Hazlitt Magazine

The Man Behind Meat Loaf

Songwriter Jim Steinman found his muse in the performer—and, forty years ago, they released their iconic, operatic rock album, Bat Out of Hell.

The Life of Caesar

On an undefeated star of a controversial sport.

The Science of Bringing Back Dead Animals: An Interview with Britt Wray

The author of Rise of the Necrofauna on cloning departed pets, important beetles, and the power of the northern white rhino. 

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The Man Behind Meat Loaf

Songwriter Jim Steinman found his muse in the performer—and, forty years ago, they released their iconic, operatic rock album, Bat Out of Hell.

“But as they pulled him from the twisted wreckWith his dying breath they heard him sayTell Laura I love her” - Ray Peterson In 1978, Jim Steinman was on tour promoting his first album with his collaborator, a man of immense size—in both vocal and physical presence—calling himself Meat Loaf. For Bat Out of Hell’s big opening track, Steinman sought to make a splash. His idea was to write a car crash song, inspired by the car crash songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s—a pure rock and roll song, but one that would blow the rest out of the water. He wanted to create a crash song so huge, so spectacular, so violent and operatic as to render the genre practically obsolete. Nobody would be able to top it. The song, “Bat Out of Hell,” runs an impressive 9 minutes and 52 seconds, features epic guitar riffs, the sounds of a motorcycle revving (actually an audio trick producer Todd Rundgren created using his electric guitar), multiple musical changes and Phil Spector-esque wall of sound extremity. Eventually, the song reaches a kind of sonic volume that feels like it’s about to explode. “Then I'm down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,” Meat Loaf howls at the song’s climax. “Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike.” Jim Steinman’s goal was to make “the most extreme car crash song of all time,” and that’s exactly what “Bat Out of Hell” is. Applying strict labels to Steinman’s body of work is folly. In his songs, musical theatre excess bumps up against punk brashness slamming into Springsteen-esque rock grandeur wrapped up in ‘60s doo-wop, and coated in a Heavy Metal-inspired aesthetic. His piano-laden hits—which everyone knows whether they know his name or not—range from Barbra Streisand’s bombastic “Left in the Dark” to Céline Dion’s even more bombastic “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” He wrote Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and Barry Manilow’s “Read ‘Em and Weep.” Steinman’s music is big. It’s sweeping. It’s also silly, prone to goofy wordplay and goofier oxymoron. So playfully constructed is Steinman’s work that the Wikipedia entry for the Meat Loaf classic “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” from the “sequel” album Bat Out of Hell II features a lengthy subsection on the “Perceived ambiguity of ‘that’.” Yet listening to that twelve-minute beast of a song, you’d be forgiven for succumbing to its utter sweep. It’s a funny song, sure, occasionally verging on novelty. That’s part of the appeal, but it’s all done in such grand fashion, culminating in a thrilling male-female duet, and held together by a deviously catchy chorus. “[Steinman] is, perhaps, the lost genius of pop, stranded—lamentably unlauded—in a world of rock with opera's attitude, where life has stopped at the point of adolescence that childhood dreams are shattered,” wrote John Aizlewood for Q Magazine upon the release of Bat Out of Hell II in 1993. “Every chorus is like losing your virginity, every verse is like killing your parents. It's as if Phil Spector and Richard Wagner were making records together.” * The first single Jim Steinman ever bought was the 1960 Ray Peterson classic, “Tell Laura I Love Her.” Written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, the mournful rockabilly song about a tragic stock car race touched a nerve. Its country inflected balladry, doo-wop undercurrents, late–1950s car culture idolatry, and melodramatic air of teenage tragedy conjure at once an image of an era and a mournful timelessness. The song followed on the success of “Teen Angel,” performed by Mark Dinning, which had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1960 and inspired a slew of popular imitators. The mode was clear: romantic anarchy built on the embrace of death and the flouting of adult rules, but with extreme reverence for what James A. Michener referred to in 1965 as a gang’s “code.” In other words, about as pure a representation of the American teenage mind as one could hope to find at the start of the decade, and later epitomized in George Lucas’s nostalgic ode to the era, American Graffiti, whose wall-to-wall soundtrack of forty-one hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s made sure to include “Teen Angel.” Those early rock and roll hits were controversial for their time, feeding white-bread suburban teens a steady supply of death fantasies. But the era’s apparently lightweight, romantic sensibilities would shortly give way to a more seriously considered form of rock music, and ever more controversy in the form of Dylan, The Rolling Stones and others. Songs about death became far more self-important and often morose. Richard Corliss, writing for The New York Times in 1967, described the new selection of high-brow rock songs on the charts as being as far from the earlier “medieval Liebestoden”—those “tawdry train-wrecks,” he called them—“as Shakespeare is from Seneca.” The last great car crash song of the ‘60s was the Shangri-Las’ 1964 No. 1 hit “Leader of the Pack,” actually about a spectacular motorcycle crash, and though suffused with death, it is a toe-tapping pop classic—and another of Jim Seinman’s favourites. * It’s no accident that Jim Steinman’s songs veer into the theatrical: his roots were in musical theatre. Steinman grew up in love with opera. In the late 1960s, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts where he worked on several musical projects. In 1969 he wrote and starred in The Dream Engine, an occult rock and roll musical that served as his independent study at Amherst, and featured themes—and even lyrics—which would recur throughout the rest of his career. In fact, more than perhaps any other modern music producer, Steinman’s willingness to pilfer his own work is impressive. The move fits with his Wagnerian influences, prizing leitmotif on top of the grand scope. Looked at another way, his entire career can be seen as one long workshop for a grand musical that was never produced. Songs he’d written for The Dream Engine would go on to be recorded as recently as 2016, in his fourth collaboration with Meat Loaf, Braver Than We Are. The seeds of some of his most famous songs can be found in it, too, including the “turn around” lyric and call-and-response structure that would become central to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The Dream Engine was seen by Joseph Papp, head of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who hired Steinman to stage it professionally. Years of workshopping went nowhere. Eventually Steinman wrote another musical, More Than You Deserve, a lurid Vietnam War story that ran for several weeks at the Public Theater in late 1973. It was on that production that Steinman met Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf. Around the time Meat Loaf was starring in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he and Steinman collaborated on a series of songs which would eventually become the basis for Bat Out of Hell. The seeds of the album were planted earlier in the decade, while Steinman was at work attempting to reshape The Dream Engine into a Peter Pan-inspired musical called Neverland, a reflection of Steinman’s career-spanning obsession with eternal youth. Though that project never properly got off the ground, it featured work that would later end up on Bat Out of Hell, including the title track. All Steinman needed was a muse to help him bring it all together, and in Meat Loaf he found just that. Meat Loaf and Steinman spent several years in the mid–1970s attempting to get Bat Out of Hell off the ground, taking it to every record label they could find without much luck. Recording began in 1975, without a label attached, but with Todd Rundgren producing. Steinman eventually found a willing buyer in record executive Steve Popovich, who set up the project as the first release from his independent Cleveland International Records. The album was finally released in October 1977 and became a sensation—some estimates put it at over 40 million sold worldwide, one of the biggest albums in history. Its style was a fuck you to the prevailing trends in rock music at the time, from Fleetwood Mac, to Boston, to Abba, taking inspiration from prog rock and punk, but with much more soul. "Our music has fever, fantasy, violence, passion, rebellion and fun, their music doesn't have those things," Steinman told British journalist Simon Kinnersley in 1978. “Punk misses the romance and fantasy, and it comes from a different social class and I can't relate to it. But we're trying to get away from the synthesis of homogenized rock and roll.” Max Weinberg, who played drums on the album, described its songs as “mini plays, mini operas” that, in his words, “made you feel like you were watching a show when you were listening to them.” Steinman and Meat Loaf delivered on the “show” aspect in spades, touring the album as The Neverland Express with Steinman himself accompanying on the piano, gaining massive acclaim and a dedicated following. Peter Goddard, reviewing the concert for the Toronto Star in 1978, wrote, “Because of his size, Meat Loaf might have played the jovial goof on stage, a sort of rock ‘n’ roll Jackie Gleason, as do so many other heavy-set rock singers. Instead, he glowered, threw his body around and, in general, expended so much energy his lungs were pumping like forge bellows throughout his set.” The spectacle was the draw and Meat Loaf as a stage act was the perfect expression of Jim Steinman’s artistic id. Kitschy, manly, melodramatic, and literally huge. Todd Rundgren has described Meat Loaf as the Christian to Steinman’s Cyrano de Bergerac: a vessel. “I can’t imagine Steinman being in a car by the lake with the most beautiful girl in school,” Rundgren explains. “I can imagine him imagining it, but that’s about it.” At first sight, few would figure Meat Loaf for a macho sex god, but then you’d hear his voice and you see him perform and he became sex incarnate. He was a mad, leather-clad oddity, like something out of a Steinman fantasy. Go figure. * Though it contained seeds of songs that ended up on Bat Out Of Hell, of all the songs that grew out of The Dream Engine, none have been more essential or iconic than Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Released in 1983 and a karaoke classic the world over, Tyler’s scratchy voice reaches breathless heights on the track. But it’s not just the power of her singing that makes it work. Like Meat Loaf, Tyler acted as a pure vessel for Steinman’s lyrical and compositional excesses. “It was an aria to me, a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion,” Steinman told People. “I wrote it to be a showpiece for her voice.” “Total Eclipse” came on the heels of a rough patch—one of many—in Steinman’s relationship with Meat Loaf. The two had duelled over myriad issues, including disputes over work done on their second album, Dead Ringer, Steinman’s solo effort Bad for Good, the naming rights to Bat Out of Hell and more, with off-and-on legal battles lasting well into the 2000s. At one point Meat Loaf claimed that “Total Eclipse” had been written for him. Tyler disputes this, saying that Steinman only finished the song after their first meeting. “Total Eclipse” is not a Meat Loaf song, and it couldn’t have been. The song was clearly written for a woman—albeit Steinman’s idea of a woman. “Once upon a time I was falling in love / But now I'm only falling apart,” the song goes, reflecting a romantic vulnerability Steinman would never allow, nor possibly even conceive of, in his male muse. Even the line “giving off sparks,” originally found on the title track of Bad for Good, has been altered in its context to embody a kind of operatic feminine ideal. “We’re living in a powder keg,” the line begins, changed from the far stranger and more distant, “But the Northern Lights are burning.” The new intimacy afforded Tyler in the song is striking. It’s a true heartbreak ballad as sung by one of the angels Steinman so regularly references, as over-the-top indulgent as anything he’s ever produced, but also small in a way, clear in its emotional scope, grounded in humanity and free of his usual nostalgic caricature. It’s still a teenager’s view of love and heartbreak, only one more interested in direct expression of emotional experience than narrative posturing. The posture is reserved instead for the music video. Directed by Russel Mulcahy, the man behind the iconic video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but really “directed” by Steinman himself, the “Total Eclipse” video features Tyler in an angelic white dress, walking around a dark, blue-lit, gothic mansion, the apparitions of her romantic fantasies of boarding school boys flashing before her in succession. There are doves, and boys with glowing eyes, and open doorways, and fencers, and ninjas, and flowing drapery, and a leather-clad gang of bikers dancing. It’s a style Steinman would come back to in the video for 1993’s “I’d Do Anything for Love,” directed by Michael Bay and featuring Meat Loaf as a bike-riding beast chased by helicopters into a mansion where his love awaits, seductively writhing on a bed for much of the lengthy running time. The same style is repeated in the videos for both versions of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” The classic Céline Dion song is in fact a cover of a previous arrangement Steinman had put together for a side project called Pandora’s Box. The 1989 original sounds nearly identical to the later, more famous cover by the French-Canadian superstar, and the videos share plenty of DNA. The first video was directed by British filmmaker Ken Russell, and features a bizarre scenario in which a woman is being revived after a fiery motorcycle crash, having visions of a studded leather orgy set in a cemetery. The Dion video is, of course, far less sexual, though no less Steinman. Once again there’s the blue lighting, a mansion, romantic visions, and a ghostly man on a motorcycle haunting his lover after a terrible wreck. The proverbial leader of the pack. Though directed by Nigel Dick, even he admits that almost all of the video’s details came straight from Steinman’s mind, telling the CBC, “I think, looking back now—I mean, he should have directed the video. That’s the truth of it.” Steinman’s aesthetic concerns have always stretched well beyond the songs themselves. Putting together Bat Out of Hell, he insisted on its now-iconic cover design, illustrated by Heavy Metal comic artist Richard Corben. “I don't even disassociate it from the songs, the performer, the writing. It was an obsession of mine,” Jim Steinman has said of the cover, adding that the artwork “looks like the music sounds and like the show felt.” His approach to music videos is no different, inseparable from the music itself. “It’s All Coming Back” was one of Dion’s biggest hits, and according to Slate music critic Carl Wilson, author of the seminal Céline book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, it’s her best song as well. It brings out the best in her, not just her voice, but her personality. “There are few things that producers ever did with her that used all of the bombast that she’s capable of,” Wilson told me, “but also the fact that she’s kind of funny, that she’s sort of an amusing figure in a lot of ways.” The song, released in 1996, was also Steinman’s last giant success. Meat Loaf has regularly mined Steinman’s back catalogue in attempts to re-establish relevance—going so far as to record his own gaudy cover of “It’s All Coming Back”—and Steinman himself has worked on various projects, including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind, and Roman Polanski's German stage musical adaptation of his own Tanz der Vampire, but none have landed with as much force as his most-known work. Not even his recent album with Meat Loaf, nor the positively reviewed Bat Out of Hell musical. * There’s something lacking in the shape of modern music that denies entry to those who’d follow in Steinman’s footsteps. Wilson points to the outrageous tone, the thin line of Gothic show tune extravagance verging on camp, that Steinman’s work, particularly with Meat Loaf, would often ride. “It gets at the kind of ridiculousness, adolescent emotion, and drama in that way,” Wilson says, “by using that self-consciously, at once sincerely desperate tone, and also this poking fun at its own ridiculousness.” It’s a style, he says, that finds its antecedent in the ‘60s Phil Spector pop-rock era Steinman clearly reveres. Pop music recording itself may have also changed a little too much in the intervening years, becoming colder and more electronic in the age of digital mastering. “What sounds good in a digital production style is not necessarily that kind of vocal,” Wilson says. Those powerful grace notes in Bonnie Tyler’s performance, where her crackly voice almost seems to break, are few and far between these days. Adele’s voice is huge, but the songs are polished to a sharp sheen. Rihanna has allowed herself more unvarnished vocal performances in recent years, particularly on “FourFiveSeconds,” but when the songs get bigger they get too clean to ever match the wall-of-sound mania of a Steinman production. And when modern artists do attempt that kind of musical desperation, it’s often through digital tricks like Auto-Tune used to create artificial vocal wavering, Wilson says. Perhaps Jim Steinman is a man out of time, straddling several decades at once, never quite fitting into any one. It’s in a way a testament to his unique flair that he never inspired many real imitators. There are other big pop ballads. There always have been. Yet, none with quite the combination of earnest pop romanticism and Wagnerian attitude. In 2013, A.V. Club critic Zack Handlen described Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” as “bombastic and sappy and fun to listen to, like something Jim Steinman might’ve written if he was running low on words.” That great song may be the closest we’ve come to Steinman in the last 20 years, though it misses the outlandish imagery and operatic impact. It may be that what sets Steinman apart is his dedication to a feeling; not an emotion, but a visceral response. "My songs are anthems to those moments when you feel like you're on the head of a match that's burning,” Steinman said in a 1978 Rolling Stone interview. “They're anthems to the essence of rock and roll, to a world that despises inaction and loves passion and rebellion. They're anthems to the kind of feeling you get listening to 'Be My Baby' by the Ronettes. That's what I love about anthems—the fury, the melody and the passion.” In a way, it’s appropriate that Steinman’s work should exist outside the space of the pop conversation, flying like a bat out of hell out and over a timid landscape of easy hooks and ironic emotional detachment. Though Steinman’s songs peddle in ironic humour, they are anything but ironic. They’re as pure as they are grandiose. Majestic as they are silly. Steinman’s music soars above the everyday and into the magical, yearning endlessly for youth, to recapture it, to “tell Laura I love her,” and then to blow it all to smithereens in maximalist wonder, riding away from the wreckage on a black motorcycle into the blazing sun, all to the sound of a grand piano and an American guitar.
The Life of Caesar

On an undefeated star of a controversial sport.

