Hazlitt Magazine

‘The Inexplicable Facets of Living in a Human Body’: An Interview with Emma Bolden

The author of The Tiger and the Cage on writing about her hysterectomy, the absurdities of medical metaphor, and the illness narratives that liberate and limit us.

'Hope is an Elusive Quality': An Interview with John Irving

John Irving on trans heroes, the nature of ghosts, and a career as a worst-case scenario guy.

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Falling In and Out of Love: On Jean-Luc Godard (1930-2022) 

Will there ever be a filmmaker more adamant about emulating the literary canon?

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  I was a fool when I first saw Breathless inside a college classroom in Bombay. At nineteen, I tried to outdo the impudence of Godard’s cop-killing protagonist by promptly dismissing the film as worthless. After the screening I stood up and wondered aloud what was new about the premise of a couple on the run. Indeed, weren’t these childish fantasies of escape, these raffish homages to crime flicks, already passé when the film was made five decades ago? I remember our instructor for that class, a boyishly handsome film school alumnus in his mid-twenties, used to be fussy about attendance. The previous week when he had screened Metropolis—or was it The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?—he probably noticed me slipping out of the room within minutes. After that screening of Breathless, he shot me a withering look and resumed his lecture without acknowledging my comment. In my memory his hair flops over his eyes as he turns his face away, a bit like Jean-Paul Belmondo’s close-ups in the film. At the time his gesture felt like a deliberate slight. Now I realize he was sparing me some embarrassment by not asking me to elaborate. Years later, when I encountered another Godard film, in another country, I understood that his rehashed fantasies of escape were in fact circuitous pledges of commitment. Bruno Forestier, the antihero of Le Petit Soldat, is also on the run: from the French government for avoiding military service during the Algerian War, from the leaders of a right-wing French paramilitary group in Switzerland who doubt his allegiance and recruit him to assassinate an FLN sympathizer, from two FLN agents in Geneva who kidnap Bruno and handcuff him to a shower railing in a bathroom. With Godard, the action often unfolds as a coda, something seemingly conceived halfway through a shot, but his films seldom feel like inert portraits. “The time for action has passed,” Bruno declares in the opening scene. “It’s time now for reflection.” To watch him quote Louis Aragon to his lover, or compare the evening sky in Geneva to a Paul Klee painting, or even stare down a driver during a car chase, is to witness the unravelling of a man who believes that freedom is all about avoiding pursuit, the cascade of niggling thoughts that keep him up at night. In a 1971 essay, Satyajit Ray frankly summed up the experience of watching Godard’s early work: “A cinema of the head and not of the heart, and therefore a cinema of the minority.” Fifty years ago, who could have foreseen how big—and occasionally insufferable—the Godard-loving minority would become? It is impossible to think of the contemporary essay film without his capacious adventures in form: the primacy of editing; the jump cuts; the plotless medley of jokes, anecdotes, literary passages, reportage, video ads and interviews; the dissonance between voiceover and image that we now take for granted. In the 1950s, Godard famously wrote film criticism for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and hung out with fellow pundit and movie fiend François Truffaut at the Cinemathèque in Paris. After a long spell of self-apprenticeship through his twenties, Godard was willing to risk incoherence with his chaotic process and improvised technique. Will there ever be a filmmaker more adamant about emulating the literary canon, or treating scraps of footage as palimpsests? His characters directly address the camera midscene, seldom spill their backstories, but end up providing answers to a version of the Proust questionnaire. With every new project he seemed to amend his working definition of a movie, and often enlisted another director to articulate his ideas onscreen. The great Samuel Fuller appears as himself in Pierrot le Fou and tells the eponymous hero at a dinner party that a film is “like a battleground.” Midway through an impromptu photo session in Le Petit Soldat, Bruno can’t help mansplaining Film Studies 101 to his girlfriend: “Photography is truth. Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” Then there is Jean-Pierre Melville’s unforgettable cameo as an author in Breathless, his delusional desire to “become immortal and then die.” Pierrot le Fou is, to my mind, the most intoxicating of his films, where his neurotic, slightly self-sabotaging ambition is perfectly balanced by a sense of stylized detachment. Pierrot and Marianne—again, a couple on the run—burn down a 1964 Peugeot together in the first thirty minutes, then steal a Ford Galaxie from a gas station only to abandon it in the middle of the sea. They escape to an off-Mediterranean village, where Pierrot spends all his time reading novels, writing in his journal, and cruising around the fields in a bucolic tractor. Marianne, played by Anna Karina, is the more elusive figure in the relationship: one moment she is bringing Pierrot books to read from the local library, the next moment cajoling him to move back to Paris. “We’ve played Jules Verne long enough,” she tells him. “Let’s go back to our gangster movie.” The film lapses into a rushed dénouement, a cocktail of guns, car crashes and deaths that Godard unveils almost as a gag. As in Breathless, the scenes aren’t meant to advance an overarching plot. Much like Bruno in Le Petit Soldat, Pierrot ends up being waterboarded. And yet you’re mesmerized by a couple falling in and out of love, as though you’ve never seen that happen before in a film. Despite the whimsical interludes, and the self-conscious reminders that the audience is watching something fictitious, there are images and moments that seem borrowed straight from the book of Godard’s life. “What upsets me is that life is different from novels,” Marianne confesses to Pierrot at one point. “I wish they were the same—clear, logical, organized.” Much has been written about the Godard-Karina marriage—they started dating shortly after Karina’s appearance in Le Petit Soldat, and divorced before shooting Pierrot le Fou—and how the relationship neatly coincided with a phase of his prolific career. To me, the more revealing dynamic was between Godard and his amigo Truffaut, their prior intimacy (Truffaut wrote the treatment for Breathless and also helped persuade Georges de Beauregard to produce the movie) eclipsed by their spectacular falling-out in a sharp exchange of letters, weeks after the release of Truffaut’s Day for Night in 1976. Godard called the film “dishonest” and his friend “a liar.” Truffaut responded in kind: ”You have never succeeded in loving anyone or in helping anyone, other than by shoving a few banknotes at them . . . Between your interest in the masses and your own narcissism, there’s no room for anything or anyone else.” The two men never patched things up and spared no subsequent occasion to deride each other’s movies. My die was inevitably cast in this auteur war when our instructor in that film class screened The 400 Blows one week after Breathless. I squared Godard’s unorthodoxy with Truffaut’s autobiographical leanings, but deemed the former to be deficient. Truffaut seemed the truer modernist, chasing after the real thing—the pure story, the pure film—while Godard appeared happy to be a commentator, too preoccupied with the artificiality of the medium. I noticed that Godard’s composite style rendered every conversation ironic. His male characters are always half-joking, or speaking in long paragraphs to their lovers. The women, even with their backs turned to the camera, can’t help but wittily spell out the subtext of a scene. Think of the dinner party scene in Pierrot le Fou, where our hero flits from room to room eavesdropping on conversations, and everyone—except for Sam Fuller—is spouting lines from TV commercials. Godard is making an original point, albeit in a ham-fisted way. Who in their right mind would disagree that capitalism has turned us all into consumer bots? When his characters talk about writers, or read aloud passages from novels, they are usually just outlining how Godard wished to be written about. In one scene, Pierrot talks about his ambition of writing a novel that explores “what lies in between people . . . Joyce gave it a try, but it should be possible to do better.” Sure enough, when the critic Pauline Kael reviewed Weekend in 1967, she likened Godard to James Joyce. I had to fail as a filmmaker to appreciate the radicalism of Godard’s sensibility. It was one thing to write a quirky screenplay, as I did at twenty, quite another to shoot the simplest of scenes. Sometime after I first beheld a camera monitor on a shoot—and later, the rushes!—I grew to understand that the hardest part of breaking rules was mastering them after all. I remember watching Day for Night all those years ago, after wasting an evening trying to shoot a putatively easy scene: a man pacing alone on a deserted beach and disappearing, moments later, into the sea. Underneath the affairs and tensions of a movie crew somewhere in the south of France, Truffaut’s masterpiece seemed to be mirroring my struggle, the insanity of obsessing over every detail just to breathe life into a shot. Recently I watched Day for Night again and was struck by its correspondences with Pierrot le Fou. When the director of the crew, played by Truffaut himself, assures his male lead that movies chug along smoothly “like trains in the night,” he is obviously arguing with the notion of a film as a battleground. Before kissing Pierrot for the first time, Marianne quips that she is “in love with a man who wants to drive off a cliff at sixty miles per hour.” And lo, in Day and Night, there is a staged sequence of a car rolling down a cliff that centres the stunt performer often intrinsic to such scenes. Midway through their idyll, Pierrot criticizes Marianne for being uninterested in ideas: “You only like feelings.” Godard would pretty much repeat this accusation in his angry letter to Truffaut. Once upon a time, the two friends had bonded over a shared determination to break every rule, then they were consumed by malice. When Truffaut died in 1984, Godard’s wife, the filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, told him, “Now that he’s dead, no one will protect you.” Godard took too long to grasp that their story had a familiar shape. Years later, in an introduction to a collection of Truffaut’s letters, he wrote, “If we tore each other apart, little by little, it was for fear of being the first to be eaten alive.” The two men were, in their own inimitable way, a couple on the run.   
‘Hope is an Elusive Quality’: An Interview with John Irving

John Irving on trans heroes, the nature of ghosts, and a career as a worst-case scenario guy.

John Irving has rules for ghosts. He almost named his new novel after them. They populate its attics and hotels, torment its characters during sex, and transmit family secrets through dreams. These ghosts are old and young, cruel and playful, loved or unknown. The ghosts, one might say, have rules all their own. But Irving’s most important rule for ghosts is simple: if you see one, call him. He’s still waiting to meet his first. John Irving also has rules for heroes. (He’s met his: his daughter, Eva. As Irving says, "We need more trans woman heroes.") He has made a career of crafting characters who act bravely in the face of harmful convention. In The Last Chairlift (Knopf Canada), the heroes will feel familiar. But there’s reason for that familiarity. The cultural circumstances that make celebrations of trans women, abortion doctors, and anti-war activists so vital have remained as frightening as ever. And so, we have Elliott: another Irving hero, another good Irving step-parent-figure, and most importantly, another trans woman to add to the growing, and as Irving says, necessary, list of queer characters whose movement through literature’s pages can make generations of gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, and two-spirit children “feel less alone.” And that’s exactly what Elliott Barlow does for her stepson, Adam Brewster, the novel’s narrator. Irving is no stranger to the solidarity and refuge provided by a long novel (in The Last Chairlift, characters have books they keep with them in case of emergency), and in this one, which he’s calling his last long novel ever, he pays frequent homage to the large tomes that have kept him, and his characters, company, and in doing so, have allowed them to extend us the same hand. I spoke to John in early October, just before the publication of The Last Chairlift.  John Irving: As you know, from reading me, I do repeat myself. So, you know what you’re in for. Haley Cullingham: I’m ready.   Your characters don’t leave you. They really don’t entirely go away. You recognize how some of my characters come back as other characters. I’ve said this before: there are the things you choose to do as a writer, but then there are the things that seem to choose you. So much of what you write about over time you recognize has an obsessive quality, because they come from obsessions, which are not exactly the same as choices. I think, sometimes, we think of manifesting those obsessions in art as trying to work them out, or purge them, and the vibe I got from this book was more about honouring that there’s a reason we keep being obsessed with these things, and those reasons are good reasons, and it’s because those things are important. Yes. Of course, I think in the case of Adam Brewster, he could not get away from his most supportive and loving extended family if he tried. In other words, he is afforded little privacy, shall we say. And everyone in his extended family knows more about something than he does, and cumulatively they have the effect of knowing more about everything than he does. He’s the slow learner, he’s the one who’s behind. Not to mention, as the only straight guy in his extended family, he’s the slowest one of the bunch. And he’s also, in his queer family, he’s the queer one—queer in the sense of the odd duck, the odd man out. It’s the queer people in his family who are normal. And to the point that Adam is also the most badly behaved, sexually, of all the members of his family. That of course was by design.  To me, it plays to the idea of allyship, and how straight people often commend themselves for it. Especially with Elliott being called “the only hero,” and the repetition of that phrase. It’s so clear that to be welcomed into those queer communities as a straight person, it’s the straight person who’s really getting the favour done for them. That’s exactly what’s going on. As you say, Adam’s very preoccupied with secrets. There are a lot of secrets in the book, but I found that every character was almost joyfully incapable of keeping them. Quite, yes. Everything has been talked about with someone. [Laughs.] Maybe not everyone has been included in the conversation, but some people have already talked about this. This is very true. But that’s what it’s also like to be the youngest person in the family, who, for natural reasons, is the slowest to learn, or the last one to know. Why was that something that you wanted to explore in this book? Well, I think it’s a kind of universal truth of families, but also, in light of the repetitions I mentioned earlier, there is, in what I would call my family saga novels, not only a familiarity of place, of location—the small town of Exeter, either by its real name as it is in this novel, or by a fictional name, which I’ve given it before, but it is Exeter, whether I call it Gravesend, or the Steering Academy, whatever name I give it, it’s the same place. And there’s a familiar premise to this family that repeats itself—namely that of a somewhat mysterious, elusive, evasive mother, not always the same mother, but always a mother who is withholding something, and a missing biological father, or an absent biological father. But from that premise, I think, which is not only autobiographical to me but familiarly repetitious to readers who know me well, from that premise, I think, I tell a different story each time. And the mothers are not the same mother. They may be the same character in terms of what they withhold, but they’re not the same character. All the stepfathers in my novels are good. They’re wonderful stepfathers. I have a wonderful stepfather. But in my estimation, Elliott Barlow is not only different because he transitions to female, he’s also more the hero than all my other stepfathers. Good as they are, I would argue that Mr. Barlow, the snowshoer, is the best one.  The mother character in this novel, Ray, has such a narrative instinct. She has this literary instinct for meddling, and she’s really writing Adam’s life, and her own life. Oh yeah. The thing that may strike many readers as the most admirable thing about her, is her independence from other people’s rules, other people’s morality, her go-it-alone-ness, the fact that everything in this story that happened happens because of what she does and who she is. At the same time, we should, I think, as readers, also learn to not entirely trust her. As much as she may be admirable for her independence, we also know about her that she’s on record for taking that step too far. In her eyes, there’s nothing wrong about the way she has a child with, as she would put it, no strings attached, but the age of that child’s father is more than a little problematic. The age of that child may cause, I hope, people to think, Ooh, what else will she do. However firmly based in wanting to educate Adam her kissing him is, there’s another step that I think most of us would say is too far. By the time we get to what Ray would be—is—capable of, we know that for whatever is lovable or admirable about her, there’s something scary about what she won’t hesitate to do. Setting up a reader’s instinct to fear for a character, or fear what will happen to a character, is similar to also fearing what a character is capable of, I think. And then you have Adam’s older cousin, Nora. You say at the end of the book that something we look for from the people we love is consistency, and Nora feels to me like the most consistent supportive figure in Adam’s life. Absolutely. But we also know that Nora is the most willfully outrageous, is the most purposely inflammatory. We know that Nora can get under someone’s skin. And even her partner, Em, recognizes that Nora will also go too far. A part of loving someone is being afraid for them, so I’m just trying to depict that relationship in a kind of myriad way. A kind of hall of mirrors. I thought the relationship between Em, Nora, and the management of the Gallows, the bar in New York where they perform their stand-up act Two Dykes, One Who Talks, was really interesting. Can you talk about how you see that conflict between an organization that is ostensibly supporting an artist, but also censoring them, manifesting in the wider world? I think that’s a given. Nora is willfully provocative. Clearly this is a historical novel because of how connected it is to actual moments in time, in history, of a sexually political nature. The era of Nora’s kind of out there, on-the-edge comedy, seems to be, as Elliot Barlow even says at an earlier time, in retreat. The world today is far too politically correct and self-censoring and responsive to anyone who is insulted or inflamed by anything to tolerate Two Dykes as written. I’m conscious of looking back at a time that was far more permissive and liberal than contemporary culture has become. To me, I haven’t seen such … “uptightness” is the best word I can think of. I have not sensed such a sexually uptight cultural climate since the 1950s. Is it like the 1950s? No. But is the uptightness similar? Oh yes. Oh, very much so.  Did you see this coming? Well, in the novel, I very much want Em to see it coming. And not only because Em has the outward appearance of meekness, but for much of her time onstage, she doesn’t speak. It was a way of making the most silent or pantomimic character also the most prescient. She sees it coming, she sees the backlash, as it’s referred to. It’s not hard to look at the sexual politics of my birth country and recognize their backwardness and recognize the pushback that will follow everything that was or is progressive. Witness the willful legislations being passed in Republican states by Republican legislators essentially intended to inflict harm and more isolation on young women seeking abortion, or everyone in the LGBTQ community. Look at how many states have passed Republican legislation that bans books on the abortion subject, or on the LGBTQ subject in schools and libraries. To what end? Especially for the LGBTQ community, to make young trans, lesbian, and gay kids feel more isolated and alone than they already are? To take away from them the available literature that could tell them they’re not alone? The intent of that legislation is not only backward, it’s punitive. It’s repressive. Does that make maintaining the queer archive even more essential? Or is it just always essential? Oh gee, how about both? It does seem more essential right now, if not here in Canada, certainly in the US. But I think it’s always essential, isn’t it? The anti-everything, whatever it is, doesn’t go away. Reagan spent more of his presidency, as I point out in the novel, lamenting the existence of Roe v. Wade than he did addressing the AIDS epidemic, which began when his presidency also began. Fact. Moral absenteeism from a Republican president did not begin or end with Donald Trump.  Where does it come from? It is religion? Is it that simple? [Laughs] That’s a good question, especially as it refers to The Last Chairlift. There was a time when I was in the middle of [writing] it, and I thought, I’m going to take a lot of crap here for demonizing the Republicans and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Well, maybe not so much as I thought, when one considers what those Republican justices on the Supreme Court have done. All but one of them who voted to overturn Roe is Catholic, and the one who isn’t Catholic, who describes himself as Episcopalian, was raised Catholic and his mother was a staunch anti-abortion activist who worked in the Reagan administration. What those Republican justices did is more in step with the Vatican than it is with the First Amendment of the US constitution, the part that is quoted ad nauseam in The Last Chairlift: “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That is what those justices did. They have endorsed a papal definition of “right to life.” From conception. That’s what they’ve done. It makes the US look like a theocracy to me. I wanted to talk about the way death moves through the book and Adam’s response to it. It’s interesting, the funerals we get to see, but more interesting the ones we don’t. The problem when you write intentionally plotted and ending-driven novels, as I do, is it’s hard to talk about them without blowing the story, without letting death out of the bag, so to speak. I could not imagine a funeral for [certain characters] that would stand for as much or mean as much as how they lived their lives and how they died. When it comes to talking about Bernard Nathanson, or Cardinal O’Connor, or Cardinal Law, they couldn’t in my estimation have died soon enough! [Laughs] I tried to have as much fun with those funerals as possible. But it also would seem a little misplaced to me, speaking as a non-religious person, who has written a ghost story—I would say that ghosts, for me, for a non-religious person, represent as far as I can credibly venture into the spiritual world. That’s a credibility I’m ready to accept. I’m terribly disappointed that in my own life I’ve never had what I could describe as a verifiable ghost sighting. I’ve tried! But it didn’t work! It didn’t happen to me! But I know, because I know and believe in the rationality and reasonableness of many friends who have had actual ghost sighting experiences, that’s a part of the spiritual world that is credible to me. As [Adam’s parental figure] Molly says, “One way or another, you’re going to see the people you love. One way or another.” She’s the same one who says, “There’s more than one way to love someone, kid.” She’s right on both counts. But that’s not good enough for Adam. He’s seen ghosts he doesn’t care about. And seeing [ones he does] means everything. That’s the way they’re still alive, as Molly would say, in the heart. I would have to say that there’s a predisposition in this novel to offer the ghost in lieu of the religious service. Think how purposely disappointing, for example, [one of the early funerals in the book] is to both Elliott Barlow and to Adam. They hate it. They loved [the person] and they hate the funeral. Well, that’s part of making the same point, right? Let’s stick with the death thing for a second. You do have a thing for characters who know how they’re going to die or take it into their own hands. I know you’ve spent a lot of your work and your life reckoning with that idea of believing in something but not being able to be religious. I’m curious, does that idea of predetermination or prescience, did that grow out of your thinking about faith? I think in my case it’s more of a literary commitment than it is a so-to-speak real-life thing. In my personal life, nothing could upset me more than the loss of someone I love. Nothing in my life has upset me as much as the loss of someone I loved. I live in fear, as many people in a family do, of anything bad happening to the people who are the best things in your life. Perversely, as a part of my devotion to the plot-driven, ending-driven, developed-character, nineteenth-century novel, well, I am a worst-case-scenario guy. And so, I think of, in a novel, what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character I love and I hope the reader will love too, or feel, at least, an emotional investment in? The writer who made me want to be a writer was Charles Dickens, and the intentions of a novel by Charles Dickens were to move a reader emotionally, to laughter and to tears, more than to persuade a reader intellectually. I feel the same way. It was Great Expectations, which I read at fifteen, that made me want to be a novelist, if I could be a novelist like that. It’s also my intention not to persuade you intellectually but to affect you emotionally. And in an ending-driven story, that ending is most of all, first and foremost, it should be, must be, an emotional pay off. It’s an emotional delivery. Now that’s a theatrical concept. We’re more familiar, I think, in the modern, in the contemporary age, we’re more familiar with recognizing that on the stage than we are with seeing it in the novel. Still, death is a part of that payoff. Adding to the death subject is an element that made this novel my longest novel ever but also contributed very much to the almost-as-long nature of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Last Chairlift are stories told by first-person narrators. I hate writing in the first person. Which is to say, my first choice is always third-person omniscient. Why? Because every story you tell in the first-person voice is going to be longer. If it's already long, it’s going to be a lot longer. Because you have to explain to the reader how that narrator knows what he or she knows. There’s much more exposition in it. If you’re in the third person, you can skip ten or fifteen years. There’s a chapter in The Cider House Rules that is called “Ten or Fifteen Years,” and it begins, “For fifteen years they were a couple.” Period. Which is a way of saying, you don’t need to know what happened for the next fifteen years, it’s okay to step into the story now. It’s a way of saying, fifteen years later, comma. You can’t do that in the first-person voice! Your reader says, what? It’s not authentic. So why choose it then? Well, here’s why: If the overriding purpose of the novel is to move you by the death of loved ones or a loved one, it doesn’t matter how many, one or three or four, it doesn’t matter how many, if the overriding motivation is the emotional impact of what’s going to happen to characters you love, it hurts more if you’re in the point of view of the character who feels it the most. Hence, you’re hearing about Owen Meany from his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, ’cause whatever happens to Owen hurts Johnny more than it hurts you. And we’re hearing about what happens to [characters in The Last Chairlift] from Adam, because it hurts Adam the most. So, you get a bigger emotional bang from that ending you’re setting up. But the cost is, it’s a lot slower getting there. [Laughs.] That’s all. But it is a part of the emotional or theatrical design of an emotional ending. So, it’s there from the beginning for you? You know it’s going to be first person from the beginning? Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s a given. Was there something in particular that inspired the deep physicality of the novel? I think it’s certainly Adam who notices the physicality of the characters in his life. At the comic or pathetic end of the spectrum, his unfortunate girlfriends, but more importantly, the physicality conveyed by Nora and Em, and the physicality of the Snowshoer herself, both as is repeated as a man and as a woman. That’s something you can also illuminate more personally in that first-person voice. The physicality of Owen Meany as a character is also over and over again demonstrated, not just his diminutive size but his suddenness, the quickness with which he moves. That adds to the visual aspect that a first-person narrator can bring to the story, perhaps more noticeably so in this novel because Adam is a screenwriter, and certainly the Loge Peak chapter, the more-than-feature-length film which is the Loge Peak chapter, is extremely visual; and it’s written in screenplay format not only to demonstrate that Adam knows whereof he speaks, but if that Loge Peak chapter were in prose fiction, it would be three times as long. [Laughs] It would have been three times longer if it hadn’t been in screenplay format, so there’s another reason. It feels like, if you’re a person who sees ghosts, you’re going to be obsessed with how people move, and the space they take up. Absolutely, or where they appear. There’s a certain physicality that’s involved by putting Adam, as I do, in an attic, so that even the access to that attic bedroom is itself a physical ordeal. Unless you’re a ghost. [Laughs.] You mentioned Dickens, and the book contains a number of literary references, film references. There’s this idea in the book of revisiting beloved works. These days, are you revisiting more often, or discovering more often? I don’t rewatch a lot of old movies. The older movies that were formative for me, when I was first learning to write a screenplay—it’s interesting to me, it’s curious to me, that I don’t revisit those films I’ve already seen. I think I’ve gotten what I’m going to get from Bergman. I saw more Bergman films more times than I saw anything of anything, and there was a period of time when I obsessively watched, which included rewatching, westerns. It’s been years since I’ve gone back to any of that, and sometimes when a film is on television, and it’s usually because of my wife or daughter that I even know about it, and they say, “Oh, this is one of your favourite films, don’t you want to see Jules et Jim again?” I think, well, I love it, but no. [Laughs] No, I don’t want to see it again. Every time I go back to Dickens, looking for a specific passage in a specific novel, I know it’s there, I know that my copy will have marked it or highlighted it in some way, I know it’s going to be easy to find. Well, I go back, I find it, I read it, I then read everything in the chapter that precedes it, or follows it, and the next thing I know, I read the whole damn book again. It happens over and over again. And the same thing happens, not with all of Melville, I won’t say with all of Dickens, but it happens with more of Dickens than it does with Melville—the obsession with me is not exclusive to Moby-Dick, but I don’t do a lot of re-reading of the other Melville. But the same thing happens to me with Moby-Dick. I go looking for a particular passage, a particular scene, I find it, I read the beginning of that same chapter, and what happens after, and then I’m hooked again, I’m back to the beginning, I’m starting all over again. So, that does occupy me, or pre-occupy me. It’s not a surprise that in my contemporary reading, in the novels I read that are current or somewhat current, I’m drawn to a combination of some old favourites, like Edmund White. I read everything by Edmund White. And his two most recent novels, A Saint from Texas and A Previous Life, I love his work. I always learn something from Edmund, as long as I’ve known him, and as much as I’ve read everything from him, I look forward to what the next one is. I’m very fond of an Irish writer, John Boyne. Although he makes me envious in the same way that Stephen King makes me envious, because of how prolific he is [laughs]. And he doesn’t always write short novels, either. I mean, The Absolutist is wonderful and short, that’s his historical World War One novel, but two of my favourite novels of his, The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A History of Loneliness, are very long. He’s just very prolific, as is Steve. I’m very fond of Randy Boyagoda, and especially that trilogy of his—I’m dying to see the third book of the trilogy that follows Original Prin and Dante’s Indiana. In Randy’s case, it’s a comic/serious thing. It’s that back and forth that so appeals to me.  I haven’t done a lot of reviewing lately, but I did just recently review the new James Hannaham novel, which is absolutely wonderful, I reviewed that for the New York Times Book Review. In the same way I look at the Snowshoer as my trans woman hero, I gave a hats off congratulation to James Hannaham for having a trans woman hero at this time when a trans woman hero is necessary to have. I loved his new novel. I don’t think it would have been very many years ago that the New York Times might not have reviewed this novel, because of its, for the New York Times, controversial language. Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is the title of the novel, although so typically of the Times, they did say that, in the writing of the review, I was allowed to repeat the title only twice, and at no other time in the review was I allowed to use the “shit” word. [Laughs] So that kind of was business as usual. There was the “all the news that’s fit to print stuff” right in your face again. I thought, oh man, some things just never change. Please! So I naturally found that to be a terrible burden as I was writing the review, because I wanted to say “shit” every other paragraph. [Laughs] But I subscribed to the rules because I thought it was valuable to give Mr. Hannaham a good review. Politics, sexual liberation, sexual freedom, freedom from shame are such a big part of so many of your books. We’ve talked a lot about a lot of things that don’t feel good right now, and that feel very scary right now, and I’m wondering if there’s anything you see around you that gives you hope? I see myself as an ally of women’s rights, which are certainly in my birth country being challenged, and I certainly write ally fiction in support of the LGBTQ community. I think the advocacy for equality, the advocacy for zero intolerance for sexual differences, it’s crucial. It’s a condemnation of humanity, this ongoing cruelty. I use the world cruelty, or the punishing, which is so driven if not by religion by another kind of misplaced moral righteousness, which, as we know too well, historically, can be very immoral. I don’t think it would surprise you, knowing my novels as you do, that I don’t rely a lot on hope. [Laughs] We all have infinite reserves of hope for the people we love, especially when they’re going through a hard time. Alexander Pope, oh god, now almost three centuries ago, Pope was writing in the 1730s. Alexander Pope was quite right to say, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Well, even in me, I suppose. [Laughs] But I can’t find a concrete place to locate it right now. I do, not in my life as a member of a family but seven days a week for eight hours a day when I’m writing, I am in the make-believe business. I make up characters and their stories for more of my waking hours than I interact or spend in the real world. The fictional world comes with its own liabilities. You know best at any given moment in time, you are most intimate with those characters and often endings you are imagining, but living with, for five or six or more years, and not counting the number of years they existed before you took out their story and began to write it. Well, hope is an elusive quality for a worst-case-scenario writer. [Laughs] It’s not something I dwell on, you know?
‘The Inexplicable Facets of Living in a Human Body’: An Interview with Emma Bolden

