My grandfather had never told me about his trip to the Soviet Union in the sixties, but I don’t know why I was surprised. He never told me anything, not even my grandmother’s name.
I was told getting laid off from my dream job had nothing to do with me, but after I was let go, I felt like I had lost a part of myself that I couldn’t get back.
In narratives that hinge on proving our humanness, Indigenous people sit stilled in the role of the described. As the described, our words are pit against us.
Sometime in 2011, at fifteen or sixteen, I ordered Beatrice Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree to my childhood home in Joussard, Alberta. My oldest sister, an undergraduate student at Grande Prairie Regional College at the time, had been assigned the book in a Native Studies course. I wanted a glimpse into the intellectual world of post-secondary education, to read and to be moved, irreparably and unsuspectedly. I wanted to tiptoe into the mise-en-scene of a novel, to let what I might witness illuminate a way of writing, a listening and looking practice, that I had only known as the felt suspicion of something more radical, more energetic and enlivening, unrulier and more complicated than “Language Arts.” With In Search of April Raintree I found all of this. I found a book that was more than a book; Mosionier’s story of the lives of two Indigenous girls who enact care against the racialized embargo on care that is Canada, who care for one another in contradistinction to the cruel “care” of the state, of social services, was and is a searing indictment of Canada. It was and is a critique of this ravaged country’s inability to stop compounding the brutalities that Indigenous peoples are made to endure, brutalities that live and breathe in and possess the bodies of those endowed by governments of all sorts to mediate a history that is in fact without end, without mercy. In Search of April Raintree refused to torpedo Indigenous peoples into the gutters of misrepresentation. Mosionier took the work of description into her own hands and because of this she refused to offer up a rhetoric that one might describe as simple. That is, Mosionier wrote in the mode of “truth-telling” to paint a picture of complicated and compromised living in the crosshairs of settler governance. In this way, she laid bare a way of storytelling that always returns us to the possibility of Indigenous life unhampered by a coloniality of the present. As Fred Moten says, “Anybody who thinks that they can understand how terrible the terror has been, without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of the terror, is wrong." Each word of Mosionier’s book, each pronoun and preposition, all of them, shook and shake still with a vitality that is in the name of Indigenous freedom and nothing less. There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of Indigenous writing. It always has been and always will be. * Say forgiveness. With a maw full of smoke, say the aftermath of history. Hold our books in your slippery hands with the ever-loudening fact of their eschewal of the violence of a reading practice that makes a feast out of “a choreography of mangled bodies.”11From my debut collection of poems, This Wound is a World. Mouth the word “enemy,” but do not enunciate it, for it is not a subject position worth keeping in the world. Living as we do in the charred remnants of a time during which the voices of Indigenous peoples were siphoned out of the theatres of culture and into the wastelands of law and order, you, a white and settler you, are beholden to a project of lessening the trauma of description. Everywhere in the colonial archive there are a plethora of descriptions that sought and seek still to hold the position of the Indigenous in a state I can only describe now as against opacity, as against the right to be unseen and unseeable. We might conceptualize colonialism as in part a system of clarity in the visual sense, as a structural and structuring articulation of Indigenous life so as to refuse it the promise of freedom, to refuse us a world-making kinship that was in opposition to the world-engulfing effects of racial capitalism. We were and still are made to exist in a visual field in which we are barred from democratizing the felt knowledge of our dignity.22“Felt knowledge” is a concept that Dian Million uses to signal ways of thinking that emerge from the context of emotional experience. See Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. In Mohawk Interruptus: Indigenous Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson traces the discursive and political beginnings of "the savage” to the earliest moments of contact at which settlers did the terrible and terror-making work of classification so as to acclimatize the Indigenous to an atmosphere of ideas they had transported with them from Europe. Today, we hear the resonances of this fatal naming ritual repeated and made anew. There were and are ways of thickening words with meaning so as to injure, of making words into evidence of our injurability. Hurled with the right amount of intensity, words floor us. There are words that lay me flat on the floor of the world. One of these words is “simple.” Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling. Simplicity is an affect that motors the cultural imaginary of whiteness; it is an interpretive strategy. Simplicity hides a flurry of forms of social and political violence that rip the lives of those from the badlands of modernity from the freedom of a simple life, from a life emptied of historically contingent tumult. Simplicity belongs only to those who live and write unfettered by all of that which ravages the worlds. It is an emotional orientation that enables one to pick up a book and put down a carcass. Simplicity is a structural impossibility for Indigenous peoples who write despite and in spite of the coloniality of the present. Recently, a collection I wrote was reviewed under the headline, “Billy-Ray Belcourt’s Simple and Radical Poetry.” The title alone steals breath from the bodies of those who are roped into the unlivable and racialized terrain of simplicity. The headline was later modified, “simple” axed, after writers like Gwen Benaway wrote incisive threads on Twitter critiquing it. The review made use of the rhetoric of simplicity: words like “plainspoken,” “straightforward,” and “unmistakable” pile up to chase after a thesis about method in poetry that has at its heart a binary between indecipherability and simplicity. There is nothing fundamentally poisonous about “simplicity,” but its use is bathed in a tradition of wordliness or perhaps “languageness,” to use Layli Long Soldier’s term, that traps Indigenous writers in the poverty of plainness. The piece quotes a review of Mosionier’s Raintree in Queen’s Quarterly: “[Mosionier] sets out to tell a story—her own story—in the plainest available language. Nothing else is needed.” This interpretive behavior is everything in literary history. Theorist Dian Million, in an essay called “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History,” describes a “new language for communities” to get at the sorrow and love that proliferates in Indigenous social worlds. Million cites both Raintree and Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed as texts that evidenced an artistic practice that broke through the sound barrier of Canadian historical ignorance to tell “politically unspeakable” stories. Indeed, it was recently revealed that a chunk of Campbell’s book was edited out because it detailed sexual abuse at the hands of members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an avowal that would have surely thrown into relief the chronic problem of police brutality against Indigenous women. This time, Million tells us, produced “a profound literature of experience.” Still, those who look and install meaning into words with the force of a history of impoverished reading negate the profundity of our writing. The meta-claim that is underneath this line of inquiry is what we might call “racial fatalism”: in other words, it is as if Indigenous peoples were so bogged down by history, by bodies that emerge from that history, that we can only write in a way that is “plain,” that is “sparse,” that is “simple.” It’s a liberal interpretative strategy that seeks to empower a “humanity narrative” that is in fact a trapdoor, worthless in the fight against the cannibalistic genre of the human inaugurated in the laboratories of the New World.33To follow this line of inquiry, see the work of seminal Black studies scholars like Sylvia Wynters, Katherine McKittrick, and Christina Sharpe. It is not that we need to be welcomed into the wasteland of the human, to be made fit for the operations of violence that uphold it, but a remaking of the world, one not ruled by Man, one that flowers freedom for those denied it as a symptom of the many-headed hydra that is white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. In narratives that hinge on proving our humanness, Indigenous people sit stilled in the role of the described. As the described, our words are pit against us. Having only in our arsenal words that self-destruct, we shoulder the burden once more of voicelessness. How cruel to have our critiques of the ways in which unlivable lives are manufactured everywhere in Canada heard as evidence of our ability to speak and nothing else! * “My story was maltreated.” So goes Terese Marie Mailhot in her debut memoir Heart Berries. Heart Berries elaborates a theory of ethical living, of how we might tune our ears to hear the always-compounding ways that Indigenous women are denied care. It is not just that we are called on to listen in a mode that might shatter the sound barrier of liberal empathy (to testify), but also and more importantly to treat a story so as to read and act in the direction of the world it begets. So, it is not that contemporary Indigenous writers are speaking in unison, as if in a chorus uttering the same things, all in the name of a singular avowal of that which impedes our flourishing. We are all caught up in the Singularity of coloniality. But, each book, each poem, each story, is against the trauma of description, those ways of reading and listening that make vampires out of people, possessed by an insatiable hunger for a racialized simplicity that makes us into objects of study to be fed through the poorly-oiled machine of analysis. To tell a story of the possibility that swells up even where it is negated requires a sociological eye, an epistemological standpoint, that is borne out of experience, of knowing what it is to be a map to everywhere and nowhere. What’s more, to hear this story of compromised living, of joy against the odds, of the repeatability of a history that lives in the bodies of those who reap the spoils of colonialism, as something more than a “simple” account of a singular life, is to undergo a process of resubjectification, one that requires the abolition of the position of the enemy, the vampire, the one who describes, the settler. You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else, from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one. All of my writing is against the poverty of simplicity. All of my writing is against the trauma of description. * Today, the world is just beginning, so I pack light. I start and end with books by Indigenous writers. With Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, “I Mommy the edge” between a painful history that is not done with us and a still possible future that proliferates care. I call this the “eroding edge of pathos,” which is where I jump from with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost, an unruly and differently ruled text that welcomes us to “the space of the unspoken and the unwritten and the unsung.” It is here, Gwen Benaway tells us in Passage, that “passage is more than movement,” is in excess of and prior to geographical change, is an ontological force as much as a creative-theoretical one. With these books I pitch a “shaking tent” where we assemble another “congress / of selves,” another world where we perform and enact “everything [we] long to know and hold” (Liz Howard). You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come. “There isn’t time here. There isn’t ever time here. There is only here here, only land here.”44See Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and the Super Futures Haunt Quollective’s “Before Dispossession, or Surviving It.”
The author of My Name Is a Knife on historical fiction, frontier life, and sharing headspace with her characters.
The mythology of someone like Daniel Boone, in the wrong hands, could be just another settler-saviour narrative, another white-guy-does-the-West fable in an American history already bloated with them. But in the hands of author Alix Hawley, Boone is tenderly broken open to get at what’s past the lore—he’s myth-busted. In her 2015 novel, All True Not a Lie in It, Hawley shifted away from the classic chronology of the Boone story by choosing to zero in on some of the most painful and humanizing parts of his early life, and in doing so stripped him, quite naturally, of his cinematic trappings. Her new follow-up to that book, My Name Is A Knife (Vintage Canada), picks up at the same speedy clip, dropping the reader right back into Boone’s life as he steals himself out of a Shawnee camp and makes his way back to the fort and settlement bearing his name, now abandoned by his family and filled with a handful of hateful and rough settlers who think him a deserter. He fucks up—frequently and in ways that intensify his hardships. But by rendering Boone as fallible, Hawley makes it that much easier for the reader to enter an era typically illustrated in historical fiction with a heavy hand by authors more interested in the "heroes" who tamed it. Here, the narrative is split between Boone and his wife, Rebecca, whose portion offers a more nuanced perspective of a husband as a kind of bumbling spectre, risen from the dead to return to a family who have had to move on out of the necessity of frontier survival. As Rebecca comes to make peace with the man who staggers back into her life and throws a wrench in her new-found autonomy, she also fills the new shape of their days: with children—hers and her children’s children, delivered by her hands—and with doubt, of the survival of everything that’s been created. Knife is a hard book, with no clear protagonists. Hawley does little to tinge the time period with the golden tones of nation-making usually ascribed to it. But by letting each of her characters step between worlds, there are flashes of dark comedy and tenderness that come with living life in tumultuous times that seem, unfortunately, especially relatable. Katie Heindl: You handle Boone so humanely, and by that, I mean, just like a regular guy. He is unaware of, or deflects, his own myth. Daniel always seems a bit surprised that anyone is interested in what he's doing, even Rebecca, only really comfortable in the eyes of his children. There might be an innocence to it if he didn't always reengage in ruinous behaviour. Was it critical to write Boone this way, a person as they might be as the myth was made around them, or did you want to intentionally ground him? Alix Hawley: I'm glad he comes across as a human! And that's a perceptive thought about him and the children. You've got me thinking about that now; he is most comfortable with them, and with kids generally, including the ones in the Shawnee town, although he also feels he's failing them all somehow, whether as provider or protector. My guess is that his own childhood was messy, given the fact that his family was kicked out of their Quaker community, and so he wants to give them more than he had. Paging Dr. Freud. Seriously, though, the historical material suggests he was a magnetic personality from a young age. I can only guess that's true, given the spread of his fame during his lifetime. He was certainly a natural leader, and even worked in government for a while, which I slide over a little in the book. I was interested in celebrity, and which people get it, and how fame metastasizes. And why we need that kind of heroic figure, which has of course been going on forever (I just read Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, a great novel about that need). But rather than having a deliberate sense of grounding, my greatest interest was always psychological. My usual question is: What would it feel like to be this person? (Not "What would it feel like if I were this person," which I've seen a lot of students get tangled up in. It's hard not to!) What would it feel like to be this man? I wanted to dig into what that kind of fame would do to someone who really was a regular guy in most ways. Where Achilles and co. are puppeteered by the gods, Dan gets no divine intervention, however much he wonders about what cards Fate laid out for him. A lot of what he does, he does himself. I found myself getting annoyed with Boone in this book, due in part to seeing him through Rebecca's eyes. The choice to add her as a narrator feels essential in this novel, which is almost sparser, less languid than All True. Was adding Rebecca's voice something you had planned for the sequel, or did she insert herself for you when you were writing this book another way? Writing All True, I was half in love with the character Dan, and half wanting to slap him. I also loved writing Rebecca's parts; she was a brief but powerful presence in that book. I've always been interested in charismatic and unreadable people (and probably need therapy). When I thought about a follow-up, I didn't want it to be just a continuation. I wanted this book to stand on its own, without the reader necessarily having to have read All True first. And in a writerly way, I think every book needs its own problem to work out. Dan's voice took a long time to find—I drafted the first book in the wrong voice, twice—and I felt I finally had him in my bones when I decided to write this novel. So, Rebecca became the problem. What would it feel like to be married to someone like that, and to feel left by him, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, and to want to leave him as well? Even more, what would it feel like to be her, this exact person, and how would she sound? I figured she'd be easier to write, being a woman and a mother like me. That was a dumb thought, as I don't usually write directly about myself anyway. And she was elusive. My early drafts of her narrative were in third person, which only made her even more distant. I wanted her to walk and talk on her own. In the end, her sketchiness in the historical record, and my uncertainty about her, became part of her character. She's someone who lives deep inside herself, keeps her own counsel, never gives much away, wields her power quietly. Writing the voice of someone like that is very hard! She doesn't always admit her desires to herself. She speaks much more sparingly and concretely than Dan, who flings similes around, and whose narrative sections are full of action. It was good to have his voice as a foil, actually. And I got annoyed with him too, and I'm glad you did. Though I still love him, even his blindnesses. I think Rebecca does too. And I love her for her failures also. How close to Boone's life did you keep the chronology? Was it as expansive to write All True and Knife as it feels as a reader to be moving through them? There is always a sense of more, or doubling back, but the promise of momentum regardless—did you make yourself stick to certain timelines and give yourself free rein for filling in the rest? I think the best fiction about the past grows out of gaps, the things we want to know more about, the details and answers that are lost. So, I looked for those holes during the first research, then cut myself off from further reading, forcing myself to fill in character and motivation on my own. (I went back later to check details and dates.) I do try to stick to the general truth of events and chronology, at least of what's known of them. With this book, I did have a stronger sense of momentum, probably because the time frame is much more compressed—where All True covers decades, the majority of Knife covers just a few years, including a single week, the siege, in detail. I did have room, though, to be deeply inside two different characters' heads, and to see each one through the other's eyes. I also had freedom to fill in quite a different Dan in this book, one who's caused a lot of damage and been broken himself. This time I missed the closeness to the Indigenous characters, like Black Fish and Pompey, the "black Shawnee," whom Dan has left behind. Writing the scenes when they meet again here was pretty emotional, because of the personal repercussions for all of them, but also because they represent the greater fracture between the Indigenous and settler groups in the book, who'd seemed very briefly, in this case, to have a chance of making things better, however illusory that was. With All True Not a Lie In It, the title set the stage for even the casual Daniel Boone fan to understand it would be a novel that would put the reader behind the coonskin curtain, so to speak, and work a little bit to expose him. There's humour in it, there's reference to the tall tales and disconnecting accounts of this man's life while also being incredibly earnest, as if to say this will be the real story. My Name Is a Knife is stark and more subtle, because the story doesn't revolve solely around Daniel. Can you tell me about the title, why you chose it, and how you'd like it to set up this book? Oh, God, this title cost me a few months of my life. All True Not a Lie In It comes from something Dan is purported to have said about a fake autobiography someone published in his name. That one leapt at me partway through an early draft, not least because we have so little in his own words (and they may not even be his words, but they fit my sense of him as someone funny and self-deprecating about his bizarrely swollen reputation—this guy from the eighteenth-century backwoods!). So, I liked the wink as well as the sincerity you note. Incidentally, I wasn't a fan, even a casual one, when I started writing. I didn't know anything about him. I was just hooked by the idea of early celebrity, and the way Dan and Rebecca lost their first child, James. This time, the title was really hard to come by. I wanted something else in Dan's words, but nothing felt right. There's literally nothing left in Rebecca's words—she doesn't seem to have been able to write, but might have been able to read—so that didn't work either. I tried other sources from that time, as well as Dan's favourite book, Gulliver's Travels, but everything sounded stiff or too olde-timey, which I have a horror of. I want this book to work now, and not just be an attempt at ventriloquizing past voices. So much of what it's about is still going on. (Here endeth her sermon on how historical fiction is really just fiction.) The main problem became finding a title that yoked Dan's and Rebecca's narratives. So, I had to make it up. (The file name was the cardboardish DB2 for a long time.) I played around with a few versions that included knives, probably as an image of the severing of the marriage, the settler-Indigenous relations, and both characters' internal fights (and also because—knives). Early in the book, Dan says that when he returns from the Shawnee town, hearing his old name, his white name, hurts him. Rebecca later mentions disliking her own name, not wanting her daughters to name their children for her. So, My Name Is a Knife popped up in the end. I hope it makes you want to pick it up, and keeps you thinking when you finish it (please finish it). I need to thank my writing group partners, Corinna Chong and Adam Lewis Schroeder, for putting up with my dozens of "THIS IS THE RIGHT TITLE" midnight messages, and for trying with all their hearts to find the perfect version themselves. And my editor, Anne Collins, for finally saying, during her final manuscript run-through, "No, this is it, this is the title, stop." The choice to end the book from Rebecca's perspective feels intentional to the treatment of the Boone