There was something uncanny about Caesar. That he was named at all—it is the cruel reality of cockfighting that it would not make much sense to name a bird, even a beloved one, too soon—marked Caesar as a gamecock of particular skill. He was a living heirloom, lovingly cultivated, his blood forever belonging to the family of his breeder, “John.” Caesar was bred, hatched, and raised in the Basketball Belt, one of those state-straddling amalgams more defined by culture and geography than political boundaries and with names like car accidents—in this case, Kentuckiana. John lives where the region begins to roll and distend like the soft leather of a reptile egg; to reach Caesar’s home, one cuts through hills and miniscule hollers, along roads that undulate, dip, and swerve like kraits, through towns where there is no stoplight. He died here as well—not in a fighting pit, like many of his peers and all of his opponents, but of a sudden, mysterious, and intractable illness. He died among a harem of hens and the nascent bearers of his blood, more beloved companion than battle-scarred warrior. I only met Caesar once, but he stayed with me for years. It is little wonder; these birds have inspired humanity for centuries—still today we name our sports teams after them and fashion our idioms around them (“cock of the walk”). Fighting cocks supposedly inspired the Greek general Themistocles’s troops, who, properly roused, would go on to rout Xerxes’s Persian navy at Salamis, making a gamecock the savior of the western world, apocryphally. But oh!, has the sport's standing sunk since. When Louisiana outlawed cockfighting in 2008, cockers lost their last refuge in the continental US. Local police work closely with federal agencies to apply interstate commerce statutes for gamefowl or the possession of paraphernalia, the mere owning of which—as opposed to the birds themselves—is illegal. Driving a rooster across state lines or using knives made in a different state, for example, can mean getting slammed with a full-on federal offense. Simply attending a cockfight is a crime, and especially so with a minor. Furthermore, in some jurisdictions, if the authorities can prove that you own a gamefowl with the intent to fight it, they can take you in; proving the intent can be as simple as finding a gaff on the property or having eyewitness reports of fighting, and as complicated as sending in undercover agents. Perhaps the greatest opponent of the bloodsport is the Humane Society, which works hand-in-glove with law enforcement and considers cockfighting to be unnecessary and extreme cruelty, the birds merely blood sacrifices to the gambling gods. The birds, regardless of one’s position on their purpose, have left an indelible mark on society. Cockers—those who breed, raise, and fight gamecocks—and the Humane Society—the organization whose task it is to stamp the practice out—alike find common ground here: both can readily and easily wax upon the beauty of the gamecock when asked, and the animals are, indeed, tremendously fine to behold. Their coloring is resplendent, rich, oxygenated russet reds and British Racing Greens, luxurious soupcons of purple, off-white the raw beauty and animal power of cracked bone. Their tails jut into the air with a proud, martial carriage, and their cuirass breasts and powerful thighs resemble the terrible swells of a recurve bow, all muscular billows begging for conversion to kinetic energy. Finest of all of the dozens of birds I saw at John’s was Caesar, whom we came upon tucked up and away in the back corner of his roost, watching his small kingdom with an imperiousness befitting his name. Caesar had been tested with steel, as the cockers put it—i.e., fought, with sharp gaffs attached to his legs, in cockfights—eleven times, going undefeated in the process. Here was an athlete who had literally put his life on the line in pursuit of something intangible to him, a pure example of sport red in spur and beak, a perfectly bred creature who knew only victory. Contrary to popular belief, a gamecock mustn’t die for a fight to be over; just as roosters in the wild (or on farms) do not always fight to the death when establishing pecking orders, bouts can be called when one effectively “taps out” by refusing to fight. None of Caesar’s fights, however, ended this way. * “What I like most about it, is it starts out as a thought in a man’s mind,” John says, easy rural warmth in his drawl, of gamecock breeding. “Just a thought: ‘What if I crossed these two families?’ Then it becomes an egg. Twenty-one days later, you’ve got baby chicks. A year later you’ve got stags who are old enough to spar, and you can see, ‘Well, that worked out, but this over here, on the other hand, did not.’ Two years later you’ve got gamecocks. But in the beginning, it started out just a thought in a breeder’s mind.” Caesar’s origins, like those of all highly bred animals, be they horses, dogs, or cats, are in his blood. His bloodlines came from out of state—farther south, John implied, where the gamefowl are better and the tradition stronger—with one of his parents belonging to a close friend of John’s. At least one ancestor was a proven fighter; John does not speak much about the blood, but his smile and knowing looks reveal he knew he had something fine to work with. Besides, a father’s fighting record isn’t everything. “The hens get … little respect, I guess,” John says. “Because in reality, the hen is the goose that lays the golden egg. They are the ones. Your stags will become more like their mammas, and the pullets [a young hen] will become more like their fathers, you know what I mean?” According to John, an average rooster and an exceptional hen will make a finer fighter than a pit-proven cock and a dud. He looks for hens that crow and that are exceptional mothers—these he takes to be signs of courage and intelligence, the two most important qualities in a gamecock. Paradoxically, he also looks for birds that are nothing but pussycats when it comes to anything but another cock. Caesar possessed the traits John seeks out in all his gamefowl: “Extremely aggressive, extremely athletic, and yet my little girl could go out there and carry him around like a pet.” Not only does this sort of temperament make them easier to work with—imagine reaching into a cage to a cannonade, beak! spur! wings! feet! all soundtracked, ruough ruough ruogh ruhruhhhhghhhh, multiple times a day, 365 days a year, year after year after year—but for John, it’s another sign of smart breeding. He prides himself on his breeding over anything else. Culling the bloodlines—for reasons of, among other things, over-aggression—is, according to him, the most crucial part, and key to understanding how cockers view their sport. That is, as an extension of and availing to the rooster’s natural tendency to fight.11Roosters who are found undeserving of generational immortality are either sold for bargain prices or sent to “freezer camp”—John’s family can attest to their fine flavor (they say his eggs, coming from only the strongest and smartest of hens, taste superior as well). What he is avoiding is indiscriminate hostility, which he takes as a sign of low intelligence and difficulty to work with; think an over-aggressive boxer getting beat by better technique. To him, the bird need not be a wild beserker to want to fight another cock—he’ll do that anyway—so the intelligence is more important. To John, cockers are not forcing their birds to do something unnatural. Rather, they are, via breeding, rearing, and sparring, simply honing their nature. John says he actually respects and admires the Humane Society in many ways: a former farrier, the sight of ribs on a horse upsets him greatly, as does dogfighting—a dog must be tortured and twisted into becoming an effective killing machine. Roosters, however, can and will attack one another for simple reasons of dominance—that you cannot keep two roosters in one henhouse is not simply an idiom—and that, to cockers, makes all the moral difference. * After hatching, Caesar began his life as a free-range bird, wandering John’s backyard—a forked ridge, separated by a small but dramatic gully, the wire cages complete with roosts and wind-sheltering barrels running along either side as if sentries—and his neighbor’s. Caesar ran amongst the other little chicks, all of them catapulting into each other in mock combat. After he got a little older, he would explore John and his neighbor's yards. The explorers, in John’s experience, are always the better fighters: if they can fend for themselves against the dogs and hawks and coyotes, they can certainly have the wits and wile to give another gamefowl a run. “Fear wasn’t—he didn’t know the meaning of the word fear,” John says. Caesar roamed until he began to approach the other's cocks cages, “getting bad thoughts.” “Real bad thoughts,” John’s wife adds. (Natural animosity, honed over centuries!) Within months, a pecking order is established among the tennis ball-looking chicks, which remains undisturbed for six months or so, when the bad thoughts begin and the birds must be penned, lest they tear their own toes off attempting to move up the order through the wires of the cages. They’ll also shake up the pecking order when it rains, as the now soaked roosters don’t look like they did before. Caesar ate a proprietary blend of feed—“the best feed money can buy,” John says—in order to raise the healthiest and strongest bird. For his animals, he likes soaked oats, racehorse oats and whole oats, supplemented with apple cider vinegar. Corn for energy, wheat, and 14-17 percent protein. You want a lean, muscular bird, not a fat one halfway to the dinner table. “You want him to have all kinds of body,” John says. “But … you want him to feel like he’s made out of cork. You can pick up a big old cork, that’s got a big substance to it, but it’s light as air.” Fat can be deadly for a gamecock; their ability to take flight, high and often, can be the difference between life and death. To bring a bird in ill-health to the pit is to sign his death warrant, and it begins with the feed he ingests. Caesar, John says, was never sick a day in his life until he died, a rapid auguring in over three days. All of the antibiotics and other treatments John could think of failed. Inside John’s cages—Caesar, like all of John’s other gamefowl, was rotated among them to prevent boredom, and tethered outside when weather permitted—was a floor of thick straw, onto which John tosses the feed. This not only gives the roosters something to scratch, which they adore, but the constant pawing of the medium also built up their crucial leg muscles, in the same way athletes flex their fingers in buckets of rice to strengthen their grips. He did nothing but explore, eat, and scratch until he was old enough to spar, at roughly eight months. To spar, the cocks have their spurs covered by tiny boxing gloves, and they are allowed to go at each other for a few minutes at a time, just to experience combat. Within four or five fights, John knew that Caesar was a derby cock, worthy of competing in big money fights against birds raised by cockers as dedicated as he was; in essence, the cockfighting major leagues. * A cockfight takes place within a pit, usually circular or rectangular, surrounded by a wall and a fence—these fuckers can fly—and marked by pit lines eight feet apart. The pit where Caesar began his career, by comparison, was massive: roughly fifty feet in diameter, with stadium seating all around and a ring of bleachers atop it spiraling up into the sky, in an American region best known as Way Down South. And all up in those bleachers, eyes watching, eyeteeth flashing, minds calculating, were cockers, their family and friends and fans, John’s people, ready to watch one of the world’s oldest sports. The Romans referred to it as “the Greek diversion,” and cockfighting was one of England’s—and her colonies’—most popular pastimes throughout the 17th and 18th century, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Benjamin G. Rader’s book American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports. Cockers particularly love to say that George Washington partook of the sport, and that “Honest” Abe Lincoln got his nickname from his calm and steady hand as an official in the pit, though evidence for both claims is limited at best. His first fight came against a huge gamecock, gray to Caesar’s red. John was worried. His sympathetic nervous system put him into that special overdrive—afflicted him with the same mixture of tension and excitement, he said, one gets watching their kid compete. It is a singular tension and thrill, to see a living, breathing thing into which you’ve invested two years and considerable resources, both financial and otherwise, put its life on the line—and although nervous, he was not surprised at the quality of his opponent. “I wasn’t at a place where they bring second-hand roosters, man. When you show up there, you better have some double-barrel aces, you know? Or you ain’t gonna stand a chance.” John had seen enough in Caesar to debut him here, with lots of money on the line—John won’t get into specifics, but hundreds of dollars is almost a given, and thousands would not be unheard of—and the finest of competition. You’d better be on, he thought. This is for real. The birds are weighed, with a colored band denoting their weight attached to their legs and a corresponding ticket given to the cocker. Gamecocks are paired off by weight, and, after getting their weight re-checked, the ticket collected, and the band removed, are prepared to fight. Moleskin wraps are applied to their legs, and a soft strap featuring their weapon is then attached over top of their natural spurs, lengthening their strikes and increasing the lethality. John refuses to fight with knives, which are exactly what they sound like; he considers them too deadly, too much in the favor of the gambler, who wants one fight over quickly so he can get to another. As such, Caesar was always armed with gaffs, which are long, thin, viperine crescents ending in smooth, round points. The only people allowed inside the ring are “pitters” and a referee. At the ref’s order to “bill your cock,” the pitters will present their respective gamecocks to each other, who will throw up the feathers around their necks like cobra hoods and begin to peck away, their hostility coming to a boil. If a cock does not peck while being billed, he is deemed a “no show” and loses. When both birds are suitably fired up, they are released. The opening salvo of a cockfight is equal parts balletic and ballistic, as the cocks launch into parabolic flurry, more than six feet high, each attempting to spear the other with his spurs. The cocks get their feet and spurs in a poleaxe position, kicking their big tails down to pull their head and neck out of the fray. “You don’t want a rooster who runs in there with his head down,” John says. “He’ll get killed.” If the birds tangle up, the pitters can separate them under the watchful eyes of the ref—to prevent, say, a plunging in of a gaff, or other forms of subterfuge; as John says, “his life and your money” are on the line inside the ring, and high stakes invite desperation and deception—and a count comes in to play. If the wounded gamecock does not show signs of a fight after the count is over, he has effectively tapped out. If he does continue to battle, the roosters are “pitted”—placed on the lines, again, and allowed to launch attacks anew. Matches between athletic and accurate—that is to say, well-bred—gamecocks shouldn’t last more than a few minutes.22Slow but unyielding cocks will eventually be moved to a sideline, smaller “drag pit” to finish out their match at a derby—got to keep the card moving! Caesar’s intelligence and blood gave him a cold lethality. “He didn’t have long fights,” John says. “They’re in and out and in and out then one of them falls dead and it’s over.” Gamefowl, thanks to their powerful breasts, are fairly well armored from the front, so the head and sides are considered the best places to target. John prefers a cock who will hit with speed and accuracy at the thin skin just beneath his opponent’s wings, where the gaff can reach major organs, collapsing lungs and piercing hearts. A shot to the head or neck can end a fight in one move, but those smaller targets are easier to miss; like a sniper, Caesar would aim for center of mass kills. “I mean, a marksman who can’t hit the bullseye ain’t much of a marksman,” John says. “Caesar was one of them kinds that, when he throwed a lick, it counted.” Caesar and the gray gamecock launched into their initial conflict, with Caesar getting cut on their first encounter. Still, his aggression and accuracy were simply too much; the combatants were pitted three times, taking to the ground after their second pitting for brutal close-quarters fighting somewhere between a knife fight and kickboxing. “He put one in that gray and he was dead,” John says. “I shook hands and it was over.” * With two more victories, Caesar earned both his name and his status as an ace. Most gamecocks are tested with steel five or six times over their lives; Caesar, continually killing any and all who came before him, fought twice that many bouts. He was, by any measure and regardless any ethical or moral qualms, an extraordinary athlete in a game that for him was life. His final fight was a few years ago, against a fearsome fellow red, tall and beautiful, who was nearly his equal from his feathers to his form. “He could fight in the air, he could fight on the ground, he was a shuffler, he was a powerhouse,” John says of the bird with a mixture of respect and worry. “He had it all, man. Just like me. And when you see that going on, you know one of you’s going to die, and it ain’t gonna take too damn long.” But it did. This was perhaps Caesar’s longest fight, with five to six pittings, a vicious contest between equally matched birds. John recalls picking him up between bouts and handling him “like an egg,” his bloody body scored across his ribs and back with the kinds of injuries he was used to delivering. John knew Caesar was in pain, but he still looked stronger than his foe. Caesar pinned him up against the wall, raining blows from his superior position with his beak, his wings, his body, his gaffs. John’s friend urged him to call for a count, fearing that a missed strike could shatter Caesar’s leg against the wall, but John felt this was his last chance. “We had to finish him, because if we didn’t, he would finish us,” John says. “It had come down to that.” Flush with the wall, Caesar finally laid his enemy—first ordained by nature and competition, then honed to a fine, flesh rending point by humanity, genetics, and gambling—low, his final kill in a perfect career from which none but he escaped. “When I walked out of the pit with him then, I was like, ‘This is it,’” John says. “I pushed him. He’s given me more than any rooster’s ever given me.” * Caesar retired to a life of breeding and feeding, unencumbered by any edicts to keep weight or fat content within a certain parameter, with no hazarding of his life on the horizon. His sons roam the ridges their sire used to, a generation already in cages, crowing mightily. Caesar, after all, knew nothing of the legal and moral maelstrom which surrounded his life; he knew only his home, another rooster, blood, and death, death at his spur. It is not currently a crime to raise and breed gamecocks, and perhaps it never should be—the birds are tremendous, smart and strong and worthy additions to a genetic pantheon humanity has rendered little more than a mutant laughingstock in most all of its other forms. The mastiff, the bulldog, the terrier, all trace some aspect of their breeding to bloodsport and all are now faithful companions whose existence does not raise much ire or bouts of ethical concern. John doesn’t fight anymore, though; the penalties are far too steep for a man with a family to take care of. His remaining connection to the sport comes from his breeding, from the cultivating of bloodlines which are centuries old, and Caesar’s blood is his finest, a treasured possession and possibly endless family legacy. “Breeding’s like breathing,” John says. “Breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out, breed in, breed out; you’ll keep ‘em strong, man. Healthy. I’ll have some of his blood ’til I—crcshkk—croak.”
The Science of Bringing Back Dead Animals: An Interview with Britt Wray

The author of Rise of the Necrofauna on cloning departed pets, important beetles, and the power of the northern white rhino. 

Britt Wray’s Rise of the Necrofauna (Greystone Books) is one of those whirlwind books that purports to be about one topic, but ends up taking you places you couldn’t have foreseen. In this case, the topic is the science of de-extinction: the process of resurrecting endangered species, à la Jurassic Park. This is something that’s actually going on, albeit in a less contrived fashion than in Steven Spielberg’s movie. Brilliant men and women around the world are trying to bring back the passenger pigeon, the wooly mammoth, and the white rhino, for reasons that have to do both with saving the world and entertaining human whimsy. As Wray, who co-hosts a podcast on BBC called Tomorrow's World, takes you through this weird field, she explains basic genetic engineering, the truly intimidating genitalia of elephants, the history of pigeon hunting, and almost everything else.   Sasha Chapin: One thing that struck me about this book is that, after I finished it, I knew a lot about de-extinction, but I wasn’t really sure what your personal opinion on it was. Do you have an overall for or against view? Is there a central emotion that sort of grips you? Britt Wray: My overall emotion is not what guides my work. What guides it is a deep curiosity. I was troubled by de-extinction, but that made me curious to discover the motivations of the scientists who are doing it, and who they are as fuller humans. I like looking at scientists as much more than just the science. I like to situate them in the messy human web that they’re swimming in. This is a field that's marching ahead certainly with or without me. I think what my work in this area can do is make a palate that the general public can taste from. There still is a general sense that science is exclusively for scientific people. But it's not. It's something we can all be involved in, and it’s something that we definitely all have a stake in, because we’re talking about a fundamental redesigning of a lot of the natural world.  Right, we’re all downstream here. We have scientists in rooms somewhere and once in awhile they totally change our landscape. You’re just trying get in front of that a little, and warn yokels like me about what’s going on.  Downstream is a helpful term, yeah. What I am trying to do is push the conversation a bit more upstream. De-extinction is one tiny slice of a much bigger panoply of work that’s dealing with redesigning natural systems. We are starting to do work on genetically modifying humans, and not only just for relieving people of disease states, but also potentially for genetic enhancement as well. I think it’s important for people to know about this. So you don’t consider it your role to adjudicate and decide whether de-extinction is moral or good. No, no, no. I don’t. I do feel absolutely uncomfortable saying that I’m pro-necrofauna and I’m not going to sell it in that way. What I’m trying to sell is a forum or an arena or some kind of agora where people can come and notice that there are so many issues here.  I do feel like I should probably have some take-home statement for people. And my take-home statement is that I’m not able to buy this de-extinction narrative that this simply makes the world a better place, that this can enhance biodiversity without taking away from biodiversity in major ways in other areas. If we’re going to see recreated woolly mammoths, that has benefits, but that also has violence and the violence is sometimes concealed. For example, if we do de-extinction with cloning, that means sacrificing a lot of animals along the way before cloning starts to work. You have to torture and probe and prod lots of animals. I don’t know about torture, but you do have to probe and prod animals to get their regenerative cells for cloning, as well as turn them into surrogate mothers, and often it just doesn’t work—embryos fail or animals die soon after they’re born. It seems like there’s this divided purpose with de-extinction. On the one hand, there are potentially noble motives here, related to conservation and so on. On the other hand, it’s like, passenger pigeons are really cool, let’s do that. Correct. And it’s interesting because it’s a double-edged sword. One of the scientists in the book, Thomas Gilbert, said, look, let’s resurrect the Christmas Island rat. It’s not exotic—we already understand the rat system so well that we can probably get what we want very quickly. But precisely because the Christmas Island rat didn’t have people power, it was shot down by the advocates in the room who wanted to create something spectacular because they’re aware of the PR value of resurrecting passenger pigeons. I mean, we’ve got lots of pigeons now, but we don’t have pigeons that flocked in the billions and disturbed the northeastern forests of the United States. That’s why the book is called Rise of the Necrofauna. It references Alex Steffen, the futurist, who said, “Are we only going to make charismatic necrofauna?” As in, maybe we shouldn’t just bring back these dead animals that make us feel good. How do we pick? It’s so arbitrary. Will we choose animals that cheer us up and let so many important beetles and rats remain extinct forever? Is there any particular animal or project that you’re sentimentally attached to? It seemed like you were rooting for the Northern White Rhino. Yeah, that would be my vote, if you’re allowing me to choose them as part of de-extinction. Because they are pretty much a dead species walking—they can’t reproduce naturally. But there is an ecosystem available for them. If it weren't for poachers they’d be able to live there. As well, I went and visited them, and I was duped by how powerful that was. In general, how optimistic are you about humanity’s ability to play god?  I get more dread than optimism. But I wouldn't want to shut it down. We’re facing a lot of crises, and we have to be innovative. But while we’re doing de-extinction, and geo-engineering, and other things, we haven’t stopped our industrialization practices and things that are despoiling the planet. We’re coming up with these solutions that are sometimes bandaids and don’t get at our issues at a root level.  So you’re sort of wary of human civilization becoming this sort of patchwork of temporary technological solutions.  And then there’s the idea that this planet is not going to be habitable, so let’s go to Mars. I find that a bit sad. You wish we’d just get along with this planet better. I wish, but I don’t see it happening. So as de-extinction progresses, do you think there’s going to be an emerging market for sort of designer animals, like fun little hyenas that can play with your kids?  Well, we already have GloFish—genetically engineered fish with bright blue or neon or orange pigmentation that isn't natural, so they’re all rainbow coloured in one little school and you can have it in your bowl. And we have cloning of dead pets. As long as you put your dead pet in fridge and get the cells out, you can have a company in South Korea recreate your favourite dead friend. And I think these things will ramp up and get more sophisticated. Do you think that’s a testing ground for weirder things we’re going to try on humans in the future? Yes. We’re already genetically modifying humans. And as these tools get sharpened in non-human animal work, it sharpens them for use in human cells. The sophistication allows all boats to rise together. Consider what we’ve seen with a tool like CRISPR. It was only discovered as a genetic engineering tool in 2012, but in five short years it’s gone from being an obscure technology to being absolutely ubiquitous. Even pretty low-grade labs use it. It’s like synthetic biology 101 now. Yeah, exactly. And it can penetrate every living platform from bacteria to plants to animals to humans. This is an opening, blossoming field with a lot of promise in terms of curing genetic disease. But It’s going to go way further than that. Way further. Especially with artificial intelligence coming into the bioinformatic space. We’re going to learn a lot more and at a faster rate. We don’t actually know a lot right now. At this point in time it still is very complicated to know what could code for some sort of phenotypic thing like super tall babies. So we’re potentially entering a feedback loop where machines that are smarter than us will examine our genome better than we could and tell us about how to reprogram ourselves to make us taller and stronger.  I think that might be the direction. There’s a really interesting company out of the University of Toronto that’s actually doing this, artificial intelligence for genomic analysis called deep genomics, and they’re kind of at the cusp of this stuff, but that’s the next step beyond the book. To be clear though, they’re not doing it for human enhancement. They’re doing it for medical insight. 
Featuring Vicky Mochama
The specific way men interview women (5:05), Rory Gilmore, journalist (17:17), and the Avril Lavigne riots of 2021 (48:27)
What Is Given, What Is Earned

Discovering the balance between grace and effort in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. 

