Hazlitt Magazine

The Year in Reconciliation

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 Year in Falling Apart

This year, this prolonged unraveling, is what survival looks like.

The Year in Ugliness

If beauty is in acts of ordinary devotion I think ugliness must be in the acts of everyday neglect.

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‘The Memoirist Enacts an Evolution of Perception’: An Interview with Melissa Febos

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.
The Year in Reconciliation

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.
The Year in Falling Apart

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.
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
Against Signatures

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.
The Year in Ugliness

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.   
‘Trans People Deserve Magic’: An Interview with Kai Cheng Thom

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.
The Year in Living Alone

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.
The Year in Cultivation

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.
Living in the Shadow of the Halifax Explosion

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.
Chasing Ghost Signs

Searching for fading words in London, New York, Melbourne and San Francisco.

You only get a few places in a lifetime that change you. The streets of London are crooked and lead you off course, but they come with 2,000 years of history. The Tube is hot and crowded, but it’s an Art Deco masterpiece. The people are tricky to get close to and it’s always nearly raining, but the changing weather is a constant bonding opportunity. London leaves you overwhelmed in a way that makes you wish, just sometimes, that the city would soften for a moment and tell you what it’s thinking. If you’re looking for signs, you are lucky: the city is full of words. There’s a giant sign painted on the side of a building down by Borough Market, white block letters on blue: “Take Courage.” It’s loud and bold and impossible to miss, bound to speak to you when you first see it. For me that moment was in 2008, as I was about to go into the building across the street to interview for a job I really wanted. I saw the sign and took a deep breath, and they hired me. “Take Courage” is a ghost sign—an old ad on a brick wall. Its original purpose had nothing to do with boosting the confidence of young professionals, but to get us to drink; it’s a promotion for the local Courage Brewery, founded in 1787. While you can still find Courage ales in the occasional London pub, the heyday is long past and people stumbling upon the sign on Redcross Way are more likely to reach for poetic interpretations. Had I first seen “Take Courage” on another day, I might have read something completely different into it, but for me it became a message about work. Every day, it reminded me to brace myself for a job that I ended up both loving and hating, but one that always spurred me on. When you find signs in the cityscape, the city brings the words, but you bring the meaning. Sometimes they’re carved in stone; there’s a drinking fountain on the San Francisco Embarcadero that reads, “And they had nothing to restrain them from engaging in the most vicious practices.” Other times they’re on a poster, like the one I saw on the New York subway last spring that said, “A poem should happen to you like cold water or a kiss.” Sometimes they’re a work of art, like the neon sign in a café in London’s Holborn, proclaiming, “Love is the drug.” The words are there for anyone to read, but what they mean will be up to the viewer, and what’s going on in their world in the moment when they see it. A ghost sign, however, is a specific thing. Found in major cities all over the Western world, these are the fading, crumbling advertisements painted straight onto a wall, usually around the early-to-mid century before the advent of the billboard. A strict definition declares the ad must be over fifty years old, promoting a product that’s no longer available (technically, by this definition, my “Take Courage” would not count), but there are grey zones. “Fading ad” or “brick ad” are also used, but “ghost sign” seems to have captured the imagination—it has a poetic quality that seems fitting. The ads for health tonics, ribbon mills, fountain pen repairs and other commercial staples lost to history are a poke in the ribs that everything is temporary. The peeling, sun-bleached paint of the signs is fading before our eyes, reminding us that time is passing, and that the city had a life long before any of us were here, and it will remain long after we—and the signs themselves—are gone. * Frank Jump has been documenting ghost signs in New York City and beyond for twenty years with his Fading Ads Campaign. These painted ads were never supposed to be permanent, Jump tells me over the phone from Brooklyn, and the best we can do is slow down the decay. Jump  considers refreshing old ghost signs with new paint to be tantamount to ruining them. There are no protections in place for ghost signs, meaning they live and die at the mercy of the elements—or more often, at the whims of the developers in control of the buildings they reside on. People often don’t notice these signs, says Jump. “But I think once you become aware of them, you become hyper-aware.” Jump sees them everywhere now. “You can rediscover an image, maybe after a rain, or during sunset when the light is hitting a building at a certain angle.” One of Jump’s favourite ghost signs is an old ad for Reckitt’s Blue—“the purest and best”—in Prospect Heights. The sign advertises laundry blue, a once-prized whitening agent that’s now pretty much obsolete. The ad is bright in colour because it was sandwiched between buildings for a long time. It was revealed when the neighbouring building was torn down. But the ad has since been concealed by a new building, possibly never to be seen again. Asked if it makes him sad to lose ghost signs, Jump says he still looks for the fading ad for Bendix Home Laundry when idling in traffic towards the Williamsburg Bridge, before remembering it’s been sanded off. So yes, says Jump, it’s a loss. You become familiar with your city’s ghost signs: “They become part of your urban landscape. They become the mountain or the tree or the river, so when they disappear it’s like a mountain missing or a tree cut down.” But the impermanence of ghost signs is part of their charm, adds Jump—after all, they were never supposed to last forever. Maybe this feeling is what the Portuguese call saudade: a melancholy or nostalgia for something we never even experienced. But with each ghost sign lost, there’s a new one emerging, says Jump—New York City is constantly being built, and structures are torn down to reveal old signs that were covered for decades. * “Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. “A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture.” Another