lot of description—Mara’s house is actually Aud's house.22Aud Torvingen, protagonist of three of Griffith’s novels: The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. I realized as she was moving through the rooms—I thought, damn, this is the same house. So there is some weirdness in that way, but because I never felt as though it was particularly important, I just thought, why change it? It's fine. So much of what Mara goes through is in terms of the way the temperature of a specific place can affect her. Having the book be set in somewhere where it is going to be fairly warm and fairly humid often added to that. That was very useful to me. Because here in Seattle, what happens is that it only gets hot at certain times of the year and nobody in Seattle has air conditioning. Because they're all like, oh, it doesn't get hot in Seattle. Except every year it does, but just for a little while. The people here are ... well, they're kinda cheap. It's like, well I know we can just hang in there for two or three weeks. And me, I'm like, oh no, I want air conditioning. Even if it's just for two or three weeks. I saw on your website that you recently got the rights back to the Aud books? Yes, I am so excited about that. It was always meant to be five books and I just stopped writing them. Partly because of the MS thing, but honestly more because of the publication issues. But now I'm back on track with being okay with all the MS stuff, and I've got the rights back. Oh, I'm so looking forward to it. You know what I'm really excited about the Aud books is the possibility of doing the audio narration. I did the audio for So Lucky, and I enjoyed it enormously. So I really want to do all my books now. I'll just have to go back to my entire back list and turn them into audiobooks. Where in the stage of writing this book did the title come into play? Fairly late. It was originally in my head, it was called Season of Change. When we first meet the old woman and she has the little dog, except it may not actually exist, I started thinking of it as Small Dog Theory. There's a small dog theory of illness: you treat it like this little yappy thing over there, keep it well fed and it won't bother you so much. And then I realized that that theory was bullshit, so I didn't want to use that. And then I hit this exchange between Mara and Rose about, “Oh well, fuck you, you should be so lucky.” And I thought, huh, I think So Lucky is rich with irony, not irony, and all the different layers of that. So I chose that. It's one of those things that resonates in different ways depending on where you are in the novel, which I really appreciated. Yeah. No, I like the title. A couple of people were like, can we do something else? I'm like, nope, that's the title. Take it or leave it. You have a book coming out about a character living with MS, and I feel like in recent years questions of accessibility in literary spaces are more and more coming out into the open. I feel like every year there's a lot of discussion about the AWP Conference not being particularly great in terms of accessibility. Oh, god, yeah. Is the hope that this book will also enter in that debate, in addition to being a work that stands on its own? Well, sure. I always like my books to actually have an effect in the world. I write because I want to find out, and I write because I want to change the world. And this book helped me figure out some things, pretty much at the same time as I was figuring out other things in my PhD. And then I'm hoping that it really helps people to see that, just because you're disabled doesn't mean you're a pitiable creature. You know, you have a life. It's just that you might use a wheelchair instead of your feet. Or you might use a support animal instead of your friend. People just have different ways of approaching the world, and I just want, honestly, readers to see disabled people as human beings in and of themselves. It goes back to this whole notion of narrative prosthesis. Most people's notion of disability is super sad, heart-wrenching and all inspirational things that they see on TV or read in books written by non-disabled people who haven't a clue. The kind of things where you see someone in a wheelchair and they are confined to a wheelchair. They are bound to a wheelchair. Or other people look at them and think, oh, if I was in a wheelchair I'd just kill myself. And that's how we learn ableism, is from all the stories out there. So, this is my version of just writing a story I want to write, but also a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative. Just give people a different story to replace the old story. Have you found that your PhD work has affected your work in fiction as well? One of my worries when I was working on it was that, yes, it would change my fiction. And in one sense, it already really has. I couldn't have written So Lucky without doing that PhD.33Griffith’s thesis, Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia, can be downloaded from her website. I came up with a portmanteau term, focalized heterotopia. This one's focalized heterotopia, in the sense that the focalized character, Mara, is queer. And queerness isn't the point, it just is. And she doesn't run into any homophobia or sexist violence because of being a woman or being queer. But I realized that in the disability sense, what was making me so uncomfortable about thinking about writing So Lucky was that I would be making a person's difference one of the points of the story. And I have never written about lesbianism or about being a woman. And here I was, writing on some level, about disability. Except, of course, then I realized that really it's not about the person's problem with disability. It's about the world's problem with her disability. It's about how life is much more difficult in the world because of being disabled. So, doing the PhD really helped me write this book—in that sense, yes, it's totally changed things. In other ways, I'm hoping not. We'll know when I get back to Menewood. Whereabouts are you in that right now? I'm about 90,000 words in and it's going to be another long book like Hild, so probably I'm about forty percent there.
‘A Destructive Form of Strength’: An Interview with Daemon Fairless

Talking with the author of Mad Blood Stirring about getting into fights, the anxiety-based roots of violence, and the co-opting of masculinity by “public intellectuals.”