The ending of my favorite children’s book is one many would call bittersweet: the heroine loses a power that made her special. Lyra Belacqua is the the protagonist of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a trilogy of fantasy novels that retell John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lyra could once interpret the symbols of the alethiometer, a compass-like device that reveals the truth. It is a rare and valuable gift. By the end of the series, it is a gift she no longer possesses. Lyra is afraid, and so she asks the angel Xaphania why she has lost the power. Xaphania’s answer is not satisfying. “You read it by grace, and you can regain it by work,” the angel responds—but it will take a lifetime. “But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.” “You mean a full lifetime, don’t you?” Lyra whispered. “A whole long life? Not…not just…a few years…” “Yes, I do,” said the angel. I was ten when I first read this passage, and to me, it was only just that such a gift would be revoked. I had long been taught the value of hard work and conscious understanding—from parents who preached that passion was unsustainable, from teachers who stressed that discipline will carry you when talent reaches its limit. That passage strengthened many of my deepest suspicions: that you have to pay your dues and suffer, that skill attained “after a lifetime of thought and effort” is the most valuable, and, crucially, that what comes freely is suspect because it can so easily be taken away. It's a reading that Pullman himself champions. Grace is the joy of innocence, he writes, while wisdom comes when we attain consciousness. Conscious understanding is a more difficult and uncomfortable state, but is to be prioritized because it is stable and true. I believed Pullman fully for a decade after I first memorized those words. Then I felt grace in a way I never had before. Terrified, I rejected it. In doing so, I realized the limits to what we can build on our own. * His Dark Materials is about the Fall. It reverses Paradise Lost into a story about a girl defying authority. Because it privileges secular knowledge and rationality, the series has been called atheism for kids. Little wonder, then, that grace is seen as suspect. In the simplest interpretation, grace is the gift, freely given, that you have done nothing to deserve. It is our salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8). Pullman acknowledges its joy, but finds no comfort in what he calls “a mysterious quality which is inexplicable in its appearance and disappearance.” The mysterious, that which is outside the realm of the rational, is not to be trusted. Within his world, grace is linked to a conscious particle called Dust that powers the alethiometer. The Dust in turn is attracted to Lyra, twelve at the beginning of the series and innocent in her evaluation of the world. It helps her read the alethiometer’s cryptic symbols. Others study for years to have the least flash of insight, but Lyra needs only to “make [her] mind go clear” and “let [her] eyes find the right level.” There is no laborious cross-referencing of appendices, simply a mind gifted with all the answers. The clarity disappears when Lyra gains something else: love and sexual awakening. Of this, Pullman says that grace and innocence depart together, “but the fact that she can regain it through work and study symbolises the fact that only when we lose our innocence, can we take our first steps towards gaining wisdom.” Only when Lyra loses her innocence can she be wise. Yet the moment she becomes wise, the road ahead becomes more difficult. The theme of the burden of consciousness is an old one. Here, it’s rooted in “On the Marionette Theatre,” an essay by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist that Pullman has cited as inspiration. Marionettes move by intuition, dancing gracefully and with abandon. Humans, in contrast, are aware of our limitations and our place in the world; we know that others are watching and we know what it means to be dancing. Hampered by self-awareness, our movements are awkward. We lack the perfect innocence of the marionette, but we can replace it with the true skill of the dancer if we try. And, adds Pullman, “working toward that end should be a joyful action.” I do not disagree. But working toward the accumulation of conscious knowledge does not require the rejection of that which comes to us freely. * Henry and I met when we were twenty-one. After our first conversation, I wrote in my journal, “BE STILL MY FUCKING HEART.” But, below that, I wrote the Pullman passage on grace, a reminder that it is a sly, dangerous thing to be avoided, too good to be true. In the swirl of memories I have around that relationship, a simple one stands out: We were sitting on the bed, watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, only I wasn't really watching the movie, but watching him watching the movie—observing his face in silhouette, trying to memorize the way he laughed, thinking about how long his eyelashes were, and feeling a familiar one-two step of emotions: A deep happiness and then, a second later, a reeling in, a violent attempt to stop that happiness before it grew, because it could be taken away so easily. I had never been loved like that before. I had done nothing special to deserve it. It was a gift I could not rationalize and thus could not accept. Henry could reassure me, but love is not fully rational. No accounting of reasons seemed to truly explain why he cared for me—and if he couldn’t explain what bound him to me, then there was no way to trust it. It felt like a trick. The relationship ended. My next relationship was the model of conscious knowledge. We were an excellent match on paper. I used all my intelligence and strove to be kind and reasonable. There was work and there was love; there was never magic. When that, too, ended, I wondered where I had gone astray. I had forfeited the grace of passion for the stability of rationality, just as I thought Pullman had asked. I had distrusted the gift and put my faith in the work—what now? * But the ability to interpret the alethiometer is not the only example of grace. Lyra’s love for Will, and his for her, is also a gift, and one I believe she values more than the intuition that allows her to read symbols. Love is a form of grace that can defy conscious knowledge; this is known to anyone who has failed to love someone they know they should, or been loved and not understood why.  Even as romantic love triggers a loss of innocence, even as Lyra can no longer read the alethiometer, it opens a new world of possibility. After Lyra falls in love, she feels that “inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.” The grace of love does not just restrict her world, it broadens it. The arrival of grace does come with a loss of innocence, because it forces us to see that so much of what happens is out of our control, and to let go of our childlike belief in our own power. It took more than a decade after first reading Pullman’s passage for me to finally understand how the privileging of conscious knowledge was, for me, a terribly self-serving belief. It centered myself and my own work ethic as master of the universe, helped me believe that I could control everything myself. It granted permission to self-abnegate and blinded me to half the joy of life, the things that come to us when we do not expect them. The Pullman passage claims that passions can be capricious and that deliberate effort, and work, can bring us to a level of understanding that skating by on pure feeling cannot. All this is true. But the refusal to both accept and value grace also rejects the knowledge that much of the world is out of our control, that you sometimes receive a gift you did not work for and sometimes are punished with hardships you do not deserve. * I wish I could make you see that System 1 doesn’t matter, my new lover once said, referring to a famous concept in psychology: System 1 is the automatic, the emotional, and the irrational way of being; System 2 the rational and controlled. I shrugged, changed the subject. He doesn’t quite realize that five years ago, ten years ago, I did believe precisely that System 1 didn’t matter and only existed to be overruled. No more; and I would come to realize that he didn’t truly believe in this either. There must be both systems, grace and work—both the feeling that is an unbidden gift and, simultaneously, the commitment to thought and effort. Grace alone is not enough; neither is the decision to want most what you should. Going forward, I will look, and ask, for both.
The Last Days of the Leather Fortress

For a decade, the BDSM site Kink.com has filmed scenes for its more than 50,000 members in a hundred-year-old armory in downtown San Francisco. This year, the final erotic frames were shot on the premises.