The author of The Tiger and the Cage on writing about her hysterectomy, the absurdities of medical metaphor, and the illness narratives that liberate and limit us.

“Because we’ve been taught that our stories, that the blood and fear and vomit and pain inside our stories, are unspeakable,” writes Emma Bolden, “some of us don’t speak about them at all.” The Tiger and the Cage: A Memoir of a Body in Crisis (Soft Skull Press)—her first work of prose following several poetry collections—is a resounding testament to the power of putting words to the experiences rendered opaque by society at large. Whether revisiting early experiences of dysautonomia and endometriosis, whose symptoms doctors regularly dismiss as psychosomatic, exploring a burgeoning sense of her asexuality, or recounting a radical hysterectomy that is shadowed with signs of malpractice, Bolden approaches both her memories and the power structures that shaped them with a clarity that often crackles with rage. Bolden and I exchange emails throughout early September, our shared name pinging back and forth over the course of several weeks: “All my best, Emma,” “With great gratitude, Emma,” “Warmly, Emma.” Seeing this profusion of Emmas, I am reminded of a moment in The Tiger and the Cage in which a high school-aged Bolden repeats the name she had at the time, Emily, until its sounds break down and lose meaning. Soon afterwards, she asks a friend to rebaptize her as Emma. It is a brief instance of self-creation, but also an attempt to distance herself from an existence increasingly shaped by both illness and dread. “I was an Emma,” she writes, “and I could pretend that I had never been an Emily, passed out on the floor of the gymnasium’s bathroom.” With The Tiger and the Cage, Bolden seems to be returning to this rebirth, but it’s no longer simply a method of escape. Here, self-construction emerges as a tool for moving deeper into the generative, if painful, constraints of the body and its emotions.  Emma R. Cohen: I’m curious to begin by talking a bit about the generic and formal shifts that came with The Tiger and the Cage. This is your debut memoir, but you have grappled with similar subjects—illness, loss, the relationship between language and pain—in your previous works of poetry. What motivated this move to nonfiction? And what was it like for you to work in a new genre? Emma Bolden: I’ve long been of the Emily Dickinson school when it comes to dealing with difficult subjects: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” It takes me a while to be able to handle the hard stuff—my experience of and feelings about illness, loss, and mourning; what it means to live in a body with chronic pain; what that chronic pain does to one’s life as a whole—in direct language, so I often write poetry about it first. Poetry lets me ease into my feelings, as though the subject is radioactive; poetic language the protective gloves that allow me to handle it. Poetry was the only way I could talk to myself and others about knowing I could only go so much longer without having a hysterectomy and, as a result, that my fertility had a deadline. After my hysterectomy, everything changed. None of my old tactics or techniques worked, and, perhaps as a consequence, I had a tremendously difficult time dealing with my emotions. My mother, very wisely, told me that I had to face what had happened head-on: “You have to go through this,” she told me. “You can’t go around it.” I started to see writing differently. Instead of a construct that allowed me to approach an experience at an angle, I saw the blank page as the only place where I could speak openly about my hysterectomy—a subject that, unfortunately, still feels like a taboo. I’d written nonfiction before, but mostly in the form of lyric essays; I decided to try to write as directly and frankly as I could. And the words just poured out of me. It felt like I’d finally been freed from shame, from a secret I’d just realized I no longer had to keep. Writing in a different genre in a different way felt strange, but it also felt incredibly right—and it felt like the greatest relief, to just be able to say it. It’s moving to hear that the writing process was an unburdening for you in some way, and I’m curious to hear more about other ways that this project might have affected your understanding of illness. In both your poetry and your prose, you discuss the ways that pain and illness can undo a stable sense of self. Early on in The Tiger and the Cage, for instance, you write, “There I am, the person I cannot remember as a person, the person detached from her being, from her body, who no longer lived inside of a story she could understand.” Do you find the linear narrative of memoir to be a way to reinsert some stability, or to access a newly legible story? I often think of memoir as a space of self-construction, but I wonder if that quality takes on greater significance here. To be honest, structure is what I struggled with the most. I worked on this memoir for a very long time—the memoir as a whole for seven years, though there are individual pieces that used to be in essays that are over ten years old. For a year or two, I tried to shape it into the form of a traditional, linear narrative. It was an absolutely necessary step for me because I needed to try to tell the story to myself in a way that made some kind of sense: I needed to know what the facts looked like, lined up that way, almost as if I were performing a clinical examination. However, it absolutely did not work for the story I was trying to tell, mainly because the crux of the story is that it doesn’t make sense. There are too many pieces missing (sometimes literally, as the surgical records for my hysterectomy were missing several key pages) and there are too many moments in which the story folds back on itself and I find myself at the beginning again. My agent, Cassie Mannes Murray, is also a spectacular editor and writer; she suggested that I read Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative—a book that changed the course of my writing life and the way I thought about structure. I realized that there was just no way to convey what happened in a traditional narrative. Instead, the book works more like a fractal: a series of patterns that repeat and repeat at different scales, accreting information and detail as the memoir moves on. I found inspiration in music rather than language: While I was revising the memoir, I listened to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” every day. Immersing myself in music that moved the same way helped me to understand how to structure the memoir, which in turn helped me to understand what I’d been through. My story isn’t one with a beginning, middle, and end; it’s a story of “again, and again, and again.” Seeing my experience through the lens of that structure not only helped me to understand myself, it also helped me to forgive myself: I could see how bewildering my life had been, and I could better understand and accept my frustration and impatience. Do you find that there’s any relationship between the objectifying medical gaze and the process of turning an exacting lens on your own experience when writing? I definitely think there’s a connection between that objectifying medical gaze and the way I had to look at myself and my experience to write this book. Before I could convey what it felt like to live this experience, I had to know the facts of the experience—which were sometimes hard to come by. After my surgical accident, for instance, my doctors gave as little information as possible, so I had to restructure that through talking to my parents and doing research. It’s difficult, too, to take a “just the facts” look at something that’s as emotionally heart-rending as a total hysterectomy, especially one with major complications afterward. I had to look at things in a wholly clinical, objective way in order to accurately describe what happened. Interestingly, this mirrors a lot of my real-life experience with doctors and with using medical language to stand up for myself. Sometimes, proving that I’m looking at something objectively and without emotion has been the only way to get a doctor to believe me. I wanted to make sure I asked you about metaphor. The title of the book is drawn from a moment in which a nurse is attempting to help you visualize your condition by describing your nervous system as a tiger trapped in the cage of your body. And in your poetry, you have explored the tendency of doctors to refer to your body as a house. Even outside of medical contexts, it seems true that the slipperiness of embodied experience requires us to turn towards metaphor, even when those metaphors are unsatisfying, imprecise, or flattening. How do you navigate this situation in your own writing? Do the metaphors used by doctors always feel stale, or are they ever surprising, even useful?  It’s something I think about a lot in all genres, especially when it comes to the body. I’ve realized that what was so infuriating about the metaphor of the body as a house was its implication of emptiness. The metaphor implies that the female body exists solely to house a fetus, and if that doesn’t happen—if the female body is a house for the self and the self only—it is somehow empty and incomplete. As a metaphor, it’s imprecise, but it also views the female body in terms of function, implying that if a female body doesn’t fulfil that function, then it has no purpose. I’m very interested in the fact that doctors so often use metaphors for describing the female body, especially since some of the metaphors are kind of absurd. There’s this whole citrus fruit scale for the size of fibroid tumors—you’re told it’s the size of a lemon, an orange, a grapefruit. I know someone who was told her fibroid was the size of a chicken, which seems especially absurd. On one hand, the fact that doctors so often resort to metaphors intrigues me because it shows that, in some sense, medicine and literature perform similar functions for us: they strive to find a way to explain the inexplicable facets of living in a human body, including suffering, illness, and death. On the other hand, even if the metaphors are horrible, I find them useful because, well, they work as doorways to some terrible jokes. In the memoir, I mention that an emergency room doctor described the cuff (a closure created where the cervix is removed in a total hysterectomy) as a tube sock, which turned into a long-running joke between myself and my best friend. Humour is my number one coping mechanism (besides bad television, which also appears in the memoir), so I’m grateful when a particularly absurd metaphor pops up. That shared, or at least adjacent, function of medicine and literature is so interesting to me—literature seems so much more agile in crafting meaning that isn’t stultifying, and yet we so often turn to medicine for understanding and reassurance.  I was wondering whether there were other texts that you were in conversation with as you were working on The Tiger and the Cage, and especially whether you engaged at all with other illness narratives. I really appreciated that The Tiger and the Cage sidesteps many of the tropes that tend to populate illness narratives—battle metaphors, neatly-packaged lessons learned, straightforward progressions from diagnosis to treatment to cure—and I was curious what your relationship might be to that genre as a whole. I do have a strange relationship to many other illness narratives, particularly those that show a straightforward progression or anything that’s neatly packaged. If there’s anything I learned from my own experience with chronic illness, it’s that it’s anything but neat and straightforward: it’s a mess, and it makes a mess of much of your life. This may have to do with the nature of the illness I’m describing: it takes six to ten years for most people to be definitively diagnosed with endometriosis. I was unofficially diagnosed at thirteen and officially diagnosed at seventeen, so, in a sense, I was lucky. There’s also no cure for endometriosis and no treatment (even a hysterectomy) was especially helpful for me, so that’s another reason why neatly packaged narratives about illness just don’t entirely work for me. I greatly admire writers who approach the subject from various angles and in shattered, lyric forms. Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay, for instance: it’s a series of short, linked lyric essays showing her struggle with a mysterious illness and blood treatments that seem as absolutely brutal as the disease. The book shows so vividly how illness often seems like a recurring loop: “The events that began in 1995 might keep happening to me as long as things can happen to me.” She also does an incredible job conveying how you focus on small things during moments of intense distress: there’s a scene I’ll never forget in which she’s eating French fries during a blood treatment. Maybe a more immediately visible set of interlocutors for your text are the “hysterical” women throughout history that you engage with, such as the patients in Jean-Martin Charcot’s clinic. You’ve drawn on historical material in your poetry as well—I’d love to hear about how you first grew interested in these figures, and what it was like engaging with their archives as you developed your text.  The sections about hysteria were the earliest pieces written and the last to find their way into the book. I hadn’t really heard of hysteria until I was a freshman in college and read Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady and Hystories. The books knocked the breath out of me, both as a person who’d had a physical issue that was the embodiment of mental turmoil (a coughing fit in fifth grade) and as a person whose doctors dismissed some very real physical issues (dysautonomia and endometriosis) as being merely “in my head.” Hysteria kept popping up in my classes: the courses I took on Rilke and Ibsen, as well as a class on “talking cures” in psychology. Another thing that kept popping up: the fact that, Showalter’s work aside, most of these women’s stories were told and controlled by patriarchal institutions. In my drawing class my senior year of college, I did a series of drawings based on the photographs of hysterics by Albert Londe, the photographer Jean-Martin Charcot hired to capture images of the women in his clinic. I wanted to help them escape the frame of his photographs, to show them as humans, not as specimens. I’ve kept thinking of them, all of these years, especially with everything I’ve been through with doctors; when I first started writing nonfiction, I returned to their stories, trying to understand what had happened to them, what had been done to them, by writing about the experience of medical treatment from their point of view. I tried, from time to time, to write poems from the point of view of some of Freud’s patients, but they never really went anywhere. The pieces I’d written about hysteria hung around on my hard drive for about ten years, until I was working on a draft of the memoir that just felt incomplete. I returned to those decade-old pieces and realized that they offered me a way of looking at the story, at women’s history, and at medicine that could complete the fractal patterns of the book. I also realized that this part of history, in which women and bodies were expected to perform in certain ways, in which institutions denied women the care they needed as well as agency over their own bodies—that it wasn’t really history, after all. Wouldn’t it be nice if patriarchal medical practices were relegated to the dustbin of history! Maybe this would be a good moment to talk about the role of the “good patient.” I often notice how easy it is for me to slip into this docile role, and how hard it is to unlearn the habit of growing quiet and complacent when faced with a doctor. You grapple with this dynamic repeatedly in your memoir, and I’m curious to hear more about it. Does the fact of writing, the insistence on not remaining quiet (at least after the fact), automatically trouble the expectations we have for patients? And has the practice of writing changed your experience as a patient at all? It’s so, so easy to slip into that docile role, and I wish that I could say that, after everything, I was better about it—and braver about standing up to doctors—than I am. I am better, to a degree, but I still struggle with the dynamic. Writing about my experience gave me more strength when it comes to facing skeptical doctors, simply because I had amassed a pile of evidence that showed that I did have real medical problems, that I had every right to seek medical care, and that I also had every right to find a new doctor after being dismissed. I don’t think those words express just how radical those statements are for me—and for so, so many other women. More than anything, that’s what writing about this has shown me: that medical gaslighting and deferral or refusal of care happens to so many people.  A few weeks ago, I saw a doctor who explained that my MRI and X-rays showed a herniated disc with bone spurs compressing my sciatic nerve along with spinal arthritis—and then informed me that the real source of my pain was emotional damage, since I had a hysterectomy before I married or had children. I was in utter disbelief and cut the appointment short, though I do wish I’d stood up to him more firmly. I tweeted about the incident just to let off steam, and was shocked when the tweet went viral—and that other people, especially female-identifying patients, had responded with their own (horrifying and terrifying) stories. I feel like conversations with this kind of truth-telling—which happen far too rarely—are vitally important, and I’m hopeful that troubling the waters can give people strength. Sometimes, being a good patient means standing up for yourself and finding a practice that offers better care. I’m not surprised that the tweet went viral—it’s infuriating and all too familiar. One of the things I appreciated about your book was its willingness to engage with angry feelings and anger-inducing critiques, without claiming that anger is the only or easiest response to unjust situations. Sometimes getting and staying angry can be challenging! Oh my gosh, yes—it was really important for me to engage with anger in the memoir because it’s such a difficult emotion. I have a hard time with it because I’ve been so conditioned to think of anger as a negative thing and to move immediately to guilt instead, but what I’ve realized is that when properly harnessed, anger can be a constructive force that leads to positive change. You are absolutely right, getting and staying angry can definitely be challenging—and for me, a lot of the time that’s because I have to convince myself that it’s okay for me to feel angry in the first place. If you’re up for it, I’d love to hear what direction you’re moving in next.   I’ve actually been writing a fantasy novel? The question mark is there because that is something I honestly never imagined myself doing, but the start of the story suddenly appeared and then the rest of the story kept coming. It’s an extension of the research about the European witch trials that I did for my first collection of poetry, Maleficae. Those events and ideas—as well as their frightening similarity to present day law and politics—have always been in the back of my mind, and it felt like the right time to return to them, as if I’m finally coming full circle. 
What Does the Sea Sound Like?

On music for floating.

