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My parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, the cult leader.

The Memory Weavers

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Wonder Women

The fight for female superheroes in Hollywood.

On a good day, to someone like me, superheroes are a juvenile distraction, like deep throating a box of Nerds when you’re old enough to know better. On a bad day, they are a capitalist virus, multiplying across the culture and eclipsing everything in their path. Maybe it’s conceivable for one good guy to destroy one bad guy, but how does one person—even one person with all that power—fix a world whose enemy is itself? The day I spoke to Supergirl, May 30th, a global pandemic had pushed the American death toll past 100,000, protests had broken out across the country over the killing of yet another Black man, George Floyd, and the U.S. president had tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It sounds like the ideal setting for a superhero to suddenly materialize and clean house, but that’s not how it works. One bad apple is not responsible for this dystopia, this is a corruption embedded in our soil. So maybe it was the world that was cloudy and not the Zoom call that was blurry when I spoke to Helen Slater. Either way, she looked mortal in a way I didn’t remember her in 1984, when she starred in the first ever female-led superhero movie. Instead, I remember her in Supergirl as white blond, bowl eyed, diaphanous, the kind of soaring Aryan beauty that can only be created in captivity, or at least with a lot of bleach and blusher (“I’m Jewish,” Slater says). More than 30 years later—me 40 and not 4, her 56 and not 19—Slater’s hair is still long and light, but it isn’t white. She wears heavy-framed glasses that she keeps punching up her nose. She says her daughter is teaching her about fourth wave feminism and that she is studying mythology. Slater is grounded in California, but she may as well live right next door. Because at this moment she is as impotent as the rest of us. White supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, every other phobia—the roots of inequality have so invaded the core of society that the very notion of a single solution, let alone a superhero to provide it, is not just a fantasy, it’s an affront to reality. And yet we are overrun by superheroes. They are predominantly white men, though some superheroes of colour have recently emerged; more persistently celebrated, however, seem to be the women, most of them white, as though female-led superhero films are the last bastion of feminism. And with the December release of Wonder Woman 1984, it’s impossible for me not to think of Supergirl, which was released in 1984, two stories with identical time periods made thirty years apart. It’s impossible not to think about how much has changed and how much hasn’t. Women still don’t own superheroes, of course, but are superheroes even worthy of them? *** You would think that the decision to make the first female-led superhero movie would be a monumental one. You would think that, but only if you thought that way. The kind of people who think that way aren’t usually the kind of people who make those kinds of decisions. Businessmen make those kinds of decisions. And, sure, some businessmen are culturally inclined, some can think abstractly. But a lot of them don’t. A lot of them think in money and that’s it. In Hollywood, those kind of businessmen (and they are usually men) care about movies insofar as movies mean box office. A good movie makes good money, a bad movie doesn’t. Those are the kinds of men who made Supergirl. “For us, as producers,” Ilya Salkind told Film Comment in 1983, “the point of making a film is that moviegoers looking through the newspaper pages in any big city will want to see . . . one film!” The Salkinds were a kind of producing family dynasty. Grandfather Mikhail worked with his son, Alexander, the money guy, and his grandson, Ilya, the creative one, on The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. It was on that set that Alexander, whom Ilya described to me as “crafty” with money, became infamous for being the first producer to shoot two films at once (the Salkind Clause was subsequently created by the Screen Actors Guild to keep one contract from being stretched across two projects). In 1974, Alexander and son were looking for a new project when, out of the blue during dinner one night, Ilya said: “Why don’t we do Superman? He’s got power, he flies, he’s unbelievable!” To do that, the Salkinds had to get the rights from DC Comics. Ilya called the process a “pain in the ass” involving months of negotiation and even a draft of the script. In the end, though, they secured the rights to Superman for twenty-five years. And not just Superman. Supergirl isn’t as old as Superman. Kara Zor-El first appeared in Action Comics in 1959, two decades after her cousin, as a kind of secret sidekick with similar powers—superhuman strength, speed, flight. While she was created by men, she did enter an industry already occupied by Wonder Woman. And if Superman is the Übermensch, Wonder Woman is the Überfrau. She is the female superhero against which all other female superheroes are compared. It’s common knowledge now that psychologist William Moulton Marston created Diana Prince (who was drawn by suffrage cartoonist Harry G. Peter) in 1941 as a kind of catch-all antidote to comics’ toxic masculinity. She appealed to lefties because she was an immigrant from an all-female island encouraging women to use their powers to act in solidarity for peace. She appealed to righties because she was a conventionally attractive white cisgender heterosexual who uses violence to get her way. “She combines multiple ideologies in one body so anyone can see in her what they want to see and that’s I think what makes her so popular,” explains Professor Carolyn Cocca, author of Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, and whose latest book Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film was released in August. Supergirl had to wait until the late Sixties to become the lead, by which point feminism was in its second wave. This culminated in Gloria Steinem throwing Wonder Woman on the cover of Ms. Magazine in 1972. Four years later, the most accessible female superhero in the world would get three seasons of her own television show, with a couple caveats. As producer Douglas S. Cramer put it, “She should be built like a javelin-thrower but with the sweet face of a Mary Tyler Moore.” That would be Lynda Carter. In her starry trunks and scarlet bustier, both of which got skimpier as the seasons progressed, her Wonder Woman became the iconic female superhero. Despite the character’s activist origins, however, ABC didn’t take her particularly seriously. Wonder Woman was clearly satirical. It had a super cheesy theme song—“In your satin tights,/fighting for your rights”—used comic book-style speech bubbles, and its pièce de résistance was a ridiculous transformation involving a slow-mo beep-laden twirl. “Please, whatever you do, don’t ask me what I think of women’s lib,” Carter told Orange Coast Magazine two years in. “I’ve heard that question so many times I could scream.” It was a good way to avoid explaining why the first time we see Diana, she is running through a jungle in a gauzy pastel teddy and big hair like she’s in Valley of the Dolls. “There’s a reason it’s called jiggle TV,” says Cocca. “There’s a lot more running than you need to see.” Which is not to say Wonder Woman did not touch on feminism—it couldn’t really avoid it. “Any civilization that does not recognize the female is doomed to destruction,” Diana says in the pilot. “Women are the wave of the future and sisterhood is stronger than anything.” It’s just that she says it while torturing the woman beside her. *** Superman III was “a disaster.” Ilya tells me this no less than three times, with the same flattened gravitas each time. It was bad enough that the Salkinds chose to start a Supergirl franchise instead of continuing with Superman—it seemed to be less about wanting to make Supergirl than about not wanting to make another Superman. Everything about the way Supergirl was made signaled her second-class status. While the budget for Superman was $55 million, the budget for Supergirl was $35 million. While the director of The Omen made Superman, the director of Jaws II made Supergirl. While Christopher Reeve was paid $250,000 for Superman and Superman II (amounting to $125,000 each), the actress hired to play Supergirl was paid only $75,000. When I brought up the comparatively low fee to Ilya, he remained unfazed: “I mean, she was totally unknown.” That part is true. Helen Slater had just graduated from a performing arts high school when one of her agents put her forward for Supergirl’s best friend while the other suggested her for Supergirl. “I don’t want to go up for the friend, I want to go up for the lead part,” Slater remembers thinking. So, her mom sewed her a costume, including a cape. “I remember feeling very self conscious that I had maybe gone too far,” she says. But she had brought a copy of Moby-Dick to the audition because she was supposed to be reading it during her scene and she remembers casting director Lynn Stalmaster commenting on that. It was one of the “little sign posts” that told her she was doing well, despite the nerves. To get an idea of what all of this looked like, you can find images online from Slater’s 1982 screen test. Despite the big hair, the cheesy red headband, and the bib-like cape, she looked as earnest as she would on screen. The moment Slater was cast as Supergirl was actually caught on film because a documentary was being shot around the production. “I probably cried, right?” she says. No, she didn’t. She appears surprisingly poised, in fact. The footage shows Slater being called into an office, ostensibly as a farewell, when the news is sprung on her. “It seems you have the part,” she is told. “Really?” she says. “Oh my gosh. Oh my God. Alright.” Slater explains that she came from a school that considered theatre the be-all, not television or film. She didn’t think she was the best actress, nor did she think this was the best part. But she knew it was big. “The feeling was just so much excitement that I might be able to make a living at this,” she says. In press from the time she looks perpetually awestruck. In behind-the-scenes footage, she is wide-eyed. Slater was so wide-eyed, in fact, that she didn’t question the quality of the script (“You feel you’ve been chosen for something,” she explains, describing her younger self as “compliant”). Nor did she question Faye Dunaway being given first billing. Presumably Dunaway was also paid a lot more, though Slater doesn’t begrudge her own low salary: “For me, that was more money than I could ever imagine.”  Though Slater grew up in a “broth” of strong women—an activist mom, an academic step-mom—she was only 19 when she was cast as Supergirl. And this was the Reagan era, the era of the conservative backlash to second-wave feminism. As Slater put it, “I still felt so much of my identity and what mattered was how men viewed me.” To get an idea of how they viewed her, consider People Magazine’s December 1984 issue. In an article titled, “My Dinner with Supergirl,” Scot Haller writes about Slater’s chest growing though workouts and inquires whether she thinks Supergirl has sex. “What a strange question,” the actress replied at the time. When I bring up the interaction during our interview, Slater doesn’t remember it. What she does remember is making the film itself. “It had a male director, it had a male writer, it was male producers,” she says. “It was very female diminished in a lot of ways.” Set footage bears this out, showing a good number of the male crew on set (including director Jeannot Swarcz) shirtless in jean shorts. In the middle of them all, Slater is in head-to-toe Supergirl regalia diligently performing her duties. “Helen’s beautiful, but not threatening to other women,” Ilya said on the Supergirl press tour in 1984. It was another way of stating the persistent unofficial rule in Hollywood that all female protagonists must abide by: be relatable. It was actually less about Slater being non-threatening to women, more about her being non-threatening to men—where Superman was strength and power, Supergirl was elegance and style. Whatever feminist gains Wonder Woman, and protagonists like Princess Leia and Ripley, had made, the Eighties’ conservative retaliation against progressive movements as a whole helped ensure that female superheroes didn’t get too fierce. This backlash, the plummeting newsstand sales of comics, the rise in specialty shops to fill the void, and a loosened comics code all converged to create an exclusionary fan base that, according to Cocca, was “older and more male and more white.” This demographic increasingly preferred hypermasculine male superheroes and hypersexualized female superheroes—basically everything they couldn’t have. Moving into the Nineties, comics got even more hostile for women, the art more pornographic, the stories more violent. An Archie reader forever, I remember visiting Toronto's Silver Snail comic shop when I was a teenager in the Nineties. I always felt out of place. And I never went in alone. *** There was a 20-year gap between the first major female-led superhero film and the second. In the intervening years, the circumstances hadn’t much changed. In 2004, Catwoman was as much of an afterthought as Supergirl had been in 1984. It was also a spin-off, this time from Batman, and, after a decade in development hell, it was rushed into production when another Batman movie—Batman vs. Superman—was dropped. The Batman series had reintroduced Nineties audiences to Catwoman, but director Tim Burton’s retelling was still very much within the realm of comic books’ fantasy world. It was Marvel, first with X-Men in 2000, then with Spider-Man two years later, that relocated superheroes to modern day reality. X-Men may have had three male stars, but it also had four significant female superheroes, most notably Halle Berry as Storm. A year later she would become the first (and only, so far) Black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress (for Monster’s Ball). Three years after that she would lead her own superhero movie and be the first Black woman to do so. Unfortunately, the movie was even worse than Superman III. Catwoman shouldn’t be as bad as it is. The budget was a healthy $100 million. A couple of women were behind the scenes this time—Denise Di Novi was one of two co-producers, and one out of its six writing credits was playwright Theresa Rebeck—and the star had just won the most prestigious acting award in Hollywood. Yet somehow all of this still coalesced into a third-rate music video. French director Pitof (yes, he goes by one name) never once lets us forget he is an effects guy, zooming and panning across every scene to the point of regurgitation. The flimsy plot has Sharon Stone fully camped out as a beauty brand ambassador shilling cream that turns your face to rock. Berry, meanwhile, seems to have aimlessly wandered off of the Dolby Theatre’s red carpet into the role of a meek “ugly” graphic designer whose ethereal beauty fails to be constrained by a few errant strands of hair and some baggy tunics. Her self actualisation requires being thrown off a viaduct and swarmed by an army of cats, which turns her into a half-naked wall-climbing femme fatale. Catwoman paws at feminism—“Catwomen are not contained by the rules of society,” Berry’s character says—but this soft-core fantasy is still bound by the limits of the male imagination. The film is very much an expression of a popular brand of feminism from the early aughts, just as Elektra would be a year later (another spin-off afterthought rush job, this time from Marvel’s Daredevil, with Jennifer Garner playing a bustier-clad assassin). While real activism could be found that year in Washington’s birth control march and in personal blogs by a diverse array of young women, popular culture preferred a more photogenic brand of lipstick feminism. Practitioners performed their sexuality as a means of subverting male strictures on women’s bodies, except that their behaviour happened to play into the very male gaze it claimed to be challenging. As Ariel Levy writes in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture: “Proving that you are hot, worthy of lust, and—necessarily—that you seek to provoke lust is still exclusively women’s work.” Has a male superhero ever been asked, like Elektra, if he has time to get laid? Female superheroes may be immortal, but the Gods remain men. The failure of Catwoman and of Elektra became a self-fulfilling prophecy—the work that featured women was not as good, which, as Marvel’s CEO later made explicit, proved that work that featured women was not as good. In the meantime, Christopher Nolan changed the superhero genre for good in 2005 with Batman Begins, followed three years later by The Dark Knight, which gave superheroes real gravitas, which made them worthy of cinema. That same year, 2008, with the brighter, wittier Iron Man, Jon Favreau made certain there would be no turning back. Because of them, Marvel and DC and everyone else was suddenly all about the IP. If you have the good fortune of not knowing what that stands for, it’s intellectual property, which is to say, any idea or character or story that already exists, that has in some sense been tested already (see Batman, see Iron Man, see any other comic book character in existence). And as you run your way down the IP, from the most popular superhero to the least, from Marvel to DC to everyone else, you are working predominantly with male characters because those are the ones that were originally pushed. Well, DC had Wonder Woman. She had done well on television. In 1976. But a movie? There was no successful precedent for a female-led superhero movie. And Hollywood needed one. Hollywood is one of the most precedential industries around. Even if that precedent is often misguided. “Conventional wisdom is so easily proven false, it’s really a conventional fear,” explains Cocca. “It’s based on how we devalue women so we assume men don’t want to watch women, but we value men, so we assume women will watch men.” Hollywood is risk averse, it needs certainty, at least a little bit, and there was nothing that suggested a woman-fronted superhero movie could be successful. Alien? No, that was a sci-fi movie. Terminator, too. Xena? Buffy? Alias? TV, TV, TV. But female-led superhero movies? They all bombed. “Where are all the female superheroes to save the world?” Hannah Gill asked in the Scotland Herald in 2004. Three years later, Mother Jones reported on “the new wave of feminist fangirls” who had their own websites and “hate nothing more than when real-life problems like the glass ceiling intrude on their escapist fantasies.” As the aughts chugged along, this generation of feminists brought a backlash to the backlash, signalling that progressive movements were back on track. Online growth meant comics were accessible outside exclusionary zones, and with the boom in superhero movies and series, the audience broadened, conventions became more inclusive, and that more diverse fan base became vocal on social media. “When you put all those different kinds of pushes together you do start to have the hiring of more diverse people behind the scenes,” Cocca says. That’s where Melissa Rosenberg comes in. In 2010, her gritty series based on the Marvel comic Alias was supposed to appear on network television (a less risky proposition than film). Superhero Jessica Jones had a dead family and functional alcoholism and a knack for investigating. She was also goth hot and super strong and could jump really high. ABC passed in the end, but after Disney ransacked its IP to make a bunch of shows leading up to its mini-series The Defenders, Rosenberg was recalled. Her updated pilot, which has more than a passing resemblance to the hardboiled teen cop show Veronica Mars (precedent!), hit Netflix in late 2015. Jessica Jones starred Kristen Ritter in a hoodie and combat boots and was praised for its handle on trauma. If Jessica Jones owed The Dark Knight, the new Supergirl TV series owed Iron Man. Set to premiere the same month as Jessica Jones, CBS moved its launch a month earlier. Once again, the show was somewhat reactive, with co-creator Greg Berlanti basing his version of Kara on Ginger Rogers, who “had to do everything Fred Astaire did but backward and in heels.” Like Iron Man, Supergirl is high on gloss and high on quips, though Supergirl herself has the same doofiness Superman did way back in 1978. She also preserves the dregs of male fantasy. Star Melissa Benoist expressed discomfort with her character’s signature micro mini, while Supergirl has often been accused of pandering to feminists. (A little less sophisticated than Jessica Jones, this series includes lines like, “Supergirl? We can’t name her that! Shouldn’t she be called Superwoman?”) But while Jessica Jones was cancelled last year, Supergirl remains afloat (its sixth season, airing next year, will be its last, but a new spin-off, Superman & Lois, replaces it). Television executives seem to prefer their female superheroes in line with their predecessors. That Helen Slater appears in the Supergirl series as Benoist’s foster mom only underscores the proximity of the past. *** While Superman took place in a big city and a bustling newsroom, 1984’s Supergirl was restricted to a small town and a smaller school. Even its sexism was banal: the heroine narrowly avoids a sexual assault pretty much the second she arrives on earth, her schoolfriend cautions her not to show off her smarts, she is saved multiple times by a himbo, and in the final stand-off, the worst insult Supergirl can conjure up for Selena, the woman trying to kill her, is that the older woman has no friends. Though planes were flown over Cannes to announce Supergirl just as they had announced Superman, the latter made five times its budget at the box office, while the former made less than half its own. Film critic Roger Ebert seemed genuinely disappointed by Supergirl’s mishandling. “There’s a place, I think, for a female superhero,” he wrote. But it wasn’t 1984. Slater thinks one of the reasons the film didn’t fly was because of the gendered expectations around the genre: “It was really coming up under the veil of the Superman movies and male superheroes.” And while she would have loved for it to have been a success (and, presumably, to have made the two sequels she was contracted for), she wasn’t too broken up about it all. “I remember the feeling being that I’m not going to get stuck the way Chris got stuck,” she says, referring to Superman star Christopher Reeve. “I felt genuinely that I got away with the best possible scenario. The movie didn’t do so great, but I still got in the door enough that I could keep working.” No wonder 2017’s Wonder Woman took forever to get here. In 2007, a Joss Whedon feature based on the character was reportedly cancelled and, in 2011, a David E. Kelley pilot was, too. In 2013, DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson said that Wonder Woman was a priority but, “we have to get her right, we have to.” While the cancellation of Batman vs. Superman cursed us with Catwoman, Batman v Superman made Wonder Woman possible. Released in 2016, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the first time Wonder Woman appeared in a live action film. She took the form of Gal Gadot, who, like Lynda Carter, was a statuesque former model. As an Israeli expat, Gadot (who had also appeared in four Fast and the Furiouses) had served time in the army, a detail both Hollywood and the press couldn’t seem to get enough of. She was a dream come true for the superhero genre: a kick-ass supermodel. And though she appeared on screen for less than five minutes and only had a handful of lines of dialogue (her grunts take up more screen time), she left a lasting impression. “I think she deserves grand cinema,” director Patty Jenkins says on the Wonder Woman Blu-Ray. Jenkins had in fact pitched a Wonder Woman movie in 2010, a story that centered around Steve Trevor, the pilot who crashes near Diana’s island, but DC passed. Instead they went with an origin story conceived by Batman v Superman’s director (Zach Snyder), one in which Steve acts more as Diana’s chaperone to 1918-era Europe. DC initially hired Michelle McLaren to direct, but “creative differences” sent them back to Jenkins. She pitched Wonder Woman as the ideal universal woman, not unlike Superman for men. She wanted to make something that hearkened back to the first modern superhero film, Richard Donner’s Superman, the implication being that this would be the long-awaited first modern female-led superhero film. And it lived up to the burden. Wonder Woman is exponentially better than any of the female superhero movies that preceded it. It has a better script, better direction, better effects, better acting. It is grandiose, transcending the pages from which it was born, just like Batman Begins, just like Iron Man. But as Wonder Woman’s mother tells her, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana, they do not deserve you.” There appeared to be a concerted effort not to make Wonder Woman about politics, which is to say not to make it about feminism. That makes sense if you want to appease fan boys, but it makes less sense when you realise fan boys appear to consider any progressive change political. Discrimination is also political. And fourth wave feminism is here whether Hollywood likes it or not. So, when Jenkins says of Wonder Woman, “the idea of sexism is completely absurd to her,” the same cannot be said of Wonder Woman. None of the choices made in the film have been made in a post-sexist world. It says something that the most powerful women on Diana’s island are white and that Diana was not conceived by her mother out of clay (as she was in the comics), but by a man and a woman. It says something that the friends Diana fights alongside are not women (as in the comics) but men, and that the enemy she fights is a man, not a woman (as in the comics). Diana in the film is also quicker to violence—Jenkins has said the most important scene for her was the war scene—than she ever was on the page. In Cocca’s words, “They tried to center this female character but they got nervous about it.”  *** Captain Marvel was designed to be Marvel’s “big feminist movie,” star Brie Larson told Entertainment Tonight two years ago. The film’s release on International Women’s Day in 2019 was in line with this plan. That this release date was the culmination of various scheduling conflicts with male-led superhero films gets closer to the truth. As opposed as its approach to politics was from Wonder Woman and as tonally different as they were, Captain Marvel wasn’t so dissimilar. The heroine here also wore red and blue and gold and was also a soldier and also had a boyfriend in the military. “Both of them are created to be feminist but both of them are also created to be militarist,” says Cocca. Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are alike for a reason. It’s hard enough, beyond their super powers, to distinguish male superheroes’ individual personalities on screen, but it’s even worse with the women, who always seem to be a generic mix of vulnerability and strength. But either you’re an individual, or you’re an everywoman, and an everywoman has a better chance of representing the underrepresented. Two months before Wonder Woman premiered, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck—the duo behind the indie films Half Nelson and Sugar—were announced as the co-directors of Captain Marvel. Boden, the first woman to helm a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, tells me they were fans of the 2013 independent film Short Term 12, in which Larson played a supervisor at a group home, and always wanted to work with her. “It’s her humanity, you know, and how in touch she is with her emotional world,” Boden explains, “and that in combination with a super powerful hero got us really excited to tell a story about somebody who maybe was trying to push that part of themselves down.” At the same time, they didn’t want their movie to be too serious. I asked Boden if that Marvel CEO email from 2014—the one in which Ike Perlmutter cited Supergirl, Catwoman, and Elektra as reasons not to make more “female movies”— was added pressure for them, but she said no. “We felt pressure to make something good,” Boden said. “I think that all Marvel directors feel a lot of pressure to make a movie that is successful because all their movies are successful and you don’t want to be the one that just like completely fails.” Captain Marvel is good enough. It takes a character that was introduced in 1968 as a love interest and turns her into a fully formed heroine whose pugnacious alien side is at odds with her tender human side. Larson is funny and charming in a way that reminded me of Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. The musical cues were similarly jukebox, if a little more glaring—playing No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” during the huge fight scene was a little on the nose—and it does hammer on a lot more than it needs to about Carol Danvers’s mortal sensitivity. Captain Marvel doesn’t announce itself in quite the way Wonder Woman did, but it ultimately passed the billion-dollar mark, even if it didn’t make a huge impact beyond that. Still, it’s hard to gauge exactly why Boden and Fleck are not involved in the sequel; Boden seemed to be weighing her words very carefully when I asked about that. “I can’t say exactly, it’s just that we’re”—long pause—“moving on to doing other stuff.” And then the publicist abruptly ended the conversation. *** This is supposed to be the year of the female superhero and, maybe so, but what does changing the gender of a well-established genre really mean? From Supergirl to Jessica Jones to Captain Marvel to Wonder Woman, the players may have changed, but the game remains the same: The men made the rules, now the women are just operating within them. Is it even that many women, anyway? While fan outrage makes it seem as though superheroines are taking over, per Cocca, “it’s a really really small change, you know, numerically.” Film, television, comics, each of these media only has women starring in under 20 percent of its titles. That may be a 300 percent growth from a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean the representation is fair, it just means it’s slightly less unfair than it was. Hollywood may want to diversify its audience, but not at the expense of the old one. That means you start with white women, maybe some men of colour, but women of colour? They may make up the majority of earth but they make up the minority in superhero movies. The only way to keep female characters from being burdened, from being basic, is to have more of them. That way each one doesn’t shoulder all the pressure of representing an entire gender. But to have more of them, there has to be more diversity behind the scenes, so that homogenised groups of executives at profit-oriented companies are not making all the same decisions. “While there are a number of popular, strong, complex female superheroes,” Cocca writes in Superwomen, “in general what we see is underrepresentation, domestication, sexualization, and heteronormativity.” But I don’t want to sound too pessimistic. It is something to go from 19-year-old Helen Slater being given one shot at Supergirl by a man to 34-year-old Gal Gadot co-producing and starring in a four-film Wonder Woman franchise directed by a woman. And despite the pandemic, a number of female-led superhero movies are still set to go in the next few months besides Wonder Woman 1984. Cathy Yan’s recently released Margot Robbie vehicle Birds of Prey was followed in August by The New Mutants, an X-Men spin-off starring Maisie Williams, while Cate Shortland’s Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansson is still on Marvel's slate. Not to mention Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, which will be fronted by Angelina Jolie and Gemma Chang in 2021, and talk around the role of the Black Panther potentially being taken over by Letitia Wright following Chadwick Boseman's sudden passing. Female superheroes are so in vogue right now it’s virtually impossible to keep on top of which ones are coming when and how and with whom in charge. But in case you’re getting too excited, as one of those barely considered last questions I sometimes absently put to sources, I fully expected Cocca to laugh off my pessimism when I asked what there was to say there wouldn’t be, at some point in the future, another backlash? “Nothing,” she responded flatly. “Certain people have to prove themselves over and over.” Oh. *** Supergirl may be one of the weakest superhero movies around, but it still has one of my favourite scenes of any superhero movie ever. It’s a moment around 15 minutes in that was absent from the release I saw as a kid. In it, Supergirl has just landed on earth. After zapping open a daisy with her eyes (just go with it), she discovers that smelling that same flower sends her floating above the ground. Delighted, she wiggles her red-bootied feet and squeals as she stretches her arms wide and her chest out and floats from rock to rock, before gliding for a long spell through the trees. Slater was on wires to shoot this scene, which only really allowed her to move her arms, but several months of practice results in an entrancing “flying ballet” that has her gently swooping upside down and around, her primary colours popping against the comparatively drab landscape and Seventies music. As opposed to contemporary superhero films where everything is amped to the extreme, Supergirl’s juxtaposition against this prosaic backdrop makes her movements, her figure all the more magical. It’s unfortunate that when TriStar pushed to make Supergirl shorter, according to Ilya, this is what was cut. It’s unfortunate that what remains is Supergirl predominantly using her powers in the context of conflict, rather than in stolen moments of peaceful solitude like this. Because at a certain point you have to question the very idea of the superhero at all. The idea of the exceptional individual, whose superiority manifests in their power to combat and to destroy. Even Supergirl herself finds it unfortunate. “It would be great for me, selfishly,” Slater says, “if we saw more, in the spirit of feminism—true feminism—just a wider range of women carrying the mantle that are not necessarily vaulted or held up for their ability to conquer.” She’ll have to look beyond Wonder Woman 1984. The sequel to Wonder Woman is about the greed that led us to where we are today, sure, but it is also made within an industry that is itself a symptom of that greed. Diana returns in Reagan times to face a Trump-type (Pedro Pascal) against a backdrop that is now a trope of retro pop culture: the Eighties mall. The film’s release was originally pushed to October 2 in the midst of the pandemic, which you could argue is because it looks better on the big screen. But, again, it’s really about the numbers. It’s more lucrative to have a theatrical release than a direct VOD release, as together they allow a costly film like Wonder Woman 1984 (budget: $175 million) to profit. Which may be why, pushed again to December 25, in a climate that is seeing very few people in theatres, the film will still premiere simultaneously on screen and streaming on HBO Max (a move which was reportedly made to bolster the fledgling service, though international markets without HBO are restricted to a theatrical release only, from December 16 on). Regardless, with the industry’s iron-clad hold on superhero product, I haven’t been able to see the film. Even Vogue, which featured Gadot on its May cover, was only shown half an hour at the Warner Bros. lot (for all of that, Vogue’s verdict—“it is an all-encompassing and visually stunning (and quite loud) experience”—tells us nothing). In an interview with Collider in December, Jenkins took pity on her public and revealed that the Orwellian date of the title doesn’t just serve as a setting for Wonder Woman 1984, but as a metaphor for today, in which our excesses have virtually sunk us. “I was like, What does Wonder Woman—if Wonder Woman is half God and is wise and kind and loving and generous in this way—what would she say about our world right now? How would she encounter that?” From what I can tell, she encounters it much as she has encountered everything else, with a lot of kicking, lassoing, yelling, and bullet-dodging, leaving plenty of destruction in her wake. But perhaps that’s the big joke. That the tagline, “a new era of wonder,” for a film set in the past, in the end reminds us that we are doomed to repeat ourselves.
‘Folklore Has Always Been About Futurity’: An Interview with K-Ming Chang

The author of Bestiary on mythmaking, how grossness co-exists with beauty, and changing your destiny.