legend, overall. This way, we aren't given Daniel's conclusions or future intentions, nor do we really get a full circle on whether or not he's found peace. Were there other reasons for handing the narrative over to Rebecca? Real writer talk—I didn't want to write the death of either character! Having finally put together this version of Rebecca, I didn't want to end the book with her end (and she died before Dan). And because this novel ended up being so much about their struggle to work out whether or not to stay together, I didn't want to see Dan on his own in his last years. And I'm not sure he deserves to find complete peace, either. I like that it ends with her voice, her observations of him, because she sees him better than anyone, except maybe Black Fish. But, also, because she's angry and damaged herself, and has had to find some reason to keep going. The upswell of the #MeToo movement while I was editing this novel made me see just how furious she is about the whole system. She may not be the most self-aware person, but I'd argue that Dan is even less, in spite of all his introspection and musing about what he's done. A lot of novels are about women thoroughly observing men who carry on unaware (Jane Eyre is the classic example). I'm certainly aware of that tradition. I think I hoped to turn it a little with the way this book begins and ends. A very small wrench in the works. Reading All True and now Knife, it's hard to be oblivious to the Indigenous-settler dynamic at what was, essentially, the violent beginning of colonialism. Boone's relationship with the Shawnee is close, familial, but also damaging, paternalistic and violent. And there are tribal hierarchies based on familiarity versus the unknown—for example, a real fear of the Cherokee in Boone and his family. At the same time, even if we don't see Black Fish and some of the other Indigenous characters as much in this book, you treat their appearances evenly and with the same weight, even the memories of them. How difficult was writing the Indigenous characters in both of these novels given the current prejudicial climate Indigenous people face in Canada and the United States, and that their histories have likely been lost or not as fully recorded to the same extent as men like Boone? It was difficult for me as a white descendant of Canadian settlers to even begin to write about the Indigenous people in the novels. And you're of course right about the fact that any recording of Woodland Nations histories at the time was done by settlers, usually with little benevolence (there's a mention of how the "Indians" always start their meetings with a long talk, which wasn't recognized as oral history). The lack in the record was worse than Rebecca's—so much was lost or misshapen or deliberately thrown away. And I was conscious all the time that because the point of view in my books is Dan's and Rebecca's, every presentation of the Indigenous characters is via white perceptions. Historians usually say Dan appreciated the Woodland way of life more than most Europeans—and part of his fame was as a "White Indian”—but so much of that was a takeover, in spite of his genuine ties to Black Fish and some of the other people he knew well. I had a few known hooks to hang onto with Black Fish's character—he wasn't much older than Dan, he'd also lost a son, he was a powerful leader with a great speaking voice. But he couldn't just be Dan's mirror. I hoped to show him more broadly in his skilled handling of meetings and votes, and more in his relationships with his own family, his wife and daughters. When I'd gathered what I could from research, I wanted to show life in Chillicothe as almost mundane, people going about their business, kids playing, teenagers sulking, etc. I hope very much that it doesn't read as tourist-like, despite coming through Dan's perception. He becomes comfortable there, but he is a romanticizer, and once he's left the Shawnee, his memories are sometimes idealized. I was conscious of that too. Black Fish's retreats into silence, like those of Pompey, the "Black Shawnee" and interpreter, became part of his personality for me, reflecting his knowledge that he won't get complete truth or fair dealing from Dan's people. And all the failed communication and misunderstandings, especially those leading to the siege, were heartbreaking to read and write about. Again, I had a strong sense of hopes for peace and connection raised and smashed, over and over. I read somewhere that it's easy to forget, when writing about actual events, that the people at the time didn't know what was going to happen. As silly as that might sound, it helped me keep up the sense of tension, from a writerly perspective. The Cherokee Jim (his actual name is unknown) was the most difficult for me to write. He was a frequent visitor at the Boones' place before they headed towards Kentucky, and he was one of the murderers of their son Jamesie. The Ndé scholar Margo Tamez was kind enough to speak about him at a reading I gave, saying he was the strongest character for her, and the most sympathetic. I hadn't seen him that way, though I'd understood his action as a warning to Dan's party to stay off unceded land, as they'd been told. He returns in My Name Is a Knife at the darkest level of Dan's mind—Rebecca's too, when she lets herself think about him—and becomes a focus of rage. The way he's dehumanized becomes a symbol of the settlers' flattened image of "Indians." But he's not that simple either. No person is. Babies. There are so many of them! I really liked how each birth added to Rebecca's agency, even her own and not the ones she delivered. Did you intend for them to be a subtle way to notch the passing of time, which in this novel can feel jolting from one big fight to the next, or as something to break up the carnage, or both? Because sometimes I have to admit, my thoughts were, "This does not seem practical." Ha! Completely impractical, but true. There are so many historical babies—Dan and Rebecca came from big families, and had nine children themselves, who started producing their own kids very young—and that's one of the points both the protagonists make, that kids are having kids, all part of the general chaos of the time and place. I actually had to cut out some of the extended offspring, for clarity's sake (doesn't help when everyone has the same name). I did want the births to be Rebecca's territory as a midwife, and also to echo some of the children Dan knew in Chillicothe, the Shawnee town, especially the ones he can't forget. You're right, there's a lot of tension and big fights in Dan's world, and I knew Rebecca's sphere had to feel equally urgent, though her life was ostensibly much more domestic, with all the "smallness" that implies. But what's more dramatic than childbirth? Frontier childbirth, without anaesthetic or forceps or stitches? Having been through two emergency caesarians, I'm always stunned that so many of the women and children around Rebecca survived and were healthy. Her narrative is as much about survival as Dan's is. As for time, I wasn't very conscious about marking its passage—more with trying to keep both the tension and the events of both worlds lined up. A spreadsheet might have helped, but I'm Excel-impaired. Though so was everyone on the frontier, I guess. Verisimilitude. The vernacular and dialogue between characters is so completely consuming, natural and of a time that it easily pulls the reader right into what could seem an otherwise daunting and antiquated world, stiff and not easy to slip into. It's clear you lived with these characters in your head for a long, long time. How was it to share your head with frontiersmen and women, for so long? Do you still? Well, I was teary but satisfied to send them on their way with that final manuscript. And I can still tune in to Dan FM pretty easily; when a reader asks me what he would say or do in some situation, I usually have a quick answer. I can hear Rebecca more quietly. Both voices took a long time to get right, but once they were there, they were there. I think about them still, as well as some of their children—Jemima and James and Israel—and Black Fish, Captain Will, Pompey, Methoataske. They can hang around; I don't mind sharing head space most of the time (I have two young children—parents, you feel me?). I'm drafting another novel now, set in a different place and time, and the main character slammed right into me. So, I thought I had that voice from the start, but it's shifting too as the mess of the draft grows. I still seem to expect instant gratification. I wouldn't have survived very long on the frontier, clearly.
My grandfather had never told me about his trip to the Soviet Union in the sixties, but I don’t know why I was surprised. He never told me anything, not even my grandmother’s name.
Last November, my grandfather told me that he went to the Soviet Union in 1962 as a roadie for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. We were eating dinner, spaghetti squash with watery Bolognese, wine from the basement. The table was set with marmalade-colored Ikea napkins on forest-green linen. “We had to put the harp between the pilot and the co-pilot,” he said, looking at my step-grandmother. “There wasn’t room anywhere else.” Outside, the snow had hardened into a crust. It was the first time I had heard him mention this trip. I had no idea he had ever been to the Soviet Union. My grandfather is in his seventies. If you Google image search his last name, which we don’t share, you will see obituary photos of old Polish women with perms and carnations pinned to their blouses. He is balding. His blue eyes pop unexpectedly, frog like, from behind his glasses. He wears pressed caramel pants, never jeans, and as far as I can tell he has little to no interest in Poland or being Polish. The guest bedroom in his Calgary home has mints on the pillows, bars on the windows, and was renovated to look like Don Draper’s living room. When I visit, the first thing we do is go through his version of a safety seminar. He explains how to open the bars and climb out the window in case of fire. I never listen. I figure I’ll just go out the back door, but the bars annoy me because they are indicators of anxiety rather than danger. No one walks down the streets there. The little fortified bungalow near the airport will never see a pedestrian, let alone a robbery. He ladled the tomato sauce onto a pile of squash, and it flooded the plate. “You understand the context, right?” he said. “You have to understand the context. Montreal was invited to perform in Moscow only because the Kremlin wanted to have a musical exchange with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, and Soviet planes weren’t allowed to land on US soil.” He looked over his glasses at me. I understood some of the context. In 1962, the Cold War was escalating. It was the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis. I guess Washington didn’t want these musicians—probably spies—landing in their territory. Questions of national security and the fear of nuclear fallout were ever present. A war of culture had started to prove ideological superiority, as though a pianist could affirm that collectivization was better than Liberal market capitalism. By inviting Montreal to participate in the exchange, the Soviet musicians could fly on a Canadian plane to the US, and back to Canada, to play at Place des Arts. Then, the MSO would tour the USSR. At least, that is what I understood from his explanation. “The place was grey,” he said, cutting his food with the mannered precision of someone who has learned table etiquette later in life, a class chameleon. “Was it ever grey.” When he talks he uses the cadence of a salesman. Each phrase is constructed towards selling the product of implicit agreement. As I grew older, I learned to not believe everything he said. “You have to understand what was going on there at the time. Bread lines went on forever. All they sold was vodka. Everything was grey, the clothes, the buildings, the sky. It was all grey, so when they saw us, well, that was a different story, but they weren’t allowed to talk to us, even if they wanted to.” * In 1953, Stalin was found on the floor next to his bed, paralyzed, stuttering, pajamas soaked in urine. In their accounts, witnesses always took note of the urine stain, as though the weakness of the man’s body was a surprise, a truth that had to be recorded to be reconciled. Or maybe it was just a crucial humiliation. The paranoid arbiter of life and death pissed himself when he was dying, like anyone else would. He likely lay next to his bed for hours after the stroke. No one wanted to disturb him, because they were afraid of retribution. One of many hundred doctors, imprisoned in the previous months during an anti-Semitic purge, had to be consulted in his jail cell. No free doctors knew what to do. And like those who waited hours and hours before opening his bedroom door, those who attended to the Great Leader in the hospital were terrified. The dentist who removed his dentures was trembling so much that he dropped them on the floor. But none of the nurses or doctors or bodyguards were killed, exiled, imprisoned, or demoted, because Stalin died three days later after an unsuccessful treatment of leeches and oxygen. “It is difficult for most people to imagine how a nation worshipped such a monster,” Oleg Kalugin wrote in his memoir, Spymaster, which details his life as a KGB operative, “but the truth is that most of us—those who had not felt the lash of his repression—did. His propaganda machine was all powerful, I revered Stalin.” In ’62, the MSO would have landed in a world where, only a decade before, musicians were sent to the Gulag for any misstep, any note that displeased the Party. Up until Stalin’s death, music was tightly censored. It had to fit into the aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism, or be innocuous enough to maintain the Politburo’s idea of a status quo. “Our bloody tyrant was in a bad mood one day,” the composer Dmitri Tolstoy said in the documentary War Symphonies, describing how Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was banned, “and then he went to the opera.” It isn’t clear what Stalin objected to, maybe the plot’s moral imperative to kill a tyrant or the sex scenes. Either way, an anonymous letter published in the newspaper Pravda a few days later said that the opera “titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music,” and signed off by warning “it might end very badly.” It was no secret that Pravda was the mouthpiece of the communist party, and that this letter was probably penned by the man himself. Shostakovich had to be very careful. Jazz was suppressed. In 1949 all saxophone players in Moscow were ordered to KGB headquarters, where their instruments were confiscated, and their names put on a list. Musicians were put under surveillance. Jazz was considered dangerous. It had bourgeois implications. It glamorized individualism, and experimentation. Songs like “Yablochko,” that mixed traditional folk with military marching music, fit in with the official party line, music that could define the new proletariat, without relying on nostalgia for a Tsarist past. Folk was the music of the common people, so it didn’t threaten communist culture, and marching bands were the metaphorical sound of the army. If there was any evidence of a trumpet mute, a brazen bass player plucking instead of bowing, or a flatted fifth, the musician would be immediately arrested and sent to the gulag. A popular phrase was “today he dances jazz, tomorrow he will sell his homeland.” My friend Chrystia’s family fled Ukraine during World War Two. She told me that the first time she visited, she was walking through the tangerine light of downtown Kiev. A busker played saxophone, and even then, everyone who passed turned their heads away or stared at the sidewalk. The saxophone was still an uncomfortable symbol. People had been so well trained to disassociate from anything suspect that it was Pavlovian, if no longer imperative, to look away from anything that could be dangerous. This legacy of fear runs deep. * My step-grandmother carried an almond cake from the kitchen and placed it between us as we drank the dregs of a bottle of wine. I could feel the sediment in my mouth. She is beautiful in an unremarkable but relentless way, like Debbie Reynolds in Singing in the Rain, with delicate, perfectly placed features and endless small-town Francophone charm. In the ‘60s she worked as a flight attendant in a dusty blue suit with matching pillbox hat, and spent part of the ‘70s stationed out of Casablanca working chartered flights from Morocco to Mecca. When I was a teenager she would bring out nail polish and a file. “If you tried harder,” she said, “you could marry a rich man.” My grandfather cradled his fishbowl wine glass between his fingers. Sun spots freckled his hands. “At the Kremlin, one of the violinists was wearing a nylon shirt,” he said to no one. “Imagine, they hadn’t seen synthetic fabric. It caused a stir in the audience, and afterwards the guy exchanged it for a suitcase of rubles. Of course, he was arrested on the spot by his translator.” Why had I never heard this before? “Those rubles would do nothing in Quebec. It was basically Monopoly money.” I know so little about any of his life. “Wait, what did your mother think of you going there, being Polish?” I asked. “I hadn’t seen her since I was thirteen.” “Really? Why?” “Each of us had a translator who doubled as a KGB handler. It was how it was done. The poor dupe just didn’t know until it was too late.” I have always wondered why my grandfather refuses to speak about certain subjects. One subject he avoids is my biological grandmother. I know nothing about her. She could be dead or alive. She could be my neighbor. I don’t even know her name. When I ask about her, he responds with diversions and evasions. This applies to everything, even his account of this trip to the Soviet Union. The details are difficult to confirm, but the basic facts are easy to research. The tour was three weeks long, with five stops: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Vienna, Paris. Zubin Mehta, the Mumbai-born conductor, organized the trip. After my visit, I emailed my grandfather several times to ask for more information. The first time I left the question open, hoping he would fill in missing details. The second time I listed specific questions: What was it like to be in a communist country in the ‘60s? What was Zubin Mehta like? How did Soviets interact with you? What were the musicians like? Tell me more about the concert at the Kremlin? He responded with two short sentences: It’s nice that you’re interested. You should do more research. * Psychologist Michael Slepian published a study called “The Experience of Secrecy” in 2017. The average person, he writes, has thirteen secrets, five of which have never been revealed to anyone. He defines a secret as something that you intend to hide, even if you never have to hide it. The secret exists before and after the point it is concealed. “Secrecy” he writes “is something we do alone in a room.” Examining the effect secrets have on mental and physical health, the study concludes that the burden (and there does seem to be a physical toll) comes not only from the content, but from how preoccupied we are with it. The more our mind wanders to the subject, the more difficult simple tasks become, hills seem steeper, distances farther, everyday chores exhausting. The metaphorical language of unburdening the weight of a secret is maybe more tangible than we understand. Grade five was the beginning of my conscious relationship to secrecy. My friend Mai and I sometimes slipped away from the other kids during recess to talk about what no one talked about. At the edge of the fields and fields of playground, only possible in a prairie city like Edmonton, was a swing set. No one could play on it because fights would break out over whose turn it was, but also because Jared Michaels* said that an old man with a white beard, wearing garbage bags for shoes, hung out there, and had given him a baggie of white powder, telling him to light it. He ended up with second degree burns on half of his face. The adults didn’t know what to do, so that entire end of the schoolyard was out of bounds, and carefully patrolled by volunteer lunch supervisors in yellow vests. The kids knew Jared had lied about the old man, that he had stolen a handful of gun powder from his parents and lit it up as a spectacle for his friends. We were all burgeoning pyromaniacs at the time, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I remember feeling the first hints of pride at diagnosing his stupidity, planning my safer, more impressive grass fires as a response to his, and then guilt when he came to class with blisters running up his cheek to his eyelid. Near the swing sets was an old cedar tree that was perfect for climbing. If you swung back and forth while holding onto the lowest branch, you could use your feet to walk up the trunk, and flip yourself onto the branch. From there, each branch was like a rung on a ladder. When you got to the top, you could watch the playground from above, like a guard in a surveillance tower. I had a dramatic way of telling secrets. I would whisper “I have something to tell you,” in Mai’s ear while we sat on the bench in gym class waiting to be subbed on for floor hockey, “let's talk about it in the tree.” The recess bell would ring. We would run before anyone else could see where we had gone, and climb up. I realized quickly that my family had more secrets than the families around me, and I needed to make sense of it. Their secrets weren’t veiled translations from the adult world that I could decipher as I got older. They were omissions. No one spoke about my grandmother. No one spoke about my father. When I found out that this was because he was schizophrenic, I told Mai. The fact of schizophrenia was as unusual a revelation as the fact that I was supposed to care that some man I never knew, who existed elsewhere, had the problem. I told her in the tree, and the word, which may be outdated now, felt ugly on my tongue. Stigma was latent in the enunciation. It was a word of consonants, medicalized and complicated, with a suffix that could only mean problems, and by the sound of it should only be repeated in private. But there were other secrets. We talked about our shared crush, who had perfect dark caterpillar eyebrows. We talked about BDSM, because I had come across the phrase in a newspaper article about a court case. We talked about our bodies. We talked about things which aren’t mine to share. When we were up in the tree, nothing else mattered. The football fields that ran along 76th Avenue disappeared. Edmonton became a set designed as a backdrop for us. The younger kids playing freeze-tag disappeared. Naomi and Lena, cross-legged behind the skating rink, playing truth or dare in Chicago Bulls caps, disappeared. Who cared that we weren’t invited to French-kiss. Who cared that Cam White, brushing his blonde hair from his eyes like Leo in Titanic, wanted to kiss them and not us. It all faded in favor of excavating the new secret, and sharing the discovery that up until then we had been lied to. And aren’t we all lied to, constantly? * After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev became the new leader of the Communist Party. His tenure is referred to as the Thaw because repression and censorship were relaxed. Millions were released from prisons and labor camps. Those who had died behind their walls were officially exonerated. In 1958, Khrushchev held the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition. The Iron Curtain had only barely lifted, and foreign musicians were invited to compete. A twenty-three-year-old Texan Baptist named Van Cliburn won first prize. He played Rachmaninoff. The musical motifs yearned for a metaphysical Russian past. His fingering lingered emotionally on the notes. It was not the safest way to play music at the time. It would have been discouraged in favor of precise, technically adept fingering. Van Cliburn was humble, boyish. He genuinely, unguardedly loved Russia, and for Soviet