There’s a photo I love of the French documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé on the coast of western France. The year is 1935. Painlevé wears a classic oval-shaped dive mask which completely covers his face—nose, mouth, and all. There’s an oxygen tank slung over his shoulder, a relatively new and novel invention for the time. But it’s his arms that draw your focus. The muscles in his forearm ripple as he grips a massive metal box, leaning backwards to counterbalance the contraption’s immense weight. The box is half as long as Painlevé is tall and contains a crudely waterproofed camera. When people think of underwater documentaries, if they think of such things at all, they probably think of the legendary subaquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau. But Painlevé came first. He was one of the first filmmakers to use underwater footage in a film, and he wanted to depict the minutiae of undersea life as naturally and authentically as possible—right down to his choice of music. Painlevé’s films prompted a simple question: What should the sea sound like? What should a viewer hear when watching kelp forests sway or seahorses fight? It wasn’t something anyone had to consider before, not seriously. Songs about the sea tended to focus on distance, adventure, danger, and longing—on human concerns happening on the surface, not life beneath the waves. But Painlevé wanted his audience to see the ocean as a world like our own; a world of dignified seahorses, stylish crabs, and seductive octopuses, the human condition rendered bubbling and bulbous. He wanted emotion, movement and vibe. Much to the chagrin of scientists, who did not want such things, Painlevé chose jazz. I hadn’t given the question of what the sea should sound like much thought until about a decade ago when I first heard The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a 2002 album from the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. I learned that to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium, organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival thought it would be clever to connect past and present. They wanted to have modern-day musicians score old silent films with new, original work. The musicians would be free to interpret the films however they saw fit. In 2000, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine was tasked with scoring a collection of avant-garde shorts from filmmakers such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger. It went well enough that the festival’s organizers wanted to do it again the following year. They asked Yo La Tengo to score a handful of Painlevé’s early films. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science captures the result. In Yo La Tengo’s interpretation, synthesizers whoosh like water being filtered through mouths and gills. Brushes dance on drums as delicately as fins, while Rhodes piano shimmers like refracted light. Guitars noodle in the distance, drenched in tremolo and reverb on long, looping delays, while creatures jerk, thrust, jitter, flop, flap, wiggle, pulse, and convulse on-screen. The constant thumping of the bass drum evokes the distant churn of the tide as heard from the seafloor, sending seaweed into a slow dance, shuffling side-to-side. At times, notes slide and linger while sonar pings skip like pebbles across a placid surface. At others, there is discord, danger, chaos—the crunch of crustaceans in combat, the crash of cresting waves, a flurry of fuzz, and deep, urgent toms. The whole thing is sublime. It is music for floating, drifting, writing, thinking. But in the depths of my mind lies a dark, terrifying thought: that, increasingly, this is also the soundtrack to a threatened world, a sonic snapshot of a place that no longer exists.  *  The sea, of course, is far from silent. In fact, the fathoms are full of sound: the clicks and whines of dolphins and whales, the low rumble of distant earthquakes, the scrape of tsunamis on the seafloor. There’s the belch of volcanic vents, the breath of glaciers through freeze and thaw, or the mechanical salsa of passing ships. But just because the sounds are there doesn’t mean they’re easy to hear; you can’t stroll the seafloor like you would a forest, and what’s audible from shore isn’t a proxy for life below. The problem has always been accessibility. So, for decades, it’s often fallen to musicians to bring the soundscape of the sea—both real and imagined—to life. In the 1960s, surf rockers ran their jangly guitars through reverb units to create sonic textures that washed over listeners like waves, paired with dark, propulsive picking that spoke to the danger that lurked below. Dub went further, chaining reverb, delays, equalizers, and other effects to "displace time, shift the beat, heighten a mood, [and] suspend a moment,” writes musician and author David Toop in his book Ocean of Sound. As per Toop, the music evokes “the sonar transmit pulses, reverberations and echoes of underwater echo ranging and bioacoustics.” Synthesizers proved especially versatile, with alien tones both eerie and fantastical, equally fit for space and sea, separate sides of the same tape. By this point, even Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon—his longtime collaborator and wife—had abandoned traditional jazz, scoring their 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus with a soundtrack of experimental electronic sounds. Around the same time, popular music had started replacing more traditional orchestral arrangements in film and TV. Underwater documentary was rising in popularity, too—thanks, in no small part, to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Before long, the trajectories of musical experimentation and ocean exploration converged, the ocean as both subject and vibe. One of my favourite artifacts from this era is Sven Libaek’s Inner Space. Libaek composed the music between 1965 and 1974 for a long-running Australian television documentary of the same name that followed the adventures of shark-diving couple Ron and Valerie Taylor. The reissue record label Light in the Attic calls the compilation one of the key entries in the underwater music genre. Another label, Trunk, described Inner Space as “where jazz meets the great white shark, where waltzes meet wildfowl and longboard surfers meet a lively sea of cool flutes and groovy, spacey, moody vibes.” Votary Records calls it “a whirlpool of sublime aquatic jazz exotica.” I can confirm all of those descriptions are apt. But what I love most about Inner Space is the sense of depth and movement infused in some of my favourite arrangements—the soft yet propulsive patter of brushes on the hi-hats, the shimmering tones of reverb-drenched vibraphone, the gurgle of electric organ chords. It’s the slippery sway of the wah-wah and the tremble of a tremolo guitar, fingers flitting across the fretboard like frantic fish, and, best of all, the low, mysterious reediness of the bass flute—urgent and undulating and undeniably cool. I first encountered Libaek’s music on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—both a spoof of and homage to Cousteau’s televised adventures. But whereas the music used by Cousteau feels relatively staid and predictably orchestral, Libaek’s music is stylish and electric; a perfect sonic match for Anderson’s whimsical, impressionist vision of the sea. What I’ve since learned is that Libaek was not operating in a vacuum. By the 1970s, an entire genre of underwater music—or aquatic jazz exotica—had emerged, fuelled by the growing demand for television soundtracks and film scores that might evoke the sea. There’s Italian composer Egisto Macchi’s Fauna Marina, “a set of eleven compositions intended to accompany the images of a hypothetical fish fauna documentary.” There is also Alessandro Alessandroni’s electronic Biologia Marina, Daniele Patucchi’s Men Of The Sea, and Armando Sciascia’s Sea Fantasy. The Sonor Music Editions catalogue has more. The Italians are so well represented in the genre that I recently discovered a sprawling Spotify playlist devoted solely to Italian library music, with no shortage of underwater-themed tracks. Much of it is deeply weird, atmospheric, and experimental; it’s what you might expect from jazz and rock musicians working in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the boundaries between genres collapsing beneath the sonic weight of new technologies and their new sounds. Cousteau famously called the sea “the silent world”—but here were visions of the sea so lush and sonically rich they were practically not of this planet. This was no accident. From Lovecraft to Libaek, there is a rich tradition of alien allusion in our descriptions of the sea. Libaek had already gestured to the similarities between sea and cosmos with the term Inner Space, but he made the connection explicit with his next collection: Solar Flares. Considered a spiritual companion to his ocean work, Solar Flares uses a similar sonic palette, reinforcing the notion of sea as space and space as sea—remote, inhospitable, mysterious, and largely unexplored, but also alive with wonder and the promise of life. Wes Anderson scored much of The Life Aquatic with gentle acoustic covers of Starman-era Bowie by Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge—who appears throughout the film as a bemused, Cousteau-like deckhand, looking out across the endless surface, asking “is there life on Mars?” But of course, we know the sea is not space. It is here, and it is a part of us. And the connection between what happens on land and sea has never been more urgent, more clear. *  In Painlevé’s early days, underwater documentary filmmaking was no easy feat. Sometimes it meant spending hours wading in the shallow coastal waters of Saint Raphaël, gripping his heavy waterproof camera, or draped over the rocks on his stomach, arms half submerged like a diver, frozen mid-entry, camera held fast beneath the waves. And, as recounted in the book Science Is Fiction, this was an improvement on his prior films.  Before the invention of the Fernez-Le Prieur breathing apparatus, Painlevé had to be tethered to a boat and fed air through a hose. He resurfaced often—to replace the camera’s film, which could only capture a few seconds at a time, and to curse the boat’s crew for pumping either too much air or not enough. When it wasn’t feasible to record his critters underwater, Painlevé would instead try to recreate their natural environments in a tank—with oft-disastrous results. While attempting to film male seahorses giving birth in tanks in his Paris studio, their enormous glass aquariums shattered twice under the intense heat of the lights needed for high-speed filming. The sudden gush of seawater sent crew members flying and corroded spare camera parts. Another time, an octopus escaped its tank, fled the studio, and made it to an embankment next door, startling hapless bathers. During a trip to Brittany, the most northwestern point of France, Painlevé and crew lugged an incredible amount of gear in the back of a truck: two generators, myriad lamps, a microscope, and of course, containers to hold his actors. It was a disaster. Glassware smashed. Equipment melted. The truck broke down. They overloaded their lights with electrical current, broke one of the generators, and even set fire to a fireproof screen. Sand blew everywhere, into everything, wreaking havoc on animals and instruments alike.  But the Fernez-Le Prieur was so freeing that Painlevé imagined one day building an underwater studio—a place where he might float with ease in perfect conditions, able to visit his subjects at home at last. Though he died in 1989, I wonder what he might have made of something like the BBC’s Blue Planet II. To me, it feels closest to the vision Painlevé had in mind. Filmmakers for the 2017 series spent more than six thousand hours capturing underwater footage, going to depths and extremes Painlevé could have only dreamed. They piloted submersibles, used remotely operated vehicles, shot with cutting-edge cameras designed to capture the most exquisite of details in ultra-low light. The quality is remarkable, resplendent, a hallucinogenic smear of texture and colour. Viewed like this, I tend to think of the sea as an alien place; all those tentacles, those ghostly pools of brine. It hardly seems real. And then there’s the music: grand, sweeping, orchestral, dramatic. It has all the style and substance of a big-budget film score—not bad per se, but comfortable and familiar—which made sense once I realized prolific Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer was involved. It reminded me, at least conceptually, of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which also paired seascapes with orchestral scores—soundtracks for the sea, but not exactly of it. Which brings me back to Painlevé’s early question: what should the sea sound like, then? The sounds I find the most compelling in Blue Planet II are also the most fleeting; they don’t come from horns or strings, but from dolphins and shrimp. The truth, I think, is as radical as it is simple: the sea should sound exactly as it sounds.  * If you asked me to describe the sound of shrimp, I would say: like raindrops in a puddle, the crackling of a log fire, like branches snapping, or the electromagnetic morse code of cellphone data passing through a speaker. This, to me, is how shrimp sound on Jana Winderen’s 2009 composition “The Noisiest Guys on the Planet.” Winderen is a Norwegian artist who mainly works with field recordings of underwater sound. Over more than a decade, Winderen has captured the sounds of fish, melting ice, whales, shrimp, and the inescapable noises of human activity that seep into even our deepest underwater soundscapes. What I love about Winderen’s work is that it doesn’t merely evoke the ocean; it is the ocean. In the right place, with the right equipment, it’s startling just how much you can hear. Winderen’s main tool is the hydrophone—an extremely sensitive underwater microphone that converts pressure changes into sounds we can hear—and she often deploys three or four at once, dangling them from cables at different depths. The resulting works are both a reminder and a provocation—that the sea is not silent, that there is so much for us to hear, and that what we can hear is not necessarily healthy. Speaking on the BBC podcast Between the Ears in an episode about her practice, Winderen says there is almost always engine noise present in her recordings. Shipping traffic, seismic testing, even vibrations from land—“from the first moment where I put a hydrophone in the water, you immediately start to hear human-created sounds,” she says. The types of creatures she can hear, the sounds they make, the sounds we make—all of it reflects how the thrum of human activity has irreparably changed our planet, and how the consequences of our actions ripple out over time.   Winderen is part of a long lineage of scientists, artists, composers, and musicians who have used hydrophone recordings for decades to surface rarely heard sounds of the sea. The 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale was such a revelation upon its release that it became one of the most popular nature recordings of all time, with more than 125,000 copies sold. Contrary to Cousteau’s The Silent World, advances in hydrophone technology have made field recordings an integral part of underwater documentary film. But Winderen, I think, is in a league of her own. Her recordings are inherently, unmistakably, the sound of climate change, and for Winderen, sound is a way to reorient our relationship to the crisis. “Sound is a more direct, physical presence,” said Winderen on Between the Ears. “An image of an iceberg melting—it is looking very beautiful and will always be at a distance from you, while a sound comes very close and all around you.” Over the years, Winderen has presented many of her works as large-scale sound installations—the kind where sound can wash over listeners like the sea. But thankfully, with a good pair of headphones, you can also listen to many of them at home. Depending on the composition, whales can sound like an orchestra tuning up, haunted bows sliding across a ghostly violin. Evaporation is a cavernous, expansive account of disappearing ice—nearly 20 minutes of deep background rumble and industrial-sounding drone against the foreground’s drips, bubbles and squeals. Energy Field is like a slithering wall of sound, layering wind, waves, and wildlife. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone often sounds like the endless descent of a malevolent elevator—stopping only for clicks, whines, and creaks that punctuate distant, glassy whispers. The sounds in these recordings are utterly, overwhelmingly alive, but it’s impossible not to wonder: for how long? “What Winderen is creating, then, is not just music but—in the idiom of sound art—documents as well,” wrote MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich. “If earlier generations of composers sought simply to replicate a submarine sublime, today’s sound artists hope not just to soak in sound but also to broker ear-opening accounts of human relations with the water around us.” To Helmreich, Winderen’s field recordings are like listening to the vital signs of our oceans—of “soundscapes that harbor evidence of global warming, of sea creatures under stress.”  In that sense, I’ve also started to think of the works of Sven Libaek and Yo La Tengo as documents in their own way—important records of how we used to think about the ocean, creativity caught in amber, reminders of what we stand to lose. To me, listening to the work of Libaek and Yo La Tengo is like listening to the platonic ideal of a healthy ocean, an imagined ocean, the polar opposite of what you can hear in Winderen’s work. As much as I enjoy these albums, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization they do more than merely evoke an exaggerated vision of an uncharted and mysterious sea; they exist as soundtracks to a worldview, an era, an innocence that can no longer exist today. The ocean environments that inspired these works are increasingly threatened. Before long, they may not look so redolent with life. And when that happens, what kind of music will we make instead? Perhaps the sea may start to inspire sounds a lot like the surface—those of shipping and mining and warming and death. “Dialing [into] deployments of sound deleterious to dolphins and whales might reveal a genre of underwater music no one has yet considered: cetacean death metal,” Helmreich writes.  Ironically, I think it’s the surreality of that submarine sublime that keeps me coming back to the music of Libaek and Yo La Tengo. It’s not how the sea actually sounds, but how I hope it would, and maybe again could—healthy, hopeful. The ocean as both subject and vibe. Listen to Matthew's Sea Sounds playlist on Apple Music or Spotify. 
Closing Pandora’s Box

Reckoning with the swift decline of Twitter. 

Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. I first signed up for Twitter in March of 2009. My tech-savvy friend and tourmate DJ Co-op encouraged me to start an account. Already fatigued after migrating from MySpace to Facebook in 2007, I asked him what the point was. Turns out this new website was essentially a micro-blogging application that mimicked Facebook status updates. You could text out a tweet via SMS and it would show up online for all to see. Everyone was talking about what they had for lunch or what they were listening to. Here’s an example of an early tweet by me: [[{"fid":"6708741","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"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]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In the years that went by, I became increasingly addicted to the dopamine rush provided by this app. I started using it as a news aggregator. Breaking news was reported on Twitter at a speed that made going on Facebook feel like waiting for the town crier to shout the day’s comings and goings. Twitter became the perfect place to discuss live events like award shows and sports matches as they happened. Black Twitter seemed to be where every meme on the internet originated. The app unexpectedly became a useful tool for revolutionary dissent and organizing protests. Things that happened on Twitter began to impact the real world. My Twitter account probably contributed to me getting a book deal. I used Twitter to crowdfund hundreds of dollars for the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. Fans who followed me on Twitter once helped me find a vintage jersey of the Edmonton Trappers, my home city’s long defunct AAA baseball team. Lars Ulrich started following me, played my song on his Apple Music radio show, gave me backstage passes to Metallica’s 2017 Toronto show at Rogers Centre and invited me to a private afterparty with a full banquet where I talked at length with his personal pilot about the English Beat.  Still, I’m somewhat relieved to see Twitter decline, if only for my own sanity. When Trump used it liberally during his presidency, there was a simmering sense of unpredictability and chaos for four straight years. He would threaten countries with nuclear war with the same level of nonchalance I might muster to tweet about a really good croissant. After Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated and Flight PS752 was accidentally shot down by Iranian missiles in January 2020, I combed through tweets about a potential World War III and worried for my wife’s relatives in the region. I remember doomscrolling during the early months of the pandemic, following every update on the virus. It’s hard to think of a time in my life when I ever felt worse than when I was doing that. Twitter is the answer to the question, “What if you could know about everything that was happening in the world at once?” What that amounted to was immediate knowledge of every celebrity death and global natural disaster as well as every instance of political malfeasance and interpersonal wrongdoing on the planet, packaged into an addictive format that made it impossible to look away.  Seeing one of your tweets blow up can be intoxicating. A tweet I made earlier this month was seen by literally a million people. Twitter is probably the most efficient tool for the dissemination of information (and disinformation) in the history of mankind. But to quote Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, with a business like this, there's a gnarly downside. Viral tweets brought me media attention and opportunities to write for money. But those same posts have also brought me an outsized tsunami of hate and anger from total strangers who even follow me to other platforms to give me a piece of their mind. Who profited more from one of my viral tweets: me or the platform? Every time I posted about a public event, it got attention, made its way off of the app and became news. News producers were always roving around for content that resonated with people and garnered engagement. I felt obligated to be thoughtful and responsible with my personal platform when all I wanted to do when I first started my account was make jokes about basketball players.  Social media platforms are only as valuable as the people who use them. To paraphrase Nilay Patel in his devastating piece for the Verge, when Elon bought Twitter, he essentially paid $44 billion dollars to buy himself. As Musk becomes more hostile to the authors, journalists, artists and public figures who helped turn Twitter into the internet’s town square, the value of his asset declines with every notable person who leaves. Musk claims that “Twitter usage is at an all-time high lol,” but who are these users? Are they mostly trolls attracted to Twitter’s new thirst for “free speech” that saw instances of the n-word rise by 500% after Elon’s acquisition of the app? Are they flocking to the app to make one of the countless parody accounts that have now inundated the site, one of which caused Eli Lilly’s stock price to tank? Or are they just there to watch the car crash unfold?  Musk’s desperate gambit of convincing people to pay $8 a month for a verification badge was a clear attempt to destabilize the app ahead of the US midterm elections as well as a way to lessen the influence of public figures. But it’s also an idea that only a rich guy would come up with: buying status instead of earning it. If you pay for enough bottles of champagne with sparklers to get brought to your private table at the club, people might start thinking that you’re someone important. Unfortunately, you can’t buy credibility. People who paid for the now-suspended Twitter Blue program have since become an object of ridicule on the app. Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter shows the corrupting influence of capitalism on the web. He fired half of the company’s staff immediately after taking the reins. He came up with the ill-fated $8 verification badge program to increase revenue. Musk is essentially pushing the “freemium” model used by games on the App Store that incentivizes in-app purchases and upgrades that improve your user experience. For that system to become profitable, the free experience has to be made more intolerable. We’ve seen it happen on Facebook and Instagram where organic engagement has been throttled and paying for ads is the only way to reach an audience. There hasn’t been a meaningful update to Facebook’s rickety user experience in years but the app’s advertising infrastructure is possibly the most robust on the internet. It shows you where their priority lies. Damon K’s excellent recent post inspired me to sign up to Mastodon, a competing social media app. I was reluctant when I saw a few folks complaining about it on Twitter, all of whom were verified users with massive followings who had reason to be unreceptive to an alternative. They found it confusing and unintuitive. When you sign up, you pick a home server. From there, you can post on other user’s pages on other servers, which is referred to as “the fediverse.” I haven’t totally gotten the hang of it yet but I do appreciate one of Mastodon’s founding principles: they’re a decentralized network.  As a result, there’s no profit motive. There are no ads. Every server is controlled by someone else. There is no single owner of Mastodon. You can post multiple links on your profile page because no one cares if your followers go elsewhere. Of course, all of this could change with time if the platform grows and somehow gets infiltrated by corporate interest. Mastodon recently attracted one million active monthly users for the first time in light of Musk’s takeover. Twitter has around 237.8 million active users EVERY DAY. Thankfully, Mastodon isn’t trying to be Twitter; it’s aiming for something different. Perhaps the difficult learning curve might lead to something slower and more thoughtful. Maybe I'll be free to talk about what I like there without the looming spectre of going viral hanging over my head. I'm ready to let go of the pressure to produce the content that keeps Elon's investment whirring. I won't be making a big performative post about how I'm leaving Twitter. But I will certainly be more mindful of how much of my intellectual property I use there and definitely how much mental real estate I let the app take up in my mind going forward.
‘The Language of Other Things’: An Interview with Stephanie LaCava

The author of I Fear My Pain Interests You on inevitable doom, writing through absence, and cows. 