of my favourite ghost signs is in London’s Shoreditch, overlooking the Geffrye Museum garden. “Perfection,” it reads in elegant, fading letters—the original intent was to advertise Bloom’s Pianos but I walked past it daily for years and didn’t notice that part, it was just there as a nod to the things going right for me—a new house, a second date, the way London in August is grey and lush at the same time. My conscious mind was always calculating and manufacturing, taking the words I saw and putting them into an order that made sense to me. Carl Jung called it “synchronicity,” or meaningful coincidence—that feeling of the right thing happening at just the right moment. As pattern-seeking animals, the urge to look for messages and connections in what we see can be hard to resist, and if you’re not careful this is how superstition starts. But while I’m irresistibly drawn to words and phrases that pop up unexpectedly, I don’t believe there’s anything magic about it. And at the same time, I think you can draw on the things you see to reframe whatever issue you’re pondering in that moment—a sort of self-made synchronicity. Like how I came across Kurt Vonnegut graffiti in a Melbourne alley not long after a season of panic attacks: “You were sick, but now you're well again, and there's work to do.” It felt like a promise that things can and will get better. I don’t often tell people about my thing for finding words around the city, but I’ve realised a lot of people do this. I was in Amsterdam this summer, late one muggy night after lots of excellent wine, and I told someone I’d just met about my penchant for discovering phrases in the cityscape. Without saying a word, he took out his phone and showed me a photo of some graffiti: “I drifted between imagination and reality with you.” He took that photo in Thessaloniki years ago, he said, coming across the phrase on a wall, and felt it spoke perfectly to his relationship. [[{"fid":"6702606","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] I know we only notice these things because we’re looking for them. It’s what linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky calls the “Frequency Illusion”—when something’s on your mind and you see it everywhere. But sometimes this hunger for signs becomes downright comical. This spring, when I was walking along the street in Richmond in London, I saw a ghost sign peeking out between the houses. I could only see half of it: “Choose you and the Temper,” it seemed to read. But after the whole thing was revealed the message became the complete opposite: “Choose your House and the Temperance.” The pragmatist in me would say it’s time to chill out—it’s an ad for paint! But the romantic would say it’s a sign that we decide our own fate. * Patrick Brill, the London-based artist known as Bob and Roberta Smith, says it’s no wonder discovering words can have this kind of effect. “Language is a kind of magic,” Brill tells me. “Exploring written language, almost like a painter would explore looking at something and try to paint it, is [an attempt at] getting to the root of ideas. It’s about how we look at things and see them as part of a feedback loop. It’s about how it feeds our imaginations.” Brill uses words extensively in his art. “It’s about trying to understand quite how we respond to things. Are we existing in a culture of language, or are we constructing that language? While ghost signs are now a poetic addition to the cityscape, Brill points out that they were once purely commercial. Brill has made several brick ads around Hoxton in East London, for Ron’s Eels, Hoxton Electrovision and Dad’s hair salon. “People might see it as artwork but it has a utility. In one way, it’s a piece of public sculpture. In another way, it’s just an advertising sign,” says Brill. “I was trying to raise awareness of the real lives of people running these shops, and what they were experiencing.” Some of Brill’s brick ads are already headed towards ghost sign status as the shops close, adding an extra layer to the experience: small businesses in East London are under immense pressure from gentrification. And these signs become interesting as pieces of art when there’s a disconnect between what the sign is saying and what people are seeing—advertising products that no longer exist.  I always look out for Brill’s Ron’s Eels sign whenever I walk along that part of the Regent’s Canal. Signs become part of the fabric of the city, says Brill, who drew inspiration from the same Bloom’s Pianos sign I’d been passing for years. Preservationists are constantly working to hold onto a city’s memories; English Heritage has been running the Blue Plaque scheme since 1866 to honour notable residents and events across London. But some of the quirkier stories are reserved for the inquisitive wanderers, says Rob Smith, a guide with Footprints of London who has an impressive knowledge of his Clerkenwell and Islington patch. Like the text splayed across a pub on Shepherdess Walk: “Up and down the City Road, In and out the Eagle, That’s the way the money goes, Pop! Goes the weasel.” That pub is in the spot of the original Eagle pleasure garden from the nursery rhyme, just off City Road, Smith tells me. “Weasel and stoat” is Cockney rhyming slang for coat, he adds: “So ‘popping the weasel’ would be giving your coat to a pawnbrokers and getting some money [to spend there].” Knowing this, the lullaby suddenly got a lot more sinister. Smith’s favourite ghost sign is in Highgate, reading “Catering for Beanfeasts.” When Smith was growing, up a “beanfeast” was a soya instant meal—not exactly a tempting thought. “But when I looked into it, a beanfeast was actually an annual celebration where workers would go out into the countryside and enjoy a celebration meal,” says Smith. “[The sign] was a clue to discovery, and became a journey to a new story.” In an old city like London, every fading sign holds at a story that places us in a bigger picture, reminding us that we really are just a very small part in two millennia worth of history. “I feel like we’re not only sharing the space geographically, but we’re sharing it in time with people who’ve gone before,” says Smith. “All these other people played their part in making it a city. When we find out about those other people, we think that maybe they’re not so different from us. Maybe in another 100 years’ time people will be wandering the streets wondering about us.” My favourite sign of all isn’t actually a ghost sign—it’s the billboard in the Tenderloin in San Francisco that’s been changing quotes since the late 1950s, courtesy of the Kahn & Keville tire shop. Years before I saw it in person I first came across it on Tumblr, where it was brandishing a Cormac McCarthy quote that I’ve been thinking about several times a week for years: “Between the wish and the thing, the world lies waiting.” Like a beloved story you tell over and over, a randomly acquired phrase can run through a whole life.
The Year in Tension