audiences it was like someone had cracked open a can, the lid peeled off, the seal broke, he had the effect of Elvis. Teenagers swooned. Thousands camped outside of the concert hall in hopes of getting tickets. People risked punishment to send him tokens of their affection. He left Moscow with suitcases full of gifts. Twenty-five-thousand items: samovars, malachite cigarette boxes, silver cutlery, woodcuttings, music scores, jewelry, photographs, violins, perfume, paintings, letters, valuables that had been hidden away during the terror of the previous decades. Second-place was shared between the nineteen-year-old Chinese pianist Liu Shikun, and the Georgian pianist Lev Vlassenko. After the competition Liu Shikun was sentenced to six years in a Chinese prison for playing Western music. The Cultural Revolution had hit a shrill pitch. Students from the Beijing Conservatory of Music joined the Red Guards in their denunciation of Western, and feudalist, music, beating professors and classmates with boards of nails and belt buckles. The bone in Shikun’s forearm was shattered during an interrogation. After years in the labor camp, one day a guard accidentally left a newspaper in his cell, and the pianist managed to compose a note, attaching characters ripped from the article using pieces of sticky bun as glue. He hid the note in his prison cell until the right moment came years later. He was able to sneak it to a visitor, who then delivered it to a Party member who pardoned him. The third-place winner, Naum Shtarkman, was sent to prison for eight years after the competition, when a witch-hunt broke out against homosexuals at the Moscow Conservatory. He was arrested on his way to a concert for factory workers in the industrial city of Kharkov. They were both in prison when my grandfather visited Moscow. * The dry, nearly fat-free cake was brown and deflated. I cut it into bite sized pieces with a butter knife, because I needed something to do with my hands, and the half-eaten lumps looked like balls of clay. Someone had put on a CD, a Quebecoise chanteuse I had never heard. She was singing from the adjoining pink living room, filling the long silences, so they were less obvious. I had the urge to get drunk. Across from me was a landscape painting. Mountains edged by a lake. I took a bite of the cake. It was dry and difficult to swallow. I washed it down with wine. How do we understand family secrets without considering their relationship to shame? And how do we begin to consider something so murky, so complicated? Shame is a social emotion, administered by the disapproving gaze of another. It filters our perception of ourselves. It is the feeling that who you are is wrong, that who you are must be hidden from the outside world. Etymologists suspect that the root of the word shame is from Proto-Germanic skamo, to cover, and the Greek aiskhyne, to put someone to disgrace. The word stigma has a revealing history too. In the 1560s, it was a physical mark scratched into skin with a pointed stick until it would leave a permanent scar, or a brand burned into skin with a hot iron. In the 1600s, stigmata were marks appearing on the body that mirrored the wounds of crucifixion. Now stigma is an invisible mark that everyone can see. When I told Mai my secrets, I remember trying to fight against a world where appearances were more important than isolation, and self-hate. I thought that if I was open about my father being schizophrenic, then kids couldn’t hurt me by saying I was destined to be cuckoo for cocoa puffs. I wasn’t hiding anything. * Khrushchev delivered the Secret Speech, officially called “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences,” during a meeting of the Communist Party in 1958. He denounced Stalin’s network of prisons and labor camps. On its face, his speech was an investigation into the Great Purge, though it was also an analysis of Stalin’s methodology, the machine that revered him and rendered him omnipresent. For his own reasons, Khrushchev wanted to show Stalin’s reign of terror for what it was. Stalin, he told his comrades, was a man who gave orders to shoot soldiers retreating from the front line. A man who fabricated crimes and put on show trials to educate his people about the new social order. But, the exposure of this propaganda was disturbing. People in the audience fainted, and later some committed suicide. When someone is forced to repeat an obvious lie, Hannah Arendt observed, even if they don’t believe the lie, through repetition of the lie they submit to the liar. They are forced to choose the world contained by the lie. Self-deception can become a matter of survival. If you are constantly affirming the lie, why not believe it? At least believe it sometimes, or with half of your mind, or because you stop being able to comprehend a world outside of the lie. When do you start to believe that Jazz is dangerous, and that it’s a slippery slope from loving jazz to betraying your family, to betraying your nation, to betraying yourself? Certain lies are exercises in power and social control. What happens when the lie is dismantled? Were the suicides after Khrushchev's secret speech a reaction to the disclosure of these lies? Was it a question of complicity? Was the horror too much? I am not interested in a simple narrative where Western musicians go to the Soviet Union and liberate minds through art. I don’t consider the West to be a place of freedom. Its prisons are full too. Still, as I researched Soviet music to understand what the MSO would be walking into, it became clear that the double lives of these Soviet musicians and audiences offered insight into the loneliness and horror of extreme social censure. In 1957, Glenn Gould began to play in Moscow to an almost empty hall. At intermission, the entire audience used the telephone in the lobby, and called their friends, urging them to come to the concert as fast as they could. After intermission, the hall was so packed that people stood in the aisles, and out the door onto the streets. Tatiana Zelikma, a pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, described this concert by saying “we started to live by each new recording of Gould’s and until his death, his life became part of our life.” One of the first Western musicians behind the Iron Curtain was the soprano Lois Marshall. She toured in a ball gown with lavish layers of crinoline and her limited mobility, the effect of polio, captivated the audience. They were already breathless before she started to sing. “She represented inner freedom,” musician Olexander Tumanov wrote, “which was an absolutely overwhelming concept, because we were all captives in our own country.” * “You remember that guy, what was his name?” my grandfather said, mostly to himself. “He rented a white baby grand. The ladies loved him, but he never paid his bill. I had to go up to his hotel the night before he left town to get him to pay up. He came to the door in sunglasses and a bathrobe with a bottle of champagne.” He pushed back his chair and crossed his legs. “Dino-something-or-other…” I put my fork down next to my plate. “I was wondering,” I paused. “What was your first wife, my grandmother’s, name?” He looked at his watch, then turned to the window. The sun had set outside. It was a dark moonless sky, and the milky way was visible above the snow. He looked at his watch again. “Look at the time, it’s getting late. The game should be on soon.” I stared at him, his eyes, his nose, and couldn’t help thinking, who is this person in front of me? What is he hiding? Why is he hiding it? I finished my glass of wine. My face was burning. Maybe I didn’t need to know anything about him to understand myself better. Somehow, I want to mourn these missing people, lost in the preservation of an acceptable family, but I don’t know how. And each time I ask a question that he won’t answer I feel it again, the hint of shame, the reminder that there is something to keep secret. “The Oilers are playing the Flames.” He pushed back his chair. “We can light a fire in the Chinook room if you want. I know you like a nice fire.” *not his real name.
The author of A Terrible Country on what a story about Russia can say about America, dark moments during writing, and why there aren’t more novels about hockey.
Keith Gessen's second novel, A Terrible Country (Viking), is a moving story about a young man taking care of his ailing grandmother in a changing Moscow. Keith Gessen’s second novel, A Terrible Country, is also a subtly terrifying story about the rise of authoritarian politics in contemporary Russia. That this novel can contain both of these aspects is no small accomplishment; in telling the tale of Andrei, a young academic who returns to Moscow from the United States in 2008 for familial reasons and falls in with a group of passionate leftists, Gessen has crafted a story that resonates with the present moment in numerous ways. As Andrei muses on Russian literature, the role of capitalism in post-Soviet Russia, and his own fraught connections to his brother and grandmother, Gessen is able to weave in narrative strands both sentimental and cerebral. It’s a work that reads like the accumulation of his own areas of expertise: he’s a founder of the magazine n+1, he’s translated several literary works from Russian into English, and his writing includes everything from fiction to analysis of global politics. We talked with Gessen about the genesis of A Terrible Country, the unruly relationship between hockey and fiction, and the tricky business of writing literature about Russian literature. * Tobias Carroll: I wanted to begin in a place that’s hopefully related to A Terrible Country: you recently had a piece in the New York Times Magazine about “Russia hands” and the way that perceptions of Russia have affected American foreign policy. I was wondering how much of an overlap there was for you in terms of working on that piece and going into some of the history and philosophy of this novel? Keith Gessen: I wrote the piece when I was done with the novel, but I guess they come from the same kind of place, of thinking about Russia in a more complicated way. The book probably comes out of a certain amount of frustration with what I was able to accomplish as a journalist with regard to Russia, in terms of communicating how complicated and rich and contradictory actual Russia is. It’s something that I feel like I failed to communicate as a journalist. So I've tried, in this novel, to to do that. In that way, the novel is a more congenial form for communicating some of those things. At what point did that kind of frustration lead into the book? Had you already had some notion of it and then the thematic overlap became apparent, or was that kind of the initial impulse that the novel grew out of? Yeah. You know, I was born in Russia and I have been back and forth a fair amount since the mid nineties. So I was going there a lot; sometimes I went there less, and I spent a year there in 2008/2009. While I was there I thought, "Well I couldn't possibly write a novel about this place, I have family here and I was born here but I just don't really know enough about the people here. I know enough to do journalism, which is where you have to get your facts right, but you can just follow the facts. Whereas with fiction you need to know a place well enough to make stuff up.” At least for the kind of fiction writer that I am, I need to know a place really well. I don't feel confident making stuff up unless I really know all the possibilities of how things could go. I feel like you need to know a place really well to be able to do that. When I was over there I mostly concentrated on doing journalism, and then I got back and that time started to seem like a story with a kind of beginning/end that I could write about. It's mostly a story about this guy and his grandmother, but that would in the process sort of touch on a lot of things about Russia and the contemporary society. I thought that was something that I could manage. Initially I had this notion that I would put everything that I knew about Russia into it, so I had this draft where I spent a year at the library, the New York Public Library. I had the Cullman Center Fellowship, where you go there every day, it's part of the deal. You have to go there every day and they can order any book that's in the library system, including books that are in the storage in New Jersey. They arrive by the next morning. You just sit there on your computer with any book you can think of and then it arrives. So I was just sitting there ordering books all year and reading them and stuffing the narrative full of histories of Russian literature and Russian oil and Russian politics. At the end of the year I had this draft that was incredibly long and consisting, at least in half of it, of these long essays. I sat down and read it, and it was just totally impossible to read. Oh no. That was a discouraging moment. It wasn't the darkest moment in the composition of the book but it was up there. I was like, "Ah, okay. That's not gonna work. I need to try to communicate stuff about Russia but in the form of a story." It's just a matter of, at that point, deleting stuff and seeing what remained of the story at hand. In fact, making the story more about the grandmother, actually. Since you mentioned it, what was the darkest moment in the writing of it? Probably the darkest moment was when I was six or seven years into it and I had spent a day working on a scene and then toward evening I was tired and started cleaning up my apartment, which is not something I do very often. But I did some cleaning up and was putting some notebooks away. I was putting one of my notebooks away, and I looked into it. It was a notebook where I had been writing the book three or four years earlier, and I found the exact same scene, basically written in the exact same way. At that point I realized I was rewriting the book again, and that was a dark moment. Another dark moment was when the book was further along, and I kind of went through it and I thought, "Oh, I have a pretty reasonable draft here, I just need to go in and explain some stuff." I spent this period of time where I went to my dad's house; he sort of lets me live in the basement. There's a Starbucks, and I’d go and sit there for ten hours. I just filled in all this background of the characters and I sent that off to my editor and my best reading friend, and they were both like, "It's a little long." My friend Chad and I had this argument about how long it was. When you're working with these Word files, you don't actually know how many pages it is, and Chad went and read it and said, "It feels it's about 600 pages, it must be, what, like 600 pages?" And I was like, "No, no, it's 300 pages!" And in truth it was something like 450 pages, meaning I thought it was shorter than it actually was, and Chad thought it felt even longer. That was another dark moment. From there again it was just a matter of cutting stuff out, and it turned out I didn't need all that stuff. Because you set the book when you did, I felt like I learned a lot about Russia at that particular moment in time, but it seems like there are also a lot of parallels to the American political situation in the last ten years: the rise of a strongman leader, union-busting at universities, and the efforts of people to make a better life here. Were those parallels conscious, or was it something that emerged as history played out? That was history. The interesting thing about Russia is that, I think we think these historical processes are very different, and that what’s been happening in Russia was, until recently, very separate and discrete. But as the real-life Russian left has been saying for awhile, what you see in Russia is actually a form of capitalism. In certain ways it's behind or less advanced than what we have in the U.S., and in other ways it anticipated a lot of what we're seeing here. Those descriptions of fights over privatization of universities, those arguments in Russia were happening before they started happening here. Probably because they had public free education under the Soviet Union and then it started getting privatized, and we didn't really have that, and in Russia they started being privatized in the nineties. In the U.S. that really started happening to the state universities after the financial crisis. So they were ahead of us in certain other ways, also in terms of union busting. I've always found that being in Russia is very clarifying for my understanding of the American political situation, because things are more on the surface. In the U.S. things are just more complicated; there's a kind of corruption. In Russia it's really in your face. Pretty much every time I've spent a lot of time in Russia I've come back and been able to understand things that are happening here a lot better. You brought up the Russian left in the real world, and you definitely have a component of that in the novel, so I'm curious about where for you the line is between wanting to faithfully represent the arguments of the Russian left but also incorporate it into the novel in a way that is a functional part of the story you're telling. You don't want to these long lectures in your book, but ultimately the kind of content—if you're like, "Okay, I'm gonna go ahead and have some lectures, I'm just gonna do it"—this book is going to be one of those books that has a few. [And] as I suggested earlier, there used to be a lot more than that. It's down to the bare minimum that I could live with. I needed some of that. If you're going to have lectures in your book even if you cut it down to the bone, as far as fiction it doesn't really matter what the content is in terms of their function, whether or not they work in the novel. The question is, can you connect them to the rest of the novel? And also, do you think they're true? I happen to agree with Russia’s left and the things they say in here that I have that I think are true. The trick for me writing it… when you're writing about people you actually admire, it's harder in a way. It kind of depends on the kind of writer you are, but I find it easier… when I'm reviewing books I always found it more fun to write critically and I find [that] easier than to write appreciatively. In fiction I'm the same way. I find it pretty easy to make fun of characters and a lot more difficult to write an interesting viewing character. One challenge was just not making them into paragon of virtue who were perfect people who were totally right about everything. Make them sort of human, but some humans are more right than others. Some people live more ethically, or try to. I really like these people, I was just trying to make it not too gushy. The other challenge is trying to make the stuff they say and think relevant to the reader of the book. I don't know if it's effective, I don't know if it works, but ultimately what I figured out at some point—it was staring me in the face the whole time, but it took a while to get there—is the grammar of the story in a way is this great argument, at least against capitalism. Andrei realizes that at a certain point and I as the author also realized that. I hope it's more organic to the book. It makes more sense to the grammar of the story. I really liked the speech Sergei gives in the book store, and I liked the fact that he also has ties to this completely other different part of the novel, which is to say all the scenes of Andrei playing hockey. This is one of the handful of novels that I've read that delves into the world of playing ice hockey. Why do you think there have not been a ton of books about hockey? I can think of baseball novels and football novels and soccer novels, but other than the one Don DeLillo wrote under a pseudonym, I can think of very few hockey narratives. It's very sad! It's a great tragedy of our literature. Seriously, I think maybe for the same reason that there hasn't been a lot of lacrosse novels. Hockey in a way is a Canadian game. It doesn't match the way or obviously speak to [us] about American themes of race or class in the way that basketball does and the way that football does, the way that baseball does. I can't think of a ton of football novels either. I love hockey, and that's the sport that I played growing up and in Russia it is a natural, less of a stretch, I think in the context. I kept thinking I was going to have to cut it out—it was a real treat for me to write about hockey. But I thought, "Well, the day of reckoning will come when I read this novel and see I have to cut out all the hockey." And there used to be more hockey in it, but ultimately it turned out to be a kind of fun thing to have in there, not necessarily extraneous, and part of the fabric of Russian life in a nice way. I was very happy to be able to do that for hockey and American literature. In a case like this when you're writing a novel about someone whose area of study is literature and you're throwing in a couple of references to the stories and novels they're teaching, how do you balance that so it feels organic? In terms of the Chekhov works or other things you alluded to, would you say there were parallels if one was to work closer and do some reading based on the books cited in this, would they find some sort of resonant moments within your novel? I think so. I think it's always tricky having explicit references to literature inside of literary works. As a younger reader, I always found them pretty off-putting, because I hadn't read a lot of these books. My reaction was, "Do the work of whatever you're trying to say, explain it to me. Don't send me off somewhere to read another book, I'm reading your book." I feel like the guy is a literature adjunct professor so it's a big part of his life. It was a big part of his grandmother's life—he is surrounded by other people who study this stuff. In a way, to exclude this stuff would be almost unrealistic. It's certainly true, when writers and literary people get together, that they talk about TV more than they talk about books, but they do, in the end, guiltily discuss some books here and there. It seemed okay. Within that, there used to be a lot more of that stuff and now it's down to Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva, Shmelyov, maybe a couple of others—Chekhov, he keeps reading Chekhov's story. I had to choose wisely. I hope it's presented in a way that you can give a capsule summary. The first-person narration, I found it really tough going a lot of the time, it's pretty confining. It's a pretty tough point of view, it was for me, working in the first person. But one thing first-person is pretty good for is a broad summary. It is a pretty natural thing when you're talking to someone about some work of literature or film that they haven't encountered that you give them a summary of the plot. That's something that happens in conversation a lot. You have a kind of conversational narrator, it's not crazy for him to do that. I feel like most of this stuff is described in the book, it's not just allusions. Certainly The Cossacks is one book that's alluded to in the text that served as a model in terms of the basic story line of the book for me. That's a book where—it's an early Tolstoy novel, very understated in terms of what happens in it—a guy goes to a Cossack village, finds it difficult at first, and really falls in love with it, doesn't want to leave, and then he has to. That's always been one of my favorite things by Tolstoy, and in a kind of very general outline that's what happens in this book, too. I know you've also translated a couple of books. Would you say there are writers writing in Russian or places translating Russian writers into English, either fiction or nonfiction, who, if someone enjoyed your handling of the Russian left and the current political situation, might be a good next step for them to go to? Certainly. A writer I've translated and really admire is a guy named Kirill Medvedev. With a number of other translators, I did a book called It's No Good, which is a mixture of his poetry and essays about contemporary Russia, and about what the 1990s looked like in Russia, and his search for political and personal position on all of that. I would definitely recommend that.