How does a character in a Stephanie LaCava novel mourn? When I called her to discuss the release of her second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You (Verso Books), it was a weekend morning for me and the afternoon for her: just a few days since coming from an event in Paris, she was spending some time in London. Jean-Luc Godard had passed away only four days earlier, and on that Saturday a line was snaking all the way around the city for British citizens to view their deceased queen. If the internet can be said to have an atmosphere, then the impulse to pay homage to a great filmmaker was strong in the air; a resistance to an overly nostalgic or conciliatory narrative that tried to erase the monarchy’s endless oppressions, even more so. In between both was that great dissociative distance that comes from viewing life through a pixelated screen. I pictured one of LaCava’s heroines clicking through tweets the way someone stuck in traffic might change the radio station: having given up on relief, she might still find distraction. I Fear My Pain Interests You is the story of Margot Highsmith, a daughter born to two parents with two very different kinds of fame. She has inherited her mother’s generational glamour, and her father’s punk credentials. With this comes a perpetual grief that she is not quite sure how to bear: she never chose to be looked at so intently, the subject of paparazzi photos and scrutiny by obsessive fans, but now that she has the attention, she is also not so sure she would choose to give it up. Half-heartedly courting an acting career while navigating the micromanagement of her grandmother’s guardianship, Margot is dimly aware that she is missing something other people have, besides anonymity. She has a condition called congenital analgesia, meaning she cannot experience physical pain.  This is, as the title suggests, a worrying way to receive someone’s intrigue. As the novel progresses, her affair with an older, more powerful director throws her into a different kind of feeling; her chance encounter with a man in a graveyard (only referred to as “Graves”) begins, after he discovers her diagnosis, to hint at what might be some ulterior motives. Depressed, isolated, and deprived of her own creative outlet, Margot’s plight is tragic, but not without its own perverse sense of comedy: no pain, no fame. LaCava’s first novel was The Superrationals, about missed connections and distant lovers amongst academics and art world workers. A critic, essayist, memoirist, and the founder of an independent publishing house called Small Press, she is intimately familiar with the way lives can contract or expand around the facts of a biography. In both works, LaCava begins her stories in the small circles that congregate around even smaller creative scenes, pulling loose the tight beliefs characters have about their power and what they might deserve, their reaction to or possession of beauty, and the limits of reaching out to people just like them. They cherish style, reject taste, and revere icons. In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, LaCava and I spoke about her process, her artistic associations, and what comes after the end of writing a book. Haley Mlotek: Sometimes it seems that certain themes all rise to the surface at the same time. As I read I Fear My Pain Interests You I was thinking of Crimes of the Future, and how people find themselves linked around a similar idea. When you began working on this novel, were you actively noticing some of those references, or was it more like you found them as you went along? Stephanie LaCava: The book was just what was going on with me at that moment, in my own vortex. It had nothing to do with anything else, but I find it magical and fascinating when it does happen in the culture. My friend got me that shirt from the film— “Surgery Is The New Sex”—it was so crazy that that happened.  But then, there are ideas right under the surface, and a lot of them are political themes coming up at the time. They’re macro themes that are broken down into visual art, music, anything like that, and it just sort of happens because what’s in the air is often what’s happening in our world all over. There are certainly what could be called fashions of literature, where the political climate or cultural obsessions that writers are exploring are easily grouped together. I’ll have to say that that question has attacked me from all angles in ways I didn’t expect. People have tried to ask, like, Are you part of the disassociated feminism thing? And the answer is definitely not, and I explained why. Then they would ask, Are you part of the sad little pretty girl thing? And I would say definitely not, and here’s why. Is it similar to My Year of Rest and Relaxation? Definitely not, and I explained why. It made me realize something about my own writing. Through these questions, I was suddenly able to form my own kind of theory. My book is almost post-all of those, in a sense. It’s definitely not a #MeToo story, it’s not a trauma story—it’s actually the opposite of a trauma story. I mean, again, not on purpose; I wasn’t aware of it as I was writing, but it happens to be the opposite. It’s a story of a woman who is aware of her complicity and aware of the politics underneath wanting to be something better, but she lives in the world that exists as it is. The idea of feeling pain or no pain changes the whole realm of that kind of theoretical discussion. I don’t think I Fear My Pain Interests You fits in with any of them. I think it’s the next thing. How would you define a timeline of those pre- and post-genres that you’re describing? Sometimes I feel like everything is so over-categorized; everything is just made to be contained, whether it fits in or not. But it is true that often one thought or theory follows another. How did you lead yourself to a place you describe, of writing into an era that comes after now? What’s going on with Margot—the voice of the book—is what’s different. Parts of the book are more about spacing, about absence . . . I’m not a literary history expert so I’m not so qualified to say much about what these genres mean, or to enter into a discussion with those kinds of books . . .  There’s something about literature and novels that can feel so daunting! They come with this strange weight. And in English! I’m so interested in works in translation. I sometimes think that my work reads as in translation, even though it’s written in English, if that makes sense. The cadence has more of a French approach to punctuation; and we accept different things as readers when the characters are different, when the symbols are different, for example. I think about all of that, and then I think about what’s not on the page. That’s harder to discuss, but it’s something intuitive, maybe? It could be like reading screenplays, in the idea of the spacing on the page. I’ve been reading a lot of Louise Glück recently, which I hadn’t before. I read this book about a garden throughout the summer. I decided to read essays about writing poetry because I felt like I could learn something about my writing through that. I don’t want poetry, but I’m interested in studies of it—not because I want to try writing poems, but because of the way I want to write prose. I’ve always thought poets write the best prose. Yes. And wanting to learn the language of critiquing poetry . . . I just want to learn the language of other things, like, I don’t know, mountain biking.  Maybe that’s a good way to start talking about your process, and how you find and build your ideas. You’ve spoken before about finding a clipping about congenital analgesia, and how that ended up becoming a fact of Margot’s character in I Fear. How do those early sketches become a story? I found that clipping and I knew I wanted to write a story about it. I wasn’t heavily researching the systems; it was more about the idea of the absence of pain than the actual neurochemistry, although I was interested in the neurochemistry too. I had also always been interested in this idea about love being based on oxytocin, which comes when one orgasms, and what that means for bonding and the realities of falling in love—what is lust, what is real, what is chemical. The specifics of what I wrote were more about wanting it to act as an absurdist, surrealist device. I started there and wanted to see where it would take me. Interestingly, it started with the cows, too. I guess I have a little penchant for cows, too. There’s the Peter Hujar portraits in the inside cover, and obviously the epigraph is “Cows are not sentient beings.” There’s an idea that cows are these creatures that are raised knowing, in many ways, that they are there to suffer. The sadism of the condition comes up throughout the book, what it means to be a creature that’s inevitably doomed but also revered. We’re all so many things, and symbols can mean so many things. I would take notes in these notebooks that my son does watercolours on. I would fill each notebook up, sometimes writing the same thing over and over again, or sometimes I would just sit with it. It’s almost like I keep writing until it becomes this thing, and then the writing process happens super fast. This book was ten years in the making, but it wasn’t ten years being written at my computer. Yes, because so much of writing is that thinking and processing. You’ve also mentioned this concept of absence or space in your finished work. Was there ever a time when you stepped away from this idea for a period, and then had to get yourself back into it? Did time change the writing? To be honest, I probably should do that more. That would be something everyone in my life would tell me to do. But I’m a bit compulsive, and obsessive, so that’s hard for me. I think I just wrote through the absence, if that makes any sense, which is kind of apropos: I wrote the absence. That paradox is just what it is. I kept writing until it was no longer an absence, or it was a deeper absence. A purposeful absence. And you mentioned screenplays—was there any work you did to understand your characters that might not appear on these pages, in the same way we often have to understand a film character by the way they behave rather than what they say? My work is very cinematic, in terms of setting the scene. And I feel like the way I write on the page looks like a screenplay. So much of the book is about what’s left out and withheld, and that’s so much of who Margot is . . . so I can’t tell you. Oh, so it must stay a secret. Well, there is a rich tradition of a woman at the center of a story who will drive you crazy because you can’t tell what she’s thinking. As I was reading I Fear My Pain, I was alternating between the eulogies for Jean-Luc Godard, and thinking about the different ways different audiences romanticize and project onto his images, and the kind of Tumblr user who would have come to Godard through stills of Jean Seberg. For me that goes back to the dissociative feminism thing, the aestheticizing of a certain sort of teen. Everything really does come in cycles, and I am very interested in the ways they become aestheticized. This book is very much that—it fits into these waves of taxonomies. People have said to me before that my work is a bit like being a visual artist on the page; not that literally, but that also doubles over into the idea of Margot being a beautiful cipher as a window into exploring other things. So if there are common aesthetics to your work, let’s say, “beautiful cipher” might be a good phrase to start with. Do you have a theory of or a conscious language for how you would describe what connects your work? For me, it’s very intuitive. I’ve never really tried to give it words, which is funny, because I create in words. But I’ve always left the theorizing to someone else. Can I ask you what you would say it is? Well, I did like beautiful cipher. That’s a good phrase. And I was thinking when I was reading I Fear My Pain Interests You and The Superrationals that there’s a funny fluidity of movement in both your novels—it’s very easy for your characters to get from one place to another, but once they arrive, they’re a little bit stuck. A combination of being in flight and total inertia. The fight-or-flight impulse is very present in my work, and so is dance, and both kind of converge in what you’re saying. A big thing for me, too, is this idea of being passive. Throughout the book there are examples of people who are passive, but full of words to say, and then people who are active, but silent. I think that’s a simple way of me trying to deal with a constant in my life, which is having trouble when people’s words don’t match their actions or when there’s a dissonance between them. There’s this idea that you can almost have justice by logging someone’s words; it’s a very childlike way of looking at the world. And also, how passivity can seem cool, but in the end, passivity is one of the weaker, trashier things one can do in terms of how to live a life. It’s especially a kind of privilege to believe that you can just never move. In the book, no one shows any care for Margot except for Lucy, and Lucy’s care is action. There’s a marked difference in Lucy and every other character that makes it clear she’s a true friend. And speaking of that character and theories of your work, I understand what you mean about how it’s not necessarily for you to say, because sometimes we’re too close to what we do to really see it, and that’s what a reader or a critic is for. I did, at the same time, notice there was some self-referential material in this book . . . Self-deprecating. The opposite. [Laughs] But Lucy’s mother does give Margot a copy of your book, The Superrationals. Yes. So, when you thought of Margot as a character, were you thinking of her as somebody you could encounter who could read your novels in her world? I’m just thinking of it as taking the piss out of myself, basically. There’s a lot of stuff like that throughout the book that people have been noticing—someone called it Easter eggs, which I liked—but I’m not thinking beyond just making jokes about the fact that I’m not self-serious. Right, you leave those little jokes for yourself and for your reader. Do you think of yourself as the kind of writer who writes towards a specific person, either in life or towards a reader? Definitely not. But what I am doing, and this is very honest, is often I’m dealing with emotional pain, and the only way I can get through it is by doing the story. It’s not directed towards anyone. It’s more of an exorcism for me. For me, it was like: I got to survive, and I got to process this thing that happened, I’m going to write this book.  But it’s not like you get it all down and it goes away. I mean, that would be a very shallow place for it to have started. When you’re continually asked smart questions, it makes you look to where it began, a resurgence of certain things. I’m just really, really trying not to get too dark and to start working on the next thing. I feel grateful that I get to do these things so that I can have a job writing, and now I just want to write the next book.
Memories of Oppression: Revisiting a Classic Documentary on Kashmir

Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood.

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Halfway through Sanjay Kak’s 2007 documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), he runs into a retired school teacher living in a village in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir. You’ll never forget the old man’s mellow voice and steady gaze because he betrays no anxiety while speaking of the dead. He rattles off the names of two children killed in the “Indian army blasts” nearby, then the names of three brothers who became gun-wielding militant fighters during a wave of insurgency and were later murdered, one after another. After a while, the old man starts tallying the body count on his fingers. “Forty-two,” he says, “I may have missed a few.” Kak asks him when he started keeping count. “Since 1989,” he replies, “ever since the militancy began.” Forty-two killed in 15 years—and that’s just one village. In Srinagar, the summer capital city, Kak follows a father on the way to his son’s grave. They are in a park that has been repurposed into a burial ground and renamed the martyrs’ graveyard. The father has trouble locating his son’s tombstone. “After a while, one forgets,” he tells Kak. The German essayist Walter Benjamin once quoted Flaubert to the effect that his understanding of politics was bound by a single gesture: “the revolt.” Kak’s films strike me as political in a similar way. They are haunted by the ghosts of revolts past and ongoing; inevitable, perhaps, in a country where the twin tides of majoritarian sentiment and economic progress often gloss over forgotten lives and histories. Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood: what felt like a stoic refusal on the eve of independence in 1947— to be defined by the depredations of colonial rule and the cataclysmic partition of the subcontinent— hardened soon into an automatic reflex. After Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, the upsurge of Hindu supremacy and the rapid erosion of democratic norms can make the years prior seem relatively utopian. But that older idea of freedom, too, was predicated on spells of repression, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir, which was until recently India’s only Muslim-majority state, and where the military crackdown has been brutal and absolute. Intifada is Kak’s word for the clarion call of self-determination that has echoed in Kashmir since 1989, when “old memories of oppression sought out fresh winds of struggle from across the mountains—from Pakistan, Afghanistan, even Palestine.” At the peak of the insurgency, more than thirty thousand armed militants were estimated to be operating inside the state. Last year, a Kashmir police official claimed that the number of active militants in the region was fewer than 200, yet half a million Indian troops still occupy the valley. Kak relates more startling figures—sixty thousand killed between 1989 and 2007, another ten thousand missing—but they seem only partially important to his story. The film lingers because of the cumulative power of its images; the delicacy with which suffering is conveyed without overstraining for the truth. In almost every transition shot, glimpses of the wintry landscape are impaired by a passing army truck or, sometimes, a pair of barbed wires. A soldier stands at gunpoint in the middle of a busy street but appears clueless about what he is supposed to see. A schoolgirl speaks of the time soldiers shot a man outside her house in cold blood and wouldn’t let anyone help for hours. Years after his brother’s murder, a cop recalls fainting at the sight of the body and the trauma of receiving the news while out on duty. Each time I watch Jashn-e-Azadi, I marvel anew at how the documentary inhabits a collective point of view, despite the ways it could have ended up being a personal story. Kak’s parents are Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu community with a different memory of what happened in the valley after 1989. At least one hundred Pandits were killed in the early years of the uprising, and several thousand families fled their homes in the state. Kak grew up away from Kashmir—his father worked in the Indian Army—but he visited relatives every year through the seventies and eighties. In 2003, he went back after fourteen years, apparently because he had promised his daughter they’d go together. The film could very well have been a more intimate saga about a father and daughter travelling back to a lost homeland, or the story of a man coming to terms with the exodus of his community. What we witness instead is a group portrait of a population withering away under military surveillance at the turn of the millennium. Shops are shuttered in Srinagar on the eve of Indian Independence Day; the city’s lanes and alleys are ominously silent. Except for a few desolate-looking policemen humming the national anthem in a market square, you can’t spot a soul walking for miles. Elsewhere, civil rights activists go knocking on doors to record the names of the missing and the dead. Survivors queue up all day long outside psychiatry clinics. Schoolkids are frisked before they can enter a playground. Inside an army base, a regiment leader hands out a few radios to locals and promises desktop computers for the children as long as “you keep talking to us.” Amid reappraisals of prior casualties across the state, no one seems to remember the Pandits and their long exile. The film imaginatively evokes their absence, not through images but with sound. At one point, we hear Kak talking to the Pandit poet Pyare “Hatash” on the phone and asking him to read something aloud. Moments after the poet starts reading from his work—“so brothers, our home is lost…”—the line gets disconnected.  Fifteen years ago, Kak could afford to let a missed connection evoke something ineffable, but the formal choices that made Jashn-e-Azadi a classic—the expository restraint, the cinéma-vérité silences—would perhaps not be feasible today. There is the strident toxicity of Hindu nationalism that renders artistic intricacies vulnerable to manipulation. Besides, a film about contemporary Kashmir would have to reckon with a longer timeline of defining moments. Kashmiri journalists and photographers are routinely harassed and stopped in Indian airports from travelling abroad. Since 2010, the Indian army has been using shotgun pellets to disperse protests in Kashmir, despite countless instances of children being blinded by these pellets. One long August night three years ago, Modi revoked the autonomous statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, imprisoned almost every local political leader, and imposed a crippling lockdown with an internet blackout that partially persists to this day. Just this spring, a paranoid fictional drama called The Kashmir Files claimed that the targeted killings of Pandits were tantamount to a “genocide” and that a cabal of “leftist” college students, journalists and activists had colluded to suppress the truth over decades. Reports of Islamophobic chants and hate speeches at theatre screenings around the country didn’t deter Modi from recommending the movie. The remaining Pandits in the valley complained that the film’s diabolical distortion of history made them feel unsafe. By June, sectarian murders had spiked, and many of them were moving out of Kashmir again.
‘It Awakens Giants That Are Sleeping’: An Interview with Joshua Whitehead

The author of Making Love with the Land on transforming pain into love, entering as a guest into the recesses of literature, and birthing a body of text from a body of experience.

