The end of AOL Instant Messenger might be a blip, but it’s still a loss for a certain micro-generation—for people who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year.
By twenty-seven I was supposed to be well on my way to stability, or at least the illusion of such. Instead, my life had increasingly taken on a scrappy plainness.
Canadians want to focus on Gord Downie, on anniversaries, on the prime minister’s photo-ops, on giant rubber ducks—on anything, it seems, but Indigenous people.
The end of AOL Instant Messenger might be a blip, but it’s still a loss for a certain micro-generation—for people who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year.
My first experience of romantic love was catfishing someone on the internet. I was 11. Fifth grade was a particularly bad year, and I very much wanted to be someone else. Puberty had made me suddenly and all at once un-beautiful, and the way other kids shunned me had become decidedly more cruel as we all began to discover that everybody else had bodies. It was spring of 1995, and AOL had just begun to invade suburban homes by way of friendly, accessible floppy disks that arrived in the mail in plastic-wrapped bundles. My parents had installed a large desktop computer in the upstairs alcove, and each day there were a few precious hours before they got home from work but after I got home from school when I could go online. I would listen for the siren noise of start-up whirr and ping and click, the sound that meant the world was getting larger. In YA novels about fantasy adventures, stories in which lonely teenagers escape their dull lives into magical realms only they can access, there is always a ritual to getting through the known world back to the unknown—the Pevensie children have to find a wardrobe to get to Narnia, student wizards have to run at a particular piece of brick wall in King's Cross Station, Will and Lyra have to cut a doorway in the air with a magical knife. The AOL modem start-up noise was, for me and for many people of my generation, the ritual that permitted the crossing from the mundane realm to the fantastical one. The long static of the dial-up modem resolved into a friendly chime, and I was online. The screen filled up with red and blue screen names. I knew nothing about the people behind these names, and so I could imagine them into infinite possibility. I don’t really remember what chat rooms I frequented, although it would be safe to guess they were probably about The X-Files. It didn’t mean anything when someone chose to chat privately with me, as I had put no identifying details online, yet it provided the ping of attention that was missing in every other part of my life, and I hit the button for that random and pure gratification again and again, presaging the entirety of the rest of my relationship with the internet. This was before AOL Instant Messenger launched as a stand-alone application, but the Buddy List and chat functions were already built into AOL, and I was able to accumulate a list of people out of chat rooms who had chosen me to talk with privately, collecting rectangular windows of alternating text. I don’t remember his screen name or his real name. He chatted me one day and then every day. My fantastical world now had a recurring character. We moved from private chats to long emails about our days (still, to this day, the primary form of intimacy I understand with another human being). The thing I liked most about him was how much he liked me. Whenever that friendly, generation-defining voice said, “You’ve got mail!,” it was from him. All of my chats with him and emails to him, every piece of information, anecdote, fact, and story I told him, were entirely fictional. I understood with perfect clarity that the person I actually was was neither attractive nor interesting, and moreover I had been warned by parents, teachers, other people’s parents, and pretty much any adult within a fifty mile radius that the entire internet was made up of malevolent perverts, and to tell anyone your real name was tantamount to already having been sexmurdered. So I invented a different person to be. And I loved being her. (I still remember her name, but I’ll never tell anyone because it is perhaps the single most private fact about myself.) She was beautiful, funny, popular, and accomplished, involved in many extra-curriculars and had an abundance of friends. She experienced the normal ups and downs that a high school student (she was a few years older than I was—my parents both worked at a high school so I had some background knowledge) might experience. Her problems were interesting, and easily solved. She lived in the optimistic, lovable pitch of a Babysitter’s Club novel or a half-hour sitcom. And she talked to her online friend on AOL every day. Older people you heard stories about, teenagers or even adults, actually met people from online, but I had no idea why anyone would want to do that—didn’t that defeat the whole purpose? Whatever we said about our feelings for each other, I distinctly remember that one day my internet buddy sent one of our long emails, and in it he said, “I love you.” I stared at it for a long time, and then I never emailed him again. I never again answered any of his chats. I had no idea what to do when someone’s real feelings appeared to be involved. It was my first sense about the internet that if I died in the game, I might also die in real life. I ghosted. Soon after that, things got somewhat better. I changed schools and started to develop real in-person friends, and to talk to them on AIM at least as much as I talked to strangers. Most of fifth grade was submerged into the general memory of a bad time. On occasion his name would appear on my buddy list and I would feel vaguely guilty and vaguely curious. But mostly I would feel nothing, because he wasn’t real. * Today, when people on the internet say the word “online” it’s a joke, and part of the joke is that the phrase once had a great deal of meaning and now has none. Everyone is already online, and is always online. No one goes or comes back. Relationships online are the same relationships as in person, extended into another convenient replicative medium. The official self is here; online is the town as much as the town itself is. In our real lives, the ones with rental agreements and tax forms, the ones that the banks and the government know about, our fixed identities act as a tether. We plod through our days continually yanked back into the truths of our character, our circumstances, our actions and our pasts. But before the internet was just the place where we all lived, the point was not to be yourself. In the early days of AIM, online was a place free from the tether of identity, where we could be someone invented, or where we could be no one at all. All of the ways in which it allowed a particular kind of human connection spring from that anonymity, that permission to fictionalize oneself. Canonical literature contains countless stories of people getting to elsewhere, leaving the known delineations—going to sea, going west in wagons, building towns out of nothing, wandering the desert, getting lost. These stories return again and again to the idea of who we are when we’re not at home, what can emerge when a person is free of the known-ness that binds them. In these unmarked spaces, it becomes possible to imagine how we might exist with each other without laws and obligation, inheritance and surveillance, money and family. Briefly, the internet was such an uncharted territory, as full of potential as Melville’s whaling ship or the Old Testament’s desert. We could be whomever we decided to be. We could discover what people looked like free from both society and reality, as pure as lying. On December 15th, when AOL Instant Messenger disappears, wiping all chat logs and buddy lists from the internet for good, my daily life will not change at all, and neither will the daily lives of the vast majority of people whose adolescence was defined by an icon of a yellow genderless figure in motion—the internet, this place where we all live now, has far outgrown this one application. But for some of us, people uncomfortably situated right at the seam of a wholly online world and a time before the internet, something will be lost to history. AIM represents both how we first understood the internet’s presence and potential in our lives, and just how irreparably this presence has changed. This was where we grew up, and the loss is a little like finding out a childhood home where neither you nor anyone you know has lived in many years is being torn down. * The announcement of the impending shutdown has brought on a lot of nostalgia. Occasionally Twitter, or even in-person conversation, erupts in people sharing their screen names, half-proud and half-embarrassed, and offering recollections of being very young on a very young internet. Over the last few months, I’ve talked with a number of friends and acquaintances about their experiences with and time on AIM. As is only right, all of them are quoted here solely by their screen names, as a gesture toward a time when that was all that identified us. We often get to our real selves from inhabiting false selves first, lying our way into a legitimate identity. People’s screen names are hilarious now because they are fence-swinging gestures at identities before any of us actually had identities, like throwing darts, blindfolded, at a list of qualities that might meaningfully define a person. Often, these attempts went hand-in-hand with romantic aspirations; defining ourselves online, through this particular chat service, was the first time many of came face to face with how the desire to be known and the desire to be loved are intertwined. One friend demonstrates this identity-grasping in the story of how his screen name developed: “I think that my early screen names were a real case study in toxic male development. I had some generic screen name until I realized I could create a new account to flatter a middle-school paramour. This is how I became erikloveslindsay which quickly became eriklovesashley which quickly became manmuststrive which quickly became swissarmyromancer. I mean that really sums it all up: two romantic rejections plunged me immediately into flirtations with voluntarism, naturally leading to emo. Rough out there.” Another friend, talking about his screen name, MeInsane1, and how embarrassing he finds it now, recalled that, “I thought that was badass, edgy. I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne and Metallica a lot. I do not think I felt insane. I just think I wanted an image of some kind. Any kind.” G2Bcenterstage chose her screen name because “I had decided to become a theater kid, and wanted to try being an extrovert.” The resolution for the identity came first, as though these were decisions wholly within our control. Sometimes this dogged fixation on one aspect of a chosen identity had hilarious consequences, as with SwingDeVL, who explains, “I was really into swing music and to some extent swing dancing. My parents urged me to change it because who wants their fifteen-year-old online with a handle that basically says ‘I’m a kinky swinger,’ but I remained firmly and willfully naive about it, claiming that of course everyone would understand it was about swing music.” Most young people are seeking both a way to be recognized and to recognize themselves. AIM allowed us to explore and test-drive identities, by offering a new space free of the detritus of our lives beyond it, a simulation model for the real work of becoming a person in the world. Adolescence is a time when we are first confronted with these questions of self-definition, and AIM is rooted in adolescence for me because it gained popularity and a sense (if not a reality) of ubiquity at the exact moment I hit puberty. My coming of age runs perfectly parallel with the social internet’s. There is a micro-generation—people who today are mostly in their thirties, or close to it on either side, people who were anywhere between the ages of 5 and 17 in 1995—who are not quite digital natives, and whose first understanding of “online” was as a place distinct from the real world. People who, like me, got their period and their first screen name the same year. I remember a time before I knew about the internet; I remember learning what an email was in a third-grade classroom. My transition from childhood to adulthood was marked by watching that change happen, as online seeped beyond the borders of a single screen and became synonymous with everyday living. We did not create the internet, but the internet happened to us, a parallel reflective adolescence. I used AIM—first in its early unofficial form, baked into AOL’s service, and then as the separate application—from fifth grade until my first year of college, but my feelings about it will always be hooked to pre-teen sleepovers. When I think of AIM, or see its buddy icon, I am twelve years old and my best friends’ parents let her go on the internet as much as she wants, so we are at her house. I’m crowded along with a bunch of other twelve year olds around a computer screen, waiting for something to happen. It’s late enough at night that the darkness reflects from the glass doors behind us, and the computer screen stares into the doors, multiplying out against the night. We’re sitting, limbs folded up in chairs too big for us, in front of a hulking desktop computer and the internet spreads out before us like a road. My friend’s parents had long since gone to bed. We were up late and we were going to go on the internet, an activity that could only be done late at night. This was mainly because that was when people’s parents were asleep and wouldn’t look over our shoulders asking, “who is SnuggleMulder42069? Do you know him from school?” But even now when we are all online at every moment of every day, at its heart the internet is still a late-night thing, because the middle of the night is when you’re most alone, and the internet is a place where you’re always alone. Online may purport to combat loneliness, but it also requires it as a pre-condition. We had just begun to care about what other people were doing after they left the room, just begun to want to know if someone was thinking of us when we weren’t there. Discovering adult emotions is in great part a process of learning to be lonely. We were newly desperate for a means of emotional surveillance, newly longing to be lonely and un-lonely all at once. The windows glazed the yard to black ice behind us, and we haunted chat rooms where we hoped the strangers our parents had only just recently learned to warn us about lay in wait. Adults may have told us that there were weird men on the internet who wanted to have cybersex and meant it as a warning, but we took it as a promise. This was my first internet: the secret, late-night one, a group of nervous friends gathered around a slow-connecting magic box full of strangers who might talk to us about all the sex none of us had yet had. The whole internet had something sexual about it in its early days, and that was much of what got us on there—it was the place where we were allowed to talk about things we would never say out loud. AbbyTheTabby (“after my cat. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade at the time, and my mom wouldn't allow me to use any part of my real name or other identifying information”) talks about using AIM as a testing ground, a way to work out developing desires. “I remember feeling so limited by my world at the time, in that weird transitional phase as a young woman where you've gotten your period and your body is developing and you're having all of these feelings, but you can't yet do anything independently or grownup-like (and, deep down, you probably don't actually want to just yet). AIM was a kind of a pathway to a bigger, more grownup-feeling life. I do remember having what probably amounted to cybersex with guys from school; we'd see each other in the hallways the next day and be too embarrassed to talk to each other, let alone act on the things we'd discussed. In retrospect, it was a pretty safe, empowering way to work out my sexuality and experiment with being a sexual person—I don't think there's an equivalent for young people today.” This sense of invisibility allowed us to explore what sex was, what people did, what we wanted and what we didn’t and how to say so, a process that would have been far more fraught and far more dangerous had we had to do it in person, without these mediating fictions as a barrier. In so many ways, I was—and many of us sheltered teens online in those days were—the very thing my parents warned me about: I was the man in the white van, the sun-starved gamer covered in Cheeto dust, the sad fake online vampire in a chat room. We all were, us almost-teenagers gathered around a screen making up lies about sex to strangers. My real sexual education was keyed to the phrase “A/S/L wanna cyber?” and facilitated by people about whom I will never know a single fact. The internet even in its earliest public iteration made everyone on it creepy, made everyone suspect just because they were there. Being creepy is a part of human nature, and learning to recognize and put boundaries on our own creepiness is something curricular Sex Ed should teach us, but never will. MeInsane1 says it was through conversations he had on AIM that he realized women actually experienced sexual desire. “One girl told me in graphic detail about how an older girl seduced her, and how desperately she was attracted to this violin-playing boy. What's important here is that I was having no sexual activity. But I loved being talked to about this stuff, even by girls I was into. I could say that AIM was where I discovered that women had sexual urges. Because I can't overstate how much of a shock that was to me. The way boys were and are taught about girls—this is not news—is about acquisition and manipulation. You had to ‘get’ girls. The idea that they could want was...insane.” AIM, too, could be a life raft for people outside of heterosexual and binary norms. While these identities were to one degree or another often too dangerous or frightening to speak in person, and are by default never covered by any kind of traditional sexual education, the unrecorded morass of possibility in AOL’s chat rooms opened avenues of exploration for teens trying to figure out their sexuality. Krispix444 (“My parents are extremely conservative and religious, so when they found out I was going to use an ‘online account’ they vetted whatever name I chose. I ended up with Krispix444 because it was innocuous and also I thought it was funny because it was breakfast cereal; I am an idiot”) recalls how, “with the people I met off chat rooms, a lot of the time I was exploring queer stuff... so there'd be times I talked about sex things, or talked with other 'young women' who were also interested in discussing being gay. I realize now that I was very likely talking with people (older men, specifically) who were pretending to be young women—but at the time, this was very important to me, something I really craved, because I had no one to talk to about any of it and it scared me. It also felt very anonymous, like I would never meet or see these people and they would never know who I was, so it felt very safe.” The fact that, as Krispix444 points out, these people were likely lying were didn’t matter because the interactions existed outside verified reality. Most of us have little power over our situations, looks, or circumstances, but here each one could be a choice. For me, this was less about sexual identity and more about freedom from what I looked like and from how what I looked like determined other people’s reactions. Online, I didn’t have to be beautiful in order to get someone to have a conversation with me; I didn’t even have to be beautiful in order to be beautiful. I could simply tell strangers I was, and they would believe me, and I could experience the reactions and treatment that beautiful people experienced. Slightly younger friends said they rarely chatted with strangers on AIM. The later you got online, the fewer strangers were there—it is nearly inconceivable right now to imagine talking to someone on the internet whom I would legitimately consider a stranger. But on AIM, even when talking to people we already knew, we invented ourselves, freed by the seeming anonymity of a screen, able to be with someone else and simultaneously alone. It became possible to know people independent of how we felt about their physical bodies when they stood in front of us. Being a bunch of text is much easier than being a body, and makes possibilities seem infinite. “I didn't know what to say to girls,” recalls MeInsane1, “but on AIM I could sound like I wanted to sound, or at least how I thought I wanted to sound: smooth, witty, erudite. All the stuff I couldn't be in person.” G2BCenterstage talks about remembering “the dissonance of baring your heart to someone in the middle of the night, and then feeling awkward around them the next day. There were definitely some confessions of love or crushes or desire via AIM that went completely un-discussed in real life, which made it feel like a liminal and particular space. I remember explaining to my dad that I liked that about it, the fact that you could open up your soul to someone on the internet but never have to speak face to face with that person at all—maybe you'd nod at each other in the hallways, and you'd recognize each other in this coded, barely acknowledged way.” Many friends and people around my same age recall similar experiences, whole relationships that took place in one cadence on AIM and entirely in another in person. SwingDeVL recounts losing a long-distance friend to suicide and how “one of the things that spun through my mind was that there would be no more late-night conversations between SwingDeVL and Inky204.” She adds that “it’s zero surprise to me that I still remember his screen name after eleven years.” Through these late-night chats—because, like the internet itself, this kind of intimacy is a late-night thing—I began to learn to relate to flesh and blood people the way I had once related to online buddies, to make the kinds of connections in recorded, breathing reality that I had once made while lying about everything to a stranger in an X-Files chat room. By using the people who lurked behind screen names as practice, I built the skills for riskier and fuller humanity. It was, for a few brief, quiet years, a place to test how one might speak about things like depression, tenderness, uncertainty, and desire. AIM lived at the seams between public and private selves, and it made clear to me how the struggle to resolve the two is near to the center of what it is we’re doing when we love one another. It was the first place where I found a way into the guarded, un-recorded space that exists between two people who have decided to turn and face one another and shut out the rest of the world. * AIM’s final message to its users said “thanks to our buddies for making chat history with us!” and showed its yellow genderless icon wearing a silly hat and waving goodbye, like someone gamely attending a party to celebrate their own execution. “Chat history” is a pun, but also telling. AIM is a place that made history instead of profit. By all measurements but sentimental memory, both AIM and AOL were failures, making disastrous business and marketing decisions, never looking far ahead, and never predicting the future correctly. But nevertheless, for a handful of people in their thirties or nearby to it and living on the internet today, AIM was where we learned to invent ourselves, and by inventing ourselves how to be human. It was our Narnia, and our coming of age story, the place where, by means of the imaginary, we gained the skills and understandings necessary to grow up back in the real world where growing up happens. I don’t remember AIM much after college, partly because I switched over to iChat and from there to Gchat, but more because I switched over from the kind of stumbling, cradled, adolescent life where a passive-aggressive song lyric in an away message could matter deeply. I had gotten what I needed from it, learning to connect with people, to pull at the threads of late-night intimacy, to seek out connections that feel like the whisper and ping of a rudimentary chat-box on a screen. G2BCenterstage remembers that she stopped using AIM freshman year of college, when “someone asked me out via AIM and that was the exact moment when I realized that I didn't want to use it anymore. College at its best felt like all the best parts of AIM—the late-night conversations, the passionate arguing about religion, love, the meaning of life, etc. I could finally have that in real life anytime I wanted.” But also by the time I got to college, everything had become AIM. There was a whole world of typing right alongside the physical world. Most communication happened through messaging forms based to some degree or another on AIM. “I miss that there was a very specific place that I chatted with people,” says SwissArmyRomancer, “delimited by the temporal constraints of the dial-up and the spatial constraints of a LAN line. I had my AIM chair and I had my bedtime and I had to cram an entire universe of sad, lustful adolescence into two hours of night and four square feet of IKEA furniture and flop sweat.” The fantastical world wasn’t fantastical anymore; there was no sense of entering through a wardrobe or cutting a door in the sky. This was just what everything felt like.