Mickey Mod and I are walking around the San Francisco Armory basement late one February night. We’re both staying here to participate in the last week of Kink.com film production that will be taking place in this building. The BDSM-themed porn company, also known as Cybernet Entertainment, has owned the 200,000-square-foot historic landmark fortress for ten years. During that time, they have shot approximately eleven thousand hardcore sex scenes within its brick walls. Every available room and in-between space is piled with the fetish costumes, outrageously high-heeled shoes, sinister customized props, and other ephemera that employees have claimed. It reminds me of an apartment the day before roommates move out, except instead of appliances, people are putting masking tape labels on rubber tongue fucking machines and olive green latex military uniforms. Just beyond a cart stacked high with vintage encyclopedias is a large disco ball resting in a metal hydrotherapy bath. A collection of rusty chains has been piled into a wheelchair. If the Armory is haunted, I could imagine the ghosts trapped here finding all this poltergeist-ing material a little on the nose.  Mickey knows his way around better than I do. He shot his first scene as a Kink model in 2009 and has been one of their most consistent male stars ever since. He’s a tall, slender, down-to-earth man with a very dependable nine-inch cock.  Mickey flips the heavy light switches just inside a set called the Gimp Room. Many of the rooms are some variation on this dungeon design: wooden floors, custom crosses and stockades, chains hanging from the ceiling. Much of the atmosphere comes from the building’s natural decrepitude, while some elements have been customized for either decor, like false electrical boxes, or functionality, like the many o-ring tie off points available to the bondage-rigging directors. There’s a seven-foot-tall metal cage built into the wall, which opens up into another set, the Training Room. Walking through this cage, I feel like I’m in a dream, or a dream sequence, where each threshold leads to a completely different environment. My boots echo on the concrete floor as we head down another hallway, past a venetian blind-covered window that peeks into a noirish office, to a vast pillar-lined cavern called The Roman Baths, past which is a phony wooden sauna with swinging doors that open into a locker room. Next is the Abattoir, a serial killer slaughterhouse complete with prop pig carcass hanging from siding hooks. Beyond that is a room containing an enormous boiler. “There’s lots of rooms here meant to look like a sinister place you might be taken to," Mickey says. "But this is the one that makes me feel like if I was brought here, no one would ever hear from me again.” We make a loop through the Shooting Range, groundwater from MIssion Creek running through the cavernous space. It’s rooms like these, where the dusty air gives me an instant asthma attack, where the foundations seem close to crumbling and the walls are slimy with water stains, that remind me this building is over one hundred years old. If it had been purchased for any purpose other than making highly dramatic dungeon movies, rooms like this probably would have been redeveloped by now.  They might, in fact, be redeveloped very soon. * The history of Kink.com is well-told at this point. CEO Peter Acworth’s grad school dorm room experiments with bondage films. A late-1990s Internet environment primed for successful niche membership sites. Then, in 2006, the purchase of the National Guard Armory and Arsenal at 14th and Mission, a historical landmark which had stood mostly unused for decades. In an out-of-the-way prop supply room that could be mistaken for a Salvation Army, Mickey and I come across a stack of photo stills printed on 9 x 12 inch gator board, analog evidence of Kink.com’s early days. In one of these pictures, a woman, naked except for a leather waist cincher, stands in five-inch chunky-heeled black pumps with her opaque white thigh-high stockinged legs apart. Her ankles are tied with white rope, the ends of which disappear, taut, out of either side of the frame. Another length of rope attached to two dumbbell weights wraps between her naked vulva. Her hands are attached above her head to suspension cuffs, so called because the straps run along the wrist and palms, putting less pressure on joints than simple circular cuffs. She is wearing a red ballgag from which several straps wrap along her eyes, partially obscuring her identity. A rod is attached to her breasts by nipple clamps. Behind this model, a slender pale man wearing jeans but no shirt crouches, holding what may be a vibrator between her legs. The man is wearing a simple black mask that covers his entire face. “That’s Peter’s old garage,” says Mickey. Indeed, in the background, which you would be forgiven for not noticing right away, is a washer and dryer. “And that’s definitely Peter,” he says, pointing to the man in the mask. * The first Kink.com site I modeled for was Wired Pussy, which is now called Electro Sluts. The same year, 2009, I was also cast in Men In Pain, which is now called Divine Bitches. I was very proud to be on Kink as both a submissive, struggling in an electricity-conducting copper cage while Lorelei Lee sat on my face, and as a dominant in a red latex bra, strap-on fucking Danny Wilde in the ass. My sex-work life at the time was all over the place, in dungeon studios and hotel rooms around the Bay Area, switching outfits and personas, catering to the varied taste of an endless stream of men. The Armory was, for me and many other people I knew, a single destination to make dependable money. It was intimidating but welcoming. The work I did there was usually more intense than the average “direct service” client session, but it paid more, on a legit W9 tax form. Plus, I was playing with other sex workers who had more skills and generally got me wetter than my clients did. Mickey and I climb four flights of marble stairs—past the second floor talent lounge and cam show rooms, past the third floor which is mostly devoted to tech and marketing offices—to The Upper Floor, the top level that has been modeled after an Edwardian mansion. He points to a particular room and we tease each other fondly about a Public Disgrace shoot a few years back, where he fucked me on that pool table in front of a crowd. Lorelei, who was directing, had brought me in at the last minute as a submissive model. I amazed myself that day with how much attention I could demand and money I could make by navigating erotic overstimulation.  At the end of the shoot, Lorelei gathered me up in a terrycloth robe, looked deep into my eyes and said, “You're a superstar.” It was at this, after hours of willfully submitting to negotiated degradation and pain, that I burst into tears of relief. The performance of objectification didn’t make me feel vulnerable: being praised by a powerful woman did. Lorelei understood that no matter how much good we do in our lives, women don’t know if we are enough. For some of us, the overdetermined melodramatic glamour of BDSM work is our refuge from uncertainty. Like the joke goes, porn is the only job that you only have to do once to be a star. *  Friday, February 24, 2017 was the last day hardcore porn was filmed at the San Francisco Armory.  Both Matt Slusarenko, the director of marketing and business development, and Alison Boden, the vice president of technology and operations, explained the decision to me as primarily a business one. While much of the Armory is used for Cybernet offices and production, there is plenty of untapped potential to the space. The 40,000-square-foot Drill Court can host sports, music, dance, and theater events. Numerous rooms could be rented to startup offices; one could easily imagine entire floors transformed into trendy co-working spaces. Securing permits for this kind of re-zoning starts to present conflicts, however, such as the California law prohibiting alcohol sale in an establishment that also provides fully nude entertainment. I was told many stories about vendors revoking contracts when they caught so much as a glimpse of leather or nudity, and some potentially lucrative clients that simply refused outright to do business with a space in which BDSM porn is filmed. This despite the fact that you could definitely spend the entire day in the building and never know a hardcore film shoot was underway beyond the blinking red partition lights. Considering, however, that the 2016 Republican Party platform declared porn a “public health crisis” and that the box office success of the Fifty Shades franchise hasn’t reduced institutionalized stigma against BDSM practice, many businesses simply prefer to segregate themselves from adult entertainment. Few mainstream companies see the value of preserving sex subcultural history, even as their brands enjoy the edgy weirdness of San Francisco. Still others see Kink’s content as an outright nuisance. When Acworth moved Kink operations to the Armory in early 2007, members of the local community protested them as a morally corrupting force. Most of the accusations from the Mission Armory Community Collective, such as Cybernet creating “dead end jobs,” were baseless, ultimately perpetuating the very stigma they feared. It is in response to this kind of hand-wringing that Kink.com has made their sexual values explicit, largely unheard of in porn companies of their size. As of this writing, Kink.com has approximately fifty thousand paying site members.  Their mission—To demystify and celebrate alternative sexualites by providing the most ethical and authentic kinky adult entertainment—is prominently displayed on the site and in the public parts of the Armory. Every Kink scene, including every free trailer, begins and ends with an interview with the models, emphasizing the consent, interests, and boundaries of the submissive performer. Community tours, which are led daily throughout the building, combine Mission history with frank discussions of the dynamics of BDSM. No other porn company has ever housed its production, talent, IT, marketing, and management departments in the same building. Slusarenko tells me that the thing he’ll miss the most is “seeing a database engineer talking to a dominatrix about selling her content. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.” The company is hardly without dysfunction, but their centralization is tied to their transparency. In my vision of a post-decriminalization America, more sex work would be done in such places: physical locations with the possibility of community for the workers and accountability for the management. Not a utopia, just a realistic adult business in every sense of the word. So in some ways, the Armory’s imposing physical presence has been a stalwart icon of a fading San Francisco, the queer mecca whose leather shops and dyke bars are shuttering under pressure of a thriving tech economy. Yet in other ways, they are leaving because they were never fully embraced there in the first place. Kink.com, then, finds itself between a neighborhood rock and an ideological hard place. Another battle facing Cybernet is the ongoing question of model safety and how it’s defined. The regulation of condom use in the California porn industry has been the subject of a contentious legal and political battle in recent years. In 2012, Measure B passed in Los Angeles, requiring the use of condoms in all porn videos shot in that county. In 2016, Proposition 60 would have expanded that law statewide; however, it was rejected by voters. The majority of working porn performers oppose condom regulations for many reasons: they trust their own Talent Testing Service to keep them aware of their STI status, and they assert that prolonged performative sex under hot lights dramatically alters the efficacy and comfort of barrier protection. The co-author of Prop 60 is Michael Weinstein, President of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who has poured years of resources into mandating condoms in porn, while inviting the ire of other HIV advocacy organizations for, among other gaffes, dismissing PrEP as a “party drug.”  Weinstein has specifically targeted Kink.com in his efforts to introduce legislation ostensibly designed for performer safety, despite the fact that organizations such as the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult film industry, have consistently opposed these regulations. Maybe this is because of the extreme nature of Kink’s content, or the fact that they work with many “crossover” performers who shoot in straight, gay, and trans genres. Or it might be because almost every Kink video was obviously shot on an Armory set.  Ironically, the centralized nature that establishes obvious protections to workers—accountability, familiarity, consistency—also make the company a sitting duck for those who oppose it. Kink has spent countless hours and resources on fighting these forces: one estimate I was given approached a million dollars in a few short years. They’re proud of their victories, like a hearing last February where Cal-OSHA rejected proposed condom mandate legislation after five hours of passionate testimony from adult performers. But they are weary, too.  * “Now that I’ve gotten off on my filmmaking,” Maitresse Madeline Marlowe announces, “the boys are allowed to come, too!”  It’s 5:45 p.m. on Friday. I’ve been watching Madeline and her crew prepare and shoot non-sex content all day. Two scenes of innuendo, mostly to establish the Twin Peaks parody plot and characters. I ask a few people if they think this production value makes a difference to the members who will jerk off to the sex, or if it’s mostly for Madeline’s directorial satisfaction. Everyone agrees it’s the latter, but no one seems particularly annoyed. Even the male talent, who have been lounging around since 11 a.m., accept this as part of the experience of working for Kink.com. They look at their phones, they nap, they mutter their lines under their breath until they’ve memorized them. Will Havoc, one of the performers, who is also Madeline’s real-life romantic partner and production assistant, tells me that the men know not to get into any serious conversations. They basically have to hurry up and wait to be bored for hours until the women decide they’re ready for them. Madeline wiggles out of her velvet costume dress and maroon stilettos, pulling on cotton leggings, flats, and a T-shirt that declares, in white letters on black background, the name of the website she’s shooting today: HARDCORE GANGBANG. A Kink.com gangbang is a group of men having sex with one woman; the site’s tagline is “Where all women’s hardcore gangbang fantasies come true.” On Hardcore Gangbang—which was originally called Bound Gangbang when it was started in 2011 by Princess Donna Dolore—the focus is on the woman. Practically, this means the woman is the bottom, the one who is penetrated, the recipient of any erotic pain or erotic humiliation. It also means that everything from the website copy to the script is centered on the fulfillment of the female performer’s desire.  Amber Ivy, a 23-year-old performer who got her start in the industry three years ago on the tattooed alt girl site Burning Angel, has a look like Jessica Rabbit combined with a very pretty bird. She is slender and creamy-skinned with big breasts and big eyes. After being booked for this shoot, she emailed Madeline requesting a Twin Peaks theme. She wanted to be Audrey Horne so much that she made her own costume, sewing red fluff onto a snow-white lace robe and hot-glueing a dozen red bows with craft pearls to her white corset. The Kink costume department set her up with white opaque stockings decorated with black aces and red spades. With her long cascading maroon hair and tattoos, she doesn’t really resemble the actress Sherilyn Fenn, but her look is pure brothel chintzy cheesecake.  Tommy Pistol, a natural goofball, is perfectly cast as psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby in his Hawaiian shirt and different-colored sunglasses. Will is playing Bobby Briggs, wearing a short-sleeve shirt over a long-sleeve thermal and another plaid shirt tied around his waist. He didn’t put his usual product in his hair, and it flops around, giving him the perfect '90s dirtbag look. Owen Grey, thin as a rail, is James Hurley in aviator sunglasses and motorcycle boots. Jon Jon plays Leo Johnson in a lumberjack shirt, and Mickey is sleazy Ben Horne in a blazer which he constantly shakes off his shoulders as he chomps on a cigar. These outfits do exactly what a group Halloween costume should: separately, you wouldn’t peg any individual character, but together it’s delightfully obvious who is supposed to be who. The night before, eating sandwiches in our pajamas in the talent lounge, I had asked Amber what she was excited about for the shoot. She told me confidently that she loves group sex, but that she’s never done an on-camera gangbang before.  [[{"fid":"6701936","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] “I think being the focal point is the charm of it all,” she grins. She was nervous about taking dicks in her vagina and ass at the same time, but was looking forward to working with a company that understands “in a BDSM scene, the power comes from the bottom.”  It’s a tight squeeze on set: me, the camera woman Minako, the production assistant Rhia, Madeline, a reporter from Vice, the five male performers, and Amber. All of the porn stars are given their own robe, flip flops, and a reusable water bottle with their stage name written in Sharpie on masking tape. The set dressers have arranged a carefully surreal tableau. A blue strobe light flutters above our heads. There are several taxidermied deer, one of which is sticking out of an ornate toilet, and an expressionless white mannequin. There’s a vintage ‘50s TV, an ancient metal table fan, and a number of pink flamingos. A concrete buttress angles up into the ceiling; according to the building’s tour guide, this was originally the primary support for a thousand pound artillery rifle. Madeleine gathers the performers and crew to review Amber’s limits from the forms she filled out that morning. She doesn’t like nipple pain and she doesn’t want her face slapped. At her request, this is a no condom shoot. Every performer has submitted their required STI test, which is no more than two weeks old. Her safewords are yellow and red. I glance over at Tommy, who is sitting in a dark corner. I’ve been around so many sex toys all week that I think he is holding a dildo in his lap. It takes me a moment to realize he has his actual dick out of his pants and is slowly stroking himself, staring into the middle distance. This is the first moment of actual explicit sex I’ve witnessed in my week at the Armory and I’m surprised how jarring it is to me. The crew does a couple of takes in which Tommy drags a struggling Amber into the light. Mickey rips gaffer tape off her mouth, which looks like duct tape but doesn’t hurt or mess up her lipstick. Owen steps forward, holding Amber’s chin in his hand, and delivers his line from Madeline’s script in a perfect angsty teen tone. “Sometimes riding on my motorcycle into the night, I punch off the headlights and roll the throttle and just rocket blind into the dark. I’m going to do the same with your tight virgin cunt.” Tommy pushes Amber down, where she kneels on a pad that has been hidden underneath the rug. While the crew preps the shot, she throws her head back and spreads her knees wide. The men gather around her. She starts putting dicks in her mouth before Madeline can call action again. [[{"fid":"6701941","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] A Kink.com gangbang is a formulaic ritual. Blowbang, vaginal, anal, double penetration, pop shot. The men have their moves, they know how this goes. Minako knows when to go for a wide, medium, close up on genitals, closeup on face, POV from the guys, POV from the the girl. She climbs with her camera onto an applebox, confidently towering over the men in her Vans sneakers and jeans. Only Amber has never done this before. “Just let go,” says Madeline. “Tommy will support you from behind.” “And I’ll support you emotionally!” Will jokes and everyone laughs. “Let’s get her on the fuckbox!” Madeline yells. The boys drag a large wooden box covered in leather cushioning under the lights and hoist the now-naked Amber onto her back. I start to become aware of certain well-practiced moves. The energy of the men is always directed heterosexually towards the woman but their work is distinctly, even homosocially, collaborative. An arm around her torso. A knee bracing her hips. Holding her open for the camera and one another. They remove their pants but put their shoes back on for traction. Mickey starts rhythmically sliding his hand along his own waist, and it takes me a second to realize he’s wiping lube off so he can keep a grip on Amber’s ankles as he fucks her. Will slaps Amber in the face and she says quickly and loudly, “No, I don’t like that.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I completely forgot.” Will steps back. Amber gasps. “We can keep going.” But Madeline says, “No, no, I know what face slapping does.” The shoot pauses for a minute while the men back off and Rhia gets Amber tissues and water. Owen lays on the floor and stares at the ceiling, edging himself. Will checks his phone with one hand while holding his erection in the other. Amber requests an off-camera warm-up for anal sex. Mickey asks what position she’d prefer. “Can we spoon?” Everyone else takes five while Mickey and Amber climb onto the fuckbox. They both lie on their right sides as Mickey rubs silicon lube on his cock and slides it inside of her. They are facing away from me but I can see him whispering in her ear and holding her gently. After a few minutes she says she’s ready. As I watch Amber straddle Will while Tommy fucks her ass, I remember how nervous she was about being double-penetrated. Now she seems both ravenous and relaxed, comfortably letting the men flip her on her back, on her stomach, on her knees. This might be the right time to acknowledge that gangbangs are my go-to masturbation material. When I watch this genre of porn, I always identify with the woman as a complete object of desire and an object that completely desires. I’m in awe of what her body can do. I had expected to be distractedly turned on, but my arousal has been replaced by wonder. Madeline has established a choreographed sequence repeated over and over, because both novelty and familiarity drive the business of desire. In this sequence, the subjectivity of the woman is meticulously established precisely so that she can give herself over to abandon. The negotiation, the trained crew, the paperwork, the plot conceit—these preparations are like bungee jumping harnesses, like an acrobat’s net, like telling someone where you’ll be when you go on a hike or a Tinder hookup. They don’t create a completely safe space and they don’t pretend to guarantee that. They create a risk-aware environment, mitigating for worst case scenarios, in which everyone agrees that the risk is worth it because the rewards—the honest money, the ecstatic experience, the pride in making subversive erotic art—can’t be achieved without risk. Madeline has the sex footage she needs, so it’s time for the pop shot, or money shot. The guys take turns ejaculating on Amber’s face. Their control and timing is breathtaking. The next morning over coffee, Madeline will tell me that the thing the members love most is seeing the girl “destroyed.” When I press on her what she means, she describes the way that Amber went from a pristine, smiling young woman in a costume she sewed herself to a gasping, sweaty, smeared, open, ecstatic mess. “They love to see her looking like a toaster strudel,” Madeline laughs. But here’s the thing: Amber is not literally destroyed by this gangbang. She is not damaged. Wrapped in her cozy robe for her on-camera recap, she says, “There’s so much adrenaline in me right now!” Three hours later, after a shower and some whiskey and a vegetarian burrito, she’s dancing gleefully to Amy Winehouse at the bar. Tomorrow she’s getting on a flight back to LA and moving apartments. Exactly one week later she will tweet: Remember those Nerds Ropes candy? That was my jam. It’s 8:10 p.m. A crowd of staff members and porn stars burst onto our set ready to celebrate the final night at the Armory. They’ve been drinking champagne and eating catered chicken wings and crackers and grapes and cubes of cheese on the Speakeasy set, which tonight is functioning as a real bar. Most of the liquor bottles are props filled with water, and everyone who wants a drink has to open a bottle and sniff it to determine if it’s real or not. *  Saturday morning, February 25, is likely the last time I’ll ever wake up at the Armory. I get enviable sleep when I spend the night in the talent department dorms: my room has a queen-sized bed, no windows, and the kind of deep silence that seems to go on forever, like a tomb. The communal bathroom floors and counters are the same marble as the stairs and bannisters, white with tie-dye veins of grey. These shelves, like every bathroom in the building, are stocked with industrial-sized jugs of Dr. Bronner's liquid tea tree soap, yellow toothbrushes with bristles so soft they press up against your gums, burn-inducing navy blue plastic razors, mint toothpaste, mint shave gel that looks exactly like the toothpaste, rows of fleet enema kits with orange tips like traffic cones, and stacks and stacks of big black fluffy towels. The floor-length urinals always seem like they’re standing at attention, waiting. I head downstairs, out into the neighborhood seeking coffee. On the first floor landing is a life-sized photograph of Lorelei and Madeline. They’re dressed in severe business attire, lounging on a pile of $84,000 in real cash like two femme domme Scrooge McDucks, gleefully relishing their deserved fortune. Although there’s no explicit nudity in the picture, Lorelei tells me that renters often ask for it to be covered during their events.  “It represents the physical power of actual cash, which is simultaneously, absurd, utterly constructed, and absolutely real,” she texts me. It was originally taken to celebrate an auction the two women held in 2014, for which an anonymous man paid $42,000 to each of them for a one hour cam show, which he never claimed. “I think people are very threatened by that photo,” Lorelei adds. Through the wood framed glass front doors, I walk down twelve marble stairs to three long concrete steps on Mission Street. You actually have to look both ways when you exit lest you collide with the teenagers endlessly filming each other grinding their skateboards along the steps, which they call 3 Up 3 Down. It’s been raining most of the week but now it’s so bright and warm I barely need my hoodie. From the outside, the Armory is an imposing Moorish fortress. Bricks from the original Western Addition Armory—which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake—jut out from the rest of the structure, making tempting climbing holds for show-off drunks. If you walk west on 14th Street, you pass a gas station, a biker bar, and a dissonant combination of brightly-painted Victorian rowhouses and sleek generic new condos. Turning left on Valencia, you pass pretty much all the clichéd markers of gentrification including a spacious yoga studio and a cafe where a macchiato with homemade almond milk is more than five dollars and also definitely totally delicious. Turning left again, heading east back to Mission street, you won’t fail to notice the congregation of a different kind of San Franciscan. Tent cities are set up like modern Hoovervilles and people are openly smoking crack on the sidewalk. Folks stand on trash cans, screaming about salvation. I stare up at the flags fluttering on the Armory’s turrets: the American stars and stripes, the rising brown phoenix of San Francisco, the rainbow of gay pride, and the black and blue beneath the red heart of leather pride. The final reasons for the end of production here, which many people would tell me only off the record, were along the lines of, “Peter is tired of fighting,” “Peter is trying to get his kid into pre-school,” “Peter is going through a divorce,” and “Peter is burned out on fetish porn.” According to employees, some days Acworth says he wants to preserve Armory rooms for sex parties, and the next he’ll demand everything with the signature red “K” be stripped down. One day he’ll say he wants to mount a traveling art exhibit of props and devices, the next that everything should just be put on the street. One thing is clear: the screams of catharsis, the ingenuity of predicament bondage, the collaboration of devious queer minds will no longer fill the rooms and hallways of the Armory. Beyond that, the future of Kink.com is still unwritten.
‘Happy is the Most Subversive Thing a Woman Can Be’: An Interview with Tabatha Southey

The author of Collected Tarts and Other Indelicacies on The Simpsons, pranks, and saying hello to puppies. 