I was told getting laid off from my dream job had nothing to do with me, but after I was let go, I felt like I had lost a part of myself that I couldn’t get back.
When I need comfort and familiarity, I cycle through five or so different movies I’ve seen at least a half dozen times each. Nora Ephron’s 1998 classic You’ve Got Mail is a frequent go-to. Watching Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a smug but charming business man, destroy Kathleen Kelly’s (Meg Ryan) livelihood by opening a big chain bookshop beside her tiny independent while they fall in love anonymously online is somehow the perfect romantic comedy. On my most recent watch, though, I found myself emotional over one particular exchange. Joe visits Kathleen in a bid to win her over romantically and begins telling her that destroying her business wasn’t personal. In response, she tells him, “I am so sick of that. All it means is that it’s not personal to you, but it’s personal to me. Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” “It’s not personal, it’s just business” is a film and television trope so pervasive that up until recently I didn’t question its truth. When I was laid off from what I thought was my dream job, nearly a year ago, some version of it was repeated by almost everyone who talked to me. One morning in mid-July 2017, nearly ten months into my employment as a staff writer, my entire office gathered for an emergency town hall where it was announced that the media giant I worked for would be cutting sixty or so positions worldwide. We were told in vague terms this was because the company was growing and resources had to be allocated elsewhere, elsewhere being our television and film studio. Headlines called this a “pivot to video.” It was a phrase popularized earlier that same year, when MTV News in New York City laid off almost its entire editorial staff. For an entire week at my office, in hushed tones, water cooler talk turned into discussions about who would get cut and why. “This happens with every media company at some point,” was the general consensus on how to deal with the news. That week, I went for dinner with friends of mine who also worked in media. They all assured me I had nothing to worry about. “You’re too good for them to let you go.” A part of me believed it, as illogical as it was. I was far from the best writer or most efficient worker on my team, and layoffs weren’t a popularity contest. It was all about money, and not us as individuals. It was a Thursday morning, shortly after my team’s daily meeting, when I received a Slack message from my boss asking me to come to the most secluded meeting room in our trendy, open concept office. Immediately, I knew what was about to happen. The director of HR told me my position was redundant and laying me off had nothing to do with my performance. I was then instructed to leave the office within five minutes with my coat and bag (the rest of my stuff would be mailed to me) and to absolutely not say goodbye to anyone so as to not disrupt the process. My emails and Google Docs disappeared as I was in my meeting, I was not given a chance to save anything. As I was packing up what I could, trying to blink back tears while also not alerting my coworkers I had been let go, I couldn’t believe it was over in such an unceremonious way. I meant nothing to this job that had meant so much to me. I had nowhere to go. Not wanting to cry on public transit I ended up in a Burger King down the street. I openly sobbed in public for the first time in my adult life. Nobody in the restaurant noticed. It’s not personal, it’s business. * I began freelance writing in the summer of 2014 after having worked for years at call centres and various dead end jobs. Not being a gifted student or having much interest in academia, writing and literature were among the few things I was passionate about. Though I didn’t admit it to any of my friends or family, I had always dreamed of writing professionally. Because I had never excelled at anything, the idea seemed impossible and embarrassing in the same way declaring you’d want to be a movie star felt. Nobody really got “jobs” in the arts unless they were special, and special was something I was certainly not. I watched as a childhood friend of mine went from blogging to freelance writing, and I asked her how to get started. She generously gave me my first byline at a fashion blog she edited and later connected me to the right people to pitch at other publications. Even though my friends and family had never heard of most places that would publish me, I was writing for money. More importantly, my dream was within reach. Like in all creative jobs, there’s no formula or clear path to finding success as a writer. While talent is a factor, much of it is dependent on being in the right place, knowing the right people, and luck. Without knowing how exactly, I accumulated increasingly recognizable bylines (finally, places my parents had heard of), and my newfound sense of ambition meant I was always looking at what was next. I soon learned that when you’re in the world of freelance writing, regardless of how sought after you become, how many Twitter followers you have or impressive American bylines you accumulate, you begin grasping for the validation and security of either a book deal or a staff position. Choosing to work in media, especially if you’re a writer, means being steeped in layoffs and restructuring, even when your position is theoretically permanent. This reality is well known the moment you begin writing with the intention of being on a staff anywhere. Because of this, obtaining a salaried job with benefits feels more like winning a prize than a natural career step. In late August of 2016, I was in talks with a hiring editor for an open position as a staff writer and after many interviews and sample pitches, my first day of work was that October. Before receiving my initial salary offer my friends had warned me this company was notorious for lowballing. Whatever was offered would be much less than what was expected or deserved from a media giant. They were right, and it took an extremely well worded counter offer written by a more experienced (and generous) friend to get a small increase in pay. Despite how little I was getting paid initially (we unionized and my pay increased to something reasonable), I was overjoyed to be employed. At work, even on my worst days, I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to write for a living. I remember a conversation with a well-intentioned executive in which he told me how lucky I was to be employed in a creative field, “I hope you remember this often,” he told me. I did feel lucky in a way. As far as jobs went, I found my coworkers and work to be mentally stimulating. My job went beyond just writing, I got to make video content I loved. I helped create a television show and, though it didn’t end up ever getting made, it will be an experience I will cherish forever. My happiness and supposed good fortune made me feel safe. Each time other media giants announced layoffs, I’d wonder if we’d be the next company to follow suit, but, not knowing how business works, I’d tell myself that a company that was worth (at the time) a billion dollars wouldn’t need to do that until I was long gone. I was safe. Knowing what I do now, it’s embarrassing to admit that having a job gave me an identity, a purpose. It gave me a legitimacy I yearned for when freelancing. Before my job, when people would ask me what I did and I’d tell them I was a writer, I felt like a fraud. The reality of freelancing is often waiting months for cheques and payments to arrive. It means knowing that one month you’ll be in demand, and the next month your inbox could be empty. The ebb and flow of the job left me too scared to even call myself a writer out loud to other people. Yes, I had been published—but that didn’t mean I would continue being published or that the people who’d publish me would even have jobs in a month. To outsiders, my worth was directly based on how much people were willing to pay for my words. And once I got a staff job, I had all the right answers. “Do you get paid for that?” I was asked multiple times by strangers making (pretty invasive) small talk. “Yeah, of course,” I’d say and immediately I felt their interest in me increase. “An actual job? With a salary and benefits?” I finally felt like I had made it. My job’s honeymoon period lasted a very long time. After the unstructured loneliness of freelancing, I looked forward to waking up before 8:00 AM. My job had a type of social cachet as well, it was a “cool” job. We worked in a former factory with exposed-brick walls in a recently gentrified area of Toronto, something I now realize is a hilarious and embarrassing cliché. I felt appreciated and valued by my immediate supervisors who nurtured my abilities. It has been rare in my experience for white editors to see me, a black Muslim woman, as a multi-dimensional writer who could publish work beyond the scope of identity politics and race. My editors encouraged me to be funny and write about what interested me, something I realize now is the bare minimum expectation as a professional writer, but it’s still more than I can say about the majority of editors who contact me now. I still had to deal with bullshit from executives who were out of touch with what those creating content were actually doing—I’ll never forget when one cornered me in a bathroom and mentioned how she mentored underprivileged girls from a black neighbourhood in an attempt at small talk—but my editors were extremely generous with their time and resources, despite being stretched thin with responsibilities. They had years of experience and were patient with how little I knew about the inner workings of a content cycle. Before, I spent hours upon hours alone, second guessing myself and yearning to bounce ideas off others. Now, I was a part of something larger. My colleagues cared about me as a team member, we had fun together! We made jokes in Slack and then we would post them on Twitter for outsiders to see! (Yes, I now realize how lame this is.) I had never understood wanting to see coworkers outside working hours, finally it made sense. We’d meet up on weekends, have meals together—some of my former coworkers are still my closest friends. During my employment, a friend of mine and I met up over dinner. We had just had a town hall that evening, in which the company’s president assured us we were part of something great. Talking about my company’s culture, she told me, “There’s no such thing as a cool job.” A job is a job, ultimately those at the top don’t really give a shit about you, she said. “It’s a scam! Capitalism is a scam.” I nodded in agreement, knowing deep down she was right. But in my mind, my job was the exception. It wasn’t like other jobs, it was a cool job people would kill to have. I was let go just a few days before my 26th birthday and two weeks before a holiday to the Netherlands and Germany with my brother and cousins. After announcing the layoff on Twitter, my inbox was flooded with opportunities from people who wanted to work with me. I’m privileged enough to have the support of my family, I knew I’d never be destitute. Still, I felt sorry for myself. I went to my brother’s house in Ottawa and played video games until late into the night in a dark basement. Each time I remembered what had happened, I’d burst into tears. I deactivated my Instagram and Twitter because I felt too much pressure to show my followers a brave face. My friends and family gave me endless pep talks, but my mind would always go back to feeling like I had lost a part of myself I couldn’t get back. My more experienced friends told me I’d get a job in no time. This still hasn’t happened, but I’m not surprised. Job scarcity and low pay from traditional media companies means dozens of my former colleagues and peers have pivoted to working for tech companies that are “creating content,” a concept that not many people can define when I ask. They’re getting paid enough to live comfortably in Toronto, something they couldn’t do before. Now, without a regular 9-5 job, I’m freelancing again, doing about any type of writing or media adjacent work I can * Recently, two young students at a coffee shop who recognized me from Twitter asked for career advice. All I could think to say was, “Um, network? Talk to people?” I didn’t know what to say. Maybe, “Find a steady government job, forget about your dreams.” Why would emerging talents, especially the young people of colour who frequently contact me for advice, want to break into this industry? Thinking about the future of publishing and media, it’s especially distressing to think of those young and emerging Canadian writers of colour. I look back on what it was like when I was trying to “break in.” It meant dealing with hostility from the few people in Canadian media with power. It meant pitching an editor one day, and seeing them tweet something vaguely racist the next week. I know what I’ve had to endure, and continue enduring in order to get the same opportunities as my white male peers. It was just over a year ago that editors from the few magazines and newspapers we have left came to the public defense of a writer who argued in favour of cultural appropriation. While many eventually apologized, I still think about that week often, as a reminder of who the gatekeepers are and what they think of us. I have no idea what my future holds. People tell me it seems like I’m doing great, but I’m not sure what that means anymore. I’ve seen the cycle of lay-offs at other media companies continue across the United States and Canada. Sometimes it’s framed as yet another “pivot to video,” other times, a business transaction. It’s sad and scary to work in media, it scares me to think of what future I have in an industry where losing your job can be met with an “it happens.” Just recently, an email to an editor at a print magazine bounced back. After hearing she was laid off, I checked her social media, only to see she had deactivated her Twitter account. It’s difficult not to miss the loss of structure and regular money that came with a job. I “got over” getting laid off because I knew I had to; as long as I work in this industry, it will likely happen again. I don’t think it’s healthy to believe having a job should be seen as anything but a normal right. I spent nearly the last half year trying to move on from something that I was told had nothing to do with me only to realize I couldn’t get over being a part of an industry that can’t fix itself. As long as employment is treated like a coveted prize, it’ll always be personal.
The author of Boys: What It Means to Become a Man on navigating masculinity in parenting, sex education and sports.
Growing up with four sisters, and no brothers, I often felt misunderstood. When I was four, I dealt with my frustration by shrieking and tearing all my clothes off in front of them. Perhaps it was my way of saying, “See, I’m different.” As a teenager, I kept my clothes on and attempted humour, trying to impress the women I fancied by saying supposedly witty things like, “I have four sisters, so I don’t understand girls at all.” But that was in the 1970s, when our ideas about gender were as unsophisticated as they were rigid. What I didn’t realize then was those ideas—and our strict adherence to them—were part of the problem. When one gender believes it can’t possibly understand another, people are less likely to try to empathize. That lack of understanding and empathy were preconditions for the way some men have treated women. With her new book, Boys: What It Means to Become a Man (HarperCollins), Rachel Giese offers young men more compassion than most of them have shown women over the years. For the respected Toronto writer and editor, the subject of manhood, which had long been of intellectual interest, became personally compelling after she and her wife adopted an Anishinaabe boy. They brought their son up without a former boy around the house to explain what it was like to be a male of the species at a particular age, or help decipher what certain behaviour means. “Which was incredibly liberating because there were no rules in the household about what he should be like,” she admitted. “But there also wasn't a road map.” So, despite the rule-less liberation, she had lots of questions, including: How do I raise this boy? How do I comprehend what the world holds for him? And how do I help him be good and thoughtful? Of course, lots of mothers and fathers have the same questions (and the parents who don’t should). And while she knew she might face accusations of womansplaining masculinity, she wasn’t about to cede the ground to MRAs or anyone else who might challenge her right to talk about guys. She set out to figure out what was going on with boys and how to help them grow into good men. Her timing was genius. Although she started working on the book in 2014, when her son was ten, it comes out in the midst of the #MeToo movement, when just about everyone agrees boys and men have to be better people. The result is a thoughtful and surprisingly generous look at a problem that has a lot of people worried or outraged or defensive. Although spending a few years delving into any subject can lead a writer to some unexpected discoveries, she downplays learning anything too shocking. “I could say I was surprised at how sweet boys are,” she told me when we met at a coffee shop in Toronto’s now mostly gentrified Leslieville neighbourhood, “but why would I be surprised by how sweet boys are?” How much people cling to the myths of biology was something she found odd, though. In the nature versus nurture debate, she leans to the latter side but realizes there might be some more intrinsic aspects to the way boys are. But it’s so hard to know because we don't exist in a cultural vacuum and there’s no way to do a pure study. The connection between boys and sports, for example, may seem preordained to those on the nature side, but there was actually a great push to get boys into sports in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century because of concerns that masculinity was under threat due to urbanization and industrialization. And girls were not welcome. The Boy Scout movement was part of the same social engineering. So at least some of what many think of as traditional masculinity may owe more to Victorian ideology than to biology. The prevailing boy narrative today, particularly around the teenage ones, is that they’re not just boisterous but dangerous. As one kid tells her, “Sometimes it feels like adults think that teenage guys are nothing but trouble.” He’s not wrong. And he’s white—the moral panic teenage boys face is much worse when they are Black or Indigenous. Rather than nothing but trouble, Giese found boys with a broad swath of temperaments and personalities and with a full range of interests and activities and strengths. “Every boy I met was way bigger than the stereotype,” she said. “More complicated, more nuanced.” So, she hopes her book presents a range of maleness that doesn't say there's one right way to be a guy. More than that, though, she argues that the boy stereotype is hugely limiting—and not just bad for women, but for men, too. If boys are complicated, so is boy culture. The book covers the role of video games and popular culture, schools and sports in the lives of boys. Giese faces her own concerns about video games—she won’t let her son play Grand Theft Auto, for example—and admits that there’s much about sports that she doesn’t like so she lets people talk about what's good about them. Both her wife and her son love hockey. “I don't love hockey, but I love that my son loves it,” she told me. “I love that he has found camaraderie. He's found a sense of mastery. I love that it's a really hard thing that he learned how to be good at. I love that he's physically active. I think competition is not necessarily a bad thing. I think if it's win at all costs, that's a bad thing but I think competitiveness is normal.” Boys builds to the subject of sex. Giese argues that we’ve long held “basement level expectations” for boys and that the narrative of masculinity is one that says boys are sexually aggressive and that sex is about male pleasure, not female pleasure. We also still have a sniggering attitude towards boys’ sexuality. Making the consent conversation about the 15 minutes before sex isn’t nearly good enough. “We don't just need to say to them, ‘No means no,’” she said. “We actually need them to see girls differently.” Sex education’s focus on biology rather than relationships isn’t helping. “We don't say to lots of young men that sex can be really beautiful and it can be really meaningful and can be a really powerful way to connect with somebody and it really should be about girls’ pleasure and it should be about mutual enjoyment,” she said. And yet lots of young men and boys would like to hear that message. They want to know how to have a good relationship. Inevitably, Giese’s fresh perspective is shaped by who she is: a progressive woman who did a minor in gender studies at university in the 1990s. And while she’s certainly not about to indulge any bad behaviour—and knows “certain rules about being a man have led men to do really shitty things”—she’s concerned about and sympathetic toward boys. Giese successfully avoids the lazy generalizations and overused buzzwords that mar much of the discussion on the internet. “If I wrote this book and I went in thinking boy culture, male culture was just sexist and awful across the board, I wouldn't have discovered the things that I discovered.” But she doesn’t spend a lot of time on what’s good about masculinity. When I suggested that to her, she bristled a bit, and seemed surprised. She then ran through a number of the men she wrote about who are doing great things to help boys and shape the men they will become.I asked her if there are any attributes of traditional masculinity worth keeping. “I think that bravery is a great quality. I think strength is a great quality. I think assertiveness is really useful. I think being tough can be useful at certain points,” she said, but those qualities are worth keeping only if they’re good for men and women. When we tell girls to be assertive and strong and brave, the traits identified with masculinity become the celebrated and enviable ones. Meanwhile, when we don’t encourage boys to strive for the ones—such as tenderness, vulnerability and nurturing—associated with femininity, we denigrate them and they become undesirable. “For me, the problem isn't the attributes,” she said, “it's separating the attributes.” I don’t envy parents trying to navigate all this. If, as Giese allows, it’s hard to be a boy, raising a boy is even harder. Although she knows there are lots of reasons to be pessimistic, Giese isn’t; she considers herself realistically optimistic or an optimistic realist. “It would be a very hard way of being in the world to be raising the son that I'm raising and feel change is impossible,” she said. “I want him to thrive in the world and unless the world changes, it will limit his ability to thrive.” Fortunately, her research introduced her to people who are working to help boys be better and who aren’t about to give up. These include men running workshops, after-school programs and other projects. After being thrown out of class in a Baltimore elementary school, for example, kids go to a yoga room, called the Mindful Moment Room, to talk about what they did wrong and do some breathing exercises to calm down. This has led to a dramatic reduction in suspensions at the school. “The whole book is me talking to people who are concerned about young men and who want them to thrive, want them to be emotionally healthy and also want them to recognize the power that they have and use it in ways that are positive,” she said. “I also spent time with a lot of really lovely young guys who wanted to be good and to behave in ways that are decent.” One scene that stuck with me was the story, in the preface, about her son, then ten or eleven, at an out-of-town tournament with his hockey team. A bunch of the boys were hanging out in his and Giese’s room, giving her a chance to be a fly on the wall as she tidied up unobtrusively. Her son had brought along the teddy bear that had comforted him since he left his foster family. When he pulled it out and gave it a snuggle, she worried his friends would make fun of him for still having one. Instead, they started talking about their own stuffed animals, past or present. For Giese, the male supportiveness was a revelation. It filled her with hope.