Daemon Fairless begins his debut book of non-fiction, Mad Blood Stirring, with a description of a fight in a Toronto subway car, where he head-butts a verbally abusive, very drunk man who has become a potential threat to his wife, and other people on the train. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and the author tells us he made a conscious choice to put himself in a position to do it. The other man is arrested, and Fairless goes home with his wife. If this were just an anecdote of an isolated incident, it might have just rested where it lay. But, as Fairless shows us over the course of the book, there are far deeper implications of his actions, and his feeling that he had to act. The personal access in Mad Blood Stirring is the core of the book, and the reader’s entry point to this exploration of violence. In the chapters to come, Fairless keeps an eye on his own experiences and emotions while going down the pit, level by level, to investigate the evolutionary and behavioural impulses that lead to male violence. A former journalist for the CBC, Fairless spends time with professional MMA fighters, a high-school football coach and his team in an impoverished area of Toronto, a criminal on the lam, a serial rapist, and a murderous psychopath locked up in a maximum security mental health centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario. What the author learns from these interactions is relayed empathetically, but it is never finessed or glossed over. And, by looking directly at these violent men and actions, Fairless provides an unusual insight into a topic that most people rarely engage with in earnest. I met with the author recently, in Toronto, to talk about the process of writing the book, and the personal journey behind Mad Blood Stirring. * Kevin Hardcastle: When you were younger, did you have an experience with violence, like fighting in the street, or those urges to intervene in physical altercations that you talk about later as an adult? Daemon Fairless: I mean, when I was a kid I lived in a below-blue-collar neighbourhood, a really poor neighbourhood in Halifax. And I would fight with the kids across the street. And by fight, I mean they would initiate and I’d survive. In high school I think I would’ve done just about anything to avoid a fight. I was super sensitive at that point, and I didn’t grow until late in high school. But even when I grew I didn’t have it in my head to fight. All that stuff just intimidated me. While reading the book I kept considering my own experiences with violence, and writing about it in fiction. Trying to understand how it manifests. When I was in high school I got into something like a blood feud with these other rural folks, that ended up in a series of fights where I could’ve been killed. That sort of cured me of those urges you talk about in the book. I realized early I could die behind this. And those people I was fighting didn’t give a damn. You realized they’re way meaner than you were. Absolutely. And when I got out of there, to Toronto and university, it was just over. Simply from being out of that environment. Well, it’s like a form of gang violence. And it’s almost in its organic form, or whatever you would call it. You know, I think about this a lot—that fighting is a tool, and if it works for you, it’s very hard not to use. It’s a way of resolving all this alpha-beta animalistic tension. I think we can all do the math on how a physical altercation is going to go; you sort of do it in your head. I might have an idea it is going to go a certain way from the jump. So, I’m not going to do all the stepping up and talking, escalating it. I’m just going to get right to it and exert my will. And so, it becomes a very quick tool. And I think that one thing that happens once you get the shit kicked out of you is that you say to yourself, “I can’t beat everyone up, so I’m not going to put myself in this position at all.” That was certainly where I got to, after being on the receiving end. If you get beat up in a non-lethal or traumatic way, it probably can help you stop playing that game. I was talking to someone the other day who went through the same thing [as you] in high school. As I mentioned, I never did. In many ways I was just a peaceful dude, until I wasn’t. When I did get in fights as an adult, I was a lot bigger, and I was extremely lucky. I’ve rolled sevens every time. I liked that you know that, and say so in the book. Also, as you mention in the early pages, you have size. That can go both ways, for sure. But now as an adult with size, and training and some skill, you know you have a good shot to come out of a fight okay. Yeah, eighty-five percent of the time. Or you get killed. I try to tell myself, “The next fight is when I die.” That’s what being older and my experience with training in Muay Thai and boxing taught me. When you get on the tough-guy ladder you realize you are nowhere compared to real dangerous people. There are levels of violence so far beyond you. And that’s why I think about evolutionary and psychological factors, because we are emotionally tuned to think, “If I’m the biggest and meanest, I’ll win.” But then there are guns and knives. Or, in my experience, I might get so focused on one guy, the main person I’ve been in a confrontation with, that I forget about that other guy coming from my blindside. You can get hijacked by these notions. I try to avoid all of that now. I make a conscious effort. I try to dress a little nicer. I’m not even going to present as a tough guy. I’m gonna look like a dad. But if you were in the same mindset of hyperawareness that you need for a fight, or a combat zone, you can’t take that if it’s your whole life, every minute of every day. And that’s where I’m at now, with accepting a level of vulnerability. I’ve got to be cooler headed, not looking for the danger always. Essentially all of the instances of violence I’ve been in [have been] as a result of me being hyper-aware, because I think, at some level, I’m anxious. As we talk about the inherence of aggression, many think that just means people are mean and nasty, but there is a lot more to it. What I’m saying is that, at a basal level, most of the guys I’ve met—with those one-in-a-hundred exceptions of course—most of us at some level are operating at a certain level of anxiety. I’m not saying we’re timorous little creatures, but that hyperawareness, that hypervigilance, is part and parcel of that inherent state we’re talking about. We pay attention to our environment, to each other’s body signals—sexually, in terms of aggression, in all sorts of different ways. We’ve got all these signals going on all the time. It took me a long time to realize, or at least admit to myself, that the aggression that comes from being in this mindset is a response, a fairly inherent response, to an equally inherent anxiety. People call it status anxiety, pack-hierarchy anxiety. I’m fine with that. So now, given that I’m aware this anxiety exists, I don’t have to be on that hyper-alert level, because it takes hold of you. I want to be a creative, constructive guy. And do you know how much time and thought it takes to be like that, anxious and hyper-aware all the time? It takes over everything. I’ve tried to explain to friends of mine in the United States that Canada actually has a significant history and culture of aggression, violence, and even organized crime. From the major crime to the petty, this underbelly of Canadian life seems to be ignored all too often. We are not nice in many ways. We are not nice people. And in many ways the whole “sorry” thing is about a pre-emptive defusing of conflict. All the sorrys are just trying to stop something from escalating. It’s a pre-emptive strike to defuse a situation. That’s what that niceness often is, and underlying it is that dangerous anxiety that can lead men to violence. In our popular national literature, few of us want to talk about violence nakedly, or look at it head-on. As a result, authors and readers may begin to think all violence is the same. I think [people get] confused because they’re not facing it head-on. I had this really interesting experience, with an acquaintance of mine who is gay and was in an abusive relationship. This acquaintance was a psychiatrist, so I was kind of like, “What can I tell him?” But we had this conversation and the conversation basically came down to, “Your partner is using these ancient rules of confrontation and aggression to control you, and you’re using these lovely rules of civilized rationalism to try to win that conflict. So that will not work.” You only resolve the situation but understanding the rules that the other violent person is playing by. And that doesn’t mean anyone is saying understanding them is accepting them as good. The thing is that when you’ve realized this imbalance, and realize it’s probably not going to change or be resolved in a peaceful way, then you can make the decision to try to just get out of the situation. Which I think he did. Also, at that time I was training jiu-jitsu, about five days a week, so I