“Tabatha Southey is smart, funny, and very beautiful. She has the prettiest eyes. She has a lovely laugh and has been nominated for ten National Magazine Awards. She is also an excellent cook, terrific in bed, and weary of self-deprecating chick writers.” I lifted that description from Southey herself, from the author bio on the back cover of Collected Tarts & Other Indelicacies (Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.), a new book of Southey’s humour writing published between 1999 and earlier this year. It’s as good a description as any. Lifting heavily from her columns in Elle Canada and The Globe and Mail, Collected Tarts covers a range of topics from being fitted for a bra to the Rob Ford crack tape scandal. Though Southey writes through a reliably progressive lens, she will never go for the obvious joke. Her humour is as absurd as it is subtle; her columns would find her in a bar interviewing anthropomorphic apes about recent scientific discoveries, or hypothesizing on the events that must have led someone to become a “pee mule,” swapping out lab samples of steroid laden urine for Russian athletes during the 2014 Olympics.  Southey was born in Vancouver, about nine months after her parents immigrated from South Africa (she was, as she puts it, an anchor baby). She grew up in Guelph and moved out on her own to Toronto when she was sixteen. Her writing career didn’t happen until later in life, after she had worked a series of odd jobs, lived in the United States, had two kids, and moved back to Toronto in the late ‘90s. She regularly read “Dinner Date,” the column in the back of the TV Guide, in which an actor was taken out to a restaurant and interviewed about his latest project. Southey thought she would be excellent at this job. So, she made her case, in a piece called “Drunk With Men,” which opens, “At the age of 15 I was taken from the suburbs and abandoned in the woods. There I was found and raised by a pack of feral single men aged 15 to 26 who didn’t get a date until they were 30.” The National Post published the piece, and job offers started pouring in. I spoke to Southey on an unseasonably hot fall morning. We met at a cafe in Toronto’s east end that I picked at random, but where Southey seemed to be on a first-name basis with everyone. “They say about this place, you want to stay long enough to hear the gossip, but not so long you become the gossip,” she tells me. We picked the quietest spot we could find at the back of the room, Anna Fitzpatrick: Let's talk about your author bio. Tabatha Southey: The publishing company said, "Are you sure you want to use that?" You are "weary of self-deprecating chick writers."   I've said it before, being happy is the most subversive thing a woman can be, so get on that. I do feel women and humour is tricky. You're not supposed to laugh at men. A lot of what I think women succeed at is making the jokes about themselves that men would make. So a series of “I'm a fat chick,” or “I'm a slut” jokes. You watch early Joan Rivers, she didn't do those jokes about herself. She's very, very funny, and it's interesting what she had to do in order to succeed as well as she did. Some of it's pretty questionable. There's this reaction cycle. Women are supposed to be perfect, then some women comedians are like, "Well I'm not perfect, I'm gonna laugh at myself!" and then soon women are supposed to laugh at themselves all the time, and then there's a pushback to that.   Of course we have to be able to laugh at ourselves. That's how you end up with a sense of humour—by understanding your own innate audaciousness. But the best humour, I think, when I watch other comics, when I watch standup, they hit home because they made the audience laugh at themselves. They made the audience go, "Oh yes, that's me, busted, I do that." That can be quite edgy sometimes. What comedians do you like? Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Rick Mercer, Samantha Bee. Paula Poundstone I once saw do standup, and it was an hour-long show here in Toronto. She was so on, she basically went another hour over. It was like seeing a musician just having a perfect night, and that's always stuck with me.  Did you grow up watching a lot of comedy? Yeah, I mean, I think I liked Monty Python a lot more than other Guelph kids. We had comedy albums. We always had Flanders & Swann At the Drop of a Hat. My brother and I would listen to that all the time. I realize I still make references to those albums all the time. When I moved to Toronto I started hanging out with comics a lot. I went down to see Theatresports. I kind of think I was raised by the funniest men of my generation and I feel pretty lucky about that. Monty Python and stuff, how did you get turned onto that?  I remember my father smuggled me in to see Jabberwocky because I was way underage. He brought me in literally under his overcoat to go see it. My parents are—humour was important. I started to tell funny stories. I would think back to the anxiety of telling a funny story at dinner, because there would be this pause when my father would say, "Did you get that math test back?" I was just trying to be on so you didn't get that question. I never thought of myself as someone who was "in comedy." I always appreciated it, but I never thought of myself as [in] it. There's one piece in your book where you get your brother to sit on a bottle of water you collected from the Loch Ness. You tell him the air bubble in it is a monster egg. Were you much older than him? Three years. I named him.  Finnegan, right?  I wanted a dog so badly. The Loch Ness thing was so creative and sadistic in such a big sister way. Did you and your siblings pull a lot of pranks? I played with Finnegan a lot. I actually raised him like a little dog. I taught him tricks and stuff from the time he was little. I used to tell my older brother stories, and I would tell him stories at night. He always called me Tum Tum, that was his name for me. I vividly remember him saying, "Tell me a story," and the deal was, if he stopped calling me Tum Tum I would tell him a story. I had three brothers, which is why I wanted a dog. I was like, enough of this shit, get me a dog. The first column that appears in your book was published in 1999. What were you doing before then? I married pretty young and I had two children, and that's what I was going to do. My passport says "Housewife." I was like, we were reclaiming the word. That's what I did. I had my kids. I was never bored. I was really good at not having a job. I worked a whole bunch of jobs when I first moved to Toronto. I worked as a nanny, I worked retail, I ran a vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. People always ask, "Oh, so you worked at Courage My Love?" No. It was called Breakfast of Champions, and my first job in the morning was to take all the chickens and ducks that we kept in cages out. Courage My Love had no livestock. I sold a lot of dead men's overcoats to young boys. I came to Toronto with the hope of finishing high school at an alternative school. I messed up every level of high school. I basically didn't go to school after grade eight. Did you ever finish high school? No. I still have nightmares that I just have six credits left. I did go to university when I turned 21 as a mature student, but I only took three classes and then my partner at the time moved to New York so I moved with him and never finished. Which I regret. Stay in school, kids. Why didn't high school work? I'm quite severely learning disabled, and that was a time when there really weren't accommodations for that. You just made it or you didn't make it. My handwriting was just appalling. I carry a business card so I'll never have to write down my number. [She hands me a business card that says "Tabatha Southey, you lucky bastard" with a picture of a butterfly on it.] I embrace the internet so much because it allows people like us to get away with murder. I just failed a lot. I actually failed kindergarten, and pretty much failed everything after that. I didn't read until I was quite old. I don't know if I could read and was just too shy to let anyone see me read. My mother, to her infinite credit, always said, "I don't care" when the teachers freaked out that I couldn't read. She said, "I read to her, and she's not interested in your books." She said she found me one day on the last page of Alice in Wonderland, and I said, "Hey, that was a good book!" Still one of my favourites. But I picked it up late. When I went to university, I had worked pretty hard and had enough money to buy a computer. There are accommodations made, like you can take your notes on your computer and they give you extra time for tests. I went from being a D student to being an A student. I see sometimes, professors posting on Facebook, "Get your laptops out of the classroom!" That's like saying, "Take off your glasses," to someone with a vision problem.   So you went back to school, then New York, then you lived in LA, right? I did live in LA, yeah. Then you came back to Toronto, and that's when you started writing. Which I sort of really did just stumble into. My first pieces are laminated; I really didn't think it was something I'd do forever.  You stumbled into it in that you didn't take the traditional path, but your work stood on its own merits. The strength of each piece brought in more work.   Thank you! I still write everything out loud. I keep reading out loud until it sounds right. My favourite thing is when readers e-mail me to say, "I read it out loud to my wife every morning." That makes me happy. I think what I started doing was writing down all the things that I generally just said. You're able to do this great thing where you take a political moment and jump back in time to tell a story from your childhood, and—sorry, I don't want to keep embarrassing you by laying on all these compliments. Oh, please! For the love of god! Do it more, do it louder, do it so that guy over there can here. I guess what I'm trying to ask is...how are you funny? How do you do it? I don't know. You're very funny. You're extremely funny. But I feel like all my writing has an obvious structure. Like, I just take things to their most extreme end.  Which I think is a big part of writing humour. You just don't filter it. And trust the reader! Think in your mind, you write to make one person laugh. Sometimes an editor will say, “That joke isn't going to be got.” And you know what? The five people in Canada that get that joke will appreciate it so much. Besides, I want it in there. The pieces of mine I always like the most never get much traction elsewhere, but I think they're so funny. And those are the pieces that are going to last. There are a few pieces where I'm like, Nope, but they evoke a time in my life. But the slightly odder pieces... When I started to write for Elle, the former Elle Girl said to me, "Oh, you'll write these pieces that you think are hilarious, and you'll get very little response, and you'll write something deeply personal and confessional, and they'll love it, and you'll be completely creeped out by that." It's very much true. Sometimes people say to me, "You could also write not funny," as if that was a better thing to do? I'm like, "Bitch please." As they say, dying is easy, comedy is hard. I've done both. Comedy and writing about myself, I mean. So I had this thing I wrote, actually I wrote and published it as a Craigslist missed connection. It was a long, rambly piece I churned out in the middle of the night a few months ago about being sexually assaulted that I impulsively posted. I fell asleep and when I woke up it had been getting a lot of attention on Twitter. I wrote it to be cathartic, but I didn't know if I actually liked the writing. It got deleted from Craigslist, and a few people reached out, to say, "You should post it elsewhere." And I said, "...........No." It felt good to write, but then all these people said to me, "You're so brave for talking about this!" And it didn't feel brave. But I get it, because I've called other people brave.  Yes, and occasionally you're like, "That was brave, but." I wrote about being sexually assaulted. I don't even think I put it in the book. Literally at that time there was a story out, and I was like, "I think I have a small perspective on this that I can offer." It felt like the right and relevant thing to do. Is it brave? No. I'm sure you did the same thing. I have a thought here that needs to be said. But you don't want to be defined by that. We don't want to be defined by the tragedies in our life. No negative attention, please! The week after my assault happened, I was at the airport trying to get to New York stuck in a line, and I texted my friend, "Ugh, these American customs lines are worse than getting raped in the ass." [Both start laughing] Which is how I felt in that moment. But that wouldn't have been considered a brave thing to say! Still, I like a lot of internet feminism, and I remember that relief in first finding these people online who take seriously the things that were never taken seriously in high school. I used to be so angry, and I've kinda grown out of that. But I still feel a kinship with them. I think it's a golden thing. All those things that we didn't talk about, and now we talk about it, is such a win. There is this idiot pushback we're seeing on people telling their truth. You and I both know that almost every woman we know has been raped, you know? They all say the same thing, "Yeah, I was raped." They tell you quietly their whole story. So do I tend to believe women who say they've been raped? Yes, because in my experience, they'll quietly tell you some horrible story that most of us have been through, and I think it's really good that that's getting out there. And watching the men respond can be really beautiful; there's just more awareness now. The way eighteen-year-olds are talking about these issues has changed for the better. Yeah. And I do think it's brave for these women to talk about these things. It's just, in my instance, I just wanted to rant this thing out. Yeah.  Trying to be funny makes me way more vulnerable. If I say, "This terrible thing happened to me," I know in my liberal feminist circles, everyone will support me. But no one will laugh at my jokes if they're not funny. I could be serious three times a week. I was funny once a week. Six days of work went into that. When you're angry and you write, you're only less convincing if you fail. When you try and be funny and you fail, you're basically running around the room naked. You're so exposed, and you really feel it when you're like, "Oh that was lame." Writing straight, being angry about something, like, you can do that, you know? Let the recorder show you made a jerkoff motion. Let the recorder show I made a jerkoff motion! So how does a typical Southey day go? I have a puppy. Cherry. She's sixteen weeks old. [She takes out her phone and shows me pictures.] Oh, hi! God, now I'm talking to a picture of your puppy. It's an instinct. I say hi to dogs all the time, since I had a head injury. I never used to do this. Now I say, "Hello puppy!" Interestingly enough, I had a friend who had a concussion at the same time as me, and when I finally told someone, I said, "I say hi to dogs!" and she said, "I say hi to dogs, and I don't even like dogs!" I'll shout it across the street. "Hello, puppy!" Anyway, I like to keep busy. I like to walk. I walk a minimum of five miles a day, and I'm a daily swimmer. And I read. When I was doing the column, I read a lot of news. I was always a big newspaper reader.  Did that ever get exhausting? Yeah, you're never not working. There's a lot of anxiety in finding your stuff. When I was with the Globe, I was filing Thursdays. What you're looking for is a story that will still be alive Saturday, but will not change on Friday afternoon. I'm like, "If you resign, you cocksucker, I'll be so mad!" You're always looking for that arc of the story. And I would try to keep on top of news. Especially when you're writing humour, you gotta have your facts down. You can go off those, but you want to make as few mistakes as possible. You said you weren't much of a reader as a young kid. Did that change?  Oh, I was a huge reader as soon as I could read. And my parents read to me a lot. From the minute I could read, that's all I did. When I cut school, I literally would go to the library and read all day and come home at the end of the day. I was so grateful to the library. I used to cut school my senior year and just go to magazine stores downtown and read the indie magazines, and write to the names on the mastheads to ask, "How can I write for you?" That's how I had shitty grades but was getting paid.   As you should be! You're very funny.  Thank you. Ugh. Aside from Alice in Wonderland, what else did you like? I loved the Moomintroll books when I was little. I read The Lord of the Rings, a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I would read fairly adult books because they were in the house. I read a lot of Graham Greene when I was eleven, and there were these spy novels that I liked. I basically just read anything that was in front of me, almost indiscriminately ,which I think is kind of cool. Joan Aiken books, did you ever read those? It was almost like a steampunk things based in history, full of spunky little girls. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Nightbirds on Nantucket, all of those. I always give them a push when I can. You're looking for a book for an eleven-year-old girl? Oh boy. Collected Tarts is not your first book. Oh yeah. The Deep Cold River Story. It was a book a wrote for my children. I remember saying to the publisher, "Promise me, if I publish this book, I will spend the rest of my life sitting on library floors reading to children," because that sounds perfect to me, and they looked at me like, "We've got a live one here." They said, sure, sign it. I didn't understand much about publishing. There was no book launch, it never really did anything. But I really like writing for children, and would possibly like to do more.  Publishers take note!   I have part of a children's novel actually that was the next thing I was writing, but then I got caught up in the humour writing and never finished it.  Would you ever write a novel for us old people? Yes! I have part of a comedic novel that I started writing, then I was doing the column that was pretty all consuming. Maybe I'll go back and do something like that.  What are the funniest novels you've read?  Oh gosh…hmm….  I can find a lot of great humour writing, but laugh-out-loud funny humour fiction is harder to find. Honestly? People always ask me what humour I enjoy. Between us, a lot of what people recommend as really funny is not that funny. I read lots of stuff where I think, "Huh, that's amusing," but— There are cute lines, but it's really hard to do. I mean, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, those are laugh out loud funny. I'm trying to think of others. David Sedaris, I think the thing about him is he's a really, really good writer, even when he doesn't do funny. But he's also really funny. Jane Austen is a comedy writer in a lot of ways. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it's solid. I find when I read older books and I catch a funny line, there's this validating knowledge of, "Oh, people were funny back then!" When you're fourteen and you're reading Shakespeare for the first time and your teacher explains, "This is actually a dick joke!" I remember reacting like, "Oh, you could do that? I thought everyone was supposed to be repressed." But I've never laughed out loud reading Shakespeare because I find I have to put so much work into just figuring out the jokes. But a lot of it's very funny. A lot of it's about timing. I love a good dick joke. I remember seeing The Taming of the Shrew when I was a little girl, it was at Stratford. The way it was done was, it struck me as feminist, as Shakespeare's happiest couple. It just really stayed with me, it was almost like a straight comedy. There was the one really old adaptation of that play, with I think Mary Pickford? It's been years since I've seen it. At the end, she gives this big speech about honouring thy husband or whatever, then she turns to the camera and winks. Like it's all this big joke she's in on. What TV shows do you like? I love sitcoms. I just like the idea of having to work within a tight structure and still making it funny. The amount of jokes they have per minute in an episode of 30 Rock— That show is so tightly scripted and paced. One note I made when reading your book that I think is similar to 30 Rock, is so much of what you're writing about is topical. A lot of your earlier pieces you included intros of the news happening at the time. I put those in to try to explain context to people that wouldn't know. Yet the columns are still funny on their own. There are so many jokes in 30 Rock that are timely. Like one storyline they did with two janitors competing for a cleaning spot that mimicked the Conan versus Leno thing. I had completely forgotten about that!  Exactly. Even if you don't remember what was happening, the jokes still hold up. I think that's hard to do, to have something that's a reference but still stands up on its own. I know when I watch sketch comedy stuff, it's so much better when you don't make the topical joke. It's like a standup going, "What's with the mayor!" It's a cheap laugh, most of the time. It's still hard for even good comedy to be completely timeless. Seinfeld isn't topical, but so many jokes have been built on what Seinfeld started, that when you go back and watch it, it might not be as funny. A lot of people would disagree with me. You know, I wanted to like it because he was a really solid standup but I found it kind of irritating a lot of the time. I think my problem is, I'm younger than the show, so I grew up watching the things that Seinfeld had influenced rather than the show itself. I did watch The Simpsons though. And look at how timeless The Simpsons is. I feel like there's a generation raised by The Simpsons, and they're so much better for it. What sitcoms do you like? Well I'm a huge Simpsons fan. I don't watch TV the way I used to. When my kids were born I was just really, really busy, and when I was putting them to bed I just ended up going to bed too. Given that I used to watch everything. I'd pay attention to the ratings and I knew what was going on, comedy wise. People in the industry used to call me and go, "So what's good?" I was thinking the other day, it used to be the new cast of Saturday Night Live was something that was not just noted but was analyzed and discussed endlessly. But I'm not in touch with the television anymore.  Do you still feel connected to the comedy scene? No. I have a lot of friends who have worked in comedy, and I like it when it see someone coming up who I think is great. Have you ever considered yourself a comedian? No. I think I'm a humour writer. It took me a long time to be able to say that out loud, especially because you don't want your pieces labeled "humour." You sort of fight that in every possible way. People go in with an expectation when that happens. Yeah. When I meet people, especially non-writer people, and they ask what I do, I say, "I'm a writer," and they ask what I write and I say, "...book reviews?" Because when I say I've written humour they expect me to be funny, and I'm an awkward person. Me too. My ex was a comic, and people will always say to someone who's funny, "Were you the class clown?" And you'd say, "No." Because the class clown was never actually funny. He just repeated jokes that he heard on Happy Days. And that's generally true—that the funniest people you meet are not all that on. God. I remember the one time I tried to make a joke in class, a French class in grade nine. The teacher was explaining some vocabulary, and I realized I could make a pun out of the words I had just learned—I don't even remember what it was, it had something to do with the word for back pain? I was just really excited to pun in another language. So I said this joke out loud, and the teacher was like, "Excuse me? Do you have a question about the lesson?" So I had to explain really quietly, "No, it was a joke." And the popular girl sitting in front of me just turns around and gives me a look. I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.  Well, where is that popular girl now? It was always the guys, the jocks, who were considered funny. I guess they had good timing, but— The material is bad. I look back at, there was one guy in grade seven and eight who was funny. In science class, looking at the parts of the flower, Richard says, "Number seven is the anther, what is the question?" Bless him! We're still friends to this day. He's still funny. But he was also just a weird guy. And then there were the improv kids, some of whom could be really funny, but in this theatrical way. I was bad at improv. Everyone else would be pretending to be a table or something and I was just on stage mumbling jokes.  Everyone I knew was doing improv, and it never occurred to me. I can't sing, and it seemed to me they wanted you to sing. I'm shy. I still sort of resist hosting things, or things like that. I feel awkward about that. We’re just writers. Nobody thought I was funny until Facebook happened, and I would only update with jokes. I feel this way about Twitter. I watch the medium, and I'm like, there are people you knew your whole life that were funny, but they just didn't fit into a particular category. I love that they found a medium a medium that suits them and they completely understand it. There's a guy that comments on Reddit, and his username is hallucinatesowls. There'll be a picture, and he'll come in and go, "Man, love the owl!" And everyone will argue with him and go "There's no owl there!" The username on Reddit is really small and nobody pays attention to it. So they'll go, "No you idiot, that's a swan!" I just want this guy to win some kind of internet prize or award for understanding the medium so perfectly. It's so funny in the most intimate way. Like, Anchorman is great because they're making each other laugh. So much that you see, you know, this is not scripted. This is, in fact, stupid. They're doing it to make each other laugh. That's what I mean by intimate, when you watch someone have an account like that is clearly just their little gem. They get it.
Elegance and Evil Go Hand in Hand

On turtlenecks. 