Just as a wall does not separate but binds two things together, language keeps us inextricably entangled and inextricably separate.
Fiction sets a broken bone in the hope that it will mend straight. It is a plea, a prayer, and because language itself is hope—the autonomic hope of a voice calling out even in despair, even involuntarily—fiction seeks the error in a complex mechanism, seeks to reset the human flaw. Fiction recreates what never happened. By recreating that potential, it addresses both past and future. It does not seek forgiveness, it seeks to understand. It does not dare to hope, yet it is hope distilled. It is both solute and solvent, resignation and conspiracy. Buried within the history of what did not happen is the possibility of redemption—at the core of failure. That redemption does not lie in words or in the writer, but in the reader. * Poetry, by its very nature, is defiant. It is spit in the eye of the oppressor. It is the defiance of lovers who will not waste a moment, knowing they may never see each other again on this earth. It is a single letter scrawled on a wall, a signal to the others. Every poem, by daring to hold and name a moment, defies death. The shortest poem is a name. Poetry is the lonely, radical, precious expression of a single life. The singularity of the unique human soul who must cry out. Because of love, because of wounds, because of injustice, because of hunger, because of exile and migration, because of dispossession of every kind, because we have lost someone we love and cannot bear that loss, because night comes on and we are alone, because morning comes and blessedly our children are still safe asleep beside us, because the language the migrant speaks in the street is not the language in which he dreams, because parents sing lullabies in a language their children do not understand, because any moment we might die and—where do we belong? In the place we are born, or the place where we are buried, the place where we fall in love, the place where our children are born, the place where we made a catastrophic mistake... Poetry is born of all these things and everything else, it is the consuming subjective experience of the body, which ensures we are alone and never alone. Language keeps us inextricably entangled and inextricably separate. Just as a wall does not separate but binds two things together. Poetry can be an ambush—the glint of a knife on a dark road—because it asks: how much is your life worth? Poetry is insurrection, resurrection, insubordination—against amnesia of every sort, against every form of oppression, dispossession and indifference. And against the drowning noise of other words. Poetry is a dispatch from the front. Because the ones who cry out cannot wait and have always had to wait in their urgency. Because love cannot wait—an entire life passes in a moment. Because we can say yes or we can say no. Under the wire, under the radar, or out across the desperate open space of a page. Poetry suspends time. Poetry is time. Poetry gives us time. * A story or a poem is like a living body; we need only tell the few, precise pulse points to feel the heart of it leaping in its skin. Those details are the flare in the desert, a signal from a boat mid-ocean, the cry of the abandoned, the ones caught in a trap who must be freed. To rescue, to name what must not be forgotten. Sunday evening, winter morning, November dusk. We belong where love finds us. * We write and we read in order to hold another human being close. For the writer, the relationship on the page between writer and reader, is a privilege. To hold close with a reader through territory that is philosophically, morally, emotionally, perilous. To never reduce the complexity of an idea or an historical event. This companionship, like solace, can never be taken for granted. To write—as far as humanly possible—undefended; to write without the defence of assumptions; without philosophical, religious, political, psychological agendas. To risk one’s heart, one’s will. Risk, with all its terrors and consequences—because the writer does not know where the search will abandon her, what conclusions, if any, will be reached. To collect facts is one thing, to discover the meaning of the facts, quite another. To ask questions that inherently have no answers. To have an instinct that a cluster of events somehow are related, though the relationship is not clear. Again, not comparison, but connection. From the friction of these questions arises an image, a situation, with characters who, sudden as their appearance in the writer’s mind, the writer is responsible for, and responsible to. To investigate the complicated relationship between huge historic event and intimate, domestic event: the relationship between personal grief and historical grief; how we remember privately, and how we remember—and memorialize—publicly, collectively. Each community, each nation, faces this question and answers it in its own way, according to its own needs. Do we leave the bombed ruins where they fell and build the modern cathedral beside them? Do we clear the ruins, erase them completely, then build a modern city in its place? Do we re-create, make an exact replica of everything that has been destroyed—every inch of the old town, every doorway and streetlamp, every cornice, curb, and window sill? An act of defiance and despair. Because, of course, we can’t bring back the past; we can’t bring back the dead. To be silenced by events, by the depth of horror of an historical event. To take a decade to think, to research, to be silenced, to witness, is not inordinate. To proceed from fact, to identify and separate each strand of detail and minutiae. To be silenced by a single image, an image that comprehensively disintegrates one world and asserts another in its place, a single fact so inexpressibly painful to witness—the word “inexpressible” being the point—that one weeps, stands up, leaves the desk, leaves the room, closes the door. And does not write a word for months. The months away from the desk are painful; who are we to speak? Who are we if we do not speak? The writer who takes on the task of this subject-matter, the task of witnessing—whether the events of one’s own generation, or generations before us—must, as George Steiner says, make her “own deposit in the bank of terror.” When confronting certain events, when there is no solace to be taken, we must instead take silence—silence instead of solace—just as one would at a funeral, the “moment” of silence—before we can presume to pronounce upon meaning. Where history is concerned, this “moment” of silence is an honest and morally imperative course of action. To take this kind of time when writing a novel—to insist upon it as a necessity—is not a very popular idea. But there is only one chance to honour these characters, their experience, certain events; especially where history is concerned, one has a responsibility, a duty to those characters, their experience, those events. And a responsibility to the reader. To write because something is at stake. To take on a task that makes the distinction between “impossible” and “futile,” for these are entirely different. A writer’s failure is inevitable: the innate failure of language to recreate experience. When one is writing about the horror of specific historical events this is not a question of style or technique—it is a moral question. One could write about the events of war with brutal, ugly language. But that is more of a lie—because it makes the false assumption that this horror can be represented. Instead, to choose a very different kind of language to write about those events; a kind of language that might bring the reader—and the writer—to the precise moment before we turn away. We have an instinctive belief in the power of violence—we don’t need to be repeatedly reminded of that power. But, that a single act of compassion, or simply the refusal to do harm, also has profound power—this is something we seem to need to be reminded of, again and again. An act of violence demands a response. An act of goodness is its own response. Ideals are not for packing away on the high shelf; they must be used. They will be damaged, broken. But that is what an ideal is for—for daily use and daily life. Just as morality is a muscle, and must be exercised, with the hope that we will reach out our hand instinctively when it is needed most. Morality is a muscle and must be exercised if we are to respond, to do the right thing instinctively—to overcome our hopelessness, our indifference, our shock. Literature is one place to exercise that muscle. What we believe in absolutely, we believe in only because we have tested those beliefs to their limit. It is only because a writer tries so hard to prove them untrue, that she can trust them, live by them, earn the privilege of offering them to a reader. Excerpted from Infinite Gradation, published by Exile Editions.
Ambulance services, at their core, are about transportation. We arrive at the crisis point of a story and we almost never witness its resolution.
“I think it’s encephalitis,” she tells me. “Because it hurts back here, in my neck.” The woman motions to the back of her hairline, which is grayed and dry. Susan is seventy years old and called 911 today for a runny nose and some neck pain. She’s been sick for several days but hasn’t seen a doctor. She lives in a “single room occupancy” government-assistance high rise downtown, where she shares a small room with a younger man she tells me is her friend. We’re in a crowded coastal city, with ancient tenement-style hotels crammed next to new money high rises, condos, and row houses. A tipsy young couple might walk an extra few blocks to avoid a neighborhood like Susan’s. She wears an oversized orange sweater and unravels one sleeve with her thumbs as we talk. The sweater isn’t as dirty as a lot of clothes worn by the people we treat, but it’s not clean. I take Susan’s vital signs and hook her up to the cardiac monitor. I turn the heat up in the ambulance. Susan is like most of my patients: lonely, destitute, and nursing a minor medical complaint. I’ve worked on a 911 ambulance for five years in three different counties. Urban and rural, rich and poor, wet and dry. My job isn’t really what people think it is. On a TV screen, paramedics are always rushing to try to save a woman crushed under a building, a man bleeding out, or a baby taking its last breath. There are a lot of sirens, there is a lot of shouting, an occasional goofy drunk for comic relief, but the bulk of the job is invariably depicted as an adrenaline rush. Strangers' eyes usually widen when I tell them what I do for a living. The truth of my work is both less and more interesting. A paramedic today exists in a poorly defined gray area, some combination of field doctor, social worker, and street sweeper. We answer many of our calls without sirens at all, and sit with people nursing complicated problems that only distantly relate to actual medicine. I recently came across a startlingly truthful depiction of the soul of EMS in a book that seemed to have nothing to do with emergencies at all. In the New York Times bestseller Evicted, Matthew Desmond follows eight families swept up in the eviction process in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This book about economics and housing quickly turns into a gut-wrenching story of American poverty. About three pages in I realized, Oh, this book is about my job. Desmond writes about Arlene, a single mother of five or six kids. She lives off welfare because the money seems steadier than any job. Her youngest son has asthma and she keeps falling behind with his medications. I know before Desmond tells me that she often calls 911 for his asthma attacks. He gets sick a lot and, with no primary care doctor, they take him in to the ER. I know. I’ve run that call. The history of housing, of the neighborhoods that people live in and why they live there, is the story of American poverty. As a street medic, I’m never going to see most patients’ lab values. But I’ll see the inside of their bedroom, and their neighbors’ bedrooms. I’ll see the photos stacked in the dark corner of a closet before I’ll ever see a chest x-ray. I climb my bags up three flights of stairs, past potted plants, framed certificates, and family photos. I know which houses have illegal back units, which have meth labs, which have a beautiful rooftop deck. I look in the fridge for insulin. A patient directs me into her closet to pick out a jacket to wear to the emergency room; she doesn’t like the yellow one, grab the blue behind it. A Vietnam infantry hat falls as I reach for the hanger. She tells me to put it back, it was her husband’s once. The edges of the hat are worn thin. We see molded kitchens, rotted attics. I leave food out for pets, switch off lights, turn off the stove under a pot of oxtails. Once I read half a poem left in a dead woman’s typewriter. Ambulance services, at their core, are about transportation. We do a lot of assessment and a little bit of intervention, but our main function is to get people from wherever they are over to the hospital. We call it the “scene.” What was the scene like? Is the scene safe? Are we at a house, a clinic, an alleyway behind a row of dumpsters? In a normal month I run on, roughly, between seventy and one hundred patients. Usually two or three of those are lights and sirens, step-on-the-gas, “Johnny, get the paddles”-type emergencies. Your car wrecks, your heart attacks. The rest are people like Susan: poor, homeless, old, drunk—people who have stepped away from or been kicked out of society and don’t know where else to turn for help. I usually see each patient for about an hour, street to hospital. We have some frequent flyers, but we only catch them on their bad days. When we don’t see someone for a while it usually means they either sobered up, went to jail, or died. We arrive at the crisis point of a story and we almost never witness its resolution. We almost never see a story resolve. * The night after I finish Desmond’s book I write down all my calls for the shift. I work downtown, from 4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. That night’s calls include Tag, a forty-one-year-old at a free clinic who’s had pain in his ribs for about a month. After Tag is Ronnie, a fifty-eight-year-old male from a veteran’s housing assistance shelter. He’s having a psych episode and a runny nose, in that order. He talks quickly, mostly makes sense, but veers into paranoia if you let him steer the conversation too long. His nose has been running for a week and his neighbor stole his pants and painted them a different color. These pants? I point to the jeans he’s wearing. He’s not sure. He says the guy crawls under his door every night and does it and then crawls back out. We give him some Kleenex and take him to the VA. There’s a drunk homeless man with a cut on his head, called in by a tourist who didn’t even stop her car, just reached for a cell phone and drove on by. Then Susan, with her neck pain and her orange sweater. A ninety-one-year-old Russian woman having an asthma episode which is more or less resolved when we show up. Her son is worried, though: she lives alone, he can’t stay the night, and they can’t afford a home care nurse to stay with her. All of these patients face serious issues with housing, food, basic life skills. The 911 call is less about an emergency and more about an inability to provide for themselves. A lack of access to basic human needs like food, water, and hygiene will all eventually become medical if ignored for long enough. Bare fridges lead to malnutrition, broken plumbing creates infection. Addiction becomes overdose. Some folks call us hoping for a trip to the ER when they just don’t want to spend another night alone. Susan tells me she takes medicines for high blood pressure, psychological issues, and pain management. She’s had one heart attack. She ran out of most of her medications about a week ago and hasn’t been able to make it to Safeway to refill. She looks up at me, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t think they do anything anyway.” She tells me she has some Haldol left, but she doesn’t always take that one because she doesn’t like it. Her knees rock back and forth on the gurney, which is probably a side effect from the drug. Patients on life-long psych meds are often a little twitchy. She tells me the blood pressure cuff feels too tight. She’s been receiving disability since she was twenty-four or twenty-five for hallucinations. She was living down South back then. She spent a year in Tulsa, two years in Sacramento. She bounces around. She gets disability payments and welfare sometimes. She’s been sharing the room with Marcos for several years. I look her up on our computer system; she’s been transported by us four times this month. She says she usually wheelchairs down to Safeway but it’s been cold this week. As we’re pulling away from her hotel I ask her, if she has been sick all week, what it was that changed tonight to make her call 911? “I keep blowing my nose but it’s still runny.” * In poor communities, stable access to medicine is rare. Frequent moves mean frequent changes in insurance, Medicare eligibility, and transportation ability to a new doctor. When the food runs out, when the housing runs out, when the relationships break, we are the last resource. We have a regular patient in my city named Leena. Her temperament is that of an underfed child. She flips a switch in an instant between happy and angry, laughing and crying, cooperative or spitting at us. She calls us in the middle of the night because she ran out of vodka or her bus driver looked at her the wrong way. She likes to describe her sexual escapades in uncomfortable detail and has thrown punches at paramedics with little warning. A strong series of laws prevents me from “patient abandonment,” which is what it’s legally called if I were to sit down with her and say, “No.” If I told her, “Honey, you’ve called us nine times in the last four days. You got kicked out of the emergency room this morning for spitting on a nurse. You got kicked out of your last shelter for fighting a guard. You don’t even have a medical complaint, you’re just tired. I get it, the sun’s going down, and the sidewalk is cracked, and the rats come out soon and that sucks, I hear you. I wish there was something I could do. But the emergency room is supposed to be for medical emergencies, for people who are dying, you know, faster than you. And the ambulance is supposed to be for driving fast, for people who are so close to the reaper that they can’t wait at a red light because they might not make it until the light turns green. And there could be someone like that trying to call us right now, but we can’t help them because we’re here with you. Again.” I wish I could be the person who got these patients into a long-term care facility, who got them therapy, who single-handedly lifted them from the darkness. But all I can do is put them on the gurney and take them back to the hospital. I was trained in school to react in a matter of seconds to life-or-death situations. Open the airway, stop the bleeding. Save the heart that hangs precariously on the edge of death, reach out and grasp the last slim chance at life. Emergencies. But, for someone like Leena, being tired and alone is an emergency. Her life has gotten so far outside of her control that she can’t see more than an hour from now. And in the next hour, the sun’s going to set and the night fog’s coming in. Instead of leaving her on the street, I try to talk some sense into her, and give her a blanket and a ride back to the ER. Maybe this time something will change. Three hours later Leena calls again, about a block away from the ER where we left her. A different crew runs on her this time. * Overdoses always go up on the first and fifteenth. I know more about social security checks than I do about cancer for sure. And people who have run out of resources, who are lost and scared and alone, will always vastly outnumber people who happen to be having a stroke or a heart attack. There’s just more of them. So as long as 911 remains free, and fast, the bulk of our work will never be about rapid transport. In Evicted, Desmond writes, “There are two ways to dehumanize: the first is to strip people of all virtue; the second is to cleanse them of all sin.” Desmond writes about his people, my people, with compassion and detail. He reminds me of their good days, their happy moments in between the rough patches. He fills in the story of that month when we didn’t hear from Leena, when she was well fed and staying with her auntie up north somewhere. It’s good for me to see that part of the story. To remember the human behind the call. When we drop Susan at the emergency room, my partner and I both compliment her sweater. We say it looks nice on her, and cozy in the winter air. She smiles broadly. “I’ve had it for so many years,” she says. “It’s my favorite.” She pulls at the sleeves and sets her chin in the knitted bundle of cloth. I tuck her blanket in and wish her the best. I hope she gets to feeling better, gets her prescriptions sorted, and stays out of the hospital for a while. In other words, I hope I never see her again.