K-Ming Chang was born in the year of the tiger. According to the zodiac, tigers have a strong sense of justice and resist being held back by rules. An unwillingness to be disciplined. This speaks to the spirit in which her debut novel, Bestiary (Hamish Hamilton), unfolds: vivid, thrilling prose-poetry that traces the lineage of three generations of women wrestling with their Taiwanese heritage. The present-day protagonist, Daughter, is raised on a diet of spoken legends and folklore passed down by her mother. One of these myths includes the Fujianese/Taiwanese myth of Hu Gu Po, a tiger woman who eats the toes of children and calls it “snacking on peanuts.” It’s not long before the myths seep into and corrupt the rhythms of everyday life: Daughter soon grows a tiger tail from an inflicted wound on her back, starts to fall in love with a classmate, and begins a larger-than-life project of translating her grandmother’s handwritten letters and coming to terms with who her history belongs to. The imagery of Chang’s novel is enchanting, hypnotic, a burst-of-energy, up-in-arms kind of nostalgia-induced nausea: the seams of pillows splitting when bitten into; geese rotting in reverse; uneaten jars of baby food; salty fishdaughters with sequin scales; landscape paintings visible in underwear; suns sagging in the sky; spit dyed with fruit; fog that looks like whisked eggs; sweat that smells like sweet pudding. It’s a soupy, escapist world that welcomes forgetting a sense of control or normalcy. Over email, I spoke with Chang about how she practices self-care, writing Emily Brontë fan fiction, and returning to childhood diaries as a source of inspiration for novel-writing. Nathania Gilson: A pattern I saw woven through Bestiary is the tradition of oral storytelling carried through three generations of family members, across cultures, borders, and time. What were your own experiences of growing up around other peoples’ stories? And how did you learn to interpret voices and gestures on the page? K-Ming Chang: The tradition of oral storytelling is deeply important to me. Because of barriers to literacy, oral stories were often used as the primary way of recording history and myth. They were also incredibly funny, dark, winding, and strange. When I was a child, I was most interested in stories about me—I was very narcissistic!—and I also listened devoutly to stories that felt like allegories for my life. When I was little, I only listened peripherally to stories that were about generations of my family and war and women, but as I grew older, I realized that my desire to tell stories was intimately connected to the oral tradition’s embodied-ness, and the sense of freedom and flexibility that comes with when a story is detached from an authoritative text. I grew up listening to others’ stories, and listening to people narrate lives that were not their own, so I loved writing effaced first-person narrators and observers and witnesses. I always felt like a witness: watching, waiting to intervene. The way I interpreted voice and gesture was to center the body on the page, to continually remind the reader that the story is coming from a body; a mouth. It’s being performed. Something else that comes up in the novel is the queering of mythology through mishearing. The narrator, Daughter, listens to her sibling Jie talk about two girl ghosts kissing in (cleaning) the creek. In your research (living, reading, connecting the dots between historical events and present day), did you come across anything that sparked new ways of thinking about how legends, myths, and superstitions become a way for people to write themselves—or their experiences—into existence?   Yes, absolutely! I think so much about queerness is about myth-making, inventing a story and a future for yourself. Queerness is an act of imagining. I think that people often think of myths and folklore as a thing “of the past.” But folklore, to me, has always been about futurity. Myths are about world-making, and so is imagining the future: imagination is a tool and a weapon that allows us to tear down and rebuild. Similarly, the mythic voice and mythic scope of storytelling allows me as a writer to reimagine the world; to probe possibility. For the characters in the book, harnessing myth and redefining it is tremendously powerful, akin to transforming the rules of their reality. Feces, vomit, spit, farting, and blood are ever-present in Bestiary. What was the choice behind mentioning the grosser details of being alive?  This is definitely something I only became aware of after people started reading the book and commenting on its grossness, which I really appreciated—I wasn’t able to see it myself! I think that it’s very natural in my family and with the people I’m intimate with to discuss the body and excrement in a shameless way. That these boundaries of what’s proper often break down when we’re with the people closest to us. The characters in Bestiary are extremely intimate and close-knit, and because of class, they’re also not able to separate themselves from the shit of the world, because they literally have to work in proximity to it, like how the mother character works at the chicken farm and scrapes poop from the floor. I also wanted to entwine the “grossness” of life with beauty and associate it with intimacy and closeness rather than with shame and disgust and distance. I think our first instinct is to always distance ourselves from things we’re ashamed of, and in Bestiary, I think the characters resist shame and dissociation, and instead feel deeply attuned to their bodies.   One of my favourite things about the book was watching Daughter become friends with Ben. And seeing their mutual desire and admiration for one another grow into something bigger. A bond forms between them through the act of translating Daughter’s Grandmother’s letters. Were there any examples of female friendships or romances in literature or popular culture that you looked to, that either lit a spark or gave shape to this one? I’m so glad that you mentioned Ben and Daughter, because they were such a joy for me to write! I think that rather than looking to examples of friendships between girls in literature, I drew more from experience.  I recently re-read my childhood diaries and was swept away by the intensity of what I felt for my friends growing up, and how love and affection was also deeply entwined with violence and explosiveness. There was both volatility and a sense of permanence, that we would be together forever and name our children after each other. I loved the grand, whole-heartedness of those statements, and similarly, with Ben and Daughter, there’s an almost supernatural attraction between them. I wanted it to be grandiose, bordering on ridiculous, to risk sentimentality, to not hold back. I imagined them as partners in crime, but also as each other’s spiritual and emotional guides. Bestiary has multiple gods. Grammar becomes “the god of language,” Daughter’s father is “the god of water.” It made me think of the tendency to put things, or people, on pedestals as children because we see potential in them that we might not see in ourselves. Then again, Daughter frames god as the opposite of karma. I wonder how much you were thinking about spirituality while writing this novel?  I was thinking a lot about spirituality and the divine, but as something plural and multi-faceted rather than singular. Daughter has internalized all these different religious influences and gods, and I think what remains consistent is the presence of fate and her persistent feeling that not everything is within her power to control.  I also think that the godliness of the other characters was both reverent and also a little irreverent. So many people, especially very morally complicated people—like the father—have elements of godliness, and there are so many forms of power that Daughter witnesses. I think that all the religious and spiritual influences are deliberately muddled and blended—they’re all inheritances, and Daughter is parsing out what she wants to believe in. You are a prolific writer of poetry and prose. Bestiary manages not to choose or side with one or the other. Do you ever feel pressured to switch between the two forms, or work harder to make the two ways of approaching narrative cooperate on the page? I wish I were more experimental and better at blending the two! I definitely want to continue experimenting with the ways prose and poetry cross-germinate. Because I’m so focused on individual words and phrases, which is an obsession and process that carries into both poetry and prose, I feel immersed in the same way no matter what form I’m working with. I definitely do feel pressure to return to poetry, but currently, I’m still playing around with prose, and I have to remind myself that I can always move between them! In this book, Daughter works out what it means to change your own destiny. How do you think being a writer has changed yours? It’s changed my destiny entirely. I’m so grateful for the people who have believed in my writing and invested so deeply into it, even when I couldn’t imagine my own future as a writer and still struggle to do so.  I think one thing I didn’t anticipate was that writing has brought me closer to my own community and has transformed me internally and allowed me to confront my history, personal and collective. The red-inked feedback that Daughter and Ben receive in class, found in the margins of their essays, cracked me up. “Improve your grammar. Improve your spelling. Implore your gods. We’ll show you a sentence.” It reminded me of how often people who are new to a country are underestimated. In a world that wants everyone to make sense, how does poetry allow you to look beyond that? I think this is tied to Ben being the god of grammar—Daughter sees Ben’s mistakes not as mistakes but as the godly invention of a new language. Poetry, for me, allows for rupture and invention. Rather than language that is grammatical or “correct,” it prizes innovation, and those outside of the language are the best at innovating it; seeing its possibilities, breaking and reinventing it. Poetry gave me permission to be playful with language, rather than having a punitive relationship with it—we often punish language play and innovation rather than nurturing or encouraging it, and poetry feels like a much-needed realm of transformation and possibility.                                                            You have a chapbook, Bone House, forthcoming in 2021. It’s been described as “a queer Taiwanese-American micro-retelling of Wuthering Heights.” Where did your interest in Emily Brontë come from? What does Romanticism fail to do, that you hope to explore in your interpretation of the work?  I could talk about Wuthering Heights forever! Bone House truly is my work of Brontë fan fiction. My interest in Wuthering Heights actually came from the novel being mentioned in the Twilight books, which I read in middle school. After reading Wuthering Heights, I remember thinking to myself, “This is so Asian!” It reminded me of a lot of Chinese soap operas: the repetitive generations, the ghost story, the haunting, the grand declarations, the innocent bystanders and slanted storytelling and various voices. I loved how convoluted it was, and how it was unexpectedly a multi-generational epic. I’m not totally sure what it fails to do, but I think the one thing that continually interested me is that Heathcliff is orientalized in the original novel, described as darker-skinned and other, even speculated to be from India or China. I was interested in this orientalizing Heathcliff as a “wild” and untamed other, and wanted to lean into those references and dynamics and explore how they play out in the Taiwanese-American community. 
Towards a New Horizon

During quarantine, I’ve been trying to remind myself that I’ve always been able to find inspiration for a better life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my upbringing since the beginning of quarantine, returning to an old self I had once rejected as too quaint—this part of me that could be moved, and regularly was, by the culture I consumed and was consumed by. My teens were a time of deep exploration. I figured out so many parts of myself back then, mainly by listening to the music I was raised on in the suburbs of Sydney. I clung to it as a form of catharsis from my violent homelife. Music became a vehicle of my own self-determination, a way to make my future. I guess I’ve been trying to re-access that state, to remind myself that I’ve always been able to find inspiration for a better life, even in the darkest of times. But, those days, back in my memories, are also forever marked by a ripe melancholia, and in remembering them, I’m also accessing a self that was, in so many ways, in constant mourning. I don’t know why teendom is laced with sadness for many of us, but interrogating that particular wound of teenagehood, the all-encompassing nature of it, has helped me regain my strength in these pandemic times. The music I listened to back then matched the pain of my reality, it became a crisis soundtrack. I had forgotten the part of me that can do this, this part of me that I abandoned as a way to adopt adulthood, to be, I assume, less sentimental. To heighten a feeling, but numb another one. That’s what I began to think survival looked like: blurring my pain in order to deal with it.  *  I would do anything to hear “Maps” again for the first time. That first stringing guitar, the slow patient build of the drums, and then that distant electric sound until Karen O’s voice appears like an apparition, a bratty sweetness, but, then, a tender plea, a lighthouse: “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” Again: “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you.” I was thirteen. I remember watching and re-watching that pixelated video on YouTube, when YouTube was a weird video wasteland, doing the striking dance moves like O, imitating her shrieking silent stares. The light on her face made her look like the heroine of a PTA movie (maybe Punch-Drunk Love) and, emulating the intensity of her palpable tenderness, her grumpy cheerleader chic, my friend Janelle and I pretended we were punkstars of our own making. O was something like us, Asian. Janelle a Filipina, and me a Bangladeshi, we were outliers too. Those days, I wasn’t allowed out. I snuck long trips into the city center, pretending I was going to work, to eat chocolate fondants and drink soy flat whites against the sleepy reservoir of Sydneysiders. The blooming streets echoed the expansion of an emerging new culture inside of me. I listened to Little Joy’s “The Next Time Around,” walking through the smell of eucalyptus and moss, or strolled along the fresh blue of the ocean listening to “Carmensita” by Devendra Banhart, or scurried along the creeks at the back of my mother’s house as I blasted “Postcards from Italy” by Beirut, avoiding the slimy leeches at my feet. I still think of the feeling, the wave of excitement I still get taking the train over the Sydney Harbor Bridge, remembering Cat Power, watching Luna Park, then the Opera House, move past me on each side as “Cross Bones Style” serenades me. I think of the Rocks and listening to “Anyone Else But You” by The Moldy Peaches, or playing “Two Weeks” by Grizzly Bear on repeat while eating a bucket of mussels at the Bavarian Bier Cafe, longing for love, forever alone.  * My child-self learned to disassociate. It made me a master dreamer. This, I've learned, is called maladaptive daydreaming. By the time I was firmly in my teens, however, something shifted. The romanticism of music, juxtaposed against the everyday trauma of my life, began to give my feelings context. The music I was consuming made me feel less alone, and became an extension of the hollowing desire I had to be seen. I longed to feel cinematic, and music was a quick way for me to do that.  I had limited resources. Being from the suburbs with parents who couldn’t easily afford niceties, I had to dream. Everything could be an inspiration, as I had to make a life, a future of survival, out of the mundane, out of the ubiquitous. I found these moments walking down a street under the perfect golden light. In a pre-Instagram era, there was a different kind of deliberation to these cinematic moments. I craved places where I could archive myself, even if just in my own brain. I made scenes in my head to live in real life, and by executing them, I was, in my own private moments, witnessing myself. This felt heightened for a South Asian, Muslim, queer kid. There was something significant in self-spectatorship, and it became a way to validate who I was. I felt in those days as if I was fading. Abuse does that to you, and depression definitely does that to you. When your sense of self is so lacking you require constant motivation to live, music can become a way to digest, and eventually not dissociate. To instead feel, but on my terms. Using music as a means of articulation, I became the heroine of my own story. I felt excluded from the whiteness of these cultural worlds that I consumed, so I watched and imitated. Essentially, I started to create a reference for myself. These cinematic moments resurrected me from my rut. It was my version of experimenting. I would spend countless back-to-back days blasting myself with music, while I danced, I dressed up, I pretended to star in my own film, directed by, like, Luca Guadagnino. * Remember how every Saturday you’d wake up to watch cartoons? When I was a child, I would arise, obsessed with chicken, microwave twenty chicken nuggets until brown and crunchy, and watch Dexter until my sister, seven years older, would wake up and force me to watch Rage, the Australian music video show. I hated seeing Bjork appear on screen in some weird costume contraption; hated ogling at an emaciated, acid blond and cartoon-faced Daniel Johnston sing about being anorexic. I hated the seediness of the music, the darkness. There was something to the music that felt bleak, that felt dangerous. Back then, at about eight years old, I didn’t care about anything. I was super into sports, because I was a baby dyke, confused with my body, and unsure of how to be in a gender that didn’t necessarily feel like all mine, all the time. I didn’t feel good in my body. I always felt surveilled. Or dirty. Or both. Especially around white people and East Asians. Other South Asians found me too strange, and the other Sri Lankan, Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi girls in my school were always giving me unwarranted advice on how to be hotter. “Maybe don’t get more unflattering haircuts,” one told me after I gave myself lopsided baby-bangs in the 9th grade. They never quite understood, I enjoyed ugliness. I liked when I looked a little off-kilter, it felt like a better fit. Over time, I came to see the value in the strange. My sister taught me it was better that way. There was no blueprint but her, so I followed. She’s a Pisces, twelfth house and Neptune dominant (if you know, you know) space-cadet. I first listened to the entirety of Jeff Buckley’s Grace with her. I still know that album more fluently than I know most things. Forget “Hallelujah,” have you ever heard Jeff sing “Lilac Wine?” (I drink much more than I ought to drink/Because it brings me back to yooooou.) This love of Jeff turned into a deep love of the high falsetto of a man’s voice. My sister was subliminally morphing me into someone cooler than I had the right to be. I never gave her the credit she deserves for this. I just took it, and ran with it. An entitlement of suddenly finding taste. She and I would drive around after, picking up groceries, taking the extra-long road back home, and listen to songs together. “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand, “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie, or “These Days” by Nico. These were our sacred exchanges of freedom where we could escape the coldness of our lives, and find a world where we could live as we wished to be. My sister, who for much of my life was my lodestar (encompassing the various possibilities of who I could be), developed an eating disorder just as I turned ten. As a way to control her own self, she veered towards me, critiquing my latent chubbiness like it was ungodly. She was moralistic, having a Catholic school education, and I believed her. It supported everything I had already been told: that I was wrong in the body I was in. Being a child of abuse also fed into this. Nothing about my own physicality felt like a reprieve—I was sexualized too young in a society that didn’t desire my charm, just the phantom of my physicality. As I looked around for support, I was again erased. I was never seen in my totality of being. This deep sense of loneliness became an identity, and something I also longed to be seen in. As in in my sadness, but, simultaneously, it became something that I wanted a voice to salve. I needed to find belonging. So, I found it on the internet, using my top bands/songs/films as a sham call out on chatrooms, a more sophisticated demande d'amour from the A/S/L dial-up world. It was a building block for my burgeoning self-esteem, I recognized the power of finding others like me. My tastes became a litmus test to find the right community, and through my access to my internet peers—who had the same vernacular, same weird geeky conversations—I morphed into my own creation. My internet persona was not only a deep reflection of who I was, but also who I wanted to be. It’s where a lot of us learned to become ourselves. Fast and readied pavements to our experimentation, the internet was a space to invent multiple times over, to posture, to be. But also, to learn, to expand, to create new definitions of/for ourselves, for the future selves we wanted to be. “Attract without meeting anyone’s eyes,” Shailja Patel writes in Migritude. Using online vernacular to paint clearer conceptions, I, and a generation of weirdos like myself, talked in movie stills, movie gifs. My particular favorites were ones from In The Mood For Love and I Am Love and everything by Kiarostami. I was also on top of the music I reveled in, listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto and knowing every word to every song on The Bends by Radiohead. I knew I had taste, though none of my real-life peers in the Sydney suburbs thought so. I was taunted for wearing thrifted clothing, for my weird idiosyncratic references. But I had a different kind of bliss; I found it in learning about what I liked. That was the only agency I had. I spent those days replaying the songs I’d heard on Triple J, the alt radio station in Australia. From there I learned about “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, “L.E.S Artistes” by Santigold, “On The Radio” by Regina Spektor, and “Sheep” by Gonjasufi. These songs came soaring like solar systems of possibility into my mundane existence. The music became a lighthouse and I dreamt for a glimmering, bright, sexy future. For the one of New York, the one of sin. I longed for a life that I could claim as my own, where I was my own person, not who my parents wanted me to be. I felt the pressure of cultural assimilation, where girls like me were expected to get fancy degrees and marry cis men. I never wanted that life and I told myself I’d never succumb.  I would say I was going to school and then go down to the mall and move through the aisles of records. I had a paltry income from The Body Shop, and I would smuggle my finds home in a Jansport knock off. If my mother found the CDs, she’d get mad, so I hid everything and pretended it was all school related. I would play them on a janky CD player my father listened to Tagore renditions on before I cruelly cajoled it into my own room, robbing him of one of his only pleasures. I would write, I would journal, but mostly, I’d lie on my bed and hope for the sun to come out, tracing the shadows against my face. My every movement was tracked by my mother. I had tight deadlines to be home, and if I wasn’t, narratives would be drawn, children would be hit. I stayed in the seams and let her dictate my actions, not knowing there was any other way. *  Years later, almost exactly ten years, I would be sitting on my bed in Montréal, listening to Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan’s latest album. Remember the days when you listened to an album all in one go? The songs trickling into one another like gooey caramel, blending into a giant multicolored, complex portrait of a feeling? I wasn’t sure what I was doing when “Fourth of July” rolled around with a sudden punch, Sufjan’s voice laconic, mildly shrill, enchanting, “We’re all gonna dieeeeeeeee.” I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that that song helped me redeem my mother. Forgiveness is not a plateau, and five years later, she and I no longer talk, but back then my pain felt salvageable. Music did that. It made me feel grief in a way I enjoy. In a way that feels constructive. Knowing the tumultuous relationship Sufjan had with his own mother made me think of my own in a way I had forgotten to—with softness. Listening to the song, forgiveness felt possible, present—it felt near. Music is an incredible salve for impossible tasks. Susan Sontag writes in the essay “The Benefactor,” “But I believe that the real revolutions of my time have been not changes of government or of the personnel of public institutions but revolutions of feelings and seeing, much more difficult to analyze.” * As COVID unleashes, the death toll in America is at two-hundred-and-sixty thousand (and maybe by the time this essay comes out, it’ll already be over that number) and yet there is no memorial in sight, not even a reminder of those deaths. What do we do with that grief? The one that usurps us all, but only some of us can name? Not everyone has the mechanics to do so. Every time I talk to my therapist I begin the conversation by asking her how she is. Every time, she tells me about COVID, about the insanity, the sheer sadness, the crazed reckoning we are being faced with—whether death, white supremacy, or the mire of capitalism. I often think of how much I don’t know. Hearing about Chadwick Boseman’s death and how he hid his cancer, reading Jesmyn Ward's entry about her husband’s death—we are all hurting. In our own ways. Pain is universal. It’s how we cope, and how we communicate that pain—how we sublimate in hopes to cure it, to aid it—that can sometimes be miraculous. Aren’t we all living in a time of immense miracles? As Audre Lorde reflects, “I love the word survival, it always sounds to me like a promise. It makes me wonder sometimes though, how do I define the shape of my impact upon this earth?” Music has always helped me tune myself to survival, because I listened to it as a way to mourn. We don’t talk enough about the tools you need to gain acceptance of your life. I was only able to afford therapy last year. Music was my first therapy. Quarantine, though difficult for a multitude of reasons, was in a way another reminder of the times when I had to find vision in a liminal space. In a dark and gloomy place, I found myself. I invented, I conceptualized, and then I formed fully under the light of my own gaze. A reflection I gathered from music. Memory—if anything—is a token. By returning to these moments of my old teen-self, I am able to create a firmer passage of knowledge and understanding about surviving. In these last few months, it’s helped initiate me from one moment to the next, to become my own self-tracking device; a how-to guide on how I came into being. It’s been useful to remember, to listen, and to trust that things always work out. It just usually means that you have to let go of what you think “working out” meant. * My favorite movie is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve watched it countless times. I always felt like Joel, Jim Carrey's character. Lovesick, grossly earnest, needing to be seen in my shy corner. The song I always think of when I think of this era of myself is “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by Beck. It’s melancholic, loaded with meaning. "Everybody’s gotta learn sometimes" could sound less like a threat if we looked at it like an oracle. The funny thing is, the movie is also about reckoning with uncomfortable memories. A moral question about all the things we perhaps shouldn’t erase, even if we could. It’s as if Charlie Kaufman asks: how can we account for the time that, though difficult, provided us with a sublime realness? Isn’t there power in that? What if we looked at all that can be gained from these moments life hands us and what if we didn’t resist? That’s another thing I’ve been thinking about. I’ve rarely known what was truly good for me, and instead, I’ve fallen into lapses of depression, the trappings of sadness locked in my mind. The good thing is, the older I get, the more I realize it’s not about disassociating. It’s about accepting. “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay,” writes Lynda Barry, author of What It Is. I think about that with the soundtrack, of the way music guides us into staying with the moment. Of accepting it. You know the way a song can eclipse you? Keep you paused—in the second it takes to blush, a song can resurrect you. Transporting you to the smell of the sidewalk on that overly sweaty summer night, releasing a feeling of power, of resolve. Or maybe it transports you to the time you ran, shit-out-of-luck, missing the last train back home when you’d been lying about where you were to your very Muslim parents. The neon shop signs blaring past you like a visible sigh, as you frantically ran. Ran towards a new horizon.
‘A Fossil of Our Youth’: An Interview with Marlowe Granados

The author of Happy Hour on charm as currency, the resilience of feminity, and getting away with things. 