Haley Mlotek: The first two pop culture moments that come to mind when discussing turtlenecks are both iconic, in their own way: Jane Fonda in Klute, with her tan trench coat and thigh-high boots; and, of course, Diane Keaton pleading with Jack Nicholson to cut off her white turtleneck in Something’s Gotta Give. [[{"fid":"6701886","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Christian Allaire: Oh my god, I love that scene in Something’s Gotta Give. It’s basically how I feel everytime I’m wearing a turtleneck—“CUT IT OFF.” But also, I love them. There are so many turtleneck moments to choose from. The very first one I thought of was Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She is the only person who can make a turtleneck look downright sexy. It’s not an easy feat. HM: Christian, I was going to say Basic Instinct and didn’t, because I have to stop relying on Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct as my forever inspiration. But there’s just no one or nothing better. CA: Literally no one. HM: I think what Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Jane Fonda in Klute have in common is how clearly they’ve made their turtlenecks into accessories, rather than a component of their outfit. I was thinking about something Gabby said to me once (hello, Gabrielle) when we were fighting about kitten heels. She was like, why would you want to be 1.5 inches off the ground? And on the one hand, yes, you’re so right, they’re absurd, but I do tend to prefer clothing items that offer a really subtle extension of the body: big earrings that compensate for having short hair; pointed toes, to make my legs seem longer; long nails, to make my fingers seem extra elegant; and then turtlenecks, which make the neck seem very long in a regal, upright kind of way. Like it’s faking good posture for you. Both Jane Fonda and Sharon Stone’s characters in their respective films seem like women who really get that power of illusion, and use it to their advantage. Gabby Noone: I’d like to note I said 1.5 centimeters off the ground when referring to kitten heels. CA: It does seem like a real power outfit, right? I feel like every James Bond villain wears a turtleneck. Steve Jobs wears a turtleneck. Celine’s Phoebe Philo wears one. These people run the WORLD. HM: Interesting how quickly “elegant” turns over into “evil” *winky face emojis* CA: Elegance and evil go hand in hand. GN: My favorite turtleneck icon is Fran Fine of The Nanny fame, who as you may have noticed is blowing up online recently. I love her knack for wearing a black turtleneck and black tights under mini dresses and skirts. Though, I feel like if you asked her character about why she wears them, she’d say because it’s SLIMMING. Because you know that show loved to make jokes about how Fran was always eating and would never find a man to marry, even though she was so hot! [[{"fid":"6701891","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] CA: The thing about turtlenecks, though, is they aren’t slimming. They make me feel like a hippo. But I also can’t help but feel at my best in them, like I’m a beatnik or an intellectual who still handwrites novellas. Fariha Róisín: Christian, yes! Phoebe Philo! I also think it’s really interesting how so many of you referenced villains as native turtleneck wearers. I mean, it’s true—I feel like it’s the trope of like some science genius, or ahem Steve Jobs! My favorite pop culture TN moment was probably Diane Keaton in every movie ever, tbh. All of them. She’s flawless. But I also particularly love how shitty the depictions of Steve Jobs are in the biopics about him since he died. Or how it’s become this uniform for caricature. [[{"fid":"6701896","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] GN: Turtlenecks also make me feel like an intellectual who still handwrites novellas. I feel like people trust my opinions more when I am wearing one. I used to not like wearing turtlenecks in high school because I had bad skin and thought they drew attention to my face—they erase your neck and then it’s your head bobbing out. Obviously, I have overcome this. HM: They are the wire-framed glasses of the torso. Instant IQ boost. CA: It’s funny because high-fashion designers recognize this and are making all SORTS of turtlenecks to buy. Luxury cashmere turtlenecks with wool sourced from a mystical mountain. Trendy mesh turtlenecks that expose one’s breasts. For god’s sake, even on the red carpet, celebrities are wearing turtleneck dresses. HM: Let us pay our respects to Sharon Stone’s second-best turtleneck look, her Gap turtleneck at the 1996 Academy Awards. GN: My feeling is that turtlenecks are always a dependable, cheap way to look pulled together. I don’t think any of my turtlenecks weren’t purchased secondhand or at a fast fashion store. One of life’s constants is that even on a bad day at a thrift store, you can still find a pretty decent turtleneck sweater. CA: Oh my god, I was going to say the same thing. I get all my turtlenecks from thrift stores or consignment stores, because NOBODY wants them! So I always find some serious gold mines. The other weekend I found a vintage Prada turtleneck and I audibly screamed.  FR: I also really like how they’ve become staples for a brand like Uniqlo, where you can go and get every color and look like a color-block anthem, or a Solange video. There’s something so cool about them. HM: Yeah, and not to get too Devil Wears Prada about it, but that’s because you’re both right: turtlenecks appear so frequently and with so many variations in high ready-to-wear fashion, which means they are just as frequently made for mass-market brands. There’s a never-ending supply. GN: What is your favorite turtleneck you own and where did you buy it? Mine is a lavender cotton turtleneck that my mom picked up at Goodwill for me after I sent out word that I was looking for a lavender turtleneck. Since thrifting in New York is really not a thing, sometimes I’ll have her be my woman on the ground in the suburbs to look out for things. It’s made by this brand Valerie Stevens that I think they sell at Sears? I have a nail polish that’s the same color and when I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll coordinate my nails to my turtleneck. FR: RIP American Apparel but damn they had some good turtlenecks. I just bought a really great gold patterned vintage mockneck from a thrift store and it’s like an Issey Miyake dream. I like buying old Gap turtlenecks with cool stripes, or ribbed eyed ones from Benetton.  [[{"fid":"6701901","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Fariha.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Fariha.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Fariha.","height":"688","width":"880","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] HM: I just bought a very nice mockneck, which I still think counts, from La Garconne Moderne. It’s got such intensely structured shoulders and perfect bracelet sleeves. I’m wearing it to everything. I want to be buried in it. But while I’m among the living, yeah, Uniqlo has the perfect everyday layering turtleneck. FR: The Uniqlo turtleneck is everything. They have them in cashmere!!! CA: Oh no, we might have our first turtleneck battle. I can’t get down with the mockneck!!! Maybe it’s because I’m an extremist. It’s like, do the turtleneck or don’t. HM: I knew the mockneck was going to be contentious but I cannot hide my truth!!! GN: I think I’m with you, Christian. I like mockneck tops in the summer when I want a touch of turtleneck, but it’s too hot for the real thing. I see both sides here. CA: Haha, “a touch of turtleneck.” I think that will be my new saying. “Your outfit is cute, but it could use a touch of turtleneck.” FR: I mean the mockneck really is the kinder, younger sister of the turtleneck and sometimes you need both. HM: Thank you for seeing me, Fariha.  FR: I love you, Haley. I got you girl. HM: And I you!!! CA: I hate you both. Just kidding, <3 HM: Get outta here Christian. CA: In terms of favourite turtlenecks, though, this is a fabulous question. I could ramble for days. Let me think… OH, I KNOW. It’s a very thick wool turtleneck from one of Raf Simons’ last men’s collections for Jil Sander. It’s bright pink—because I’m all about subtlety—but the turtleneck part is bright orange. So not only is it a turtleneck, but it’s a color-blocked turtleneck.  Also, this is a side rant, but if I can’t tell my turtleneck horror story here, where can I? I also had a very luxe cashmere turtleneck from Acne Studios once. It was the perfect navy blue. I wore it pretty much four times a week. It was my winter go-to. Then, one holiday season, while I was at my parents’ home in northern Ontario, my mother decided to take it upon herself to do my laundry. (Yes, she still does my laundry.) This was a HAND. WASH. ONLY. situation. But she threw it in the washing machine and tumble-dryed it, like a savage. It shrunk to about an extra-extra small. We’re still not on speaking terms. [[{"fid":"6701906","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Christian.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Christian.","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Christian.","height":"1298","width":"975","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] HM: Christian, as you were typing I was like, please don’t say washing machine please don’t say washing machine and then I did my own audible scream when you did. Rest in peace, American Apparel and your precious Acne Studios turtleneck. CA: Do any of you know how turtlenecks started? I low-key tried to Google it last night but found many conflicting sources. Like, who started wearing them? FR: I feel like some Scandinavian architect invented them. This is me profiling but that seems totally accurate. Like, did Rem Koolhaas invent them or nah?  HM: This is a high-quality Google search but I also don’t know. I imagine they’re a modernized version of some kind of historical undergarment? Like maybe they reference a higher collar from ye olden fashion times? GN: Don’t the British call them POLO NECKS? Maybe if we Google POLO NECKS.  FR: So do Australians sometimes! Gross. CA: I read that it was like, medieval knights that started wearing them. Because their chainmail masks or whatever would rub against their skin, and they needed neck protection. That doesn’t seem right, though.  FR: Oh, that also makes sense from all the medieval genre lit I read as a kid. This is sadly true, I was obsessed with King Arthur... HM: Wikipedia has some theories. Where did we land on Wikipedia? Are they trustworthy or what. GN: My favorite snippets from the Wikipedia page for turtlenecks: Vladimir Putin of Russia and Andreas Papandreou of Greece are two examples of European statesmen fond of wearing polo necks. Over time it became a fad among teenage girls, especially in a lightweight form that emphasised their figures. It was not long before Hollywood was also exploiting this image as part of the sweater girl look. HM: Lol at “sweater girl.” Mine is “Polo neck-like garments have been worn for hundreds of years, dating at least to the 15th century.[citation needed]” That “citation needed” really says it all. CA: Listen, I’m not happy Vladimir Putin is a turtleneck enthusiast too—but it’s better than him being shirtless, on a horse. HM: Another great, if contentious, turtleneck-in-pop-culture moment: when Bill and Sam and Neil are going to a “makeout party” on Freaks and Geeks, and Neil and Bill get into a fight about who can wear a turtleneck because they both can’t walk in wearing the same thing, and Neil loses because his is a DICKEY and so he can just pull it off. Please reserve your judgements on mocknecks for where they really belong, which is on dickeys, the freeloader accessory. Either wear the turtleneck or wear a crewneck—pick a side, coward. GN: I LOVE THAT EPISODE. But why are people always hating on dickeys? They are a hilarious garment. Sometimes you just don’t need the bulk of two shirts. HM: Incorrect, Gabby. If anything is the kitten heel of sweaters it is the dickey. Totally superfluous!!! GN: Anyway, I personally miss when Limited Too built in the bra for me and life was less dramatic so consider that in my analysis of dickeys. HM: A built-in bra is extremely different than a … how am I going to phrase this? A rogue neck, disembodied from its intended torso. GN: This is so rude. But I get what you mean. Okay, I have a question for the group regarding turtlenecks and SENSUALITY. Or, is this more of a comment than a question? We’ll see. But as stated in the Wikipedia entry above, turtlenecks were key in the “sweater girl” look. I think this is one of the many great qualities about them: you’re at once completely covered, but you’re also outlining your body. It is a subtle sensuality, if you will. HM: This is a very telling comment on your part, Gabby. But yeah, it’s true, they’re sexy as hell. Like when Beyoncé is referencing Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, in the “Countdown” video, I think of that as one of her sexiest looks. You’re right that it’s because you’re so covered. It’s the reverse psychology of fashion: having more to take off is what makes you want it. [[{"fid":"6701916","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] FR: BEYONCÉ in that look tho! Personally I really love them in the mod era—I feel like Anna Karina wearing these mocknecks are some of the most sexiest moments in film for me. Godard had a good eye for style, fashion and aesthetic in his films. Also, they’re so quintessentially sexy yet chic when worn in that era. It was all about framing the body tastefully. GN: Yes that was when Beyoncé invented the turtleneck bodysuit. CA: A great moment in pop culture. “All my single ladies!”—a.k.a we are all single because we are wearing turtlenecks. Running off of that, I will deliberately wear a turtleneck out on a Friday night. I DARE someone to hit on me. Because if they see something they like in me wearing a body veil, than they are worth keeping around. I’m like Eva Mendez in Hitch when she’s wearing glasses and reading at a cocktail bar. I’m just as gorgeous as she is, too. HM: But there’s also that Hitchcock blonde in a turtleneck look, or the Jackie Kennedy turtleneck, or the Audrey Hepburn, which to me also signifies a kind of sexual undercurrent, even in its primness or properness; like, everything’s covered, but I can still sense the shape underneath.  FR: Agreed, there’s also something oddly regal about it, which I think is appealing. I don’t know why, and let’s not unpack this … but, I think it also frames the neck in a really delicate way. CA: Do we think this works for men? I’m asking for a friend (me). HM: Literal lol. Yeah, I do think the same principle applies for men, just not in the same way. We’ve of course talked about Steve Jobs, who made the turtleneck into a symbol of power in his own way, but like—okay, I’m about to say something really crass, so I apologize in advance, but during Dunkirk, which should win an Oscar for Best Use Of A Rollneck Knit Turtleneck In A Christopher Nolan movie, ALL I could think about was how hot all the men looked in their military-issued turtlenecks. And the horrors of war, also. GN: I always think about that picture of The Rock in a turtleneck and fanny pack when I think “turtlenecks for men.” But I honestly thought he looked good... [[{"fid":"6701921","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"7":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"7"}}]] FR: That Rock faux “American Apparel” turtleneck … I think dudes, when done well, really know how to wear a turtleneck. My partner’s father once wore a turtleneck (I’m a creep) and he looked hella fine, so there’s that. CA: HAHA, creep-ooooo. It’s very Steve McQueen, though, when an older man wears one. A+. FR: Are we talking filmmaker Steve, Christian?  HM: Lol Fariha I was just going to ask too. Film nerds keeping everyone honest in this thread. FR: TRUTH! GN: I always just think of the character from Pixar’s CARS, Lightning Mcqueen. Unfortunately, you are speaking to a dumb baby. FR: Gabby, LOL. Well also the dude in Despicable Me wears a turtleneck so maybe animation is trying to say something. CA: Wait, is there another Steve McQueen? I’m about to look real stupid.  HM: You mean the hot actor, I think? And then there’s the director/artist who made Hunger and Twelve Years A Slave. CA: I think I meant the actor. But now I’m all confused. I’m just going to crawl in the hole I just dug for myself. FR: Is he black or white, Christian??? CA: White! FR: You’re talking about the actor then. And there we have it folks! HM: Either would definitely look great in a turtleneck. It just has a different context. Steve McQueen, the actor, has that 1950s golden boy rebel thing. FR: It’s funny because Steve McQueen the director definitely looks good in a turtleneck too, so there’s that. Okay, I wanted to ask—why do y’all choose turtlenecks? I’m really interested in why and how we choose what we wear. Is there a day that you’re like, “My neck looks ugly?” or, “Wow, I have a lot of hickeys?” or, “I just want to look elegant!” CA: I think for me, the turtleneck is treated as a uniform. It’s practical (keeps me warm), simple, and universally pretty chic (and if you don’t think it is I don’t really trust your fashion sense, sorry). It’s just so easy. I think fashion these days is all about embracing the wearable and the comfortable (even if that means a $3,000 coat). Nobody wants to wear something that isn’t comfy anymore. Fashion-slave days are over. And you can’t deny the comfort of a cozy turtleneck. Ya just can’t. My biggest style inspirations are people who wear the same bloody thing every day. Joan Didion and her big sunglasses. James Dean and his jeans. Steve Jobs and his dad shoes (and turtlenecks!). That’s true chic-ness. HM: I guess this is the part to cite Nora Ephron and the whole “I feel bad about my neck” thing, which I think I once read is something Diane Keaton has mentioned too, as a reason for her turtlenecks? But for me, I think I choose it when I do want some emphasis on my face, and to feel like I have a bit more control in the situation. I know I’m going to wear that mockneck to a job interview in the hopes that it conveys that I am smart and serious. I also wore a turtleneck to a fancy party once, a cocktail thing at someone’s house, and I know that was in the hopes of impressing the fancy people there (it did not, but that’s fine). This summer I burned my neck with my curling iron and don’t own any sleeveless turtlenecks, so I just had to endure people thinking it was a hickey. Lesson learned. GN: Yes, definitely the hickeys thing. Mostly I just like how they are an easy way to look put together. I like to look elegant and smart even when I’m not particularly feeling that way on the inside, which is half of the time. Plus, I like being cozy, but I don’t like wearing clothes that are too heavy or bulky. So I feel like a turtleneck is a good compromise because you can just tuck your chin under your turtleneck if you’re feeling cold or just don’t want anyone to talk to you. And there is just something so appealing, I think, about a turtleneck peeking up out of your coat or wearing them under dresses that might be too light for the weather otherwise. I call this the “small child forced to wear a turtleneck under their Halloween costume because it’s a cold one out there” look. I just feel like turtlenecks make me extend my wardrobe through the seasons! They’re very practical. FR: I feel like I contend with my body a lot, and I always find that the turtleneck is such an easy go-to piece of clothing. It almost masks me or neutralizes my body for me. Whenever I feel icky or uncomfortable in myself, I know putting on a (black) turtleneck is an easy option. I like what you said about it being a good choice for a job interview, Haley. I think the turtleneck is so versatile in a way—it’s like the one-size-fits-all magic-coat. There are so many ways to accessorize it, and weirdly it always makes you stand out, fashion-wise. Like, I saw Solange at Afropunk this year and the whole band was wearing mockneck-type red tops and I couldn’t get over how perfect everyone looked. It was a moment. GN: Solange is definitely another important turtleneck icon. Wow, the Knowles sisters invented turtlenecks. Thank you Ms. Tina for yet another gift.
‘That Story Keeps on Repeating Itself’: An Interview with Kei Miller

The author of Augustown on belief, class and racism in Jamaica, and unhappy endings. 

Augustown (Pantheon), Kei Miller’s novel about Jamaica, history, belief, race, and class, touches on a collective human desire to think about why we believe certain things. As Jamaica turns 55 this year, while also marking 179 years since emancipation from slavery, the book considers ideas and conceptions of freedom.   The context of the novel is the story of religious leader Alexander Bedward, a legendary Revivalist active in the early years of the twentieth century. He resisted oppression, called for what might now be considered Black power and preached to his many followers that they would all fly back to Africa. He was eventually sent to a mental asylum, but he supported Marcus Garvey and his ideas informed both Garveyism and the movement that became Rastafari.  With this historical background, the story centres around the story of Kaia, a young boy who is punished by having his dreadlocks cut off (a moment that is also based on a true story). All of the characters that make up the community of August Town react to this according to their beliefs. But as is often said in Jamaica, “Belief can cure; Belief can kill.” These beliefs are not so much connected to truths as they are connected to the stories we are told and tell ourselves. Erin MacLeod: What to you makes the story of Alexander Bedward important? Kei Miller: I think for me the appeal of Bedward is the appeal of many things that occur to me when writing. It’s always that kind of story that’s both right there but hidden. In a Jamaican context, I’ve always heard about Bedward, but always that story is told in a kind of derogatory way. My grandmother always told me about him. She would cackle, just laughing at what an idiot this was. I grew up with this idea: fascinated by Bedward because he was such an idiot. And very much inheriting that story that comes from the class that I guess my grandmother represents: educated, middle class Jamaica who want to rise out of that kind of ignorance that traps the folk. I guess, probably later on, realizing what a big movement Bedwardism was. I suddenly thought that the people who followed him would have had a very different story and of course with that kind of story always, this massive amount of people who believed weren’t the people who wrote things down, who got a chance to tell their stories. They weren’t in possession of narrative. They didn’t have agency. And so it is just fascinating how to me this wide story of belief and the necessity of belief was hidden. And the other thing I thought—which might be slightly overblown—is that Rastafari would have been impossible without Bedward. Which probably is not quite accurate, but certainly I think Rastafari as it looks today is impossible without him. And I think that’s fair enough. Garvey gets all the credit of being the forerunner of Rastafari when it seems to me that the stream of Garvey had to meet the stream of Bedwardism for Rastafari to look the way it does.  I always think of Rastafari as a product of a perfect storm of influences. There was no one person or element that can be pointed to that created Rastafari, but it grew and continues to grow as a result of a range of factors, individuals and ideas. That’s certainly how I feel. And Bedward just offers so much to Rastafari. The language of “zion” to me certainly comes out of Zion Revivalism, which is of course what Bedward is. So all of that discourse about Zion, about Babylon, about mysticism, the drum beat, which ends up as a Rastafari drum beat—doot doot do do do do doot doot—that is coming out of Revival, which means coming out of Bedward. The robes, the tying of the head. Bedward gives so much to what we know of Rastafari today and yet Garvey gets all the credit. And then I was at a lecture with [Barbadian poet and academic] Kamau Brathwaite years ago when he was giving some key note lecture at the University of the West Indies. In that lecture he paused halfway through and said “It’s time to write about Bedward.” And that just struck me. It was off script, it was a heartfelt “why haven’t we talked about this man?” and that simple instruction stayed in my mind for years and years. I always thought was true. One interesting thing about Bedward and Rastafari is, in both cases, the kind of derision of the belief systems that went along with both of them from a different class of individuals looking down on them. This derision is evident in the book. And obviously in recent times there's been a repetition of that very story, the very thing that happens to Kaia in the text. Can you talk a little bit about that? Maybe it is time to talk about Bedward—not to try to retell history, but to try to understand the derision directed at people who believe or think something different, perhaps something African? Right. Well, I guess there is a broader thing that I wanted to do in the book. To me in some way it is a book written to middle class Jamaica. It’s a book written to where I very much am from. And I have always thought—and you know I think that Jamaica is a deeply, deeply racist society. It always amazes me that Jamaica never owns up to this—they never admit it. And part of it I get—the whole Jamaican discourse: no, we don’t have a problem with racism, we have a problem with classism. To me it’s just that our racism has gotten sophisticated. Values coming from colonialism basically suggested “be white” or “act white” or “speak white.” These were no longer, with the Black consciousness of the 1970s and the changing of the colour of the Jamaican middle class, perpetuated by a white upper class. The nice, Black stewards took up all those values and began to perform that same thing and the rhetoric of it changed. It was never directly said as “speak like a white person,” rather “speak well.” It is not “have hair like a white person,” it is “groom your hair well.” Obviously a lot of these values we have are about what is desireable or what is polite—I guess that whole idea of British politeness gets subsumed into Jamaican society. It seemed to me that all of those conservative values that we have are fundamentally based on race. And why don’t we talk about this? So a situation like that which happens to Kaia, to me, is obviously fundamentally racist.  I wanted to tell a story about class in Jamaica. In Kingston, August Town is in the valley. Mona is middle class and right above it and Beverly Hills is upper class and just above Mona—so there are physical elevations that reflect social stratification. I wanted to tell a story about how class operates, but how classism is never just classism. That the roots of Jamaican classism are based on race. And so when we say that we are being classist, we really are being racist. The story of Bedward has him and his followers moving out from August Town. Your book has two separate situations in which the reader is taken back towards August Town. You make it clear exactly how you get there and what you pass to get to that space. Is there a sense that we all have to return to the past and follow that path backwards to understand where we are now? That’s a lovely way of thinking about it. I’m stealing that—I didn’t think that at the time. Quote me as saying that because that sounds great! But that makes complete sense. One of the things I wanted to say about August Town is that thinking about what I imagine as that first march towards August Town, which I do talk about in the book. It is that [August 1838] moment of emancipation coming and August Town is the destination. Its very name says that it is the goal: this is freedom, the literal manifestation of this thing that we have been hoping for, wanting, so the place becomes celebratory. It itself becomes a monument. It becomes a Zion of a type. Yes. It is the freedom that they wanted. It is the August date, the August morning. And how that fails monumentally. It is a failure, but the freedom that they feel they have achieved is revealed as being shallow. They don’t have the tools to enact that freedom. They are not getting compensated for 400 years, they are getting nothing. So August Town was always bound to fail, was always bound to reveal that they are trapped in Babylon and this isn’t Zion at all. And it seems like that story keeps on repeating itself. So who journeys to August Town as a place of Zion and how does it constantly reveal itself? There is the system around it, that system incapable of making August Town a place of freedom or incapable of releasing its citizens, its residents from all the shit that it puts on them. I wanted that movement—thinking about the first march, but also how all these people keep marching back towards August Town, as if they are marching towards something, but as the book says, they never ever reach that destination.  This year’s anniversary of emancipation coincides with Jamaica’s fifty-fifth year of independence. How do you feel that a story like this resonates? I’m thinking in terms of communicating history or the way that history is told—the way that history creates stories that shape a sense of identity. Obviously there is a kind of sadness that this type of story is still relevant. You know, probably more than anything, I am grateful that it resonates and yet sad that it has to resonate. But again, it’s just exposing the shortcomings of our emancipation, what was never achieved. It seems to me that emancipation is a time to be so much more reflective than celebratory because so many of the things that we wanted to achieve haven’t been achieved. And then again it becomes so complicated because of race. Because the middle class looks so different now. Because of the people who have become Babylon. It is not saying that no one has escaped, but that people who have escaped end up being invested in maintaining the system and continuing that oppression. What surprises me again, and this is what you hinted at before: how this story keeps on playing out. Specifically, how many people recently have had their hair cut off or demanded changed? And this story of hair is not just recent. Of course Augustown is based on [Jamaican poet] Ishion Hutchinson’s story [of having his dreadlocks cut by a teacher when a child], but I also think of when Beverley Manley was first lady of Jamaica. One of the big stories that catapulted her into fame was that a school had disallowed a Rastafari child from attending. And this was a huge story at the time: she had to intervene and take him out and put him in another school. This was a part of the whole Black consciousness movement. You would think that a move like this by a Black woman, the prime minister’s wife, would say something about how we saw ourselves as an African descended people, but it didn’t really amount to much, because in the 1990s when Joan Andrea Hutchinson went to present the news wearing Nubian knots, that became such a huge fucking issue in all of Jamaica. And the rhetoric around it! Just how nasty of her, no grooming, no broughtupsy, “how she can put herself on the TV like that?” This issue about hair hasn’t been resolved at all. Coming right down to last year, when this little boy is not allowed to go to the school. But what is surprising is the discourse that emerges in the midst of all of these instances. Always nasty, disgusting and, of course, people have no shame saying these things. Not hearing what’s behind it. It’s like [Jamaican pop star Sean Paul’s wife] Jinx saying to Usain Bolt the actual words “I wish he would go back to where he came from.” And not understanding where that rhetoric has been used before, where did she mobilize it from, what does it mean. The ways in which we always participate in racism and therefore how we continue what we are supposed to be emancipated from are always really surprising to me. You have a character who is attempting to emancipate herself and she is cut down for reacting violently against the very racism that you are speaking about.    It couldn’t be a success story. She couldn’t escape at the end. Some way the system had to get to her, prevent her from rising. Obviously I’m suggesting that she is the Bedward figure. She is the person that is trying to rise and, in another way, she is going to be pulled down in exactly the way that I suggest Bedward is pulled down. This happens despite having the ability—and in a somewhat magic realist way in the book I do also suggest that Bedward actually does the ability to fly. It is never just about people picking themselves up by their bootstraps and having everything within their own capabilities to rise. There is always something around that pulls them back down.  It is interesting. The number of people who have written me angry about the ending is surprising. I mean in a good way—I think that really affected them. But reading and going “oh no, oh no,” praying that she doesn’t die, which is all very weird because I tell the reader that she gon die. It’s almost like people think this is a trick. We consistently want to hear stories that deny what we know to be the case. But by telling stories, by looking at what creates narratives, that’s what creates change. It’s not about pretending—or forcing. Hopefully. That is certainly what I wanted. You have to realize that these people are the kind of people who should be able to do good things and there are reasons why that just doesn’t happen.
Selling China by the Sleeve Dance