The author of Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, on remembering a past “lodged in between the cracks of memory.”
I first met Aanchal Malhotra at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, where she was talking about the possibility that objects, the ones that survived the India-Pakistan partition in particular, have the ability to observe pain. For her, these objects, the only things that remained of home for many people, allowed them to remember. Malhotra showed a slideshow, featuring pictures of things that people had taken with them when one country was divided into two by a single line: jewellery passed down from generation to generation, a portrait of a Punjabi National poet, a rusted pair of scissors. As she spoke you could tell that her work was not only an attempt to understand a past, an event, it was an attempt to enlighten the future of that region. In a world constantly struggling between the need to remember and the need to forget, her work was inspired by a need to reclaim pieces of reality that exist beneath the surface. Aanchal was ending her day in Delhi and I was starting mine here in Toronto when we spoke about her bestselling book, Remnants of a Separation, A History of the Partition through Material Memory (HarperCollins India), her recently released digital repository, Museum of Material Memory, and what it means to be an oral historian. She slipped between English and Urdu, between her role as a storyteller and her role as a young person trying to unpack a past that has come to define a subcontinent. She sat in front of a bookshelf lined with books and a single lota (a round brass water-pot). For two people who were born on either side of the border, this conversation was as much about our own stories of migration, our own pasts, as it was about the ones she had collected. Aeman Ansari: Tell me about where this project started. What does the process of bringing a visual history alive on paper look like? Aanchal Malhotra: When I started this project, I was doing my MFA thesis. When you do a thesis in fine art you have to show it in a gallery. It started as a photographic project where I would take pictures of these objects and include small captions. My thesis was exhibited in a gallery that was 120 feet long and ten feet wide so that when you walked along side it, it seemed like you were walking alongside a border. One side of the gallery was glass and the other side was wall and when you were inside that very weird alley of the gallery it also had the feeling of being surveilled. Conceptually it goes back to how people felt walking along these lines during the Partition. When I was putting up that show in Montreal at Concordia, I had this strange feeling that people needed to know more about the stories associated with these things. After I defended my thesis in 2015, I spent the next two years going through all of the interviews I had conducted about these objects and started writing about them. The book evolved out of the idea that these objects can be our portal to the Partition. In writing a book that traces migration, you must have come face-to-face with a kind of migration of your own. How did you maneuver all of the borders and boundaries? Often I was sitting in someone’s house and I couldn't understand a word because of the language barrier. One of my favourite chapters in the book is about a Bengali family in which I virtually understood nothing. They spoke for five minutes and the translator only translated for one minute. And I thought: surely I missed something. The Partition happened to so many people, it is challenging to cross so many borders, not only physical borders, you are also treading on emotional borders. You are treading on borders of age, asking a generation their close-most thoughts. In the place between that side and this side there is stuff that has remained in this no man’s land. These conversations bring up that stuff and these conversations are the only things that will ever dissolve difference. I think these insignificant conversations, between these separate but connected places, will remove difference and distance. At least on a personal level, even though nothing may ever change on a political level, because you need the government to hate each other as much as you need them to work together. The other thing I realized when I was crossing all these lines is that I have the ability to bring about comfort and solace in someone. As a young person interested in old things, you must never take advantage of that. Why did you create The Museum of Material Memory? People got to know, from word of mouth, that I was writing the book. There are only ten Partition scholars in the whole world and they are all above the age of fifty. People started writing to me from everywhere and told me about the objects they had. I couldn't always go to these places so I thought people could write stories about their own objects. The purpose of what I’m doing is to empower people with their own histories. What is the one way that people from all over the world can contribute stories about objects that they are close to from a certain time in history, not only about Partition but even before or after it, objects of age? It’s a very minute thing in the larger scheme of things, but if we don't recall our own history, we will have regrets. So, I started a digital archive. What was your introduction to the Partition? School history text books, it was a very general introduction and I'm not embarrassed to say that I didn’t have much interest in it at the time. If you go to high school in India or Pakistan the history of Independence and Partition is obviously biased, but it’s also glazed over very quickly. It’s also rare for us to have learnt about oral history. When you grow up in the subcontinent you can very easily ignore the word Partition, less in Pakistan, but even then. So, when I came across these objects that my family had brought with them, I started repeatedly asking about them, but they didn't want to discuss it. They only wanted to talk about life before Partition and life after Partition. They didn't want to remember the time period during. How does your own family history of migration affect your writing? The first thing we have to understand is why they were so adamant on not sharing that experience. You will be empowered by your history only if you know the whole of it. Otherwise at some point it becomes fabrication. The work is as strong as reality allows it to be. So yes, my work was very affected by their stories, but more so by the perseverance of post-partition. My grandfather came with nothing and he built a book empire, we have owned a bookshop since 1953 in Delhi. He started with about 200 rupees for that shop. It wasn’t just my family’s story, it was the stories of that generation. When I started conducting these interviews I realized there were so many things that people of my generation need to hear. In India, we are a hugely intolerant generation, we are reactionary. We don't think, we say what’s on our mind because of the immediacy of social media. The things people from this generation were telling me about friendship, about courage, about values, I thought people needed to know. You come from a family of booksellers, how has that experience informed your approach to storytelling? I am of the firm belief that the more you read, the more you write. The irony is that my grandfather never read a book, he only read newspapers. Nobody forced anyone to read, but you have cultural legacy that you're a part of and you want to give to the literary society in some way, though I never thought that I would ever write anything, to be honest. I started as an artist and I guess now I’m a writer, so when I read a book or even when I write it’s with the texture of creating something visual. It’s with the intention of making someone able to view a landscape in front of them. What is the purpose of art: the purpose of art is to make your viewer have something moved within them and I hope the purpose of literature is the same. When you make a piece of art you hope that someone will see it and remember it and feel like they are immersed in it. When you write a piece of fiction or nonfiction you hope that the reader is being transported to that landscape. I always look for that kind of writing that gives me the feeling of living inside something. What are a few of your favourite books? A Very Easy Death (Simone De Beauvoir), The Beauty of the Husband (Anne Carson), IQ84 (Murakami) and The Museum of Innocence (Orhan Pamuk). There are a few Partition books as well: The Other Side of Silence and Borders and Boundaries, both talk about the experiences of women during the Partition. Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition. Writers often study the weight of the past and try to explore how the things that have happened to us change us, change the world around us. What inspired you to document this history of the past through objects? Material anthropology is an academic study so people will mostly study it for archaeological purposes, or there are books about wars, and things that were found in the trenches. But that’s a very academic way to look at it. Considering that Partition is not dinner table conversation, how do you access it? What about people that have no tangible connection to it? What about people that have inherited only memories of it but have no way to actually find a way to get there? How do you connect to something that you've been disconnected to for so long? The youth of India and Pakistan are progressing really fast and not realizing the things that we are leaving behind. It becomes very difficult to access the past if we are not constantly involved in it and if it’s not constantly alive in our households through traditions and customs. These objects then become catalysts to enter the word Partition and also become a way to bridge the generational gap. The object becomes a catalyst removed from them, it is not about them anymore, it’s about this thing. How did put together a piece of nonfiction that works to reconcile the division? What I don’t like about Partition is that whenever you talk about it you talk about the violence, you talk about the hate. You can’t ignore that, but there are also instances of friendship, of courage, of sacrifice, of Muslims harbouring Hindus in their house, of a Sikh man adopting a child of another religion. I can’t say that everybody helped each other, of course not, but aren't these the narratives that we should be listening to? It is not about blaming anyone, because you can’t blame anyone, it wasn't the English, it wasn't the Muslims, it wasn't the Hindus, it wasn't the Sikhs; it was halaat, circumstance. The narrative that a third-generation individual inherits from their ancestors is one of distance. You have the luxury of distance and education to view the event objectively, should you choose to view it like that. And even when you view something objectively, you cannot view it completely objectively because you have your biases and those biases are ingrained. What you can do is hope to portray a realistic narrative so that your subsequent generations can have something to think about. This Muslim man that I talked to in Delhi, he told me that his father used to work for Viceroy house and he chose not to go to Pakistan. He said, “Hindus are born in India, they live here and when they die you cremate them and you submerge their ashes in the Ganga. Then their ashes go to International waters. A Muslim person is born in India, they live here and when they die, their body eventually decomposes and becomes the soil. It might be the land you are walking on right now. How can you say that that person does not belong on this land? They have become the soil.” Other people of my generation don't understand the repercussions of the reactionary measures they are taking against one religion or another. They need to hear these stories. How is your work different from the work on Partition before it? I’m using new age tools like digital media, and social media. It has the kind of reach that nothing else does. People are talking about objects from one part of the subcontinent to the other. A person from Asam can look at a plate and say, “how interesting, I have the same plate in my house.” A person from Karachi can say, “I have that same plate in my house.” The two people are talking over comments in my blog and not saying you are a Hindu, you are a Muslim, etc. None of this matters because they are just talking about that plate. How will you ever get to witness something so beautiful anywhere else? You are a self-proclaimed oral historian. With oral history, you have to understand that memory is unreliable, and that memory deteriorates with time. How did you get past this fact? You don’t. People think that oral history is not a viable source of information, unfortunately it remains the closest to authentic experience. But oral history cannot and must never be seen in isolation from academic history. They must always go together, I saw this in my own research. I cannot trust memory because memory will always change depending on your age, your experience, depending on what you’ve seen. It will change. In this case, another interesting thing happened, collective memory becomes personal memory very fast. When you have lived through a traumatic experience, even if you have not seen someone getting killed you will say, “yes I saw that because everyone saw it.” The only thing you can hope to do is supplement oral history with academic history. I did a lot of crosschecking, almost on every single point, it supplements fact with memory. I spent months with secondary sources, because I’m trying to write a history for young people. They deserve some form of truth, that is the only holistic way to talk about the Partition. There is this reoccurring theme of cultural identity in your book and in any conversation about the Partition. In the stories you've encountered, have people come to terms with the fact that they may never really belong to one place, one culture, one identity? Most people from that generation have resigned to the fact that they will never see their home again. The interesting thing is that if you talk to people from India, they will never say they are from Pakistan, they will just mention the name of the city. The cultural investment is more in the city you are from. My grandmother will still say that D.I Khan is home, we live in Delhi, but D.I Khan is still home. On the other side in Pakistan, if you were a Muslim that went to Pakistan you made that choice, sometimes that choice didn't work out in your favour and sometimes it was a new country and people didn't know what to expect. Once I did this interview in Lahore and this man was telling me that there is a big difference between Indians and Pakistanis. Just when I pegged him as a religious bigot, he said, “how can someone ever really separate you from the soil of your land?” That’s when I thought: how complex is this notion of belonging? For how many years have you buried this very statement inside you? How many years has it taken for it to come out? Even if he wanted to say it, who would he say it to? No one asked them about this lost home in years. War reporters often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. In a way, you went back to look closely at a highly violent and tumultuous period in time. On a personal level, what did hearing these stories do to you? Don’t you think I’m a little unusual? I have become heavy. It’s very difficult to hold onto little segments of people’s lives. My head is full of data, languages, names, houses and unfortunately in the last few years I have lived my material. I don't need to refer to my book to have this conversation because the material is in my head. The problem in that is you hallucinate sometimes, it is upsetting to see what a stifling generation we have become and what an incredible generation we come from. How little of that we have retained. I remember two years ago I woke up from a nightmare and I didn’t even remember where I was. I did so many interviews that week that I dreamed about all of them and they were all in front of me and I had to locate myself for a minute. I have recorded it, but history doesn't belong to me, it doesn't belong to anyone. You have to share it. How would you describe your brand of storytelling? Oh, bestseller. I’m joking! Though I have been on the bestseller list for weeks. To be serious, my work is an amalgamation of senses, whether it be through art or writing, it is to find a way to get closer to one’s senses. And memory is also a sense, it is an intangible sense, it’s an invisible sense. For me, this work is about connecting, getting closer to one’s senses, as all art should. Why did you choose to write this book as a series of conversations with people? I wrote the book as a series of conversations for the simple reason that I wanted to be in it. There is no point in talking about the past if you don't talk about the relevance of that past. If I don’t put myself in the book and also archive my reaction then what is the point? Then it’s just like any other book of stories. I am also making a comment on the things they are telling me because I