“Can we go for cocktails and charge Hazlitt?” asks Marlowe Granados when I first approach the novelist about conducting an interview. It’s a line that could have been pulled straight out of Happy Hour (Flying Books), her singular, stylish debut chronicling the capricious adventures of Gala and Isa, two insouciant naïf-types who embark on odd jobs like selling vintage clothes, life modeling and seat-filling at a network TV show amidst glamorous evenings spent drinking and flirting at flimsy social engagements throughout the course of one sweat-drenched, heatstroke summer in New York. Happy Hour depicts life not as a propulsive narrative but a fascinating character study of two women daring enough to engage in that most anathema pursuit—doing nothing in New York. Though I was too sheepish to ask Hazlitt to foot the bill, I agreed cocktails would be the perfect backdrop to discuss a book where one character ends up unwittingly on the cover of the New York Post. We met on the back patio of Bar Piquette on Toronto’s Queen Street, on a warm night amidst a few occupied tables of revellers. Full disclosure: Marlowe and I are quite friendly, having met through what I am loath to describe as the “Toronto literary scene,” and have plenty in common—our mutual love of glamorous designer clothes is a defining characteristic. I felt the need to dress up for our meeting, and donned a vintage linen Max Mara dress that reveals a sliver of décolletage for the occasion. Marlowe arrived looking angelic in a hot pink Dolce & Gabbana slip dress, hair pulled up in a cartoonish chiffon scrunchie and eyes perfectly shadowed in a shade of pinky-red that might portend illness on someone else but looked divine on her. She was the physical embodiment of her own quote, ”I am passionate about glamour—because it is illusive, hard to define, yet identifiable.” Happy Hour conjures up the carefree spirit of pre-Covid era, when it was not yet deadly to drop into multiple events in one evening or crash with a stranger whose name you may or may not remember in the morning. Part Shopgirl, part Slaves of New York, Happy Hour is an Old Hollywood screwball comedy dressed up in a vintage Versace silk slip dress scrounged up at the thrift store for a song. Like Breatharians, Granados’s lighthearted heroines seem to subsist purely on fun. The prose goes down like champagne sparkle garnished with a lemon twist. There isn’t a single throwaway line in the book. In between plates of oysters and glasses of Prosecco, we discussed unreliable narrators, generational trauma, underage party girl exploits, and the importance of taking fun seriously.  Isabel Slone: I’m going to start with the question that you probably hate, which is, how much of the book is real? Marlowe Granados: The book is loosely based on a summer I spent in New York when I was 21. I started writing it when I was 22 and finished it when I was 25. I draw on the events of that summer but also on a lot of things that I had experienced over the course of my life. I started going out when I was 15, so a lot of the observations I had from that period I definitely put into the book. It was as though I had been saving them for something.  A lot of people read the book and think, “Oh, it's you” about the Isa character, but no, it’s not. Isa has this weird way of seeing things that I’ve grown out of as I’ve gotten older. A lot of the events that happen in the book, I would react quite negatively to, but Isa’s kind of this weird gel, she doesn’t really feel affected by other people’s actions. She's really positive in the way she spins things. Writing the character was quite challenging, because when you get older this kind of scornfulness takes over. There is a real Gala and a real Nicolas. I was saying to Gala the other day, there are times when I actually can’t differentiate between what actually happened and what I’ve written. I don't remember the real version of events anymore, I only remember how I fictionalized them. It’s very bizarre. The book is kind of this commemoration of the way we were before. And not only when we were 21, but when we were 18 or 17 or 16, living in a city and being a little wild. Tell me about going out when you were 15. I was left to my own devices a lot as a kid. My mom travelled a lot during the week, so I was kind of unsupervised. I realized that the best nights to go out were mid-week, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I had a part-time retail job so I made friends with people who were older and cool, and they helped me get into parties. I was just bored, I guess. I loved it. I spent a really weird summer in New York when I was 18. I had written a script and was trying to get it made. All my friends and I would sneak into these clubs—I didn’t realize how odd it was until later. At the time I was obsessed with i-D magazine; I collected every single issue from when I was in Grade 7 until high school. It always came out in Canada a month after it was originally released. Later on, I realized I had met all these people who were featured in i-D. All of a sudden, I was hanging out with them all the time, going out in New York, getting snuck into bars… I guess this making it work mentality has always been familiar to me and it was really great source material, because I met all these crazy people at the time.  The thought of going to New York alone at 18 sounds terrifying to me. Were you just fearless? I was definitely crazy and a little bit wild when I was young. I’ll tell you this one story that I’ve never really talked about before. When I was 15, I told my mom that I was going to go to London with these girls that I had met on MySpace. I had met them in New York before, when my mom and I had gone down there for a cute trip. I had gone a bit crazy with plane tickets—this was before Photoshop, I used to doctor things to show to my mom. It was really bad. So, I went to London by myself and I was supposed to stay with these girls, but when I got there, they were like, no… I remember getting off the plane and being in Hyde Park at 7 in the morning, having nowhere to go at first and realizing, “Okay, I guess I have to just survive this.” My mom, like, fainted, when she found out I was alone. I stayed there for a full week. I just wandered around and went to parties. I didn’t have that much money. Someone would offer to let me stay at their apartment and then never come back so I would hang around in the hallway outside the apartment door, being like, should I sleep outside the door? Did you sleep outside the door? No, I found somewhere else to stay. I remember at one point I booked a hostel—it was so scary. It was in this Victorian house with no heating and cracked mirrors. It was meant for people to room together, so there were two twin beds in a room. It was terrifying. I vaguely remember being there and thinking, “I can do this. This is fine.” For a long time I just had this mentality where I believed everything was going to be fine. That was the beginning of my party girl phase. After that, everything was like, whatever. I didn’t think anything after that could compare to this really scary moment where I was so far away from home. I stayed there for the whole week in London, just kind of going around. After that, I used to take the bus to New York all the time by myself and my mom was okay with it. It was a weird way of growing up, a little bit hippie.  So, you learned this extreme sense of resourcefulness early on and it served you very well into the future.  Yeah. When my mom left me alone during the week, I did everything by myself. I had to make myself dinner, I ate grilled cheese sandwiches every day after school. I watched TV and went to school on time. It was all on me. So really early on I fell in love with this kind of lifestyle—I had all these magazines and realized you could meet all these interesting people and just have fun and be wild. It was completely in my reach, so I would just go after it. That reminds me of a line in the book, “As much as this summer is about branching out into a semblance of adulthood, it is also about fun. I take both seriously.” Where did you learn how to take fun seriously? I think that having fun and taking these things that tend to be cast aside as nothing serious is so important. It’s so disappointing to me that people often don’t understand how important lightness is. The ability to fight for lightness is so much about how you enjoy life. And now, in a pandemic, people are starting to come to terms with that a little bit more. The ability to have a life that’s spontaneous and exciting, that’s something people have really been missing even though they might not have taken advantage of it originally. This striving for lightness was also a problem for me earlier on in publishing. It was suggested to me that Gala and Isa didn’t have this clear-cut trauma that people could respond to. It doesn’t follow a plot where something bad happens to these girls and then they spend the rest of the book trying to get over it. I don’t think that’s realistic. All the women that I’m good friends with all have different things going on in their lives—whether it’s family, grieving, heartbreak—but the whole point is that when we're all together, that doesn't really matter. We’re all able to bring each other up and be really giddy and funny and laugh. That’s so important, and for me, kind of enriching.  You mentioned that it was hard for you to sell the book—I’ve heard you say before that your agent once told you that you would have to write a second book in order to sell this one. Why is that?  Basically what happened is in 2017, my agent went out shopping the book in the US, and no one wanted it. It was the summer after Trump was elected and right before #MeToo happened, so people really wanted stories from women about how hard it is to be a woman. That’s been an overarching trend of how I’ve had to pitch this book. People are always saying, “Oh, she’s a woman of colour, can we talk a little bit more about that?” I’m not going to make this about my racialized experience. Even being a woman of colour, the only time I ever realized it was when people kept pointing it out to me as I grew up. Isa’s not walking around being like, “I’m a woman of colour,” people are always just pointing it out to her in public spaces.  Men love calling her “exotic.” Yeah, and she’s just like, “Ew, gross, get away from me.” She doesn’t internalize it because it doesn’t really matter to her. But it’s definitely the way the world is. I don’t want it to be a situation where white people get to feel good about reading my book because they’re hearing this different perspective. The whole idea is the girls are camouflaged. That’s something I wanted to slyly sneak in there. I only very briefly touch on the fact that Gala’s character is originally from Sarajevo, and Isa has this parentage, similar to mine, from countries that have these wildly political and catastrophic histories from the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of the time, you ask your family about those times, and they don’t want to share it. I recently called my dad because I wanted to clear up some things I've heard about our family. He was like, “I would never talk to you about the civil war in El Salvador because it doesn’t have good memories for me.” And I was like, “Fair enough.” That's a lot of the vibe from my mother’s family too. They came here from the Philippines and they haven't gone back since, and that’s just the way it is. It’s one of the least-navel-gazing books I’ve ever read. Isa and Gala are constantly observing and describing the events happening around them, instead of reflecting on it internally. I used to read a lot of books that had these manic pixie dream girl characters, but never from their perspective. So, I always wanted to write a book from the perspective of the type of girls who are always being observed but never seem to be making their own observations. The strongest part of these characters is the way they can see through people’s inauthenticities. With them, it’s not about whether they’ll get taken advantage of, but whether they’ll give whoever they’re talking to the time of day. They’re like, “I understand what you’re trying to do and I kind of feel sorry for you, but are you going to pay for dinner?” I hate novels where the protagonists are only thinking about the internal. I find it very disingenuous. I think it’s just as important to have narrators who are in on the action, really in it. I guess I’ve always just thought that internal voice has always been a bit corny and stilted and heavy handed. It’s also a little bit bitter, and I hate bitterness. I’m really unsentimental but I also hate bitterness. There’s no need for it. I’d rather read about characters who are like, “You know what? Fuck ‘em. I don’t care.” That’s interesting, because at times I felt like the characters were yearning for something ephemeral they could never quite reach, and at other times I felt like there was no sentimentality on display at all. Do either one of those resonate with you? I think a lot of the yearning you refer to is the desire to be preserved. Gala and Isa want to have some sort of legacy, to have had a say in how they are perceived. Isa keeps a diary throughout the book that basically functions as the last word on her life. It’s how she’s going to remember things, reframing her life in a way that maybe isn’t the most accurate but felt like the way events played out in real life. There are these Victorian literary archetypes of the angel and the trickster. Isa's definitely the angel and Gala’s the trickster. You have these two powers, and they're kind of feeding off of each other. The only way that you can get Isa’s vulnerability is when you hear from Gala, who is cutting into the artifice a little bit. Since Gala and Nicolas are both based on real people, how did you decide what to preserve and what to obfuscate about the characters? I could have just changed the names, but I kind of liked the idea of preserving them as a fossil of our youth. Even if it had never been published, this book is kind of my homage to them. Gala’s more unrefined and kind of brash. She can step into any situation and be like, “What the fuck is going on?” That’s an important friendship dynamic to have. If you’re stuck talking to someone you don’t want to talk to, you need a friend in the Gala role who can just say, “We’ve got to go right now, such an emergency, we must leave.” There’s this tension between being rude and polite, a bit on edge and a little bit spicy with the people around them, because they’re always going to be stronger as a unit. I think that’s the core of the friendship. It is a novel mainly about Isa, but it is also the story of balancing a friendship in very close quarters, where your actual survival is hinging on it.  Every line in the book is so tight—on every single page, there’s like, three life lessons that you’ve dressed up in really punchy language—like an Emily Post etiquette book, but far more modern. One of the suggested titles for the book was One Must in the sense of “One must do this...”  When I started writing this book it was that the voice came to me before anything else. The rhythm of the way Isa speaks and the way that she gives advice, in a manner that’s lighthearted but also... not snotty, but it’s a little bit of, “I know better and you should listen to me because I’ve lived.” She has this worldliness about her that she wants to share so that you don’t get into trouble. What is it you want readers to walk away from the book with a sense of? It's very much about using charm as currency, and also about the resilience of femininity. It’s kind of a survivalist novel in a sense, only the girls’ standards of survival are different from others. It’s not like they’re going around eating beans or whatever. That's something people criticize my writing for; they’re always like, “But they’re not suffering enough.” There’s this film, Redheaded Woman starring Jean Harlow, where she plays a real down-home, showgirl-type character, with a poodle and a sugar daddy. The screenplay is based on a book by Anita Loos, who's one of my favourite writers. The whole idea is she’s this woman who gets away with things, and at the very end, she gets away with it all. People hate that. They always want women to be taught a lesson, and I hate that. Even when I was 22, writing the book, I thought, “I don’t want to write something where these women are punished.” Because I had already been punished for certain things in my own life. Ultimately, I wanted something to celebrate the fact that you can get away with certain things without a scratch, and that's the best part a lot of the time. You don’t have to have this story that ends in deep-rooted trauma that you’re going to pass on to your children... I just think that’s not true of the world. To be able to have a negative experience without any bitterness, without feeling any sort of ugliness, is important, I think. That’s the world that I want to live in, at least.
Crazy Wisdom: A Love Story

My parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, the cult leader.