took him to a jiu-jitsu class because he was interested, and for him I think it was like probably the emotional equivalent of taking an uninitiated person into a serious BDSM situation. He didn’t react well. It was just too much. We really get freaked out about the emotional intensity of something like grappling. Even just the basics, they can so overwhelm people with the intimacy and physical closeness of it that they can’t see it as sport. All these real fight emotions just start firing off, and they can’t see past that yet. But, the thing I found in training, when you get used to it, is that you can kind of just bring your emotions under control. And then you start to solve it physically, and it’s no longer a big deal. But the thing that I found most interesting was that this guy who worked as a psychiatrist was encountering this area of human behaviour that was just overwhelming to him. And, I mean, this is a guy who deals with all sorts of horribleness in his job. In that way, I really started to consider that we are the same way about this stuff that the Victorians were about sex. I mean, on TV or in entertainment, we want the violence, we’re asking for it—as long as it’s fictional or dramatized. As soon as you show them violence honestly and tell them, “This is what’s really happening,” they say, “Whoa. No, don’t show me that.” I was at Canada Reads this year, and watching the second day of debate. And I found the direction of that debate really frustrating. Two of the books especially, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and American War by Omar El Akkad, kept banging up against this unbelievable resistance to accept and explore the realities of violence, war, cultural genocide, colonialism, and the potential of catastrophe from climate change. Their defenders, Jully Black and Tahmoh Penikett, had such an uphill battle trying to get across exactly how important it is for Canadians to look at all of this head on. But the resistance to those ideas, and the reckless sort of arrogance shown in dismissing those books, without engagement, really highlighted that inability or ignorance to address the ugly, difficult parts of human behaviour. They just couldn’t see it as something that they should have to look at. “Alienating” was the word that kept coming up. With The Marrow Thieves especially. We’ve created such a nice, civil society for ourselves that people can now be like, “I’m not going to get my kid immunized.” I mean, I lived in India, and no one there says that because they know their kid may well die if you don’t get them immunized. But here, because everyone has been in a more advantageous position for things like vaccines, you’ve got this barrier of safety around us. No one thinks that mumps or polio is real. It’s an abstract thing that only a certain type of people get. And I think it’s the same with violence. People think, “Well, that won’t happen to me.” Really? That’s stunning. What I saw that day on Canada Reads was a sort of desperation to be forgiven, and see something resolved. And what I liked about your book is that you don’t do that. Many of these violent men can’t be resolved. There’s not even resolution in your accounts of your own personal journey, and struggle with violent behaviour. One of the things that a lot of people have written or said about the book is that it’s “terrifying.” But what I’m writing about is what’s happening everywhere in the world. It’s under the surface, even as we’re sitting in this restaurant right now. Again, to get back to that Victorian approach to sex analogy, we’re blind. We’re willfully blind to this. Though, it’s not like I’m saying we should revel [in] it. We say we want a more civilized society, but I don’t see how that happens unless we face these things. I’m not suggesting some kind of social movement, but for me, I have changed myself as a result of writing this book. Just from facing the stupidity of some of the actions, and the instinct behind them. So, when people say what I’ve written is “terrifying,” I’m a little dumbfounded that they aren’t putting it together that you could get the same kind of story from the news every day. There’s nothing new about it. But we have this amazing ability to cordon off that reality for some reason. And I mean, part of the reason I left the CBC is because I found reporting on the news frustrating, because as much as we’re ostensibly reporting on reality, what we’re doing is we’re sanctioning certain stories, certain types of stories to tell ourselves, and the underlying story that we’re telling ourselves—the meta-story—is that if you follow the rules and you do your job and all of that, bad things probably won’t happen. And it’s just kind of a pat explanation of the world, right? All of this seems patently clear to me, whether I’m articulating it properly or not. And, I’m not an especially violent guy, but we live in an especially violent world, so I guess I’m a little stunned and think, “What world are people living in, where they’re not aware of this?” Were you worried the honesty in the book would just switch people off? You know, I guess my bigger concern was writing a good book. My overwhelming anxiety writing this was more, “Can I do it?” I’m not too concerned about whether or not people can handle the content, but I do find it interesting that, like, a Jo Nesbo can write the goriest details for their thrillers and people are like, “That’s great.” Yet, if you write a reality-based book about violence, people think there is something weird and terrible going on. Well, the weird and terrible thing is actually not wanting to face it. What I liked about your approach is that the book accepts and investigates negative aspects of male violence, but still judges it and weighs it out honestly. And makes you look right at it. Nothing is ever explained away. I think this subjective element really works. Especially in parts where you interact with the rapist or killer, and share your distrust of them even while you’re trying to understand their behaviour. I think I kind of uncoupled a lot of things that hold back journalists and hold back journalism. I realized I don’t really have to be a journalist while doing this, I can just be a guy who’s trying to figure these people and impulses out on a human level. And that worked a lot better. It really became a lot more freeing and it is also just the way I work. I don’t pretend to know everything, and I could totally be wrong about everything. And I’m okay with that. Show me good evidence to the contrary and we could talk about it. I’m cool with being wrong and knowing that there’s stuff I’m wrong about. There’s bound to be something off the mark when you write a three-hundred-and-something-page book on something as complicated as this. But at least it starts the conversation. I think as long as you fool yourself into thinking you can look at all of this objectively, you’ll never understand it. I’m willing to be co-opted by my subject, and I think that’s the whole thing about violence. When it starts to get hold of you and it starts to distort you—because it distorts your perception, and that’s why I’ve gotten in every fight. The emotions start to distort your rationality. You convince yourself, “I should be doing this.” Yeah, “This is the right thing to do. This is only thing to do.” And until you’re willing to be co-opted by that experience, you don’t understand. It can remain this abstract idea that you get frustrated with because people aren’t behaving rationally. You cannot understand it until, like you said, you put a toe in, and that’s all I’ve got, my baby toe in. But it’s so gripping that you still have to delve deeper to understand. So, I think we’ve got all these well-intentioned policies and thoughts and programs to try to deal with violence. But as long as people delude themselves, or deny the importance of the subjective experience of violence, they will never be able to control it. I had arguments with people who’d read the book early on, regarding some of the guys I wrote about, like Nelson, the fighter. After reading an early draft, people were saying, “You’re being too nice to (the subjects).” And I was trying to explain that the people I’m writing about are doing what they’re doing because they’re going through something in their life, and training in martial arts or combat sports is helping them as people. Going through training or being around it like I have lets you gain an understanding of how it affects you. So, having people with real, subjective experience with the emotions that come about in combat sports, I think these are the people who, if they’re analytical and compassionate, are better suited to control those emotions. I have very little faith in people who’ve never been in a violent altercation, who’ve never experienced these feelings, to address them. If you’re telling me to control these things that override rationalism with rationalism, you’re an infant in terms of your understanding of those emotions. So, because there’s this sometimes understandable disdain for fighters, we’ll have a tendency