have my own opinions being from a completely different generation so removed from it. You’re looking at the objects that people took with them during the partition, but in a way you are also looking at everything that was left behind. What about the objects that people left behind and still ache for today? I asked this Sindhi woman this question specifically because you couldn't take much from Sindh, you were searched on the boat. I asked her if there was something she wanted to bring along that she couldn’t, she told me about a swing in her house that she wished she brought along. [Those who left as] children would talk about toys. Then there were things people had to let go of along the way. There was a woman who was from a very rich family, she was coming from Dalhousie to Murree and was bringing along these collections of carpets and silverware. On the way she saw all of these Muslims that had no way to get across the border so she took out all of things and asked the people to come along instead. I also started thinking closely about what people considered precious or valuable. Through my conversations a lot of objects gained their rightful importance if they were of incredibly mundane nature. They were not appreciated for their survival or their virtuosity, it was just this old thing that they still had with them. I was trying to explain the value of a shawl passed down for three generations to a woman who was focused only on her jewellery when she noticed a stain on it. She started panicking about the stain and that’s when I realized that this incredible object that was just a footnote in your history has become so important because she found a stain on it. What about the stain that you left behind? What about the violence you left behind? It stands for that. In a way, this book is a study of the word “home,” of what it is, how we feel when we lose it and the value of the things that serve as reminders of it. How has your idea of home evolved? Let’s just break up this word home. The idea of home is from the physical home. The home of one’s past or dreams or imagination is often a glorified home, it is not really a real home. Maybe that is the narrative that will be passed onto the subsequent generation, which is fine, but the physical home is the home you live in, it is reality. My notion of home is Delhi, there is something centering about the city. My grandmother always says that no matter how far you go, the soil of where you are from will never leave you. I lived abroad for ten years, at first I thought it was very easy to change your personality and become from somewhere else because you have this fresh clean slate. There is something magnetic about the place that you are from, there is also something very humbling to succumb to it. Delhi is like that for me. You explore the idea of intangible remnants. Discuss the idea of emotions as heirlooms. The man who was telling me about the Hindu-Muslim thing in Delhi, he did not bring anything with him. Throughout our conversation I kept wishing that he had an object, it was very selfish of me. He had this very ghostly presence about him, he was trying to make me understand that he was holding onto a value of secularism that might not exist today, but in my jaded mind I kept thinking about an object. It was very scary to be confronted with nothing or something larger than what I expected. I didn't have the ability to hold that weight. I had just come to look at things, now I was leaving with responsibility. In that moment, I looked at my hands and thought, they are too small, they can’t hold this weight. Intangible values are the heaviest because they ensure that you need to do something about them and not just listen. To be privy to a value or a tradition or a custom is somehow to sign an invisible binding contract that you will do something with it. A woman told me about all the women she had to send back at the camps and that was the only moment when I broke down. It truly felt like someone took this really heavy weight off their shoulders and put it onto mine. How do you carry that weight if you have no tangible connection to that event? How have you come to terms with the fact that you are an intruder in the lives of these people who may be trying to forget this event that happened years ago? We are very voyeuristic, but how do you make a story from nothing? No story is created from nothing. All fiction is some form of nonfiction. You might not borrow from the things you see immediately but it might be from something you experienced at some point or something you overheard. The human mind absorbs environments and regurgitates them in the process of writing or painting. Yes, I was shadowing many people’s lives. In this case, it is for a social purpose, in the case of other works it might not be. There is something very self-fulfilling and almost selfish in the act of writing. You have been given the ability to mold, more in fiction and less in nonfiction, but still you exemplify certain things in certain ways. You are shadowing people’s lives, you are tiptoeing around the edges of their memories. One of the stories that has stayed with me is the one about the Punjabi poetess who fell in love with the army man. How did you come to find this story? This was at the beginning of my research. Finding people who have lived through the Partition is not difficult, but finding objects is very difficult because people don't remember the things that they have now. I told everyone [in my family's bookshop] to ask customers if they still have something from before the Partition. This woman came in whose husband was the chief of army staff and was a very close friend of my father’s. My mother asked his wife if they had a Partition related story in their family. And she said yes, her mother had some utensils and jewellery. So I went to this poetess’s house with the intention of looking at jewellery and utensils and then she told me this story from 1942. She was in Lahore writing nationalistic poetry for this magazine that used to be circulated to all of the Indian soldiers fighting for the British army in World War II. There was this particular soldier in Mesopotamia who got a copy of this magazine with a poem by this woman inside it. This man read the poem and decided he wanted to marry the woman who wrote it. He came to Lahore, to the address that was listed on the back of the magazine, and asked this woman to marry him. They got to know one another and eventually got engaged. Then he got posted in Baghdad and she got a copy of this same magazine with his name posted under a poem. He had not told her that he was also a writer. She read the poem and thought it was incomplete, in the next issue she continued the poem by writing a passage. He then read that passage and wrote another one. This went on for six verses, it was ultimately published as a book called Rohini and Veer Singh. What is a story that has stayed with you? Some stories are odder than others and they stay with you. In this Bangla story, the last chapter of the book, this man had lost his memory because of a brain hemorrhage. Over the years before his memory left him he had been telling his wife all sorts of stories. So, what he didn't remember she remembered. As a third-generation person in this subcontinent I remember things for other people because they can’t. I asked her very categorically: why do you remember these things? And she said, “if I don't who will? Who will tell our daughters and who will tell their daughters?” Someone needs to be the carrier of history. There are other snippets like this family rolling up all their jewels and tucking them into the floor, a mother putting a handkerchief in a child’s mouth in the train so the child doesn't scream. A man appears at a well-known family’s house Pre-Partition and everyone says he's fallen from the sky. They take him in because they believe that he has come from god and then create a room in the garden for him with a roof that is made of glass so that he can look at the sky. There is a village in Pakistani Punjab where an entire population of Sikhs converted to Islam because they don't want to leave. These things will always stay with me. What’s next for you? I’m working on a novel about an Indian soldier who fights on the Western Front in World War I. How much do we know about Indian soldiers who fought in World War I? We know nothing, that’s worth exploring. There is this inherently bitter-sweet quality to all of the objects and stories in your book. The idea that these people have reminders of this life, this home, parts of their identity, they will never get back. Is this something you thought about before you started writing the book? It’s simply: how has no one worked on this? I must work on this. I haven't read my book, by the way. I just can’t read it, I feel like there is another kind of energy that wrote it. When I was writing this book I was in a place where I was ready to absorb all of these things that were forgotten, that were lodged in between the cracks of memory. At the time I realized that it’s not that this generation of people who lived through the Partition don't know how to remember, they don't know how to forget.
By twenty-seven I was supposed to be well on my way to stability, or at least the illusion of such. Instead, my life had increasingly taken on a scrappy plainness.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. My adult bedroom resembles a dorm room. This isn’t helped by the fact that my bed is, quite literally, a dorm bed. When my brother left for college, his six-foot-five frame didn’t fit onto any of the mattresses supplied by the residence hall, and so he was required to buy his own. He moved back home the same summer that I moved into my first real apartment. The appeal of a free mattress overruled the thought of whatever it is brothers do in college beds, and so I took it with me, mounting it on an IKEA frame. “It’s a temporary solution,” I told myself nearly a decade ago, though that mattress has now followed me to four apartments and sits pushed against the side of my bedroom wall, making room for the ever growing stacks of books I receive in the mail for review purposes, many of them for children. My small bed has allowed for some adolescent impulses, allowing me to treat my room as a private sanctuary. “I’d invite you to stay the night, but…” I’d say to a Tinder date while gesturing to my bed’s impractical size, and they would get the hint and leave. 2017 was the year I turned twenty-seven, an age I had once decided on, years ago, as the age at which I’d become unequivocally adult. One’s early twenties were designed for screw-ups and experimentation. By twenty-seven I was supposed to be well on my way to stability, or at least the illusion of such. Instead, my life had increasingly taken on a scrappy plainness. Though alone I was content with the state of things, I started to become increasingly self-conscious about how my living arrangements and lifestyle choices appeared from the outside, the state of arrested development reflected in my twin bed. Now when guests came over, I would apologize. “I’m in a transition period,” I would tell them, which wasn’t exactly untrue (I mean, isn’t life just one big transition period?). “I just came back from months of travelling.” Eventually my guests would leave, and I could stop feeling the need to explain myself. * As a full-time freelance writer, I frequently work from bed, setting up shop here when the cafes and libraries have closed for the night, and my desk (also from IKEA) is too cluttered with laundry that still needs to be folded. It’s the same way I worked when doing my homework in high school or writing essays in university. Like being a student, writing is also wildly inconsistent work. One is constantly at the mercy of pitches being picked up by editors. I would alternate weeks of slacking with all night cram sessions. Midway through the year, I decided it was time to get a second job—something to get me out of the house and provide a regular paycheque. Something that would ideally not involve staring at a screen. A friend recommended me to a bakery that she knew was hiring, and they brought me on to work the counter on weekends. Though I had grown weary of the customer service jobs I worked nonstop throughout my teens and early-to-mid-twenties, I reasoned that a bakery that specializes in elaborate wedding cakes would be more romantic and whimsical than my years spent bussing tables or measuring restless children for their shoe sizes. Customers are customers, however, and I had forgotten how humbling it can be to be yelled at over the phone by a woman who couldn’t understand why we couldn’t make her a custom birthday cake by this Thursday and why are our prices so high and also could I put my manager on. The voice I used with her was identical to the one I used with angry customers when I was fifteen and working in fast food: apologetic, meek, silent in the face of abuse. After two months, the owners of the bakery told me business would be slowing down with nearby construction projects and it didn’t make sense to keep me. I took the news with relief. My writing work was picking up anyway. I called my mother that afternoon and said, “I have two things to tell you. I got laid off from the bakery and I have a piece in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.” There was a beat of silence on the other end, before she answered. “How the hell do you get fired from a bakery.” It had been a busy summer for me. After finishing shifts at the bakery I would begin my long commute to the north of the city, to see the person I was dating. A physicist getting his PhD at the university, he lived in student housing, and so quite literally we were in a dorm room together. We heated up frozen pizzas in his oven and ate on his bed while watching documentaries. His mattress was somehow narrower than mine, and the commute was long enough that we frequently spent the night at each other’s places. Maybe it’s time for me to get a bigger bed, I thought for the first time in years. One day I visited his lab, and he introduced me to his labmates as his girlfriend. I teased him about it after, and he said, “It’s kind of accurate though, isn’t it?” He wasn’t wrong. But in my nearly three decades on this earth, I had never been somebody’s girlfriend; it was a word that middle schoolers used with abandon to describe their chaste romance, that my own friends had long since abandoned for terms like “partner” or “husband.” I tried to get used to it. I made references to my boyfriend in casual conversation with others. I told my parents about him. I began to panic. About two weeks later, sitting on the floor of my sweet, brilliant, handsome boyfriend’s dorm room floor, I ended things. “I just don’t think I can be someone’s girlfriend,” I said apologetically, before leaving. 2017 was a year of giant life changes for many of my closest friends. I went to what was supposed to be a surprise birthday party but actually turned into surprise wedding (surprise!) and learned that yes, I am the type of person to cry at weddings. Another friend eschewed receiving birthday presents this year, instead sending out a link to an online wish list of practical gifts for their upcoming baby. I purchased bags to store breast milk and wrote “TITTIES!” on the card. Other friends moved in with their long term partners, or got exciting new jobs, and I was—am—genuinely happy for them. There was no jealousy. Instead, the choices that made sense for them felt completely foreign to me, akin to the excitement I would feel on their behalf if they won front row tickets to see a favourite band that I had no interest in. I liked not having to share my personal living space with a partner, that my bedroom looked how I wanted it to look at any given moment, that my bed could double as a desk whenever I had work to do for the only job I am currently qualified to have. It wasn’t exactly where I had thought I’d be at this age, but I couldn’t imagine an alternative. Late in the summer, my whole family journeyed to a small town an hour outside the city to witness my cousin get married. It was my first time being at a traditional wedding. I watched as the woman who, fifteen years ago, explained to me what the movie American Pie was about walked down the aisle in a poufy white dress. Later, I danced to “Spirit in the Sky” with her friends from college and relatives I hadn’t seen in years, in between giving non-answers to questions they had about my relationship and employment statuses. An aunt had brought cigars from her native Cuba, and I smoked one with my dad, brother, and uncle, the four of us grownups celebrating the choices of two other grownups. My parents drove me home the next morning, dropping me off at my place in the city before continuing their own long drive back to Ottawa. My mom asked if I wanted to come home with them for a visit, but I shook my head. I had a lot of writing due, I explained. We said goodbye to each other, then I let myself into my apartment, into my bedroom that belonged to me alone, into my small bed, and fell asleep.
The author of Abandon Me on queer world-building IRL and on the page, writerly toolkits and the freedom of abandoning all sense of chill in romantic relationships.