You do not have to find the beginning at all. It is a primordial situation, so there is no point in trying to logically find the beginning. It is already. It is beginningless. -Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche [[{"fid":"6707566","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"}}]] This is my mother: a scant four-foot-eleven, narrow-shouldered, and a kind of very-thin-but-soft that comes from treating both food and exercise as tolls paid for being alive. She doesn’t drink because it makes her fall asleep, never wears makeup, hates to shop. Her wardrobe is mostly hand-me-downs from her children. She still wears a pair of navy corduroys from Jacob Junior (vintage 1998) with a ladder of wear lines at the ankles from each time the hem was let out to accommodate my brief and only middle school growth spurt. When she was a toddler, my mother pulled a pot of boiling soup off the stove and over the right side of her body. The scars are frames frozen from a home movie—a play-by-play of the accident that caused them. The taut, shiny nucleus on her elbow splashes outward, the skin buckling and creasing as it spreads, a second splatter over the outside of her right leg where her knee meets her thigh. Over the decades, these scars have ceded territory to the soft, freckled skin around them. If you met her now, you might not even notice. When my mother was a child, though, the damage was notable. Her own mother insisted she always wear dresses with three-quarter-length sleeves to hide the worst of it—that blight on my grandmother’s parental record—and so my mother’s back-to-school Septembers on the humid bay between Coney Island and mainland Brooklyn were woollen and stifled. As a teenager, my mother developed scoliosis and was locked into a full-time back brace designed to bully her spine upright. The brace was metal, and graceless, and ‘50s. A bear hug from a robot. It didn’t even work. If you stand behind her, it still seems as if the upper and lower portions of my mother’s back are keening in opposite directions; the left hip leans in to confer with its neighbouring armpit, while the opposite shoulder blade wings back. It’s like a visual effect, an optical illusion. The brain does a kind of stutter-step, trying to straighten out the error. My father has always liked to take moody, poetic photographs of people walking away from the camera. There is nothing my mother hates so much as a picture of herself from behind. When I describe her physical presence, it seems as though the sum of mother’s parts ought to add up to a tiny, broken, bird-like whole. That’s not my mom. In fact, my mother is exactly what people mean when they say someone is a force. She walks the streets of Canada’s placid, nature-laced capital at an emergency clip, stopping traffic to jaywalk by thrusting her palm and belly-yelling “Heeeey!” at stunned Ottawa drivers. “I can’t believe I’m short,” she complains. “I feel tall.” She never answers the phone with a question: it is either a stunted, declarative “hello” or, if she is really cranked up to full speed, she flings her full name, first and last, into the receiver in a single, hurry-up breath. A storm of will and decisiveness, she is an American in Canada: unassimilated, unaffected, and—the cardinal Canadian sin—unapologetic. It’s the deepest corner of winter and twenty below (“but it’s a dry cold,” we incant, protecting exposed flesh against frostbite and stuffing long johns under jeans). The snow banks pile and tower, and it’s hard to open your eyes as much for the cold as for the light, which has a determined, proselytizing way of getting at your retina from every angle. Hunkered indoors, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a highlighter-coloured hoodie from a soccer team I played for almost twenty years ago, my mother looks out into the frigid glare and asks like she means it: “Why do I live here?” [[{"fid":"6707571","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"}}]] In 1959, a pack of Buddhist monks and nuns several-hundred strong walked out of Tibet and over the Himalayas into India, fleeing the Chinese invasion. Among them was Chogyam Trungpa, a nineteen-year-old lama who’d been plucked from a tribe of nomads as a toddler when he was identified as the eleventh reincarnation of a great Buddhist teacher in the Kagyu lineage. Though he was raised in a monastery, the teenaged Trungpa’s spiritual path was proving neither straight nor narrow. On the gruelling march out of Tibet, he had a love affair with a fellow refugee nun. (She was later kicked out of the order when she gave birth to his son; Trungpa was allowed to remain among the fold.) In India, Trungpa devoted himself to the unconventional, worldly task of learning English. His intellect and curiosity earned him the attention of sympathetic Brits, who arranged for a scholarship to Oxford. In 1963, the young monk went West. Trungpa and a fellow lama-in-exile established a monastery in remote, rural Scotland—the first of its kind outside the east. The Telegraph ran an article in its glossy weekend supplement featuring a full-page photograph of the dozen or so Samye Ling residents gathered on the monastery lawn, standing behind a grinning Trungpa, his ruby robes a warm shock to the grey-green Scottish hush. This picture inspired a flutter of pilgrims, some of whom left jobs, school, and homes, turning up at the monastery on foot, trekking for hours from a transit station twenty-five kilometres away. While his co-founder pictured a sanctuary for Tibetan Buddhist ideas and teachings, Trungpa had different ideas. He taught like he was in a college dorm, gathering students in his room to stay up all night drinking and talking about the nature of reality. He wanted to attract Western students, to meet them where they were. Besides, Trungpa had discovered he enjoyed the pleasures of a more secular life. In 1969, he blacked out (likely drunk, but no one knows for sure) at the wheel of a sports car and crashed into a joke shop, leaving the left side of his body partially paralyzed. Taking the karmic punchline to heart, Trungpa saw the accident not as the result of drinking and driving, but rather as a cosmic rebuke for having disguised his bodily desires by dressing them up in a holy mantle. And so he gave himself to the former, and gave up the latter, renouncing his monastic vows and his robes to become a lay teacher. Scandalizing British and Buddhist alike, he took a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl as his child-bride, and in the first days of the new year and the new decade, the guru headed to America. [[{"fid":"6707576","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"}}]] My father is an athlete who hails from a time when you didn’t stretch or build or work your muscles—you just used them until you couldn’t anymore, and that was sports. Too slight to carry on with football past high school, he took up cross country running when he went to university in Ottawa. He says it was the island of misfit varsity athletes, eccentrics who woke before dawn to crack eggs on their teeth and open them into their throats, run punishing distances along the Rideau Canal. My father is in his 70s now, and despite an old-man gut and arthritic hips and a turning radius of maybe thirty degrees in his neck, his endurance is insane. He still outlasts people decades his junior at activities he shouldn’t even be capable of doing anymore. He stops to play a few rounds of tennis en route to a hip replacement consult. At Christmas, we all haul up to the Gatineau Hills outside Ottawa to go skate-skiing—an ultra-aerobic sport that will burn half a day’s calories in a session—and my septuagenarian father cruises gracefully over the snow for hours, leaving me, my sister, my track-star brother-in-law all struggling in his wake. He laughs and yells at us to hurry up, white hair floating around his head in tufts like an expressive, dying weed. He didn’t go white by way of salt-and-pepper, nor bald by way of any kind of pattern; his hair just leached both colour and volume for twenty-five years, always thinning and never quite fully gone. He often carries booze on him when he skis, his athletic force of will equalled by his hedonism. Leather wineskin on his hip, his blue eyes sparkling under the frost caught in his eyebrows, he is like something out of a Nordic faerie tale: a red-faced winter gnome, harbinger of mischief or joy. The second son of a Wing Commander, my father was raised reliably transient, moving every other year to government-issued homes across a litany of Royal Canadian Air Force bases. After skipping a couple of grades, he was shuttled off to university early, his education paid for by the military in exchange for the promise of service At summers spent in basic training, my father liked the games. He liked being blindfolded and dropped in the woods in the middle of the night, commanded to scrap and survive and find a way back by dawn. He liked placing in the middle-distance events at the annual base track meet. He hated everything else: the rules, the yelling. This bullshit of lines so straight and narrow there was no room to move or swerve or look around. It was as if everything that would ever happen to you had been preordained, and life was only a matter of putting in the time. When he dropped out of the army, he gave his resignation to a fat-faced General with a row of stars blinking from his shoulder. This man knew my grandfather and took it upon himself to play paternal proxy, telling my dad that his life would be a waste, that everything he touched from now on was destined to fail. My father got a job as a radio announcer for the overseas forces—a gig he scored with a charming interview, in spite of what he will admit is not a classic radio voice. He spent the years people mean when they say the ‘60s in Europe, getting high and learning that wine comes in varietals, not colours. He would stay up all night and drink bottomless coffee all day while he broadcast the news in his floaty tenor for the benefit of people living under the command of something he’d walked away from. He dated French women and told himself he found armpit hair attractive. He drove a motorcycle, got into an accident that really should have killed him trying to jump a watermelon patch just to see if he could. He went to Turkey, to Greece, hung out on Mikonos before it was that Mikonos (I’m pretty sure Lindsay Lohan owns it now). When he travelled, he didn’t worry about where he’d be at nightfall—he could curl up anywhere, snatch sleep at the side of the road. He wasn’t afraid. He drove with a friend across a border (don’t ask which one, but trust me when I say it was a bad idea) with a brick of hash inside the car’s wheel, thudding ceremoniously on each rotation as they cruised past the armed checkpoint. He was dared to do a handstand on beer bottles, and when the blood leapt from his wrist it arced all the way across the bar like it had been waiting its whole life to try that, like it was answering a call. At the end of the decade, my father came home to drop out. He moved to a cabin outside Sooke on Vancouver Island, joining what might now be called an intentional community had the whole point not been to avoid the goal-orientation of intending anything at all. A kind of low-key, lazy man’s commune: the non-binding associations of the likeminded and deliberately lost. There were draft dodgers and deserters, drop-outs and drug-addicts-to-be. No one was going to judge or lay a trip. The only dirty word they knew was “should.” Like most of his friends, my father planted trees in the summers and bobbled through the rest of the year on EI. There was plenty to keep him busy. Some of his friends had dropped out of science degrees, and they were putting their first-year chemistry knowledge to use, working their way through the branches of pharmacology, figuring out which drugs and how much to go up, or down, or outside yourself. This was terra incognita, and they didn’t have a guidebook. There’s a difference between trying drugs and experimenting with them. It was also pretty common to dabble in spiritual practices and mysticism. Like anything else, it was all just an experience to be had. Try it out, see if it felt good, move on if it didn’t. Some of my father’s friends were into meditating, so he did a bit of that. A couple of others got into Hare Krishna, and he used to sometimes hitch a ride with them into Victoria, chant a few hare-hares for the free food. In 1974, my father and some friends drove to Boulder, Colorado, to attend an event they’d caught wind of (how did they know without Twitter?): a series of East-meets-West lectures, courses, and readings organized by Chogyam Trungpa’s growing organization, Vajradhatu. Ginsberg was there, as were Gregory Corso, John Cage, and Ram Dass, among others. This would later be called the First Summer of Naropa, and the summer session would secure the founding of the liberal arts college Naropa University, where Ginsberg, one of Trungpa’s most famous students, would found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. My father liked meditating, and Buddhism intrigued him, but he wasn’t searching for a path to follow or a guru to lead him down it. He was still wary of anything that demanded too much compliance. But after several years of trying to not think too hard about anything, he had to admit that Trungpa’s lectures blew his mind. He describes the experience as “an intellectual feast.” Naropa was run in two six-week sessions, and my father had intended to attend both. Instead, he bailed out of the second round of classes, joining up with a group of Trungpa’s followers as they headed into the mountains to deepen their practice with a month-long meditation retreat. [[{"fid":"6707581","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":{"4":{"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":"4"}}]] In the early ‘70s, my mother went to law school at night and worked two jobs during the day. One was at the South Brooklyn legal aid clinic. She loved this job—she felt she was learning a lot, doing work that lined up with her politics and ideals. That’s where she met a clinic volunteer named John. He called himself a “spiritual seeker,” which is, apparently, something men in the ‘70s said unironically to women they wanted to date. They started going out. One weekend, John borrowed my mother’s apartment and laid himself out in a shrine of candles and sweet grass. He left a note saying that should he stray too deep into the Bardo and not be revived, she should ring a bell and softly chant a mantra in his ear. If that didn’t work, he’d left the phone number for someplace in Vermont called Tail of the Tiger where she could reach the followers of a man named Chogyam Trungpa. They would know what to do. Trungpa came to New York to give a talk, and John brought my mother along. The event was a in a church basement, and my mother remembers that Trungpa showed up an hour-and-a-half late, which, it would turn out, was typical. As he spoke, he downed glasses of what my mother believed to be water (she would later learn it was sake), and after the talk he was carried offstage by helpers, which my mother assumed was a result of his paralysis (retrospect: he was too hammered to walk). My mother’s first impression of Trungpa was more or less a shrug. She wasn’t seized by the specialness of the experience, but neither was she bored or turned off. She was, as she puts it, “open.” At John’s encouragement, she started attending a meditation class at the local dharmadatu and found she liked the practice a lot. She describes it as “totally unintellectual.” Where the law was often abstract, sitting meditation felt concrete. A way to quiet both her body and her mind. In 1974, my mother and John decided to go to Boulder for the Naropa lectures. She couldn’t get the time off work, so she missed the first session, but turned up for the second. *** Trungpa was reviving a tradition he called “crazy wisdom.” This was his interpretation of the Tibetan notion of drubnyon, stories reaching back to the 15th and 16th centuries of monks and holy men who were charged with profound spiritual knowledge but behaved in convention-defying, disruptive ways. Trungpa embraced this part of the Tantric lineage of Buddhism he’d inherited. He put crazy wisdom at the centre of his teachings. It was a smart move as far as American branding efforts went. This was the ‘70s; people liked to party, and Trungpa’s students were drawn to the idea that their serious spiritual endeavours might get raucous. And though Trungpa warned against this simplified, goal-oriented approach to the Vajryana path, he dosed his own example of wisdom with plenty of crazy. What this looked like: he might burst in on a student while they were taking a shit, ask another about her masturbation habits, cut someone’s hair in their sleep. Students remember that he had a talent for divining deep sources of shame or pride and conjuring the swiftest, most shocking way to expose them. And if the means were ruthless, or violent—that was strategic. Trungpa would say that the brutality was necessary in order to wrest a person’s spirit from the clutches of their ego, to disabuse them of the lies the mind tells when advocating for the primacy and coherence of the self. He would claim that this kind of first-person narration—thinking of oneself as a consistent set of facts, as a singular “I”—only keeps a person bound to a version of the world that is aggressively self-serving, and thus spiritually impoverished. Trungpa did not only target his student’s frailties: he also offered himself and his own frail body up in service to the cause by drinking heavily, smoking cigarettes, and having sex. This, he said, was a means to dispel the myth of a guru as sacred or pure. He claimed to be forcing students to confront their expectations of spiritual authority, making them recognize just how conventional those expectations were. It was hard to say when Trungpa was guiding you down your spiritual path, and when he was body-checking you off of it, destabilizing your attachment to the journey itself. He was as likely to issue warm words as he was to fuck with you, totally mess with your head. Both approaches were equally valid, equally crazy-wise. This gave rise to a culture of relentless self-examination among Trungpa’s followers. The guru would act, and students would observe their own reactions to his behaviour, scanning for signs of their own resistant egos to unpack, dismantle, and discard. *** At a meeting of Trungpa’s followers in Boulder in 1976, my mother was with the party from the Manhattan sangha—the largest in North America—while my father represented the flyweight dharmadhatu from Nelson, BC, which, at a dozen or so practitioners scattered throughout the Kootenays, was Vajradhatu’s smallest. My father met my mother, but she didn’t return the favour. He noticed her laugh and remarked on her ability to wrangle the higher-ups in the Vajradhatu organization. Buddhism notwithstanding, he says they were just like any bureaucrats made petty by power, and my father was impressed with how my mother seemed preternaturally able to navigate the system. That my mother didn’t notice my father’s existence doesn’t surprise him. “I didn’t say much,” he tells me. “I was kind of a clueless bumpkin.” Her first memory of him comes two years later, when they both attended an annual meditation retreat called Seminary. Seminary was no joke. For three months, a group of ninety or so committed students sat and meditated for up to twelve hours a day, then listened to Trungpa give talks at night. The experience was designed to mimic the phases of the traditional Vajrayana path, moving first through an examination of your own mind, then a period of outward-facing compassion, and finally brushing up against tantric, ecstatic knowledge. By the third act, Seminary became a nightly rager. In her version, my mother would get “crazy” by singing show tunes and ‘60s bubblegum numbers with some pals. (When she tells me this, she does a shoulder shimmy and sings the chorus of “Rubber Ball” to demonstrate.) My father—who’d come to the retreat with his then-wife—had a different experience. “Your father was spending a lot of time with another woman who was actually getting married at Seminary. And her fiancé—who became her husband—was sleeping with Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife,” my mother explains, matter-of-factly sketching out the intra-Buddhist banging network. Monogamy was seen as pretty uptight, my mom remembers. But this was one part of the scene she was never into. “There was one guy in New York who was, quote, ‘putting the moves’ on me,” she says, doing the scare quotes with her hands. “When I found out he was married, I said I wasn’t interested. I think that would have been surprising. Most people we knew just didn’t back off for those reasons, but I did. That was a very strong value for me, personally.” *** In his early days in America, Trungpa’s message attracted mostly hippies and dropouts. Trungpa wanted to fully experience the world his students lived in, but he also found their tastes kind of gross. They dressed shabbily and spoke imprecisely, their music was noisy, they arrived in a haze of patchouli and weed. The guru was down to do the Western thing, but he’d been hoping for something a little higher shelf. Which makes sense when you remember where he was coming from. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t democratic and chill—it’s rigidly hierarchical. Trungpa had abandoned a holy posting he’d been groomed for his entire life, giving up the tradition that had raised him on the bet that delivering the dharma to America, in an American way, was his true spiritual vocation. Now that he’d arrived, he wasn’t content to reach the far-out fringes of the counterculture. He wanted to find the centre. He wanted to go mainstream. The way he went about this was not always on point. Some of his students like to remember him as a chameleon who preternaturally insinuated himself into American life. Frankly, that portrait ignores a lot. Trungpa was really more of an Anglophile, and his tastes ran aristocratic in ways that showed a naïve understanding of where exactly the pulse of his adopted culture lay. He would go full Pygmalion, making students croon elocution drills in the Queen’s English like a mantra for hours at a stretch. He was a sucker for rituals of precision and performance: Japanese tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, archery, meals with a full entourage of silverware fanned around the plate. He ordered bespoke military uniforms—with crisp, white, unspecific colonial flare—and occasionally wore them to deliver talks. The British teen he’d married was a horse girl, and so the equestrian sport of dressage—a sort of ritualized prancing—was tossed into the mix. The details of this syncretism sometimes missed the mark, but the broader point was this: Trungpa wanted his students to get their shit together. Because in a weird way, he was kind of a conformist. Despite his shock tactics and irreverence, his claim to be exposing the limitations of convention, he also had a pragmatist’s belief that if you want to change a system, you have to do it from the inside. He demanded his students be joiners, that they groom themselves for the world, enter into society with others. And so even as they delved deeper into an esoteric spiritual practice, Trungpa devotees who stuck around also started wearing suits, cutting their hair, getting real jobs. [[{"fid":"6707586","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":{"5":{"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":"5"}}]] My mother is a do-er. It’s like she can’t even help herself: once she’s identified a problem, she steps in and runs the show until it’s solved. This is not a characteristic everyone on the seekers’ circuit necessarily shared. A little know-how was a useful asset. And so at the New York Dharmadhatu, my mother was called upon (or did she volunteer?) to plan and stage-manage events, handle visitors, help out. She soon found she’d meditated and managed her way into an organization she’d started out with only a casual interest in. At some point, she actually moved into the Vajradhatu, living in a one-room loft off the shrine hall. At some point, she and John broke up. My mother moved to Boulder, Colorado, because Trungpa’s next-in-command, the Vajra Rejent Ösel Tendzin (a white guy from New Jersey, né Thomas Rich) asked her to. Boulder was where the Vajradhatu action was, and they needed someone to play second fiddle to the organization’s legal counsel. My mother would be working under a senior male lawyer, naturally, but it was implied that keeping things on task would be up to her. And so, for a pittance of a salary and an appeal to duty, my mother gave up a good entry-level job with the federal government and her post-shrine apartment—a tiny but affordable place in the borderlands between Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The dharma called, and she answered. In Boulder, things were getting, as my mother puts it, “just weird.” Trungpa and his family were living in a large house called the Kalapa Court, which they shared with a complement of attendants. The vibe was very Upstairs, Downstairs. Adherents would put on frilly maid aprons and butler’s tails in a ritual that was considered a kind of meditation through service. Dinner would turn into an elaborate game in which, it seemed, part of the point was to lose track of who or what was being spoofed. In a similar conflation of irony and sincerity, Trungpa started a paramilitary organization in which Buddhists would train to be warriors of the dharma, performing marching drills and setting off cannons in their all-khaki uniforms. And then there was the Shambhala thing. In Buddhist lore, the Kingdom of Shambhala is a utopic, peaceable society guided by compassion. It’s generally considered a metaphor, but Trungpa intended to make it a real place, moved by visions he’d begun having as early as his flight from Tibet. Boulder didn’t seem like the right place to break ground. The vibe was wrong, the living was too easy. Materialism was so tempting in America. Trungpa wanted to find somewhere more remote. With fond memories of his time in Scotland in mind, he looked to Canada’s “New Scotland,” setting his sights on the craggy, rugged coastline of Cape Breton, and Halifax, the nearest major port.  At the time, the Shambhala wing of Trungpa’s plans was a partial secret, known to some but not all of his followers. Trungpa considered it a terma—esoteric knowledge that had been revealed to him prophetically, and which he must in turn reveal to followers only selectively. My mother was in on the partial Shambhala secret. But she didn’t like it. “The idea was that you already had a place in the Kingdom, you just didn’t know what it was yet. So, when I was introduced to Shambhala, I discovered I was already the Kingdom’s Deputy Minister of Justice” she says. “I mean, honestly. Can you imagine?” Being privy to the Shambhala vision meant an invitation to the Kalapa Assembly: Trungpa would rent out an off-season ski resort or dude ranch and bring his courtiers to plan their Kingdom and revel. He held balls, and the enlightened would assemble in gowns, tails, and white gloves, playing at being lords and ladies. It seemed a long way from Brooklyn and the legal clinic. “I started to think: Okay, this is really crazy,” my mother says. “I kept thinking: what am I doing here? Where have my values gone? But people would tell me: oh, don’t worry, it’s a metaphor.” She wanted the perspective of someone wasn’t dealing in all these metaphors and riddles, dressing things up and stripping them down, parsing and re-mixing crazy into wise and back again. But she felt she couldn’t talk to family and friends about it: the first rule of Shambhala was you don’t talk about Shambhala, and she’d sworn an oath not to share the secret with unenlightened commoners. “That’s when you start to wonder whether you’ve been drawn into a cult,” she says.  *** I wrote about all this for a class once. This was in America, where the creative writing workshop was invented in the mid-century and ritualized into what’s practiced in universities today: the author bound by silence, the rest of the class working through a process of praise, deconstruction, demand. In this workshop, everyone referred to Vajradhatu as simply “the cult” with a breeziness I found dislocating. I considered that maybe I’d been going around with my head tilted to one side, trying to make everything look complicated, giving myself a crick in the neck for no reason at all. The character everyone was most interested in was my mom. Why did she stay in “the cult,” they wanted to know. How exactly did someone like her join “the cult” in the first place? No one found my explanation about her go-to-it-ness and urge to problem solve very convincing. It didn’t seem like enough, did it, to account for such a hard veer off-course, for winding up somewhere so extreme. Not one but two people in this class of twenty used to be Mormon. One of them wrote beautiful, dizzying essays about false archaeological records, prophetic gold tablets dug up from American mountains, underwear laced with divine protection. When we talked about her work, the class spoke reverently about what it is to be a part of something larger—a whole world—and then lose the thing that kept you there. Everyone said the word “faith” like it was a tiny, fragile bubble they were releasing into the air.   [[{"fid":"6707591","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":{"6":{"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":"6"}}]] In one way, North America was a spiritual seller’s market in the ‘70s, with plenty willing to join games of follow the leader. But things also cut the other way, and gurus were not exactly in short supply. Some came from away, bearing or claiming the authority of spiritual traditions from elsewhere (revealing how Westerners tend to fetishize authenticity if something is Eastern and old). Others were of the homegrown variety, declaring themselves according to the American tradition that all true authority, spiritual or otherwise, is conferred by and for and upon oneself. The upshot: there were choices. Listen, and you’d hear any number of calls to which you might answer. Differently put, you might call out with your troubled questions and find any number of sources willing to deliver answers: religious noblesse, enlightened philosophers, nascent Ponzi capitalists, whackadoo clowns. Seek and ye shall find something or other. Chogyam Trungpa often warned that spiritual practices are, themselves, highly susceptible to hijacking by the ego. He called this the paradox of “spiritual materialism”: how enlightenment can become goal-oriented and thus subject to all the pettiness of competition, envy, satisfaction, pride. Under the influence of spiritual materialism, self-consciousness is like a superbug, feeding on every attempt to eradicate it. Even a good-faith effort at spiritual growth might only exacerbate the conditions under which self-involvement thrives. So if you’re enjoying the journey, feel like it’s doing something for you, seem to be getting closer to an enlightened end—Trungpa would say that you’re probably doing it wrong.  Chogyam Trungpa was a guru who both totally embodied and totally rejected the trappings of the role. Part of his appeal was a downward mobility, holiness-wise: he didn’t seem to hold himself aloft, hadn’t made himself inaccessible in his enlightenment. Students took this as a kind of democratic generosity, even sacrifice. Trungpa was more fun than your average guru, but also more fallible. It was a kind of lifelong, full-bodied act of translation: the spiritual making itself accessible, allowing itself to be corrupted by the impoverished conditions of the material in the process. As his students imagined it, Trungpa chose to live in the world because he was choosing them. But while Trungpa would say his more radical behaviour was meant to destabilize the implications of authority itself, the claim to be manifesting crazy wisdom also implied an authority and power beyond reproach. The logic of crazy wisdom was a total surrender to Trungpa’s whims—faith that whatever he did, no matter how outrageous or shitty, it was ultimately serving some higher-order aim. [[{"fid":"6707596","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":{"7":{"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":"7"}}]] The first time my father took the LSAT, he practically flunked it. He’d driven all night through a blizzard and across the U.S. border to get to the nearest testing centre in Spokane. But when he sat down and opened the standardized booklet, he realized he’d made a mistake. “I had barely read anything for about seven years at that point,” he says. “A little bit of Buddhist stuff, but I never saw a newspaper or anything, and my reading speed had slowed to a crawl.” The test wasn’t that hard, but he didn’t finish a single section. Between that and a mixed bag of out-of-date marks from undergrad, law schools turned him down. He kept planting trees. A couple of years later, Vajrayana was recruiting Canadian followers to set up shop in Halifax and establish a dharmadhatu there. My father and his first wife had split, and there wasn’t much tying him to BC. He answered the call. Before heading to the Maritimes on his dharma mission, my father decided to spend another summer in Boulder enjoying the Buddhist social life. My mother was still working for the Vajradhatu council there. At that point, my parents had run in the same circles for years but had never really hung out. My mom saw my dad around, and one night, she invited him over for dinner. There was no food in her apartment when he arrived, so they went grocery shopping. He bought her toilet paper. They both say it was a great date. [[{"fid":"6707601","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":{"8":{"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":"8"}}]] One time when I was in my early 20s, I went on a cross-country lark to visit a pen pal I thought I might be in love with (it didn’t work out, but that’s another story). When I emailed my mother to tell her my plans, it felt like a confession: admitting that I could be so irrationally moved by romance. I thought my practical mother would tell me to make it a round-trip bus ticket or remind me to pack a sweater, but she surprised me by saying she could relate. After all, she and my father had gone on only two dates (“might actually have been only one,” she amends) before he left Colorado for Halifax. He eventually started law school there. They wrote the occasional letter, and then he invited her to visit over Christmas. “I did the irrational and flew from Boulder to Halifax,” my mother wrote to me in an email when I told her about the pen pal. “When the time came to actually get on the plane, I wanted to cancel, but my friends insisted I go. I complained all the way to the airport that I was crazy to fly across the continent for a weekend fuck.” This is classic my mom—no idea how funny she is, just telling the story as straightforwardly as she sees it. “Of course, we got engaged that week,” she adds almost as an afterthought. If you ask my father, he will tell you about the full moon’s reflection scattered in the waves of Peggy’s Cove on the night he proposed. (He’ll forget to mention the part where she said no and told him to try again when he really meant it, which he did two days later to a better result.) While my father waxes about the moon, my mother emphasizes pragmatics: they shared values, friends, a religion, a community. They were in their thirties. They both wanted kids. But it was his letters that drew her there, and surely she must have been taken with this, too: my father’s often gratuitous giving over to feeling, his unfakeable, earnest marvelling at just about everything around him. These letters are long lost. I ask my dad if he remembers what he wrote, thinking there must be something there to foreshadow not only how these two people came together but, more improbably, how they’ve stayed there. I want to understand the origins of such duration. “Well, I might have been writing letters to a few women,” my dad admits. “About seven or so? I dated a lot before I left Boulder.”  *** My parents were married at the Boulder Dharmadhatu in the spring of 1981. Before they could make it official, my father needed a divorce from his first wife—a detail that had been neglected. My mother represented his ex in the legal proceedings. At their wedding ceremony, my mother wore a pale yellow dress, my father an ‘80s-loose grey suit. There was chanting in Sanskrit and a long bout of meditative sitting. Kneeling on pillows, my parents repeated their Buddhist vows in tandem: they promised to find refuge, together, in the Buddha, their example; the dharma, their teachings; and, finally, in the sangha, their chosen community of fellow travellers, their spiritual companions. My mother’s parents—secular Jews born and raised in the Bronx—declined to kneel on the shrine room floor and perched on chairs at the back instead. “I don’t worry about them,” my grandmother said to anyone who would listen to her at the reception later, “but what about the children?” I ask my mother now if she would have married my father if he hadn’t been Buddhist. She isn’t sure. She keeps coming back to what they had in common, trying to parse what came from Vajrayana and what didn’t. “We did share the Buddhist notion of mind as a construct, that you are not necessarily stuck with the thoughts that you have, that they are transitory,” she says. “But remember that when we got engaged, your father had started law school. A lot of our conversations were about social justice. That was a value we shared, and it brought us together.” She pauses. “At least that’s what I’m hoping we talked about. I don’t even remember. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Probably we were just struck by whatever hormones were raging at the time.” [[{"fid":"6707606","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":{"9":{"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":"9"}}]] There’s a whole subset of human characteristics defined by the fact that we’re bad at talking about them: charisma, it factor, star quality, je ne sais quoi. These refer to the way someone makes others feel, not so much how they do it. When we say someone has it, that thing, we throw our hands up and admit defeat. It just is. You have to feel it. You have to be there. The most compelling evidence I have that Trungpa Rinpoche was the real deal is something I know won’t be convincing to you: my mom was there. How can I explain to you how unlike her this is? How can I convince you that she isn’t the type? The very fact of her participation in something like this—whether you think it’s a kookily benign charismatic movement or a full-blown cult—remains a flaw in the prism I hold up to the world in order to make a mess of facts into something like sense. There’s a rich trove of Trungpa content online: photos, transcripts, audio and video recordings. I’ve listened and watched and read a lot. Which isn’t to say that I understand, only that I’ve spent time looking. There are these moments in the archive I keep coming back to—places of heightened absence, where effects turn up orphaned from any cause. As if some crucial context has been left off, some detail eroded from the record over time. Take this: a photo of Trungpa holding a gun to his own head, finger on the trigger, his other hand casual in the pocket of tailored suit pants. He’s wearing suspenders, a crisp button-up with stripes that change direction according to some frantic order, a kaleidoscopic tie. His gaze has slid off to the side, towards the weapon he has pressed to his temple, and his smile is taking up space, but seems faintly gripped. I find the degree of mirth impossible to track. Or this: not infrequently during Trungpa’s lectures the audience flushes with laughter that seems spontaneous and inscrutable, responding to some quality of the moment that hasn’t crossed over to where I’m sitting. I listen to these parts over and over through headphones that promise to cancel noise, trying to catch a signal. This feels physical to me—more a matter of form than content. I picture the waveform opening, separating over and over, as if, by dividing enough times, it might eventually reveal some secret remainder, something I could touch. [[{"fid":"6707611","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":{"10":{"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":"10"}}]] When she immigrated to Canada, my mother was nearly turned away, flunking a mandatory physical screening over the concern her curving spine would be a drain on the bounty of Canadian health care. A second opinion was solicited, and several mounds of paperwork later she was waved through into Halifax, giving up her job and her country to join my father in what was then little more than a foggy, provincial port town. Here, her world shrunk to Trungpa devotees and Kalapa courtiers, and my mother’s doubts about Vajradhatu only increased. She began to openly question where the organization was going. “If you leave, you’ll lose all your friends,” she remembers one woman telling her. My father’s priorities were changing, too. My sister was born when he was in his final year of law school. His ties to Vajradhatu weakened casually, like a hobby you let linger in the basement, a friend you find yourself not making plans with and can’t quite say why. My parents’ journey into Buddhism took a decade. The trip out was much quicker. After he graduated in 1983, my father got a job at a legal aid clinic in Ottawa. They got into their Ford Mercury Lynx and made what was then, on a less-developed highway, a solid eighteen-hour drive west—my one-year-old sister protesting her car seat, rain haunting them down the TransCan—and were never Buddhist again. *** In September 1986, the same month and year I was born, Chogyam Trungpa made the Vajradhatu’s move to Nova Scotia official. A trickle of immigration had been slowly wending north, growing the Buddhist community in Halifax, and the enlightened Kingdom of Shambhala seemed to finally be in sight. Within just weeks of arriving in Halifax, Trungpa’s heart and breath stopped, and though he was revived, he never really recovered. He died with all the hallmark bodily failures of acute alcoholism in April 1987. Witnesses claim that his body remained warm after death, suspended in a sacred state of Samadhi. They say the Halifax harbour—which had been frozen over out of season—broke apart and melted with his last breath. In the wake of Trungpa’s death, hundreds of his American students made good on their guru’s wish and immigrated to Canada. As Trungpa’s succession plans had dictated, the Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin —the same man who once told my mother it was time to be a good Buddhist and head to Boulder—took over the organization. Even more than Trungpa had been, Tendzin was famous for a conflation of sex and spiritual instruction. Tendzin lead the organization for only a few months before it emerged that he’d been having unprotected sex with followers for several years despite knowing he was HIV-positive. He believed that Vajryana purification practices would protect him. Trungpa, he claimed, had told him so. All he’d done was follow the guru. A sangha member contracted HIV and infected his girlfriend with the virus before dying of AIDS. Tendzin fled with a small cohort of the faithful to California where he, too, died in 1990. Though the Vajradhatu organization was shaken, it did not disappear, unlike so many other stunted branches on the ‘70s spiritualism family tree. The son Trunpga had sired in the Himalayas, Sakyong Mipham, was called to take his father’s legacy in hand. He eventually merged the two streams of his father’s work—the enlightened kingdom and the religious practice—coining the term Shambhala Buddhism in the early aughts. Not everyone was happy with this, but as a practical measure, it seemed to work. Home to a community of around two thousand Buddhists, Halifax remains the de-facto capital of Shambhala: a kingdom of some 12,000 practitioners spread across the globe. In 2017, a second-generation Shambhala Buddhist (a “dharma brat” as those born into it are sometimes called) launched Project Sunshine: a series of reports documenting abuses of sex and power in the Shambhala Buddhist community. The reports include, among other things, consistent allegations against Trungpa’s son, Sakyong Mipham. From the outside, Mipham has always seemed mild-mannered almost to a fault—an unlikely inheritor of his father’s radical teachings. Unlike his father, who was, if nothing else, transparent, Mipham hasn’t made sex or drinking a part of his outward-facing persona. He has never publicly embraced the excuse that true wisdom is cracked open and wild. The testimonies collected by Project Sunshine are highly specific, but also grotesquely, bluntly familiar. I’m starting to think that might be the worst part: how stories of abuse and its dissembling have already coalesced into a genre, a narrative dulled by repetition. I resent that I’ve become conditioned to expect all of it. I feel like I’m giving up something important about detail and nuance—something about how to value subjectivity.   In the years since Project Sunshine was launched, a never-ending series of Open Letters have come out from all sides, trading revelations and contritions and meditations back and forth, like call and response. Sakyong Mipham has largely denied the allegations against him, while also stepping back from his role as head of Shambhala and issuing the occasional mealy-mouthed statement of regret. In 2019, he left Canada for India and Tibet, where, according to an article published this September in the The Walrus, he’s rallying the faithful, paving the way for a return to power. [[{"fid":"6707616","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":{"11":{"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":"11"}}]] In one piece of audio from a Q&A at a meditation retreat in Vermont in 1974, a student asks Trungpa a question about romance. This student stumbles for a while, struggling to express himself, trying to figure out what exactly he’s asking. His concern, it seems, is that he’s doomed to trek the Vajryana path solo. That a budding awareness of the human condition has made him unsuited to love. “I don’t think anybody can fall in love unless they feel lonely,” Trungpa tells him. “Nobody can fall in love with somebody else unless they know that they are lonely, and they’re separate individuals. And if by any misunderstanding, by any strange coincidence you think that you are the other person already, there’s no one to fall in love with.” He goes on to frame this as a math problem. “One and one being together is union. Otherwise, if it’s just one, you can’t call that union. Zero is not union, one is not union. But two is union.”  Another student follows up: what’s the difference between a romantic union and the bond formed between any practitioner and the rest of the sangha? “If two people are together, the types of loneliness may be a similarity. The fact that one person reminds the other person more of their loneliness. That you feel your partner feels you, seeing you more lonely.” *** There are points along the Vajrayana Buddhist path where you have to commit. First an initiate will take the Refuge Vow, and later they will pledge to become a Bodhisattva—someone whose quest for enlightenment is guided by compassion rather than self-interest. In a formal ritual, the guru gives the student a new name, something to represent the thing that is both their strongest tool and also their greatest impediment. Long before they were a couple, at ceremonies at opposite ends of the continent, Chogyam Trungpa graced each of my parents with the same moniker: they are both “Highway of Patience.” This seems to me like some real bolt-of-lightning shit. My father confirms that it’s an unlikely coincidence. He says he’s never met another patient highway, nor has he heard of another couple whose Bodhisattva names are twinned. “It’s very, very rare,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re compatible or anything,” my mother argues. “It just means we have similar problems.” My mother has pretty thoroughly rejected most of the Buddhist teachings she once followed, but this name still means something to her. “I have to work to be patient. And I wouldn’t have said I was then, but I think I’ve become a good listener,” she says. “Probably having been given the name is a great influence. It’s not like I never think about it. I do.” “Sometimes your mother and I have conversations where we just say, ‘Yeah, I know,’ ‘I get it,’ ‘You already told me that,’ ‘I know,’ back and forth at each other. Like two impatient highways running off in different directions,” my father tells me, laughing. “I think it’s funny that we have the same name. It’s neat.” My father has started meditating again. He took it up a few years ago, when he turned 70, right around when he retired from a career in refugee law. “I’m pathetic,” he says, “I only do ten minutes a day.” He doesn’t kneel on the floor anymore, although they still have the dense, bright yellow and red meditation pillows that have been squatting in corners of their house for as long as I can remember. “Meditating is hard on the body,” my dad says. “My hip just doesn’t bend that way anymore. I sit in my computer chair.” My mother is unlikely to follow. It’s hard to imagine her sitting still without being occupied by a task or four, and I’m sure she’ll never meditate again as long as she has an iPad. Lately, though, what she’s been talking about is learning Hebrew. She’s thinking idly about having a Bat Mitzvah instead of a retirement party. She’s been reluctant to talk seriously about retiring at all, but maybe she would consider it, maybe, if she found a way to tie it to her roots, to a ritual with some meaning. A coming-of-age. Maybe if she had a goal. *** At their wedding, my parents professed their faith to a set of laws they no longer follow. They promised to build their union within a community they’re no longer a part of—one they’ve abandoned. The truth is, their vows are long broken. They’ve been married for almost forty years. I want to know: Do they feel a little weird about that? A little guilty? “No,” my mother says in a Highway-of-Zero-Patience voice. “I don’t have that feeling whatsoever.” I thought my father might be more nostalgic, but he doesn’t put much stock in it either. “No, no, I don’t feel weird about it at all. It’s just where I was at the time. Now it’s kind of an exotic story when you tell it at parties.”  I’m talking to them long-distance over Skype. They’re in Ottawa, in the house they’ve lived in since just after I was born, sitting side-by-side on the couch my mother has been carting around since her Manhattan days (a mod burnt pumpkin colour when I was growing up, since re-covered in earth-tone stripes). I’m in BC planning my own wedding. Without religion, I’m finding it hard to sketch the contours of the ritual. When I tried to write my marriage vows, they came out sounding like a murder-suicide pact. My mother took a pottery class recently, and she holds up the results, showing me a series of wonky mugs that never quite found their centre. “Pathetic,” she declares.  “But the colours are fabulous,” my father adds enthusiastically. He’s mostly off-screen: a glimpse of his ear, stray white hairs wavering at the edge of the frame. “Dad, I can’t see you,” I say. “I’m eating chicken!” he calls, yelling too loud, sticking his hand in my mother’s face as he gives the webcam a greasy thumbs-up. She pushes his hand away. “Pottery’s over. I need a new hobby,” my mother says. “Maybe I’ll divorce your father.”  “Good idea,” I say. “Something the two of you could do together.” She leans into him for a moment. Skype starts to stutter and glitch, and their laughter comes out sounding like they’re being choked. The screen freezes: my mother’s eyes are shut, her head resting on my father’s shoulder. I can see half his face now, ruddy and pixelated, thrown back mid-laugh. For a moment, they are preserved this way. Then her neck jerks upright like a marionette, their movements drag in awkward bursts between tableau. “What? What?” they say to the computer. “We can’t hear you.” “Give it a second,” I say. “Just wait for it to pass.” “You’re frozen! We can’t hear you!” They’re both yelling. My mother pulls on her glasses and leans towards the screen. My father’s head moves out of view again. “It’s not working.” “Just wait,” I say.  [[{"fid":"6707621","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":{"12":{"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":"12"}}]] A lot of people’s dads will tell you they were a hippie back in the day. I suspect this means they smoked pot in university, went too long between haircuts, wore jeans with flagrant ankles that now seem like a punchline. My dad was a dropout. For most of his twenties and into his thirties, he was off the grid. His beard and hair straggled below his sternum, ruddy and sun-scorched. He got fucked up on whatever weird, hard, home-concocted drugs came into his orbit. He got fucked up on solitude, living alone—one year, or maybe it was two—in a cabin he jerry-built right into the side of an ancient spruce, cobbled from driftwood and washed-up lumber, squatting on a beach of crown land on the western edge of Vancouver Island where thousands of unbroken kilometres of Pacific Ocean hurled up storm after wild, grey storm. He didn’t go to the doctor. He abandoned his bank account. He forgot how to read. That my father became a man who wore a suit to work, who made a career of helping people, who knows and follows and teaches society’s laws—I don’t know what to call that but a miracle. This an orienteering tale: a man is lost in the woods, and he tracks his way back to the world. And because of all those dads like mine, dads in suits who remember that they were there, too, I find it hard to place just how common this sort of thing is. In one way, it might be the story of late-20th century counterculture and its aftermath: trying to ditch one set of values on a quest for something more spiritual, more true, only to wind up at some very hard, material centre. Maybe it’s only the story of how, by trying to shake the rigid ‘50s, all we got was the empty, plastic ‘80s. Is this version sad? All that pointlessly performed freedom, all those ideals failed and abandoned. The world never renewed at all, just more and more of the same. It’s a huge bummer when you add it all up, when you call it a generation. It’s bummer when you are the direct product of it, and your whole life exists in the long, stupid hangover of what’s left. But hone in on just one individual, and the movement out and back isn’t so easy to characterize. Surely it’s better than one very real alternative: staying dropped out until it’s no longer something to choose. Never finding your way to any path at all. Dying, maybe, or else doomed to be permanently ancient, wandering coastal highways and lingering on downtown corners, so long burnt-out you register to others only as dust.   My father says that when he thinks about this juncture in his life, he pictures an escape sequence from an action movie. A huge, metal door descends, aiming for the ground with its great, final weight, and he’s diving and rolling, just barely passing through a narrow opening before it disappears. In the movie version, the hero crosses the threshold because of his quick reflexes, his strength of will. Because the story is his, and the story is always out there, on the other side of the door. In real life, my dad tells me, it just isn’t like that. He senses that the counterfactual still has some claim on him. And the difference between stepping into the rest of your life and being crushed right there on the brink, or left behind and forgotten: he says it isn’t anything but luck.  My mother’s story is less common than my father’s, I think. Or maybe it’s the same story told backward, turned inside out. Maybe you have to play the record in reverse to hear it. Before she met Chogyam Trungpa, my mother hadn’t been sent spinning out to society’s fringes. She wasn’t off the grid; she moved across it like it belonged to her, speed-walking down Manhattan streets, stopping cars with her hand. She was twenty-five years old, fearless with optimism, making good on her parents’ every hope for intergenerational mobility. She lived among the tallest buildings. She had a million boyfriends. She was in the centre of the world. “I think about this every once in a while,” my mother says. “How my life in general has moved along: in the ‘50s it was rock-and-roll-pop, in the ‘60s it was Beat Generation, and then in the ‘70s: I got religion! How is that possible? What a freaking cliché. I look back, and I can tell you all the things I thought were important, all the decisions I thought I was making. But now it seems that I was just so much flotsam and jetsam, moved along by the Gulf Stream.” What if something is both a guiding light and a hard wind; a true north calling the wayward compass into line and also the entropic force that blows everything apart, sending particles fleeing from security or pattern or sense? What if you feel it, follow it, and this is what you get: a whole lifetime of exchange with another human being, bound by a promise to pool your resources, your reason, your pleasure? Say you mix yourselves up right down to your very cells, mingling the most ancient codes your body keeps, trading all the secrets it knows. That’s such a crazy thing to do. [[{"fid":"6707626","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":{"13":{"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":"13"}}]] It’s tempting to abuse retrospect, to herd so many coincidences, so many little hooks of karma, or plot, until the present falls in line, giving itself up as an inevitability. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—my parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, his voice ready to gloss on their story—would probably say that this kind of mythologizing is the very worst kind of ego. There goes the flailing, neurotic “I” grasping for coherence, asserting its own importance. I’m sure he’d say I’m doing a lot of things wrong. The dharma Trungpa taught was an invitation to find comfort in instability, to be at home in impermanence. He taught that living could be both immersive and yet, still, somehow a release. I don’t know if he was good, or right, but I still ask myself often if I could do it: be all the way in the world without trying to gather everything up and hold it, take it with me, take it apart. I ask myself if I could ever love something without thinking, always and always, about how it will die. I don’t know if where we wind up, or who we get there with, is a measure of anything like purpose, traces of tectonic forces slipping and pushing beneath what seems like boring, everyday stillness. That it’s unlikely doesn’t stop me from trying to catch it. I know it doesn’t matter, that there’s no point in parsing the difference between choice and fate. Even if you believe in the latter, it’s not like the former stops happening. You have to keep existing, and that’s always just a little bit tensile, a little bit decisive. You can’t discount the possibility what you were fated is, itself, the opportunity to choose. Here’s something I’ve been thinking lately: maybe believing in anything—like, seriously, anything at all—isn’t a matter of being faithful to gods or gurus, to organizations or other people. Maybe it’s only a weird kind of loyalty to yourself. Locating a feeling you’ve had and allowing the memory of it to be what you make promises to, letting its imprint be your lodestar. Maybe it’s just picking a version of yourself to act on behalf of. I have to think that even if you’re prone to hear a restless call like doubt, it’s still possible to build your life around some kind of certainty. Trust that you were right, and lucky, if you caught it even once. I’m saying just because something is a feeling, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good idea. And what your body wants, and what your body gets—I think that matters. I think it counts. You probably have to be there. You probably are. [[{"fid":"6707631","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":{"14":{"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":"14"}}]] I got married on an island in the Discovery Passage off the coast of Vancouver Island, on my in-laws’ rocky snaggle of Pacific rainforest land. I don’t remember what I promised in my vows, but I know I meant it. I know they’re written down somewhere. The moment the reception started, my parents took to the homemade plywood dance floor, and within seconds they were owning it. That cinematic moment when a couple’s whirlwind sends the rest of the dancers to bob and sway and look on from the outskirts, pushed there by a centrifugal certainty that this moment is only theirs to witness.   The night we met I knew I needed you so. Ronnie Bennett’s voice warbles into the soft halo of light holding the forest at bay, those dozens of pine sentinels spindling towards a sky matted with stars. Oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you. You know I will adore you ‘til eternity. My mother’s eyes close and she tilts her chin up, shimmying her shoulders and punching the syncopated snare beat with jazz hands. My father spins, gyrates incomprehensibly, and flings her the full breadth of the dance floor as though they’re holding two points on a Spirograph before pulling her back in, closing the gap, his wildness tethering towards her simple grace in some hilarious, ecstatic, intimate pattern of their own making. Bypassing hindsight to record this memory straight to the best-of collection, I laugh so hard I feel sick, leaning into the moment so fully and so headlong it seems I’ve reached the other side of it—someplace shimmering with morbid beauty, where my whole self churns with the wish to please keep just this one thing. And with this perverse, impossible prayer I give myself up like a band of film, open an aperture, and let the shards of silver skate and cluster to hold onto the only thing they can: all the places where light isn’t. 
‘When I Go Into the Forest, I’m Always Reading Into It’: An Interview with Jessica J. Lee