to ignore their insights into these emotions, and we end up losing the ability to learn from that subjective knowledge. Similarly, in literature, there’s a tendency to ignore the voices of people with varying subjective experiences with violence. I was on a panel with David Chariandy, the award-winning author of the book Brother, and the poet Matthew Dickman, where we talked at length over the fact that people have criticized certain writing about poor people, or violence, and have been confused by it, because they can’t see past the abject representation of it. People seemed to want the protagonist’s mother in Chariandy’s novel, for example, to be more abjectly miserable in her circumstances. That’s not the way it always is. Dickman also talked at length about how violence doesn’t happen the way people want to believe. There’s no drama like people think there is. It’s a thing that happens and you deal with the consequences. That’s why I’m happy to see these writers get their stories out. Especially in contrast to this environment of academics and “public intellectuals” who are assigning their versions of masculinity with an agenda and without this level of experience, I think we’d see less of that swing between a fear of masculinity and this desperate defense of it. It’s funny, because I think one of the classifications of this book is gender studies, and I didn’t sign up to write about masculinity. I mean, violent men are definitely in the broader discussion about masculinity, but I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about manliness or maleness or any of it, I just wanted to look at the way the world is. I wanted to look at real people doing real things and find out what’s going on there. It’s really that simple. I feel like I’m interested in the same subject that people are interested in, when it comes to violence, but I speak a different language. And for me that language I’m speaking is the easiest way to articulate this subject, and what is really happening. There’s lot of the work in sociology that covers social factors that lead to violence. I believe that, I don’t disagree at all. You can be schooled or conditioned to be performatively masculine or whatever you want to call it. But I don’t know if talking about it that way helps the guys who are doing it actually think about it. I think you’re right. Because it’s undeniable. I mean, you were very forthcoming about your urges and feelings, or in the section of the book where you detail graphically violent, disturbing hypnagogic images you would have before sleep. For me, I think about those people who tried to kick my head in every day, and that was decades ago now. I think about fighting them again, differently. About revenge. That’s been in there since I was seventeen. Again, that’s where I think some evolution comes in. I mean, your experience in your small town is sort of a great analogy for the way parts of society have always been: you’re in a tribe and if you are taken out of that tribe you’ll probably die. So you try to prove something. Also, you’re finding your place in that hierarchy of a small town and if you end up in a bad place within it, the consequences can affect you for the rest of your life. It’s not surprising that you still think about being physically attacked and overwhelmed by other people. I think we’re keyed in to take it very seriously. Because it conditions you to think that, if you aren’t the guy who is going to change that situation, you’re going to be the guy who’s getting beaten down. So, obviously we can say, “I don’t live in that world. Those are silly thoughts.” Well, they’re not silly. They’re real. They’re formative, too. Yes, they’re formative and they affect how you behave. I don’t know about you, but my ambition to be a good writer is kind of a healthy way of taking that anxiety and status concern and processing it in a more productive way. But you have to accept these feelings as they are before processing them. Yes. Because if we don’t acknowledge these emotions, we won’t know what the cause of related anxieties and impulses are. And you’ll try to cope with it however you can. Because of what we’re talking about, and my own experience writing about violence, I worried about your book being just dismissed as a book for men about violence. But, of course, male violence really is a feminist and women’s issue to a large extent—there’s even a quote to that effect on the book’s jacket. I see more reviews about this book and hear more about the book from women than I do from men. And, in fact, in writing it, almost all of my readers were women. I was trying to make sure I was triangulating the direction of it based on their responses. Women so far have been really supportive of what I’ve written about. It was interesting to me that Jane Doe, on the back cover, calls the writing feminist. I’m great with that, but I just tried to outline real things that I saw, and because the book does that, she sees it as feminist because it deals with many of the issues that feminists are concerned with in violent men. It also doesn’t let anyone off the hook, as we’ve discussed. It goes against some idea that because you’re talking about male violence that you’re letting the fire breathe. Or by saying that just because there’s some inherent reality to the emotions behind violence that it’s okay. No way. There’s inherence to alcoholism, but we can still know that it’s bad. That’s why investigating all these variations of violence is useful. Without that, we’re not going to know what is salvageable. I think of Romeo Dallaire’s writing on boy soldiers, who are made violent, and some warlords, whom he considered inhuman, more like the killer in your book. I think we make such strong, understandable condemnations of people who have been violent, that we tend to do this “othering” with violent people, just as some do with their victims. They’re now “that type of guy.” When you do that, you basically throw away the child soldiers in the sense that they’ve also done terrible things. We need to get to an understanding that this kind of violent behaviour can be elicited in most of us, and that much of it is also correctable. There’s a way of being more. I’m not suggesting we go hug a rapist, but if you really want to understand and change people this is necessary. I think everyone in the book, other than the psychopath, didn’t need to be violent, they weren’t innately violent. When you investigate these differences without saying that violence is one monolithic thing, you see where you could actually try to prevent or handle some of it. We’re doing that now. Trying to stop normalizing violent behaviour. Again, we’re not saying give these people a hug and not deal with them. I mean, the rapist in the book is the first to admit this. He actually called me a few weeks ago, after he heard my interview on CTV, and he said, “I thought you spoke about me respectfully, and you still didn’t let me get away with anything. You weren’t suggesting it’s okay that I did what I did. But you still treated me like a human.” Glenn Robitaille from the Penetang mental health centre kept telling me over and over again—kept hammering in, and he’s not a guy to try to hammer something home, he’s a very chill guy—[and] one thing he kept talking about is the relationship between shame and doing really shitty things. You should be ashamed if you killed or raped someone, one hundred percent. But in many of these cases with violent men, they feel shitty about themselves to start with, because they might have suffered abuse or violence in their own life, and it becomes a kind of cycle. That is one of the more complicated issues in dealing with these men. It makes sense to shame and have people feel bad about the things they’ve done. But if they don’t have a way out of that shame they keep going deeper down the rabbit hole. Because it’s either that or die. Sure, but also, say you have some horrible thoughts in your head, in one form or another. If you tell yourself, “I’m a piece of shit. I’m garbage. I’m a monster,” and you can’t be open about your feelings, then, when these thoughts come back, you might go, “Well, I’m a monster. I’m going to go with that.” As opposed to realizing that these are normal issues that most people have, and you have a choice to act on these emotions and instincts. And, even if you’ve chosen to act on them once, you can choose not to later on in your life. It’s like, when you’re in the gym and you’re like, “I can’t lift this”—do you come back another day and make yourself better, or are you just too weak to lift it? If you choose to be weak, you’ll be weak. I hate to use that gym analogy, but there’s something to it. It’s that misconception again that violence comes from a place of strength, but really where it comes from, as I think you’re saying in the book, and what I agree with, is from a place of fear and weakness. It almost always comes from place of fear and weakness and we co-opt that as a form of strength, but it is a shitty form of strength. It’s a really destructive and shitty form of strength.