Melissa Febos’s debut memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin's Griffin), chronicled her double life as a successful university student and heroin-addicted dominatrix. Nuanced and highly perceptive, it’s a queer, feminist book on BDSM. Peel back the layers of the seven interconnected essays in her latest work of non-fiction, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury), and you’ll find many of the thematic concerns that compelled Febos in her first book: reconciling multiple identities, exploring the complexities and contradictions of human sexuality and romantic love, recognizing the continuity and connection between our bodily and intellectual selves. While the primary plot of Abandon Me follows the author’s obsessive love affair with a married woman, Febos also gets intertextual with Winnicott and Freud, meditates on her brother’s bipolar disorder diagnosis, and mounts an enthusiastic defense of hickeys. Abandon Me is also a tale of two fathers: one, her adoptive sea captain father, the other her birth father, whose re-emergence in her life as an adult connects her to her own Indigenous heritage. Febos’s latest memoir is a non-linear adventure in healing, a text that recognizes personal stories have the ability to influence collective memory, build worldviews and shape what we perceive as history. Laura Clarke: One of the many things I loved about Abandon Me was how this fully realized queer universe exists without explanation or instruction to a straight audience. You discussed your sexuality openly in your last book, but by virtue of exploring a job that caters to the desires and gaze of predominantly straight men, it had a different texture and approach. Three quarters of the way into Abandon Me, you mention offhandedly that your mother is also bisexual. The text seems like an exercise in queer world-building to me, which is an inherently political act. Melissa Febos: Thank you so much! That makes me feel really good. I mean, on one hand, it saddens me that taking my queer life for granted as something that doesn’t require explanation or need to be the subject of any story in which it exists is radical or political. I also recognize that it is. On the other hand, I am so happy that I’m able to embody that for myself and subsequently model it for my readers. I do take the queerness of myself and life for granted, in the sense that I don’t question it and I don’t feel a need to justify or explain it. Representation of that perspective in my writing is an exercise (in a straight world, that is), but in my life it’s not, and that’s both a gift and a reward. It’s a reward for having spent a lot of time and energy building a life in which I’m surrounded by people who share and/or accept queerness, and a reward for building an acceptance and knowledge of self that feels very safe on the interior. It’s a gift in that it’s a result of having been raised by people who always accepted me as I am, and encouraged and reinforced my expression and acceptance of self. My mother gave me a lot of the tools that have helped me build this life for myself. It’s also a gift to live in a time where I have the resources and freedom to cultivate all of that. In another interview, you describe Abandon Me as queer in both content and form. Can you expand on that? In a sense, my creative process is similar to my living process. I enjoy a freedom on the page to be curious and explore my own ideas and questions and experience, to experiment with form and content without feeling overly constrained by convention or the expectations of other people or my culture. That wasn’t always so. As a younger writer, I felt more obligation to adhere to structures given to me—both in terms of narrative and poetics—and I needed to acquire a better familiarity with those structures and more confidence in my own instincts and the art I wanted to make, in order to subvert them. I could not have written this book a moment sooner than I did. I hope I get to say that about everything I ever write. Whip Smart is primarily a book about understanding the desires of other people, and the confidence and sense of power that comes from that position. Abandon Me is the opposite in many ways: it’s about personal desire and the resulting vulnerability. There are so many more scenes of intimacy in Abandon Me (sexual, romantic, familial) than in Whip Smart, despite the fact that there are probably more sexual scenes in the latter. Did one book begin from a place of more certainty, direction, a clearer sense of narrative arc, or did they simply arrive at different destinations from a similar writing approach? Did writing while in the middle of your experiences as you did in Abandon Me have something to do with the sense of rawness and intimacy you conjured? Yes to all. The best questions are sometimes embedded with their answers, as this one is. Whip Smart was a more shocking book, but far less intimate. Again, I think with both of these books, I was working at the limit of my ability—in terms of craft, confidence, and intimacy—and my capacity was so much greater with Abandon Me. It was an enormous task, with the first book, to be honest with myself about my own experiences and motivations. I don’t think I could have managed much aesthetic experimentation along with it. I was only twenty-six when I started it and still a graduate student. But I needed to write that book. Which is to say, I needed to understand what had happened and why. So much of finding our best work is finding the work that asks more of us than we have ever given, more even than we are capable of. I wrote much of Abandon Me in the eye of the story, and you’re right that I could not have done that as a younger writer. At thirty-five, I had more tools, was able to experiment formally, and also to derive insight more quickly after “leaving” the story, in the second half of the book. I could enter into my own experiences more than I had been able to in Whip Smart, and so could bring the reader with me, however terrifying that might be (and it was). In the end, I think that for all its experimentation, the narrative arc of Abandon Me is pretty straightforward, but I didn’t know that at the outset. I believe that on some level I knew exactly how it would end, but I couldn’t bear to look at that truth before I arrived there in the work. And writing toward an end you cannot see—which is analogous to so much of living—requires a lot of faith. Reoccurring images of the stars and the sea are woven into the seven essays in this collection, which you partially attribute to being the daughter of a sea captain raised in a port town. The imagery seemed like an interesting artistic mirror to the book’s many childhood development psychology references (Winnicott, Freud, Jung. etc.), demonstrating how the past and history is not static, but rather actively shaping our perceptions at all times. Did the retracing of childhood and the past turn up this imagery for you, or is it just a part of your universe, your writerly toolkit? Both. When I was younger, I had this idea that the quality of a writer was contingent on her imaginative invention, or a limited concept of invention. My work changed a lot when I began to trust my own instincts, which so often led me back to the images and environments of my own becoming. I see my students suffer from this same belief in the paucity of their own symbols, too. They read other writers, are impressed by the achievement of books, and mistakenly think, oh, that was so successful, and in order to write a successful book it has to be like that. Sometimes, they think, well, I should just quit because I’ll never write that book, I’ll never be good enough. It’s a common logical fallacy for young, insecure artists. When I decided that I didn’t need to write like any favorite writer, or anyone but myself, I was so liberated. Ironically, I felt that my creative options multiplied. I believe every individual’s life is rife with organic symbols. How could it not be? We wade through an infinity of images and symbols in a single day, and yet we remember only a miniscule number of these. In my late twenties, I began to think of every memory and image as symbolic, metaphorical in some way, and that immediately released me from the onerous pressure of finding or choosing the “right” ones. It reframed my work as a writer—rather than “inventing” my networks of images, which was at once a hubristic and impossible task, my job became that of uncovering or listening to the images that I already had. Perhaps this is especially relevant for the memoirist or personal essayist. When the subject of your work is your own life, why wouldn’t the images accumulated and made symbolic by that life be the most effective? In Abandon Me, so much of the book takes my early life for its subject, so this dynamic was further intensified. I actually had to go through the book in later revisions and prune out a lot of sea images because having yielded to those instincts yielded such a bounty that it was drowning out the story (see? I’m doing it even here!). I think every writer reading this just breathed a sigh of relief for you validating our strange, reoccurring images. When you connect with a writer’s own index of specific, weird imagery, it’s an amazing feeling. My friend and I exchanged new poems recently, and though they were short, they both contained an image of socializing with spiders. I felt creatively connected to her and happy in my own weirdness! I love that! And I think that’s a realization, a reorganization of value that every writer has to go through. We are all socialized in conformity, to believe that weird is bad. At one time (and sometimes still) our survival depended on our ability to not be weird. But weirdness and the specificity of our own unique selves is what makes for good writing. This is one of the myriad ways that writing has grown me as a person—it has taught me how to recognize, acknowledge, and ultimately value my own eccentricities. My girlfriend often stares at me in wonder and says, You’re so weird! You’re one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met, and it’s fully an endearment. I think good art has so much in common with good love: an ability to recognize and appreciate the unique specificities of an object, a person, a perspective. You return to an image from Whip Smart in Abandon Me with a slightly different perspective—a woman is suspended in the air from meat hooks in her back at a fetish party. You describe how at the time, you attributed a fantasy of showing your younger self this vision as a desire to “annihilate her innocence.” But in this new imagining, you see your impulse as a tender one, something to do with catharsis and personal choice. What changed your perception of this memory? I love the idea of living texts, that in writing we can return again and again to certain images and memories and re-evaluate them. Oh, I’m so glad that scene stood out for you! It was such an important one for me. I fought it for a while before I let it into the book. After writing Whip Smart, I had this idea that I had said so much about addiction and innocence and power dynamics and my experiences as a pro-domme that I wasn’t allowed to write about them again. I was sick of being the dominatrix writer, a label I’d never identified with and that frustrated me. That rigidity was also an expression of my own wish to be completely finished with it. But I wasn’t done, and maybe I’ll never be done, and also thank goodness. If our perceptions of our own lives and beliefs and interpretations weren’t allowed to evolve, where would we be? In many respects, I consider it a job of the writer (particularly the essayist and memoirist) to enact this evolution of perception for their readers. My relationship to myself and my choices was so much more rigid, fearful, and punishing when I was younger. That’s what shame will do. It made sense to me when I was writing Whip Smart that this urge to expose myself to extremity was an impulse to shock myself, to teach myself to withstand anything as a defensive measure. In the intervening years, I came to understand that I was also looking for alternate solutions, for methods of healing and transformation outside of those taught me by my patriarchal, heteronormative culture. One of the many gifts of writing these books is the way they’ve taught me how to love myself, to step back and look with a gaze at once more generous and more brave than I was before. I like what you said about methods of healing and transformation outside of patriarchal, heteronormative culture. There are a lot of “healing” narratives that are marketed to readers in easily digestible forms. The healing in your book is non-linear and individual, and it’s not always about following some traditional narrative arc from darkness to light. For some people, it might look something like hanging from meat hooks at the fetish party. Right, and that’s both a fact and a priority of my work. Fact, in that the typical narrative arc, from darkness to light, has never worked for me. My narratives are more: light to darkness to darker darkness to darkest darkness to darkness as a kind of light. I think we get into a lot of trouble when we get attached to these binary ways of thinking about healing, transformation, and narrative. My happy ending is not about emerging from darkness into some perpetual light—that’s a religious greeting card, not a memoir. My happy ending is the discovery of a transformation that can happen in the dark. About figuring out how to be a light in the dark, or simply be in the dark, to love what is there and stop running from it. Carl Jung has a lot to say about darkness, and the shadow self, and I reread some of it while I was writing this book. He wrote that, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness visible.” We can miss our own chances for healing if we don’t look outside the models we are given for what healing should look like. It can happen in swimming pools with dolphins, in therapists’ offices, in dungeons, in love, under tattoo guns, in gyms, in any number of places. Our psyches are so much smarter than we give them credit for, and we are taught to overlook our own instincts in favor of a social or cultural wisdom that is more often based on commerce than compassion. I do think that the cultural wisdom about healing and transformation reflects patriarchal and heteronormative influences, but I don’t think it’s good for men or straight folks, either. You begin researching the history of the Wampanoag tribe, and you meet with your literary agent, eager to write a book about the history of the violence of colonialism in the area. Your agent says readers “aren’t into Native Americans” and suggests you write something “more urban, more edgy...more you.” But you wrote all these things at once. And his very words are exactly what the book stakes its claim against – reducing anyone’s multiple identities into a singular consumable version, as well as erasure on a personal and historical level. Did the way this anecdote reflected on the greater work come to you later, or was it always on your mind while writing? In some ways, that anecdote was unfair to my (then) agent. He was expressing the track record of a market that had been exposed to so few examples of integrative representations of marginalized experiences, and it wasn’t an incorrect expression. The publishing industry is not a creative one—it relies primarily on what has already been done and proven successful. And it is a reflection of the dominant narratives and power structures of our culture, and so overwhelmingly white, straight, and conventionally structured. In order to change that landscape, we have to write the things we have not yet seen on bestseller lists, we have to trust our own instincts and imaginations. I can also see now that my impulse to write that book (which was an historical novel) was driven by my own desire to integrate all those seemingly disparate parts of my own identity. I was too scared to face it directly. I needed more time. In the years since, I have changed. And the publishing landscape has also begun to change in an important way. I don’t think an agent would say that, today. Or many wouldn’t. The brave writers who have trusted their instincts, their need to see their own stories represented in all their complexity and seeming contradiction, have created proof that there is a hunger for such stories, and so they are proliferating. Not, perhaps, at the rate that we’d like, but at a greater rate than we’ve seen in the past. The expression of vulnerability in love we see in Abandon Me is important and refreshing to me, especially in a culture that places pressure on women to act chill and not “crazy.” God, it didn’t feel refreshing when I was living it, but I’m so glad it felt refreshing to read. Vulnerability is the absolute worst! Of course, it’s also the best, but sometimes we have to trick ourselves into it, don’t we? Or sometimes our psyche has to go rogue and get us into a situation that we can only escape by becoming more vulnerable. I’m using a plural pronoun here, but obviously I’m talking about myself. I was so good at being chill and not crazy, for so long. Like, 32 years. And that imposed a pretty low ceiling on certain kinds of intimacy in love. Then, it was like I decided to get all my crazy vulnerability over with at once. Or make up for all those years of being chill in one short burst of agonized time. It really blew the doors off things, including my self-conception, and my belief that I couldn’t survive such a feeling of disempowerment. It did feel like I was dying, just as I had feared, but I didn’t die. And it felt important to tell that story, to demonstrate that resilience for readers who might relate to my fear and need for control, however limiting. When I think of historical courtly love, the wooer/pursuer behaves as though they’re at the mercy of their beloved, when they arguably possess greater power. There’s a curious kind of power in a) fully abandoning yourself to the beloved and b) making art or a public record about it. Devotion can be an empowering act. That’s such a smart observation about courtship and power dynamics in romantic love. Whip Smart was very much about looking at the superficial appearance of power dynamics in sex work, in commercial BDSM interactions, and between men and women, and then peeling them back to see how they so often reversed, and then sometimes reversed again. And I would say that much of Abandon Me conducts a similar examination of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship between two women. In consensual relationships, I doubt it’s ever simple. While one person often appears to have more power, that’s rarely as deep as it goes. Were you thinking about these delicate balances of power when you wrote it, and did your perception of them shift during the act of writing, editing, publishing and so on? In many ways, writing is my only effective thinking process. I do very poorly at thinking about things in my head. It’s only by writing, and to a lesser degree talking with other people, that I arrive at more nuanced understandings and new ideas about things. I suspect that the power dynamics of intimate relationships is a preoccupation of mine that I won’t be finished with anytime soon, and I’m fine with that. I’ve made peace with the fact that I am an obsessive person, and I’ll likely be chewing on these ideas for my whole life and career: power, sex, desire, gender, vulnerability, deviance, secrecy, and so forth. In a review of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, you describe a sense of being granted permission through the act of reading. A reviewer in The Rumpus used the same language of permission when talking about your book. Does this sense of permission have something to do with the mingling of public and private, the bodily and the intellectual, of personal story and history? And isn’t it cool to think you are capable of giving that gift to your reader? I do think it has something to do with that combination of things—with an expansiveness within the text, but also an expansiveness in…spirit? In intention? Maggie’s work is complex and rigorous and intimate, but I also feel invited into it, and I can sense her own curiosity and willingness to go where the process of inquiry takes her. There is room for her in the text, and room for me as a reader, bringing my own set of contexts and interpretations and biases. And it is that flexibility that gives me permission to interact with her content however I do. It’s an important reminder that I can move through my work as though it is an expansive space, and so it becomes one. My favorite texts (and maybe all kinds of art) share this quality. So, yes, it is the coolest ever that my work is being read the same way. I mean, it should be so, right? I aspire to create the sort of art that I love most, that has moved me most. Not necessarily in form or content, but in that intentionality, in the spirit of it, the geist.