Talking to the author of Two Trees Make a Forest about changing ideas of home, our bodies as maps, and how the natural landscape influences human connection.

The mainstream notion of an archive generally consists of documents—photographs, letters, publications. But an archive, a site of history and inheritance, can be much more expansive. An archive can be a piece of fabric, an oral story, even a body. Many recent publications have explored a broader notion of archive from the perspective of people whose stories and lives are sparsely documented, or entirely erased, from the Western forms of historical annals. From Saidiya Hartmann’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments to Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, and even fiction like Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, what constitutes an archive is more imaginative than the narrow confines of paper and ink. Jessica J. Lee’s sophomore memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest (Hamish Hamilton, 2020), engages with this theme of archive in its own far-reaching way. A memoir of family, landscape, and natural history, the book begins with Lee coming across some letters written by her grandfather before he passed away from Alzheimer’s. Lee’s mother is Taiwanese, but Lee grew up in Canada. She returns to Taiwan with her mother, to get to know her family and herself through getting to know the land. There she explores the landscape of the island on foot and on bicycle, from mountains to coast, all the while navigating the things that are lost and found in translation: translation of her grandfather’s letters, of her mother’s body language and her own, of her grandmother’s stories, and of the imperialist and colonialist mapping of Taiwan and its flora and fauna. “The story of a place—lithic, living, and forgotten—can be found in maps and what they include or leave out,” Lee writes. When Chinese, and later western European, imperialists began mapping Taiwan in the 16th century, they imposed their own stories onto its landscape and people. Taiwan, Lee writes, resists mapping, as its interior landscape is difficult to access and traverse. “Today, maps continue to show Taiwan tangled in mystery,” Lee writes. As she journeys into this mystery, she learns about the international and interpersonal conflict, the language and lack thereof, and the inherited narratives that shape humans and landscapes alike. “The gaps that bind us span more than the distances between words,” writes Lee. “Nature stitches a seam between our anthropogenic divides.” I spoke with Lee over Skype about family, history, and the meaning of place. Sarah Neilson: So much of the narrative of Two Trees Make a Forest is about gaps—between fault lines, mountains, languages, diaspora, and the gaps within families. In what ways are those distances limiting, and in what ways are they sites of possibility? Jessica J. Lee: The issue of gaps was the central thing for me at the very beginning of working on the book—it was probably the first theme that really emerged. In fact, the original title of the book was centered on the theme of gaps. So it was really apparent to me, because I came to the story with the issue of the primary language gap, and then that gap in time and connection to Taiwan. It became a space, as you said, of possibility, a space I could occupy to just ask questions in a more spacious way than I could if I felt like I had to know everything. It allowed me to not know things, and therefore to write that learning into the book, to ask questions of my grandparents' stories and of history. I think if I was trying to write a book where I wanted to take a position of authority, it wouldn't work. It's very much about not being an authority, about trying to get to know a place, about trying to bring the language that I know best, which is that of landscape, into the gaps that were there to offer some connection. I wanted to ask you about that natural landscape language—you divide the book into four sections, roughly translated as “Island,” “Mountain,” “Water or river,” and the last section is “lin,” which has two translations: forest, or a group of like persons. What are the metaphorical and literal meanings behind dividing the book into these natural phenomena? It was partly a structural thing. I didn't start out with those divisions, but the more I sat with the story, it really helped me to frame what was already a very fragmentary story. It was always going to be a challenge to piece it together, because the key text I was working with, which was my grandfather's life story [in some of his letters], was a series of fragments. It was written when he had Alzheimer's and was developing Alzheimer's. So I think it helped me not push against but work within the limitations of a fragmentary structure. I thought about those words a lot, because they're really basic words in Chinese—they're the first ones you learn, really. But they were also words that really shaped my experience of landscape in Taiwan. When I was learning how to read, and when I didn't know where I was, those were the kinds of words I could always read on a street sign or on a trail marker. That was really important to me to give myself some framing so that I wouldn’t feel completely adrift. Also, it was hard for me at times to figure out the right place for certain parts of the story. And that's why, at the end of the book, I turned to this idea of the forest. The forests were not the key framing idea of this book when I set out, but they very quickly became that. I’m particularly interested in that last section because of the elegance of the image of a group of like people as a forest or grove, connected by roots and symbiotic relationships with its growth media, its place—its soil. How do you think natural landscape influences or embodies human connection? How do you think politics and its violences does the same? The reality is, when I go into the forest, I'm always reading into it, reading personal things into it, even when I'm trying not to. I bring literature, I bring details, I bring family history, I bring that kind of knowledge with me. I feel like it's really important to acknowledge that, and to really see those things as layered, and to not assume that we can speak about landscapes as pristine or apart from us, as if that was ever possible. So much of the natural world has been shaped by us. And so it's inherently political. It's inherently cultural. For me, Taiwan was a really ideal space to think about where these things converge. There were the personal elements, there was the more intellectual interest in natural history, but also a really strong desire to understand history that I didn't understand until I really delved into it—to understand that a history of a place happens on so many levels. There's that personal experience of the place, there's the family, there's the political, and they're not distinct. You explore the idea of mapping quite a bit, and the question of who draws what maps. So much of what is known, on a global scale, about Taiwan’s biodiversity, geology, and geography in general bears the marks of imperialism, colonization, industrialization, war. Can you talk a little about mapping your own exploration of the island? Was there anything that surprised you, while you were there in person and/or when you were researching historical documentation? I was really confronted with the challenge of not only mapping, but getting places was in a way my big challenge in Taiwan. I didn't have a strong knowledge of Taiwan's interior in the central mountains before I set out specifically to [explore them], which in some way reflects that strange history of the flatlands being very accessible, and the mountains being very much off limits. I was really struck by the ways that you could get to know the landscape there in such a patchwork way, and feel simultaneously [it] was sort of inexhaustible as a place. I've been to huge sections of Taiwan now, a bunch of different mountain ranges. And I feel very much like I've done very little. And I would really like to keep going. But I do think the one thing in Taiwan that is always sort of with you is that consciousness of it being colonized land and colonized space. I was always sort of hyper-conscious, also of my hybrid position as Taiwanese diaspora but also a Westerner in some sense, and as white passing. That shapes my movements through the landscape there because I'm not necessarily seen as belonging, and it shapes how you're received and what you have access to, and a whole manner of other things. I think I carried a lot of consciousness of that historical relationship of mapping and politics in the place and where I fit in a contemporary frame moving across that same landscape. To expand on the idea of maps, in what ways are our family artifacts maps, and in what ways are our bodies maps? And how is the body not only a map, but a tool of mapping? This book brought to mind for me the range of things that could be a map, or that could be treated as a landscape. There's my grandfather's letter, which is a more obvious one. There’s my grandmother's stories and her clothes. It's really interesting, just the other day I found a bag with a bunch of clothes that my grandmother had sewn. It's nice to still have them because I don't have a whole lot, but those are really personal things to have. When it comes to the body, the thing I think most of is actually my mother, and my observations of my mother moving in Taiwan, the way her entire comportment changed. I have basically spent my entire life thinking my mom has a terrible sense of direction, and that she doesn't really like to get out and do things on her own. When we went back to Taiwan, it was like she felt like she belonged. She felt much more comfortable. She would still get lost, but there was something in the way she moved that I think was really familiar to her and familiar to that place, but I hadn't seen it before. So just sort of getting into your body again, and feeling like your body is in the place where it belongs in some way. That familiarity, the familiarity of climate, all of those little things. In many ways Two Trees is a story of inheritance. What do you feel you inherited while writing this book, and what new inheritance(s) do you create with it? I think the book gave me the connection that I had never really had to my family's past. I didn't really give it enough thought when I was growing up, and I kind of took it for granted. [The book] gave me that very direct connection to my family's legacy, and to my culture, in some sense. That was really valuable. I think the biggest thing that I took away from working on this book aside from connecting with Taiwan, and language in place, was extra time with my grandparents. I was working on this book for two or three years, and it was kind of like I was having conversations with them all the time, even though they both passed away. It was like this extra time that we had to spend together, to really think about our family, to learn about one another. It was completely one-sided—it was just me and my imagination, and these words on a page that were my grandfather's, and my own. Did your idea of home change at all while you were writing this? I don't know if it changed so much as grew. I think I always had a very dislocated sense of home. For me, it's a question of plurality and multiplicity. Having gotten to know Taiwan a lot better and really coming to spend a lot of time there, it added itself, I guess, to a list of possible homes and places in which I belong. I don't know if I've fully resolved that yet. It's a conversation my husband and I have every few months—should we move to Taiwan? Would we feel too far away from people back home? It's always sort of there in the back of my mind now, especially as my mom's planning to move back. And it really shifted the gravity of the world for me, in a way. I’ve been thinking about the word solastalgia a lot lately. It’s defined as “a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change... best described as the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change.” It was coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2005 in the context of the specific feeling of loss, of homesickness, experienced under climate change. This connects back to the idea of humanity as a forest, an interdependent organism. What are the places of your life, and how do you mourn them and love them at the same time in a world that now requires both? How do love and grief that are connected to place also connect to family? It's interesting to bring up that word, because for me, it overlaps so much with the kinds of grieving we do for people and for family, because the body is a kind of landscape and a record. And I think, when we think about the natural world, it is a record—it's a record of memories that we've had and places we've been to. And it's so much bigger than us. When I go to places in Taiwan like the coast, where you can see so much changing, or the forest near the end of the book... you can see environmental change so starkly. In this flooded forest, you can see what's possible on this planet. That, for me, is one of those kinds of spaces where it brings me out of myself and my own personal grief a little bit and reminds me how big and powerful this world is, and also how much impact we can have on it. I spent a lot of time swimming here in Germany, where I've been living. I'm a really avid winter swimmer. I swim when there's ice. And that, for me, has been a real process of record-keeping in a way. Because I feel like by returning to places again and again in the landscape, you bear witness to the thing that's changing. The past couple of years for me have been about bearing witness to receding ice. We don't have proper winter anymore. The lakes haven't frozen in years. And that's like a personal kind of devastation, but it's also something that that we need to witness and we need to document and we need to take personally. And also, how do we balance that personal narrative with not seeing ourselves as the center of the universe? I don't know. For me, returning to different places in the landscape and having that cyclical relationship to it is sort of my way of marking change and witnessing change. But yeah, it's really tough. I mean, in Taiwan, I'm always going back to the same places again, and again, sort of compulsively. I very rarely go to new places. I really like to go to the same five places, just to see if there's a slight difference. And just to see if I can get that moment back again. But that’s never possible. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A Voice of Bells

What ever happened to Ofra Haza?

In 1975, a seventeen-year-old Ofra Haza appeared in an annual televised concert called the Oriental Song Festival. It was the first time many Israelis saw the singer who would become, and who arguably remains, the country’s most internationally celebrated artist. Black-and-white footage available on YouTube shows Haza marching onto the stage in a long-sleeved, V-necked, empire-waisted, floor-length dress, dark with a floral print. She wears a two-inch Star of David around her neck and around her crown a delicate headdress with a filigreed pendant. For a brief moment, she almost wobbles, stepping wide and swinging her arms to keep her balance. She steps to the microphone and the bass comes in, then keys, guitars, strings, and horns. She begins to sing and her voice is loud, clear, steady, and pure. It is perfectly in pitch. The song, “Shabbat Hamalka,” is religious, adulating the Sabbath as a queen who “descends in splendour from the heavens” and “brings joy to those in sorrow.” I am not religious, but watching this performance, I have an “almost” moment. It is this moment that leads me to ask, “What ever happened to Ofra Haza?” I had no idea how loaded this question was, how it has haunted people for the past 20 years. When I tried to find out, I discovered a potent narrative: a girl from the ghetto beats back every obstacle and gains her rightful recognition, then is ravaged by one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases. Adding to this potent arc were Haza’s beauty, her famous penchant for privacy, and perhaps above all the fact that she was possessed of that most coveted and revered of gifts: the ability to radiate, in song, all that lies unsaid, and often unknown, inside the beating human heart. Israelis called it “kol pa’amonin”—a voice of bells. *** Ofra Haza was born in November 1957 in Tel Aviv, the youngest of seven daughters and two sons. Haza’s family lived in Hatikva, an underserviced neighbourhood principally populated by Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent; in Hebrew they are described as Mizrahi (of the East). Her parents had emigrated to Israel from Yemen in 1944 with three children in tow—their fourth was born just after the family disembarked in the port of Haifa. Haza’s mother, Shoshana, had been a wedding singer in Yemen, and was the centre of lively gatherings on Motzei Shabbat, the end of the Sabbath, when neighbours congregated in the Haza home to sing and dance. Like many families who came from Yemen to Israel in the mid-century, the Hazas kept kosher, went to synagogue regularly, and refrained from working from sunset on Friday to sundown on Saturday. When she was twelve years old, Ofra Haza knocked on Bezalel Aloni’s door, asking to audition for the theatre workshop he led in Hatikva. Aloni came from a similar background. Born in 1940 in Petah Tikvah, a mid-sized city in central Israel, he was one of ten siblings whose parents emigrated from Yemen in the 1930s. Though he didn’t live in Hatikva when he set up his theatre workshop there, the neighbourhood was his central pre-occupation. In 1947, after the declaration of the Jewish state, Tel Aviv did not incorporate Hatikva as part of the city and it remained effectively segregated into the 1960s. Aloni’s plays depicted and critiqued the egregious state of its streets and schools. “My soul is a protest soul,” he told me during a brief call this past January. The day Haza showed up at his house, Aloni told her she was too young for his group. “But I want to sing, too,” she said. “I’m from Hatikva, too.” Perhaps amused by her gumption, Aloni agreed to listen to her sing. Her voice, he says, gave him “shivers in my skin.” He allowed her to begin sitting in on the group’s rehearsals, where she memorized all the songs and all the actors’ parts. When the male lead in a play called Sambusak, When Are the Elections? bailed two hours before opening night, Haza filled in and stole the show. A few months later, she was in the Sinai, performing for soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur War. She was 14 years old. Aloni began writing for her specifically—the play First Love was about a relationship between a Yemenite girl and an Ashkenazi (a Jew of European descent) boy. It included “Ga’aguim” (“Longings”), a performance which Aloni has described as capturing Haza’s essence. The song itself has a stunted melody and metaphors, but Aloni is right. I listen to a recording of “Ga’aguim” over and over, trying to divine whether some one thing is responsible for my eyes repeatedly pricking, whether it’s Haza’s phrasing, or her timbre, or her vibrato. She is at once hopeful and sad, her voice fragile and robust. Each day, she sings, I wonder. Will all my dreams help me find my place? Will all my striving leave me with only a dream? When Aloni’s group performed at Kibbutz Shefayim, a coastal community between Tel Aviv and Netanya, he invited Avraham Deshe Pashanel, the country’s biggest entertainment producer, to attend. “Look, I don’t know what to do with the play,” Pashanel remembered telling Aloni during a 1999 televised retrospective of his career. “But give me the singer, and I will make her a big star.” Aloni eagerly agreed. But Pashanel’s patronage was not enough to launch Haza’s career. “I wasn’t able to get a single song for her,” he said. According to Aloni (in a 2019 interview with Israeli TV personality Yoav Kutner), Pashanel told Haza to give up singing, get married, and have children. That was when Aloni realized it was up to him to ensure that Ofra Haza’s talent wasn’t squandered. They had visited Pashanel’s office on a rainy day in Tel Aviv; when they left, Aloni had trouble kickstarting his sodden Lambretta. Driving home—with Haza crying on the back of the scooter—Aloni began composing the first song he ever wrote for her solo career, “Hageshem,” “The Rain.” To my ear, “Hageshem” is a mediocre composition, with lyrics lacking any degree of nuance and a melody dripping with schmaltz. But let me imagine for a moment that I am Aloni on that rainy day in Tel Aviv. I am probably a little panicked. More protest soul than pop composer, here I am, responsible for making sure this girl—a girl I’ve been taking care of, in a sense, since she was a child—has a song to sing. A lot of songs, in fact. And so, as I splash home on my Lambretta, I reach for one. And when “Hageshem” comes, it is a huge relief, a lifeline, a Hail Mary. Fortunately, Haza carries it. It becomes a hit. More mediocre compositions follow, which Haza converts to radio hits. For four years in a row—from 1980 through 1983—she is chosen Israel’s singer of the year by popular vote. And, finally, the professional songwriters start coming around. In 1983, Haza represents Israel at Eurovision in Munich. Chai, chai, chai, The people of Israel live, Haza sang on a German stage, flashing her sunny smile, stepping a delicate toe behind a slender heel, wearing a shimmery outfit of yellow—the colour of the star Jews had been made to wear in Germany just a few generations earlier. She was the celebrated runner-up in the competition. That summer, at my Jewish camp in Muskoka, Ontario, we must have sung “Chai” upwards of 75 times. But I didn’t actually know Haza’s name until four or five years later, when my Israeli cousin told me about “Shir Hafrecha,” “Song of the Bimbo.”  (The translation does not capture the particular offensiveness of the slur, which was typically reserved for women of Mizrahi descent; Ayelet Tsabari explores it at length in “A Simple Girl,” an essay from her 2019 collection, The Art of Leaving.) Haza sang “Shir Hafrecha”—extremely reluctantly, according to Aloni—as part of her role in a 1979 feature film called Schlager. The lyrics self-refer to a frecha as being vapid and “loose,” caring only about shoes, makeup, and finding a man to marry. Haza hammed it up for the movie—undoing her hair, pulling up her pant leg to reveal a shiny black high-heeled boot, slapping her own thigh. But even as she followed the sexpot stage directions, she emanated innocence, and more than that, a knowing bit of wit. The song makes fun of frechas, yes, but also of the people who make fun of frechas. Haza “debunked what the word meant,” says her niece Inbar Algov-Kaplan, more than forty years later. And get this: When Haza first went into the studio to perform “Shir Hafrecha,” the composer played it an octave higher than originally planned. He’d hoped for a different singer, Haza explained in a 1999 interview, and was seemingly trying to cast doubt on Haza’s suitability for the role. “But I pushed myself,” she said, with a hint of triumph in her smile, “and I prevailed.” ***  In my 30s, I joined a band. I taught myself some chords on the guitar and I wrote a decent song or two. But when I sang—and oh, how I wanted to sing—I was flat. Not always, but often. For about three years, I tried to remedy this—taking lessons in an effort to train my ear, flouting humiliation to practise while roommates were home, hollering along with the tape deck in my car—until I reached the conclusion that I would simply never be a singer. It was painful, but it was clear, and it freed me up to understand my part when it comes to singing: to listen. For a while, I was obsessed with singers—singers with perfect pitch, singers with a five-octave range, singers whose talent makes background music of full orchestras and thrashing rock bands. Singers like Celine, Aretha, Whitney, and Amy. I would watch footage of these singers and wonder what it’s like to be able to do something—maybe the one thing—that every single person in the world wishes they could do. We adore them, to be sure; I wonder if, deep down, we aren’t also envious. Surely this is part of the reason we are so fascinated with singers, especially those whose lives end in tragedy: Their mortality practically shocks us.   Since her own tragic death, Haza’s story has been repeatedly told by others, and perhaps principally by Aloni, who has been cast as something of a Svengali in her career. Most of the people I talked to who worked with Haza told me that she was quite independent creatively; Aloni, it seems, was important in other ways. Itzik Yosha, an Israeli journalist who became close friends with Haza, saw Aloni as the person who “mediated” everything for her—music, business, even her personal life—as she struggled to balance ambition against the pull of family and cultural expectations. “I’m not sure she always knew how to navigate between these worlds,” Yosha said in a 2010 documentary. Then, almost by accident, it seemed as if the solution fell into her lap. In 1984, Haza recorded an album of traditional Yemenite songs—Shirei Teiman—as a gift for her parents. She and Aloni brought in Israeli-Yemenite singer Aharon Amram as artistic adviser and hired Israeli-Yemenite percussionist Chaim Gispan to play the “pach,” a big hollow tin can on which Gispan tapped his fingernails and pads to produce beats. Haza opened the album a capella, with the first lines of a song called “Im Nin’alu”: If the doors of the righteous are locked, the doors of heaven never will be. Her voice—her undulation and breath, her rich vibrato—moves like a surfer in the sweet spot of a wave. Her tone is an uncanny complement to the lyrics: mournful, uplifting, regal. It is forty-six seconds of sublimity, perhaps the signature forty-six seconds of Haza’s career. Like “Im Nin’alu,” several songs on Shirei Teiman were adapted from the poetry of a 17th-century Yemenite rabbi named Shalom Shabazi. The record was a bit pious for commercial radio, so the record company brought in Izhar Ashdot, an Israeli rock musician-turned-producer, to remix the Amram-written “Galbi” as a single, resulting in a sped-up dance track that wove breaks and vocal effects into the original version. The new version started circulating in clubs throughout Europe; a year later Ashdot remixed “Im Nin’alu,” and Haza’s a capella found its way into another artist’s remix—“Paid in Full” by the American rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. That’s when she truly went global. In 1989, Haza spent three months in the Hollywood Hills home of Thomas Dolby, the British musician and producer best known for the 1982 single “She Blinded Me With Science,” where she recorded her next record, Desert Wind. Dolby describes Haza’s voice as an extension of her personality. “There are very few vocalists that have that gift that they just communicate what they’re doing,” says Dolby over the phone. “There’s no reason to stop and analyze it from a technical point of view, tuning or timing, because it’s just, you know, expressive. And Ofra was very much like that.” The songs on Desert Wind and on Haza’s next record, the Grammy-nominated Kirya, often told medieval stories—about vengeance and exile and honour—and typically included Eastern accents, whether through the style of percussion or strings or through Haza’s interspersing of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics. The videos conjure One Thousand and One Nights: sand abounds, as do veils and turbans. At the time, I would have dismissed it all as cheesy; today, I can’t help but find it objectionable. But I am mesmerized by Haza’s performance. It strikes me that her instrument was stronger than ever and her artistry was at its height. Don Was, known for working with Bonnie Raitt, Ziggy Marley, and the Rolling Stones, was Kirya’s producer. “To get that special, clear sound out of Ofra’s voice, I used a very intriguing technique,” he said in a video promotion shortly after making the record. “I put a microphone in front of her, and then she… sang.” By then, Haza was in her mid-30s. She still made her home in Yehud, a city ten minutes from Ben Gurion Airport, where she lived next door to Aloni. She still had dinner with her parents every Friday night and spent all of Saturday with two of her nieces, Ori and Talma, who were just a few years younger than she was. Talma Schoen Algov says Haza “was like my mom,” cooking, driving her to and from work, and singing to her in the car. Once, Haza gave Talma a preview of a song called “Ze Yavo Pit’om,” “It Will Come Suddenly”: It will come suddenly and out of nowhere/He will come, and the dream of love will come true. “She was a very optimistic person,” Talma said of Haza in a 2005 documentary called Secrets. “She always believed that love would come.” Haza was not known to have serious boyfriends and she was often described as having been quite chaste. But there is a ballad on the 1986 record Yamim Nishberim, the only record for which Haza wrote all the songs for herself, called “Hake’ev Hazeh” (later recorded in English as “My Aching Heart”) which describes the end of an intimate love affair. “She wore her heart on her sleeve on that song,” Izhar Ashdot, who produced the record, tells me over the phone from Tel Aviv. “She cried the first time she sang it for me.” When I ask if he knew what the song was about, I can almost hear him roll his eyes. “It was obviously about a relationship,” he says.  But Haza didn’t have any relationships, I want to say in response. And then I think: How do I know that? And also: What does it matter? “Good songs are always coded,” Ashdot tells me. “You don’t understand exactly what the story is. Every listener makes the story about himself or his life or his relationships.” *** “Ze Yavo Pit’om” came out on Haza’s 1994 record, My Soul. In July 1997, Ofra Haza married Israeli businessman Doron Ashkenazi, a divorced father of two, on the roof of the building where her parents lived in Hatikva. She had known him less that a year. Bezalel Aloni has repeatedly said that he distrusted Ashkenazi from the first, that he warned Haza against marrying him, and that he believes Ashkenazi disingenuously convinced Haza to distance herself from her family and friends. “Bezalel probably had a good sense [of Ashkenazi],” Talma tells me. “If she had listened to him, she would be with us today.” Near the end of her life, Haza reached out to her niece Inbar, a young musician who was serving with the choir band in the Israeli army. She asked Inbar to come over with her keyboard and help her work on her new album, which Haza was keeping very discreet. Inbar tells me how honoured she was by the invitation but also that she felt out of her depth; she offered to introduce Haza to a talented young producer named Ran Aviv whom she knew from the army and whom she trusted. Aviv had a studio in his parents' home in Petah Tikva, a mid-sized industrial city in central Israel, and Haza began recording with him there. But the album was never completed. In early January 2000, Haza cancelled a scheduled session with Aviv; she told him she wasn’t feeling well. Then she cancelled a second time. After that, Aviv later said in a television documentary, “All conversations were with Doron.” In less than two months, Haza was dead of complications from AIDS. In the 2002 documentary, The Life and Death of Ofra Haza, several of Haza’s sisters describe visiting her at home through the beginning of February 2000, trying to help her convalesce from what they believed, then, was the flu. But her condition worsened. They repeatedly asked Ashkenazi to call an ambulance, and, they said, he repeatedly deferred. Finally, there was no choice. In the film, one sister breaks down as she describes the ambulance paramedic reacting to Haza’s state in astonishment, telling the family that she was “already gone.” Haza was admitted to hospital in mid-February 2000. In a documentary released earlier this year, one of the doctors who treated her said that when she was first admitted, the medical team believed Haza was suffering from a severe stomach infection. Then, Doron Ashkenazi came to the doctor’s office to tell him that Haza had HIV. After ten days in intensive care, Haza’s heart stopped. She was pronounced dead of complications from AIDS on the evening of February 23, 2000, at the age of forty-two.  Many have questioned whether or not Haza knew she had AIDS—whether she may have “died of shame,” spurning treatment so as to hide her illness. “I visited her two weeks before she died,” Talma tells me. “She did not know what she had; she did not know she was going to die.” A recent documentary reported that Ashkenazi also carried the virus. He died just over a year after Haza did, in April 2001, of a drug overdose. This, then, is the story I find when I go looking. But Ofra Haza's life, so rich in narrative, is not actually a story. Stories are contrived, constructed on the scaffolding of foreshadowing, climax, and denouement. Lives, on the other hand, begin and end randomly. That’s the way I see things, anyway—no grand design, no universal intervention. Some things happened to Haza, some things she made happen, and this feedback loop continued from the time of her birth until the time of her death. We shape what we know of someone’s life into a story, as I have done here, for the purpose of taking something from it. Indeed, we often speak of stories as having takeaways. In this sense, a person’s life is like a song—coded, as Ashdot said—fluid, opaque, and interpreted differently by each listener. The takeaway, then, depends on the taker. Sometimes, though, there is something in a song—and in a singer—that breaks away from the loop and hovers in the atmosphere, somewhere over our heads. We feel the muscles loosen in our necks and the shiver in our skin; maybe we have an “almost” moment. Many people can sing in a voice that is loud, clear, pure, and steady. But only a few of them become the essence of the song itself. “Who is she?” we ask, demandingly. Who was Ofra Haza? But this is the work of art—to leave the question unanswered and to leave us unknowing, envious and infatuated, bereft and fulfilled.   
The Memory Weavers

Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference is something women have done for centuries.

Darcy Losada was trying to save up enough money to pay for her undergraduate degree in Design and Communication. Her favorite flower was the black rose, and she hoped, one day, to publish an anthology of poems she had been working on. A young man called Omar Alejandro Dueñas Zamora began stopping by the ice cream shop where she worked to flirt with her. He would flatter the color of her eyes whenever he bought an ice cream. Eventually the two began dating.  One evening when it was Darcy’s turn to close the shop, thirteen thousand pesos went missing from the cash register. Being the only other person present at the time, Omar was a suspect. The shop owner delivered Darcy an ultimatum: she had to break up with her boyfriend and compensate him for the loss, or he would report both of them to the authorities. Darcy consented. Omar began sending her threatening, descriptive messages about how he intended to kill her. On March 24, 2013, Darcy’s mother, María Isobel, received a call from her daughter’s phone at 9:15 p.m. Amidst a cacophony of shouts, punches, and blows, María Isobel could hear Darcy sobbing. Then the line went dead.  María Isobel had a gut feeling that the worst had happened. She left the house and begged the authorities for help, but was not taken seriously. Her first stop was Mexico City’s investigation unit that specialized in kidnappings, but they dismissed her peremptorily since no ransom demand for Darcy had been received. After being asked to go to another department of the attorney general’s office, which also couldn’t assist her, María Isobel finally managed to get a missing person’s report filed at the Centro de Apoyo de Personales Extraviadas y Ausentes (Support Center for Missing and Absent Persons). They were reluctant to do so immediately, suggesting that she should wait a day in case Darcy showed up. At 7 a.m. the next day a female body was found in the San Simón Ticumac area. The victim showed signs of asphyxiation and was covered in bruises. Later on, María Isobel would tell the press that, when the police called to notify her that a body had been recovered but it was unlikely to be her daughter because it was a “woman aged between 30 and 40 years old,” she felt a small breeze in her hair. “Darcy always used to ruffle my fringe,” she said. “Mothers have a special intuition. I knew it was her.” She was right. Phone records confirmed that Omar had been in San Simón Ticumac at the time of Darcy’s murder. These were backed by video surveillance footage that showed him coercing her into a van, where she had presumably been murdered before being tossed back onto the street. At Darcy’s burial, someone left a black rose on top of her grave. She would never get to fulfill her dream of going to university. The Mexican journalist Oscar Balderas, who is known for his investigative reportage of femicide and sex trafficking, had been invited to Darcy’s funeral, where he was able to speak to family members about her life and get a better sense of who she was beyond what had been written in the police files. Her family and friends were well aware that Omar had been abusive in the months leading up to Darcy’s death. She had said repeatedly that she feared for her life, even tearfully imploring her mother to look after her cat, Sally, in case she was killed. Nobody went to the police despite the high risk of a femicide because of a complete lack of trust in the system of law enforcement. They were terrified that Omar would almost certainly kill Darcy in retaliation if he found out that the police had been notified. Balderas recalls one of Darcy’s uncles lamenting the fact that, “If we had trusted the authorities this crime would not have happened, but in Mexico, when you file a complaint, it’s like buying endless trouble with your aggressor.” *** Purple is the color of dissent in Mexico City. It comes to the city at the beginning of spring, when the jacaranda trees begin to flower. They appear overnight, dotting the lush canopies that hang over the historic center. The blossoms intermittently dot the green paths of Alameda Central, the first public park in the history of Latin America. The closer you get to Zócalo, the main plaza of the capital and once the ceremonial heart of Tenochtitlan at the height of the Aztec civilization, the fewer jacaranda trees you’ll see. This year the jacaranda is early. On Valentine’s Day, a paroxysm of purple explodes outside the National Palace in the form of a crowd of demonstrating women. The scarves and balaclavas over their mouths are an angrier shade than the light blueish-lavender of the jacaranda. “Ni una más,” they chant, brandishing posters and cloth canvases on which they have written or stitched the names of other women. Ella Aguilar. Fernanda Sánchez. Diana Velasquez. One name appears repeatedly, accompanied by the photograph of a smiling young woman with bright eyes: Ingrid Escamilla. The weekend before the protests, Ingrid was brutally murdered by her partner, who skinned her corpse and discarded her organs in a drain. At the crime scene, the Mexican police took photographs of her mutilated body. These were leaked to the tabloid Pásala, under the headline: “It was Cupid’s fault.” Ingrid was twenty-five. In an interview with CNN, a representative from the National Institute of Women lambasted the distribution of the images of Ingrid’s body as an egregious example of how violence against women is constantly rendered banal and inconsequential. Protests like these are common in Mexico. In 2016, the “violet spring” saw tens of thousands of purple-clad women pour into streets all around the country, taking a stand against the malaise of apathy that permeates public discourse surrounding femicide. Similar movements have been organized year after year ever since. The videos and photographs from these events are visually strident. They show livid eyes flashing behind purple scarves, sprawling banners that decry the multiple failures of the state to protect its women, mothers and sisters. Amidst these vignettes of fury and hopelessness, one particular scene recurs. The women demonstrating hold up oversized white pañuelos, on which the names and stories of slain women have been embroidered. Brenda Tlatelpa Mora, 20 years old, originally from San Pablo del Monte, Tlaxcala, was strangled. Her body was found in a hotel room in Tepeaca, Puebla. The purple messages are as delicate as the petals of the jacaranda flower, connecting the dead to the living in silent sisterhood.  *** María Fernanda Segura Ruiz. I am 19 years old. I was going by public transport to my entrance exam at the polytechnic. I was shot in the early hours of the morning. There are no witnesses. No-one responsible has been detained. These words are stitched in pale violet on a diaphanous piece of cloth: an indictment, a reproach, the record of a spectral voice. In a café in the Navarte Poniente district of Mexico City, Minerva Valenzuela folds the cloth carefully and returns it to her backpack. Embroidery, she tells me, is similar to respiration. “The needle goes in and out of the cloth, like inhaling and exhaling. I think about the physical space that the words occupy on the cloth. The breath that was ripped from a woman in a matter of seconds becomes material, something we can feel with our fingers.” The mainstream press in Mexico reported Maria Fernanda’s murder in July 2019. There are thousands of others like her. The Mexican penal code was amended in 2011 to include a separate definition for femicide, and to appease public outrage over the unsolved murders of nearly four hundred women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez dating back to the late 1990s.  Bodies constantly surface, violated, with degrading injuries. They are desecrated and displayed in public places. Investigations have also revealed that women are often stalked for months before being kidnapped, assaulted, and killed. I am sitting at the café with Minerva and two other women, who I shall call Athena and Bruna. All three are members of Bordamos Feminicidios, a collective of craftist guerrillas founded by Minerva, who also works as a burlesque dancer and instructor. Based in Mexico City, Bordamos Feminicidios is determined to confront those who do not take femicide seriously, who have willfully looked away while women die. Using needles, thread, and any white handkerchief they can find, Bordamos Feminicidios honors slain women by embroidering haunting memorials to each of them. The members take these handkerchiefs with them when they travel around the country to participate in large-scale protests denouncing violence against women. At each protest, the handkerchiefs are stitched together, a sprawling brocade of sins that have not been answered for. Solidarity is infectious. It often catches women unaware, when they’re in transit. A few months ago, a young woman was embroidering in the subway en route to a Bordamos Feminicidios meeting when she struck up a conversation with another commuter. “The second girl came along to the meeting,” Athena laughs. “She had no idea how to embroider, but that’s not important. Some never touched a needle until they joined us. The point of this collective is not to make pretty things.” Athena, in striking blue eyeshadow, is a writer and teacher who runs classes for erotic literature at one of the universities in Mexico City. She found a kindred spirit in Minerva when they met at a burlesque workshop, “dancing around naked like the party animals we are.” This was in the early years before Bordamos Feminicidios expanded from a small roomful of women to hundreds of embroiderers around the city. Athena became so devoted to the mission of Bordamos Feminicidios that she started organizing her own sessions for her students. Bruna discovered the collective through a feminist workshop she attended at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia (The Memory and Tolerance Museum), where she works frequently with textiles. It is a grassroots movement that has spread primarily through word-of-mouth. But after eight years, the sheer ugliness of what Bordamos Feminicidios is forced to confront is beginning to take its toll. “I don’t think what we do has helped,” Minerva says. “Five women were being murdered each day in Mexico in 2011. Now it’s gone up to eleven. It’s very romantic to say we are strong, and that we’re awake. But now, if I even consider that I could change something, I would be frustrated all the time.” In the past, it was easy for people to reach out to her via the Facebook page for the collective. Torrents of derisive and hateful comments, some from media outlets, have since forced her to turn off the messaging function. “If they really want to join us, they will find a way to contact me.” Minerva still regularly receives case files by email from the Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio (OCNF), an organization that documents the murders of women and puts pressure on the state to prevent and punish female-targeted violence. The increasingly grotesque nature of the murders makes her sick. She began noticing that there are certain patterns in the femicides, not all of which she can explain. In the weeks after female-led protests, for example those for reproductive rights, there always appears to be a spike in the number of women killed, typically by partners or men they shared their lives with. These are epidemics of male vengeance. Other times she has found phenomena that are sinister and baffling in equal measure: “In one week, I hear about four different women being killed, all of them called Veronica Lopez. I mean… what the hell is going on here?” *** There are only three basic requirements to be part of Bordamos Feminicidios, and for Minerva to assign you a story to embroider. First, the embroiderer must tell the narrative in first person. “I want them,” she says, “to really try and imagine the life of this woman, who we only know in her last moments.” To honor her is to build a profound empathy with the fantasy of a life fuller and more complex than a broken body. Second, the embroidery should be done on a pañuelo, a standard white handkerchief, though Minerva has begun allowing deviations to this rule, because she finds it endearing when the embroiderers add personal touches to their work. “I have received tablecloths or fabric of all shapes and sizes, stained with coffee and wine, with little cats and flowers sewn into the bottom,” she says. “I love it. It means that these women are working on the embroidery everywhere and whenever they can, and the decorative details are like little kisses to the deceased.” The third rule, she says, is that the words must be in purple. Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference, against the lack of willpower to reverse or address a societal ill, is something that Mexican women, and women around the world, are familiar with. For centuries both in reality and the literary imagination, women have been the faithful scribes of tales revealing personal and social resistance to injustice or oppression. They did not do this with pens, or quills, or rigid implements that were good for scratching script onto stone—all of these were traditionally believed to be instruments that wielded real power in the realm of the public, where only men’s words counted. Instead women spoke through the objects they had created with their hands, some of which would never cross the threshold of the home. At times, it was not the actual item that was a symbol of protest, but the act of making or even unmaking it. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope eschews the advances of the lascivious suitors encroaching on her during her husband’s absence by telling them that she will select a worthy replacement for him, but only after she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. In the day she works on the shroud, but at night she secretly undoes it again, because the men have no idea how long it takes to make a shroud. This goes on for three years, until one of her maids betrays her. It is a wily, elaborate way for a woman to say no. Greek mythology also presented us with the sisters Procne and Philomela. Procne is married to Tereus, king of Thrace, but he desires her sister instead. He rapes her and cuts off her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone else what had happened. Refusing to be silenced, she tells her story through a tapestry that she weaves, and gives it to Philomela. In more recent history, the British suffragettes wove and knitted militantly as they attempted to mobilize support for the women’s vote. Janie Terrero was a suffragist belonging to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and one of the over 1,000 women incarcerated at the Royal Holloway prison from the early 1900s to the beginning of the First World War for their participation in the movement. While on a hunger strike in 1912, Terrero embroidered the names of the women in her cell block, including herself, who were fed by force and subjected to other demeaning violations. At the top of the handkerchief, in purple, she stitched the words “WSPU: Deeds not Words.” Other women were to follow, soundlessly recording their experiences of jail time using simple textiles. Ironically, they were probably allowed to do so directly under the noses of the guards who watched them because women’s craft was felt to be innocuous and benign. Latin American history is replete with craft-led protests. During the worst years of the Pinochet dictatorship, when Chileans regularly vanished without a trace or ended up in detention centers, hauled from their homes in the middle of the night, the women assiduously embroidered arpilleras—colorful patchwork made from scraps of burlap—depicting the horrors being unleashed by the military police. One arpillera features three people sitting at a dinner table, with a question mark stitched into an empty seat. A portrait of a man hangs above the seat, with the words “¿Dónde están?” floating above him in accusing block letters. Another shows women looking on as soldiers in green uniforms herd the men into vans. The majority of the women in the arpillera movement were from working class families, who had no access to legal advice or a listening ear. They hid their work in their purses and sneaked them abroad as evidence to the world of what was happening in Chile. The domestic arts, despite often being devalued and belittled, have always been a means of expressing anger at the tears in social fabric, of articulating hope that these tears can be sewn shut.  *** There are conflicting accounts of how the jacaranda, not being native to Mexico, suddenly became a mainstay of the country’s urban landscapes at the beginning of the 20th century. Some say that the trees arrived from Brazil through the harbor in Veracruz. Five hundred years ago, Veracruz was the site of one of the earliest Aztec encounters with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Saying that his people were “stricken by a disease of the heart that can only be cured by gold,” Cortes led his crew of conquistadors on a trek from Veracruz to modern-day Mexico City. His journey paved the way for Spanish explorers, driven by the same febrile desire for the expansion of empire. Some went as far north as California, which was, to their chagrin, not as easily exploitable in terms of natural resources. But others went in the opposite direction to the southern state of Oaxaca, where the indigenous Mixtec people wore dresses in a vivid shade of purple. The Spaniards noticed that the men had purple-stained fingers and nails. Accompanying them on a march to the coast some three hundred kilometers away, the colonizers were astonished to see them climb onto the rocks by the sea, prying out snails that had been washed into the crevices. Tixinda, the Mixtec called them. They laid them out with quiet reverence on the shore, gently rubbing the bellies of these snails. This induced a white liquid which, when exposed to the sun, quickly turned green and then purple. Rubbing the liquid onto the yarn that they had brought with them, the men then returned the snails to the sea and made the arduous walk home. The Mixtec women made quick work of these purple threads, weaving them into clothes, rugs and purses. Entire Mixtec villages were decimated by overwork, and by smallpox and other diseases that the Spaniards brought. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist and writer, suggests in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent that the native people of the Americas totaled “no less than 70 million” before the arrival of the conquistadors. One-hundred-fifty years later, only 3.5 million of them were left. Onwards of 1531, the uprisings against Spanish rule in Mexico increased and were ruthlessly quelled. At each of these insurgencies, the Mixtec, along with other indigenous women, were likely to have been wearing huipil, the traditional garment that continues to be worn today. These huipil bore ornately embroidered geometric patterns, which carried with them the cosmic worldview of an entire people, and which came to life in variegated colours—including the magical purple harvested from the sea. The textile arts became a medium through which sacred knowledge that was regarded as profane, and therefore prohibited by the Catholic colonizers, could be passed down covertly through the generations. In this way, embroidered clothing became an indelible mark of resistance against the erosion of ethno-religious identity. Over time, embroidery became the accepted vernacular for the condemnation of unchecked power and impunity, and to remember the names of rebels, activists, fighters, and journalists who had been killed in the course of their work. And now, Mexican women are stitching together a collective appeal for justice. *** Bruna says she remembers every story that she has embroidered, because she takes great pains to research them. In comparison with Minerva and Athena, who were expressive in their outrage, sadness, and humor, Bruna took slightly longer to speak. She grew up with a “very macho” father and brothers, and gradually realized as she got older that the sort of swaggering braggadocio that she had become accustomed to might not be healthy, either for men or for women, “because we have it drummed into us that this is the only way we can live.” After she started working at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, she had the opportunity to organize and participate in female-led events and exhibitions. This, she says, was the inception of her feminist awakening, and in the last five years she began researching women’s groups to be involved in. Shortly after she joined Bordamos Feminicidios, Bruna requested to embroider a pañuelo for Angelina, a woman she knew, a murder that had not been covered by the Mexican media. Angelina was the daughter of Bruna’s mother’s best friend, and she saw her habitually at parties and other social gatherings. “She was forty-one, doing really well in life, was working for the civil service and had just bought an apartment. I felt like I knew her better than I actually did, because my mother would speak glowingly of her,” Bruna says. Two years ago, Angelina was murdered in her apartment by a man she had been seeing briefly. No further details about her death are known: the family never spoke about it to anyone else. Embroidering the date and circumstances of Angelina’s death, Bruna maintains, is her way of “making a memory.”  “It’s still difficult,” she continues after a long pause. “Some of the members of my family—including my older sister—disapprove of what I do with Bordamos Feminicidios, or don’t get why I want to be part of it. But my younger sister has learnt a lot, and is asking me all these questions about the fight for women’s rights in this country. I have been to protests with Bordamos Feminicidios where little girls, no more than ten years old, are curious about what we do. I wish that other women who don’t think that the issue of femicide is important would see that we are all sisters at the end of the day. We face the exact same problems whether we’re out on the street or at home.” Being a member of the collective, Bruna reflects, has made her feel much less alone. The woman that Athena remembers most is one whose face has lingered in her mind for years. “I recall very distinctly that it was a regular Monday, and I had received an internal bulletin at the university, one of those leaflets that you read and then left for someone else. There was a news item about a girl who had gotten a perfect score in her admissions examination, who was planning to choose chemistry for her undergraduate degree. I don’t think there has been another example in recent history where someone scored full marks—you have to understand that this is incredibly rare, close to impossible. I looked at her face and I thought, you are a genius, you are going to go on to do great things. Two months later, she was killed. Again, nobody ever found out what happened exactly.” Her face crumples. “I will never know her. We will never be able to do anything about it.” As for Minerva herself, the spectre of Darcy Losada—the girl who worked in the ice cream shop—has followed her to the present. “I saw her all the time,” she smiles sadly. The stories of sex workers who were killed move her the most, because people seem to care less about them, because they haven’t “lived in a way that society thinks is correct.” Having to remember those that everyone else is bent on forgetting is emotionally strenuous for the women of Bordamos Feminicidios. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has appeared to lose patience when asked about the femicide crisis, snapping at reporters that the issue had been “manipulated by the media.” He has also insinuated that the protests were politically motivated to hurt his government. The implied sentiment—which is shared by a significant percentage of the population—is that femicide is not a priority, and that the women protesting are public nuisances who will eventually tire and retreat. Violence against women has surged since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. López Obrador’s reaction was to implement a 75 percent budget cut for the federal women’s institute, with further plans to slash state funding for women’s shelters.   “We don’t deal with it,” Athena finally says. “We just live through it. I write about it—mostly poetry about femicide, for example, but I would never write about femicide for theatre or for a novel. I seldom talk about it in therapy, I talk about it with my friends, I talk about it with my granny who’s ninety-three, and sometimes I cry and fight with my wife about it. She worries about me whenever I go off to a demonstration, and she’s scared that I could be arrested, raped, or kidnapped. Because these are all things that could happen to women, even if you do everything right, whether you’re ’good’ or a whore. I received a death threat in my mailbox at university a few years back. But I’m doing this because I want someone else to not have to do it. What we do is not to manage, to control, or to get over it. I don’t want this anger to fade away, until I have something else to talk about.” *** In a small bar in the Colonia Juárez district, an illustration of a living room with two sofas and a kitschy “love” sign has been projected onto the wall above the stage, which is flanked by two red curtains. The bar is packed. Minerva’s mother, who sports a cool bouffant of blue hair, is there to cheer her on. The audience dissolves into raucous glee when Minerva starts to sing a medley of well-known Mexican love songs. She bounces across the floor, holding out the microphone to various individuals. She casually sips from someone’s glass of wine and wiggles her bottom. She looks radiant. I think about something Athena said about her friendship with Minerva and what they both do at Bordamos Feminicidios. “Minerva and I have a special connection in that we’re both cocky, and we admire each other a lot. But our relationship has also changed over the years,” she mused. “It gave me a notion of searching for something together. We’re not just friends: we’re looking for the same kind of world, even if it doesn’t exist yet, or never will exist. Now I have someone to do something with that seems completely meaningless, because we create that meaning together.”
‘A Good Deal for One Person is a Bad Deal for Someone Else’: An Interview with Eula Biss

The author of Having and Being Had on the place where sensibility meets ideology, mid-life retrospective reckoning, and writing yourself into realizations. 