“The land, like the body, teaches us the fundamental rule of ending: that no such thing exists,” Joshua Whitehead writes in “The Pain Eater,” an essay in his new book, Making Love with the Land (Knopf). The book, in many ways, embodies an ending and a beginning, but is a text that writes from the throbbing middle: “the middle of global destruction;” the middle of a grid in a digital world; "from middle point, the belly button and first mouth of origin;” “middle of sîpiy;” of an eating disorder; in the middle of “the nebula of these lands;” “in the middle of the night;” a dance floor; the middle of an opioid crisis; a breakup; an apartment flood. “In the middle of me;” “my middle of nowhere;” which is everywhere. "I know nowhere is an everywhere." This collection positions itself in the center in order to stay with the trouble and alchemise pain into love. Throughout Making Love with the Land, Whitehead traverses vulnerable and diverse subject matter, brilliantly uprooting explicit and implicit violences and personal and collective struggles, carving out a space for seeds of futurity to form. “We need to make our stories animate beings, we need to place them into oratories of history and of futurity. We need to conceptualize our fantastical dreams as very real decolonized futures,” he writes in “My Body is a Hinterland.” What emerges from the process of this imagining is an opening up of urgent space within the recesses and ruptures of life and experience for healing and new connections to inflorescence, for new mountains of relationality to rise. The essays, collectively, are a lesson in how to love what is bad and what is hard, again and again, and a testament to the essential art of care. Here, writing is both cure and poison, language is a vein. Making Love with the Land is about transforming pain into love and about creating connections where there weren’t any before, nurturing pathways of cultural reclamation, a task Whitehead traverses with his stellar gifts of storytelling and poetics, sensually and sensorially birthing difficult subject matter so that the body of the text can access empathy, care, pleasure, forgiveness, tenderness and belonging. “Transformation always begins with the tongue,” he writes in “Me, The Joshua Tree.” And In “The Pain Eater:” “I need to, and must, exist beyond the constriction of Western linguistics.” Making Love with the Land sees Whitehead, then, returning to his cultural and linguistic roots, invoking nêhiyâwewin/the Cree language as a tool of transformation throughout to create and claim new centres, worlds, relations and meanings. As Whitehead describes in “I Own a Body that Wants to Break,” “I think of English as cerebral and nêhiyâwewin as kinetic.” Whitehead’s exploration of nêhiyâwewin allows for new connections and meanings to form: “Words branch into other opportunities, other meanings.” By reclaiming and utilizing nêhiyâwewin, and in illustrating the limitations and restrictions of the English language, Whitehead writes himself into a new vaster world of belonging, an exalted expansion of self, queering language’s borders and creating new meanings to grow and heal inside of in the process. How do we nurture the ties that bind us together, even when those ties hurt? What this collection does is lovingly challenge its readers, inspire us to think in new ways, in and outside of language, of material and immaterial realms, of ownership and binaries, and to open ourselves up to being in good relation. The epigraph of the book reads: “By the way, I forgive you,” a quote from a Brandi Carlile song. This book is about forgiveness. Making Love with the Land invites us to enter as caring guests into the lands and terrains of its text and biostories. These essays remind us that we have a responsibility, as guests, when we enter into other people’s spaces and lands, as well as when we enter the psychic space of books. It asks us to consider that a body of text is birthed from a body of experience. I consider us all lucky to be welcomed as guests into the hinterlands carved out and seeded by Making Love with the Land. I met with Joshua via Zoom two days after the official release of Making Love with the Land. What follows is a slightly edited version of our one-hour long conversation. Ashley Obscura: I would ask you “How are you?” but, I did read your essay “The Pain Eater” and absorbed your musings on how this seemingly casual question can be “a bewildering jab.” How a “simple asking can so easily become a violent undoing,” which I resonated with so much. So, to start things off: What has felt good for you lately? What has brought you joy? Joshua Whitehead: I've just been in a whirlwind here in Toronto. Interview after interview. Which has been really fun, but it's exhausting. At the end of the day, you talk for eight-plus, nine hours. I’m very happy my partner is here with me. A lot of music lately. I've been listening non stop to Maggie Rogers's new album, Surrender. I can’t get enough of it. And also Game of Thrones. I just watched the new episode of House of the Dragon last night and it was so rejuvenating to be back in Westeros. [laughs]. [Laughing] Would you live there, if you could? I feel like I would die very quickly [laughs] but I imagine myself as being among, I guess, the Prince of Roses. It seems like the queerest place to be, in Highgarden. So I would go there. If Making Love with the Land had an aura, what colors and scents would be a part of it? Ooooh, that's a fun question. Its aura… I'm a very obsessive person with colour. Mint is, by far, my favorite colour. My entire house is decorated around it. I feel like the colours I would attribute to Making Love With The Land would be mint in its joyful elements, and then scarlet when it's more personal, more grieving. But its scents... The first scent that comes to mind is the sense and the senses within “Me, The Joshua Tree,” like woven… that kind of sweet, musky smell of summer sweat at the river and, like, wet soil. Yeah, I was gonna say something wet. Apparently all my books are soaking wet for some reason. With Jonny Appleseed everyone was like “There’s so much fluid in it!” [Laughs] Are you a water sign? I’m a Capricorn. Oh, me too! I love Capricorns. I don't act like a cardinal earth. I feel more attributed to a Cancer or Pisces, because I'm very emotional at all times. I love the title that you arrived at with Making Love with the Land. Was this always the title you knew it would be, or is it something that was developed over time? Originally it was Making Love to the Land. But I thought that was too penetrative, too masculine, too much revolving around heterosexuality but, also, topping in queer culture. But the title came to me from Jonny, actually. I keep talking in all of these interviews about how I'm trying to move out of the shadow of Jonny… But then I’m like “The title actually came from Jonny!” Maybe it was Jonny's final gift. He is continually gifting me all these years later. All sorts of things. But, the bear scene in Jonny Appleseed—wherein Jonny's in the mountains and he's having this dream of this bear topping him, and he's placing his hands deeper and deeper into the mud— I remember thinking about that scene when I was starting to conceptualize this as a book. Instead of it being a foray into thinking about my own mental health, that scene kept flashing in my mind. When I was writing it and going back to my old notes of Jonny, one of the lines in that vignette was “making love with the land.” The title came to me from there, and then a lightbulb went off and I thought, I have a book on my hands! The title was the gravitational force of it all. What was the most healing of the essays for you to write? I think they each have a medicinal element, but I would say “Me, The Joshua Tree” was the most healing. You know, it's like the most cliché, overwritten topic: a breakup. I wanted this to be that but not be that because I wanted to show myself and my previous partner—who's a dear, good friend of mine now—and also the readers in the world, that relationships aren’t about ownership or death. And, actually, this comes from something that Lee Maracle taught me, I think in 2019. When I was writing this book and writing “Me, The Joshua Tree” we did this event at the University of Calgary, and she came along with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and she was giving this speech and talking about the late Richard Wagamese at the time. She kind of broke down, and held us all accountable to Richard's death… You know, his hard life and his addiction to alcohol, and told us that we can't afford to abandon one another. And that really drilled into my head and made me think about how we do that in terms of relationships, severed ones, but also in a kind of queer and Indigenous sense. We really can't afford to abandon, unless egregious errors are made, because we as queer folks need that community and if we keep ostracizing ourselves for the sake of the discomfort of how to mend a relationship into a friendship, or not even wanting to do that—I still think we need to be in community at all times. “Me, The Joshua Tree” was probably the most healing for me, overall, as it helped me mend that relationship, helped me transform pain into love, which is the whole thesis of this book. And yeah, it really showed me how, at the core of everything, it's about relationship and kinship versus other attributes like love or sex or desire. Those are just around it. Every strong relationship, at the core of it, is this motoring skeleton that is friendship, and I couldn't afford to forget that. That essay made me cry. I resonated with it so much, especially in regards to the way in which you refuse to use the word “ex.” I wish I would have had this essay to read six years ago when I was going through a truly awful breakup. I remember feeling so disposable, and also thinking about how it was such a reflection of our time, too—the way we use and discard objects constantly and all of these materials and plastics… like we just live in such a disposable society, and that is reflected in our relationships as well. I feel that we all crave feeling more rooted and cared for, especially during breakups. Where did you write Making Love with the Land? Do you have a specific space that you like to write from? Or are you more of a fluid writer who likes to write in different spaces? I'm very erratic in that sense. Most of the book was written in my condo and in the wee hours of the night when I couldn't manage the dam that was all of the stories wanting to come forward. But a great deal was written on road trips through Alberta, specifically the mountains. And, then, “The Pain Eater” was written right up in the mountains in Golden, BC during a kind of retreat. That's where I finessed and finished a lot of the book because the essays weren’t quite done, I felt. And so it's owed a lot to the kind of idyllic scenes of Alberta, which has such a beautiful range of ecosystems, from desert straight to Arctic. The mountains are always a creative hub for me. I finished Jonny in the mountains, and I finished this book in the mountains, just on opposite sides. Mountain goat energy! [Laughing] Capricorn, right? Do you think that writing this book has changed you at all? And if so, how? I think so. What this book really taught me, and what I hope readers take away from it, is the universal elements of it. It's very specific. Again, it's personal. But it's also Cree and queer and Indigenous, and also academic. So I think the lenses of its specificity are pretty niche, but a big part of the ethics of this book was, as I write about in one of the essays, mental health, and SA and having this youth overdose on my desk and opioids... and so what the book taught me was really, as a Capricorn, I'm really good at repressing things [laughs]. And in the stasis of COVID, it really forced me to talk with myself and unearth some of things like sexual assault, and talking frankly and openly about eating disorders. And so I think the greatest lesson I took away from this book was to be truthful to myself. Because, as I was saying, as a Capricorn but also as a writer, I think I've mastered the ability to take things that are perhaps traumatic or joyful even, and immediately catalogue them into story. So learning to be a person first and writer second, I think that's what this book is talking to. There is this transmutation that happens, especially in this book where you're writing about very painful subject matter, but you're transforming it and trying to find the light and love in it. I've always found there's this very powerful and healing alchemy that happens with writing where, if I'm able to get something down into writing that's sending my mind into spirals or twisting my heart into two, it's almost as though I can separate myself from it and overcome it, to an extent. Does that resonate with you in regards to your writing? Is there a release, or a purging when you get something difficult out onto the page? With this book it feels like an exorcism to me, almost. Or a purging, too. In that, you know, we have all these things, like talking about anxiety or depression. It's immaterial but, again, it's really embodied and materially felt. A big ideology of this book was to transform pain into love. To make love to something, it has to be embodied, it has to have a body. And the book does. But, also, to make the immaterial material. And I think this was the transformation of it from pain into love. And, for me, I can hold it, but I can physically and metaphorically put it down and put it away. It allows me to kind of be released from it, but still in relation to it. What have you done to prepare yourself for this book launch cycle? Because I can imagine it takes a lot to promote a book to the scale that you do. And I'm just wondering if you've prepared for it in any way? Have you needed to ground yourself, or is it more that you need expansion during these times? Yeah, talking has been tiring. Also, it’s a lot of mental work and emotional work and spiritual work, too, going into all these interviews. Specifically the quick-paced ones that are like five, ten minutes. Like snap, snap, snap, where you don't get to get into a rhythm. I also knew I should not be alone doing this, so I'm happy my partner’s here to join me, and I have friends and family here in Toronto as well, who I'm trying to make a point to see, at least for dinner in the evenings just to kind of release. But I've also come to know the power of rejection, I think. I’m thinking about it as a generosity and a gifting. And I think we as writers know, but maybe we don't love it, but it's a generative gifting sometimes to be getting those rejection letters for submissions, in that it teaches us to rethink, remodulate, and reconceptualize. And so I've also been using that as a kind of a methodology in these interviews, specifically with the quick ones. Trying to conceptualize “no” and rejection as me letting them know “I'm telling you something so that you can learn something from this, too,” and myself as well. Criticism, too, as a gifting. After reading “Me, the Joshua Tree” I was left reflecting on how you wrote about a manuscript as being an “animate being. Through it, you survey my body, my memory, my spirits, my heart, my emotions.” It made me feel like contemporary publishing is so out of touch with this reality in regards to authors. And how the art of marketing literature can often feel and literally be extractive. You also speak of traditions of storytelling as being a space for conversation and dialogue. As a publisher, I often think about these things and I'm often thinking about how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada to reflect this reality, of writing being such a vulnerable thing. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada? I feel like It's such an important question for us to be asking. Definitely. I can speak for myself. I think there’s a difference between quality and quantity. I think it comes from a tradition of publishing in Canada and the US, that also comes from publishing from the UK—stories of who is writing and what is writing. And I think the idea that we, as people, are so devoid of the work… it's objective rather than subjective. And things we teach in creative writing classes and high school too… not to infuse the self with the work. And I think with who's being published, what’s winning awards, who’s winning awards, who's being recognized, and the new waves of folks that are following in the wake really quickly—and of course need to be there—I think we also need to conceptualize that the whole writing needs to be devoid of the self and writing as a solitary act—like The Old Man and the Sea, like Hemingway, or something—is very much a privileged, white, male, het, cis person and ideology of that which is the canon, right? It's very curated, very selected. It's very strategic. And who's being published and what's being published— I think it’s reflective of the true experience of living as a Canadian who is BIPOC, or queer, or living in a country that's colonized you. Or has disempowered or disenfranchised you. I think that we're getting that kind of truer, ghastly, and kind of profound and profane image of what Canada is, how it treats its peoples. So with that, clearly I can speak for myself, I have to attach my body to the body of text. They are in relation and they feed each other. And I think what I would like to see is for publishers, editors, Q&As and festivals, to recognize the labour that goes into crafting and birthing a body of text from a body of experience, and that they can't be annexed from each other. As much as we are taught to do that, right? To read the text, to pull it apart, is also like a form of autopsy, as I write in Making Love with the Land. So recognizing the cost on the writer, and the expectation of the reader to enter as a guest into the spaces of these recesses. So much of this book made me feel like identity by nature is so blurry and transient, and it's a fallacy to think that we are bound into these little boxes and binaries. And you know, as you explore in this book, this could be related to the very language that we share, English, or perhaps other languages of colonization as well as literary genres. Your art is simply sublime at resisting structures of genre, of gender language, that bind us to limiting identities and modalities of being. But, in essence, I feel that it's also about you insisting on space for nuance and complexity, and especially of wholeness. It's as though Western culture wants us so desperately to be simple, but nothing really is. And I'm wondering if this resonates with you, this concept of trying to arrive at a sense of wholeness? I think you are one hundred percent correct. But I think my concept of wholeness is to be ghastly, ghostly, to be immaterial and, in that, defying and pushing away from all these boundaries of genre in form and tradition. If I’m going to be decolonial and not recognize provinces, territory, national borders and, instead, recognize sovereign Indigenous nations on the land, I also need to do it on the page. So that was my attempt to really defy an outcry against the bordering of genre and form, and how limiting it is to Indigenous writing. But I think to Black and trans writing as well, and the intersections of those. And also—this is something I've learned from folks like Billy-Ray Belcourt— that to be indecipherable and to be untranslatable and to be unrecognizable to the nation-state that is Canada is a radical act of freedom. So I think I was also wanting to maintain, as I write in the book, the idiom of working and being a mirage, where you can't be grasped or held, you're always ephemeral. But there's still a wholeness in being ephemeral like that. It's kind of like being a poltergeist, just to haunt, but also to be whole in a home, too. For those of us who are immersed in literary dialogues around multilingual texts and the ethical issues of othering non-Anglo languages by italicizing or providing translations to those words, it seems obvious why you didn't choose to provide footnotes or translations to the words that you were using in Cree. Is this because you are prioritizing a Cree audience, or is it something else? I was curious how you approached the footnotes and your thoughts around that. There are some footnotes and translations in “Me, The Joshua Tree” because I wanted to leave the door open for that one, because I thought it was one that people would resonate with but also need from me. With “The Geography of Queer Woundings” or various other ones I didn't want to do the translation work because I wanted my readers as guests to the book. Even other Indigenous readers also have to meet me halfway and do some of the work, too, which I'm consistently doing as an academic, as an English speaker, and as a reader—of having to do etymological work of these words to understand their full meaning. So yeah, I wanted readers to have to move through a maze and meet me in the book rather than just having free, unbridled access to every single room of my psyche. There are some keys that you need to earn. So yeah, there’s that expectation of meeting each other. It puts a responsibility onto the reader. Were there any ever any talks about having a glossary in the back? Not particularly. My editor and publisher at Knopf, I think, has been trained so well as Eden Robinson's editor. She was like “I trust you, just go ahead. We don't need to have the translation.” So maybe I just got the luck of the draw being with an editor who didn't mind, and I never had this either with Arsenal Pulp [Press]. But I do have kin and friends who have had complete horrendous battles around having to include glossaries or full on translations, or having to do the dreadful thing of italicizing non-English words. But yeah, I've never had to have that. But I think publishing… I see a change. But there is a history of having to completely other and also de-market and disfigure non-Englishness and non-whiteness, right? I love how this book explores how identities are tied up with different languages. And I'm very curious about the journey you've had back to your ancestral language. As a Mexican-Canadian woman who was not raised speaking Spanish, for my parents thought that it would make it difficult for me to fit in, I often mourn the loss of a part of myself. But this part of myself also comes to life when I begin sounding Spanish words, or when I'm in the presence of Spanish. So for those of us who are not raised speaking the language of our ancestors, learning those lost languages can be such a life-changing experience, and an act of reclaiming ourselves, and it awakens parts of us that have been dormant. At least that's how it's felt for me. I love the ways in which you write about Cree, and how learning this language has given you a larger vocabulary to speak your expansive truth. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey towards learning Cree, and what that means for you, or how it's changed you? Growing up in Manitoba, I definitely heard and grew up in a house that spoke Cree and Anishinaabe, Soto and Michif as well. Specifically, Treaty 1 is such a mix of languages, as a central hub. But, again, it was not something I was privy to. My father, because of the murder of my grandmother, never had access to it and my mother and her mother, because of residential schools and boarding schools, also never had access to it. Life would be so much easier if I could just, like, ring up my aunt or my grandma and be like “Hey, how do you say this?” “Here it is.” Done. Instead, my journey to it has been autodidactic. I had to basically teach myself through lovely Cree dictionaries and, you know, buying textbooks for children. I’m actually having a lot of fun doing mazes and stuff. I’m nostalgic for those. And conversations I've had, when I’m able to, learning with fluent Cree speakers. And so, I think I agree with you one hundred percent in that it awakens giants that are sleeping, worms and bones of something that might have been encased in amber or crystallized, in that sense. With the more and more I learn—I think you can start seeing in each of my books—hopefully one day there will be a whole book just in Cree. That's the end goal. But it's been a long journey, and a difficult journey, but it's been, probably, the most profound one I've been on in that it calls me home, too. And it's also taught me these vernaculars that we use specifically on reservations or in urban reservations. That is the language, it’s in the sound. And I think it's lying there waiting to be awakened. And it's never been a dead or forgotten thing, it's just been forgone. So I think what I'm trying to do is awaken it in myself and do an act of practice of not just thinking about reconciliation but reclaiming, and doing that through language revitalization for myself and hopefully for others. I'm curious if you think it would be appropriate for Canadian settlers to learn our Indigenous languages. What are your thoughts around that? Or do you think that knowledge should specifically be for people who have origins within those roots? I mean, that's a great question. I think… not that I'm doing this [laughs] but I should be, as I learn my own… that we should all be learning the Indigenous languages of any land base that we visit here in North America, or if we’re going abroad, because it teaches you the history of that people, it teaches you the language of people but also their relationships with the land and the rivers around them, and it also teaches you their Indigenous law which, you know, might stop people from being gored by buffalo [laughs]. But yeah, I would definitely love to see that. It's also something I'm hoping to take up, too, as I ground myself more in Cree— to also be learning more about the Blackfoot Confederacy, where I am a guest in Treaty 7. I think it's important. How could you not? It is the original language. Even to know a small semblance of it gives you so much more privy to knowing the full breadth and beauty of that land base, rather than just partaking in the cities and the urban space. A city is a city. They're all similar. What’s beautiful is the surrounding area, right? What was there before. I love the line you wrote in “Writing As a Rupture:” “Orality is an entry point into community” enrichment. I was wondering, what other entry points do you think lead to community enrichment? Beside the language and the stories, I think the biggest one that I've learned and seen is laughter. Humour. Specifically, in Treaty 7, we still have a shared lexicon of joy. And so cracking those little jokes, which sometimes come from drama and from being colonized, opens this little pocket. So I think, for me, I would say that humor and joy has been an everyday practice that I can do for enrichment, in that sense. Where do you find sources of light and luminosity in the world? Where do you draw those sources from? I keep joking with Lynn Henry, my editor, how I think the fifth or sixth book is literally just going to be a musical [laughs]. But music has been a big source of that. And even in the acknowledgments of this book, and in the epigraph, is Brandi Carlile. I continually thank her in the book for always meeting my grief head on. In those moments, to be completely awashed and to drown in lyricism but also in musicality and rhythm, is to be sensorially gone. And it allows me to process and think and remind myself that there is also beauty, even in the raising. And all I have to do, sometimes, is find the motoring noun “that is.” It allows me to be at rest and see myself from an outside vantage point. When do you feel your most free? I love to give my dog a hard time, but when he's in a cuddly mood—and he also loves to watch Homeward Bound, which is the funniest cutest thing—and I’m having a bad day, having this huge German Shepherd curled up laying against me and everything is quiet, and we're just watching a television show together, and everything kind of stops. I think that, to me… it's very freeing. And it's something I have an ease of access to, at least in my home. And the same experience, as I write about in “The Pain Eater,” of being with my niece—and now I have a nephew— just kind of lying in the grass, looking up at the sky and mispronouncing things. This must be what sovereignty feels like, just to have all of these generations cascading through the breath of a stem, the movement of a sternum. Being around kids is such a great feeling. It's just so nice to be around humans who still see the world through fresh eyes. Exactly. Like getting to see through their eyes and hear their laughter, and willfully mispronouncing things, but also having that close range to the imaginative again, and knowing, too, that children and infants also come from elderhood. So they also have this breadth of knowledge that I think sometimes we just disregard as childhood innocence or curiosity. But I still think we have so much to learn, even in their unlanguage, which is a language. Totally. Children seem, in some ways, almost more wise than we are, truly closer to the source. Just listening to and observing them…. There's just so much they can teach us. I'm wondering if you have a favorite flower or tree, or something that you feel very connected to? I do very much love a rose. One of my goals is to see a Joshua tree in real life and go to Joshua Tree National Park. So, I'd say, that is one I'm wildly obsessed with and in love with, because I guess it’s my namesake but, also, the stories they have as being keepers of the desert and waypoints. That just look so mundane and quotidian, but have all of this knowledge, too. Within your book you write about technology and digital culture, especially in “A Geography of Queer Woundings.” If you could have an avatar replace you in the real world, would you? [Laughs] I mean… part of me wants to say yes, but we’ve seen Black Mirror and what can happen … But I think I would. We can thank Donna Haraway for my obsession with cyborgs, with automatons, the digital and virtual in that I think there's a lot of connection that they share—the mechanical, the virtual, and the technologic, and also the natural at the same time. I'm so happy you brought up Donna Haraway. I'm such a big fan of hers, especially Staying with the Trouble. And It's interesting because I was going to share this quote with you at the end of this interview, but I feel like It's appropriate to bring it up now because it really reminded me of the wisdom that I was absorbing from your book, which is a quote of hers: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” But back to technology. We're living in a time where the metaverse is creeping up, virtual reality is becoming a big thing, and artificial intelligence is here. Do these technologies inspire you, or are you more of a critic? I mean, it very much inspires and excites me so long as I’m also horrendously traumatized by Terminator 2. Sarah Connor burning in the playground is in my mind at all times. But I'm very much on board. I just think accessibility becomes a thing. We have Elon Musk building his own private spaceship to fly across and colonize another space. How I try to attribute technology is not to weaponize it and also not to use it as a colonial tool, but to be in relation with it. Because those technologies, these computers that we're using, these headphones, are also made from the land— from silicone in the phone straight to the data chips being mined. I think sometimes what we forget is the cost that it takes to make these, because we can turn a blind eye to the work and extraction that's happening overseas. So I would say, remembering that the cost of technology and building a rocket ship is to deplete the earth. And remember it in a sense that maintains an ethics and protocol of care, the responsibility around it, as well. In “On Ekphrasis and Emphases” you write how “connection is a technology.” I feel that, oftentimes, people think about technology in the sense of being other to us. But I've always felt like technology is ancient, has always been around—like connection, as you write, and also love. What's your concept of technology? As I wrote about it in Making Love with the Land—in thinking about connection as a technology that indigeneity perfected— I think about trickster spider who, in the trickster stories at least of North America, crafted and spun the first world wide web. And, again, this was the world to Indigenous folks of Turtle Island, that had all these kinds of webs of connectivity, connection, kinship, trade routes and peoplehoods crafted all across the land. And so I think about that as… that's a technology. It doesn't have to be mechanical. It doesn't have to be cold or metal. In fact, it can be ephemeral, and it can be emotional and connective like that. So I think some motoring form of survival and a motoring form of resistance, really. To think about connection in that same sense and to not forget that we ourselves, there's a mechanic to us. We ourselves are machines in that sense. Totally. Yeah. Our hearts and all our organs are motors. We are machines, beautiful and natural and slightly cyborg. [Laughing] [Laughing] Thank you, Donna. I was reading your acknowledgements and I was really struck by this line: “I hope everyone can see the invisible labour of being in relation.” For me, it really sums up so much of what I was gifted by reading your book, which is a deeper understanding of what it means to be in relation not only to ourselves, but to each other and to the whole living earth. I think that is also a bit of the heart of the book, right? In thinking about the invisible labour of being in relation, specifically in the pandemic and specifically in COVID and the lockdown. It's kind of like that “how are you?” question, which becomes a huge undertaking. This book—and wanting to think of myself not as a solitary writer or someone who writes in a vacuum, but someone who is amassing and can tell stories through community of all sorts, and always wanting to give—I attribute back to everyone who has helped shape and form this book and me. There is a lot of labour to be in connection with someone that often goes overlooked, beyond the grand gestures of getting a gift or going on a date or taking a selfie and posting it. It's also everyday, small little acts. Sometimes even just checking in, or sometimes even just saying a word, or sending a meme or recommending a song, or even just being in silence side by side… It's a form of labour that needs to be remembered. And also is as grand as any form. And I can't forget that.
Graffiti, Through Grief and Discovery

There was the glimmer of possibility in stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation.