Day-to-day, I, a queer Native person leaping around this deeply stolen and homophobic land, try to lessen the ambient tensions floating in my air. Now I had to do the opposite.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2017? Hazlitt's writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “I think the problem might be tension.” Dr. John, my therapist of approximately 69 million years, pushes his glasses up the brim of his nose. He’s satisfied and I’m messed up. I’d been casually explaining to Dr. John that I no longer receive pleasure from things like eating, fucking, or running (nbd lol smiley face), and it was freaking me out. Now listen, I have a world champion appetite; I co-host a podcast called Food 4 Thot with the tagline “Four gay sluts who love to read”—I come by my thottery honestly; and it’s a point of personal pride that I have, over the years, built up the stamina to run ~30 miles a week. Dr. John, what’s going on? I stared into him. Frankly it’s weird and eerie to stick a bite of macho nachos (no sour cream) in my craw and immediately want to spit it out. It’s weird and eerie to not even have the desire to be talking to some tall glass of water (or diet root beer if you will [bc I will]), to not even have the desire to pull some casual boners-in-sweatpants porn up to the bumper. It’s weeeeeeird and eeeeerie to hop on the treadmill, cue the Missy Elliott, and then lurch right off in a fit of nausea. Dr. John, I says, Dr. John am I going crazy? But to give you a little context I think I need to take us back. Waaaay back. Back into tiiiime: My Year in Tension. Oh! but first: The Year I Broke. 2016 was kind of a watershed moment for me and my “career,” inasmuch as poetry can be considered a career. Lmfao. My first book came out, I had this profile in The New Yorker, I signed a deal for my second book and even wrote a third one! I cannonballed my way through a grueling but overall whistle-wetting book tour that took me all over the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest (I don’t drive [because I fall asleep behind the wheel of a car I call it “carcolepsy”] so that somewhat limited my regional options slash topic of another conversation slash as far as I know I came up with the term “carcolepsy” but Urban Dictionary doesn’t seem to think so MOVING ON I’M FINE). Because of the tour I made a bunch of new friends, good friends, all over Amherst, Baltimore, Philly, Seattle, etc. In Portland at the Tin House Summer Writers retreat (where I was a scholar in poetry nbd humble brag except that’s not a humble brag at all is it? That’s more of a brag queen *bites fist*), I met the guys who would eventually become co-hosts of my podcast. Finally, I was approached with an unprecedented writing opportunity which I will detail later. However cloistered I’d felt toiling away in obscurity in New York for 13 years just trying to keep the lights on or whatever, making zines and occasionally love (yuk yuk), 2016 offered me something I never had before: Mobility. I was on the beach that summer offering to pee on my then-boyfriend when I got the call. He’d pointed out some jellyfishes in the surf and when I offered my services in case of a sting, he got way too bobble-head-on-a-bumpy-road enthusiastic, which led to an incident in the shower later that night, which? Okay, I’m not trying to shame anyone, and turning someone on with very little personal effort is hashtag my brand, but I don’t think watersports is my thing. And then he was like, gurgling it and I don’t… Actually let me not bring someone else’s business into this thing. What were we talking about again? Oh yes, the call. So: Beach. Jellyfishes. Pee. Ring, ring, ring. It was Cinereach Ltd. on the horn, a film production company in the city, inviting me to their offices in Flatiron to talk about an “opportunity” they wanted to offer. Maybe they needed an office assistant? Maybe they needed someone to, I don’t know, write copy? Errand boy? “We love your writing, we’ve been passing your stuff around the office, and we think there’s a movie in here somewhere.” Just imagine the open-mouthed gobsmackery that flooded my face when they offered to commission me to write a screenplay. A screenplay? Yup. A freaking screenplay. Keep in mind at this point I hadn’t even so much as read a screenplay before. Professional movie people were asking me what my favorite films were, and I’d answer (honestly), why—Wayne’s World and Sister Act 2 of course! I’m a bibliophile, not a cinephile. Why me, for this? I’d spent much of the past three years writing three book-length poems, and in poems elements like plot, characters, dialogue, narrative, etc. are incidental. They can happen, but they don’t have to. In dramatic writing, plot/characters/dialogue/narrative etc. are pretty much essential. I had no business writing for the screen. Then they slid me a number with some zeroes in it and I was like… HELLO. OKAY. YES. Let’s do this! I got you, and that shit will be on time. That’s what my face said, anyway. In the bubble of my belly, however, I was endless-scream-twitter screaming. All I could think of were all the ways I was unqualified for such an undertaking. * Inherent in the definition of tension is stretching. “Tension” derives from the Latin tensionem, “a stretching,” and its Proto-Indo-European root *ten, or “stretch.” Tension. Tenet. Tenure. It was spring 2017 when writing the beast started in earnest. All the plants and bears (the gay kind) bloomed out of hibernation, as I went into a fluorescent-lit co-working space in Bushwick (kill me) with nothing but my game face and abject fucking terror. When I expressed apprehension over the whole deal, my good friend and co-conspirator, the divine Morgan Parker, was like A straight white man wouldn’t think twice, so you can’t either. I was like fuck you! Too real! I had to be willing to stretch as far to my ends as I could get. I can’t tell you the details of the story (contract, natch) but I will tell you after teaching myself the basics (what is a plot? What are scenes supposed to do? What’s the wifi password?), figuring out a story I wanted to tell, and writing shitty rough draft after shitty rough draft like that gif of cats typing furiously, I kept getting the same note from Cinereach: Find ways of increasing the dramatic tension. I was writing characters who talked to each other, who were friends, who wanted the best for one another. They had a language for their pain. They didn’t always make the right decisions, but they tried. They tried and they learned. They learned and they did better. In other words, it was boring af. I took their notes and spent day after day in my office thinking of ways that people could be awful and manipulative. I had to give them secrets. They had to scream at each other. They had to blame someone else when they didn’t get what they wanted. They had to make the wrong decision on purpose. They had to break rules and record players and give each other ultimatums. The story got better, more dramatic, more high stakes, but I started to notice something in my daily life. A dry rub. The nbd absence of pleasure thing I was telling you about. * “I think the problem might be tension.” Dr. John noted that the activities I’d outlined were the result of tension. Hunger is a tension you relieve by eating. Horniness is a tension you relieve by fucking. Running is one giant tension-relief valve. Day-to-day, a queer Native person leaping around this deeply stolen and homophobic land, I generally try to lessen the ambient tensions floating in my air. The job, however, was now about increasing the dramatic tension of any given interaction. I was stuffed to the gills with tension. It was necessary. Relieving that tension subconsciously felt like erasing all the work I’d done to stockpile my little dramas. Dr. John that’s… whew that’s exactly why I pay you, I said while gathering my things at the end of our appointment, a little lighter but not totally off the hook. Most of the rest of the year I sat grinding in my hovel, working on my hunchback and facial tics (and ostensibly a screenplay). I remember the day I finished it (partly because it was monumental and partly because it was like last week lol). I hit “send” on my final draft. I sat in the dark in a room at my friend’s place in Portland and cried for two hours. All of that build-up and finally a release. I slept for 12 hours and in the morning got myself a sheet cake from the grocery store. I ate the vanilla chocolate swirl in my friend’s backyard. I texted my crush. It rained. It rained. It rained.
Remembering in Russian