Canadians want to focus on Gord Downie, on anniversaries, on the prime minister’s photo-ops, on giant rubber ducks—on anything, it seems, but Indigenous people.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. The first time I saw the rubber duck on Toronto’s waterfront I felt like I was living in a year-long episode of MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen. It was six stories tall and cost the country $200,000—which, realistically, was a drop in the half-a-billion-dollar bucket Canada set aside to celebrate its 150th birthday. As an Indigenous woman, I must admit the whole thing was surreal. Not six months before, less than a month before Canada 150 started, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave an impassioned speech to the Assembly of First Nations about the tenuous relationship between Indigenous people and the Canadian government. He used the word “reconciliation” fourteen times. As I watched the rubber duck bob on the edge of Lake Ontario, I couldn’t help but think of a young Indigenous girl in Alberta who needed $6,000 worth of braces to correct her painful malfunctioning jaw. Her request was denied by Health Canada, the federal department tasked with determining dental care for Status Indians. Apparently, the girl’s jaw condition was so unusual it did not fall into the four categories of dental issues they fund. The girl’s mother, Stacey Shiner, filed a lawsuit against the government in 2016, calling Health Canada’s decision “unreasonable.” The government had spent over $32,832 fighting Shiner by January. By September, that number had jumped to $110,000—enough to cover the cost for eighteen Indigenous kids’ braces. Or, I guess, enough for a little more than half of that giant rubber duck. Was this the “reconciliation” Trudeau had in mind? Fighting children in court while his government bankrolled massive reproductions of their bathtub toys? I didn’t bother trying to hide my disgust. Throughout the year, the (mis)use of the word “reconciliation” got increasingly worse, making my teeth clench and my stomach twist. For example, the Canadian government appointed non-Indigenous musician Gord Downie to the Order of Canada for leadership in Indigenous issues. His citation said that he was being honoured for “promoting dialogue, raising awareness of the history of residential schools and moving the country along the path to reconciliation.” At the same ceremony, Meritorious Service Crosses were given to J. Wilton Littlechild, the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair and Marie Wilson, who all served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—and who had for six years done the difficult work of gaining the trust of residential school survivors, gathering their stories and making them feel safe and heard, all before writing a 544-page report and making 94 thoughtful recommendations on how Canada should move forward as a country. They, however, went unmentioned by nearly every media outlet who reported on the story—as did the actual residential school survivors who were brave enough to come forward and tell their stories. Two Ontario teachers were so inspired by Downie they even came up with a viral hashtag celebrating him: #teachlikeGord. These teachers mentioned Chanie Wenjack, the boy who died running away from residential school and inspired Downie’s Secret Path project. But they didn’t mention the Chanie Wenjacks of today—kids like Tina Fontaine, who got taken into child and family services’ custody, ran away and was found dead in the Red River when it was too late. No, Canadians don’t want to focus on Indigenous people. They want to focus on Gord Downie. He taught them about residential schools—two years after the TRC Report was released. He showed them what reconciliation was—twenty years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People laid out a 1,000-plus-page map. For these Canadians, Indigenous history and Indigenous pain only mattered because a famous white man suddenly told them it should. My eyes just kept rolling. I couldn’t stop sighing. I must have looked like I was possessed. And now, the year drawing to a close, I’ve heard the term bandied about in so many ridiculous contexts, for so many ridiculous reasons, from so many ridiculous people, I’m not sure it means anything at all anymore—I’m lucky if my eyes even glaze over at this point. Leon James, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, calls this phenomenon “semantic satiation.” He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject while at Montreal’s McGill University. “When a brain cell fires, it takes more energy to fire the second time, and still more the third time, and finally the fourth time it won’t even respond unless you wait a few seconds,” James told Mental Floss in 2015. “[If] you repeat a word, the meaning in the word keeps being repeated, and then it becomes refractory, or more resistant to being elicited again and again.” Sometimes I wonder if that’s why so many non-Indigenous Canadians have failed to acknowledge our peoples’ pain until recently. Have they just heard that we’re “dying savages,” believed that we’re “dying savages” and repeated that we’re “dying savages” so many times that true, painful tales of our struggles cannot elicit an emotional response? Does semantic satiation explain why members of the Canadian government can regularly throw around the word “reconciliation” while simultaneously refusing to end gender discrimination in the Indian Act, which penalizes Indigenous women for marrying non-Indigenous men by taking away their Indian status? While running a failing inquiry into the reasons why over 1,200 Indigenous women and girls have been murdered or gone missing in Canada—an inquiry that has somehow driven away numerous families, leaders, experts and activists that have devoted their lives to this cause? While using poverty and poor housing as an excuse to steal our children and place them in child welfare at numbers that now exceed the amount of children in residential schools when they were at their height? It is important to acknowledge the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s original definition of the term: “To the Commission, ‘reconciliation’ is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country. In order for that to happen, there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour” (emphasis added). What the current Liberal government of Canada has been offering as “reconciliation,” some of which I’ve outlined above, has not been mutually respectful. It has not indicated any change in the pattern of colonial, paternalistic behaviour. Instead, it’s been photo-op reconciliation: highly staged moments that look good on camera and, most importantly, make non-Indigenous Canadians feel better about horrors that have been committed against Indigenous peoples in the past, while rarely acknowledging how those horrors continue in the present. It’s this ahistorical positioning that allows people to rationalize the status quo, saying things like, “I didn’t do that, so I’m not going to apologize for it,” or, “It happened years ago. You need to get over it already.” Attitudes of the past directly inform the attitudes of the present. Sometimes acknowledging the mistakes of the past causes real change, and sometimes it doesn’t cause real change at all, instead just encouraging the same problematic attitudes to morph into a more covert, easily digestible version suitable for modern-day tastes. While Stephen Harper was prime minister, for example, there was a public apology for residential schools. However, little has been done to address their modern-day equivalent: child and family services using systemic poverty as an excuse to abduct Indigenous children, who now make up almost 50 percent of the kids in foster care. There have been emotional press conferences announcing the long-overdue, aforementioned Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry, but still no acknowledgement by the federal government that, as of 2015, Winnipeg police said four out of five missing persons reports they received each month involved kids in the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services—71 percent of them being girls. What’s more, the current Liberal government of Canada has actively encouraged the problem by refusing to adequately fund and provide First Nations child-welfare on reserves, denying them the same funding and access to public services offered to non-Indigenous children off-reserve. In 2007, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, along with the Assembly of First Nations, filed a human rights complaint against the Canadian government, arguing Canada’s purposeful, insufficient funding and lack of family support caused more Indigenous kids to be put into the child welfare system. In January this year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal agreed: Canada was intentionally discriminating against Indigenous children. They even compared modern on-reserve child welfare to the residential school system. So far, despite emotional declarations for “reconciliation,” and despite three non-compliance orders by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, the Liberal government has made no motion to change this. Considering how little the federal government cares for Indigenous children, it should be no surprise that they care even less for Indigenous adults. Once our kids age out of the child welfare system, they have the criminal justice system to look forward to, which incarcerates Indigenous offenders at a rate that astounds: Indigenous inmates account for 22.8 percent of the federally-incarcerated population despite making up 4.3 percent of the Canadian population, and are ten times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. The rates spike in different parts of the country: As of 1999, if you were Indigenous and lived in Saskatoon, you would be 33 times more likely to be imprisoned. Once inside prison, the experiences of Indigenous inmates like Adam Capay, a 24-year-old Anishinaabe man, paint a grim picture. Capay faced solitary confinement for 1,636 consecutive days, the longest in Ontario’s history, and, as of April this year, had not received a trial in the five years he’d been imprisoned. And, of course, there’s the way that land defenders are criminalized and jailed under Canadian laws. In May, Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother, was arrested for protesting Nalcor’s Megadam Muskrat Falls project, which Inuit say is poisoning their food webs and threatening their way of life, as well as potentially putting Newfoundland and Labrador into deep debt. When she refused a court order to stay one kilometer away from the site, essentially prohibiting her from protesting anymore, she was sent to a men’s prison for ten days; the women’s prison was too crowded to admit her. A month later, nine Bawaating Water Protectors were arrested for attempting to put up a teepee on Parliament Hill “without a permit.” Mounties initially erected a barricade and physically prevented the teepee from being erected, which the protectors intended to use to fast and pray in. The next day, to the delight of the media, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the assembled reoccupation teepee—decked out in a Canada 150 jean jacket, no less. Afterwards, he tweeted, “Our government is committed & dedicated to moving forward on reconciliation - myself & everyone in cabinet.” And this is to say nothing of Senator Lynn Beyak’s series of racist, offensive comments gaslighting residential school survivors and calling the disgusting, destructive White Paper “ahead of its time,” the “Appropriation Prize” scandal, or the recent Supreme Court decision to allow a ski resort to be built on land the Ktunaxa Nation has argued would affect a grizzly bear habitat and drive away the Great Bear Spirit. I won’t get into the horrific murder of Barbara Kentner, at whom a young, white man in Thunder Bay threw a trailer hitch from a passing truck, or the numerous other Indigenous people in that city who have been found dead in its waterways. I won’t detail the photo-op reconciliation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund’s Legacy Room project, which, for an annual donation, creates “a space within an organization dedicated to reconciliation [which] showcases an organization’s commitment to our reconciliation journey.” I won’t enumerate all the times Indigenous people who have questioned the way this activity helps establish mutual respect and encourages colonial behaviour to change, or stood against cultural appropriation, or pointed out the racism that targets ethical Inuit seal hunting while remaining silent on factory-farmed chicken or beef, have been targeted and harassed by non-Indigenous Canadians. At this point, it’s clear that “reconciliation” is designed to help Canadians feel better about their past, not help Indigenous peoples set a healthy course for our future. Anishinaabe mother and professor Andrea Landry put it best when she wrote, “This reconciliation is for the colonizer.” An unfortunate casualty of photo op co-opting and semantic satiation, "reconciliation" needs to be put aside and replaced with what really matters: restoration. Restoration of Indigenous languages, cultures, nations, land. That would make a real difference. That would embody mutual respect and a change in behaviour.
This year, this prolonged unraveling, is what survival looks like.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I spent most mornings this year failing to construct new ways to tell Americans it shouldn’t be this easy for white men to kill them. Not that the evidence is lacking. Not that this evidence was ever past. But a nod at the scope of the daily onslaught, its relentless attack from all sides—by legislators, lobbyists, and racists—that, even when unsuccessful, kept us in dual states of stagnation and perpetual exhaustion. Cumulatively, the months since the inauguration haven’t moved us forward; they’ve kept us, as a country, from sinking lower than we might have in the absence of resistance. Fatigue and depression, from actions against and threats upon, have been the cost of keeping those with power from dismantling countless policies inched toward over decades in pursuit of parity. This year, this prolonged unraveling, is what survival looks like. Semi-survival. Partial, because it is important to remember that not everyone made it. Many, at best, now exist in some form of limbo; many others are simply dead. Because there seems to be no way to make the NRA understand their organization is killing us. Because our current administration doesn’t care about Puerto Rico. Or climate change. Or public lands. Because they feel threatened by women’s rights and immigrants and transgender soldiers. Because conservative white men would rather spend the rest of their lives fucking their fear, many of us are gone. I, for one, haven’t been sleeping. That is, I haven’t managed to stay asleep. An hour here and there, and then up again to the wincing world. The latest scandal, affront, assault, political appointment, mass shooting, white supremacist rally, on and on. The swiftness with which Twitter became a daily show-and-tell of self-medication is its own indicator of collective mourning. The television we binge-watched. The sugar, drugs, and people we consumed. Endless takeout. Endless beers, wine, and whiskey in the evenings to cope with the events of the prior twelve hours. Your four cups of coffee in the morning to feel anything resembling alive. I have seen it, and I have seen you writhing to the beat of the day. And the thing I’ve lamented most, over three hundred insomnia-fueled nights, is how the election made the enormity of the events taking place outside our country—those independent of it—all but disappear. A vanishing act propelled by domestic panic and burnout. Because the other cost of survival is limited bandwidth with which to process the trauma of others. The global refugee crisis. Cholera epidemics. Famines. Stolen elections. Floods, fires, and air pollution thick enough to choke you through the safety of your screen. Now, at the end of 2017, sustained empathy for black and brown bodies outside of America is something we have time for only on a slow news day. To date, 45 has not succeeded in making America great—not that he was ever going to—but he has made America first in the eyes of newsrooms and, naturally, those directly affected by his and his cabinet’s actions. If you’re a woman, child, undocumented immigrant, refugee, individual of color, recipient of subsidized healthcare, LGBTQ+ person, or anyone for some reason incapable of surviving a provoked nuclear attack, that means you. And it’s made it harder than ever for those lacking the energy to look outward to see the world as something they’re a part of, not apart from. This is what happens when entire continents, for decades, are reduced to the sum of their losses. When our troubles are at their peak, those outside of America and Europe can only scream into a vacuum. As a friend recently reiterated, “Patriarchy makes us weak.” And she’s right. It’s no wonder people have turned to fitness and strength routines as much as any vice. All the dog owners who are grateful their pup gets them out of the house, away from their phones, and walking a few times a day. I, like many writers, found myself trapped in sedentary wallowing. In part because my profession requires ample screen time, but mostly because depression and anxiety are awful that way. I want to stop feeling so angry about all the terrible, powerful white men whose faces I’ve had to see on my computer every day in 2017. An endless stream of predatory mediocrity that’s failed upward all its life, because it’s never successfully been held accountable for its actions. I want a new home for this rage. Somewhere in my sightline so I never forget it. In a book. A pair of hiking boots. In this essay about forgiving ourselves for whatever we’ve become. At the end of 2017, I’m mourning the year they stole from us, all the art that wasn’t made amid this constant devastation, all the books that were published and read by too few, all the elevated heart rates, all the suicides, the forgotten desperate crossings by undocumented Africans into Canada, every plan with friends and therapy appointment that fell by the wayside. A year when waking up and treading water was the best many could do. I plan to find my body again in 2018, to put the parts back together that have become strangers to each other as well as to me after a year of unmitigated terror. I plan to write with courage and support others in doing the same. Because I believe we will move toward progress. We will find a way. But for now, resist. Call out. Fight back. Protest. Uplift. Encourage. Lean on one another. Fill your worlds with the love of those closest to you. And assemble yourselves into something indestructible.
If a signature scent represents the delineations of a person fully fleshed, perfume samples offer the liberty of a protean form.