1. In my last semester of college, two Swiss graffiti artists stayed in my living room. They were travelling through the US, couldn’t afford a hostel in New York, and a friend of a friend thought I might be able to host them. My roommate Kyle and I offered our living room to them for $20 a night. They agreed. Kyle and I met Marcel and Julius outside our dorm in mid-February, and were taken aback. I suppose we were expecting to meet versions of ourselves; instead, they were older, tattooed, wore streetwear, spoke the endearing and occasionally poetic English of non-native speakers. Marcel had olive skin, short stubble, a stud earring, and chewed on a disposable dental flosser. Julius was shorter, had flowing blond locks, a crooked, goofy smile and a peach-fuzz-smooth face. They had a quiet but unwavering confidence about them, a clear-eyed gaze that seemed to melt all pretense. In Zurich, they told us, they worked as little as they could at whatever jobs they could find, and with their free time and money wrote graffiti with their crew. They sat for hours, sometimes whole nights, outside train yards, taking note of cameras, heat sensors and security guards, all to later sneak past and vandalize the trains. Julius’s cherubic looks made him their designated getaway driver; the police never suspected him. Marcel was once temporarily banned from the whole country of Italy for vandalism. Kyle, who would later be banned from the whole country of Canada for starting a fire in a national park, seemed impressed—Kyle who had once jumped on the back of a garbage truck and ridden it all the way from Morningside Heights to Staten Island, who had pierced both his ears himself, one with a nail, and had pierced one of mine. Kyle who slept on two carpets instead of a mattress, who had worked as a forest firefighter in Oregon for two summers. The dedication of the Swiss artists was striking to me, especially because, as an illegal art—and as an illegal act—graffiti could not be sold, could not be parlayed into a job, could not be rendered productive. And this was exactly the point to them: it was graffiti’s essential, outlaw uselessness that made it so powerful. It was pure artistic expression, untarnished by the possibility of money. They wrote because they wanted other people to see, graffiti being above all else a public art, and they believed in what it had to say. It said, more than anything, that the law could and should be broken. Each tag, each piece insisted on the possibility of a life outside the law, and this was for them its own directive. Marcel had “BREAK THE LAW” tattooed across his back. They stayed for a week, and I was increasingly drawn to the way they moved through the world. There was a great clarity to their message to go out and vandalize. There was the glimmer of possibility in their stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation. It was simple, creative, uncompromising. They had found a way, they were not paralyzed by the whole fucked up thing; they seemed to slip and dodge effortlessly through it. I wanted to do that too. I wanted their clarity, their confidence, their sense of control over their environment. I was about to finish college, with no plan, no job. I’d be kicked out of our dorm and my friends would disperse. The places and communities I’d known would dissipate, another in a long line of displacements beyond my control.  Kyle and I had gone to high school in London, where we had known some of what Marcel and Julius did—we had broken into an abandoned RAF base, a derelict factory, the London Zoo. But that was years ago, and more and more, I felt again the urgency of that drive again, to BREAK THE LAW. Kyle and I decided not to charge them for staying in our living room. So that they have to be our friends, we said, only half joking. Over the next few days, I tried to hang out with them as much as I could.  At a bar in Harlem one evening, I mentioned an abandoned subway station I’d heard about, only a short distance away at 91st Street and Broadway. They seemed interested, so I found an urban exploration website on my phone and handed it to them. They decided immediately that they would go, right then, and I should join. We called Kyle to see if he wanted to come, but he didn’t pick up. It was not out of character; he was so habitually bad about answering his phone that people often called me to find him. Though I resented being his “secretary,” as I would remind people I was not, I did actually know where he was most of the time. But not tonight.  The three of us went down to the 86th Street station and stood on the platform, looking up the tracks. “What if a train comes?” I asked. “Flatten yourself against the wall,” Marcel told me. “It won’t be comfortable, but you won’t die.” And then we jumped onto the tracks and ran along in the near darkness with our sneakers padding on the rails, the railroad ties and the cables and the rough gravel a blur in the near-complete darkness, our breaths ragged, raw adrenaline pulsing. [[{"fid":"6708691","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"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]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] 2. Before you start to think about graffiti—to really take it seriously—it blends in. It’s just part of the backdrop of city life, like advertisements and concrete, cars and shopfronts. All of it forms a kind of visual noise. But when you start writing it yourself, things change. I began to write in January of 2018, about a year after meeting Marcel and Julius. I had graduated from college and moved back to London, where I was staying with Kyle at his family’s house. He and I started walking around at night, writing on trash cans and phone booths, thinking about everything Marcel and Julius had told us. The first thing I noticed was that the feeling was totally different from that of writing on paper. There was the adrenaline rush of doing something slightly illegal, the possibility of being seen or chased or caught. There was also something deeply cathartic about making letters as big as your head, the unrestrained freedom of moving your whole arm instead of delicate motions with your wrist or your fingers. And more than anything, there was a rare, elusive feeling of power, of being able to write on anything, to vandalize and deface, to make a mark that hundreds if not thousands of people would see, even if it was just a blur in their periphery. To shape the world around you that you otherwise could not control.  The more I wrote, the more the visual noise sifted into something meaningful. I began to develop a kind of literacy in graffiti. It started with the graffiti writer Trip. He tagged a trash can outside Kyle’s house. I took note, and then saw he was in the alleyway to the high street, as well as the utility box at the end of the lane. Then there was Duke, who was down on Finchley Road on some bus stops and a few construction site fences. Then there was the crew NWS, North West Sprayers. Trip wrote it next to his name sometimes, as did Duke and Hate and Yuck. I learned much later that Yuck was Trip’s tag before he was Trip.  NWS were all over the neighbourhood. As I read their writing, I started to feel the prestige of certain busier locations that I was too nervous to write on myself, seeing Trip or Duke had tagged the wall of an intersection with heavy foot traffic or a handrail right outside a tube station. Once I started to really read people’s tags, I began to notice that the streets were constantly changing. Trip and the others seemed to pass regularly up and down Kyle’s street—one night there was nothing, the next night a tag, the next night three, and the next day, the borough council had painted over everything. I felt like the streets were breathing. It jolted me each time a formerly blank wall read “Trip,” to know he’d been there just the night before, that we were walking the same streets, writing on the same things. Kyle started to joke that Trip and I were having a turf war; to play along, I crossed out Trip’s tag and wrote my own. The gesture meant very little to me. London is a large and anonymous city, and it didn’t even occur to me that someone might notice. But the next day, he had crossed out my tag and written his own again. We were talking to each other, directly, on some register I couldn’t quite work out. This was something new, something immediate. I looked around for a place to cross him out again, to find out more. He regularly tagged in Hampstead—but he was also all over Camden, Finchley, Kentish Town, more. I gave up on the cross-out war, clearly outmatched. But it made me realize that people were talking to each other all over. Just as Trip and I had had a short and disdainful conversation on one wall across three days, people were talking to each other over the course of days and weeks and even months, and across neighbourhoods, boroughs, all of London. People were telling each other that they’d been here, that they’d written there, that this or that part of the city could be written on. It was a conversation that you could read or follow like football or the news, seeing who’d been where and when. But you could also take part in it—there was no barrier to entry, no authority who determined if you could write, much less where or what. If people respected your work, they left it, and if they thought it was dumb, they would cross it out or cover it. A piece of graffiti was an act of interpretation, I started to think, a way of understanding the city.  *** I saved up enough to move out of Kyle’s family’s house into a friend’s place. Within a few weeks Kyle stopped talking to me. Nothing I said, over text or through friends, could get him to talk. We had been best friends for ten years, had gone to high school together and had lived together in college. But suddenly, with no explanation, he just disappeared. Kyle, who, when we fostered a cat together our sophomore year, would fall asleep with the cat on his chest—I would come back to our room and find them both snoring. Kyle, who had once stored an avocado pit in the freezer because it was “the best avocado [he’d] ever had” and he wanted to “cryogenically preserve it” until such time as he could plant it. Kyle, who, when I wore my hair in a bun, would pick up every hair tie he found on the pavement or subway platform, offering them to me as earnestly as a cat leaves a dead bird at its owner’s feet. What had I said to him? What had I done to him? What could I say to get him to come back? I sent him long messages apologizing for everything I could think of. He didn’t respond. Then my Uncle George died. I wound up in an empty apartment for two weeks. In the cold grey drizzle of London winter, I felt more loneliness than ever before. I drafted messages to Kyle that I didn’t send, and sent more messages that got no answer. In April, I went to my uncle’s funeral in Atlanta, where the pain and the sudden heat made everything feel like slow motion. In a liquor store, shopping for the wake, my dad fingered a miniature bottle of bourbon, my uncle’s drink of choice. “I was thinking about putting it in his grave,” he said. I nodded. “For the crossing,” I said. He laughed and put it in the cart, and later into the ground with the urn. When I returned to London, the sun had at last begun to break through the greasy film of winter. I blocked all thoughts of Kyle behind a wall of rage. I made new friends. I brought them along to spray some graffiti here and there, but mostly I was just reading it. I moved to Camden then, and noticed one of Trip’s tags on a railway bridge next to the Camden Road Overground station. It was a hangover piece, where a writer hangs over the top of a bridge and sprays upside down on the outside surface. It was sloppy—perhaps one of the first he’d tried to write upside down—but the absence of style pointed to another dimension of the work. I began to wonder how he’d gotten there, how he’d escaped the claustrophobic streets, the choking pollution, the lung cancer and depression. There were other hangovers on the bridge, and so I was sure that there was some kind of route up. Each time I passed the bridge, I tried to imagine how he might have climbed it. The graffiti seemed to defy the city itself, in all its stultifying and immovable weight. I would stand across the street for minutes at a time, just staring at it, trying to figure it out. I started to notice more graffiti above street level, on other train bridges, on rooftops, on high walls and car flyovers. How had those writers gotten there? Soon, wherever I went, I saw less the cold iron-and-brick brutality and more the masked persons climbing nimbly down the crosshatchings of the pilings, sprinting across the gravel, spray-painting the walls; less the steel girders and I-beams, and more the running and jumping and climbing and the thrill of hanging above the bustling road. A well-placed piece of graffiti, I realized, meant that someone had actually been there and written it—which suddenly meant that London, which is covered in graffiti, was way more open than all the CCTV and fences and walls suggested. Here’s how to look at London. Here’s how to live in London. Here I am, the writer says, in this place I can’t be. *** I wanted not just to see London this way, but to live in it. The busy streets and train tracks and cameras still felt too advanced for me, so I began to consider the somewhat calmer and less policed London canals. I decided on a wall across the water from the canal’s footpath, right next to a bridge over which ran Camden Road. The wall was accessible by a small triangle of concrete stretching between the bridge and the wall itself. I puzzled through it in the same way I had Trip’s bridge piece, standing and staring at it for minutes at a time. Finally it hit me that I could get there by boat. I was delighted by this absurd solution, this new way of being in the city. It was like something I would’ve done with Kyle, though I still couldn’t think of him. I convinced two friends to split in with me on an inflatable raft. We went for it a few days later, around midnight some Tuesday in June. The night was calm and the sky was clear. We walked in silence, the rolled-up boat sitting on my shoulder. I felt a wave of adrenaline, and everything felt a little sharper, a little more precise: the crenulations of the bricks and the leaves, the slivers of light reflected in the trash cans and the iron of the fences. On the footpath, about ten minutes downstream from the wall, we pumped the boat to life and dropped it into the water. It landed with a smack. The plastic oars plunged and murmured through the waters, which glinted as sharp and smooth as obsidian in the light from the street lamps. We drifted past a sleeping duck, which awoke in a sputter of wings and flew off down the canal. A creamy moon floated above the tops of the buildings through which we wove. Beneath us was the unknown filth of centuries—shopping carts, phones, knives, bicycles. Sometimes they found unexploded bombs in there, from the Blitz.  We passed below the grubby bridges, heard the cooing of their pigeon tenants. A man on the footpath saw us, with a start, when he was only metres away. Sounds of a party floated down from a balcony. I waved mischievously at the smokers leaning over the railing, but no one noticed. Suddenly, with a last few strokes, the rubbery plastic of the boat’s bow scraped against the ragged bank. I rolled out onto the triangle of concrete, bag of spray cans in hand. Cars sped by above, and the shadow of the bridge swept and jumped across the wall in their headlights. I brushed through knee-high weeds into the light. The cans clinked on the stone as I set them down. For the few minutes, the thick fuzz of air and paint harmonized with the hum of traffic. First a sketch in light paint, then the fill in and finally the thick black outline. Then I dropped back into the boat and pushed us off from the bank with my feet. We slid once more into the darkness. [[{"fid":"6708696","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"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]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]]  3 Days later, I was rushing to work and crossed the bridge that overlooked the piece we’d done by boat. Across the water, a temporary construction wall had been erected to repair the footpath. All across its surface, large and small, in simple, unobtrusive scripts, people had written what looked like “RIP Trip.” I didn’t have time to stop, but I kept looking back, wondering. At lunch, I found the news article. On the morning of June 18th, 2018, three young men were found dead on the train tracks near Loughborough Junction Station in South London. Police found spray cans near their bodies.  They were later identified as graffiti writers Trip, Lover, and Kbag—real names Alberto Fresneda Carrasco, Harrison Scott-Hood, and Jack Gilbert. Alberto—Alby, as his friends and family called him—was nineteen. Harrison—Harry—and Jack were both twenty-three. Their friends and families brought flowers and photos to Loughborough Junction Station, and covered the building in graffiti in their memories. One of their friends created the Instagram account @rip_trip_lover_kbag, which showed their drawings and paintings in notebooks and on walls and on trains. For a while, the streets of London were covered in tags of “RIP Trip Lover Kbag”—much of it from writers who hadn’t known them. Their deaths had been a kind of personal blow to graffiti artists all across London. Banksy himself wrote letters of condolence to each of the families.  I was terribly sad, in ways I couldn’t quite understand. I had known Trip—but only Trip, not Alberto or Alby. I had only known him through his graffiti. I felt again the losses of the last year, and a new loss that was all the more strange and poignant for the fact that I’d never met him, never known what he’d looked like, how old he was, what gender he was. And yet somehow we had talked to each other. In the news articles, I saw pictures of him for the first time. He was a kid. His haircut looked like mine when I was eighteen: long on the top, short on the back and sides. He had friends and a family, and two brothers, like me. He was short and smooth-faced, with a tattoo of Snoopy on his chest. “These many lives Alberto was leading,” his father wrote in an essay for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “I led some of them myself.” I felt, as I read more, that I had led some of them too. When Trip was twelve, he and his family moved from New York to London; his father wrote that the transition had been rough. When I was thirteen, my family and I had moved from Wisconsin to London. The transition, too, was rough. I remembered the disorientation, which he must have felt as well: there was the “tube” and Oyster Cards, the concrete estates and thousand-year-old churches. There was new slang—peng, wasteman—and Nectar Points and meal deals. In restaurants they gave you tiny glasses for water instead of the huge ones you got in America, and the toilet bowls were smaller and rounder. Someone from a different school threatened to stab me in the queue for McDonald’s in my second week.  Moving is a kind of semi-exile. You are brought against your will to somewhere you don’t understand or care about. You are disoriented—your geographic, cultural, emotional landmarks disappear. I could not return to the place I came from because I was barely a teenager, but that place in any case no longer existed because someone else lived in that house now with all their own stuff, and they probably repainted the walls. Most of all, I was betrayed by authority—my parents—which I could never again trust quite so deeply. So I didn’t belong in London, but after some time—a year or three—I stopped feeling that I belonged where I’d come from. Then I could see from two perspectives, and they destabilized each other. I was no longer certain that the way people talked about things was totally the way that they were. Everyone around me—my old friends from middle school in America, the British people on the tube who called us “foreign cunts,” my teachers and parents—they were all too sure about things. How do you deal with that? How do you live out what you know? Kyle, me, our friends, we stole gas and made Molotov cocktails, threw parties shut down by the police, made bonfires in Regent’s Park, ran through the London Riots of 2011. We wrestled and drank, smoked weed from soda cans and shot fireworks in the streets. Once Kyle and I played “knife baseball” in our friend’s backyard—one of us threw a kitchen knife to the other to hit with a cardboard tube. Perhaps Trip felt some of that raw, furious energy too, testing the boundaries of the world as it’s explained to us.  In the days and months after Trip’s death, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the abandoned subway station I’d visited with Marcel and Julius. At 86th Street station, we saw the train leave and jumped down onto the tracks, and we sprinted, running between the wall and the inside rail, Marcel in front, Julius in the middle, and me at the back. I could hear only the padding of our sneakers on the wooden railroad ties and my own ragged breathing. Adrenaline buzzed all the way to my fingertips, and Gothic iron arches flashed by, lit only by 86th Street disappearing behind us.  For Alby, Harry, Jack the night had been moonless, the tracks pitch black. Suddenly we were climbing onto a filthy, trash-strewn platform. I looked down at my hands and saw they were black with grime from hoisting myself up. Leaves had blown into piles against all the walls. Marcel picked up a spray can, shook it, and pressed the nozzle. A tiny puff of air came out—empty—and he tossed it down. It clinked delicately against the concrete and was still. Then we could hear the clatter of another train coming down the tracks. They must’ve heard the out-of-service commuter train coming towards them. They must’ve seen its lights. Julius motioned for me to hide behind a pillar, as he had done. Marcel crouched near the stairs. The noise grew louder and louder. They wouldn’t have been able to tell which rail the train was on; they would have tried to hide on the other track, but they guessed wrong. And then– The train shot past us, bringing with it billows of stale tunnel air. The windows were bright yellow in the pitch-black. Inside we could see the passengers slouched in their seats, leaning against the walls, hanging from the straps. They vacantly faced their own reflections, no idea we were staring at them. And then in a deafening clap of silence the train was gone. [[{"fid":"6708706","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"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]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Weeks and months passed, and Trip’s work was still there. I could still feel the paint he had painted, could touch it with my fingers knowing he had been alive when he’d written it. A tag would disappear every now and then: faded, buffed, painted over. A telephone booth he’d tagged was one day gone entirely, no trace of it left. I had a dream one night about going to Trip’s funeral: I was standing in a parking lot with all his friends, and they started to walk to the cemetery to see him interred. They looked at me questioningly, and I knew that I shouldn’t go. “You guys go on without me,” I said, and they walked away. I suspected I was somehow trespassing on other people’s grief. I was concerned, I suppose, that mourning for Trip was a way of mourning for Kyle. Kyle, I heard from friends, had moved back to New York, and then somewhere else. Far enough that we’d never have to speak again. Exactly a year from the day that Trip, Lover, and Kbag died, a “graffiti jam” was held at the Stockwell Hall of Fame, a legal graffiti wall in south London about a twenty-minute walk from where they’d died. I deliberated for a long time whether or not I should go. The dream weighed heavily on me. Around this time, out of the blue, Kyle messaged me. I messaged him back. We organized a video call. In our own halting and incomplete way, we made amends. He was living in Idaho with his wife, he told me, and breeding rabbits. I decided to go to the graffiti jam. The day was cloudless and hot, and I was sweating by the time I got to Brixton. Even from a few streets away I could smell the sweet tang of spray paint in the air. The Hall of Fame, when I arrived, proved to be a sunken concrete rectangle a little bigger than a basketball court. A thick wall, wide enough so that all four sides could be painted, divided the space in half. The whole place had been whitewashed the day before the event, and now dozens of painters were covering every surface with ornate renditions of Trip, Lover or Kbag. The blank spaces were covered with marker-drawn words: RIP, Rest in Paint, RIP Trip Lover Kbag. I took a seat on some steps at the far end and leaned back on my elbows. I recognized some of their friends from the Instagram page, and I recognized Trip’s dad from the news articles. He walked around taking photos of his son’s name. I thought about saying something to him, but I couldn’t think what. Two girls sitting at the base of the steps stood up and walked over to me. They introduced themselves as Marni and Lola. We all shook hands, and they sat down.  “What brought you here?” Marni asked.  “I always saw their pieces up around London,” I said, “and, I mean, I didn’t know them but… when I heard they died, I just… you know… I was pretty… I mean, it really…” I paused. “I was really sad,” I said, and paused again. “So I wanted to come down.” “That’s nice,” said Lola, smiling. Marni smiled too. “How about you guys?” I asked. They were both friends of Lover—or Harry, as they called him. Lola had been his girlfriend when he’d died. I told them I was sorry and they nodded in thanks.  “Do you write graffiti?” Marni asked me. “Not really,” I said. “I used to, a little, but… I pretty much stopped when I heard they died.” “You should keep writing!” said Lola.  There was another pause. “Actually I did a piece once that Lov…”—I caught myself—“that Harry covered up with his own.” This was true. It had been covered about a week after I’d painted it, but I’d realized only months after they’d died that Lover had done it. When I realized, it felt like I was talking to the dead. Lola started to apologize for him, and I, abashed, started to try to explain that I was not making an accusation. But she cut in: “Well, I guess it’s kind of nice,” she said, and laughed. “Sounds like Harry,” said Marni, grinning.  I stayed another hour or so, watching the painting and talking. For all my fear of imposing, everyone I talked to at the memorial seemed touched that I was there—that someone else had seen what their friends had written. Afterwards, I walked over to Loughborough Junction, to see the last pieces they’d done before they died. I found them on a bridge over Brixton Station Road. They were hangovers, like Trip’s piece on the Camden Road bridge, though his upside-down painting had clearly improved in the time that had passed.  I sat down on a brick wall and stared at the paint for a long time. They’d gotten onto the tracks somewhere else and had run here trackside, but all the same I tried to imagine how they might’ve climbed up here: I saw them step on the bollard, climb onto the rubbish bin, grab the mesh cage around the service ladder. I saw them edge along to the top of the wall, vault over the railing and run along the bridge. I saw them crouch and hang and spray their names and feel alive.
‘The System Isn’t About Justice or Rehabilitation’: An Interview with Hugh Ryan

The author of The Women’s House of Detention on forgotten prison history, the incarcerated LGBTQ population, and women being punished for entering the public sphere. 