Extraordinary as it may seem, Stalin’s 21st-century comeback is so ordinary it’s almost on time—and it reveals the complicated legacy of Russia’s relationship with history, authority, and the USSR.

“As individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meaning of our lives. It's partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup, or a death.”- From “How to Restore Your Faith In Democracy,” by Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker 1. In May 2015 during the Victory Day events that marked seventy years since the end of the Second World War, I watched Stalin's grainy portrait float above a crowd, marching out of sync along a central Moscow boulevard, suspended in the air by two hands. Military medals gleamed on his sepia chest, and similar regalia caught the still-weak spring sunlight from the Soviet-made overcoats of some of the marchers. They were mostly older: white-haired men in pork pie hats and women in thin kerchiefs and overcoats too warm for the weather. But younger Russians were there too, a T-shirt printed with a political slogan—“For the Fatherland, for Stalin”—peeking out from underneath an unzipped jacket here and there. The mood of the procession was like the sunny spring morning: happy and defiant. And Stalin's bushy moustache smiled down like a grandfather telling his favourite grandchildren a bedtime story. I had been away from Moscow for half a decade when I returned that spring, and Stalin was back in public life in such an ordinary way that I felt like a tourist if I gaped: at the portraits of him in the newspapers, on TV, in newly published biographies, and stenciled on T-shirts and graffiti. No one else seemed to notice or mind. Most people walked past without looking. Five years earlier, the sight of a fridge magnet with Stalin's face on it in my extended relatives' kitchen had made me miss the next thread in our conversation. As I sat there, at a kitchen table across from a cousin I had spent summers playing with, and his parents, I tried to connect the image to the rest of the room: the cozy lighting, the tulle curtains, the wooden bread box. Half a century had passed since the 1956 speech titled “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” knocked the great Generalissimo's statues from their plinths across the USSR. The speech, delivered by Khruschev, the man who would succeed Stalin in leading the USSR, established the Stalinist period in Russian memory as a time of abusive one-man rule. Sitting with my relatives at their kitchen table that winter evening, I didn’t ask about the portrait. We hadn't seen each other since spending our last summers together in my mother’s hometown, before my parents and I emigrated to the States in the mid-1990s, and I knew that the kitchen table separating us was an ocean. In the five years it took me to return to Russia, something there changed. In 2010, visitors would have been hard-pressed to find any references to Stalin in public. But by the spring of 2015 when I arrived to find out why that fridge magnet with Stalin's face on it in my relatives' kitchen would be far from the last one I would see, it was as if Stalin had never left. In a way, he hadn't. A famous Russian stand-up comedian likes to quip that Russia has an unpredictable past: one where a political leader can be God one year, tyrant the next, only to be revived years later as an “effective manager.” Extraordinary as it may seem, Stalin's 21st-century comeback is so ordinary that it's almost on time, like a train. It is a story about Russia's relationship with the Second World War, with authority, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. It is a story of how ordinary people react to loss—of identity, security, dignity—and to shame. How people interpret their past after their world has been smashed to pieces; how they put those pieces back together. 2. To tell the story of why Stalin is back as a positive historical character in Russia, I have to tell you about my family. If this was a different story, I would tell you about how the 20th century steamed back and forth across Russia like a runaway train. I would tell you how it came to be that the word demokratiya in Russian doesn't quite mean democracy in English, how svoboda doesn't quite mean freedom, how the words have developed shades of darkness and cynicism that their English translations fail to convey. I would tell you about how when my mother and I were waiting for our visas to join my father in the United States in 1994, I imagined him making a million dollars a day because America was so mythologized, so otherworldly, that it might as well have been a different planet. (One where different sections of grocery stores had their own climates and apartment buildings had their own pools.) I would tell you about how, after we moved, I fought with my mother all the time because our lives unfolded planets apart. I would tell you about my careless school days in Canada reading Kerouac, when I believed freedom to be something I had to win from my parents, how after one of our arguments, my mother told me that what I was looking for didn't exist. “Svoboda doesn't exist.” And when she followed that with, “you will always be responsible for somebody,” I wouldn't know for another decade that she was right. I didn't know then that no matter how Canadian we became, we would never leave behind Russia's 20th century hold over us. 3. My mother's side of the family comes from the fertile Russian southwest, from a stretch of land that was first occupied and then demolished by the cannonball tennis match of the moving front line during the Second World War. It is a small, provincial place of 40,000 people on the bank of a shallow river, near Kursk, where in 1943 the biggest tank battle the world has ever seen was fought. The town's main street, like almost every main street in every town across Russia, is named after Lenin. It is lined down the middle with birch trees and wooden benches, where young couples and elderly neighbours sit together after dinner. It ends at the drop to the riverbank, at the town's central square where the children's park meets the World War II memorial. After my mother's father returned to this town in 1945—after he had spent three years in a German concentration camp as a Soviet prisoner—he and my grandmother built their one-story wooden house a few streets away from the town centre. They built it down an avenue named after the founder of the Soviet secret police, Dzerzhinsky, on a street named after a 19th-century Russian poet, and painted it forest green. Like everyone else on the street, they built it the same way that people there still build their houses: with an allotment at the back for growing vegetables and raising chickens because the war had taught people to rely on themselves. That house is where my mother grew up in the 1960s and the 1970s, where she left when she went to Moscow to take her university entrance exams, and where I spent my summers chasing chickens and playing war games with my cousins while my parents were working on their PhDs at Moscow State University. Before my grandfather died, before my parents and I emigrated, I would pester him to tell me stories about the war. Most often, he’d avoid the subject. He had been taken prisoner that first winter, in late 1941 at the age of nineteen, fighting under Stalin’s Red Army banner. Pictures from before the war show a strikingly handsome man with an attractive wave in his black hair, full lips, and a wide smile. When I knew him almost half a century later, he was still handsome, with gleams of silver in his teeth and a quick, cheerful step; and he liked to joke. Like when he played hide-and-seek with me, he would always pretend to misunderstand the rules and instead of hiding, he would obscure his head behind a curtain like an upright ostrich, leaving the rest of his body for me to find. No one other than his wife knew about his unpredictable temper. When I did get a story out of him about his time in the camps, it was always one of three or four that he told and re-told: each of them about hunger. About how guards had given him and the other prisoners animal hides to sleep on and how the prisoners had gradually eaten them over a winter instead. How he had sewn a potato he'd stolen into the pocket of his trousers before giving them to the guards to be boiled as a way to kill lice. (“The human body can only absorb cooked potato starch,” he told me.) How a guard had caught him with the stolen, cooked potato, but instead of dispatching him into the next world then and there like my grandfather had expected, the guard had chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder, called