There’s a mathematical beauty to constants that is universally appealing. Beneath the undulations of our days, constants form the rare, unbroken terrain on which we can set our experience, and distill from it some form of understanding. We make homes in places and people and traditions, and erect them around us like the architecture of a meaningful life: a framework to fasten the “I” together—or, and perhaps more accurately, to keep everything from falling apart. As the daughter of peripatetic immigrants who never quite found their footing, I have always felt alarmingly fluid, lacking not only anchorage, but a sense of constitution. Without a clear notion of provenance or the reassurance of belonging, that constant, solidified “I” became the horizon of my ambition. It was a myopia that blinded me to other pursuits and interests. All I sought was a place to be still in my own image, and learn the confines of myself. Most symptomatic of this obsession was my longing for signatures: elegant, recognizable penmanship, a bar where they knew me by name, a uniform to whittle my feral anxieties down to an unthinking sense of self. That’s how identity works, right? Anything rehearsed over time can approximate instinct. When I discovered the world of perfume, I latched onto the notion of a “signature scent” as the quickest means to my end: the shortest of shortcuts to a sense of self. The signature scent, or so the cultural myth goes, is an expression of one’s individuality. I bought into that thinking with zeal, convinced that a beloved fragrance would become a leitmotif in the vital chapters of my life, inextricable from my memories and the memory of me. For strangers, it would announce my presence in any room, even upon leaving it; for loved ones, it would be a physical reminder in my absence, found lingering on a scarf or the neck of a sweater. Most importantly, a signature fragrance was a way to present an idealized version of myself everywhere I went—something that embodied my essence and projected it outward, speaking for me so that I did not have to. I’ve never liked talking about myself, anyway. Maybe because I don’t know where to begin. * The fragrance industry has long been predicated on the idea that the relationship between a person and their scent is a perfected monogamy. Of course, this manufactured exclusivity comes at a price, but that’s a cost most are willing to eat—after all, what perfume really traffics is immortality. A chosen perfume is an unspoken promise that you can outlive yourself through memory; a token to leave behind in your wake. We see its power at work in the sweatshirts we keep near when our partners are away, the vintage lipsticks and dusty compacts from our mothers that become keepsakes. For every formative person in our lives, there is a scent we can retrace back to them; some of these become indelible in our minds. There are days still when I am arrested in my tracks by the faint waft from a passerby, the same fruity-chemical aroma of fresh shampoo that used to emanate from a boy I loved as a teenager. And for a second, I am shrouded by that feeling again—a poignant yearning and ache in the heart, an emotion so pure and wild you could swear it was infinite. That’s the sorcery of scent, and its wonder: it can summon anything. Even, on occasion, a person you used to be. Conversely, having a signature scent is like suspending a version of yourself in amber. This was her scent, they’d say, followed by a list of qualities that the scent might represent, a few key points that would summarize you as a person. It seems romantic in theory, but comes with its own complications. What if the impression you make isn’t the one you want to last? What if the scent that speaks for you ends up saying the wrong things? The idea of a signature smell is alluring because we never expect to outgrow ourselves. And when we do, it unearths a specific kind of sadness, like returning to a formative place only to find it unrecognizable. Maybe it's worse, because we're doomed to witness a terminal incompatibility—a falling out of love with a version of yourself you were sure was going to be it. “[The woman] is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself,” John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing. “Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” It’s one thing to want to be seen; it’s another to reduce yourself in service of that desire, and in doing so, become the one guilty of overlooking. * I started buying perfume long before I could afford it. Each purchase was an attempt at bottling a sense of self; the expense, I rationalized to myself over and over again, could be justified by the self-assuredness it would grant me. Can you really put a price on existential ease? I was, or so I thought at the time, investing in myself. Now, in my twenty-eighth year, it occurs to me that I have spent more than a decade trying to acquire an identity through perfume—a manufactured sense of femininity, elegance, class privilege, you name it—only to find it rigid and ill-fitting. Not the promised essence of immortality, but a trap. Freedom came in the form of plastic vials I hoard in boxes, hundreds of small samples inherited from perfume shops, beauty counters, trips abroad. Unlike a bottle of perfume, which requires a certain level of fiscal privilege and irresponsibility, samples come free with purchase, gentle persistence, or, if all else fails, the price of a small latte. In an industry premised on exclusivity, choosing a handful of disposable samples over a unique and personal bottle feels treacherous—but also defiantly democratic, like beating capitalism at its own game. The immigrant in me loves this. Faced with my samples, I am a pirate, giddy before her spoils. Each little vial is a portal onto an alternate reality, a place that you might glimpse in a dream, or a painting. Like windows that open right onto the sea. And within those dreams, I am not confined to the limits of myself, but am instead ushered into a world of infinite costumes and personas to try on for size—all the lives I have ever wanted, and some I have never imagined. Culturally, we’ve over-romanticized scent’s relationship to the past; more impressive yet is its power to rewrite the present, and become a locus of possibility. With the right scent on, I feel like a European heiress swathed in furs, never without lipstick, always moisturized. Or an architect dwelling in a remote cedar cottage of his own making, cigar smoke permanently in his hair. Sometimes I’m a wild creature perched in the crevices of a damp, metallic cave, feasting on insects; others, something insentient, like the silvery dust that coats the moon of my imagination. I am trying to say is that I never smell like me; and for the first time in my life, I don’t want to. Sarah Manguso articulated it best in 300 Arguments: “The trouble with setting goals is that you’re constantly working toward what you used to want.” * If a signature scent represents the delineations of a person fully fleshed, perfume samples offer the liberty of a protean form—the same lack of definition that I used to lament. Today, it brings me a renewed sense of agency, a purposeful expansiveness. It’s the same species of joy as playing with makeup, or trying on other people’s clothes; extending ourselves beyond the decaying sacks of flesh we inhabit. Last year with it beloved misfits and iconoclasts who showed us the freedom of resisting definition, but it did leave a lingering sweetness: the celebration of a mercurial life. Who says a sense of self has to exist in the singular? That the “I” in our self-imposed narratives has to come from a place of continuity? What I used to blame on weakness of character—a proclivity for inconsistencies and a magpie attention span—I am finally seeing as strength. With no hard or fast definitions, we are free to be: to absorb, to experiment, to turn towards our own suns. To be ourselves by not holding ourselves to it. It feels like an untapped superpower. Like having a person you can call at any hour of the day, or the languid ease of never needing to know what time it is, collecting scent samples makes me feel like the beneficiary of a rare kind of luck. It feels luxurious to wake up and be able to pick the kind of person I want to project into the world: austere or effusive, elegant or shamelessly saccharine, romantic or repulsive. To be noticed for the right reasons—which is to say, those of my own choosing. I don’t fall in love with smells anymore. What I cherish now is the process of trial and error, because through it I have learned the virtues of living deliberately. Since smell is our most primitive sensory faculty, every new scent forces me to pay attention: to engage, to process, to react. I measure my sense of self against these new realities. Does this feel right? Could this be me? It’s a little like trying to open a door with a handful of keys in the dark, but that is how I choose to learn about myself. It takes more effort, of course, than the unthinking signature—but the reward is in the exercise. Maybe what binds the fragments of our existence together aren’t the constants and routines, but the sharp irregularities that catch our attention. When I smell something new, I am present and grounded and alive, channeling the entirety of my awareness into that moment. What better call to attention—what better reminder of this evanescent experience we call life—than the redolence made possible by our own warmth? The scent we exude is an experience so singular, so contingent on our chemistry, emotions, and the yet unnamed workings of our bodies, that it can never truly be replicated. Each instance is a testament to the inevitable ways in which we grow and evolve, the possibility of “I” in the plural. It’s how we find our way back along a path that is ever changing: a signal we leave ourselves in the dark. Something that says, Don’t forget. You are here.
If beauty is in acts of ordinary devotion I think ugliness must be in the acts of everyday neglect.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I knew this year would be strange when it started off with my failed kidnapping. Picture: my friend and I in Joshua Tree at sundown, knowing no one and asking the wrong man the wrong questions at wrong time. We were waiting at the bar to be seated and I’d asked the person sitting at the bar to tell me about his wounds. Literal ones, not metaphorical—he had his hand bandaged in duct tape and gauze. The veins were taut and purple-blue; I was bored. And I am someone easily seduced by a wound, because they come with a story gift wrapped for a writer cruising for some evidence regarding how we cope in the world. It’s not that I think suffering makes someone more valuable, but like Leslie Jamison wrote: bleeding is pain turned to proof, a manifestation of yearning that makes you wonder if we’ll ever come to a place where proof isn’t necessary at all. There it was: proof sitting at the bar alone. He showed me the video of him taping his finger back to the bone, white bone and sinew sparkling through a cracked iPhone screen. He was proud about how silent he was in the video, how stoic, like being shocked out of pain made you a master of it. I was oddly charmed by how gruesome the conversation was, morbidly fascinated by how he dealt with his pain. Of course, a few minutes later I went outside for a cigarette and he tried to haul me into his car. Full parking lot, stars for streetlights, and my friend still waiting at the bar. He failed because I kicked my way out. I hadn’t yelled for help because I didn’t want to make the situation worse; I am a small person and he was a man with a truck in an empty parking lot. When it was over I saw a man standing on a picnic table peering out over the fence. He’d been watching, but he hadn’t helped. I stared at him as he slid out of sight, and I walked back into the bar. When I told my friend, we got into a discussion about all the times we’ve been abused and taken and gaslit and worse. We did so in the same tone as we would discuss a shopping list for a dinner that would stress us out to bother to cook. Violence feels normal to us, even if it hurts. Every time we get curious about the honesty of a man we always see as a risk first, friend after, we have been proven right more times than we can count. But that just makes it another day in the life of a femme in the world. You frequently witness your own suffering, and sometimes you pray blindly but usually you end up saving yourself. When I told the waitress what had happened she said he’d always creeped on women at the bar but had never, as far as she knew, gotten so far. He was known but not banned. His tab was still open, after all. There is so much ugliness in the world. A lot of it is the rust on the edge of a beautiful day; the small concessions to make things easier for ourselves so we can go home a little faster, make conversations mercifully brief with those we don’t know and who we don’t care to learn more about. It’s the calls we don’t make; the choices we let lay until it’s too late for our choice to count. If beauty is in acts of ordinary devotion I think ugliness must be in the acts of everyday neglect, small gestures that chip and chip and eventually rip shards of what it means to be human, to be loved and loving, out of you. It is easy to pretend nothing is happening. It is easy to walk quickly past something that makes you uncomfortable. It is easy to freeze and stay frozen until your chance is gone. It is easy to save yourself first. It is easy to turn and keep walking. It’s instinctual. That does not mean it is forgivable. Fixing everything in the world is impossible. But it is also impossible to know how much a little thing can count for. Not knowing and not daring to find out—that is ugliness, too. Claudia Rankine wrote that loneliness is what we can’t do for each other. I think a definition of ugliness is what we’re too afraid to do. What we don’t want to do. * What part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in the world this year? But most importantly: what have you found to be unkillable? A multitude of terrible things could have happened that night, but I went home laughing anyway. I was afraid and angry and full of grief that hasn’t gone away this entire year, just taken different names. This year I have been broke more times than I care to count, I have been without a home, I have sunken down on the floor of rooms and been too tired to move. I have walked around in the dark praying to just become part of it. I have walked across the city, across state lines, across bridges and up mountains and monuments until the sun came up as if out of spite for me. And then I have cried with joy at witnessing it, and with grief that beauty would not solve my problems, just sustain my belief there is joy beyond them. Beauty colors the world but ugliness shapes it. We have so many sharp edges now. They have always been sharp, but the cracks—they grow. Fred Moten calls it “fugitive planning,” making common cause with the brokenness of being. “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” On the way back from the bar we drove behind drunk drivers swerving in the night, throwing lights all around us, under a meteor shower so crisp and close I felt it like a pulse. Or maybe that was just adrenaline and wonder all at once. Beyoncé and Jay Z’s On the Run tour was on the speakers and our hands were out of the car. We greeted every fork in the road by name. We got out of the car and danced in the slivers of high beam. We did all of this deliberately, so used to preserving our memories as evidence in a world that disbelieves us that we knew we had to be theatrical to make the story good enough to retell. To make people want to keep listening, to become worth listening to. We wanted to leave victorious even if we were afraid, even if we were hurling ourselves into the dark down a road we weren’t sure our car could take. And the truth is I’m still not afraid of ugliness as much as I am curious to find its cause, to see if I can help. I would still ask that man questions because I still want a connection to a person so dissimilar to me. The uglier the world reveals itself to be, the more I am convinced that helping each other is the only way to make our suffering in it worthwhile. And that we might never find freedom but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still walk until the sun comes up to make sure we don’t kill ourselves before they do the job for us. There is still, absurdly, beauty here. “Sippin from the cup till it runneth over.” We screamed our devastation at the sky and ugliness made way for something else.
The author of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars on the joy of writing a cast of women, the violence of passing and the responsibilities of media-makers.
The first time I met Kai Cheng Thom, we were sitting side by side on a panel at a staged dinner party eating toasted figs with honey, oven-roasted fish and sun-dried tomatoes covered in brie, as an audience watched us sip wine and dine on an elevated platform. It was performative, but oddly thrilling. The other panelists were the imitable Trish Salah, Erin Wunker, and artist Madelyne Beckles and the (predetermined) topic of a dinner party conversation were Lionel Shriver’s inflammatory comments about cultural appropriation. I felt connected to all the other panelists, but there was a particularly natural flow to the way that Kai Cheng and I engaged. I felt I had known her, though we were complete strangers. The next time I saw Kai Cheng was almost two months later. She was walking ahead of me, and without knowing who it was, I admired her black-lacquer head of hair as she began to take strides towards the store I was about to walk into myself. Her hair was the perfect bed-head style that I coveted daily, the Kate Moss joie-de-vivre, filled with insouciance. As I entered Empire, a thrift store in Montreal’s Mile End, she turned around, looked me in straight in the eyes with surprise, and grinned. It was fated. Over the next few days we shared a coffee in Little Italy, and had a dinner date in the very uppity chic corners of Milos, a Greek restaurant with black marbled panels on Ave Du Parc. It was Christmas Eve, and I was heading to New York in a few days, and Kai Cheng was here from Toronto, taking a much needed break. But we were both writers, gravitating towards each other as women of color often do, feeling the glow of acceptance, of sharing one’s politics inherently; the tenderness that comes with not having to code-switch. It was over those few days that I learnt of Kai Cheng’s memoir/novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars (Metonymy Press). Her excitement was palpable, as was mine. Fariha Róisín: I absolutely loved your book. Let’s get right into it. Firstly, what compelled you to write a pseudo memoir that’s filled with such punchy verve and a fiery narrative about a young transgirl? Kai Cheng Thom: FFNL was born out of a few different drives: First, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a longform fictional narrative that was inspired by my life, but didn’t conform to the stereotype of the “transgender memoir”—the idea that trans lives are sensational and the only thing that trans people can write about is our transition. I wanted to play with this idea, to simultaneously fulfil and defy it. To write my life, but to do so in a way that put relationships between trans people, rather than the expectations of cis people, front and centre. I also wanted to write a “trans novel” that was full of magic and was fun to read, because trans people deserve magic and fun! And so, voilà—the over-the-top story that is FFNL was born. I really loved how the narrative was fantastical because it reminds me so much of why certain identities have a rhetoric tied to them, of bleakness, of fear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do find that a lot of trans narratives highlight the hardships of being trans, but with FFNL I realized that there was also this (less talked about) different, exciting and magical journey attached to the everyday realities of being trans, too. I hear this a lot with #BlackLivesMatter, and “black girl magic” or “black boy joy” which is sort a re-writing of those narratives, taking it away