In the 1930s, Alice moved from a rural town in New England to New York City because she wanted to be queer. She fell in love with an opera diva, and for a year, they lived together. Then the diva married a soldier. In an attempt to prove she wasn’t lesbian, the singer forced Alice to watch her have sex with her new husband. Alice had a psychotic breakdown and ran screaming from the apartment. The police found her two days later, dirty and hungry, wandering the streets with no idea who she was. They arrested her for prostitution and brought her to the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood and, according to author Hugh Ryan, “for the rest of her life, she was connected to the carceral system.” Most people today do not know there was a maximum security women’s prison in the heart of Greenwich Village from 1931 to 1974. In The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison (Bold Type) by Hugh Ryan, author of the widely acclaimed history of gay life in early 20th century Brooklyn, When Brooklyn Was Queer, tells a powerful and deeply researched story of the systematic and persistent criminalization of queer and gender-nonconforming women and transgender men. Regular stints at the House of D, as it was known to many people incarcerated there, were a fact of life for the often poor, nonwhite, queer women and transgender men in the New York City facility. Today, 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. The Women’s House of Detention describes how queer women and trans men came to be disproportionately incarcerated, and how their experiences and activism shaped the 20th-century struggle for gay liberation.  Nicole Pasulka: This prison has been closed for nearly 50 years; most of the people who were incarcerated there have passed away. What made it seem like a good subject for a book now? Hugh Ryan: The easy answer is when I was writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, several folks I followed (for the book) had passed through the Women’s House of Detention or the court that was connected to it. That alerted me to its existence, and it shocked me that I didn’t know a 12-storey, maximum security prison had existed in Greenwich Village for most of the 20th century. After that, it seemed like it was everywhere: I found references to the House of D in Audre Lorde’s book Zami, in the writings of Joan Nestle, in movies, in musicals—and then, I found a statistic saying that 40 percent of folks incarcerated in women’s detention centres identify as LGBTQ. This was a crisis of incarceration that we weren’t talking about. In a broader picture, when I started writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, I thought I was writing the history of an incredibly diverse borough, only to discover Brooklyn was—for most of its existence—98 percent white. I didn’t want to make contributions to queer history that were always centred on whiteness and maleness. Writing about the House of D ensured that I literally could not produce a book like that, no matter what I discovered in the existing archives.  I wasn’t going to be writing that story.   How did women end up incarcerated in the House of D? Women ended up in the House of D for everything from wearing pants to mailing the definition of lesbian (or) committing murder — but the vast majority of folks were there for one of three charges.   One was “vagrancy prostitution,” which in the eyes of the law simply meant being a poor woman who had been arrested. According to New York State legal precedent, you did not have to exchange sex for money to be a prostitute: it was defined simply as the “common lewdness of a woman,” so all poor women were an invitation. to prostitution (charges). Many girls were placed in the House of D for preventative reasons, either because their parents or guardians thought they were wayward, or because they were seen as at risk for having venereal disease. Under The American Plan, this meant the U.S. government could incarcerate them until they tested negative for syphilis and gonorrhea, without ever being arrested, tried, or found guilty of anything. The third category, particularly in the later years, was drug charges. After World War II, the U.S. changed its drug laws, and many women got caught up in new punitive carceral solutions to drug problems. What was the stated objective for incarcerating these women—was it to help or to punish? The initial objective was rehabilitation, but from the very beginning, everyone involved in the administration understood that what they were doing was not rehabilitating anyone. In their eyes, that was because of a lack of resources, not because of a structural flaw in the prison system. Either way, everyone knew they were not meeting their stated goal.   In what way is the story of this one prison a history of incarceration in the U.S.? The research taught me that women’s incarceration is fundamentally different from that of men. From the first independent women-only detention centres in the 1870s, the goal was to retrain women to be wives, mothers, and educators of children, because it was believed that was all women could be. As such, it was a forced feminization process. The concern was making them the right kind of women, whereas men’s institutions were simply concerned with not having men return to jail. Women were imagined to have very limited avenues to respectability—wife and mother, or maid, and you had to be feminine to pursue those jobs. Women’s incarceration has always been focused on women who were seen as masculine of centre and therefore has focused on queer women.   The other thing (the research) taught me about 20th-century incarceration is almost everyone agrees that jail primarily functions as a way to get poor people off the streets. I think this tells us a lot about why reform is often a doomed endeavour. The system isn’t about justice or rehabilitation; it’s about warehousing all the people we don’t take care of.   What violence does prison perpetuate against women specifically? Unless you’ve been there, one of the things few people understand about jail and prison is that every time you enter a facility you are given an invasive cavity search, and in some past instances, a PAP smear. These routine procedures are tantamount to state-sponsored sexual assault. Can you imagine being on trial and having a cavity search every morning before you testify, often done by a male guard or doctor?  Knowing that’s what you’re going to face tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that?   How is the Women's House of Detention connected to broader struggles for women’s and LGBTQ rights?   Looking at the House of D shows us how the government has routinely punished women seen as masculine of centre simply for existing—under whatever laws the government chooses. At the same time, my research revealed that in spaces where women and trans men gathered, including the House of Detention, they were espousing what we think of as gay liberation and gay pride long before it ever showed up in homophile organizing or liberatory movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. These people bore the brunt of state oppression, and for that reason, understood before anyone else what state oppression of queer people and women looked like, and how it needed to be resisted. For example, in the 1940s, two young women named Bernice and Renée were in a long-standing lesbian relationship, which their social workers in jail realized. When confronted, both women adamantly said what they did in their own time was their own business; they were not ashamed of who they were and did not feel it was anyone’s business who they loved or think there should be any laws limiting what we today would call “gay rights.” Long before organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis or the Mattachine Society made this argument, these folks, the lumpenproletariat who are often referenced in biographies of more famous queer people, knew these ideas. I often think of this as similar to “freedom dreaming” in Black Liberation traditions. It’s the communal ability to imagine life beyond white-cis-heteropatriarchy and recognize the same struggles in each other, which enables all kinds of leaders to push those ideas forward. Tell me about some surprising people who were incarcerated. How did they end up there? In the archives, I came across a woman living during the 1950s from an upper-middle-class Black neighbourhood in Queens. She trained in conservatories for singing, was a keypunch operator (like in the movie Hidden Figures), was active in the growing New York homophile movement, and was a cabaret singer. She and her girlfriend broke up, and she was arrested when someone offered her money for prostitution. In the House of D, the social workers were intimidated by her. Their notes said they were afraid to attack homosexuality because they didn’t want her to think less of them. This isn’t the kind of case we normally think of when we think of Black women being arrested in the 1950s. How do you get people to care about a prison that’s gone? It’s hard enough getting people to care about prisons that are currently incarcerating people. I think it’s really hard to get people to care about history in general, and what guides my work is helping people see how history leads into the present day and then writing it in a way that is as accessible, emotional, and narrative as possible. We live and die by stories, and when we present our histories as these dry, static moments that barely involve real people, we deaden the subject and ask people to stop listening. Then, in your mind, how does the story of the House of D connect to the present? For me, it always comes back to that statistic: 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. To understand why this came to be, I had to understand how the system came to target masculine-of-centre women, nonbinary folks, and trans men. That is the story of the House of D, but it’s a story that is still operating today though the House of D is closed. Hazlitt is a Canadian publication, and although the story of the House of D is a story of women’s incarceration in the United States, are there ways to connect this to the Canadian justice system? The trends and changes in consideration of women’s roles in former British colonies tend to follow similar trajectories. When we look at the history of women’s incarceration, part of what we see is women in a post-Victorian world entering the public sphere in ways they were denied previously. That is not an American story; that is a story of every country with a legacy of British colonialism.   You said earlier that part of the motivation for this project was telling queer histories that didn’t centre on whiteness or maleness. Were you concerned when writing this book that you wouldn’t be able to fairly represent the experiences of groups—like women, trans men, and people of colour, for example—outside your own experience? When I started this project, a lot of people pushed back on the idea of me as a white cis man writing this book. Most of the time, that pushback came from the point of view of people who assumed that other people would cancel me. That hasn’t been what happened. There are many people who’ve thought long and hard about these issues from different perspectives, who’ve pushed me to think but haven’t condemned me for being a white cis guy writing about women, trans people, and people of colour. It has largely been a nuanced, wonderful conversation I have been welcomed into after doing the work. People who are afraid of “cancel culture” are often actually afraid they won’t do the work, or their work will be crappy, and then they will get called out for it. If my work is crappy, I hope people call me out or call me in to talk about it. But if you do the work well, I don’t think you’ll get many calls to be cancelled, even when you’re writing beyond your own identity.
‘Silence We Inherit and Carry With Us’: An Interview with Eva Stachniak

The author of The School of Mirrors on sexual violence, the history of midwifery, and opening up archival silences. 

Women’s bodies have long been used as tools of conquest, in displays of dominance and acts of war, their voices unheard. These are silences that Eva Stachniak opens up with her latest novel, The School of Mirrors (Doubleday). Véronique and Marie-Louise—mother and daughter, both from the poorest class, with little agency of their own—live in 18th century France, a place where a debauched king can keep a stable of very young women in a house known as Deer Park, some who haven’t yet bled, for his personal pleasure. It’s an historical precursor to Epstein’s compounds and others like them: impoverished young women are lured with false promises of work that would improve their economic situation but become sexual playthings for the king instead. Often, as with Marie-Louise, the king’s agent secures these women with only parental consent. The young women themselves are never even asked. Although women’s sovereignty over their own bodies continues to be threatened worldwide, women have eked out ways to exercise agency and help each other. In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise is taken under the wing of France’s first midwife and becomes one herself. The novel is deeply feminist in inception and execution, a counter-narrative that gives voice to the powerless, whose stories are rarely a matter of historical record. Christine Fischer Guy: How and when did you find out about Deer Park? Was it the inspiration for this novel, or did it come later in the process? Eva Stachniak: It was both the beginning and the inspiration.  Reading the The Private Memoirs of Madame du Hausset, Lady’s Maid to Madame de Pompadour, I came across a scene in which Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV at her side, summons Madame du Hausset and orders her to take care of a young lady until her confinement and make arrangements for the baby’s baptism. From the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that the king is the father of the child, and that the young lady doesn’t know it. “She and others like her” have been told that their lover is a Polish count, a distant cousin of the queen, who keeps an apartment at Versailles.  That very phrase, she and others like her, was enough to make me dig deeper and discover Deer Park, a secret house in the town of Versailles where royal enablers kept young, pretty, lower-class girls for the king. The house, supervised by Madame de Pompadour but run by the king’s valet de chambre, was an elaborate and well-functioning establishment. The girls were told that they were trained to become ladies’ maids and thus improve their station in life. Most were dismissed after one or two “visits” with their “benefactor.” A few caught his fancy and stayed longer. I tried to find out who they were and what happened to them in the end, but the voices of the powerless rarely merit more than an occasional record. I’ve found a few names, learnt that Deer Park “bastards” were always given to foster parents, that the palace paid for their upkeep and set them up in life.  This is how the novel began, with an image of a young pregnant girl, a child she will give birth to, and the royal courtiers who make sure neither will ever cause their royal master any trouble.   This scenario puts me in mind of “the virgin cure,” an insidious myth that gained prominence in 19th century England: sexual relations with a virgin could cure a man of disease (then, syphilis). It persists in various forms throughout the world, a tragedy that leaves a trail of human wreckage: men of means use a very young woman’s body as they wish, without regard for her personhood. “The virgin cure” is an excellent example. Men of means and thus impunity usurp the right to use the female body as an object, a possession devoid of agency and feelings. We are still nowhere near being free from it. I don’t just mean the cases of Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, either. It is enough to take a closer look at any war—most recently in Ukraine—to see how quickly women’s bodies become objects of revenge, a weapon of terror meant to dominate and humiliate the enemy. Sexual violence exerts one more terrible price. Silence. Silence forced by shame, by fear of reprisals, by the wish to spare the loved ones from pain. Silence of the victims and the perpetrators, of women and of men. Silence which seeps through generations, silence we inherit as children and carry with us all our lives.   Any family who has been through the terror of war carries these silences with them in various ways, as recent work on intergenerational trauma shows. When a woman’s body is used as a tool of war, she is silenced, as you say. Historically, the fallout—in my grandmother’s case, headaches, bad stomach, nightmares—didn’t have a name, and yet generations after carry the effects of PTSD in their own bodies. We are only starting to understand that these unresolved, unacknowledged traumas are carried forward on a cellular level in future generations. Although women’s bodies are used as tools of war, they haven’t historically been considered as equal value to men’s bodies, have they? Even within legitimate relationships, a woman’s pleasure was never a requirement in sexual relations. The young women in King Louis’s stable didn’t give consent; the act itself wasn’t even named. That’s a kind of erasure, too. In your research, did you find any examples of women who spoke up? What were the consequences?  The young women recruited to Deer Park were never asked for consent. Their parents were asked, and they made their own calculations. In The School of Mirrors, the Widow Roux, riddled with debts, believes that her three sons trump one daughter. All other arguments were a luxury she could not afford. Yes, there were women who spoke up. One nameless Deer Park girl stubbornly maintained that the king of France was the father of her child, until a few weeks of “treatment” in a mental asylum forced her to change her mind. One anonymous girl escaped with the help of her sweetheart. There was also Marie-Louise O’Murphy who, emboldened by the king’s liking of her, tried to win the Versailles game by trying to oust Madame de Pompadour herself, famously asking the king, “What do you still want with the old cocotte?” Louis XV dropped her in an instant and had her married off to an impoverished aristocrat.  The game was rigged then and it is rigged still. As Melissa Febos notes in Girlhood, her changing girl’s body had the “power to compel but not control.” And then she adds: “There is no good strategy in a rigged game. There are only new ways to lose.” Even within their limited scope of power, women have shown resourcefulness and ingenuity, exercising what little agency they had to help each other. I read accounts of women in my family’s ancestral village helping each other find food for their children under the cover of the night when Stalin’s occupying soldiers took the lion’s share of the crops for themselves and the village men were away in Russian work camps.   In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise, fierce and strong and intelligent, crosses paths with a midwife who changes her life. France’s first midwife, who we glimpse in the novel, was a force of nature who invented a “birthing machine” for student midwives and won a commission to train others by showing it to the same debauched king. In the words of Mme du Coudray’s biographer, “hundreds of letters existed, to her, about her and by her… There are hardly any women, especially in the 1700s, who left that kind of paper trail.” Du Coudray not only helped improve the lives of other women but carved out a place in history for herself, all from within a very limited scope of power. How she sold King Louis on the idea of funding the training of midwives all over France? By describing the French babies that would be saved. Brilliant and subversive, wasn’t it?   Did finding the record of Mme du Coudray change the course of the novel? Yes, in the most fundamental way.  Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray hijacked the second part of The School of Mirrors. A licensed midwife, a proud professional woman aware of her self-worth, a relentless advocate for women’s health, she fought to improve both natal care and to reduce infant mortality. And in contrast to the Deer Park girls who had no agency or voice, she was a woman who would not be silenced. Madame du Coudray’s biography The King’s Midwife provided the basic facts. Single and of unknown parentage, she practiced as a licensed midwife in Paris in the 1740s and ’50s, rising to the position of head midwife in the Hôtel Dieu, where approximately 1500 babies were delivered each year. Faced with the realization that Parisian high standards of natal care were inaccessible to poor women in the provinces, she obtained royal funding and patronage for her obstetrics course with the help of a teaching tool she had invented, the “birthing machine.” Between 1760 and 1783, she criss-crossed provincial France training thousands of young peasant women in the art of midwifery. She also adopted and raised an orphaned peasant girl, Marguerite Guillaumanche, later Madame Coutanceau, who carried on her work well into the 19th century.  The “machine” speaks of Madame du Coudray’s resourcefulness and ingenuity. It is a curious object: a cut-off model of a female torso, a stuffed pregnant belly designed to give the students the illusion of delivering a baby. It makes use of ordinary, easily accessible materials. An internal wicker frame is covered with straw or upholstery. Sponges imitate flesh. An additional layer of durable linen imitates skin. The vessels hidden inside the belly hold fluids which can be released to imitate breaking waters or internal bleeding. The baby mannequin has an open mouth so that a student could practice the well-proven maneuver for breech births which demanded inserting two fingers into the baby’s mouth.  How many lives had she changed for the better! Not just the lives of mothers and children, but also the lives of thousands of young women from the provinces who received her precious gift of education. The gift that gave them a chance to exercise power over their own lives.  All I needed for The School of Mirrors was to imagine women like her and let them lead me.   Like Mme du Coudray herself, Marie-Louise breaks the poverty cycle in a system set against her. Unlike her mother, she escapes the silencing imposed by the king. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of silence as I work on my own second novel, about music and silencing under a Russian regime. Silence is violence. The seat of power can be conceptualized as one’s voice, however expressed, whether through the vocal cords themselves or through one’s work. Within the scope of her limited powers as a poor young woman, Marie-Louise gains a voice of her own. I’d like to circle back to your decision to open up historical silences by introducing this counter-narrative to the official version of French history. In an interview, you said, “As a child, I quickly calculated: to be a grandmother I have to live through two world wars, to be a mother, through one World War and one Nazi occupation.” How did the women in your personal history act on the story you tell in this novel? The women who raised me, my mother and my grandmother, raised me in Communist Poland, in the aftermath of not just a devastating world war, but of what historian Timothy Snyder so aptly called the “bloodlands,” Hitler’s and Stalin’s killing fields.  As far back as I remember, war ruins have been around me everywhere. The houses that survived still had inscriptions in Russian: Min nyet. No mines. There were only two kinds of time: pre- or post-war. The words World War II meant that there must have been World War I and that there could be World War III. Stalin and Hitler were dead but their legacy was still very much alive.  At dusk, after all the work was done, my widowed grandmother would sit by the kitchen window, staring into the distance, turning the rings on her gnarled fingers. Her silence frightened me. I remember her startled eyes when I approached, her blue unseeing eyes, welling up with tears. If I asked what she was doing, she would say she was praying for the living and the dead. Every time she heard me laugh, she would tell me to stop, for I would soon cry. Once when I was playing with stones, she snatched them from me and threw them away, screaming, “Do you want your life to be as hard as mine?”  My mother did not believe that playing or not playing with rocks mattered. Refusing to yield to despair, she pushed the war past behind her, became a paleontologist, a professional woman, an outspoken expert in her field. She too warned me, but her warnings were of a different kind. Wars always brought out the worst out of humanity. Men were wolves to each other. Give them half a chance to drown you in a spoonful of water, they will. Then she made me concentrate on what was still possible. “If they close the door, get through the window. Find a way. You don’t know how? Figure it out.”  I thought of her as fearless, invincible, and yet she too refused to speak about her own experiences during the war or the political reprisals that followed. I knew she had been imprisoned as a member of the anti-communist underground, but only because she never let me close the door of a room she was in. “I’ll tell you one day, when you grow up,” she might say to fend me off when I wanted to know more, but mostly my questions would annoy her. We were living under a totalitarian regime; informers were everywhere. A child could be easily manipulated. Not knowing was a form of protection. Nature abhors a vacuum. My mother’s silence, even more than my grandmother’s, had always taunted me. It turned me into an expert in reading clues that slipped through her defences, eyes turned away too quickly, the tensing jaw, the unexpected anger in her voice. Many years later when, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, she no longer knew I was her daughter, she pointed at a bullet-riddled wall of a building we passed by and said: “These were terrible times. I know you want me to tell you what has happened, but I won’t.”  A missing story becomes conspicuous in its absence. A story refused, a conversation that did not take place, leaves a wake of loss behind it. I mourn the intimacy we could have shared, the comfort we could’ve given each other, but I’m her daughter through and through. I too turn to what is still possible. The School of Mirrors emerged from my personal memories of growing up with women marked by silence and loss. Their fear and their insistence that women choose silence for many reasons, not just shame and fear, but also love and the desire to protect those around them. Their conviction that even if the ravages of silence cannot be reversed, life is resilient and thrives on hope and that lost voices can be regained in spite of everything that has conspired against them. The loss of memory did not make my mother forget her determination to keep her secrets, but it did turn the formidable professional woman I had known all my life into a spirited teenager who would assure me she loved me because we were so happy together, or a thoughtful friend offering the greatest gift of all: empathy and acknowledgement of my pain.    “You say you are my daughter. I don’t know how this could be possible. But if you are right, it must be terrible for you to know that your own mother cannot recognize you.” That moment found its way into The School of Mirrors.  That scene was very moving, perhaps more so as my own mother has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She still recognizes me, but I know the day will come when she won’t. And then there’s the other sort of forgetting, which isn’t forgetting at all but the desire to forget traumatic times or dissociate from them entirely. I grew up with the laughter admonishment, too, and it went “Laugh before seven, cry before eleven.” The subconscious life advice transmitted in that aphorism: one must never forget that tears or disappointment are just around the corner. My grandmother wouldn’t talk about the time that Stalin’s soldiers occupied their village, except once, when I pressed her. “The doctor made sure no babies were born,” she said, and then would say nothing further. That sort of elliptical comment was meant to shut the conversation down but did the opposite—it became a catalyst for my research and imagination that fuels my work. When your mother said, “You want me to tell you, but I won’t,” did it have a similar effect? Did it become a reason for the decision you made to let the women finally tell their story? I’m thinking of your wonderful line “The dead, once wakened, may not stay silent.” It did. I was never old enough to hear it, or she was never ready to speak. Was it the fear of her own reaction or mine? Why couldn’t we talk about it? What would’ve happened if we did? There is enough force in it to make me imagine and probe. This mother/daughter conversation I never had seeped into The School of Mirrors but in some ways, it underlines all my writing. I know that it is the same for you, and that this phantom conversation will continue to frustrate and inspire you.  All my writing comes from the deep need to break this chain of imposed silence, to restore the voices that could not or would not speak. It is no coincidence that I became a writer only after I emigrated from Poland, and that I became a writer in English rather than in my native Polish. My Canadian voice is much bolder, not as susceptible to cultural warnings of what can or cannot, should or shouldn’t, be said. Polish secrets and obligations are not Canadian secrets. Distancing myself from language and place gave me the emotional freedom to explore and restore what might have been much harder or impossible to probe if I had never left.
The World We’re Losing

Ecological grief captures a newly defined set of emotions, all connected to our personal relationship to the natural world.