him smart. These stories were enough for me to swap with the other kids on our street, all of whose grandparents had been through the war themselves. But not until after my grandfather's death did I realize how little I, or anyone else in my family, know about his life in the 1940s. He had told memories of the war like he played hide-and-seek, showing only the parts he wanted us to see. The Russian approach to history. On my father's side, my great-grandfather, who lived to see the sixtieth anniversary celebration of armistice and died in 2009, fought on the eastern front and lost hearing in his left ear after a shell exploded in a trench next to him. After he enlisted, his pregnant wife and toddler son boarded an evacuation train to eastern Siberia. Three weeks later, in December 1941, my great-grandmother went into labour. She was taken off the train in a remote railway outpost and gave birth to a daughter, outside, in -40C weather, in a horse-drawn cart on her way to the nearest village. The baby immediately caught pneumonia. Certain that she would die, the elderly woman who helped deliver the baby comforted my great-grandmother, saying she was still young and would have other children. But the baby, my grandmother, had entered the world still wrapped inside her amniotic sac—a Russian omen for luck. It tipped her into the world of the living. Stalin never figured in any of these stories. In the Russia of the 20th century, my family members knew instinctively that politics were dangerous. What a family member did before 1917, whether a relative had emigrated, whether they had ever had trouble with the Soviet authorities before the 1960s thaw: that information, in the wrong hands, could all cause trouble. So my family members kept to themselves, limiting political participation to walking in their schools’ and unions’ annual parades—for Victory Day, Labour Day, Women's Day—holding banners adorned with Stalin's name and image. That is, of course, before Khruschev's personality cult speech saw those images locked away and destroyed. We didn't talk about the past. So much so that when, over the past few years, I started asking which camp my grandfather had spent time in, everyone had a different answer. The truth is no one knew. The memories did, however, make themselves known in other ways. Like when, in moving from the green wooden house in her old age to the nearby city to live with her oldest daughter, my grandmother discovered a bundle of my mother's letters in the attic: old telegrams, postcards from childhood friends, love letters, bits of life lived. She burned them all in her wood stove without giving it another thought, carried by a decades-old instinct to destroy all links to the past. My mother was devastated. There was also that time in the 1970s, when on a visit to Moscow with his family, my grandfather stopped to give a lost East German tourist directions. Until that moment, no one knew that he spoke German. [[{"fid":"6702571","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] 4. If it was possible to put a date on when Stalin returned as a positive historical character in 21st-century Russia, it could be 2009, the year Stalin's grandson Evgeny Dzhugashvili sued the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta for libel after it called his grandfather “a bloodthirsty cannibal” in a story. The story referred to Stalin's role in an infamous historical massacre in 1940, when firing squads executed 20,000 Polish prisoners in the remote Katyn forest in southwestern Russia. The shootings took place at night, over severals days. And for fifty years, the Soviet leadership had blamed the massacre on Nazi soldiers. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev accepted the Soviets' role in the killings, saying that the Soviet government—and Stalin himself—had given the execution orders. It was perestroika, and history was once again up for discussion, and what had previously been only guessed about could finally be investigated and discussed. Early-1990s TV programs, one after the other, seized upon the excavations at Katyn and other secrets involving Soviet rule, upon crimes of the Stalinist period. But by 2009, in a sign of things to come, Dzhugashvili was to be found arguing that when Novaya Gazeta published the story about Stalin's role at the Katyn massacre, it not only based its account on false evidence but was working against Russia “to make it weaker.” He was demanding a retraction, a public apology, and ₤180,000 in damages for defamation. The journalist who wrote the story, Anatoly Yablokov, said a suit like Dzhugashvili's would have been unthinkable in the past. “There is a change in society's view of Stalin,” he said at the trial's preliminary statements in 2009. “We hear much more now [than in the 1990s] about what an effective manager Stalin was and much less about the repressions.” That year, Moscow city authorities restored prominent Stalinist-era lettering the city had erased more than half a century earlier in the vestibule of one of Moscow's busiest metro stations. The lettering says, Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism. By 2012, 45 percent of Russians seemed to agree, saying that they had a positive view of Stalin in response to a Levada Centre poll. By March 2016, 54 percent agreed. It was at the European Court of Human Rights—an ironic venue considering Stalin's human rights record—that Dzhugashvili lost his final appeal in early 2015. The court ruled against Dzhugashvili's libel suit and said that a historical figure such as Stalin would “inevitably remain open to public scrutiny and criticism.” And open he remained. In 2016, a string of museums opened to commemorate Stalin's contribution to Soviet and Russian history. A “Stalin cultural centre” opened in Penza as a direct response to a "cultural centre" celebrating Yeltsin opening in Ekaterinburg the year before. Another museum, near Tver, 200km west of Moscow, commemorates a night Stalin spent there in August 1943, near the site of some of the war’s most devastating battles. Its fourteen panels memorialize feats such as “Stalin's contribution to victory” in the Second World War, “Stalin's role in the restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church” (reopened during the war to lift morale) and “Stalin As the Symbol of Soviet Successes and Victories.” In Moscow, the only remaining statue of Stalin stands abandoned in the graveyard of former Soviet relics, its nose missing, amid dozens of busts of Lenin and a statue of the founder of the Soviet secret police. But across Russia, town councils have debated erecting new statues to him in their public squares. So far, only one has gone up—in Crimea in 2015. That monument shows Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in 1945, ten feet tall and seated together to decide Europe's future, months away from Germany's capitulation. Behind them are five years of destruction: cities destroyed and villages wiped off the earth, millions of refugees across five continents, populations decimated. In the Soviet Union alone, where the meeting took place, 20 million people were dead, out of the 40 million people killed across the world in the whole of the Second World War. In Belarus, a quarter of the population was missing, never to be seen again. But at Yalta, the troika sat victorious, Stalin the only one of the three wearing military epaulettes. 