All of Our Names

My parents’ mysterious aliases were linked to a Jamaican culture I adored. Once I asked after their origins, I learned that every nickname in my family comes with a story.

“Lorna” was the name I knew my mother by. But whenever we found ourselves enveloped in the circle of our boisterous Jamaican family, she became “Newberry.” “Constantine” was the name I knew my father by. But whenever he touched road to link up with his bredgrins, he was met with greetings of “John Hawk reach! John Hawk deh yah!” I was an inquisitive child, but the names “Newberry” and “John Hawk” seemed so firmly established in the fabric of our family that it felt silly to ask where they came from. Nearly all of my family members who were born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada had them, too. I accepted these aliases as part of the Jamaican culture I adored, and didn’t want to ask a question that would highlight yet again that I was a “Canadian kid.”  As it turns out, these aliases are part of a wider Caribbean culture. Through both my on- and offline circles, I’ve shared jokes with other people of Caribbean heritage about a cousin called “Tallman” simply because he was tall, or not realizing that Granny June’s name wasn’t actually June until her funeral. Whether discussing the shock of learning a loved one’s real name, the confusion of trying to decipher a nickname, or laughing at the creativity of the alias bestowed upon a family member, these conversations have always felt very familiar. But few of us knew the origins of the practice itself. Born in the United Kingdom to Grenadian parents, author Shirley Anstis conducted seventy interviews in order to write her book They Call Me…, which uncovers the stories of Caribbean nicknames, also called pet names or family names. “Some nicknames, such as Diggit for a gardener, simply reflect a role in the community,” Anstis has said. “But others, such as Snakehead, might reflect something you can’t change, like the shape of your head, and living with that unkind label is a very different matter.” [[{"fid":"6703321","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"“Anton” walks off into the bush. Beaches, lagoons, coves and the Blue Mountains protect this part of the island, known as “Porty”. ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"“Anton” walks off into the bush. Beaches, lagoons, coves and the Blue Mountains protect this part of the island, known as “Porty”. ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"“Anton” walks off into the bush. Beaches, lagoons, coves and the Blue Mountains protect this part of the island, known as “Porty”. ","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Anstis’s book references “an African tradition of real names being secret,” a remnant of ancestral practice that survived the Transatlantic Slave Trade into the Caribbean. Protection of one’s spirit is of utmost importance in African diasporic spiritualities, and naming practices are a vital part of that. In one of my recent online discussions, Twitter user @jamaloahustles shared that nicknames helped to keep children safe from “bad mind”—those who wish harm or call forth evil spirits to wreak havoc on young lives. Names are important for incantation. If a child’s real name was a mystery, it would confuse or elude the negativity that was meant for them. Others called this the act of “duppyfying” loved ones, protecting people of all ages from malevolent spirits. I decided it was time to find the answer to the question I wanted to ask since I was a kid: how did my parents get their nicknames? *  I asked my dad first. He leaned back in his chair, stretched his arms wide then folded them behind his head, and let out a deep chuckle. His Patois hasn’t faded in the three decades that he’s been in Canada, but it seemed to get even thicker as he reminisced. “Well, yuh see, it used to just be Hawk—di ‘John’ come afta,” he began. “When mi young, mi friends call me Hawk ‘cause mi did ‘hawk’ up all di gyal dem,” he laughed. My dad remains a charmer and an infamous ladies’ man whose penchant for wooing women got him in trouble more than once. Vintage photos of him, in his slim-fitting pants and silk shirts unbuttoned to his navel, chest adorned with gold chains and always with a fresh haircut, told me more stories about him than he ever shared about himself. He kept chuckling as he walked down memory lane, recounting his youth and both the innocent and intentional ways the “Hawk” was activated. Sometimes he didn’t realize a young woman was interested, and his friends would tease him about his naïveté. Other times he might have issued a challenge to a comrade, waiting to see who a young woman would accept a date with, and winning every time. To know that a nickname followed him from the outskirts of Montego Bay to small-town Ontario meant that he was—and in many ways, still is—legendary. [[{"fid":"6703331","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" “Bunny” has lived here his whole life. His siblings have left the island, or moved away from their childhood parish. “Bunny” resists and remains, his bright smile a fixture every time we return.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" “Bunny” has lived here his whole life. His siblings have left the island, or moved away from their childhood parish. “Bunny” resists and remains, his bright smile a fixture every time we return.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":" “Bunny” has lived here his whole life. His siblings have left the island, or moved away from their childhood parish. “Bunny” resists and remains, his bright smile a fixture every time we return.","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] My mother’s story was more heartwarming than hilarious. Where my dad’s nickname was earned over time from a combination of his looks, personality, and reputation, my mom’s was born in the parish of Hanover, Jamaica, just minutes after she was. My mom is the baby of the family. Her eldest sister is old enough to have been her mother, and I was always curious about the age gaps between my mom and aunts. As it turns out, my maternal grandmother had a history of miscarriages among her three live births. Before she got pregnant with my mom, Grandma was told not to test her body again, but she did. The pregnancy with my mother was a smooth one, and when the midwife delivered a healthy, beautifully brown baby girl, she handed her to my Grandpa who said “I finally have a new berry!” At that moment, Mom’s nickname was solidified—and with the migration of my mother and most of her family from Jamaica to Canada, the name travelled too. My aunt is known as “Pansy” because my Grandpa loved the flower. One of her sons, my cousin, is known as “Wayne” because she liked John Wayne. Once I asked, I learned that every nickname in my family comes with a story that taught me something about the recipient, or the donor. Each story either confirmed something I knew about someone, or illuminated something that would likely have gone uncovered without me asking about its genesis. * The stories made me lament the fact that I wasn’t given a nickname of my own. The practice seemed to evaporate with us Canadian-born kids, and part of that loss seems to be related to the fading or shifting of diasporic connections with each generation removed. Elders mentioned various reasons—not thinking it fit the “Canadian way,” or not wanting to “confuse” us or our Canadian friends—but I always felt a bit of envy that I didn’t have an alias to share with my loved ones, and didn’t have a hidden story to tell about myself. [[{"fid":"6703336","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" “Allie” is a burst of colour in this quiet, rural township. When it's not raining, she plays outside with her cousins most of the day. Their playful ruckus can be heard down the street. ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" “Allie” is a burst of colour in this quiet, rural township. When it's not raining, she plays outside with her cousins most of the day. Their playful ruckus can be heard down the street. ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":" “Allie” is a burst of colour in this quiet, rural township. When it's not raining, she plays outside with her cousins most of the day. Their playful ruckus can be heard down the street. ","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] In my own way, I’ve resurrected that practice and joined the assemblage of Caribbean nicknames, albeit with a bit of a remix. “Bee” isn’t the name I was born with. My first name can’t be shortened down into a quick, snappy nickname, but in university, my close friends started calling me by my first initial, B. Adding two e’s to it turned a lone letter into a new name, one that came in handy when I was trying to separate my writing identity from my nine-to-five. And even the people who know my daughter’s real name will default to calling her “Little Magician,” a nickname I came up with while she was still in the womb. Those names were born and maintained out of the same need for protection—mine as a way to keep two different careers from colliding, and hers as a way to create a boundary after being born into this digital era. My decision to share a photo of her on Instagram or write a story about motherhood exposes her to an audience not of her choosing, and it feels like I’m able to keep parts of her sacred when I keep her name to myself. * For all of the people who’ve never known why Auntie Beauty is called Beauty, or who look at funeral programs in confusion, wondering who “Winston” is when they’ve come to lay Grandpa Carlos to rest, you are not alone. You are part of a tradition that shows the creativity and complexity of a people who have used those traits to survive and thrive. Digging to the bottom of these origin stories can open up an entire new world of understanding of our families and the personalities within them, so if you’ve ever been tempted, take my challenge to ask that question today. From the forced migration of my ancestors to the chosen migration of more recent generations, these names and the reasons behind them have endured. Whether we have our own nickname or not, our awareness of them helps to narrow the chasms between who we are and where we come from. On paper I am the child of Lorna and Constantine, but in essence, I am Newberry and John Hawk’s firstborn—and the latter makes much more sense to me. Braggadocio, confidence, style, resilience, and renewal are all pieces of what my elders gave me, and through the artificial names given to them, I’ve come to know more of the truth about myself and where I come from.
Slow Pan

When people ask if we need more queer movies, I think of a boy in a trailer in Kentucky watching two men on screen touch, just for a moment, deciding this is what love looks like.

Here’s how it starts: you spend the first years searching for yourself on-screen, all the time, but you don’t even know what you’re looking for. What that even looks like. But you do know there’s a trailer in Kentucky, where you live. It’s got this heater that’s always broken and a television tucked under some quilts. There is cold. There is snow. It blankets everything in whiteness, indiscriminately. You watch movies, often: black movies, sometimes, or movies that you’d call black now. Sometimes, there are movies where men and women fall in love. Sometimes there’s a wedding or a shooting or some homologation of unruly relatives, hell-bent on corrupting the lives of your televised betrothed. But, mostly, everything is white. And rich. These men and women always make it out of these films unscathed. There’s never any question, no doubt as to where they’re going, and you watch these films with your mother and your father and their friends, knees hunched up in the living room, behind ankles splayed on coffee tables. Then one day it happens. You’re just lying there with your folks and some uncles, lazing through the mendacity of some mid-’90s rom-com when it blasts across your retinas: two men touching. Just for a blip. In jest, probably. Or maybe it’s the gesture of a touch—a touch implied. But, nevertheless, there is static in the room where there wasn’t before. Somewhere behind you there is a cough. A scowl. A muffled curse. And then, the men are gone, the air clears, and the moment passes. The smiling couple returns (happy!). There’s a cheer when they reunite. You don’t know it then, but you feel like something’s shifted. (Even that early? Yes, that early.) So this is what you decide love looks like. * It isn’t like you’d taken the time to do your research, but if you had, you’d have known know you were fucked (or not fucked) from the outset: the representation of queerness in American films—the only ones in your vicinity—was nil. The films and televised specials we’d later deem queer didn’t emerge as viable on-screen narratives in the States until the early ’80s. Of course there was 1972’s That Certain Summer, broadcast a few years after the Stonewall Riots, which was followed by 1985’s An Early Frost (about a gay lawyer with AIDS), and 1993’s And the Band Played On—but each of these works ended in despair, accommodating what the American public deemed the “acceptable” queer trajectory at the time. Those onscreen depictions of queerness were restricted to a certain single strain of desirability: there are no people of color at the forefront, let alone anyone who looked like you. And in those works that donned queer characters without being explicitly queer, the range of their representation was circumspect: their gayness was so firmly tucked into wealth, or so thoroughly and irremediably without, that their queerness is treated as the result of their maladies, rather than a fact of their existence. Both experiences exist, obviously, but in these works there was no middle ground. Queerness was either so wildly privileged, or so parallel to pain, that the actual queerness was muted either way. * But eventually, you and your people move to the South. Your new spot’s got two stories. There’s this yard, with some trees. Many (most) of your neighbors are white; you see that people actually live like this, that it’s not just another thing from the television. Also, surprise: you discover that white folks aren’t always as kind as their ciphers on television. You skirt around new ways of interacting with them, ways where you’ll leave the tiniest indents you can, and one day you walk to a kid’s house for a party and his mother asks you to come in through the backyard, she doesn’t let you follow his other friends through the door. So there’s a lot of new shit going on in your life! But perhaps only one thing that’s immediately relevant: you watch Beautiful Thing. Grab it from the Blockbuster. There are two boys on the box, a little in love with each other, and you’ve only been staring at it for twenty minutes when the attendant, a tall lady, asks if you’d like to give it a try. You tell her you’re not interested, not really, and she gives you this long look. Then she smiles. Tells you it’s great. Highly recommended. Plus, she’ll even give you a discount: she prints out a coupon, and you take it home for free. One of those acts of grace that doesn’t click in your dome until decades later. At this point, you’re all but a latchkey kid, and once you’re home the very first thing you do is tune in. The film stars Glen Berry and