A stranger paces around an unfinished shack, speaking to himself as though he is alone. He says he saw dead dolphins floating belly up in the Bayou. He had never seen anything like that, he says, he was born and raised in Louisiana, he had lived his entire life in Louisiana and now what? There were dead turtles on the shore? Dead fish? Dead birds? Tears drip from his wet eyelashes. His face is pink with pain. His hands are clenched into fists at his side. Standing in the room with me are eight other people, a friend from Texas who gave A and me a ride from the Sonoran Desert in an old hearse—we took turns lying in the back on a mattress—and others, friends, acquaintances, strangers I can’t place. A, my partner-in-crime since childhood, is standing next to me, but we are all silent, paralyzed by this rupture in the social shell of the day, alarmed by what the stranger is saying. It is my first time in New Orleans. Everyone refers to us as the Canadians. The city is still full of the wreckage of Katrina. Five years later, each broken-down bungalow and abandoned building is a reminder of someone’s home lost. Rebuilds, restoration, blight laws, auctions, squats, gentrification all working in different ways to erase these markers of history. From the corner of the room, I watch the stranger cry. I am frozen, embarrassed, childish. Some untouchable part of me is afraid of being undone in the same way, afraid of emotional contagion, afraid of cracking, and I am not the only one. I don’t know what to do with my own hands. Do I clutch them? Put them in my pockets? Hold them behind my back? What do I say? What do I do? I feel my heart beat faster and faster. The stranger stops suddenly. He kneels down, holds his stomach and gasps for breath. It is October 2010, just after the BP oil spill. In April, the Deepwater rig was drilling a well 35,000 feet below sea level when high-pressure methane from the well expanded, lit, and exploded the underwater piping, the rig, the platform. After the well opened, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed by the blast. It wasn’t until September 19th that it was fully sealed. Memory is slippery. With each recall it is altered. The context you remember from colours it. The narratives you’ve told to make sense of it colour it, like a drop of food dye in a cup of water. The identity you imagine for yourself colours it. This memory is persistent. I can feel the heat on my face. I can hear the stranger describing his utopian building plans, touring us around the construction site, pointing at a wooden frame that, with drywall, would become a bedroom, and the holes where windows would be. I watch myself watching as the stranger cries. In the memory I don’t have the language or tools to understand what is happening, but now I understand that this was grief. Ecological grief can be triggered by the loss of a species, an animal, part of a forest, a cherished place, a river, a home, future ecologies, past ecologies. The grief can be acute, anticipatory, vicarious, cumulative. It is connected to a cluster of a newly defined set of emotions: eco-anxiety, eco-panic, eco-trauma, all resulting from our personal relationship to the natural world. I think of this memory as a demarcation, a transition between a time before I understood the idea of ecological grief to a time after. *** “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1945. In 2020, I read in the newspaper that it’s the 10-year anniversary of the BP oil spill. Clean-up crews skimmed the water’s surface and sprayed Corexit dispersants, but oil still coats the floor of the salt marshes. I start to read obsessively about the tar balls left behind from the spill, the pancakes of oil in the sand, the brown tides of dead sargassum, the rig workers with PTSD. I read an account of a wife struggling with her husband’s suicide attempts after working the exploded rig. I look at photographs of pelicans coated in oil. I read about Mexican fishing communities that still haven’t been compensated by the oil company. And the memory continues appearing out of nowhere, vivid but out of focus like a hologram. The stranger weeping in his shack. Part of me imagines I can repair my mistake from those years ago, when I froze in the face of his breakdown, by researching. If I can see what he saw, be equipped with information, facts, then I can honour his suffering now in a way I failed to do then. By now, almost everyone I know has experienced some form of ecological grief. And the more I read, the more I want to see the slow-moving coffee brown rivers where the man described the dead floating downstream. What does it look like today? There is a disturbing paradox between voyeuristic curiosity and bearing witness. I am not sure it can be resolved. In nature we imagine experiencing transcendence by being a piece of something beyond ourselves. The borders of the self turn permeable. They blur. Where do we begin? And where does wilderness end? How do we stop pretending to be bystanders to the natural? But all interactions with wilderness now are edged with equally unresolvable tragedy, seesawing between the poetic and sublime. I want to be in the Bayou again, so I can hear chirping insects in the undergrowth, smell the wet musky earth, so I might reckon with my naïve past self, so I might understand something about the relationship between human interiority and the natural world. Stefan and I sleep in a cheap motel on a snowy Ohio highway next to an adult superstore. When I go in to ask room prices, the woman at the desk calls me sweetie, then complains that she had to work a double shift because the other girl called in sick. She was beaten up by that fucking idiot again, she says. A man in an oversized winter jacket is half-asleep on a lobby couch, watching golf. I am sorry, I say, is she ok? Oh yeah, it happens all the time, the woman says. Here’s your key, the hot tub closes at 11:30. The phone in our room starts ringing for no reason at 4 am. We call the desk to ask why. She doesn’t know, it’s happening all over the motel. We leave the receiver off the hook so we can sleep, but the ringing feels somehow ominous. In the morning over coffee and a bagel, while Stefan showers, I begin a handwritten list of endangered species, repeating the names of the dead like an incantation, an elegy, a spell. I start with British Columbia, where I spent half of my childhood, and then move through North America: American Badger, Basking Shark, Burrowing Owl, Chinook Salmon, Vesper Sparrow, Caribou. In Montgomery, Alabama we stay in a room that smells like it is rotting from the inside out. The only other guest is a young student from California working for the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Monarch Butterfly, Quillwort, Desert Nightsnake, Eulachon, Fragrant Popcornflower, Grey Whale. The next night we camp in Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland habitat in the US, where the Atchafalaya river delta meets the Gulf of Mexico. Our tent is a thin membrane between us and the wilds. If we touch the tent wall, water will leak through. We lay with our eyes open listening to a chorus of unidentifiable nightlife singing through the velvet black. The swamp is like nowhere I have ever been. The night is alive and wet. In the morning we eat crawfish etouffee at a gas station, get lost in a forest of sycamore and bald cypress, ferns at our feet, as it rains and the delta fills. The bayous are neon green with algae. Gators swim below the still surface, dinosaurs in the deep. An egret flies by. Its wings are impossible clouds. The bird population of North America has declined 29 per cent since 1970, and I wonder when the silence will eat at this landscape of sound. I take videos of Stefan on my phone walking in the mist, camera slung over his shoulder, bleached hair, plaid jacket, just so I might hear the song of migratory waterfowl again. I’m crafting a time machine.  ***  In The Hidden Life of Trees, rogue German forester Peter Wohlleben writes that trees communicate through underground mycorrhizal networks. They can share water, nutrients, send distress signals, they have kin recognition and memory. Individual trees even seem to have unique personalities. Older trees, with more fungal connections, redistribute water or nutrients from their deep root systems to more shallow-rooted seedlings like a mother might. In an interview, researcher Allan Larocque suggests, “We don’t know how they communicate within their own bodies. They don’t have nervous systems, but they can still feel what’s going on, and experience something analogous to pain. When a tree is cut, it sends electrical signals like wounded human tissue.” I like Larocque’s description because it feels surprising to think of a tree this way. Everything about a tree is so different from how we are taught to imagine an emotional being, and in trying to relate to this idea we have to wrestle with personal histories of knowledge. What is emotion? What is language? How do we feel what we feel? But there is power in attempting this radical act of undoing perception, to pick away at comfort in search of alternative ways of seeing. Thinking of trees this way resonates with me. At six, I lived with my grandfather on the mountainside of a two-lane highway to nowhere. His house is near an old silver mining town in BC called Riondel. Fingers of logging road extend up the Rockies and Selkirks to wilderness, cathedrals of birch, hemlock, cedar, larch. Loneliness is a word with too many divergent meanings. To be alone with others is a loneliness that turns into alienation, a loneliness that traps you inside yourself. To be alone in loss or abandonment is to be forsaken, betrayed, left behind, unwanted. There is a gentler, surface loneliness, the reminder of our perpetual aloneness in time. The kids at school called me Heidi and laughed at my pink rubber boots. I hid my sandwiches in my desk or slipped them into the garbage. The teachers were concerned that I never ate. I told them I hated the butter slathered on the bread, because I didn’t have words to describe what I felt, a war against the invading hollowness of being alone. My grandfather accepted my explanation, and although he was loving, he worked all day in his studio, napped at noon, then worked until we ate in silence watching documentaries on TV. I would have been a very lonely child—sent away from my mom, from everything I knew, to the woods—if I didn’t have the forest to play in. After school I would walk down a moss-covered path, through the soft white pines up the mountain, to Corn-beef Creek. My grandfather and I had made a deal that if I refused to wear a bear bell, which I rejected because it made me feel like a cow, I had to make noise in order not to surprise any predators. There were cougars, lynx, black bears, supposedly grizzlies. So, I spoke or sang to the trees as I walked. I even remember them speaking back to me. Fallen cedars created bridges over the creek. Some days I sat or lay on a log in wait for deer, elk who might come to drink. I saw the trees very differently at six, seven, twelve, than I do now. I felt they knew me, and I knew them in a way that is difficult to describe. I imagined they had a collective and individual sentience. They were wiser than me, with a slow sedimenting concept of time that was comforting. In my mind it stretched past one human life into deep-time and held me in my human limits with care. This relationship eased my isolation. I wasn’t lonely when I was with them. In the early ’90s, the pine beetle started to kill forests throughout BC and Alberta, devastating nearly 18 million hectares of forest. Although the insect is endemic, it moved into new territories. Warm winters and dry summers increased its population, and the trees couldn’t fight against the attack as normal. Beetles bore tunnels into the bark, laying eggs in the living cambium. The larvae then continued to dig deeper and deeper into the trunks, until the mountains were covered in orange patches of dead forest. At the same time, clearcutting mowed bald patches all over the province, usually hidden from highways to calm any outrage. “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love,” write psychologists Colin Parkes and Holly Prigerson in their book Bereavement: Study of Adult Grief in Life. “It is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional blinders, which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others to cope with the losses in theirs.” The first time I saw these swaths of burnt-pumpkin, dead forest, I felt a pain in my chest, though I will admit that I still hadn’t accepted or allowed myself to reveal this to others, consider it legitimate, or let myself feel it, so it became a stunted obscure pain. A pain I considered immature, juvenile, weak. This is the first time I can remember my own eco-grief. An elastic tight feeling inside my chest. I will always equate the orange colour of dead pine needles with the colour of death. *** Stefan and I drive from Atchafalaya Basin to LaFayette. We drink beer and listen to a Cajun jam at a run-down but famous saloon. The Acadian singer sounds like his heart has been broken since he learned to walk. We try to two-step. The next day we drive through Plaquemines Parish, the area hit hardest by the BP spill. A single ribbon of asphalt extends down the peninsula. The road is cradled by marshes, roadkill armadillos, pipelines, stilted houses, banana trees, distant rigs. Sandhill cranes and plovers fish in the ditch. Smoke curls up from who knows where. After the spill, the fishing industry was depleted, the economy devastated. Corexit dispersants used as a band-aid solution by BP to sink and scatter the oil killed marine life, producing mutations in their offspring. Some fish in Barataria Bay were later found with no eyes, or no opening for their mouths. 2 million gallons of Corexit was used in the aftermath. People living nearby who were sprayed complained of boils appearing on their skin, and seizures. Even the solution to the problem was a problem. Dusky Gopher Frog, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I was curious to see the end of the line, to see the coast. Was there oil residue still or had it been completely restored? What did it look like? What did the stranger from my memory see? But the road was flooded. We didn’t even get close. Twice that happened. The road disappeared into the ocean. We would have driven directly into pools of water if we hadn’t stopped to turn around, and it was the dry season. Sockeye Salmon, Spotted Owl, Steelhead Trout, Vancouver Island Marmot, Horned Lark. Solastalgia is a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005. He defines it as the pain experienced when the environment you live in is under immediate assault. It is the loss of belonging when the place you belong to transforms around you, is altered, or no longer exists as it used to. Albrecht interviewed farmers in New South Wales, a state in eastern Australia, during the severe drought of the early 2000s, and families in the Upper Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, living next to large-scale open cut mines. On the one hand, the drought had caused the earth to dry up and crack; on the other, the smelters had caused an eternal night, blocking the sun with smoke and pollution. The change in the landscape was extreme. Albrecht noticed his questions were often answered with a latent sense of doom. The interviewees always referred back to, or referenced, their desolation, helplessness, crisis-of-self resulting from the shocking changes to their homes. So, Albrecht invented a word to name this new emotion, to articulate it. “Solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home,” he writes. Louisiana is the first state with climate change refugees. Entire communities have been displaced by erosion. Islands have disappeared. The state is losing a football field of land every hour. Everyone knows this about their home. It is a mantra. The land is disintegrating because of the intrusion of saltwater, rising sea levels, oil and gas infrastructure, lack of replenishing sediment due to levees and water control. At least 22,000 acres of land have been sucked into the swamp. Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is home to a community of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people, is being devoured by water. They have been forced to relocate. A state restoration project promising to rebuild the land and shift state water control infrastructure in the hopes of replenishing sediment hovers in a distant bureaucratic future. In lieu of this, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have created a powerful Tool Kit for other communities undergoing environmental and developmental pressures. By 2045, scientists estimate that 300,000 homes in the US will be lost to rising ocean water. Western-tiger Salamander, White-Headed Woodpecker, White-bark Pine, Limber Pine, Northern Leopard Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Phantom Orchid. Ashlee Cunsolo, Director of the Labrador Institute, studies the impact of climate change on Inuit communities in Labrador, the fastest warming area in Canada. Her research dovetails Albrecht’s in its attempt to understand this acute existential distress. After interviewing hundreds of people over the course of five years about the emotional effect of the changing environment on their lives, she concludes that profound questions of identity come with climate change. “We are people of the sea ice,” an Inuit elder tells her, “And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” This is the question of solastalgia: Who are we when our home disappears around us? Who are the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw without Isle de Jean Charles? Or Nehiyaw communities in Alberta without the Bison? Who am I without the pines I spent my childhood with? The impact of ecological grief is different than mourning the dead. With it we mourn the future that will be changed or may not exist, the past that we can never return to. We mourn ourselves. Red Wolf, Pygmy Racoon, Staghorn Coral, Oahu Tree Snails, Franklin’s Bumblebee, California Condor, Ozark Big Eared Bat, Canada Lynx. On the way back up the peninsula, we stop in an interpretive center for a historical fort. The museum has a few relics on display. Descriptions of the objects, printed from a home printer and taped to the wall with scotch tape, give little information. The history seems shallow and spotty, which in museums can mean a dangerous forgetting or a hint of an apologist scaffolding. I try to read between the lines, to tell if it is a disguised confederate mausoleum, but am not sure. The fort is a five-minute drive away, but the gate is locked with rusted-out chains. One motorcycle is parked under a skeletal magnolia. Otherwise, there is no sign of anyone. Spanish moss hangs from the branches. The biker stalks about agitatedly looking for something. I watch him from a concrete ruin, the river on one side, used condoms and beer cans littered underneath. When will the fort be open? I ask the woman behind the counter. It’s always locked up except for re-enactments, she explains. I ask her if the land has changed a lot in the last ten years, if she remembers the BP spill. She tells us she lives in New Orleans. The owner isn’t around, he would know more about the spill, and the land. But she has a lot to say about Katrina, she says. Her neighbors heard them blow up the levy. Nothing else sounds like that. She speaks with her eyes in a language of intimate conspiratorial gesture, looking at us wisely after hinting at the unspoken, leading us through unfinished sentences with a raised eyebrow, a coquettish turn of the head, a laugh. Her name is Val. You can say what you want, some people don’t believe us, some do, but we have ears, she says, we understand what’s happening. She tumbles through her stories without questions. She wants to tell us. She wants us to listen. Her family was split up afterwards. One son went to New York and was having a rough go. One son was never the same after the Superdome. A lot of people were never the same. How could you be the same? *** A group of Berkeley academics and doctors looking at the emotional bonds between humans and nature in the 1980s coined the term ecopsychology. Traditionally other therapies work on healing or understanding relationships between people, families, partners, the self, whereas ecopsychology tries to heal relationships between people and nature. It posits a synergy between humans and the earth, where the needs or rights of the planet are inextricably linked to the needs and rights of humans. Patients are treated outside in natural environments, and work towards sustainability. In more contemporary circles this might mean a patient is prescribed a walk in the park for 20 minutes a day. But earlier advocates of ecopsychology insist on reciprocity. It doesn’t mean just sitting on a bench under your favorite oak, it means somehow caring for that oak in return, maybe watering it, fertilizing it, defending it from removal, planting seedlings. This mutual care can help with healing. “In a culture of gratitude,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi biologist, writes on gift economies: “Everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you.” Reciprocity builds bonds. A network of bonds is a community. We think about this in our intimate relationships with each other, but less so in our relationship with nature. This “moral covenant” of reciprocity, as Kimmerer describes it, could be crucial to managing our grief. In his work on the role of mental health providers confronting emotional distress due to the climate crisis, Daniel Rosenbaum writes that it’s a problem if clinicians and therapists approach psychological distress as a dysfunctional response that the sufferer must fix. He reminds us that hurt is a normal reaction to loss. “Pain and upset in response to painful and upsetting situations may be both perfectly normative and a sign of healthy mature emotional functioning.” Pathologizing eco-grief implies that it is not healthy to feel a strong emotional response to the climate crisis, but how can we not feel something? Rosenbaum calls on fellow mental health providers to “reject notions of individual’s brokenness, and honor people’s grief or pain for the world as a healthy response to an abnormal situation.” So, then, it is for us to name and normalize what we feel in response to the abnormal situations we are in. Naming is a powerful step in grief work. To name is to acknowledge. To name is to accept that loss is real. A common treatment therapists recommend for eco-grief is mindfulness, the meditative practice of being present to yourself in the moment without judgement. Emotions are inevitable. Resisting or burying or denying them can push them into dormancy. The idea is that a meditative approach can allow people to feel with resilience and unknot the ropework of repression without being flooded into despair. Once you feel, you can begin to integrate the loss, mourning is possible. But how are we supposed to mourn the environment? Some psychologists stress the uniqueness of grief: because each individual grieves differently, finding a personal way to grieve is important. Other strategies for grief work, including psychedelic assisted therapy, using psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or daily microdosing to improve the physical or depressive impacts of grief, rearticulating mourning rituals, both public and private and lamentation, are all having a renaissance. The DSM does not provide diagnostics for an ill or afflicted society. Because climate change disproportionately affects the vulnerable, social determinants of health need to be looked at and issues of poverty, racism reckoned with. But without some deep structural shifts these therapies can only go so far. North American society places the responsibility of mental health on the individual, but how can a person heal or be well while living in a social structure with a fundamentally exploitative infrastructure that doesn’t support basic wellbeing? *** On one of our last nights in Louisiana we watch a marching band perform in New Orleans. Halfway home we stop for a drink in the French Quarter, order a round of beers and find a small table to crowd around. A girl with thin hair and heavy blush approaches us. She is beautiful the way teenagers can be beautiful, like deer wandering along the side of a highway at night. She talks to Stefan. He charms her with a sequin patch of a flower he sewed to his jean jacket and his glittering eyes. I lean against the wall, watching the ebb and flow of nightlife in the bar. Then the man she is with turns to me. He speaks with an alarming intensity, telling me how much he hates himself, over and over again, a vicious loop, the mind trapped in repetition. I think it was naïve for me to not have seen what was coming. I try to comfort him, as the roiling alcohol from the night simmers in my blood. I’m sorry that you feel so bad, I say. Maybe you should see someone you can talk to, I think that can help, a therapist? He tells me he has seen psychologists for years but nothing could help. He hates himself, he hates himself, did I want to know why? He can’t tell me, he says. I pause. I understand the power of confession, would it absolve him to confess? I don’t want to absolve anyone, especially not knowing what he’s about to say. Would it ease the pain to be shared? I figure he’s cheated on his wife. It can’t be that bad, I say. He looks all the way through me. Because of what he had done in Iraq, he says. I feel everything leak out of me. I shot a child in the head. The teenager is monologuing beside me, her hands whirling in the air. I look more carefully at the stranger. He is wearing a crew neck sweater and pre-distressed jeans, hair tightly cropped, clean shaven. He looks like a soldier. No one can hear him besides me. My translator was my best friend, he says, and you know what they did to him and his wife after I left? I excuse myself and go outside.   Here it was again, prismatic grief, wounds opening onto wounds. Experts have tried to reimagine grief as non-linear. They suggest that the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, may repeat or switch in order. There is no clear final outcome or end to grief, pain may return in new forms forever. One loss bears the burden and residue of another. A new wound digs into older wounds. In an article for the Intercept, journalist Murtaza Hussein looked at the impact of industrialized militaries on climate change. Citing a report published by Brown University, “Costs of War,” Hussein writes that the US military is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide aside from entire nations, and that if it was a nation, it would be the 55th largest emitter. Beyond its shocking carbon footprint, the direct environmental impact goes much deeper. Afghanistan, after 19 years of ongoing conflict, has suffered extensive deforestation. In Iraq, burn pits and toxic munitions, such as uranium depleted bullets, have caused severe environmental damage, while also leading to high rates of cancer in cities like Fallujah. The country suffers from increasing dust storms, desertification, drought, salinization, all a result of climate change. War is an industry that contributes to environmental destruction, exacerbated by the bottomless violence of racism, colonialism, and anti-poor systems. For so many, home has become a battleground for resource extraction, and, as a result, collateral damage. Trying to understand eco-grief is a puzzle, so many griefs today are entangled, and unexpectedly pass through the same place.  *** At home, March brings the pandemic. I hide out at a friend’s farm watching twilight turn the fields of dead grass a lavender-grey. I can’t stop thinking about the soldier and the stranger from my memory. They begin to become one person. White-headed Woodpecker, Vancouver Island Marmot, Western-tiger Salamander, Whitebark Pine. After dinner, I share a beer with my farmer friends. We discuss what to do, who will get groceries, protocol, masks, what we need, hand sanitizer. Their five-year-old daughter runs around shirtless with pale sweatpants singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. This is the first but not the last time I hear this song. She circles the kitchen like a helicopter. “The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside” she sings. Her voice gets louder and higher pitched near the climax, “conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know, well now they know, let it go, let it go...” Noticing our grocery list, she stops, looks up at us with imploring brown eyes. Daddy, can I get straws tomorrow at the store? We exchange glances. Straws are no good, love, we don’t use them anymore. Why? She asks. Orca, Ocelot, Jaguar, Woodland Caribou, Whooping Crane. He finds the video on YouTube, the three of us hover over his phone watching as two doctors in a motorboat try to safely remove a plastic straw from a tortoise’s nose. It has lodged all the way up its nasal cavity, with the white tip protruding only a few centimeters. For some reason the creature, with its scaled prehistoric beak and sad poetic eyes, does not struggle. It submits. The doctors cut the straw in half, and the tortoise starts to bleed. They debate whether to leave the straw. If it is lodged in the brain, they could do more damage by removing it then leaving it in. I wonder if it’s ok to show this to a five-year-old, but it’s too late. When the straw is finally pulled out, I feel dizzy like I have lost blood. The animal cowers in a corner of the boat, the video cuts, and we are back in the kitchen, in the panicked spring of 2020. Grief again. Maybe grief is the syntax for living. She looks at us with questions but says nothing. What is there to say? *** Thinking about utopia in A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that joy is a revolutionary act for Indigenous people who are constantly fighting against the settler state to stay alive. “Freedom is itself a poetics,” he writes “in that it seeks to re-schematize time, space, and feeling in the direction of a future driven by an ethic of care, a relational practice of joy-making that is all ours to enact.” He writes this to and for Indigenous people. Joy has a different meaning in a context where it is policed by white culture, where the legacy of residential schools, police brutality, incarceration, forced starvation, climate change, and dispossession of land leave people marked with trauma and poverty, but I can’t find another statement that more concisely speaks to what I am trying to understand about ecological grief. Part of me cringes at optimism, at the word hope, which is fraught with history. Isn’t hope a balm without a strategy? Hope is not an act. Hope is not a tactic. Hope is a fantasy for people who are not afforded agency. Hope is the expectation that nothing can change in the here and now. It is a deferral to another place, another time, a future speculation, a heaven, a hereafter. I was afraid I might have to return to the idea of hope in this conclusion. It felt like a stain I didn’t know what to do with, but an essay about grief can’t be concluded without some refuge, some attempt at solace, some attempt at hope? I hear the word offered constantly as an antidote. In the news journalists conclude interviews with questions about hope, do you have hope? How does hope influence you? Is there any hope? I feel guilty for writing this paragraph. Railing against hope seems so cruel, because what else is there? But I think there is a lot for non-Indigenous people to learn from Belcourt’s statement. Care can be a radical act, a temporal act, a healing act. Care is a protective attentiveness to the future. Care is active, reciprocal. Joy, like care, is also an act of love, to celebrate, to feel delight, wonder, euphoria. If we only grieve what we love, let us also actively love what we love, while we still can. *** This morning the sky is all rough-hewn clouds, like matted hair, feral, unkempt. Summer tightens its jaws. I watch the street from my porch. A neighbor in a mask asks for a tomato from the garden. A child passes with a balloon. My grandfather texts me a photo of Kootenay lake. The water is silver. Waves reflect light in rivulets of liquid mercury. He compares it to a photo from a few days before where the ferry is near invisible, cloaked in smoke from the wildfires. He says he doesn’t go outside anymore, except sometimes in the morning with a special mask to filter the particulates. I think of the charcoal forest, everything burnt an ink-black, ravaged. A pain in my chest rises to my throat like a hand. Is this what the stranger in New Orleans felt? I think of a stand of cedars near my grandfather’s vegetable garden, the perfume of the needles, the red peppermint puzzle pieces in the bark. I drink my coffee too fast. Claustrophobia is setting in. I need to run away to a place where I am unknown, I write in my notebook, so I can be more myself, not controlled by other people’s ideas of who I am. The clouds twist and contort until they turn to waves cresting in the sky. My mom texts to say the animals are acting weird. Birds are flying in circles or hiding. What is home? A photo on Instagram of an inferno peaking over the summit of a blue mountain. I cross out what I have written in my notebook, as if anything makes sense anymore. How can I be more myself in a place that doesn’t know me? Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Walrus, Blue Walleye, Caribou, Deepwater Cisco, Eelgrass Limpet, Great Auk, Kiyi, Macoun’s shining moss, Whitefish, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Striped Bass.