5. A few months after that conference in Yalta, my maternal grandfather returned home to a pile of rubble to meet his future wife and build their green wooden house that would be my mother's—and later my—home. He was the only one among the adult men in his family to survive the war. There is a reason why so many public memorials to Stalin, like the one in Crimea, in Tver, in Ekaterinburg, and Penza, connect Stalin's name with the Second World War. It was the most traumatic event in Russia's contemporary history and Stalin was its wartime leader. The numbers of people killed across the USSR suggest that, like my family and the families of my childhood friends, every Russian family was affected. The record is in the boxes of black and white fading photographs stored in closets across the country, underneath beds; in the letters wedged between them, breaking at their creases, along the folds of tell-tale triangles from a time when paper rationing forced people to improvise envelopes out of the letters themselves. People born outside of Russia might wonder: for all the devastation, how could Russians be willing to forgive so much of Stalin's wartime leadership? Because, the argument goes, had it not been for some of Stalin's most devastating policies—among them the forced industrialization drive in the 1920s and 1930s and the collectivization that drove millions to their deaths in the 1930s, especially in Ukraine—the formerly agrarian Soviet Union might not have been able to withstand the German army. And what then? the argument goes. Over the past decade, the Russian government has funded military parades and school programmes looking into wartime family history, built a World War II historical reenactment park for children near Moscow, funded hundreds of volunteer search crews that go out every spring and summer to search old battlefields for the remains of some the four million Soviet soldiers—four million people—who are still officially listed as missing in action in the Second World War. The crews look to reconnect their remains with their families, and almost every expedition is successful. The state has invested millions upon millions of rubles in ever-bigger Victory Day parades every year, on fanfares, salutes, concerts, and fireworks to remember the World War II victory. The Russian president says: “We must be proud of our history.” And so, amid all the dying, Russia's official history of the Second World War is a history of glory. The war stands on its own, absolved of what came before or after. It is not related, in textbooks or popular consciousness, to the show trials and summary executions that came before, nor to the mass incarceration in the gulags, nor the man-made famine in Ukraine. Victory in the Second World War is like a badge of honour, a foundational myth that Russians can unify around. The story lands exactly because no Russian family was spared, because every school child can connect it to family history. But when official history remembers the heroic visit by Stalin to the front near Tver in 1943, it forgets—among other things—that that visit was the closest Stalin came to visiting the front; that the visit came nine months after fighting in the area had ended. The Russian government exploits wartime memories to create a glorious national story: we were strong then, we are strong now. We need strong leaders to withstand our enemies. The stories the government tells might be in service of its own goals. But that doesn't erase the fact that the people in the black and white faded photographs are real. That until recently, some of them sat at our kitchen tables talking about relief planes dropping packages of bread from the sky; hoarded jars of food in the pantry. Just in case. In 2006, Russian activists created a new commemoration ceremony for May's Victory Day events. The Bessmertnyi Polk (The Immortal Regimen) ceremony immediately sparked similar yearly tributes across the country. At the closing of Victory Day events, millions of people now walk in a procession holding pictures of relatives who fought or died in World War II. For the seventieth anniversary of Victory Day, the Russian president Vladimir Putin joined the procession, walking through Red Square with a picture of his own father, a veteran. We can talk about exploiting memory for political gain, but it's hard to argue with that sacrifice of the people in the photographs, what they went through. Millions of old black and white portraits, held up in collective memory, across the country. It's a moving commemoration. And one at which Stalin's portrait appears often. 6. Another thing about understanding Stalin's comeback—and this will surprise many people who grew up in “the West”—is that the Soviet Union wasn't all bad. When my parents were students in the 1980s and early 1990s, we lived in a skyscraper that was, until 1988, Europe's tallest structure. It was completed in 1956 and designed on Stalin's orders as a monument to the glory of the Soviet state, in an architectural style now identified with High Stalinism. It was the Moscow State University Main Building. My parents had both travelled to study at MSU because it was the best educational institution in the USSR. They met, married, and like many of their friends had their first child while still living in residence. We lived in the north wing of the building, on a floor for families, where toys and tricycles lay scattered outside the elevators and small children roamed the hallways in packs. That Stalin's biggest architectural project was a university is not an accident. From the very beginning, education was a matter of survival for the Soviet state. [[{"fid":"6702566","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] One hundred years ago, almost all of my family members lived as peasants on estates that their grandparents had tilled as serfs, and were almost entirely dependent on their masters. A hundred years ago, almost everyone in my family was illiterate, because on the eve of the revolution in 1917, of all Russians, only 40 percent could read and write, including only 13 percent of women. How well can a country of farmers fight off an invasion? Lenin and Stalin's push to educate the masses began almost immediately. The state mandated universal primary education and funded everything: primary schools, universities, vocational colleges. It funded daycares so that women too would benefit. By the Second World War, the compulsory education programme had pushed the literacy rate to 90 percent. After my mother left her small town and defied all the odds in passing the entrance exams to the best institution in the country, there was nothing stopping her from pursuing any education she wanted (as long as she kept her grades up). In return for a free education, graduates agreed to work for three years in a placement, which could be a remote town anywhere in the USSR where there was need for their skills. But once accepted, few material problems could come between students and their ability to get an education. And when my mother left her hometown for MSU, no one forgot that her own grandmother, born in 1907 in Moscow, had never learned to read. My father grew up in a small northern town on the Volga, sharing an apartment with his single mother, a music teacher—the same woman who some thirty years earlier had been born in a horse-drawn cart in -40C weather—and his grandparents, also both from tiny northern villages. After getting interested in photography in high school, my father became desperate to get his hands on the solution necessary to develop colour photographs. But in the late-1970s USSR that was well-known for its shortages, he could not find a single store that carried the chemicals he needed. He checked out all the chemistry textbooks that might help him to find a way to mix the chemicals himself at a library. Soon, he was competing in regional and then country-wide chemistry Olympiads—all state-funded—and admitted to the best university in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, without the formality of mandatory exams. He was one of a handful of students for whom the university waived the requirement. This is what we know: my parents were among the best students in their districts. Neither would have gone to university had it not been state-funded. A seventy-five-year-old woman, Marina Viktorovna, who I met at the Moscow office of Memorial, the Russian human rights NGO that works to collect records on people who were politically persecuted during the Stalinist period, told me: “If we think about it, at its heart, the Soviet project was right.” This, coming from a woman who was at the office to consult her “file”: the documents she had collected over the last decade about what happened to some half a dozen members of her family, who had all either spent decades of their lives in the gulags or in exile, or been the children of those who did—all for the vague crime of “sabotage” to “restore the capitalist order.” Even half a century later, Marina Viktorovna would not tell me her last name. Viktorovna is her patronymic—Russia's version of the middle name. Having a family history in Russia, it seems, is still uncomfortable. The USSR had its problems. But after two decades of “economic shock therapy” in the new Russia, the USSR is looking better and better. When the Soviet Union collapsed, my mother had already defended her PhD and was working as a researcher and chemistry lecturer, while my father worked toward his own thesis defense. But all of a sudden, her academic's salary was barely enough to cover her metro fare and canteen lunches. Prices were floated on the new, open market, they flew away like balloons. Academics and other publicly funded employees had little hope of surviving in the new market economy. This was the time of picket lines outside schools, universities, and hospitals, employees at their wits' end over months of withheld pay because no one was