In Having and Being Had (Riverhead), Eula Biss wonders if she’s on her “way to becoming an asshole.” I wasn’t sure what to expect when I called her to talk about the newly released book. In articles, interviews, and lectures, the author is often introduced with a long list of accolades. It’s both impressive and boring, the way the recital of prizes, awards, and fellowships precede her ideas. I figured my preamble would be different, but I still seem to be drawing attention to the fact that Biss is highly acclaimed. It’s not Biss’s distinction as an essayist that made me unsure of how our conversation might go. Throughout her four books, the author presents a complex self-portrait. And yet, it wouldn’t work to classify Biss’s output as autobiography or memoir. This isn’t so much due to the writing not fitting the definition of those terms, but rather that the prose is too varied in its scope, approach, and presentation for standard designations. She’s described herself as a “poet who writes in prose, or a prose writer informed by poetry,” a flexible taxonomy that exemplifies her style. Her writing is often beautiful and marked by a shrewd self-awareness. She’s a clear, deliberate thinker who sinks into her discomfort. She discloses and critiques, and she’s fine if you disagree with her. She would likely be disappointed if no one did. Her honesty can make me cringe. In one of her new essays, she tells of visiting a laundromat to wash a comforter. When she finds out the machine is broken, Biss—whose new book is centered around purchasing a nearly $500,000 home that she and her husband live in with their 11-year-old son—asks for her two quarters back from the attendant, “out of principle."  I dial her up and she asks in a friendly, disarming tone, “How is your pandemic existence going?” I tell her something nonspecific, that it’s weird and I hope it will be over soon but that I don’t think it will be. She says, “I think we’re in for the long haul, like a couple more centuries of this struggle, but it's a struggle worth having.” As someone who strikes me as particularly protective of her time, Biss doesn’t seem to mind when our conversation extends well past our allotted hour. It could be that being the subject of an interview has its charms, but it’s not as if Biss hasn’t had an abundance of opportunities to talk about herself throughout her career. Instead, I get the impression that she’s genuinely interested in talking, affable even. With generosity, she fields my questions about capitalism and writing, and it’s apparent she has thought about both subjects a great deal without becoming intellectually fixed in place. Her worldview has a certain open-endedness to it. While her writing contains many internal investigations, whether or not there is a straight answer is typically neither here nor there. Andru Okun: I wanted to start by acknowledging the passing of David Graeber; his writing plays a significant role in Having and Being Had. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how his work influenced your own.  Eula Biss: It’s such a devastating loss. I haven’t fully assimilated what the loss means for me and my work and my thinking. Although I haven’t finished reading all his work yet, so I feel like I at least have that remaining. What I really appreciate about Graeber and what I value about him as a thinker was his skill and ability to put really nuanced, complex ideas into clear, straightforward, and often beautiful writing. There are moments in his prose that I think are transcendent, poetic really. You can read him without feeling like the prose itself is throwing up barriers—which is how I often feel about academic work or theory. I have neither the training, sensibility, or inclination for that kind of writing. I struggle through it when I need it and there’s an idea or concept I know I need to familiarize myself with or work through, but sometimes I get really angry when I’m reading work like that because I feel like the author could have done more to bring the ideas to the reader. Part of my tremendous gratitude to Graeber is all the work he did to bring his ideas to the reader, to us. And his ideas don’t float free, they are always nested in a really complex and often fascinating thicket of research and information. Like in Debt: The First 5,000 Years; I had been avoiding it actually. People had been recommending it to me for years by the time I read it. It didn’t sound like a book I could possibly enjoy, and its size also intimidated me. I ended up reading it three times, and I think I listened to it one time on tape. It was a pleasure, his prose itself, the way his ideas move from chapter to chapter, and even internally within chapters. There’s a really elegant organization of ideas. He has a really amazing piece on consumption that I wrote about in Having and Being Had that I’ve probably read a dozen times. The deepening of his investigation and the layers of meaning that he’s navigating is just so dazzling to me, as both a writer and a thinker, that it never gets old. I could sit down and read that piece right now and find something new in it and delight in it all over again and feel awe and newly educated by it. That’s how I feel about Baldwin too. I’ve taught Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son” for nearly 20 years, and every time I return to that essay I find more and I glory in his artistry and I learn from the sensibility on the page. I feel like these thinkers who are also sensitive to the written word and the power of clear prose are tremendously valuable. Recently my partner floated this idea where he asked if the ideas of people like Marx or Freud would have ever taken off in the way that they did if they hadn’t had a way with words and with metaphor and knew their way around a sentence. I think that’s a really interesting question. What if Freud wrote in the kind of prose that is typical to the academy today? Would his ideas have ever caught like wildfire the way they did? I kind of doubt it. That’s probably as far as I should go—I don’t want to get too deep into disparaging academic prose.    One thing that is noteworthy about Graeber’s prose is that it’s written less from a place of strict craft and more from a place of praxis. The politics are meant to be accessible and the language follows suit. There’s an ideology there, one that I happen to share. I do believe that every aesthetic has its ethical and moral dimensions. As an artist, as a writer, I am extremely dedicated to a particular vernacular, and for reasons that feel very political to me. I think I sense a similar aesthetic stance [in Graeber’s writing] and respect it, even though I think aesthetically speaking we work in different worlds. I don’t think that someone would look at us and say that we share an aesthetic, but I think that in the place where that sensibility meets an ideology we share an aesthetic and a value system around what language can do and can be for, how it can be used. I like this expression: “Sensibility meets an ideology.” I think this might be an entire area of philosophical study. My sister is a philosopher and a professor of philosophy; one of her areas is the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. So I only know through conversations with her that it’s its own enormous area of study, but it’s also through those conversations that I gained an appreciation that there is a theory out there that every aesthetic stance is also an ethical stance to some degree. That’s why people get so fucking passionate about their aesthetics. At one point I was in a bar in Chicago for a poetry reading and a poet punched another poet. It was over an aesthetic disagreement. We come to blows over aesthetics! I think the real underpinnings of our aesthetics are ideological and ethical. When asked to describe your writing process, you once stated, “It looks a lot like doing nothing.” This reminds me of something you write in Having and Being Had: “I think it’s a gift to give another person permission to do something worthless.” Do you see these ideas as related?  Yes, related in that the work of artmaking can often be illegible within the logic and everyday practice of capitalism. It’s one of the problems for an artist within this particular economic system: our work often doesn’t look like work and it’s not compensated like other work. Its value isn’t measured in the same way as other work. I think that can have a profound psychological effect on an artist. It’s one of the things that can lead to the kind of despair that I think is unique to an artist living within this particular economic system, a despair that comes from dedicating your best energies into something that is routinely undervalued and not seen or understood as work. I was joking a little bit when I said, “It looks a lot like doing nothing,” but it actually does. That’s an accurate statement. It can be hard when there are other commitments and demands pressing in on your life to insist that you must do nothing. When there’s so much to be done and culturally there’s so much encouragement to fill every moment and be busy in a way that is legible to others, it can be hard to insist that it’s absolutely necessary to your life and endeavors to do nothing. It can be hard to justify, especially if you’re living a life that involves the demands of caring for other people. That sort of work can take as much time as you’ll give it. It can be hard to say, I'm now going to pause in the work of caring for other people to do what appears to be nothing, but is actually incredibly essential to my work and development as an artist. When I’m teaching, especially at the undergraduate and introductory level, a lot of my work is about teaching the sensibility of an artist more than the craft of an artist. The craft comes in as well, but at that introductory level what I’m often introducing students to is a stance—a stance towards your own work and a mindset that, to some of my students, is entirely new. For some people it’s more of a struggle than others. Some people really have a hard time wrapping their mind around how work that doesn’t earn any money can possibly be valuable. Other people have no trouble at all with that concept and have already lived it to some degree. Bits and pieces of your earlier writing reanimate in your latest book. I notice pianos, Dracula, a German cabinetmaker—Joan Didion makes multiple appearances throughout your published work. Do you find yourself intentionally returning to symbols and concepts or is it more of an instinctive process that leads to their reoccurrence?  It’s both, but in this particular work I was engaged in a very intentional, sort of mid-life retrospective reckoning. That encouraged me to look back on former work and engage with it and sometimes make fun of it. The title of one of my essays, “All Apologies,” comes up in a setting where in my mind I’m making fun of my earlier work. In this piece called “Right White,” I’m kind of teasing my own over earnest stance in that previous essay. It’s probably more or less invisible to most readers, but I’m taking a dig at myself and engaging in a little self-critique. At some point I understood this book as a conversation between my nearly 40-year-old self and my 20-year-old self. I wrote my first book, The Balloonists, when I was around 20. [Having and Being Had] is in some ways, formally, a return to my interests as an artist at that very early point in my development and career, where I was engaging with prose poetry really directly and playing with genre, messing around on the border between poetry and prose, doing a kind of mash-up of autobiography essay and poetry. I think I return to that artistic sensibility while trying to talk with my former, earlier self and her ideologies, because the life I had just stepped into would have been very foreign looking to the me of my 20s. I think I was asking myself if my value system had changed: Has what matters to me changed? Have I sold out? Or is there some continuity in what matters to me? Am I making different decisions on a practical level than I was in my twenties? Or is it that I’m finding new ways to support the same values and ideas that I was trying to support at that time in different ways? Those were some of the animating questions of this book, so I think that did draw me into conversation with my younger self and my earlier work.   Do you feel like you answered those questions? Oh, you know. [Pauses] Not fully. And to be honest, I never feel that I fully answer the questions that are most important to me. The questions that are really important to me are the questions that feel like they contain a lifetime worth of work. I rarely take up a question that I walk away from feeling satisfied, like, Ah, I really solved that one. What I think I’m always going for in my work—whether I’m writing about race, motherhood, vaccination, public health—I'm always trying to reach more clarity than I started with. The project is less answering the question than coming out clearer and gaining some lucidity. I do feel like I came out clearer on those questions I was just mentioning. One of the things that I learned in my 20s was that dwelling in financial precarity was going to take a toll on my artistic work. I did really intentionally strive for the economic security that would allow me to do my work as an artist. One of the things I came clear on is that no, I haven’t abandoned the value system of my 20s, but I’m unhappy about what I had to do to gain basic security. That’s something that in general is enraging about our country, our financial system, our lack of public safety nets— you have to become upper-middle-class before you have what I think of as basic financial security. And what I mean by that is reliable health insurance, a retirement provision, and the ability to send a child to college. Those are the three kinds of securities that I’d like to have, but for most people in this country to have those things you have to have an upper-middle-class income.  Has interrogating life under capitalism compelled you to live differently in any way?  It has. I wrote myself into realizations that changed my life. Some of those you can see evidence of in the book—you can see me mulling over whether to accept more precarity in my life and step away from my very secure and well-paid job at the university to take on a much less secure existence as a freelancer. I was very strongly considering quitting my job and becoming a freelancer, writing for a living, while I was writing this book. I eventually kind of split the difference. I wasn’t ready to totally let go of my access to a retirement account and things that I get through my salaried employment, so I went down to part-time, which made a tremendous change in my life. I took a large salary cut in order to do that, but it freed up an enormous amount of time for my writing. The thing that I didn’t know was going to happen, that I couldn’t have predicted—and this happens outside of the narrative time of the book, so it doesn’t show up—but in the very last scene I'm digging a hole and I decide to sell the book that I’m writing. And I do. What I don’t yet know in that moment is that selling that book will produce, at least for a few years, more income than I was making as a professor. That won’t last—this is the thing about book advances, they get used up, they’re not a salary, they’re spread out over installments. Then that money is gone, unless you get a similar deal, which can’t be guaranteed or predicted. Once my advance is gone, I’ll be back to a lower baseline in terms of salary. I essentially decided to make less money and to give less of my effort towards pursuing making money. I was at an interesting turning point when I wrote this book; I could do something that was not an option for me during the previous 15 years of my career. I suddenly had the ability to make money off of my writing. That wasn’t an option for me for many, many years, in part because I was doing weird stuff. I was writing poetry and there’s just zero money in that. And then all these new opportunities got kicked open for me, and there was a moment where I was just working way too much. It was actually when I started the initial writing for this book. I was teaching full time and I was doing various kinds of promotion work for my previous book which had just come out, and I was parenting, and I was doing the volunteer work that I do in my community, and I was traveling a lot to do talks at universities and guest teaching at various places. I was essentially saying yes to every opportunity to make money. I developed migraines for the first time in my life. I didn’t stay in that space for too long, but it was really destroying me. There’s a repetition of the words “death” and “dying” throughout the book and it actually scared me when those words started appearing. I didn’t know why and I didn’t understand what their appearance meant in the book. The book ending on a grave was a little disturbing to me. [Laughs] I understood it as a metaphor but I didn’t quite understand what the metaphor was telling me. I’m still in the process of doing some of the interpretative work that happens after you finish a book. For me, the work is finished before I have finished understanding it, which I think is sometimes surprising to people who work differently. I’m still in the process of gaining a better understanding of why I did what I did in this book. I think that repetition of “death” and “dying” and the appearance of the grave is because I really did feel like that way of life where I was taking every opportunity to make money and letting money making be the priority in my life, that it was killing me. That it was going to kill me. Maybe not literally, but there was going to be an artistic death that I was unwilling to accept. Notes from No Man's Land was originally published in 2009. Last year, you wrote about how the increase in conversation around white supremacy and white privilege made the book feel “new again, and newly unfinished.” Has the pandemic shifted your thoughts or feelings regarding your work in a similar way? It’s an interesting question, and it’s such an interesting facet of aging as an artist in that my understanding of my work and my interpretation of it does not stay static. The events of the world definitely change the way I read my own work. I think that’s true for other people, too. My work is read differently now—especially my writing on race—then it was ten or 15 years ago. I’m not sure if I’m finished figuring out how the pandemic has changed my own understanding of my work. I think in both On Immunity and Having and Being Had, which I finished right before the pandemic, there were things I was exploring and trying to observe that felt subtle or unseen at the time of the writing. A lot of the work was seeing and acknowledging there was something in the shadows, hovering behind louder rhetoric. One of the things the pandemic has done is make many of those issues less subtle. Inequalities that were somewhat invisible—say, economic inequalities that people could happily forget about before the pandemic—have really been laid bare for us. And many people have made that observation, that the people whose work is most essential to our lives don’t have basic security and are not treated as if they’re essential to our daily lives. In a logical economy, in an economy that made sense and wanted to keep going, the people who were doing the absolutely essential work would be well supported and their health would be maintained. We wouldn’t be in a situation where people who are in a comfortable middle-class position like me are depending for their everyday needs on grocery store workers and delivery people who don’t have basic securities. I think that’s now abundantly obvious. I was writing in a time when it took a different kind of work to see that. I think that some of the observations that I was making, like in writing about Virginia Woolf, I was thinking about her vexed relationship with her servants. But I was also thinking about the way that we (meaning the middle-class) still have that relationship. We’ve just outsourced it, in part so we don’t have to live with it or look at it. Amazon has now replaced the role of the servants in Virginia Woolf’s house. In her time period, a middle-class person would have someone who lived in the house and went out and fetched everything, and now that is not the norm for middle-class people in this country. We don’t have someone in the house, but we still have people who do that work for us, we just don’t really look at them, think about them, or necessarily even talk to them. I think that’s much more obvious now than it was when I wrote the book. In some ways I think that the pandemic has set up this book to be better understood than if some of these things hadn’t surfaced.  You write that “the social cost of some things is their very cheapness.” Can you elaborate on that idea? There’s a lot of thinkers out there who have looked at this with particular products or in particular areas. I think I once heard Michael Pollan on the radio discussing the true costs of cheap McDonald's foods, particularly the costs for agricultural workers but also the costs to the environment. The argument he was making was yes, this food is cheap, but it costs our society and our planet something, so really that cheapness is expensive, we just don’t see the expense immediately. There’s a sleight of hand going on. I was reading this other book, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel, a book that looks at a variety of things, including chicken nuggets. Those ideas really spoke to me and I think I’ve grown to be suspicious of cheap things. I wonder who suffered to make this cheap thing for me, basically every time I encounter something that isn’t expensive. Who got screwed? Was it the worker? The maker or producer? Where in the chain did somebody get shorted? This is what I ask myself. For me, there’s very little pleasure in what we would usually call a good deal. What’s usually a good deal for one person is a bad deal for someone else. I think that’s what I mean when I talk about the social cost of a cheap thing being its very cheapness. What we have to do to make certain things cheap is cheat people out of fair compensation, most often for their labor. There’s also cheapness produced by devastating the environment or engaging in a kind of monoculture. There are various strategies that can be used to produce cheap goods, but almost all of them are destructive and often in ways that are not immediately visible to us. Sometimes when I see these cheap products they’re vibrating with violence. It’s like an aura around them.   That is a devastating thought. It takes the fun out of those little things that come in gumball machines. You juxtapose prosperity with precarity, writing that “health is a mark of money in our time.” I think this statement is applicable to both people and places, but there was a point in time when this wasn’t true. When do you think things changed? That’s a great question. I just need to pause for one second to let my son know there’s food on the table for him, but I will be right back. [Pauses] Sorry about that. I don’t think I have the knowledge or historical chops needed to answer that question, but I’ve read enough to stab around that question. Our medicine has gotten better. There was a time period where it didn’t do you much good to pay a lot of money for a doctor because doctors really were not doing a whole lot for people. In the era of what is called “heroic medicine” in the 1800s, you were probably better off using folk medicine than engaging in the expensive services of a doctor. We have now arrived in a time period where paid medical professionals are offering services that are extending people’s lives. Not everyone has access to that. There’s also the post-industrial impact around diet and access. This is talked about really beautifully in the book Sweetness and Power, this shift from nourishing diets to empty calories, lots of sugar, and little access to vegetables and nutritious food. That’s only one small component; I think there were all these simultaneous shifts happening. Right now, a certain kind of upper-middle-class lifestyle allows you to commit time to exercise every day, eat healthful food, access preventative medicine, and get cutting edge treatments. All these things are less accessible to people who have less money, but it is hard for me to say where that shift happened. I do think that once you understand that money can buy you a longer lifespan, you get greedy for more. There’s also the reality that the process of acquiring money, which can be used to extend your life, can also kill you.   That is one of the saddest and most depressing things. When I was writing this book, I looked into some of the research about why there is such a gap in the US between the lifespans of the rich and the poor. Some of that is easily quantifiable and traced, and some of it comes back to things that are less quantifiable like deaths of despair. This is a term now: death of despair. Suicides of poor people are falling into that category now. The despair is partly economic, but it’s also the despair of spending all your energies on work that isn’t satisfying or personally rewarding. It’s destructive to a person in ways that take years off a lifespan. That was one of the most disturbing things I discovered.   What do you think are the benefits and limitations of using the personal or private to address political frameworks? One of the limitations is that a lot of people won’t see or understand what you’re doing. A lot of people think of the personal and the political as two distinct spheres. I don’t. But if you do, it can put you in a position to not properly interpret the work. When I see my work misunderstood it’s often by people who see it as being about my personal life. I feel like I’m usually writing through or from my personal life, but I’m writing about something else. The way that I get to that something else is through my lived experience. But it comes up for me all the time that people don’t see it that way. That’s an obvious limitation, but I’m not going to write differently just because some people aren’t equipped to do the interpretative work that needs to be done. I’m going to write in the way that is most productive for me as an artist, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest, that often involves my lived experience.    I know you don’t use social media. I’m curious about what your media consumption habits or routines look like. I fear that if I tell you about my media consumption it will seem to be the product of some ideology that I actually don’t have. I don’t watch TV. But I don’t believe TV to be bad and I’m not against TV and I don’t think there’s not great art making happening on TV. I went through a large period of my life, during my childhood, where I didn’t have a television. It’s not part of my rhythm or expectations. It’s something that I forget exists, essentially, even though I have a television now. Like, every six months or something I watch a television show or a series. I think I consume far less television than most people, but it’s not because I feel that it’s not a medium that is interesting. I also don’t see a whole lot of movies. I don’t do a whole lot on the internet except read newspapers. I think the portrait that is emerging is a really constricted engagement with media [Laughs].   But you have a smartphone? I do. I put it off for quite a while, but in that period where I was working and traveling a lot I felt like it would really enhance my life to have a smartphone and to be able to read the newspaper on my phone and stuff like that. I read a few newspapers pretty much daily, but I’m not that sophisticated when it comes to media. I think that puts me at a disadvantage in certain conversations and probably puts me at a disadvantage as a knower and a thinker. There are things that I just don’t have access to. I find out about things after everyone else. I think being in grade school and not having a TV during a time period when television was the cultural touchstone accustomed me to being out of the loop. I’m not that uncomfortable with being out of the loop, in some ways that puts me in a useful position as an essayist because I’m informed differently than other people around me. I don’t necessarily arrive at my subjects with the same assumptions or the same information or having read the same critiques. I don’t think it’s all bad, but I’m especially aware of this when I'm talking to students and hearing what they’re learning and the kinds of conversations they’re engaging with, like over Twitter. Particularly Black Twitter, which is a really significant cultural presence. That’s something that I just don’t have knowledge of and that’s kind of a blind spot and a loss for me. But I also think this comes back to time; I make a lot of compromises in my life to have time for my work as an artist. That involves not engaging with various forms of media so more of my time goes towards creative production. What do you think of this concept of “ethical capitalism”?   I don’t know. Can you tell me what that is?  [Both laugh] Oh, that’s a good answer. No. I guess the easy answer would be to say it’s bullshit or something.   [Still laughing] That’s not at all what I was implying, I just really don’t know what it is. Me either. Obviously, your work addresses capitalism, but you’re also often talking about wanting to lead an ethical life. That’s an idea that goes far back in your writing. Maybe what I’m actually wondering is if you think it’s possible to live an ethical life under capitalism. I think there are all kinds of ethical maneuvers that could be made within or around capitalism. And I do think it’s useful to be reminded that our system—even in the US, which is such a capitalist country—we do operate with other systems mixed in. We have forms of socialism and things like Medicare and Medicaid. Other ethics and practices can coexist next to and within capitalism, and it’s useful to remember that, especially because it does feel like an all-encompassing system and it can feel like there’s no way out. To circle back to David Graeber, one of the really exciting and inspiring things that he said is that we don’t have to invent alternatives to capitalism—they're actually right here and we’re living them right now. We just need to see, appreciate, and invest in them. The alternatives already exist, and to me that’s a really exciting idea. The tricky part is you have to live this alternative within the system. You don’t get to totally separate yourself, but I do feel like all kinds of ethical decisions are available to us, especially if you do away with some of the commandments of capitalism, if you stop working towards constant increase and expansion. That frees up a lot of energy and resources to devote towards things other than the pursuit of profit. But I think the ethical choice to not exploit other people’s labor is available here and there in a system that is essentially built on that principle. We still have opportunities to not exploit other people.
Saving Little Jamaica

The plight of Little Jamaica fits into a cycle of development that allows formerly thriving Black neighbourhoods to fall into neglect.