Scott Neal. They’re two boys living in some London projects (you didn’t even know Britain had projects, at least not like the ones you’d seen, you’d thought it was all wands and mystery and incantations but it’s the beginning of your education and we’ll chalk this dumbness up to that). They’re also gay. It’s the first time you allow yourself to use that word, even if only abstractly, cryptically. By the middle of the movie, you notice something in these two white boys, and that something is yourself. There, you say, pointing at the screen. You trace your finger across it, following their movement across the frames. Eventually, one boy asks the other if he thinks he’s queer, and his friend says, It doesn’t matter what I think, and you don’t know what to do with that information. You replay it. Watch it again. And then again. And then again. For the next few days, the next few weeks, you hold the scene in your chest like this bright, vibrant blue jay. The gag is, you feel lighter (a rare thing, for a chubby kid like you), and people pick up on it. Your Ma asks if you’ve got a girl or something. Your father asks if you’ve got a girl or something. The kids you’ve conned into keeping you company ask if you’ve got a girl or something. You don’t say that you do, but you don’t rebuke their inquisitions, either. You at least know not to go and do that. Mostly, you grin, cheesing like it couldn’t be anything else. Weeks later, you bring the film back to that Blockbuster. It’s wildly overdue, but the woman who loaned it to you is beaming. She asks if you enjoyed it. You study her face before asserting, It was aight. That’s when she smiles. Asks if you’d like any recommendations. And you say, Whatever, a little too quickly, but beginning to cheese along all the same. * As Wesley Morris has noted, “the national terror of the black sexuality is central to the American blockbuster,” but the terror of black homosexuality is so terrifying, apparently, as to be unfilmable entirely. It reminds you, often, of a joke you’ve heard at your old barbershop: who in the world has the hardest time at the auto shop? A black man. And more difficult than that? A black woman. And even more difficult than that? Two black queers, two faggots. * And then one month, years later, in high school, you’re outed! It’s a whole thing. There are tears. Facebook’s involved. And you’ve read some books by then, some Baldwin and some Foster and the Kushner play and the Monette autobiography. They’re tucked under your mattress like porn. All of them bring you damn near to tears. And, all of a sudden, your very private identity has become very public, very quickly, like you’re in some half-fucked K-Drama, so that the rush of catching yourself somewhere, anywhere, dims. You’d rather not see yourself at all. But even now, you relate everything back to the movies. For example: let’s say, one night, you take a long drive with your father, who doesn’t ask you the thing that both of you are thinking, and that this silence is more potent than any form of dialogue you two could have, and it reminds you of this quiet moment in Tropical Malady, where nothing much happens at all, but everything is happening simultaneously. Let’s say that, a few months later, you leave home for school in the city, which is another way of saying you leave home for three jobs, and you think of Maurice, and his navigation of a whole new world, entirely unfamiliar but familiar all the same. Let’s say that, one night, you’re with this guy (you met in a course on Milton, you were assigned as partners for Paradise Lost, and of course your dumb ass hadn’t read your passages because you were out working the parking lots), and at some point in the night you wake up to find him watching Desert Hearts, crying fat tears into the pillow, and it’s another, what, forty-five minutes before you find yourself bawling beside him. You tie these films back to your life: Mala Noche and Victim and La Cage Aux Folles. And even if you don’t necessarily see yourself (black, middle class-ish, heavy) in these stories, they become the ciphers through which you identify. They become points of reference in your grid. Because when you’re starving, you don’t skimp at whatever you’re offered: you eat. You make toasts out of tap water. You imagine it’s a banquet. * A few years later, someone will ask you why any of this matters. If you know these people—queer folks, gay folks, lesbian folks, trans folks, bi folks—exist in the world, then why bitch about their not being on wax? Why not simply acquiesce to their transparency, the way everyone else deals with their ghosts in our overarching narratives? And it occurs to you that the worst thing you could do to this person in response, the most thorough device, would be to put them in your shoes. * But, before that, there’s the year that doesn’t feel like a year at all, because you find someone that’s looking for these narratives, too. Of course the first date is a film. A re-screening of Happy Together. And this someone doesn’t nod off or close his eyes or shake his head at the silences. He watches. You find yourself bracing for a grimace, someone who groans at the pacing, but this guy is enraptured. Pointing out the details, nudging your elbow. As Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai break down in one another’s arms, you look at the face of the guy beside you, and it’s a face you’ll see from him many times in the future, but you don’t know that yet. It feels like a fucking glitch in the system. But it becomes your thing. Together, you watch more queer movies. Queerer movies. You unfold yourselves into cinema. It’s how you chart the days. Over a pile of pizza boxes, or on a sofa, or through a tangle of knees, or atop hoodies in the backseat of a van, you and this guy watch La Vie D’Adele, you watch My Private Idaho, you watch Girlhood and My Beautiful Laundrette. One night, on this shitty sofa, you watch Weekend, just once, and then once again the morning afterwards, and it shifts your respective axes. Another day won’t pass where you don’t think about the film, and the indubitable conflagration of chance and geography. When you see Tom Cullen come out to Chris New, as a fly on the fourth wall, it feels like you’re observing an Olympic feat, the highest you’ve ever seen anyone leap. You’ll watch it for the rest of your time with this boy, and then, when he’s gone, you’ll watch it even more frequently afterwards. You’ll think about it with the partners that follow. You’ll think about it through first dates, new apartments. It is you and him or you and them but also Tom Cullen and Chris New on that mattress. You’ll think about the way the light played across the camera when you wake up in the morning, comparing and contrasting. * It occurs to you that, at its peak, this is what representation can do. Representation can wreak havoc. It chips through the stone. * Eventually, years later still, you find yourself taking to pubs. There’s one in particular that gets you. The whole joint’s intricately coiffed, with twenty-four-hour playback of glam videos circling the premises. The bartender you talk to most often is short and stocky, with a heavy accent, and one night after you’ve called out for a refajo, he gently cocks his head your way. Mostly, you watch the videos above you. You are regaled with the images of women dancing across their screens. Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears and k.d. lang. The ladies sway between strobes. They dodge the men dancing around them. And an admiration of their grace is a lingua franca between you and everyone else in the bar: you tap your feet to it. Every now and again, someone nods. They’ll raise their drink and you’ll raise yours in turn. Once, you ask your bartender how they choose the videos that they do. We know when we see them, he says. I recognize what I’m looking for when I find it. Like porn, you say. No, says your bartender. Like magnetism. We just watch it and we know. You blink at the screen for a little longer before the bartender grabs the remote, switching the channel to a rugby match. It’s being played in Britain, although neither team is from there. The two of you sit with your cheeks in your palms, drinking, because this is a sort of queerness, too. * And then one day, you’re on a plane, the sort of transcontinental flight whose length has motherfuckers reaching for their Benadryl. You are headed to Ontario, from Tokyo, in order to connect to Houston, and the guy you’ve been plopped next to is sleepy, in a baby blue button down. He’s young in the face. You glance at his hands for a better gauge. Turns out he’s spent the last two months visiting family in Hong Kong. Dude hasn’t seen them in fifteen years, so you ask him what that’s like, and he laughs, and says he doesn’t know yet. He says he’ll talk it over with his partner in Toronto. Your neighbor says, He and I have been together for fifteen years—and when he says he, this guy braces, just a little, for your response. You think: here is this man, traveling so far to return home. And here you are, returning home from so far away. You yourself left your own family to figure something out, and here is someone who’s done that and gotten his answer. This is what that looks like. Eventually, you fall asleep beside your neighbor. You wake up drooling on his shoulder. When you apologize, embarrassed as fuck, he smiles and says he hopes you’d do the same thing for him. On his tablet, he’s watching Carol. You two watch the movie in silence, for a while, before he asks if you’d like to borrow an earphone. At first, you politely decline. But then you change your mind. An hour later, when your flight attendant passes through the aisle, handing you your sencha and this man his water, he whispers that he loves this movie, and although you barely hear him, the both of you smile way too wide. * Lately, there are so many mirrors. Right out in the open. There are the works of Xavier Dolan. There’s the gay boy from Riverdale, cruising through the forest. There’s the gay couple navigating life in and adjacent to law school in How to Get Away With Murder (one of whom is poz). There is a queer black woman on Black Lightning, a nurse who moonlights by tossing villains, throwing them at her feet. You talk about these characters with friends—straight friends—IRL, and not on message boards or through thrice-veiled allusions with strangers twice your age. It always shocks the hell out of you. * But, sometimes, shit comes full-circle. One day, you’re sitting in the living room with your family—think the roomful of kin in Kentucky, all of them crowded around the screen—and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, two black dudes flash across the screen. It’s a clip from Moonlight, featuring Chiron and Kevin, and the two men aren’t touching, not really, and then all of a sudden they are. Although it isn’t really all of a sudden, because you knew that they would. Of course you’d know. But the point here is your family. You imagine them shifting behind you, making faces. CTRL + ALT + DELETE-ing the moment from their minds. Or maybe they’ll ask you about it. Or maybe they’ll think nothing of it. Maybe you’ll have to fume at their reaction, flip a chair, fly away. You are not entirely sure which of these outcomes is the worst. But what actually happens is that your mother opens her mouth, and she says that the men on the screen remind her of an acquaintance’s son. A family friend notes the way the light plays across the two men’s faces. Your father says he’s heard about the film, that it’s something he’s been looking forward to seeing. This moment couldn’t have been more than, what, ninety seconds altogether? And yet, it feels like an appropriate bookend. You wonder if that’s all it really is. * The audacity required to ask if we need another gay movie, if we need any more gay movies, transcends thinking altogether. It is a thoughtless question. You only ask it if you’ve seen yourself so ingrained into the culture, into the fabric of the world, that your absence from those seams is unthinkable. You only ask that question if you’ve never been repulsed by yourself, or the idea that anyone like you, anywhere, could be happy. You only ask that question if you don’t know what it means to feel like the only person on the planet. In Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney’s novel about a gay black dude living in Berlin, the narrator touches on the elusiveness of that temporality: “Successful people, people good at life, can look ahead: they’ve been ahead all their lives, even at summer camp. They knew the next school year was coming and their bodies were getting ready for it, while yours was just goofing off and drinking sugar. People can say live in the moment, but the moment was the only thing I was good at. I could make the moment last, stretch it out for days, years, my whole life.” Queer cinema is, in a lot of ways, conjuring that moment. Stretching it. Expanding it. Dissecting the contours, freaking it, and then giving it back. * One day, eventually, you’ll sit in some theatre with your partner, in an advance screening of a comparatively big-budget film about queer boys. It will occur to you that this is a moment you could never have imagined, watching this homosexual coming-of-age story in a room made up almost entirely of queer folks. It is literally science fiction. When they laugh, you laugh, and you all know what it is that you’re laughing at. There’s a sob in the crowd, and you all know why they’re sobbing. When the film ends with a kiss, there’s a cheer from both ends of the theatre, which is followed by applause. Not at the event, necessarily, but at the fact of its actual existence. Of all the shit it took to even get here. Because, now, for what it’s worth, there are so many windows: You see yourself in Being 17, watching a young man transition from bully to friend to annoyance to lover. You see yourself in Esteros, floating on a fishing boat with an old flame with your past. You see yourself in this spa in Koreatown in Spa Night. You see yourself crossing the expanse of India with a childhood friend in Loev. You see yourself negotiating your sexuality in Mexico City in Cuatro Lunas. In God’s Own Country, you see yourself being given the gift of an embrace by a Hungarian worker, and you see his tenderness as he skins the coat of a lamb and places it on the back of the tiniest runt, and you look at this gesture, the same way you’ve looked at all of these gestures, and they do that thing to your chest that these things have never done, that thing you’ve heard these images could do, and it’s as John Birdsall noted: “watching Alec Secareanu's character in God's Own Country skin a dead lamb and make a cloak for a rejected runt, in order to coax acceptance from a ewe is the most hauntingly beautiful queer moment in cinema.” When someone asks you which of these moments is your favorite, you’ll try to describe them all, simultaneously. But it is like trying to conduct an entire symphony with your tongue. The whole thing comes to you in spurts. Movement by movement. Note to note. A reel that shows you what it wants and nothing more than that. You look for the bits that make up your life. You try encompassing the whole thing in a single, slow-moving frame. But you can’t. Sorry. What you say is that you’re still waiting for that one, that it always seems just around the corner.