really sure who owned and was responsible for what; and breathtaking crime. The programming job my father accepted instead of finishing his PhD meant that we were alright. But if my mother bought a bag of groceries over her lunch break—eggs, juice, cottage cheese—under her coworker's gaze the bag radiated like it was stolen. But with my father's income, we bought jeans. We visited the first Western grocery stores where shelves were so plentiful that the store offered customers a basket to carry their yogurt, hazelnut spread, tropical fruit juice, and European cheese; we chewed gum and bought Snickers, cutting the bars into a dozen pieces to share for dessert. (I was five when the chocolate bar ice cream commercials appeared and still can't walk past a Mars ice cream bar without getting sentimental about the miracle of consumer capitalism.) We watched Mexican telenovelas dubbed in Russian and lined up for hours outside of McDonald's, in a queue that zigzagged Pushkin Square in central Moscow, while entrepreneurial Muscovites stood queue-side, selling everything from pantyhose and used electronics to kittens and pet turtles. Around the same time, luxury SUVs began to appear on Moscow streets: leather seats, tinted windows, always the sleek black exterior. Commercials appeared on television and quickly took over more airtime than TV programming. The most frequent commercials seemed to be for the panoply of banks that spouted like mushrooms. There were so many new banks and so many commercials for banks and the banks opened and folded so frequently, swindling their customers so often in the process, that the tagline of one commercial simply said: “We won't cheat you.” It showed a woman taking money from a teller, beaming, and telling the camera: “They didn't cheat me.” In the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, it was common to hear people quip that if in the Soviet Union they had money but nothing to buy with it, now all they ever wanted was in a store around the corner, but they had no money.    “Economic shock therapy” came with a price, and in the “end of history” euphoria that swept North America in the 1990s, few realized that after the Soviet collapse, there have been 2.5 million “excess deaths” in eastern Europe: mostly as a result of poverty and its malaises, like alcoholism, which caused a drastic lowering of life expectancy in Russia—from 63.5 for men in 1991 to 58.6 ten years later. Whatever optimism people still had for liberalization plunged along with the ruble in the 1998 default. Millions of people—like my paternal grandparents—lost their savings overnight, years of work reduced to worthless bundles of paper. The overwhelming feelings of the 1990s were bewilderment and shame: at the crime, the poverty, at the luxury SUVs with their oblivious tinted windows. The drunken president making the country the laughing stock of the world. In 2001, economist Steve Keen wrote: “Russia's free market experiment and crash of economic liberalization may have done more to rehabilitate Karl Marx—and even Joseph Stalin—in the eyes of the average Russian, than anything positive done by Russia’s socialist camp.” It was around this time that words started to shift in meaning. We were promised a better life—why are we poorer and more insecure than ever? The words “market economics” and “liberalism” became tinged with resentment. Slowly, they grew to be associated with deception. The feeling of resentment infected other words too: democracy, freedom, human rights. “What's freedom?” people would say. “Is it the freedom to hit bottom? The new millennium brought in Vladimir Putin, who saw a Russia desperate for stability and positioned himself as a strong leader. By 2005, he was calling the Soviet collapse “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He reminded us of how we won the biggest war the world had ever seen, and how we would not be cowed now. And people said, “well, at least it's not so shameful to be Russian now.” And they thought, the invisible hand didn't work for a lot of Russians—would a strong one? An iron one? 7. “I'm sick to death of the portraits of Stalin at public gatherings,” says Yan Rachinsky, one of the founders of Memorial. “But what's more dangerous is that the old [Soviet political] order is coming back. The idea that everywhere around us there are enemies. That's a persistent Stalinist idea. The 'fifth column' and 'foreign agents'—all of that is terminology from Stalinist times. Without the repressions, a large part of the context of that era is coming back.” When newspapers or neighbours talk about Stalin as a strong leader rather than an autocrat, a dictator, Marina Viktorovna doesn't respond. “The war touched every family,” she says. “And with repression, it's the same thing. But few know about that." She understands people who want a strong government—and that's what she hears when she hears people talking about Stalin as a strong leader. “I understand people want an iron hand to come and clean everything up. They never think that that hand can hurt them.” In 2016, an instructional manual for high school history teachers on how to teach the Stalinist period—how to talk about the scope of forced labour, the disappearances, the sentence of “ten years without right to correspondence” that people found out later was code for death—was banned. Authorities said that the manual's instructions were destructive for students, that it could weaken their “disposition for sacrifice.” The idea seems to be that some repressions are necessary. Don't question them: that in itself is a threat to the present order. Like the Dzhugashvili case showed, people perceive criticism of historical decisions as attempts to weaken Russia. A Western ploy, propaganda to make the country weaker, make it collapse like the Soviet Union. The president reminds us: we must be proud of our history. After I moved to North America as a child in the mid-1990s, I learned that I was less interested in the story and more interested in the way it was told, which parts were included. In Russia, history lessons taught me about: grandfather Lenin, Russia's vast boreal forests, Pushkin. After we moved to the States, Lenin became George Washington and the apple tree. Pushkin became pilgrims (and Indians, this being the mid-1990s) and Thanksgiving. And when my family moved to Canada at the end of 1996, history lessons were less about socialism and the Second World War than Sir John A. MacDonald, Louis Riel, and the Northwest Passage. I learned that when people talk about their past, they are talking about their future. When the Russian Ministry of Culture erects a statue of Ivan the Terrible in a town he conquered five hundred years ago to expand Russian land south, and the monument shows him on a horse holding the Orthodox cross aloft, that is a message that the Russian state considers it important to tell a story about defending the Orthodox faith on lands that it has claimed to be Russian. When Poland and Ukraine ban communist symbols from public view—Soviet statues, monuments, images, that shows that they want to leave behind that part of their history, to see it as an historical aberration, unlike the non-Soviet part of their history. The Rhodes Must Fall movement aims to show how much history dismissed the stories of the conquered. The same can be said about the move to depict Harriet Tubman, women, minorities on American currency, all of whom have been dismissed from the visual memory of public monuments. Canada's former prime minister Stephen Harper worked to refocus Ottawa's museum of civilization—that aims to tell a story about Canada's history—to Canadian military history. He commissioned a memorial to the victims of communist oppression near the justice buildings in Ottawa. Last year, Gabor Mate, a well-known Hungarian-Canadian doctor and public speaker who has earned the right to dislike communist rule—being born as he was in Soviet-occupied Budapest in the 1940s—wrote an op-ed against the Ottawa memorial. In it, he argued that the project uses the stories of people who suffered under Soviet rule to advance a political agenda. He writes: “What is the principle here in service to which public space is to be utilized and public money spent, if not to advance Tory ideology? Is it to honour humans destroyed by power-mongering, aggression, greed and cruelty? That would be inspiring. Let us then erect a monument to the victims of industrial civilization, Communist or not.” He goes on to list the people who would be memorialized: the millions who died in the Stalinist purges and gulags, in the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese who starved to death in wake of Mao's