from the white gaze. Here it felt you were taking away the cis/hetero gaze. Was that something that you decided on purposefully, or is it something that just happened, naturally? There was definitely something purposeful about it. Absolutely sadness and frustration are a part of being trans (but also, just a part of life in general!). I think, though, that there’s a lot of pressure on the part of mainstream society for trans people to only express emotionality through sadness, or else through a sort of noble courage associated with the “plucky minority” archetype. Casey Plett writes a lot about this in her article Rise of the Gender Novel in The Walrus. It’s easier, sometimes, for cis people to read about trans people as being pitiful and brave, or to watch that narrative in movies like The Danish Girl. FFNL is part of a wave of “new” trans literature that seeks to open up the “trans story” to other emotional realities—and in the case of my novel, also, rage. I wanted my protagonist to fully and physically embody her anger—the anger at her family, anger toward her sisters, anger that is most of all directed towards herself. It’s through this rage that she finds her power and the strength to survive, and it is by learning to release her anger that she learns how to love and be loved. It’s a story that I think is much more challenging, but also in many ways more interesting for readers of all backgrounds. I know. It’s different as a cis person, but as a queer person of color, I really related to her rage against these forces (men; patriarchy; her family) that have put limitations on her. So many times I caught myself feeling a sense of relief that she was so angry, and that I felt safe in my anger, also. I think that we don’t talk enough about how communities that are marginalized are often forced to confront their anger in private, and how dangerous it can be for a community to shame those aspects of a person’s mourning. I also liked how the character of Kimaya sort of juxtaposed that, though. You had this very maternal, loving person contrasted against the narrator’s frustration and turbulence. Yes! The joy of writing a large cast of diverse trans women was that I got to juxtapose a lot of different characters and explore how different ways of being trans—of being women in a violent world—might play off against one another. Kimaya is one of my favorite characters to write because she’s very complicated. She maintains this enormous, warm maternal love for nearly all the other girls of the Street of Miracles, but she is also secretly somewhat bitter and possessive. The difference between Kimaya and the narrator, though, is that Kimaya chooses to internalize her anger and manifest love (and sometimes feel resentful about it), while the narrator chooses to externalize her anger and manifest violent resistance (while secretly feeling very alone). I love the mentorship that exists between these two characters—Kimaya is in many ways based on older trans women who helped me survive some of the most difficult years of my life. Something that Kimaya said really resonated. Half way through the book she says to the narrator that they have a certain “privilege.” In the trans community this person is called a “fish,” i.e. someone that “passes.” On the panel that we were both on I was talking about the idea of passing in a racial context and I’ll never forget how you whispered, almost to yourself, “passing is violent.” I was wondering if you could explain that a little. Ooh, you picked up on that moment at the panel! And on one of my favorite scenes to write! That scene, a conversation between Kimaya and the narrator, is actually a moment captured almost word for word from my own life. “Passing” in either a racial or gendered sense is a complex reality that brings up a lot of emotion. On the one hand, a “fish” trans woman can walk the streets, go to a public bathroom/swimming pool/gym, apply for jobs and housing, and do all kinds of other things with greater social ease than her less “passable” sisters. Similarly, a racialized person who can “pass” as white can sometimes access more privilege than people who are read as unambiguously racialized. And at the same time, the truth is that no one can pass 100 percent of the time—as a trans woman, I only pass until someone asks for my ID (which has my legal or “birth” gender on it). On a date, I only pass until I take my clothes off (and my partner sees my trans body). Janet Mock, renowned Black trans activist and writer, calls this “conditional privilege”—it’s conditional because it can be taken from you at any time. And I would add to this that the experience of passing is violent because it is something done to you. You don’t choose whether or not you pass at any given moment. And even when you do pass, there is a part of you that’s being erased in exchange for that conditional privilege, i.e your gender history. Your ancestry. And you are put in the position of either not being authentic about who you are in order to hold onto privilege and safety, or of being really honest and putting yourself in danger. When you pass, you belong to neither world—you are too marginal for one, yet too privileged for the other. Passing is a politic meant to divide marginalized folks and turn us against each other, and it works! That’s why it hurts so much. Ugh, this is so real! It reminds me of a line from the book that I highlighted and underlined—“How we are all so hungry for what each other has, when the truth is none of us has anything to begin with.” That sentiment just hit me in my bones. Again, I have many privileges, but I do battle with the kind of in-house fighting that exists within marginalized groups, I struggle with the idea of “passing” in a racial context all the time, because though I personally don’t think I do, I’ve been told by some that I pass (always by people on the internet—which is saying something) especially as a Muslim woman who doesn’t veil. It’s always a bit frustrating because it distills you down to one thing, it creates an avatar of you that’s only represented by your “passing qualities,” removing you of all your complexities. Like you said, you’re erased of all the things that make you who are, everything, especially your traumas. What do you think is the way we can combat this? What’s are conversations we can have that are more dynamic and healthy, as opposed to something that is finger-pointing and vicious? The in-house fighting you’re talking about is so very, very real. I see it all the time, and especially, as you say, on the Internet. I think that you’re already participating in contributing to a healthy dynamic by being self-reflexive and acknowledging your own privileges, which is something that I think we can all stand to be reminded of. At the same time, I also see a lot of social justice dialogue (so much of which happens online) devolving into this sort of intensely puritanical political theatre in which one has to demonstrate the most marginality in order to have the most credibility. Black feminist and reproductive rights activist Loretta Ross calls this the “oppression Olympics.” And you know, I get it—there’s a lot of anger, and a lot of jealousy, and a lot of privilege/oppression dynamics that happen within and between marginalized communities. For example, as an East Asian trans woman, I think it’s important for me to be critical about the ways in which I mobilize anti-racism in ways that might leave out Black, Indigenous, and Brown folks. On the other hand, I don’t know that call-out culture is the answer to this: I think that we must all learn to become critical and responsible for ourselves. And I think we need to re-centre compassion and solidarity—a politic of love and indispensability, as opposed to hate and disposability—in order to heal the trauma of oppression and change systemic patterns. We will need love more than ever in these very troubling and violent political times. I agree. It’s so difficult, and nuanced. As a person with a predominantly South Asian background, I understand how much anti-blackness exists in our communities, and I stand to be more cognizant of how I facilitate that in my own life (whether that’s by using AAVE, or speaking over black women, which I’ve shamefully done in that past) and it’s pushed me to be a better person, a more intuitive person. I also think that a lot of us—especially as we live on stolen land—have to engage more thoroughly with Indigenous issues, and no doubt, as a cis-person I’m constantly learning about trans issues, and how to be a better accomplice. You’re right, love really is the only way. But we ALL have to learn, which is why intersectionality is such an important term (which by the way, was coined by a black woman, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). How does that factor into your identity as a writer, if do you identify as one? Is that something you try to instill in your writing? I definitely have lots to learn. I do identify as a writer...which is something I take really seriously. Media makers have a responsibility—in this “post-truth” era more than ever —to search for and portray the truth (which includes emotional truths and other forms of lived experience). Writers have to have integrity, or else what good are we? And in this way, I guess that I do try to instill intersectionality into my writing, though I don’t always conceptualize it that way (while I love intersectionality as a concept, it was introduced to me in an academic setting and I tend to mentally separate my academic and artistic work). I think a lot about what Junot Diaz says about writing marginality, which is that we can’t afford to only write about our own kind of marginality in a binary way, in the manner of “us and them.” It’s much more important to write about different kinds of marginality in conversation with one another, because this is where a deeper kind of truth lives. And in regards to FFNL, I was determined that the book bring together a cast of trans women that, despite all being trans women, also demonstrate and struggle with a lot of diversity between each other. It’s politically important, and I also think it makes for better art! That kind of diversity of characters also examines, and challenges, any one-dimensionality a cis-person might have of a “trans story” as you mentioned earlier. Absolutely. Okay, last question. The character of Soraya and her murder gutted me, the detail of the “saffron rice” had me in tears. I want to ask, how do you think as a community we can help better circulate news of the deaths of trans-women, and help cease the violence and death of trans-women across North America? I know there’s no easy answer, but though I felt so moved by the book, and how fantastical it was, I felt compelled into action, too. You’re right, there are no easy answers here, but then, there never are. The character of Soraya and the framing of her death were among the hardest parts of the book to write, largely because they were based on very real aspects of my own life in trans feminine community: The murder of a Brown trans woman in Toronto and my sense of simultaneous connect and disconnect to her life and death. As trans women, we are always impacted by the far too frequent murders of our sisters, but it’s often a strange kind of grief that comes from seeing your own death in the loss of someone whom you never got a chance to know. Soraya’s story is my response to that emotional dilemma. I still tear up when I read that passage out loud. As for action, well, I think the most important thing the community can do is to grieve honestly and self-reflectively for murdered trans women —with a knowledge of our own culpability—and then fight doubly hard to protect the trans women who are still living today. In the haze of grief and sensation that accompanies the reports of trans women who are killed, I think it’s easy for cis people to forget those of us who are still alive, still struggling to find any safe space. I encourage folks to reach out to the trans women they know, to put aside social justice notions of how a trans woman is “supposed” to be (trans women of colour are frequently fetishized as the “perfect victim” in social justice circles, but then viciously called out for being “problematic”) and to make real connection. Buy art made by trans women. Employ trans women for fair pay in decent conditions. Advocate for trans women’s health care and social services. The vast majority of murdered trans women are women of colour and sex workers, so against fight racism and whorephobia. This is how we can keep trans women alive.
I am learning what it is to be responsible for my own warmth.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. At a Columbus yard sale in the early summer of 2012, I purchased a piece of art made by a child and their parent. It can be best described as a Dr. Seuss-inspired piece on a makeshift canvas of pieced-together wood. The piece is mostly a giant blue circle haphazardly painted into the center. Tiny, delicately painted fish surround the circle, with the words “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” surrounding them, written in neat handwriting, repeated several times. I don’t know why I purchased the piece, or why I have such a connection to it. I think it is because it appears to me to be something that a child worked on with someone they loved. It was endearing, perhaps something made particularly for that yard sale a night or two before, by a child who wanted to chip in. In my past two apartments—shared with a partner—this piece was relegated to either my private space, or somewhere forgettable, like a bathroom or an office. I understood this and didn’t feel upset about it at all. Outside of the sentimental mythology I’ve attached to it, the piece is not aesthetically pleasing, nor does it make much sense in the context of any art space. I was fine hiding it as one of the many sacrifices one makes when sharing space with another person. When I moved back home to Columbus, Ohio, early this year, I moved alone. I put the painting on one of the most visible walls in my apartment, dead center amid a row of professionally painted works. Due to its makeshift frame, it was awkwardly placed—leaning crookedly and immune to any adjustment. It felt like it was finally living the way it was intended to. * The first thing you learn is that you don’t actually have to do the dishes. Certainly not right away, after another solo meal has concluded. But perhaps not ever. You don’t owe cleanliness and order to anyone but yourself, which is both blessing and burden. For the first two months, I didn’t empty out my dishwasher, merely reloading it with dirty dishes on top of the clean ones, and then restarting it. This was, in part, due to the fact that I traveled a lot, and would often forget whether or not I started the dishwasher in the first place. But it was also, in part, due to the fact that I simply had the ability to choose a task I wanted to ignore, and I chose one. I learned to clean my room first before anywhere else. Even if my living room or office was a nightmare, I wanted to wake up in a space that felt pristine, before I opened the door to what my life actually was. There is something about making a bed that you crawled out of and will crawl back into later that I will never understand, despite doing it for nearly four years in a shared apartment. I still can’t bring myself to do it now, most mornings. But I pick my clothes up off of the floor. I fold them when they come out of the dryer. I clean the bathroom mirror with the good glass cleaner and a gentle towel. It’s the little things that I forgot. I don’t have a full-length mirror in my apartment. I check my pants and sneakers in the reflection of my television screen. I think I may keep this habit up. It isn’t that I don’t like looking at myself, but it is perhaps that I don’t desperately need to see my whole self as much as I once did. * I don’t think that the act of sleeping with another person does not serve the actual act of sleeping. For all intents and purposes, I am likely impossible to sleep with, or at least someone who takes considerable adjustment to sleep with. I snore, I move around in unexpected fits, my anxiety sometimes causes me to sit up in bed and stare into the darkness until I am calm enough to fall back asleep. And this is the thing: that the sleeping is what we endure for the sake of our comforts. That sharing a bed with someone is, perhaps, more about the knowledge of warmth than it is anything else. To know that when you rise, you might rise with someone who kept a space next to you warm. A space you might, then, fall into during a cold month. Or simply to remember that you lived another night loved enough to have someone place their body next to yours. Today, more than this time last year, I am interested in commitment and temperature and all things at the intersections. I am saying that in a bed that I share with someone, I fall into the space that is mine and they fall into the space that is theirs and for a minute, there is a kingdom that we are keeping briefly warm and even if it is not love, it is love. I lay sideways in my bed now sometimes. I fall asleep with two books resting on the pillow my head isn’t resting on. I wake up in the middle of the bed, arms sprawled out. I get it, we are all goldfish. When cared for well, we’ll take up whatever space our environment affords. Sometimes even when not cared for at all. So it turns out that this is mostly about sleeping alone. Mostly this is how I think love is all about what can and can’t be used as a vessel for heat. The Northeast winter was cold last year in my old home. And in my new home, Columbus is threatening revenge for the mild winter it gifted everyone last year. I feel a chill in my bones, even indoors. Even when I imagine how much warmer it must be anywhere else. More than anything, I am learning what it is to be responsible for your own warmth. * I moved the Bad Fish Painting to my room, but not because I was ashamed of it. I put it directly in the line of sight from my bed, where I can see it right after waking up. This might read as triumphant, but it is a reminder of nothing. I like to wake and see it hanging crooked on my wall, a symbol of something that two sets of loving hands once made together. It’s a decision of aesthetics—what I want my home to be represented by artistically. It’s this scattered, sort of incoherent piece made by two people reaching for each other. * I didn’t choose to come home as much as I was guided by a broken heart, and a bit of relief at its breaking. Faced with living alone for the first time in over a decade, I took a trip home to Columbus and scheduled several apartment viewings in a five-hour window. I settled on a place that was (and remains) too big for me. The landlord, exasperated, told me that he’d been trying to rent it for months, but he just couldn’t get anyone in. Perhaps this is why I was drawn to it. Of the several motions of heartbreak, the one that lingered in that moment was the feeling of being discarded, and so it made sense to write a check to live alone in a place that no one else wanted. I’m learning to find myself here, especially as the year comes to a close. I cook meals for myself when I can, and I play music loud while I shower, and I sometimes leave my socks in the middle of the floor. When I have guests, I do that thing where I clean frantically for ten hours the day before to make it seem like I always live a life of organized cleanliness, although every guest I have knows that isn’t the truth. The space is too large for me to occupy alone, but I have claimed every corner of it with art, sneakers, books, and things I’ve picked up traveling this year: rocks, hats, an honorary degree. Even when put together, none of these things amount to a person, and I’m fine with that now in a way that I wasn’t when I moved in, sitting in this massive empty space with a TV on the floor, waiting for movers to arrive. To live alone, I think, is to become repeatedly comfortable with having to be in control, despite vast unknowing. Or sometimes, vast forgetting. I think my dishes may be clean, but I will run the dishwasher again. Just to be sure.
One thing I love about many types of guardianship in food is that it requires you watch, but not too closely.