With his unconventional take on children’s television, Mr. Rogers helped redefine the male role model.
This is the Fred Rogers we know: a thin, wholesome man straight out of a small-town pulpit, with a gentle manner, who looks directly at us, speaks slowly and tells us that he likes us just the way we are. This is the man Canadians have been watching since October 1963, when Misterogers was a fifteen-minute black-and-white children’s program on the CBC that lasted nine months. The show ended four years before the power of American broadcasting would crack it in two. The host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was almost identical to this one. Almost. In the archives of the CBC’s headquarters in downtown Toronto, there is a longer master recording of a Christmas eve episode of the Canadian series. In it, guest Tom Kneebone finishes a discussion with the puppet X the Owl, who has been peeking out of a tree trunk, animated by the arm of Fred Rogers. The host only appears in this “neighbourhood of make-believe” in marionette form. The camera remains trained on the scene, when, suddenly, the illusion is broken as Rogers’s head emerges on the other side of the wall by the tree. He appears to be attempting to swiftly and unobtrusively make his way to another location. Owl still on his arm, a rushed-off-his feet Rogers turns to the camera and says, exasperated and apologetic, “I’m sorry, you’ll just have to...” motioning for either a cut away or another take. This outtake from the prototype of one of the most popular children’s shows in the world recalls an aphorism from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, which would later appear in calligraphy form on the wall of Rogers’s office: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” which reads in English, “The essential is invisible to the eye.” * Visiting the archives of Canada’s public broadcaster this past May was more complex than usual due to increased security in the building. Five days after Alek Minassian had killed ten people and injured multiple others by driving a white van through a crowd, Canadaland reported that a post had appeared on the Incels.me message board with the subject, “[Serious] our next task: shooting up CBC headquarters.” The post has since been removed, but reportedly called for “killing as many of those evil whores and normies reporters as possible.” The term which gives the message board its name refers to “involuntary celibates,” men who make up the misogynistic online subculture Minassian is believed to have been a part. The poster used Minassian’s image as an avatar. It was a disconcerting feeling, sitting in that office, watching archival footage of Fred Rogers, while being closely monitored by security, and wondering if some guy might enter the room and shoot me because he felt he had been overlooked by my entire gender. The van attack was the sort of event that Rogers, were he alive, would be called to speak about. On the first anniversary of September 11th, he recorded a message which included the words, “I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.” We continue to feel comforted by Rogers, even after his death. His quote about helpers—“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’”—has gone viral after various school shootings and, more recently, the Manchester attack. “The underlying message of the Neighborhood is that if somebody cares about you, it’s possible that you’ll care about others,” he told Christianity Today. “‘You are special, and so is your neighbor’—that part is essential: that you’re not the only special person in the world.” What prompted his desire to deliver this message to children? Maxwell King, author of the forthcoming The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, thinks it was rooted in Rogers’s own experience growing up. Though he was brought up in a wealthy family in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Rogers was often isolated. “I had every childhood disease that came down the pike,” he told Wigwag magazine in 1989, “even scarlet fever.” Boys in the ’30s were expected to get “their hands dirty,” according to Canada’s first research chair in Masculinities Studies, University of Calgary’s Michael Kehler, but Rogers’s various ailments may have afforded him a pass for being unlike the others. “Sad though it is, you would get more sympathy for being a little more emotional, a little less aggressive, because it would be explained away as, ‘well, he’s not right,’” says Kehler. Opposing the era’s favoured seen-and-not-heard approach to children, Rogers’s family gave him “a lot of very careful attention, they took him very seriously, they listened to him, they talked to him a lot,” says King. “I think he wanted in his work to provide some of that for children but also to do work that parents could learn from.” His guardians provided powerful examples. Fred’s grandmother, Nancy McFeely, bought him a piano, which encouraged him to express his feelings through music. Though it was his grandfather, also his namesake, who would leave the biggest impression, telling him , “You made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself,” a sentiment Fred would later repeat on Misterogers. It was a small statement, but a radical one considering boys then were not encouraged to be themselves. “Childhood at that time was a grooming to be just like your dad,” Kehler explains, what he calls “lock-step masculinity.” And while Fred’s father was powerful—he was an affluent brick manufacturer—his son was not. A chubby child, Fred was one day chased down the street by a bunch of kids taunting him with the nickname Fat Freddy. “I resented those kids for not seeing beyond my fatness or my shyness,” he wrote in his memoir, Life’s Journeys According to Mr. Rogers. “And I didn’t know that it was all right to resent it, to feel bad about it, even to feel very sad about it.” He was sad for years, according to friend Amy Hollingsworth in the documentary Mister Rogers & Me, but then one day he made a decision: “He would always look for what’s not apparent to the eye.” * It may have been NBC’s The Pinky Lee Show, that’s what Rogers told Wigwag. In any case, at home during his Easter holidays in 1951, at the age of twenty-three, he turned on his parents’ newly acquired television and saw a program he didn’t like at all. “I was appalled by what were labeled ‘children’s programs’—pies in the face and slapstick!” he recalled in his book You Are Special forty three years later. “Children deserve better. Children need better.” So, after graduating, he skipped his plans to join the seminary and only a few years later was already producing a children’s program at WQED, Pittsburgh’s public television station. “The Children’s Corner” premiered in 1955 and though actress Josie Carey was meant to be the one on camera, soon Rogers was animating a procession of puppets—Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat—to whom Carey would tell her problems. “In performing the puppets, he was able to express different aspects of his character,” says King. For instance, Daniel represented love and angst, while King Friday XIII represented egotism. In the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Joanne Rogers, Fred’s late wife, said, “Daniel was pretty much Fred.” While he was working on “The Children’s Corner,” Rogers started studying at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary where an advisor told him to take a course with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center. Child development was just starting to take root in the U.S. and Canada in the sixties and Pittsburgh was a significant locus of learning. The Arsenal center was co-founded in 1953 by McFarland and Dr. Benjamin Spock—the pediatrician who wrote the revolutionary calm-the-fuck-down parenting book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)—as well as renowned German psychologist Erik Erikson. The ages that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” addressed—mostly between 2.5 and 5.5 years, according to The New York Times—spanned three of Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development: early childhood, which revolved around autonomy, the relationship with the parents and the question of identity; preschool, which concerned initiative and activity; and school age, which involved the exploration of the world. By focussing on children’s feelings about the world and their creativity and imagination and by exposing them to reality, Rogers touched on each of these stages, a rarity at the time. “For younger children there wasn’t media that addressed them in a respectful rational way,” says Laurie Hines, who has written about Rogers and the history of educational television. “Media was entertainment oriented.” It was Margaret McFarland who would be the greatest influence on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, speaking almost daily with its host until her death in 1988. “She said when I first came to her she knew I was interested in theology and music and writing and all these different things,” Rogers told Jeanne Marie Laskas in Mister Rogers Neighborhood: Children Television and Fred Rogers. “And she said, ‘I remember the day, Fred, when all of those things seemed to come together for you and you called it: the desire to work with children.’” Karen Vander Ven, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh, sat across from Rogers in McFarland’s child development class in the winter of 1962. She remembers little more than his dark hair but can talk at length about her professor. “Margaret had a sense of accepting everybody in their way and that’s what she taught others and that’s what Fred Rogers carried forth,” she says. Vander Ven met with McFarland weekly over the years and says the psychologist’s themes included creativity and the early nurturing role of the mother. McFarland believed the father should come in later to help the child transition into the wider world and to provide “a sense of what it meant to be a man,” though children were not distinctly gendered. “In everybody there’s traditional masculinity and traditional femininity but it ranges along a continuum,” Vander Ven explains of her approach and, she believes, McFarland’s. She shares with me a paper by McFarland titled “The Educational Significance of Misterogers’ Neighborhood” and believes “she fueled him and he fueled her.” So what are children being fueled by now? “The kind of attachment that Margaret McFarland taught us all about doesn’t happen anymore for whatever reason,” says Vander Ven, “and when you don’t feel strongly attached then you try to find another way to be significant which is often to take the upper hand.” * In 1962, a day after Fred Rogers commenced from the seminary, he received a phone call from Fred Rainsberry. The head of CBC television’s children’s department had been hired in 1954. According to When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada, 1952-1967, the CBC at the time had “a good deal of admiration for what the BBC was doing, and an equal amount of distaste for the vulgarity of so much of American television.” Rainsberry appeared to share Rogers’ philosophy of children’s programming as a space for child development. He quotes extensively from Mister Rogers Talks with Parents in A History of Children’s Television in English Canada, 1952-1986. According to Rainsberry’s book, Rogers was introduced to CBC audiences on a show called Junior Magazine. A press release confirmed he appeared as a guest on the show from 1956 to 1961. Then, in June 1961—one year before Rainsberry’s phone call—CBC announced Misterogers (the title was Rainsberry’s idea, according to the Globe and Mail). It was a thirteen-minute segment on a program called Junior Roundup in which Daniel Striped Tiger and friends appeared alongside “American puppeteer Fred Rogers” in an entirely make-believe setting. In an August episode, the host emerges in a bow tie and a plaid jacket with a crown on his head before National Ballet of Canada founder Celia Franca sings “I’m looking for a friend.” A year later, Rainsberry offered Rogers his own CBC show, saying, according to Rogers’ memoir, “Fred, I’ve seen you talk with kids. Let’s put you yourself on the air.” “Toronto made my career,” Rogers said two decades later in an interview with The Toronto Star. In his memoir, he included a speech in which he said that Rainsberry’s “confidence and support launched me into something I may have never dared do on my own.” According to The Presbyterian Church Spire, Rogers and his family moved to 4 Highland Crescent in Toronto in August 1963. One month later, the CBC announced that Misterogers, a standalone show “evolved from The Children’s Corner,” would be premiering October 15th and airing three times a week. As he would on his more famous show, Rogers only appeared on camera here in a home-style set outside of the neighborhood of make-believe. The fantasy world was occupied solely by puppets and guests. “From the beginning, I want young viewers to know that this is a land of make believe,” Rogers explained at the time. “We are all playing.” Though CBC’s records indicate that Misterogers ran until June 26, 1964—two years later, the Eastern Educational Network bought 100 shows, which were padded front and back to push them to 30 minutes—the archives only has 17 episodes preserved. An early program from October 29, 1963 already included many of the elements that would appear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was our host speaking in that slow drawl, already staring at us right in the eye, already singing the iconic line borrowed from his grandfather, “You’ve made this day a special day by just your being here.” There was the trolley—according to Roderick Townley in Mister Rogers Neighborhood: Children, Television and Fred Rogers, he recalled riding trolleys in Pittsburgh as a child—into the neighborhood of make-believe, where we find the castle, the tree, the Eiffel tower. There were new puppets like Cornflake S. Pecially and new characters like Handyman Negri, both of whom would continue onto Neighborhood. There was talk of feelings around a languid pace, which Rogers told Esquire in 1998 avoided a “message of fragmentation” (“I don’t know how welcome that slow nature of childhood is today,” says Hines). And then there was Howdy Doody actress Donna Miller in a beehive singing the song that would define Rogers—minus the u—“Please won’t you be my neighbour.” “He had a very self-acceptance message in his show and that was new,” says Jo Holz, author of Kids’ TV Grows Up: The Path from Howdy Doody to SpongeBob. At the time, television was largely permeated by the ’50s ethos of social conformity. “Almost all children’s shows had some kind of moral lesson attached to them,” she says, “very often simply encouraging good behaviour.” Holz thinks Rogers was influenced by ’60s counterculture, epitomizing the era’s approach of preparing children rather than protecting them (the post-war mentality), addressing subjects like divorce, war, death and illness, “topics that no children’s show, especially not a show for preschoolers, ever dealt with before.” This mindful approach to children, steeped in the knowledge of psychosocial development, is something Rogers appears to have pioneered. Having child psychology experts on the staff of children’s programs did not become de rigeur until Sesame Street, which arrived a year after Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went national. “I think his show really kind of set the stage in some ways for Sesame Street,” says Holz, who was head of research on the latter. She says that children’s series have since been more willing to talk about serious subjects and treat children as equals: “I think that all goes back to him.” Though Rogers initially worked at Pittsburgh’s publicly owned local station WQED, the CBC offered a model for how a national public broadcasting corporation could be used to educate children. Five years after the Rogerses left Toronto to raise their kids in the United States, President Nixon planned to cut funding the public broadcasting sector. Rogers would sit before the U.S. Senate and single-handedly secure $20 million to continue his work. Education historian Laurie Hines wonders if “that different perspective that maybe he had in terms of utilizing a government designed place” would have emerged without his brief sojourn in Canada. More than five decades later, the crowd at Toronto’s Hot Docs screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? erupted after watching the footage of Rogers turning Senator John Pastore to mush, saying, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger—much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.” * What do you do with the mad that you feel When you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong... And nothing you do seems very right? — “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?,” Fred Rogers, 1968 This is the little boy we know. This blond boy with the big plastic sword. Writer Tom Junod, profiling Rogers for Esquire in 1998, watches the host, in the midst of taping his program, approach this boy, kneel down in front of him, and say, “Oh, my, that’s a big sword you have.” And the boy says, “It’s not a sword; it’s a death ray.” And Rogers whispers something in his ear, and Junod will later find out that something was, “Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?” Rogers knew that boys who carried plastic swords wanted to show people that they were strong on the outside. One wonders what he would have said to Alek Minassian. “If we can encourage boys and girls to be reflective, to be introspective, then we’re avoiding pent up frustrations, we’re avoiding pent up anger because we’re able to talk through those emotions within a supportive context,” says masculinities expert Michael Kehler. That Fred Rogers was a man encouraging men and boys (as well as women and girls) to express their feelings was revolutionary. Alongside the men’s liberation movement of the seventies, which exposed the manacles of conventional masculinity, he helped to redefine the male role model. “He was opening up a conversation about being able to talk about your feelings and not feeling any less than a man because you have feelings,” says Kehler, “So he was making the invisible visible.” Junod said of observing Rogers, “I definitely saw another way of being a man.” In The New York Times in 1983, Rogers wondered if his expression of, as Glenn Collins writes, “sensitive, giving aspects of masculinity” posed a threat. Though it is unclear how exactly his nature formed, Laurie Hines says religion teaches, “your strength is not in your masculinity, your strength is in your Lord.” But one well-known story suggests that Rogers may not have had as inclusive a view of masculinity as many believe. A member of the audience at the Hot Docs screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in May expressed surprise that Rogers advised actor François Clemmons, who played a police officer on the program, not to be openly gay in order to remain on his show (Clemmons subsequently married a woman but has since divorced and come out). Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center, who took part in a Q&A, said that Rogers was not homophobic, he just never wanted to limit his audience. Li noted, for instance, that Rogers was anti-war, but never mentioned it on his program because he knew some kids had soldiers for parents. Joanne Rogers confirmed in the documentary that she and her husband had a number of gay friends. Clemmons recalled that during the taping of one particular episode of Neighborhood, he noticed Rogers was looking straight at him as he signed off with his traditional “I like you just the way you are.” When Clemmons asked Rogers if he was talking to him, Rogers said he always had been. “No man had ever told me he loved me like that,” Clemmons said. Clemmons’s story is the story of masculinity, the story of the expectations men have of themselves and of others. One can see those expectations manifest in both Alek Minassian and the cop on the scene of Minassian’s crimes who, while Minassian shouted at him to “Kill me!” “Shoot me in the head!,” stopped him without doing either. It is the story told in the last lines of a song written by a man who believed the essential was invisible, but somehow made it visible all the same: I can stop when I want to Can stop when I wish. I can stop, stop, stop any time. And what a good feeling to feel like this And know that the feeling is really mine. Know that there's something deep inside That helps us become what we can.