Beneath the ubiquitous posters for the Shen Yun ballet is a battle between dissidents and the state over the soul of a nation, both at home and across the diaspora.

A few years ago, during the final days of a road trip with friends between Memphis and Toronto, I made a quick stop in a town in rural Kentucky. Bardstown is a tiny spot that’s picturesque enough, though the enormous placard announcing it had been voted “most beautiful small town in America” felt perhaps overly boastful. There, in a store selling bourbon-scented soap to tourists, someone had laid out a neat pile of pale blue pamphlets. Even in a town with an Asian population that needs to be rounded up generously to reach one percent, the image was instantly familiar: A Chinese woman floating through the air, dress billowing out behind her, with the caption: “Shen Yun. 5,000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage!” If you live in a major city in the western hemisphere, you have seen this image. The pamphlets are for a company based out of upstate New York that presents spectacles of Chinese traditional dance in which a cast of forty performs intricate, synchronized routines to the pop-eastern sounds of a live orchestra. Each year Shen Yun’s ads spring up across the world in advance of the company’s touring season—banners hanging from street lamps in Brussels, billboards looming over Los Angeles freeways, pictures of ethereal Chinese dancers taped up in the windows of Toronto convenience stores and hair salons. The company has five separate touring troupes that carry out a dizzying schedule, a kind of Cirque de Soleil of the east backed by a seemingly bottomless postering budget. They’ve played the Lincoln Centre and the London Coliseum. In a single week this past spring they hit Philadelphia, Honolulu, Charlotte, Kansas City and Huntsville, Alabama. Then Barcelona, Salzburg, Bremen, Baden-Baden and Paris. As a troupe whose influence stretches all the way from Bogota, Colombia, to towns in Kentucky that have surely never seen forty Asians in the same week, let alone forty Asians in the same theatre, doing the sleeve dance, Shen Yun is impressively far-reaching. It’s difficult to imagine a group that’s done more to bring Chinese art to the unlikely corners of the world. According to the company, Shen Yun is an “international phenomenon, bringing the wonders of ancient Chinese culture to millions across the globe.” According to the Chinese government, however, Shen Yun is the singing, dancing face of Falun Gong—a malevolent “anti-society cult” that, the government says, leads its followers to self-mutilation, suicide, and murder. In a 2012 statement, the Chinese Embassy in Washington issued a warning to Americans who might have been swayed by the posters appearing around town. “They have been staging the so-called ‘Shen Yun’ Performances in the U.S. in recent years in the name of promoting Chinese culture and showcasing the oriental charm,” the statement reads. “But in fact, in addition to their tacky taste and low artistic standards, the performances were filled with cult messages and implied attacks against the Chinese Government.” Wherever Shen Yun goes, the government follows. In Ecuador and Ireland, Berlin and Stockholm, theatres and local governments have reported receiving letters or visits from Chinese embassies attempting to shut down the dance show. Sometimes the threats work. In Moldova in 2010, the company arrived at their theatre in Chisinau hours before their scheduled performance and found themselves locked out. More often, confused theatre managers shrug off the pressure and threats from government officials. In February of 2014, Jörg Seefeld, the event manager of the Stage Theater on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a Shen Yun performance was scheduled, received a visit from the Chinese Embassy’s cultural attaché who “tried to influence things.” Seefeld refused and the show continued. “I am from East Germany,” he told the Berliner Zeitung. “With the Chinese it is like it used to be with our rulers at the time. They are simply scared.” Shen Yun reports a catalogue of more insidious attempts to silence the group. “Will the world allow the Chinese Communist Party to dictate the arts?” they ask on their official website, above a list of attempts by the party to sabotage their performances. Prior to their shows at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville last year, the group says the tires of the show’s presenters were slashed. In 2015 in Chicago, someone allegedly tampered with a truck covered in Shen Yun ads, pouring “corrosive chemicals” over the brake and accelerator pedals. The troupe says that Chinese spies photograph their movements and listen in on their phone calls. They report suspicious break-ins, where the only items missing are passports and laptops. As a dance troupe that travels the world performing the Mongolian chopstick dance to western audiences, it’s easy to dismiss Shen Yun as a campy curiosity. But Falun Gong practitioners have become some of the most outspoken opponents of the Beijing government, prominent voices in the pro-democracy movement, and Shen Yun has turned into a strange preoccupation for the group. And so a kitschy dance show has become a preoccupation for the Chinese government as well, one of the battlegrounds on which the fight for the hearts and minds of westerners and overseas Chinese will be won, one ribbon dance at a time. * On a chilly January night in Toronto in 2015, I brought my mother and girlfriend to a Shen Yun performance at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, a three-thousand-person theatre that generally hosts traveling orchestras and Josh Groban concerts. The crowd was a mixture of Chinese-Canadians and typical Toronto theatre-goers—silver-haired ballet aficionados, young couples in their opera-house-best, a South-Asian family with a young son who kicked the back of my chair relentlessly throughout the performance. The show began with the sound of a gong as the curtain rose on a wall of dry ice haze that slowly dispersed, drifting into the orchestra pit to reveal dozens of dancers posed in brightly coloured, flowing costumes. What followed over the next two hours was a parade of unconnected Chinese dances that jumped from region to region, story to story. There were vignettes from the classic folk tale the Monkey King and dances from Mongolia and Tibet, all performed with impressive athleticism and precision in front of a projected backdrop that whirled through animated images that looked like the cut-scenes from a video game. Between each dance, two Masters of Ceremony emerged from stage right to perform stilted patter, a strong-jawed Caucasian man in a tuxedo trading scripted jibes in impressive Mandarin with a pretty Chinese woman in a pink silk dress. Before each performance, the man performed the exact same bit of stage business in a way that quickly became unnerving. Oversmiling like a pageant host, he announced each new dance with a dramatic pause and a little flourish of the arms. At the end of the first act, the MCs took to the stage to announce yet another routine. “China has a long history of spirituality,” the man explained. “But in China today you can be arrested or even killed just for meditating.” With his fixed smile and familiar gesture he introduced the next piece: “The Power of Compassion, a scene from contemporary China.” The curtain rose on a group of young students sitting in peace, meditating and reading oversized yellow Falun Gong books. The dancers were in tight khakis and tucked-in yellow polo shirts, Chinese versions of the anodyne dancers from an Old Navy commercial. They performed elaborately pantomimed good deeds—helping an old woman with a cane, chasing down a woman who had dropped her purse. A girl walked by, ostentatiously chugging from a bottle of alcohol, and the young Falun Gong practitioners brought her into the fold and took away her liquor. One of the young do-gooders unveiled a Falun Gong banner. Suddenly, a trio of men wearing black tunics emblazoned with a red hammer and sickle entered, looking like the villains in a Bruce Lee movie. The communist thugs began beating people up, clubbing and kicking innocent Falun Gong followers. They attacked a young woman and a boy tried to protect her. In the melee, one of the attackers twisted his ankle and fell to the ground. A Falun Gong practitioner tried to help his injured foe, who kept striking him. Undeterred, the young man moved to help the thug anyway, lifting him up and carrying him on his back while the villain continued raining punches on him. In the piece’s climax, the communist lifted his fist for the final blow. He let it hover in the air, trembling, and then—in a moment of tension that reminded me, more than anything, of Keanu Reeves’s inability to kill Patrick Swayze in the third act of Point Break—slowly dropped it, too moved by the young man’s compassion to continue. The young Falun Gong practitioners gave him their book. The reformed thug pirouetted around the stage. Everyone sat and meditated together and suddenly the backdrop exploded into a kaleidoscope of colourful animations—monks descending from heaven, women in dresses swirling around, flipping, leaping, enacting a kind of orgy of celestial joy presumably meant to mirror the inner ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment. Suddenly the former communist’s leg was healed. He ran, he leapt, and then the cast pointed to the screen and the final image of a man, meditating and beatific, at peace with the universe. The lights came up for intermission and we wandered out into the lobby, blinking and dazed. Outside, a young woman with an audio recorder was cornering patrons and asking for their reactions. The next day, the headlines spoke for themselves: “Toronto Showgoers Smitten by Shen Yun”; “Shen Yun ‘Extraordinary on a Whole Different Level,’ Says Toronto Entrepreneur”; “Accomplished Singers Applaud Shen Yun: ‘It was perfection.’” The dozen articles were all published in the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated newspaper. * I had brought my mother to the show because I thought she might be interested in this particular take on Chinese culture. Her mother, Gar Yin Hune, came to Canada in the 1930s as part of a different kind of Chinese cultural export: a traveling show designed to bring eastern art to the people of North America, particularly to the immigrants working in Chinatowns across the continent. My grandmother was a Chinese opera singer who grew up in Guangzhou in what always seemed like some impossibly medieval-sounding time before communism. She was the second daughter of a man who ran a series of teahouses where singers performed. He was, by her account, a lazy philanderer who neglected to pay his children’s school bills and kept multiple women in addition to his first wife. One of these women performed in the teahouses and my grandmother—a bold, unusually pushy kid who had been kicked out of school after the payments stopped—followed her into the performing arts. As a teenage ingénue she performed on barges up and down the Pearl River. She traveled to Vietnam, flirting with generals to secure safe passage. At eighteen, she escaped China on a cultural visa just as Japan began bombing—a kid making her way to Vancouver and then Toronto’s Chinatown despite the Exclusion Act’s ban on immigrants from China. These stories have become part of family lore. And by the time she was in her eighties—living in a spacious condominium in downtown Toronto, taking her grandchildren to eat a Filet-o-Fish at the McDonald’s across the street—this personal history had become intrinsically tied to her vision of the true China. It was a vision that skipped over Communism, the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, and remained stubbornly true to a country that had long ceased to exist. [[{"fid":"6701866","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] This, of course, is how politics works in the diaspora. Nations that have changed dramatically—transformed piece-by-piece in ways subtle or traumatic—persist in immaculate form in the minds of a country’s expatriates, safeguarded for generations. In the inner suburbs and ethnic neighbourhoods of the world’s big multicultural cities, battles begun decades ago in various motherlands continue year after year, invisible to the oblivious majority. In North America, overseas Chinese have long had disproportionate influence on politics back home. In the early 1900s, Sun Yat Sen toured the continent, dropping in on Chinese communities from the mountains to the Great Lakes to raise funds for the revolution that would eventually overthrow a dynasty. As a kid, my mother remembers going to local Toronto cinemas to watch Cantonese melodramas as part of fundraising efforts for the Guomindang, Chang Kai Shek’s government in exile. One way to understand Shen Yun is through this history of dissidents trying to change their country from across an ocean. This, of course, is not how the group wants to present itself. Since its inception, Shen Yun has gone out of its way to minimize its connection to Falun Gong. The dance company would rather not present itself as a religious entity, let alone a political group. In the posters designed to attract the culture-lovers of Berlin or Los Angeles, they are simply performers sharing an ancient artform. “Shen Yun was established in New York in 2006 by elite Chinese artists,” the origin story on their website reads. “They came together with a shared vision and passion—to revive the lost world of traditional Chinese culture and share it with everyone.” The company doesn’t make a habit of expanding on this story in the media. Despite the constant touring and the need to promote the show, the group rarely grants interviews. The real story of how a troupe of Chinese dancers ended up performing in Kentucky, however, begins as a story of religious repression. Falun Gong (sometimes called Falun Dafa) is a spiritual movement that emerged out of the “qigong boom” in the early ’90s, an explosion of Tai-Chi-like practices that claimed to build wellness through specific movements and breathing. Falun Gong stood out from the many other forms of Qigong for a couple of reasons. First, Falun Gong’s mysterious leader, Li Hongzi, hadn’t just created a set of specific exercises but had mapped out an entire spiritual worldview that made his “cultivation practice” look suspiciously like a religion. And second, by the late ’90s it was becoming remarkably popular, with an estimated 70 million practitioners including high-level members of the Communist party. To the Chinese government, the fact that a quasi-religious organization stubbornly outside party control could inspire huge numbers of people to action was reason for concern. The seemingly harmless sight of middle-aged people exercising in the park began to look like a threat. Li fled China and in 1998 became a permanent resident of the United States, where he’s been based ever since. In China, the government began to crack down. On April 25, 1999, more than 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners quietly gathered in Beijing to demand an end to government harassment. It was the largest protest since Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese response was swift and, in retrospect, entirely predictable: they outlawed Falun Gong, arresting tens of thousands of people, and initiating a propaganda campaign that saw daily newspaper articles warning people about the dangerous “cult.” Along with democracy, Tibet, and Taiwan, Falun Gong became one of the government’s most verboten subjects. For middle-aged exercise enthusiasts, the crackdown was devastating and bewildering. During this crisis, Li disappeared from the public eye for nearly a year, leaving followers struggling to figure out how to respond to their new position as political pariahs. When Li reemerged, says Andrew Junker, a sociologist at Valparaiso University who has written extensively about Falun Gong, it was with a new message. “There was a transition to a religious and millenarian interpretation,” says Junker, “a sign that the end of days are here.” In a much-circulated interview with Time magazine in 1999, Li talked about Falun Gong followers having the power to levitate and spoke at length about an extraterrestrial invasion. “Since the beginning of this century, aliens have begun to invade the human mind and its ideology and culture,” Li said. “Everyone thinks that scientists invent on their own when in fact their inspiration is manipulated by the aliens.” When the interviewer asked him if he was a human being, Li’s response was intentionally enigmatic: “You can think of me as a human being.” With this shift in rhetoric, Li also reinforced his position as leader. “He was represented as being in charge of winning the cosmic battle while people were fighting the earthly battle here on the political sphere,” says Junker. Out of this crisis, a new version of Falun Gong emerged. Practitioners who had always been discouraged from concerning themselves with earthly considerations found a way to fold political concerns into their spiritual practice in a strategy known as “clarifying truth.” This meant, in theory, to try to correct the misinformation that was emerging from the Chinese government. David Ownby, a professor at the Université de Montréal and the author of Falun Gong and the Future of China, says that the Falun Gong practitioners who arrived in North America in the early 2000s had been far from political. “They were perfectly patriotic, nationalistic Chinese people,” Ownby says. “Most of them had immigrated for economic reasons. They weren’t dissidents at all when this started.” The irony of the crackdown is that, by banning the practice, the Chinese government had inadvertently turned thousands of hitherto apolitical actors into outlaws and activists. In the interests of “clarifying truth,” Falun Gong practitioners began speaking about politics. Falun Gong followers formed media groups such as the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty Television—organizations with a dedicated anti-Beijing bent that have become key partners in pro-democracy movements, a counter to the government-influenced Chinese press in North America. “The Chinese government hadn’t really counted on the fact that Falun Gong had a big presence in the diaspora,” says Ownby. “And in Canada and the U.S. they became very good at buttonholing journalists and members of Parliament. The Chinese government kind of freaked out.” During this time, at the turn of the century, you saw hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners protesting in the streets, sitting outside Chinese consulates, passing out pamphlets. There were sympathetic articles in mainstream newspapers documenting their persecution. In 2001, The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on a fifty-eight-year-old Falun Gong practitioner who was tortured to death. In 2006, human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian MP David Kilgour published a report claiming the Chinese government had killed and systematically harvested the organs of Falun Gong practitioners. What followed this flurry of media attention was inevitable: compassion fatigue. The facts on the ground—that Falun Gong practitioners have been persecuted, imprisoned, and killed—remain as true as ever. But western sympathies have shifted. As China has grown in power, human rights abuses have became easier to overlook. And while Tibetan protestors and pro-democracy activists have always had the West’s unqualified sympathy, Falun Gong occupies a more ambivalent space. Despite Beijing’s insistence, Falun Gong is not a cult; it’s a diffuse group without strong hierarchies, and there is no evidence of the kind of coercive control that the label suggests. But it is, well, strange. Without the ballast of thousands of years of tradition, all new religions can feel absurd, and some of Li’s stranger comments have given the group the aura of an eastern version of Scientology. Falun Gong has moralistic, socially conservative beliefs, preaching against homosexuality and sex out of wedlock. The group is secretive and has a tendency to exaggerate and distort. For years, the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times has claimed that hundreds of millions of people have renounced the Chinese Communist Party, relying on numbers that are impossible to verify. All of this has made them feel alien and less than sympathetic to the liberal westerners who would be their natural allies. Falun Gong practitioners were being repressed, sure, but there was something unnerving about the group’s presentation, their bizarre worldview. At a certain point, persecution doesn’t breed sympathy—it breeds a kind of contempt. The tenth time someone hands you a pamphlet about the Chinese government oppressing the Falun Gong, your impulse isn’t to write to your local representative, it’s to cross the street. [[{"fid":"6701871","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] It’s out of this context—with Falun Gong persecuted in