What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I have four babies in my home. One is human—the one I gave birth to—and the rest bacterial colonies mixed with cellulose and yeast that float in jars like pearly blobs of fat. I don’t, of course, hold them in the same regard. The latter are starter cultures for kombucha and sourdough bread, both of which I started making earlier this year shortly after my son was born, and even from a technical perspective can’t rightly be called babies in the sense of procreated offspring. But they are, in a general sense, all progeny. I think about this often, usually when clipping my son’s toenails, noticing the silk of his hair turn colours or checking a new jar of fermenting tea for fresh fizz, a sign that it’s ready to drink. We are parents to very few things that become our food. There’s livestock, yes, if you eat meat and raise the animals, but no matter how tenderly a farmer feeds her pigs or brushes her cows, she’s still tending to a one-sided relationship. No matter how hard the work the bacon is simply for her benefit. Agriculture comes closer. An ear of corn’s juicy snap wouldn’t exist if not for 9,000 years of selective breeding, and, by means of economy and colonial violence, often both, we have arranged ourselves—entire cuisines, traditions and trade systems—around this crop that once grew on its own as potato-flavoured grass. But as an analogy, this too has its limits. Both arrangements expect that the caregiver will outlive the immediate ward; it’s almost entirely the point. * The ontology of food-based bacterial cultures lies somewhere along the porous boundaries between sustained life and arrested death—or fermentation and decomposition, as the case may be. The functional reasoning for all this: to make what’s fresh last longer, to control the life of what nourishes us by stretching the boundaries of its expiration. In less savoury terms, the sour hum of kimchi is rotting cabbage coated in salt and spice; a ripe camembert raw milk stirred with bacteria genetically similar to what’s found in our armpits and between our toes, left to coagulate, aged, then rinsed in mould. My favourite understanding of this comes from Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun who has a PhD in microbiology and sees the divine in rot. “You don’t really want to talk about what cheese reminds you of,” she told Michael Pollan in a Netflix documentary. “It’s this sense that we’re eating decomposition, breakdown products, you could call it death. To me it’s a taste of that but a promise of something delicious.” Bacteria can also taste alive; a bright, bubbly sourness informed by hundreds of cycles of brewing, proofing and the yeasts that happened to be hanging around the locale of production. Perhaps this is what inheritance tastes like, and explains why continuously fermented foods are expressed through language and ideas similarly used to talk about family, both in the biological and sociological sense. A kombucha culture—a gelatinous disc of yeast and bacteria that ferments sweetened tea into a tart, fizzy drink—can be a mother or a baby, the new layer of cellulose the culture produces with each brewing cycle. There are food-based bacterial cultures that date back generations. The trademark tang of Boudin Bakery’s bread in San Francisco is credited to a sourdough starter nearly 170 years old, and some ardent home bakers will pass on prized starters of their own to children. The baker or brewer doesn’t live off bread or tea alone, of course, but this does get closer to something resembling a reciprocal relationship. * My son was born on New Year’s Day, after thirty-six hours of labour. I lit a candle the night we brought him home because we didn’t have a night light and I wanted to watch him breathe; to be sure of what it sounded like, to be sure he was still doing it. He was sluggish and moved so little in the in-utero weeks beforehand that I drank a glass of ice water most evenings just to feel him kick. It’s a miracle this paranoid habit hasn’t left his feet cold. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson says that, “to let the baby out, you have to be willing to go to pieces.” It is a comparatively lucky thing, but this proved harder for me to do in the weeks that followed the passage. I was prescribed bed rest; I couldn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink. I had trouble breastfeeding; I spent weeks recording the length of every nursing session, the weight of supplementary bottles, the number and timing of diapers in a day. For a few months I pumped milk, dozens of plastic bags in the freezer labelled with dates in neat, tiny print, to ensure he’d be fed on any occasion when I wasn’t around or well enough to nurse him myself—a type of life insurance. I didn’t sleep more than four consecutive hours at a time for nearly five months, and started spending nap time scrolling through mobile trading apps for things I didn’t need and had no interest in acquiring. Snow boots. Skin serums. Bottle warmers. Then one day, an heirloom: a bread starter for biscuits. The woman offering the sourdough for trade indicated she’d inherited it from her grandmother and fed it every week for years. A quiet glass pot of oat-coloured froth that asked only to be fed flour, water and sugar every seven days instead of nursed every three hours on an endless clock. The connection, I realize now, is ludicrous, but my brain leapt there immediately. Was it sleep deprivation? Fear of failure? I messaged the woman at once. In exchange for two cups of starter, she asked for lip balm. * The day a healing crack in my nipple re-opened and bled from nursing, or I rocked him for two hours in front of our apartment’s entrance door because the wind that blew through the frame’s cracks was the only thing that put him to sleep. The day I lifted my son’s feet a little too high while changing his diaper and he urinated in his own mouth. The day I woke up in bed hunched over, convinced I was holding the baby, then convinced I dropped him, then confused to find him sleeping in the bassinet, where he’d been all along—this happened more than once. On the painful days, and the stupid ones, I’d scoop out a dollop of the starter, mix milk, flour, cheese and salt, and drop it onto a baking sheet with a spoon. Cheese rolls. Or skip the cheese, double the milk, and pour it onto a hot pan for pancakes. Sometimes these efforts did not end well—hockey-puck pretzels or crepes that pulled apart like two-ply tissue—but this was fine, too. Small triumphs on days I’d forgotten to shower were comforting, while the failures felt safe. No one was going to grow up maladjusted and angry just because I’d made a shitty waffle. * Diapers and laundry aside, much of the early work of first parenthood, for me, has been re-learning how to arrive at knowledge through observation—and learning when to trust that such knowledge is enough. There are, I realize, many other ways of living that demand this skill, but those sleep-deleted weeks offered no respite from the terror of not knowing. How do I know my child has nursed to fullness? What is that little twitch he does when he sleeps? Does an orange skid mark in his diaper count as a full bowel movement? What will happen if I don’t dry the skin properly between the soft rolls of his chin and his tiny little neck? How do I know that he’s well, thriving, alive? How do I know he will outlive me? One thing I love about many types of guardianship in food is that it requires you watch, but not too closely. There is no interior magic in watching a blossom become a peach. Follow a set of instructions and you can keep a bread starter healthy and productive for years. I used to think this watching wasn’t possible of pregnancy, of self-improvement, and for a little while after giving birth, of being a parent, too. That either the diligence required—the counting, measuring, endless questions and self-doubt—would render you inert, or you could submerge yourself in the participation so fully that remembering how you got anywhere was just a series of disconnected blinks. And so, in many aspects of my life, I’ve simply committed to one or the other, seeing them as mutually exclusive approaches to love. I still don’t know how to do both at the same time, but I am learning. My son will turn one soon, and while I still hold the baby monitor close to my ear every so often to listen for his breath, I don’t measure minutes. There are no more bags of milk in the freezer. Some time after I brought the bread starter home I lost the photocopied piece of paper listing the feeding ratios that accompanied it. Perhaps it was a painful day, or a stupid one: I pushed the little glass jar to the back of the fridge and forgot about it for a few weeks. When I eventually came back to it, the starter, usually alive with a tart smell, had retreated into itself and developed a runny brown liquid that reeked of spilled alcohol—a sign, internet searches informed me, that the bacteria and yeasts that comprised it were hungry. I was certain I’d killed it. I wasn’t heartbroken, but I was too attached to the greying little blob to throw it in the trash. So, I guessed the best I could, mixed in the flour, water and sugar, and left it on the counter for a while. In under a day, it began to bubble.
My neighbourhood doesn’t look like a place where, a century ago, hundreds of people were incinerated, and that’s exactly the point.
Nova Scotia is a peninsula, 13,000 kilometres of rocky coastline tethered to North America by a twenty-five-kilometre strip of marshy lowlands called the Isthmus of Chignecto. Seen from above, the whole province looks like a bit of stray geographic punctuation left over at the end of the continent—if some forgetful cartographer left it out when drawing up a map, you might not even notice. Halifax is a peninsula upon that peninsula, a metropolitan remainder dangling way out in the North Atlantic. In 2013, I moved here; in 2015, I bought a house. At the time, I thought about eastern Canada the way a lot of Canadians who are not from here probably do—that it’s a small place, at the edge of things rather than the centre, where you can live with one foot in the 21st-century maelstrom and one comfortingly outside of it. I thought about Nova Scotia the way I imagine Americans think about Maine—where the license plates, after all, bear the slogan “Vacationland.” The house that I bought here is two-and-a-half storey tall rowhouse, built around 1920, and it exists only because of one of the world’s most famously disastrous navigation errors. On December 6, 1917, a cargo ship called the Mont Blanc, its holds swollen with a ludicrously combustible assortment of First World War-era munitions, collided with an army-supply ship called the Imo in the nearby city harbour—then one of North America’s big-deal wartime ports. The collision ignited a fire on board the Mont Blanc, which drifted north, listing and smoldering, into the narrowest part of the harbour, until it came to rest about 600 metres northwest of where my back door is today. At 9:04 a.m., with some critical threshold of temperature and pressure achieved, the ship—at that point essentially a bomb with a crew—erupted. The explosion instantly vapourized the ship and everyone on it. It displaced enough water to expose, for a few seconds, the harbour floor, eighteen metres deep. It generated a mini-tsunami within the narrows, stripping clean the banks on either side and dragging into the churning harbour the smashed remains of houses, factories, and wharves. It destroyed a small Mi'kmaq village on the harbour’s east side—a community that persisted through more than a century at the doorstep of a colonial capital, only to be absurdly washed away in a few moments. In a city of 60,000 people, the explosion killed about 2,000, most of them in and around the neighbourhood where I bought my famous little house. If I want, I can walk out my front door, head a block east, and climb up a steep hill there called Fort Needham Memorial Park, just recently re-landscaped in anticipation of the explosion’s 100th anniversary. There I can sit on a bench in front of a huge, angular concrete slab, split down the middle into two structures. Through the gap between the memorial’s two pillars, I can look down to the harbour below, lining up as if in a gunsight exactly where the burning ship, drifting north and pregnant with 2.9 kilotons of explosive potential, finally burst.11Actually, the view of the harbour is now partly obscured by the newly built assembly hall for the Halifax Shipyard, recently expanded to accommodate a government contract for the provision of warships. Boom. That’s how Halifax ended 1917: one-thirtieth of its population exterminated, and a considerable chunk of its urban landscape as mangled as any European theatre of war. The explosion was the only real violence visited on the North American mainland during either of the world’s self-titled 20th-century altercations. Until a July morning in New Mexico in 1945, it stood as probably the largest human-caused detonation in history. But within months the ruins were cleared, and soon a new neighbourhood was being built: The Hydrostone, 324 storybook-cute little rowhouses on 10 spacious east-west blocks, fronting streets lined with newly planted baby elms and maples. And just as suburban builders in 2017 erect kitsch recreations of historic styles—Arts & Crafts, Victorian, farmhouse, neo-classical—and cram them into jarringly inapt geographies from the Florida panhandle to the Canadian prairie, the builders of the Hydrostone were happy to emulate, in a grim little garrison town at the edge of a dead empire, a mock-Tudor village in a style even then past its sell-by date. The Hydrostone is an Anglophilic fantasy of suburbia, and the fantasia is most evident on Young Street, the main boulevard, a monumental block-long pile of superfluous dormers and chimneys all dolloped needlessly on top of one another. At Christmas, the garlands and lights and bunting along Young stretch from the yarn store to the French bakery, and limn a triangular pocket park in which sits a perfect, postcard-worthy Christmas tree. It looks like a model Christmas village, but it’s real. What it doesn’t look like is a place where hundreds of people were incinerated, crushed, or burned alive within the reach of living memory, where windowpanes decapitated people in their living rooms, where shards of bulleting glass caused the largest mass blinding in Canadian history. The Hydrostone was an act of civic erasure, obscuring the enormity of recent tragedy beneath twee lintels and dormers. It also created a neat little paradox between what is and what was, complete with an easily resolvable tension between them, suitable for trivia and tourist brochures. There is one thing that betrays the paradox, if you know what you’re looking for. Most of Halifax is built of wood, but within the Hydrostone’s ten blocks, every single house is built of the same hard, grey, blank-faced stone. The steeply pitched peaks and tudor-patterned stucco put a cute face on it, but they don't obscure the true origin of the neighbourhood: these are bomb shelters disguised as dollhouses. * When big things happen in little places, they come to define them. The explosion’s oversized place in our civic backstory is, in part, a result of how small the city still was when it happened. But Halifax was not supposed to be small. For a while, in fact—before the explosion, before the wars, before Canada—Halifax looked like it might get pretty big. In 1860, Halifax had about 25,000 people, Toronto 40,000. The city had a real shot at becoming a northern Boston, a millions-strong metropolis encircling Bedford Basin. The essentials of that metropolis—its physicality, its lasting civic institutions, its deep history—were hardwired in this ambitious era. It was a city of rowhouses, streetcar suburbs, grand hotels, a financial district, and a globally meaningful port. Its population was, for the time, a relatively polyglot mix of Scots-Irish, Acadian, African Nova Scotian, Mi’kmaq, German, Dutch, and others. And then, according to popular history, Canada happened. In Warden of the North, the once-seminal, now-dated, and intermittently racist history of the city first published in 1948, historian Thomas Raddall writes: “On Dominion Day, 1876—nine years after confederation—the promised Intercolonial Railway was opened for traffic from the Great Lakes to the sea at Halifax. And that was just the trouble with it. The traffic seemed to flow in that single direction by an inexorable law of gravity, like the waters of the St. Lawrence itself.” Newly imposed tariffs between Canada and the United States massively reduced Maritime trade with nearby New England, and demand for Nova Scotia’s wooden shipbuilding fell off a cliff. Even if the reasons for the region’s downturn are complex, the simplified and popularized history holds that the new nation of Canada forced the east coast to turn away from the world and inward to a country obsessed with westward expansion. So, 50 years after confederation, in 1917, Toronto’s population had swelled to half a million people, while Halifax had barely eked out any gains at all. Its 60,000 people still lived in a little port and garrison town, grinding out a hard living from the harbour, where they were especially susceptible to things like exploding munitions ships. The explosion could have happened in a hypothetical, larger Halifax—but it wouldn’t have been as relatively obliterating, it wouldn’t have wiped out such a huge proportion of the city’s buildings and neighbourhoods, it wouldn’t have killed one-thirtieth of the population. One hundred sixty-eight years after the city’s founding, its golden age seemingly past, the explosion was injury on top of insult. Today, 150 years after Canada, and 100 years after the explosion, Halifax’s accidental smallness has come to seem inevitable—and in the same way, the rurality and smallness of the Maritimes and its communities is seen as eternal, a part of who we are, sometimes almost defiantly held in opposition to the bigness to be found at points west. But if things had turned out the way we might have hoped, if we’d fared better in that new entity called Canada, that cherished smallness would have long ago given way to something bigger. * A paradox creates tension, and the paradox of the Maritimes—that the prosperity we longed for would inevitably have undone what today defines us—is felt nowhere more keenly than in Halifax, where the postcard ideal of the city keeps butting up against that vestigial metropolis laid out two centuries ago. Unlike the neat-and-tidy paradox of the Hydrostone, this one is unresolvable. It might be easier to resolve if people would stop moving here, but they keep showing up, more than 8,000 in 2016, a growth rate proportionally greater than Toronto or Vancouver that year. The result is an urban building boom that this city, after decades of slow and mostly suburban growth, is totally unprepared for. Destruction and regeneration is what cities do, but Halifax’s urban churn is aimless, un-guided, damaging. The amount of historic fabric this city has lost in the past few years is staggering, and its future shape is coming together almost entirely by accident. No wonder: We can’t decide how to grow because we can’t even decide if we should grow. Haligonians are locked in a pitched battle between growth-at-all-cost boosterism and the postcard vision of smallness which we’ve never comfortably inhabited. In the 1970s, songwriter Stan Rogers imagined himself standing at the top of our hilly downtown and casting his eyes down to the harbour, lamenting the high-rise office buildings under construction: “Upper Canadian concrete and glass down to the water line.” His complaint was that these buildings were ugly, that they were big, but most of all, not Nova Scotian. Too Toronto-y. Impostors. But they were as much a part of Halifax as the town clock on the hill behind him, as the Victorian rowhouses, as the Hydrostone’s twee erasure of trauma, as the trauma itself. They were the latest manifestation of the international urban ideal, and we can look back and decry their ugliness and feel bad about what they replaced, but there was nothing foreign about them, just as there is nothing inherently un-Halifax about today’s tall buildings or grander civic designs, though they’re often spoken of in just those same terms, as unwelcome impostors. Mini-Toronto. The ideal of the Maritimes—an easily knowable history, a comfortable sureness about our place in the world, even if that place is at the edge of things—lets us step outside of history, outside that maelstrom. It is comforting. It feels true. But it’s based on a collective memory that goes back only far enough to reinforce itself, and not far enough to reveal the its own falsity. The Hydrostone is a neat encapsulation of one paradox. A fantasy of almost pastoral domesticity, it was built in response to an act of devastating violence. It was an act of civic denial. But if you know what you’re looking for, you can see it for what it is—look at those stones. Today, as apartment towers rise along the Hydrostone’s edges, as the young move in to houses vacated by the old, as this former suburb is engulfed by the city, the city’s more intractable paradox becomes glaring. The ways in which it holds us back from realizing whatever potential we may have become more obvious. And still, the new comes to share ground with the old, and a city neither big nor small continues fumbling toward whatever it may yet be, away from what it never was.