Susan Peters was an Academy Award-nominated actress, a trainee pilot, a medical student. But it was a shooting incident in 1945 that would come to define her.
It was a gunshot that her husband claimed he would hear for the rest of his life. Even before the incident, Susan Peters was the kind of woman who set out to achieve a great deal in a short space of time. Not yet out of her twenties, she had been an actress, a trainee pilot, a medical student, and an Academy Award nominee. But it was one chance shooting incident in 1945 that would come to define her. Try as she might to transcend it, the world was not quite ready to let her. In wartime parlance, Peters might be called an all-American girl. Pretty but no bombshell, she had a wholesomeness that allowed her to play a fifteen-year-old at twenty-two. The MGM publicity snaps for the actress reveal a lean, sparrow-like beauty; pert-nosed and grey-eyed. In one photo from 1943, she leans over her bicycle to take in the sea air at the Santa Monica Pacific Palisades. Her face is in profile, eyes closed, and she wears a ribbon high in her brunette hair. She is all girlish poise, without a whiff of glamour-girl sensuality. There are three photos from her bike ride on the palisades, and she looks strikingly natural in them, balancing the bike between her legs in an ungainly flat-footed pose. The same year the palisades photographs were taken, Peters was voted one of the “Top 10 Stars of Tomorrow” in the Motion Picture Herald, alongside Gene Kelly. Her lauded supporting role in Oscar-tipped drama Random Harvest, released the year previous, had assured her bumpy ascent up the ranks of MGM Studios star hierarchy. After several years of career uncertainty, she was having what could only be called a moment. Fan magazines featured a glut of lifestyle stories about her—her cooking skills, the diamond brooch she’d been gifted by a romantic interest, her ambitions to attend med school, the face powder she wore. It was 1943, and the twenty-two-year-old Susan married fellow MGM actor Richard Quine in a large ceremony in West Los Angeles, wearing her great-grandmother’s wedding gown. That autumn, she had completed production on wartime propaganda romance Song of Russia, her first leading romantic role, opposite handsome A-lister Robert Taylor. Her star was well and truly on the rise. There were no drugs, there was no booze, and no mad love affairs in Susan Peters’s Hollywood story. There was remarkably little scandal. Yet the bullet that changed the course of her life belongs to as cruel a story as the movie industry could ever have invented. * Susan had always been a reluctant movie star. At nineteen years old, she was Suzanne Carnahan, a working-class Irish-American girl who was singularly disinterested in the frivolity of the movie business. She had been raised in Los Angeles by her mother and grandmother after her father was killed in a car accident. From fourteen, she worked part-time jobs to contribute to the household. That pragmatism would remain with her throughout her life. Her grandmother was a popular dermatologist, and her mother Abby was a landlady—these were women who, through hard luck or determination, had made their way in the world without the aid of men. In Hollywood High School, she was an academically-minded student with plans to be a doctor. Her favourite subjects were biology and chemistry. While other girls wrote down “actress” as their dream job, the thought never entered Susan’s head. Medical school was her concrete goal. Nonetheless, a talent scout, struck by her unassuming appeal in a school drama class, approached Suzanne for screen tests. She was bemused by the idea, never thinking of herself as pretty, but still—acting meant good money, faster than the seven years of schooling she had to undertake to become a doctor. When she signed a contract with Warner Brothers in 1940, she determined that she would make a success of herself in show business in three years, or else use the money she’d saved to go back to studying. She had a handful of appearances credited under her real name, but her youthful look made her miss out on parts for notable films like King’s Row and Sgt. York. Not long after Warner Brothers convinced Carnahan to change her name to Susan Peters, they unceremoniously dumped her from the studio line-up. It wasn’t until Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer director Mervyn LeRoy saw one of her old screen-tests that she was hired for a new part in Tish (1942). Not long after that, she was contracted to the MGM star stable. In Susan’s breakout role, Random Harvest, she plays opposite Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman as a lovesick teenager who is infatuated with Coleman’s older man. Her role required her to portray the girl’s maturation into her twenties, and Peters balances wide-eyed naivetée with a certain knowing charm. She earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards with the performance. She was afterwards cast as a sweet-natured soldier’s wife who learns to be a wartime mechanic in Keep Your Powder Dry, and a starry-eyed but strong romantic lead in Song of Russia. The roles share a luminous promise; an earnestness that makes Susan immediately likeable. Off the screen, Susan provided little material for the gossip magazines. She was the MGM publicity department’s dream: a girl next door who, privately and publicly, behaved like one. She later co-starred with and befriended Lana Turner, one of the notorious man-eaters of her day, but was Lana’s antithesis not only in appearance but in disposition. Susan was the anti-party girl, with a strong aversion to imbibing and a love of the natural world. Her husband Richard reproached her for constantly taking in stray animals and neighborhood children, nicknaming her Little Mother. In her public-facing role, she attended war bond drives, trained as a pilot with other women for the Ferry Air Command, and actively contributed to the war effort. In domestic life, Susan had settled into a comfortable routine with Richard. One newspaper columnist wrote of her that she was “quiet [...] sincere, serious [...] keeps away from the nightclub routine,” and movie columnist Louella Parsons noted that Peters was a “shy, retiring girl.” Even as success beckoned, Susan could never quite reconcile herself to the trappings of the ultra-feminine starlet machine. As a tomboy child, she’d been an accomplished equestrienne and swimmer. It wasn’t just that you had to put on a dress—Susan didn’t mind that—but there were so many extra things to think about, each of them sillier than the last. Hats, lipstick, gloves, accoutrements. Being a pretty feature player at MGM often required of a woman a certain inclination toward the frou-frou. Just as she had little time for the aesthetic demands of stardom, Peters had no truck with flatterers and snake-oil salesmen. She couldn’t abide false friends and studio execs who treated her like an egg in a basket. “I am enormously amused by people who [...] treat me as if I were marked ‘Fragile and Breakable,’” she told Screenland columnist Gladys Hall in 1943. The most striking of all headlines about the starlet came from Parsons, long-reigning gossip queen. In a 1942 column in the St. Petersburg Times, Parsons wrote, “Her Luck’s Too Good To Last, Susan Peters Feels.” * Since they were not drinkers, New Year’s Day held greater opportunities for Susan Peters and Richard Quine than it did for most burgeoning movie stars. Fond as they both were of the outdoors, the couple decided to spend the first day of 1945 on a duck hunting trip in the mountains outside San Diego. The Cuyamacas were rich with undisturbed wildlife and pine forests; an idyllic setting for a day of light sport. Along with Richard’s cousin Tom and his wife, the four set out for their day-trip. After a long and fruitless day of fowl-hunting, the winter sun began to fade and the couples decided to head home. As they were preparing for their return and heading back to the car, Susan diligently remembered that the four had set aside one of their hunting rifles in the underbrush. She went to retrieve it, leaning over to pick up the gun. As she pulled it from the thicket of brush, the rifle went off. A .22 caliber bullet hit Susan in the abdomen, cutting a jagged path through her right lung. Her companions rushed frantically to her side. Richard drove his blood-soaked wife to a San Diego hospital. On the desperate hour-long drive, Susan told her husband, “I can’t feel my legs.” Over the coming days, she lapsed in and out of consciousness, fever and infection wracking her small frame. Newspapers gravely reported on her condition as she underwent numerous operations both to remove the bullet in her belly and for blood transfusions. Often, the blood was donated by her husband. Susan’s mother, Abby, kept a near-constant bedside vigil. MGM execs paid Susan’s steep hospital bills, and in the month to come, she would remain stable enough to be moved to a Los Angeles hospital. It would be another six months before she could return home. Later, Susan told a reporter, “I knew I wasn’t going to die.” She was so adamant, in fact, that she often called her husband to remind him of the same thing. That May, not long after she was finally released from her long hospital stay, Susan received news of Allied victory in Europe. In spite of all the campaigning and war-bond drives that Susan had done in her role as an MGM girl, nothing could have prepared her for the common ground she now shared with so many homebound GIs. The bullet had severed her spinal cord, leaving Susan paralysed from the waist down. A coterie of Hollywood friends rushed to visit Susan, including pals Lucille Ball and Lana Turner. A few years previous, Susan had worked with the legendary wheelchair-bound actor Lionel Barrymore on a film called Dr. Gillespie’s New Assistant. Perhaps best known now for his villainous role as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Barrymore offered what advice he could. He gently joked with the younger woman, and advised she invest in a newfangled collapsible wheelchair like his own, so she might be more mobile. Susan got the collapsible chair, but never stopped insisting to skeptical doctors that she would walk with the help of braces. She told reporters that she had managed to go three steps in them. “I am convinced anyone can walk, no matter what may be the matter with them,” she said in 1945. She told journalist Bob Thomas that she wanted to tour military hospitals to show the injured boys that they could walk again. In Southern California, just such a hospital had recently opened. Her connection with the men there would come to be much deeper than the uneasy one she shared with her movie colony peers. Returning GIs with spinal injuries similar to Susan’s were at the mercy of the Veterans Administration, who had only just begun to open dedicated orthopedic and spinal centres in their hospitals. For long-term convalescing, Birmingham Hospital—an enormous military infirmary—was built in Van Nuys, California. Founded in 1943 by the U.S. War Department, it eventually had some 1600 paraplegic veterans housed inside. Van Nuys was only a twenty-minute drive from Los Angeles, so it also became a frequent visiting place for show-business types. Marlon Brando spent time there to learn about life in a wheelchair for his 1950 film about paraplegic veterans, The Men. Susan, too, made frequent trips to the hospital. “I went out for their morale,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1946. “But they end up helping mine. Those boys are wonderful.” A normal, independent life for a paraplegic was a much more remote concept in 1945 than it is by contemporary standards; jobs and driving licences were near-impossible to come by. Los Angeles had no special ramps or curbs, and most cars were essentially impossible to drive or fit wheelchairs into unless specially adapted. The Paralympics did not yet exist, and general public acceptance was limited. A lack of wheelchair-accessible locations meant that every trip out and about could be a challenging one, and housebound stir-craziness often set in. Patterson Grissom, a paralysed WWII veteran who lived for a time at Birmingham Hospital, remembered that he was often turned away by L.A. nightclubs and theatres for fear his heavy wheelchair would block the aisles. Perhaps because of these obstacles, Susan spent years holding onto the belief that she would learn to walk. Finally, in 1951, she admitted that it couldn’t happen for her. “How can I walk? I have no spinal cord,” she told Thomas. “It will take longer than I live for the doctors to discover how to fix that.” Nevertheless, as soon as she could, Peters resumed her active lifestyle. When well enough, she went back to flying lessons, with the goal of reaching eight hundred training hours and joining the Ferry Command. The Command were a famous group of women pilots who ferried military vehicles for the American and British air forces. She even returned to her beloved horseback riding, practicing by keeping her hands on her knees and the reigns in her teeth. While working with paraplegic vets in the hospital, she brushed up on her legal knowledge and took a keen interest in studying law; at one point, she even considered retiring from acting to go to law school. A year after her injury, she and Richard adopted a ten-day-old baby boy, Timothy. If the hunting accident had derailed so much of her life, Susan pretended not to notice. When he was old enough, she often took her adopted son Timothy target-shooting, quipping, “I want him to be a better hunter than his mother!” * In 1947, a touching profile of Susan Peters and Richard Quine appeared in Modern Screen. The photo that accompanied it showed Richard carrying his petite wife in his arms at the seaside, the pair smiling, looking into each other’s eyes. After a warm description of their busy, overcrowded home life, Howard Sharpe writes, “Their plans for the future are magnificent, you see. Twenty screen-plays and a new house and more children, among other things. It is amazing how little that hunting accident has interfered with the plans Susan and Dick had made for their life together.” But that cosy picture of domestic contentment must have left something out, because by the following summer, the pair were filing for divorce. Most reports claimed it was Susan’s decision rather than Richard’s, who remained devoted to her. Again and again, papers reported that Susan deemed her physical condition wrong for marriage. As the fifties approached, ideal American womanhood took on an ever more-confining definition, pushing those who did not meet its tenets into the margins. The onus remained on women to be nurturing and attentive to men’s needs, particularly in the domestic sphere. Even after adopting Timothy, Susan seemed to think of herself as an unfit wife to Richard. As one Times reporter in 1952 bluntly put it, “[...] she did not want to tie his life to a cripple.” MGM executives were more than a little concerned about what to do with Susan. Disabled people were not uncommon in Hollywood fare of the postwar years, but they were largely men, depicted as wounded war veterans. Disabled women were rather more unusual, in both real-world numbers and corresponding onscreen roles. It would be a decade before Deborah Kerr would star as a wheelchair-bound woman in tragic romance An Affair to Remember. Peters floated vague ideas to her studio about notable women figures who had similar conditions, but voiced a dislike for roles where her disability had to be tacked onto the story. She knew audiences would flock to see what she looked like now she was in a wheelchair, but hoped they would, at least, come away thinking of her as a serious actress. It took MGM executives a considerable amount of time to figure out how to handle her, but in spring of 1946, they approached the actress with a plum role in upcoming film The Unfinished Dance, about a famous ballerina struck down by a spinal injury. For reasons that are unclear, Susan turned it down. For MGM, this was the final straw. It wasn’t long before the studio dropped her from her contract. * In the space of two years, Susan had been dropped from her contract at the biggest movie studio in Hollywood and had filed for divorce. In September 1948, the LA Times reported that Susan dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief as she made a statement in a city courtroom. “She said she would be happier alone,” Quine told newspapers. For her part, Susan claimed that the two simply couldn’t get along, argued constantly, and that her husband’s tendency to give her the silent treatment drove her to such nervousness that she could hardly eat. That first inkling of a unhealthy relationship to food would potentially descend into a full-blown eating disorder, and make a significant impact on Peters’s health. Still, Susan pressed on. The same year as her divorce, she returned to the screen in the low-budget Columbia film Sign of the Ram, a B-noir featuring Peters as a manipulative matriarch in a wheelchair who tries to control her entire family. In the conclusion, the villainous woman throws herself from a rocky precipice, ending her own life. Fog and sea surf ensconce her empty wheelchair. The film was commercially unsuccessful, but there was a cheap sort of inverse to Susan’s own family life held within; the idea of her disability as a disruptive force; a tool for a woman’s selfish manipulation. In real life, Susan seemed terrified of the notion. Susan would soon move to the stage, successfully touring the country in two well-received shows, and eventually into television with NBC. In 1951, with her movie career soundly behind her, she starred in a series called Miss. Susan, about the life of a wheelchair-bound young attorney. Doctors advised the star to work only one month of the year, but she refused, and worked ten months of the year instead. In spite of precipitous weight loss and painful urinary tract issues exacerbated by her condition, Peters kept at it. Her daily television gig meant she relocated to Philadelphia, where she shot her show six days per week, and looked after a six-year-old boy on her own. She talked often of adopting a second child: a sister for Timothy. “I cherish my independence,” she told Thomas, who had interviewed her throughout her career. “I had to find a way to make a living and keep my little family together.” But in 1951, Susan’s increasing inability to eat, chronic kidney problems, and a case of nasty pneumonia all converged into a terminal condition. She moved to her younger brother’s ranch back in California to get better, but her health never improved. In October 1952, aged thirty-one, after months of being bed-ridden, Susan died. Richard and a small group of close family and friends attended her funeral in Forest Lawn Cemetery, where other, better-remembered movie stars had long been laid to rest. Failing health and lack of medical progress undoubtedly hastened Susan to her grave; the life expectancy for most paraplegics in the pre-war era was two years. For people with spinal cord injuries, urinary infections that led to kidney failure were the leading cause of death pre-1940. Even with medical advances and the use of antibiotics, it was not terribly out of the ordinary at that time for a woman in Susan Peters’s condition to die young. But there are other, more inscrutable elements of her death, too. Many now regard it as a sort of suicide—or at the very least, a surrender. Her attending physician said it this way: “She wouldn’t let anyone help her. I believe she lost the will to live.” * The limitations Susan Peters faced at nearly every turn—both real and imagined, social and psychological—made it difficult to define her life on her own terms. After her accident, her whole framework for understanding the world changed, but her hard-headed realist streak never did. Susan’s sense of selflessness went beyond what anyone might be expected to endure. Perhaps it came from her grounded Irish-American family, who poked fun at the follies of her stardom and still hoped she’d pursue medicine. Maybe it was the grindingly tough mindset of the war years, where stoicism became a necessity for so many women. But Susan refused to admit the chronic pain she struggled with. Flying lessons and law school were daring tasks at a time when paraplegics often struggled to get over curbs and into ordinary restaurants. Playing her first role as a villain post-accident, her active refusal to be painted as a victim was striking. In one of her final interviews, she gives advice to other women, rather than looking inward at her own struggles. “I would like to tell every actress—and every young girl, for that matter—to develop your capacities and forget your deficiencies. Everyone has some handicap, seen or unseen, recognized or unrecognized. Never underestimate yourself.”
Ramadan this year was a sacred starting point for me in the process of letting go. It’s helped me understand that my anger can, and will, illuminate me.