Great Leap Forward; the Magyars killed battling Soviet troops in Budapest; the millions of Congolese murdered by Belgian diamond hunger; and the three million Vietnamese slaughtered by the US in the name of anti-communist containment; the many tens of thousands hounded to death throughout Latin America by American-backed regimes over the decades, the many millions of martyrs to racism everywhere. The hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people killed in North America to facilitate colonial expansion, “victims of Christian mercy at the hands of nuns and priests and other ministers of Western culture.” Russia isn't alone in its “problematic” national myth. The slapstick speed with which Russian history can shape-shift, however, is striking. The oldest and biggest museum to Stalin's memory stands in the centre of Stalin's hometown, Gori, in Georgia. Its entrance is a two-room wooden hut with scuffed floors and some of its original furniture, where Stalin lived as a child with his mother and father, a cobbler. Inside, it shows Stalin's life—as a young seminary student, a revolutionary on the run, leader of the USSR, sitting next to Churchill and Roosevelt as Yalta—in objects: pipes, books, letters, gifts leaders of other countries gave him, his death mask. The hut is ensconced in a Soviet-style monument, a temple to the memory of Gori's most famous son. After the 2008 war in South Ossetia, the Georgian Minister of Culture announced that the Stalin Museum in Gori would be reopened as a Museum of Russian Aggression. An unusual banner was installed at the entrance saying: “This museum is a falsification of history. It is a typical example of Soviet propaganda and it attempts to legitimize the bloodiest regime in history.” The sign remained there for three years—amusing or aggravating visitors depending on their perspective—until 2012, when Gori's city council voted for the sign to be removed. The vote ended the showdown of historical narrative, and the memory of Gori's most elevated son stayed as it was. In 2012, the Russian government passed a law that allowed labelling NGOs that receive more that 25 percent of their funding from overseas as “foreign agents.” (MPs aligned with Putin's party saw democracy-promoting NGOs in Russia as tools of Western political power.) Memorial itself was among the organizations branded a “foreign agent.” Its offices are often ransacked and its employees intimidated. Last year, the entrance to Memorial's Moscow office was spray painted with the words, “USA out.” In 2015, Perm-36—a former forced labour camp that activists opened as a museum in 1994, the only one of its kind in the country—was forced shut. Newspapers and state-sponsored Russian TV had derided its portrayal of the repressions as “worse than they were” and called the museum's leadership “the fifth column” (a derogatory term for political opposition). In 2012, the government pulled its funding and by 2015, the museum was forced to close. 8. How do we tell both stories? It's like saying two opposite things at once. Last fall I attended an event commemorating the 35,000 people executed in Moscow alone during Stalin's Great Purges in 1937-8. Memorial organizes the event every year on the day before a day of remembrance for victims of Soviet repression on October 30th. At the “Returning of the Names,” volunteers read the names, ages, professions, and dates of arrest and execution of people from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Last year was the tenth anniversary of the event and organizers expected that by the end of that day, they would have read half the names on the list since the event began in 2007. By noon, the queue of volunteers waiting to read from the bits of paper bearing the names was over two hundred people long. It was snowing and windy, and the ground was wet with sleet. People queued up to two hours for less than a minute at the microphone, to read names, some of which were well-known and others that had not been spoken aloud for over eighty years. One man—in his eighties, short and thin, mistrust written into the deep lines of his face—took his turn at the microphone to speak his list of names. He read them and then began speaking about his father, who the police had taken away when the man was six years old. One of the officers who had come for his father had pulled him by the ear so hard that he thought it would come off, the man said, holding his hand to his ear. As he went on, breaking the rhythm of the procession, the crowd became uncomfortable. After a few minutes, one of the organizers walked over to stand next to the man. She gently touched him on the forearm, startling him. He pushed her off, gesturing to the crowd that she was interrupting, continuing to lay into Soviet history. The organizer let the man speak another few seconds, amusement and impatience written across the crowd, and patted him again on the arm, gestured toward the queue behind the man, said a few inaudible words. With the organizer now holding him by the arm and moving him off, the man swore at her but allowed himself to be led aside. Moved, I took a picture and posted it to Facebook. The next day, Skyping with my mother, she told me that the picture had shaken her. I braced. “It looks like about fifty people were there out of a city of 15 million. Why can't these people find something better to do, instead of throwing dirt on their history?” I said I didn't think anyone wanted to portray the Soviet Union as entirely bad. They were just remembering a side that they didn't want forgotten. That there had been plenty of stories of Soviet good, of Soviet glory, on TV. It was important to remember the people who had paid for it. “Victims of communism. More like victims of nothing better to do. Who's going to read the names of all the victims of capitalist repression? Of every slave ship prisoner, every victim of American 'democracy promotion,' everyone who died under American-backed dictatorships? How much labour do the millions of people incarcerated in the States produce for free? Who's going to fund the memorial centre for victims of capitalist repression? I'll tell you. No one. It's bad for business. So why does pouring shit over the Soviet Union always get all the Facebook likes?” “But isn't forgetting the dark side of Soviet rule just a way to be able to sell more Soviet rule?” “No one's buying Soviet rule.” She paused. “You,” she finally said, “are falling into the same exact stupid trap I fell into back then, when I was your age. We let people make us believe that the West was better than us. That we had nothing worth keeping. We were too stupid to know otherwise and we let it be broken.” I wanted to find something for us to agree on. “It would take a long time to read the names of the victims of capitalism. A long time. I'd help read those names,” I said lamely. “Yeah? So why don't you write a story about that?” Why didn't I? 9. Stalin is no longer a historical figure. He is an insurrection. He is what happens when words lose meaning, when my cousin mutters “American bullshit” after a woman hands him a flyer on the Red Square that says “human rights” on the cover, before he rips it to shreds. Stalin is simple because he is a lifeless statue, an object that people can imbue it with whatever meaning they wish. He is the truth when the truth becomes geopolitics. He is the “moral nihilism,” as Rachinsky puts it, “when people believe that what exists in politics is only what serves politicians' needs. The idea that people only act on material interests. And that all the conversations about human rights, international law, is all just a distraction in the game of geopolitics.” Whenever I'm in Moscow, I walk through the Red Square. A few weeks before one cobblestoned visit in 2015, a group of young activists had staged a protest there, against what they saw as the return of the Soviet spirit into Russian politics. They doused holy water on the steps of Lenin's tomb, reciting incantations of “Be gone! Be gone!” like Orthodox priests, until security guards intervened and escorted them away. That spring, at the metro outside the Red Square, I saw a man in a black parka browsing his phone behind a table of touristy kitsch. Soviet-era pins with space rockets on them, old military medals, T-shirts, magnets, and matryoshkas: with Putin's face on them, with Gorbachev's, with Stalin's. More recently—Donald Trump's. I asked why he's selling the Stalin knick-knacks. “People buy them,” he said, frowning. “So I sell them. What else am I going to do?” The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Yeltsin cultural centre as a Gorbachev cultural centre. Hazlitt regrets the error.