When I first moved to Toronto five years ago, I was amazed by the city’s vast array of vibrant neighbourhoods, each with their own well-defined cultural histories. I would jog across town and catch glimpses of the cosmopolitan dream that was proudly promoted as Toronto’s greatest strength. One day, in search of a barbershop that could cut Black hair but didn’t have massive lineups like the shops downtown, I ventured to the Barbers of Eglinton—far north of anywhere I’d been in the city up to that point. Dancehall was pumping out of a small radio between commercials promoting club nights. There was an ancient-looking promotion for something NBA-related featuring faded, life-sized cutouts of long-retired basketball players along the wall. I noticed a Digicel ad promoting calling cards to phone your relatives back in the islands. My barber used a foam sponge with holes in it to give me twists. I bought one from him to use at home. After that, I kept coming back to the neighbourhood, feeling like I’d uncovered a gem in the rough. I’d buy fragrant bags of hibiscus from All Season Food Market. I would order sizzling cuts of jerk chicken from Rap’s, cooked in a horizontal, rotating barrel on the sidewalk and then roughly chopped with a butcher’s knife by Horace “Rap” Rose himself. I’d bring home boxes of frozen veggie patties from Randy’s Take Out that were ridiculously flavourful and somehow even better than the traditional beef ones. The neighbourhood was a stark contrast to growing up in Edmonton where there was only one Black barbershop and one Jamaican restaurant in the entire city. Outside of Randy’s, I’d chat with the guy on the corner selling bootleg DVDs of current mainstream films as well as Jamaican classics like Shottas and maybe buy one disc at random that had an intriguing title. This was Little Jamaica. I initially became aware of this neighbourhood because of a 2006 music compilation called Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967 – 1974 that came out on an American reissue label called Light in the Attic. It was compiled by DJ and Canadian music historian Kevin “Sipreano” Howes. Listening to this record encouraged me to learn more about Toronto’s rich Caribbean history. From at least the 1960s on, Eglinton West became colloquially known as Little Jamaica because of its significant West Indian population. Many Jamaicans came to Toronto to find work as railway porters, blacksmiths, and nurses. Others simply wished to flee the persistent political violence unfolding in their home country. Canadian immigration laws were modified in 1967 with the creation of a points system that reduced discrimination and made it easier to reunify families. As a result, around 100,000 Jamaicans immigrated to Toronto in the ‘70s and ‘80s, mostly settling along Eglinton West, making Little Jamaica one of the largest Jamaican expatriate communities in the world. This subsequently turned the neighbourhood and the city into a global hotbed for reggae music. Several reggae labels sprung up in Toronto—Summer Records, Half Moon, Boss Records and Micron Music Canada. Little Jamaica was home to several record stores including Trea-jah-Isle Records, Monica’s, King Culture Records and Videos, Record Factory, and Joe Gibbs Records. Horace Rose, the proprietor of Rap’s, used to run Joe Gibbs Records and was a producer in his own right, making songs with Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. Horace’s brother Michael Rose was a lead vocalist for Grammy-winning Jamaican reggae group Black Uhuru. They released a song about the neighbourhood called “Youth of Eglington” on their album Red in 1981. Artists like King Jammy, Jackie Mittoo, Earth, Roots and Water, Leroy Sibbles, Stranger Cole, Leroy Brown, and Johnny Osbourne helped to develop a homegrown reggae scene with quality on par with what was happening in the Caribbean, mostly recording at Summer Sound, Great Shakes, and Kinck Sound. At the time, regional radio wouldn’t play reggae at all, and Canadian audiences largely ignored music by local reggae artists in lieu of Jamaican records. But these musicians paved the way for the patois-inflected flows of contemporary Toronto artists like PARTYNEXTDOOR, Kardinal Offishall, and Drake. You’d think a storied local history like this would be actively celebrated and widely promoted. But when I started visiting it, I couldn’t help but feel like Little Jamaica had become something of a forgotten community. The streets were pockmarked with recently closed stores. I’d never seen anyone write about it in the newspaper. You’d only see the city celebrating Caribbean culture when it was Caribana weekend. I was surprised that there weren’t banners hanging from the street lights along the strip of Eglinton West proudly announcing “Little Jamaica” like the similar flags in other neighbourhoods. Instead, the street signs on the block said “International Market,” which felt meaningless and strangely broad, reminiscent of the International Foods aisle at FreshCo. One time when I was charting out the circuitous journey from my house near Ossington and Dundas to the area on Google Maps, I couldn’t help but notice something odd. Displayed in bold, capitalized print across the map were neighbourhoods like Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Portugal, Koreatown, and Little Malta. But the words Little Jamaica were nowhere to be found. * The earliest discussion of an Eglinton West subway extension came all the way back in 1993 as part of Premier Bob Rae’s Rapid Transit Expansion Plan. The holes were dug for a future Allen Station as part of an Eglinton West line but then, Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris took power, cancelled the project and refilled the previously excavated caverns with dirt. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT was announced in 2007 and work began in 2011. It was a part of then-Toronto mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan to expand public transportation with seven proposed LRT lines. After cuts by incoming mayor Rob Ford, the Eglinton line was one of the only LRT lines that survived. The line will extend from Kennedy in the east across the city along Eglinton to Mount Dennis, with a future proposed expansion to Pearson Airport in the works. According to an Eglinton Crosstown fact sheet, projected ridership of the LRT will be 5,500 commuters per hour in each direction at peak time by 2031. This would provide relief for the 32 Eglinton West bus, which was Toronto’s second busiest bus route in 2012 with 48,700 users per day. Travel time will be cut in half. All of this stands to benefit a long-underserved area and connect this community to the rest of the city in a more substantial way. But the construction has taken a massive toll on the community. All along Eglinton West, there are large fences and barriers that make it difficult to access stores, make parking impossible, and limit foot traffic. My girlfriend lives in the area, so I’ve noticed the effects firsthand. Today, large swathes of the north side of Eglinton West appear to be completely inaccessible. The intersection of Eglinton West and Dufferin in particular is a total quagmire. In order to continue along the strip, you’re forced to cross a flimsy-looking plywood footbridge with a massive yawning hole beneath it. Not exactly tourist-friendly. The construction has been in progress for almost a decade. As a result, 140 businesses have closed in the area since the project began. Metrolinx, the company contracted to build the LRT, refuses to compensate businesses for lost revenue. This is despite the massive billboard looming over the neighbourhood promoting a website run by Bridgepoint Financial called CrosstownHelp.com that offers business loans to those who have “experienced cashflow issues due to the interruption of operations” caused by light-rail construction. [[{"fid":"6707516","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"}}]] After many delays, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is slated to be finished in 2022. But after that, the Eglinton Connects study proposed by the city in 2014 is scheduled to go into effect, phased in from 2025 to 2050. Their plan fails to acknowledge the existing community but details massive changes to the area including widening sidewalks, planting trees, connecting Eglinton to surrounding trails, creating new parks and building separated bike lanes. All of which means even more construction. How many local businesses will survive in Little Jamaica? And who will actually benefit from this expansion? In his 2017 study, “Rail-transit-induced gentrification and the affordability paradox of TOD,” Hongwei Dong observes that transit-oriented development can “promote economic development and increase nearby property values by improving transportation accessibility and offering [a] more livable environment.” But rail transit can also act as a “gentrification trigger,” creating an “affordability paradox” where “low income households which would benefit from additional accessibility provided by upgraded transit are forced to move by rising rents and housing costs.” On August 17, I tweeted about the situation in Little Jamaica and Metrolinx responded by saying that they’ve worked closely with “local councillors, City of Toronto staff, Toronto Police Services, local Business Improvement Areas (BIAs), residents and businesses to monitor and mitigate impacts, where possible.” They pointed to a program they created in collaboration with the local BIAs and the Economic Development and Culture Division of the City of Toronto called Experience Eglinton, a campaign that includes “billboards, TTC platform posters, radio and commuter paper advertisements” encouraging people to shop locally. I noticed one such banner hanging from a construction fence in front of a particularly obstructed group of shops. The sign said, “It’s business as usual on Eglinton.” Metrolinx ignored a later tweet I sent them about compensating local businesses for lost revenue. In 2016, they announced a Community Benefits Agreement program which promised to give 10 percent of the remaining work on the Eglinton Crosstown project to “equity seeking groups,” such as women and visible minorities. As of March 2020, they’ve hired 162 apprentices and journeypersons from historically disadvantaged communities. But that’s only a small fraction of the total labour force required to build the entire 19-kilometre, 25-station light rail transit line. And it’s still unclear how many of those workers are Black or from the Little Jamaica area. Metrolinx also recently reneged on their promise to donate 32 metres of land as a site for a Jane-Finch community centre as part of their Finch West LRT construction plans, dashing the hopes of another predominantly Black neighbourhood. Last year, an unlikely event occurred. East of Little Jamaica, in the affluent Forest Hill neighbourhood, Metrolinx announced plans to close Bathurst Street a block north of Eglinton West for seven months to speed up the construction of the Forest Hill LRT station. They said the closure would shorten overall construction time for the Crosstown project by three months. The response was swift and angry. Concerned residents and business owners from the Forest Hill neighbourhood contacted their city councillors. They talked to the press. They complained to Metrolinx and their local Business Improvement Associations about the effect a blockade would have on the neighbourhood’s businesses. And in the end, they won. Not only did Metrolinx cancel their plans for the proposed Bathurst street closure, they even made an apologetic statement to the people of Forest Hill. How did Metrolinx determine that the inconvenience of the closure would be too great a strain on the community? According to email correspondence I obtained between a Metrolinx representative and an Eglinton West resident regarding the Bathurst closure, Metrolinx acknowledges they “could have done a better job engaging the community and the councillors” and they “understand the community did not feel this benefit outweighed the impacts on area residents and business owners.” When asked by the resident whether any members of lower income communities were consulted, Metrolinx responded by saying they sent out a survey about the Forest Hill Acceleration – Bathurst Street Closure through their social media accounts and via E-blast to their citywide station subscribers asking for feedback and received 465 responses. That was enough to get them to change their plans. So, what’s the difference between Forest Hill and Little Jamaica? In 2016, 43 percent of people in Keelesdale-Eglinton West identified themselves as a visible minority, as opposed to 28 percent in Forest Hill North and 17 percent in Forest Hill South. During the same period, residents of Forest Hill North and South had average household incomes of $70,920 and $94,536 respectively, while people who lived in Keelesdale-Eglinton West had a median household income of $57,780 a year. Low income people are less likely to have internet access or the time away from work to fill out a random survey they may or may not see.  *  The plight of Little Jamaica fits into a cycle of development that allows formerly thriving Black neighbourhoods to fall into neglect, creating an easier path for gentrification to take hold. There are many examples of this type of Black displacement throughout Canada’s history. Hogan’s Alley was the unofficial name of a racially diverse neighbourhood on the Eastside of Vancouver. Home to Chinese, Japanese, and Italian Canadians, it was primarily known as the heart of the Vancouver’s Black community. The city’s first Black church was founded in the area by Nora Hendrix, grandmother of Jimi Hendrix. Hogan’s Alley was demolished in 1970 to make way for the reconstruction of the Georgia Viaduct, based on city planner Leonard Marsh’s recommendations in his 1943 report, “Rebuilding a Neighbourhood: Report on a Demonstration Slum Clearance and Urban Rehabilitation Project in a Key Central Area in Vancouver.” He believed that the Eastside was a “slum” that needed to be restructured to protect the “morale” of the rest of the city: “The biggest cost of the slum to society is apathetic, dreary living, which is a menace to every aspect of healthy citizenship.” He was also aware that the Black community would likely have trouble relocating after this redevelopment. Africville was a community of Black Canadians on the south shore of the Bedford Basin just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that was started in 1848. Halifax isolated the community, refusing to provide them with proper roads, garbage disposal, clean water, or sewage services. The city of Halifax purposefully built their most undesirable buildings in Africville, including a prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse, a storage area for fecal waste, and a garbage dump. Designated a slum after over a century of mistreatment and having basic services withheld, Halifax City Council voted to forcibly relocate the residents of Africville in 1964. The entire area was razed, the last home destroyed in 1970. Part of the area is now occupied by a highway interchange that connects to the A. Murray MacKay Bridge. Back in the 1830s, what we now see as Toronto’s downtown core was once known as St. John’s Ward. Located between College and Queen from University Avenue to Yonge Street, an escaped African-American slave from Kentucky named Thornton Blackburn bought several properties in the area, later offering other fugitive slaves an opportunity for cheap housing. The Black population of the neighbourhood continued to grow, joined by Irish and Italian immigrants and Eastern European Jews. Chinese immigrants moved to the area, making it Toronto’s original Chinatown. The Ward was also home to the earliest gay and lesbian bars in the city. An area densely populated by people from foreign countries, The Ward became stigmatized as a slum. Starting in the 1920s, the area started being demolished, becoming the current site of City Hall, Nathan Phillips Square, and Toronto General Hospital. [[{"fid":"6707521","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"}}]] The aforementioned communities all have two things in common: they were home to large populations of Black people, and they were unofficial, disenfranchised areas that were neglected and forced to fend for themselves. Erasure of history is a primary feature of colonialism. Failing to respect the ethnic history of an area is a way of asserting dominance. One way to do that is by not officially recognizing the chosen name of a community. Another is to pretend that the community doesn’t exist for long enough that it lags behind the rest of the city, creating a justification for its removal. Displacement looms large as an inextricable part of North America’s history and this phenomenon is just another contemporary example of a long-existing pattern. Seneca Village was a stop on the Underground Railroad and the first significant community of African American landowners in Manhattan until it was razed to make room for Central Park in 1857. After the Second World War, city planner Robert Moses popularized the urban renewal practice of building highways to get rid of “undesirable” neighbourhoods, displacing around 250,000 people in New York City through various construction projects. One example is the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Under construction from 1948 to 1972, it ripped the Bronx in half, exacerbating the economic disparity between the North and South. An estimated 1,530 apartment buildings were destroyed in the predominantly Hispanic, Latino and Black neighbourhood of East Tremont, leaving around 5,000 people displaced. Morris Heights was also greatly affected. These communities were low income but self-sufficient areas. According to Robert A. Caro’s Robert Moses biography The Power Broker, residents proposed an alternate route just two blocks south that would’ve only removed “six dwellings and nineteen families,” but Moses consciously chose the more damaging option. Moses described apartments in East Tremont using inaccurate, overly disparaging terms, calling them “slums” and “tenements.” This is a common developer technique: justifying urban renewal projects by vilifying a targeted neighbourhood to make outsiders more amenable to the proposed redevelopment. Chicago’s Near West Side, a “blighted” neighbourhood where 40 percent of the population was Black, was demolished to make way for the Eisenhower Expressway in 1949. The 15th Ward was home to a close-knit Black neighbourhood in Syracuse, New York, where migrant workers moved from the south to escape racial discrimination. Outsiders saw it as a “slum land” that was “ripe for redevelopment because of its proximity to downtown.” The community was destroyed when Interstate 81 was built through the center of the city in 1961, helping to make Syracuse one of the most impoverished cities in the United States. All of these examples remind me of the 1963 interview with author James Baldwin where he says that urban renewal “means Negro removal.” * In 2015, Toronto made a token effort to acknowledge Little Jamaica’s relevance to the city with Reggae Lane. Formerly a nameless back alley known for drug use and crime, city councillor Josh Colle pitched the idea of dedicating a laneway to the community’s rich music history to Arnold Rowe, vice chair of the York-Eglinton BIA. They commissioned a mural featuring local reggae artists and important Jamaican figures including Bob Marley and the Skatalites on a wall facing a Green P parking lot. Heritage Toronto installed a commemorative plaque nearby about “Toronto’s Reggae Roots.” It all feels a bit like a consolation prize for the impending loss of the neighbourhood, an artifact that the future inhabitants of the area will gaze upon and cluelessly wonder about. As stated by a local resident in an article about the naming of the laneway, “Eglinton Ave. West represents reggae, the back of it does not.” Reggae Lane is located next to a condo development that stands as a harbinger of what’s to come. Announced in 2013, the website for Empire Midtown promotes their gleaming, futuristic tower on the corner of Oakwood and Eglinton West to “the tastemakers, trendsetters and early adopters” who want to benefit from the “major revitalization” happening on Eglinton West. It features a rooftop deck, something called a “DIY kitchen,” and a yoga studio. One of their other sites mentions having “the Crosstown LRT right at your front door” as a prime selling point. Condos.ca lists their cheapest pre-construction unit at a price of $565,000, far beyond what someone living in the area now could afford. Looking into the lobby from outside, the check-in desk appears to be made of marble. The interior of the building looks like something out of an episode of Selling Sunset. The community has made efforts to respond to the changing face of the neighbourhood in recent months. A GoFundMe started by a group called Reclaim / Rebuild Eglinton West aiming to make a grant fund to support new and existing Black businesses in Little Jamaica has earned over $20,000. On August 29th, the group threw a fundraising rally called Bana On The Block where locals marched along Eglinton West from Keele to Oakwood to protest the area’s gentrification. But that event was marred by a physical altercation between police officers and a community member who jumped on top of a car after the march had ended. Four days later, a drive-by shooting at Spence’s Bakery left six people injured, further shaking a community in need of positive momentum. This summer, a report was released by Black Urbanism TO, Urban Rural & Suburban Architecture and Open Architecture Collaborative Canada called “A Black Business Conversation, On Planning for the Future of Black Businesses and Residents on Eglinton Ave W.” It was the result of meetings that took place in February 2020 between community members and Black business owners in the area. In the report, it’s stated that “BIAs in Little Jamaica (Eglinton Hill BIA, Fairbank Village BIA and York-Eglinton BIA) have a history of not being accountable and responsive to the Black business owners they represent” and that a “lack of support from BIAs, combined with the impacts of LRT construction have prevented revenue-generating and community-strengthening cultural events from being held in Little Jamaica.” [[{"fid":"6707526","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"}}]] In the report, the area’s Black business owners formally ask to “officially rename the area of Eglinton Ave West from Marlee Ave to Keele St from the currently named International Market to Little Jamaica,” believing that “official recognition by the City and giving the area an appropriate name to better reflect its identity are two tangible actions that are integral to the economic sustainability of the area in the face of an uncertain future.” On October 1st, a motion started by Councillor Mike Colle to establish a Little Jamaica Heritage and Innovation Hub on that stretch of Eglinton West was passed unanimously by Toronto City Council. Heritage plaques and murals honouring Black civil rights leaders from the community are planned for the Dufferin, Oakwood, and Eglinton West LRT stations.The city promised tax relief for small businesses, while calling on provincially-owned Metrolinx to “immediately compensate” those that have been “devastated” by almost a decade of construction. But with no clear financial commitment made by either the city or the province, I worry that even if monetary help comes, it will be too late. Before moving to Eglinton West, I lived in Roncesvalles, a traditionally Polish neighbourhood that has undergone massive population growth over the last few decades but is in no danger of losing its culture, with popular restaurants serving Polish cuisine and celebrations like the Roncesvalles Polish Festival happening every summer and drawing many international visitors. Events like these are annual reminders of an area’s heritage that give the community a reason to cherish and celebrate history. The York-Eglinton BIA only has two Black businesspeople out of seven members on their Board of Management. Maybe if that number was higher, we’d see more interest in a similar event happening in Little Jamaica in the future. My favourite song on the Jamaica to Toronto compilation is by Noel Ellis, son of Alton Ellis, the Godfather of rocksteady. It’s called “Memories.” A wistful slice of dubbed out roots reggae recorded at Summer Sound Studio and released in 1983, the song finds Ellis ruminating about living far away from his birthplace of Kingston, Jamaica, after moving to Toronto in 1970. The song starts solidly but begins to slowly decompose over time, eventually dissipating into a sonic morass of bass and echoes. Ellis’s haunting voice wails into the cavernous ether about “memories of our days gone by, memories of youthful days.” By the end of the track, only the reverberations remain. The arrangement for “Memories” matches what is happening to Little Jamaica. If concrete action isn’t taken soon to solidify the neighbourhood’s place in the city, all that Toronto’s Afro-Caribbean community will have left are memories of days gone by.
The Hazlitt Editorial Fellowship for Underrepresented Communities
Historically, media outlets in Canada have failed to achieve representation of the communities they serve, and Hazlitt is no exception. In an effort to attempt to break down some of those barriers, we've created a program that allows participants in a variety of circumstances to access practical training in the craft of journalism that can aid them in building their career. THE OBJECTIVE: To create an intensive and accommodating month-long virtual learning opportunity in the field of long-form narrative nonfiction journalism. The fellowship is intended for those interested in a career in journalism whose circumstances make it challenging to access journalism school and traditional 9-5 internship programs.  ABOUT HAZLITT: Hazlitt is an award-winning journalism website published by Penguin Random House Canada. We focus on long-form journalism, memoir, and essays, as well as original fiction and interviews with authors and other artists. FORMAT: Twice annually beginning the winter of 2020, we will take on a fellow for a month-long training program in the rudiments of journalism editorial work: line and structural editing, fact checking, copy editing, and more. This program, with a time commitment of ten hours a week, will be accessible to candidates anywhere in Canada and designed to work around each successful applicant's schedule. The fellowship will pay $2500.  PRINCIPLES/REASONING: Historically, media outlets in Canada have failed to achieve representation of the communities they serve, and Hazlitt is no exception. In an effort to attempt to break down some of those barriers, we hope to create a program that allows participants in a variety of circumstances to access practical training in the craft of journalism that can aid them in building their career. HOW TO APPLY: Please send a letter of intent, no more than 750 words, detailing your reason for interest in the program and why you feel you could benefit from it, to hazlitt [at] penguinrandomhouse [dot] com by January 1st, 2021.  HOW IT WILL WORK: Our goal for the program is to make it responsive and iterative, tailored to the candidate’s experience and needs. We’ll begin by offering a structured proposal of the program to the candidate, who can then select the modules they feel will be beneficial to them. Skills that the candidate can receive comprehensive training and experience in will include but are not limited to: Handling a long-form piece from query, through acceptance and edits, to assigning art, to publication Our hope is, by the end of the program, the successful applicant will have all the tools they need to handle editing a major magazine feature from acquisition through publication. Fact checking We’ll provide training in magazine-standard fact checking, including best practices. Freelance writer management/relationship building We’ll give some context into the current freelance market, and discuss strategies for engaging with freelancers. Assessing pitches and queries: what makes a good story? By the end of the month, we hope the applicant will have a clear sense of what elements make up a strong freelance pitch. Informational calls with colleagues at other publications We’ll put the applicant in contact with editors, publishers, writers, and teachers whose work connects to their ambitions and interests. WHO SHOULD APPLY:   While we’d like to keep the application process as open as possible, please note that this fellowship is targeted towards those who have not gone to journalism school, and who are unable to take on a more traditional internship or fellowship with structured hours—these things will be taken into consideration when reviewing applicants. As well, the program is open to residents of Canada only.
The Wrong Kind of Science

My grandmother had no way of knowing a book on birds, sent from Russia when I was a child, would determine my adult fascinations. 

I grew up with brown-paper-wrapped packages sent from the Soviet Union by my grandmother. My grandparents were refuseniks—Russian Jews denied visas to leave the Soviet Union. Over the course of our nine-year separation, they sent the contents of their bookshelves, kitchen cupboards and linen closet piecemeal. Every three months or so a package would arrive, decorated with dozens of stamps featuring a man named Lenin or famous cosmonauts, pioneer heroes, hydroelectric plants, Soviet athletes. These parcels came from people I knew only from photographs. I knew that I was born in a country one could no longer travel to. Even calling involved a multi-day ritual. My mother would send my grandmother a telegram in the middle of the week to suggest a time for a prearranged telephone rendezvous. A telegram would follow in return, the next day. Budu, she would respond—I’ll be there. Laconic, pronoun-less verbs in upper-case transliterated Russian showed up on our doorstep. Then, the following Sunday morning, she and my grandfather would walk the three kilometres from their apartment to the telephone post and wait for our call. Knowing how my grandmother now gets dressed up for doctor appointments and arrives an hour early (You never know, she says in the same dreamy tone she uses to remind me that a visit to the doctor merits my best underwear), I’m sure she and my grandfather must have left their apartment in their best clothes. It would have been an hour and a half of preparations for a telephone exchange that lasted no longer than ten minutes. I found the conversations nerve-racking. My mother woke me up in the middle of the night for my performance of the rehearsed lines on tiptoes—Thank you for all the presents! The sweater will fit me in a few years. I miss you! I love you! Kisses!—but I would bite my nails in fear of a potential question that I’d answer with the wrong Russian case ending or an incorrect verb form. The connection sounded like static, we had to scream into the phone, and just as my grandparents shouted back, our own echoes would accost us. I envied friends at school with grandmothers who baked them cookies and braided their hair; mine gave me a stomach ache, talked incessantly about the various ailments I’d suffered from as a toddler, inquired as to whether ballet lessons had helped correct my posture and pigeon-toed gait, and wondered how it could be that at age ten I hadn’t yet read all of Jack London. Once, my mother called the operator and opened, as usual, with her stock phrase: “I’d like to place a person-to-person call to Russia.” “Prussia?” The operator asked. “No, not Prussia, Russia. There is no Prussia anymore,” my mother explained, as if she had historical clairvoyance and could sense that within the next ten years, the country she was calling would also cease to exist. *** The only thing more taxing than talking to my grandparents was writing to them. In my letters, I waged a war against my mother’s red pen. Remember the accusative ending for animate nouns! “Where” takes the prepositional case. Did you not memorize the list of verbal exceptions that require an е even when it’s pronounced u? You forgot the spelling rule after sibilants! By the time I’d made all the requisite corrections, I’d lost track of the grandmother I was writing to in the first place. You forgot to thank them for the books! Grammar books, a primer of microbes, English translations of didactic Russian poetry—as if the originals weren’t bad enough. Collected works of Pushkin and Gogol for my parents. My grandmother was slowly sending the contents of her bookshelf, along with anything else she could find for me at the black market or through her connections. “They don’t look very interesting.” “Your grandmother stood in line for them for hours.” “For those boring books with awful pictures?” “Just thank her.” I put the books on the bookshelves, happy to receive packages from a faraway country but also disappointed that the contents of the package held so little interest. The prickly Yugoslavian sweaters and wool underwear that reached my knees (to protect my woman parts), cotton nightgowns made in China, metres of crepe de Chine, bed sheets designed for different-sized beds, comforter covers with a diamond-shaped hole in the middle that only fit Soviet wool blankets—precious products of a world whose currency was disintegrating. Coarse aluminum pots covered in an enamel glaze, which we later discovered to be highly toxic, stood in the backs of our cupboards. The grammar books terrorized me, and the children’s books—nobody read them. I preferred the stamps to the contents of the parcels. I cut them out, soaked them in water, peeled them from the packages and dried them carefully on our kitchen counter. My parents found Yuri Gagarin’s face, or even 1980 Moscow Olympics philatelic propaganda, a jarring sight on our countertops, but I loved coming home to the smiling faces of the toned, muscular athletes and intrepid cosmonauts. I also liked Lenin as a young, pudgy blond boy, standing in a brown militaristic uniform, a red star pinned to his breast and another embroidered on his cap; he looked like the boy I had a crush on at school. In one of these parcels was a flimsy paperback called Birds of Our Forests (Ptitsy nashikh lesov) that my grandmother must have sent in the early 1980s, and which I must have flipped through—or not—before setting it aside on my bookshelf. I rediscovered it a few years ago, when my parents embarked on an extensive home renovation. They tasked me with packing up my old bedroom, which still housed all my Soviet picture books. I reread the usual suspects—fairy tales with folksy illustrations, didactic verse with the requisite dreams of incessant hard work for the industrial homeland, including a peculiar story of a young woman whose mother proudly worked as a senior milkmaid on the collective farm. This all seemed in keeping with my grandmother’s unquestioning acceptance of Soviet ideology. Ever a perfectionist and a model student, she only began to question her world after emigration. And even then, reluctantly. But the book about nature surprised me. The primitively illustrated children’s book urged the younger generation to explore the great forests of the Soviet Union. There were woodpeckers, ravens, wood grouse, titmice, little owls, woodcocks, kingfishers, hawks—words that would have meant nothing to me as a child. It was a book I don’t remember thanking her for. Maybe it was dwarfed by the bottles of Red Moscow perfume she sent, whose scent I tried to inhale in hopes of recognizing my grandmother. When she arrived in Canada in 1987, her fur coat reeked of mothballs, and it turned out she reserved dabbing Red Moscow behind the ears for special occasions. Between the fur, the arresting bleached blonde hair, the Eastern bloc woollens, and the clothes packed in thick plastic bags that had been washed and air-dried, there was little I recognized of the person to whom I’d written so many letters. Why my grandmother, who believed in the higher gods of symphony halls and ballet performances, and who had no interest in the natural world, chose to send me a book about Russian birds remains a mystery to me. Her experiences with the Soviet natural world were limited to forced summers working on the kolkhoz, where she picked cotton or sugar beets for days on end. “That was enough nature for a lifetime,” she told me. *** “Normal people go to the opera,” she tells me, “but you now go to bed at nine o’clock, set your alarm for four in the morning, and look at birds. Meshuga.” Craziness, she calls my love of birdwatching, in Yiddish. My grandmother, who can’t speak Yiddish, uses the language whenever she wants to emphasize a point; the language gives her generations’ worth of authority. My love of the outdoors baffled my grandmother; hadn’t her ancestors, the Lupolover-Lupolansky clan, had their fill of the dirty outdoors in their shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, where Jews had been forced to live since the time of Catherine the Great? Wouldn’t they have run toward civilization and chosen institutions of higher learning and the glamour of opera houses and concert halls if only it had been accessible to them? I didn’t realize I was disappointing an entire lineage. The outdoors were for other people. “I wanted you to speak Russian and love literature, so I sent you poetry by Agniya Barto and Sergei Mikhalkov. I also wanted you to become a scientist, so I sent you my favourite primer of microbes.” Poems about disciplined children of good strong Soviet workers, biology for beginners—those books still lay on my shelf, untouched. “Well, the birds are your fault,” I tease her. “Your grandfather always said the books were useless. ‘Who will read them?’ he asked me when I forced him to carry boxes to the post office. I told him that maybe you’d become a scientist.” “Birdwatching is related to science.” “The wrong kind of science.” She looks at me, her glasses resting on the tip of her nose. I had dashed her dreams of a granddaughter MD who helped fight cancer and replaced them with a granddaughter who went out at dawn every Saturday morning with a pair of binoculars and watched birds. “Do you at least take photographs?” “Good camera equipment is too heavy.” “So, what—you just look?” “It’s not just looking. I study the birds. I observe them carefully, and sometimes I write a blog post about what I see. But yes, basically I just look.” “Do people pay you for your blog posts?” I laugh. Not only is birdwatching the wrong kind of science, but it also fails in the realm of practicality. Yet another letdown she has had to endure in old age. “So, wait, you wake up so early just to look? At least with hunters, I understand. They have something to bring home. But looking?” I tell her that hunting is how birdwatching actually began. John James Audubon killed all of his specimens before painting them. Before the advent of optics, there was no way to study a bird without shooting it. I tell her all of this, but she’s already looking elsewhere. I’ve disappointed her, and I imagine she’s contemplating the one thing she wouldn’t dare say: so many years of education, a PhD in comparative literature from Princeton, and now all you can talk about is watching birds? *** But one day, she called me. “Come over quick. I found a book for you at the library. It’s filled with many different-coloured birds—probably every single bird in the world.” “What’s it called?” “I’ll even steal it, if you want.” “I think you can just borrow it.” “Why borrow? I don’t think anybody will miss a book about birds.” Given my grandmother’s track record for gifts, I didn’t know what to expect. The book my grandmother stole for me from her apartment building library turned out to be the Golden Field Guide Birds of North America, one of the first field guides to go viral before the age of the Internet. Even though much of the nomenclature has changed, I had long coveted this vintage 1966 edition. Now, it occupies a notable place on my growing shelf of bird books that I wasn’t yet fully able to decipher. Excerpted from Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir, by Julia Zarankin ©2020. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.