Friday, June 15 marks the last day of Ramadan this year, a sacred month for Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan occurs on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, once a crescent moon has been detected. Muslims worldwide, if able, practice good deeds to become a better Muslim, and abstain from pleasures, sin and food as an act to become closer to God. Ramadan has long been understood to me as a month-long opportunity to pause. I grew up fasting. As a child, I was told I only had to complete half-days. I would break fast at school at noon while everyone ate lunch. It was always a great way to find out which other students shared my faith. By the time I reached high school, I became more selective about when I would fast—it was entirely out of convenience, and I would spend more time trying to find ways to pretend I was completing my fast than actually doing so. Sometimes I would hide snacks in my room, or school bag, feeding myself before Meghreb. Ridden with guilt, I would make sure I ate after everyone else or request to make my own meals. But by the time I reached university, my questions about Islam, and religion altogether, steered me clear of any guilt about missing a day of fasting. I began to critique my faith rigorously. Most of my twenties have been a back and forth about faith, especially when relatives were murdered back to back. At some point, I had no faith in faith anymore. I had no hope for this dunya (meaning “world”). I did not know how to. I’m happy I went through that period of questioning—it brought me closer to Islam. By 2015, my relationship to my faith, once again, was shifting: I was fasting again. I was re-teaching myself how to pray. I was asking questions. I was trying to learn more. I began to accept that I don’t need to make sense of it all in order to have faith. You just have it or you don’t, and that doesn’t need to be explained. Last year was the first time in several years that I did not fast for Ramadan. I was not well, and I wasn’t admitting it to myself. I lost my grandmother, was struggling through my first year in a doctoral program, had a family member try to move to Somalia the day that Trump’s travel ban was announced. Meanwhile, I was navigating my first real experiences of gendered violence on my body—twice, in one month—while my face and name made headlines across publications in my home city for helping Black women get into academia. I didn’t have the energy or capacity to recognize any positivity in that moment. I was overwhelmed and I wanted to get out. By the time Ramadan had arrived I was swamped with rerouting my life from my home city of Toronto to Montreal, without much consideration that I would be living without my community, family, and friends during one of the most vulnerable moments in my life. It was the first time I really felt alone. Every day felt like it was getting harder to breathe. I was depressed. I was angry. * I tried to run it awayThought then my head be feeling clearerI traveled 70 statesThought moving around make me feel betterI tried to let go my loverThought if I was alonethen maybe I could recoverTo write it awayor cry it awayAway, away, away, away, away, awayAway, away, away, away, away— "Cranes in the Sky," Solange A year later, I moved back to Toronto into a beautiful home—it’s spacious, full of sunlight, swarmed with plants, in a secluded area. It’s the most quiet and peaceful space I’ve ever lived in. My time here for the past few months has allowed me to reflect heavily on what space means to me, especially as a Black Muslim woman who grew up in a household full of men. I’ve never felt that I’ve had space that was rightfully mine. I never felt a spiritual ownership of a space or home. I’ve always had somewhere to live—alhamdulilah—but until this house, I never felt like I had a home. Like last year, this year was chaotic. I started off the year mourning my uncle who was murdered in a Mogadishu bombing in October. It was the birthday of his son, Masud, who was murdered four years prior in Toronto. I really began to wonder about the disposability of Black life. I was overwhelmed with the realization that death in my family, and community, seems to rarely be the result of natural causes. I began to ask where it’s safe to be Somali. It was the first time I realized how easy it is for Black girls to disappear—and how easy it is to want to. My current home has felt like the first step towards peace in a long time. But this home is situated in one of the whitest neighbourhoods in this city. Once, a guest and I stepped out of my house to sit outside in the sun. My neighbours were watching their children while they were playing with their toy water guns. As we moved around my house, the children started probing us with questions, occasionally pointing the water guns in our direction with innocent, unknowing smiles. They asked why we were there, because they didn’t think we belonged. At one point, they gently asked us to leave. Their assumption was that we were labourers—perhaps cleaners or nannies in the area. That is, after all, these children’s only understanding of how women of colour exist in this world. My friend and I were completely puzzled as to how to tell children they were being inappropriate. We were even more puzzled by the lack of intervention by the adults who were present. Our live-in landlord was also present as the children probed my friend and I without intervention. They said nothing. As someone raised in Scarborough, a multicultural borough in the east end of the city, my current neighbourhood has definitely been a difficult readjustment. But inside my home, I am at peace, and at the least, we all deserve that: a peaceful home, if we are so fortunate. In a city with an incredibly inequitable housing market, finding an affordable and lovable home is already difficult enough. I was lucky to have finally found something I adored and could afford in Toronto. Two weeks after I moved into this house, I found out it was being sold. The first day that I fasted this Ramadan was the day I woke up, looked outside, and saw a “sold” sign outside of our house. An hour later my roommate broke the news to me: we were moving. I was angry. I wasn’t just angry about the sale sign, I was angry that I finally had something that felt like a little bit of peace, and I wouldn’t have it anymore. I was starting off my Ramadan angrier than I had already been. It’s one thing when hardships come our way because, perhaps, there is some spiritual lesson that the universe or God (or whatever faith system you have) brings to us to grow from. And then there are hardships that come your way merely because this world is trash, and your fate is nothing but the result of structural power. For the past year, I have tried to find meaning in what feels like an ongoing plateau of unfortunate events. I am accepting that there is no spiritual lesson to be found in experiencing gendered violence. There is no spiritual lesson in dealing with anti-Blackness. There are no spiritual awakenings that come with murder. * A few days after I received the news that I would be searching for a new place to live (for the fifth time in the past year), I broke my fast by listening to music. I was fuming while I walked from my house to the subway station, observing the neighbourhood I would no longer be calling home, and I figured that my anger was not useful to a productive fast that day anyway. “Mad” by Solange came on. I’ve heard this song, and the album in its entirety, damn near a million times. But with good music, there is always something new to be discovered or observed, regardless of how much the work has aged. For the first time ever, I paid attention to the lyrics of the first few lines of the song, and continued to repeat them during my twenty-minute commute from High Park station to downtown Toronto: You got the light, count it all joyYou got the right to be madBut when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way— "Mad," Solange They were the words I needed to hear in that moment. As Audre Lorde says, “my anger is a response to racism.” My anger is always valid. It’s loaded with details, understanding and information about the structures of this world. However, despite how valid my anger is, it harms no one but me. It chips away at my heart, my health, and my spirit—no one else’s. It slowly kills me. That’s the catch. Black women are given every valid reason to be angry existing in a world that continuously renders us invisible, and yet, we are projected as too angry for society in order to erase any validity to our very real frustrations. The “angry black woman” archetype functions to conceal the realities of the day-to-day violences that are projected onto us. I’ve spent too much time trying to validate my anger, or have it be validated, that I’ve failed to realize the necessity of letting it go. “Anger is loaded with information and energy...”-Audre Lorde And so, I’ve come to understand Ramadan as having another advantage: it is a time for me to address and sort through my anger. I wasn’t able to fast every day this Ramadan, but I tried my best. Ramadan this year was a sacred starting point for me in the process of letting go. It’s helped me understand that my anger can, and will, illuminate me. I’m ending this Ramadan knowing that I don’t need to just be well. I want and need to learn the tools to help me proactively stay well—a shield, if you will—to help me continue to get through this life. This may seem pessimistic, or, perhaps, realistic: but I am painfully aware that there will be more shitty times, much like there will be good times, too. I want to be prepared for both. A part of me suspects that the anger I have carried with me for the past year is the result of an accumulation of traumatic events that I haven’t healed from. As my brother likes to remind us, it’s not normal how much my family, or our community, has danced with death. There is a lot I have been carrying with me throughout my life. There is a lot that I need to let go. I was never taught the blueprint of self care. I’ve been making it up along the way, as many of us do. And by chance, or by luck, I’ve been surviving. But we can’t always afford luck. For the first time in a long time I no longer lack hope that I will be better. I believe there's more to life than this. There is better than this. I have so much work to do before I arrive there, and inshallah, I will. In the meantime, all I can control is my body and my mind, and in this life, I must protect them both. I’m beginning to believe that the past year was the universe, or God, or something, telling me to slow down; to find the tools of self-care; to love myself better, and be patient with myself. That I won’t be able to continue to live peacefully until I locate adequate tools of self care. My anger has been whispering for me to listen to myself and my body more. It’s telling me to find ways to let go. And, thankfully, it was Ramadan that finally helped me hear it. Outside of abstaining from eating food, or committing any sins, fasting is a bit more specific for me. I like to call it my fix-up month. For thirty days I (try) to find ways to re-centre myself. I’m cognitive of who I speak to, how I speak to people, how I speak about people, and how I speak to myself; I pay closer attention to the energy I receive and the energy I release into the world. We often talk about protecting our energy and space from others without really reflecting on the energy we bring into the world ourselves. Ramadan helps me make sure I am aligning myself to be the person I want to see in this world, and to remind myself that I should continuously hold myself to that standard. I listen to myself more. I am softer with myself. I talk to God more. I feel more free. Ramadan might not always necessarily bring me peace, but it always brings me clarity. “My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.”— Audre Lorde
The author of The Pisces talks astrology, fish sex and filling existential holes.
How do you fill an existential void—carved out by anxiety, depression, a general sense of malaise—within yourself? Everyone has their fixes: food, drugs, alcohol, sex, mindless scrolling through Instagram, obsessively checking your horoscope, a dogged exercise regime, drunk texting an ex. This question is fundamental to Los Angeles-based author Melissa Broder’s new book, The Pisces (Hogarth). In it, PhD student Lucy has been writing her dissertation on the Greek poet Sappho for nine years when she inadvertently breaks up with her longtime boyfriend in a failed attempt to get him to commit. Newly single, depressed and under pressure to finish her thesis, Lucy moves to Venice Beach to dogsit for her half-sister over the summer. In Los Angeles, Lucy fills her voids with one-off Tinder dates and crappy sex in fancy hotel lobby bathrooms. Then she meets Theo, a young, bronzed swimmer who actually turns out to be a merman, and falls obsessively in love with him. Broder has written four books of poetry and is the person behind the viral Twitter account, @SoSadToday, where she posts dark and funny ruminations like, “autocorrect ‘weekend’ to ‘sitting alone in the dark’” and “should I eat, nap or masturbate: the musical.” In 2016, her Twitter spawned the essay collection, So Sad Today, in which she writes in unflinching detail about her own experiences with depression, anxiety and romantic doom. When I call Broder a week before The Pisces comes out, she’s channeling her own anxiety by eating miniature cheesecakes while sitting behind the wheel of her car stationed in the grocery store parking lot and buying the same pair of shoes and then returning them over and over again. We talked about the big business of self-care and wellness, why she has a love-hate relationship with astrology, The Shape of Water and fish sex. Samantha Edwards: When did you start thinking about The Pisces? Melissa Broder: After I finished writing So Sad Today, I still really wanted to explore this theme of love as addiction and why fantasy love can be so much more intoxicating than earthly love. I was on the beach in Venice, where I was living at the time, and reading this book called The Professor and the Siren by a dead Italian writer, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s about a man who falls in love with a mermaid. It dawned on me how much the human-mermaid relationship really embodies this dichotomy that I was trying to explore. But why is it always a mermaid and a man? Why is it never a merman and a woman? The story was born for me right there. I don’t write often from a personal standpoint, so I’ve always imagined that it’s harder to write personal essays because you need to put yourself out into the world. It’s feels more vulnerable. Is it harder to write as yourself than as Lucy? I wouldn’t say it’s easier. There’s a lot of me in Lucy, as there always is some of yourself in your characters. I feel really fondly for Lucy. She’s become a companion of mine. I never understood when fiction writers talked about their characters as people. I thought, “you’re fucking weird.” Now I’m writing the screenplay of The Pisces and it’s so fun because I get to be back in this world. It’s almost like writing fan-fic. How do you see yourself in Lucy? We’re both really sad and don’t understand why fantasy isn’t reality. We’re both perplexed that you can’t just will life to be as you imagine it to be. We also both have addictive tendencies. I have a broader range of addictions than Lucy. Lucy can sometimes get a little too drunk, but it’s fine. I cannot just have “some” white wine. I’ve been sober for thirteen years. But I think when it comes to sex and love, Lucy’s journey is very much one that I have. I have not fucked a merman, but I definitely grappled with the question of, “Can you fill the existential hole with romantic obsession?” I wanted to ask you about holes. In The Pisces you write a lot about filling holes, whether they’re literal, like mouths, vaginas or assholes, or cosmic and existential. In the first essay in So Sad Today, you write about being a baby and needing so much breast milk from your mom so you could sate a hole. What do holes in all their varying forms mean to you? I think the awareness of feeling like something is missing or that there’s an emptiness within has dictated a lot of choices I’ve made in my life. I tried to use a lot of different things to sate those holes. Through experience I’ve come to realize that there’s no amount of validation, drugs, alcohol, food, success or the right pair of shoes that’s going to be that lasting caulk. It’s really an inside job. That being said, I’m a human being and I’m always going to reach for shiny shit. I’m probably always going to try to fill that internal hole with outside stuff. I’m not expecting to reach any sort of enlightenment where I come to peace with my own emptiness all the time. But I do continue to come back around to this place where I’m like right, it’s an inside job and the solution is spiritual. I’m probably always going to continue to have these awakenings and mistakes, but for me, that feeling—whether you want to call it depression or an existential hole—has been a real, powerful force. It’s something that I’m very aware of so it infuses everything I write. How old were you when you first had that awareness? I always say that I could have probably used a drink right out of the womb. I’ve never been that chill about being alive. [I’ve had this awareness] from a very young age, but I do have some very visceral memories. I have a memory of being on a beach when I was probably around twelve. That’s when I was very familiar with my holes. I had so many crushes at that point. My longing for boys was off the charts. But I remember sitting on a beach and seeing all these beautiful other girls around me and they were all wearing bikinis and I was not having a good time with my body, it was very Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The sun was beating down and I remember the level of discomfort and darkness that I was feeling. I just thought god, I wish I could be one of them. Another one, aged 12, was hooking up with—okay, I’ll change his name, I don’t want to give his real name—hooking up with “Josh Goldberg” in the phone room in a hotel at a bat mitzvah. We were slow dancing to this song by the Righteous Brothers and then we made out and it was so amazing, and then the next day being like, “I wonder if I’ll ever hear from him?” For a moment, that hole had been filled and then on the other side of the filling of that hole, what it had done is expanded the hole and oh my god, I’m hungrier than ever. Lucy is in group therapy with a woman she calls “Chickenhorse” who constantly talks about being trigged by seemingly innocuous stuff, like newsboy caps. In one session she says she feels “re-traumatized” because her mom doesn’t like her dogs. And she’s always the victim. “Trigger warnings” are so present in our vernacular in 2018 and how we preface stories, and I get the importance of that. And while I did feel sympathy for Chickenhorse, I also found her really annoying in how she always made herself the victim. That’s the thing. I have compassion for Chickenhorse’s suffering, but her constant use of the same words to sort of signify that suffering makes it hard to connect. It’s the McDonaldization of suffering. As someone who really cares a lot about language, Lucy is just like, “Why are they using all the same words?” Psychobabble can be a turn-off. What do you think about self-care as this… The self-care industrial complex? Yeah, this idea that it’s something that you can buy. The big business of self-care and wellness. When I was in my early twenties I was really into New Age culture. I also was doing a lot of psychedelics and smoking a lot of weed. I worked at at a tantric sex and wellness non-profit in the Bay area. I saw the business side and I think it really clued me into the performative elements of the business. And I’ve always been skeptical of any modality that purports itself to be “the only way”, especially if there’s a lot of money being made. That being said, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the monetization of learning a new meditation modality or being a healer. I get really skeptical when some humans claim that they have a patent on the truth. How did working at the tantric sex wellness place affect your views on self-wellness? It showed me that anything can be snake oil. I think that as a person who always had insecurities, I was always looking outside of myself for the answer. I really thought any psychic, astrologist or tarot card reader knew more than I did. When I was nineteen I went through a breakup very similar to Lucy’s breakup, and I studied astrology as a way of attempting to manipulate the universe into bringing me love. I’ve kind of given up on astrology in a lot of ways. I think it’s a very reductive way to look at the universe. But I’m also like that person who is a lax Catholic, yet still secretly believes in hell. For me, it’s like ah, astrology is bullshit, but I’m never going to fuck an Aries. In The Pisces, Lucy reads her horoscopes from like five different sources until she finds one that she likes. I think a lot of people, myself included, read our horoscopes in that way. Like if I don’t like what Astro Poets on Twitter or astrology.com tell me, I’ll go some place else until I find a horoscope I think is relevant to me and what’s happening in my life. I don’t read my horoscopes anymore, but within like ten minutes of meeting someone, I’m always like, when’s your birthday? It’s like a tic of mine. I see astrology as more like archetypes now. It’s symbolism and as a poet I can totally get with that. We’ve all accidentally read the wrong horoscope and thought it really applied to us, like oh wait, they were describing Sagittarius, but I’m a Virgo and it sounds so much like me. We all want to make sense of the world. There have been some think pieces recently about how mermaids and mermen are having “a moment.” I know everyone probably asks you this, but have you seen The Shape of Water yet? I haven’t, but I was on an airplane and The Shape of Water was one of the movie choices so I put it on and fast-forwarded through it. I just wanted to find the fish sex, but I couldn’t find it so I just turned it off. When you heard about the premise of The Shape of Water, were you like, oh my god, there’s something else coming out with fish sex going on? I was like, I’m so fucked. I didn’t hear about it until it was already out. And then when it won an Oscar I was like, no one is going to read my book. But then my agent was like no, it’s good, people will be prime for fish sex. [In The Shape of Water], isn’t he a weird slimy creature? He’s not a merman. I’d say he’s definitely more fish. Yeah, he’s gross. He looks like an amphibian. Yes, very amphibious. He’s also kind of buff, but definitely not sexy. Why do you think people are attracted to this idea of finding love in these creatures? On the planet right now, everyone has all the answers. We have access to information at the tip of our finger tips; there are so many think pieces telling us what to think and what to believe. The ocean is still this totally mysterious realm. When you think about all the dating apps, we know so much information about people before we even meet them. With the ocean, it’s the opposite.