China and treated increasingly warily in the west—that Shen Yun emerged. For Falun Gong followers who had spent years doing the emotionally draining work of protest, sitting outside North American Chinatowns absorbing the indifference of passersby, it’s easy to see why promoting a dance show would be an appealing alternative. Practitioners in North America have escaped persecution, but to live comfortably in suburban New York or Vancouver, while family and friends suffer in China, comes with a burden. “There’s a guilt among Falun Gong practitioners,” says David Ownby. “They hope that they will get western public opinion back on their side. And they think that this is one way to do it—through this artistic medium.” * For all the competing narratives around Shen Yun, one place to find a clear version of its founding is in the words of Falun Gong’s leader himself. Li Hongzi is a mysterious figure. Every fact of his biography is contested, with government officials and Falun Gong followers arguing over the life of a man who is either the living embodiment of Buddha or a charlatan leading his gullible followers into ruinous folly. According to Li’s official biography, he was born May 13, 1951, the same day as the Buddha. The Chinese government says he was born July 7, 1952, and backdated his birth for the religious significance. According to the hagiography, Li was a spiritual prodigy, learning Buddhism, Taoism, and Qigong from a series of masters who secretly instructed him throughout the Cultural Revolution under the cover of darkness. The government says he was an unexceptional student without any higher education whose only real skill was his trumpet playing. And here at least, the government’s version of Li’s biography rings true. After moving his base to the United States, one of the first Falun Gong initiatives was the “Divine Land Marching Band,” a group of followers who play instruments and dance in local parades, bringing their message to local Santa Claus Parades and Chinese New Year celebrations. Both the marching band and Shen Yun make sense as a musician’s response to persecution—an attempt to use art to bring his message to the masses. Since 2000, Li has delivered long speeches to Falun Gong practitioners at international conferences that bring followers from around the world to hear his pronouncements. The speeches are part state-of-the-union, part Papal address, a curious mixture of the mundane and the spiritual. They’re collected at Minghui.org, the website that is the centre of much Falun Gong online activity. In transcripts, the speeches veer from moments of folksy, pragmatic advice to warnings about apocalyptic forces and an epic battle for the fate of humanity happening somewhere in the spiritual realm. During the question-and-answer period, Li acts as some combination of spiritual guide and self-help guru. In a single session, he’ll respond to questions about the suitability of video games (they are contributing to humankind’s destruction), best practices for investing (“it’s your own money, so whether you leave it at home or put it in the bank is your own business”) and what will happen to Chinese citizens who haven’t quit the Communist party when the Fa-rectification arrives and the material world as we know it ends (they will, unfortunately, be doomed). And in these transcripts, Li speaks again and again about his desire to change the world, and his homeland in particular, through the power of Shen Yun. In an appearance at the 2014 New York Fa Conference, Li gives his account of the origin of the dance troupe. “How did Shen Yun first get started?” he asks. “There was a group of Dafa disciples involved in the arts who wished to use their professional skills to expose the persecution and save sentient beings.” According to Li, these early performances weren’t very good. It distressed him to see his spiritual practice represented by such mediocre art. “I observed that as people were leaving the theater afterwards, they were making all kinds of comments, but not many of these were compliments,” said Li. “The words that I heard weighed on me.” So the Master stepped in. If a dance show was going to save people, it needed to be a top-notch dance show. “Afterwards I thought, ‘I’ll lead them in doing this.’ And that was how Shen Yun was first established.” Since then, Shen Yun has expanded considerably, from a single troupe to five companies of forty-odd dancers. The performers are trained in a school, the Fei Tian Academy in Deerpark, New York, part of a 427-acre retreat built as a refuge for Falun Gong followers fleeing persecution that includes a Tang-dynasty style temple. The company is a mixture of professionals and full-time Fei Tian students who perform unpaid. One former dancer, who asked to remain anonymous, immigrated to North America from China as a child. Dancing for Shen Yun, he said, was exhausting. During the four-month tours he worked long hours, studying in the morning before performing each night, then packing up and moving on to the next city. Though he isn’t a member of Falun Gong himself, he says sharing their message felt like an important act of political activism. “I felt like it was for a good cause,” he told me. “Sometimes you volunteer and they’ll make you pay for everything. Here they were nice enough to cover expenses.” In each city that Shen Yun visits, shows are “presented” by the local Falun Dafa association. This means that local Falun Gong followers must raise the needed funds, provide the publicity, and lay the groundwork to make the show successful. Over the years, in speech after speech, Li has gotten into the weeds about Shen Yun marketing and production. In one speech, Li admonishes his followers for not working hard enough to bring out crowds. “Shen Yun brings about a change in conditions for the Dafa disciples in each region it goes to, and advances the cause of saving people, but you, in turn, have to provide Shen Yun with the conditions that it needs,” said Li. “If you decide to bring Shen Yun, then really ensure that you do it well. And since it is Master who is personally guiding Shen Yun, if your area doesn’t do well it will very quickly get back to me.” He also encourages followers not to emphasize the Falun Gong connection. “You needn’t insist on telling people that Shen Yun has ties to Falun Gong and make a big fanfare out of it,” he tells them. What emerges from pages and pages of speeches from a decade of speaking is a strange story: a massive dance company led by a messianic figure who both communicates with celestial beings on a higher plane and is responsible for local marketing. It is as if the Dalai Lama were also a kick-line choreographer or the Pope spent his spare time producing Gilbert and Sullivan revivals. Shen Yun is not a mere dance performance, but a chance to save the world’s “sentient creatures.” Performances have the capacity to “dissolve evil.” And the source of so much evil is the wicked communist party. For followers, then, the success of Shen Yun becomes freighted with significance: the fall of the corrupt communists, the salvation of family members left behind in China, the spiritual fate of the world, all tied together and dependent on the performance of groups of lithe twentysomethings on the stages of the world. “I am preparing for Shen Yun to perform in mainland China,” Li told his followers in 2009, to enthusiastic applause. “The evil may think it’s powerful, but let’s see what history has in store. It’s not up to them. Every dynasty was once full of bluster, only to be reduced to a whimper in the end.” * One day in last May last year, I spoke to Leeshai Lemish, one of Shen Yun’s Masters of Ceremony, from his hotel room in Korea. Lemish was supposed to be performing with Shen Yun in Seoul that evening, but their performances had been cancelled at the last minute under suspicious circumstances. Now he was frantically trying to figure out what had happened. Lemish is an Ohio-born Israeli-American who came to Falun Gong as an adult after studying Chinese at Pomona College. Today he lives at Falun Gong’s upstate New York retreat. And since 2004, he has worked full time for Shen Yun, acting as an MC during performances and working on the show’s website and publicity in non-touring months. “We’ve had a few crazy days,” Lemish told me. “I’ve seen sunrise more days than not.” After days of making calls, though, he thought he had figured out what had happened. The cancellation followed a familiar pattern: four Shen Yun performances at KBS Hall in Seoul were nixed at the last minute after the theatre received a letter from the Chinese embassy. In a thinly veiled threat, the letter asked the hall, which is controlled by Korea’s state-run television station, to “consider the overall picture of the Chinese-Korean relationship” and cancel the performances. Now Lemish and the nearly eighty members of dancers, musicians and crew were stranded in Seoul, bleeding money, without a theatre for their performance. [[{"fid":"6701876","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] For Lemish, the cancellation was just the latest proof of the perfidious, global reach of the Chinese government. “People sometimes don’t realize how tricky the Chinese Communist Party can be,” he told me. “You don’t realize how evil this stuff can be. If you grow up in the West, you know cerebrally what this means, but you don’t know what it’s like to grow up in this type of environment.” Lemish acknowledged that Shen Yun has been reticent when it has come to publicizing its ties to Falun Gong. After fifteen years of the Chinese government calling Falun Gong an evil cult, however, they have been reluctant to reveal their association. “I think it’s probably fair to say that we’re trying to figure out what’s the best balance here,” said Lemish. “As we’re getting more established we’re getting more transparent.” The very fact that he was talking to me, after months of negotiation, represented a major shift in the group’s approach, said Lemish. Slowly, the group was revealing their Falun Gong connection. They were including information about the spiritual practice in more of their promotional material, hoping to change their image. If a Catholic orchestra or a Mormon choir could perform without being labeled propaganda, why not Falun Gong? When I asked Lemish about whether Shen Yun was actually controlled by Li Hongzhi, he became uncomfortable, evasive. “I may not want to say a lot about it, just because of security issues,” said Lemish. “You have a spiritual leader kind of figure, so there’s a lot of security issues involved for us. Things like slashing our tires. Things like spies.” Lemish keeps a running tally online of all the attacks he claims his traveling group has experienced. “We have people in our company who were persecuted in China,” said Lemish. “There’s a dancer who lost her father, who was tortured to death. You have people who have spent time in jail, a lot of people lost family members. You have people who regularly get visitors from the public security bureau at their parents’ home in Beijing. You don’t want to forget that we’re out here celebrating Chinese culture and all these great stories, but there’s something very dark happening.” To try to sort out the truth about Shen Yun requires one to stand between two forces buffeting you with propaganda and figure out which way to lean. The “propaganda” charge against Shen Yun sticks because it feels true. The show’s message is clumsy, presented with all the subtlety of Maoist revolutionary theatre. Of course, many of the things Shen Yun depicts—that Falun Gong practitioners have been jailed for simply meditating, that the country’s human rights violations are legion—are true. But the specific vision of the country they present and their zealous insistence that this is the one true vision, is distasteful to patriotic Chinese people who understandably do not like to be told that their homeland is evil. Like Cuban exiles in Miami, the people behind Shen Yun see their homeland in a specific context that grows increasingly distant the longer they are away. Li Hongzhi is now an exile himself—another expatriate like my grandmother, imagining an idealized time that has long since disappeared, if it ever existed. * After the Shen Yun performance in Toronto, I made my way into the lobby and tracked down a man who introduced himself as Joel Randall, the show’s presenter. A forty-something Caucasian man with sharp features and a quiet intensity, he smiled broadly as he explained that he was a devoted Falun Gong practitioner who had been inspired by the beauty of the show and was determined to show it to the world. Later I learned his real name is Joel Chipkar, a real estate agent who has appeared in the media as Vice-President of the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto. It is wrong to think of the show as Falun Gong propaganda, Chipkar told me. The aim was to counter government propaganda. “They’re the ones that have been responsible for the destruction of traditional Chinese culture for the past sixty years,” he said. During our conversation, my mother wandered over. Chipkar shook her hand and gave her the kind of ingratiating, lightly condescending smile that must be increasingly familiar for her, a tiny, seventy-year-old woman. “As you know, the Chinese culture was steeped in spirituality,” he told her. “Everyone respected the belief in gods. And then in come the Communists and destroy it all.” My mother interrupted. “I don’t know if they were religious that way,” she said. “Some of it was just plain superstition.” Chipkar’s vision of China as a god-fearing nation didn’t jibe with her own conception of the country—a vision that came refracted through her own specific experience growing up the daughter of Confucian-ish pragmatists who didn’t seem to give much thought to the gods one way or another. “My family was here before communism. I don’t know if it was a spiritual belief,” she said. Chipkar insisted—“it was all about the spirit, it was all about gods”—and the two of them argued, politely, as the rest of the audience filed out of the lobby and into the cold Toronto night. And this, of course, is what Shen Yen is fighting: a battle for the very essence of what it means to be Chinese. The night’s grand theme is that this, finally, is true Chinese culture. And this message, as much as the songs and dances that explicitly attack the government, is surely what causes Beijing the most concern. The show tries to reframe the years of Communist rule as a blip in the grand historical narrative of a country. It’s the same argument that underpins so many dissident political movements: the idea that those seeking to topple the government represent the authentic soul of a nation. That, after years of illegitimate rule, people finally have the opportunity to restore a country to its true character. At that moment a screen in the lobby was playing an ad for an upcoming show by the National Chinese Acrobats. Chipkar looked at the screen and frowned. The practice of Chinese acrobatics was only formalized and promoted under the Communists. In the midst of the Cold War, Beijing used the National Acrobats as a diplomatic tool—sending those strong, skilled bodies across the world as the living embodiment of the country’s triumphant revolution. “Chinese culture is not acrobatics,” Chipkar said firmly. “It’s not juggling and jumping through hoops and standing on each other’s heads. That’s not Chinese culture,” he said, gesturing at the ad. Next week, Shen Yun would be gone and this other vision of China would take its place, telling a new story to its audience. On screen, men in colourful uniforms hurled themselves tumbling through the air. Girls with arched backs balanced atop slightly larger girls with arched backs, contorting themselves into elegant handstands. A dozen women in red skirts and calf-high red boots smiled radiantly, arms outstretched, circling the stage while balanced on a single gleaming bicycle.
‘I Decided to Go With Humanity’: An Interview with Carol Off

The As It Happens host and author of All We Leave Behind on fighting to cover conflict as a female journalist in the ’80s, Canada’s refugee system, and maintaining a moral compass. 

Fifteen years ago, Carol Off met a man in Afghanistan. His name was Asad Aryubwal and he agreed to give her an interview that would expose the atrocities committed by warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. For a reporter establishing herself at the CBC, it was an opportunity. The documentary that included the interview, In the Company of Warlords, went on to win a Gemini Award. When Off returned to Afghanistan four years later, she filmed a second interview with Aryubwal. Soon after, the general’s men paid him a visit and told him to leave the country or die. In her latest book, All We Leave Behind (Random House Canada), Off details how she discovered that her journalism had threatened the lives of a father, mother, and five children. Her involvement with the family—first as a journalist and then as a friend—sparks a nine-year-long process in which she places her humanity over her journalistic obligations and tries desperately to help Asad and his family find refuge in Canada. What follows is a harrowing account of a family scrambling for their lives across three countries and of a corrupt and needlessly bureaucratic refugee screening system. It’s an experience that forces Off—the longtime host of acclaimed CBC radio show As It Happens—to confront what it means when the right choice as a journalist isn't the right choice as a person. Katherine Laidlaw: When did you think this story could become a book? Carol Off: The first time I knew I wanted to write a book was actually a moment when I was really angry. I got a phone call from the family to say that they had been at the UNHCR [the United Nations Refugee Agency] trying again to get their application through for refugee status. They had been approached by somebody who said, "you’re going about this all wrong. This legitimate thing you’re doing is not the way you do it. The way you do it is you wire money to Moscow, $50,000 USD for your family, and we will send a message inside the UNHCR and your paperwork will be completed." He refused to do it. And I was so angry about that criminal element that I thought, I’m going to write a book. When you first started your career, you sold all your belongings and went to Pakistan with the promise that CBC would maybe buy one of your stories if you could secure a difficult interview. Why did you do that?  Because I had no money otherwise. And I needed to do something. I was stuck. I didn’t have a career. I was told, you’ll never cover conflict, you’ll never cover war. You’re a woman, you can’t do that. I went to some outlets and said, I’d like to go and do this—I’ve proven that I can do this in Pakistan. I covered a hijacking, I covered the war, I’ve covered all these things. And they said, no, you can’t, we have a policy, we don’t send women. Some said, a woman would be a liability, she would endanger everybody else in the crew if you send a woman in. In 1987. Why did you go anyway? I wanted to feel the heat of being a journalist. I wanted intensity. Have you had other sources over your career stick with you the way the Aryubwals did? There is no story I have done that I was as touched by as this one. Asad, the father who gave me the interview, was an interesting man. I’d interviewed people like him before. But it was his family, particularly his oldest daughter Ruby, who really drew me into their orbit. I kept in touch with her. I justified it in my head—it was still journalism, she was telling me what was going on in Afghanistan, I was learning and keeping in touch with the story. And so it seemed like she was just a contact. But when I realized how much peril Asad was in, that he’d fled for his life, for his family, that he was living in exile, I knew I had to help. You sent the family money over the years, which they used in part to put their children through school. Did you have a conversation with yourself about the ethics of doing that? Never. I didn’t care what I would lose or sacrifice in the way of journalistic policy if I helped him, because it was just the right thing to do as a human being. I thought being a human and a journalist were the same thing. I went into journalism with a moral compass and a sense of what was good and fair. And I thought I had my humanity intact in my career. Suddenly, I’m faced with my journalism and my humanity not being the same thing. When the chips were down, I decided to go with the humanity. Through the book, you contend with feelings of responsibility and guilt over endangering the lives of the Aryubwals. But Asad agreed to the second interview, despite knowing there would be potential consequences. Does that relieve you of some of those feelings?  If I had known he was in danger, I wouldn’t have done it. People give these interviews and tell us these stories because they think it will make a difference. They want to expose the injustice in their country because they’re hoping that exposure will change things. They take enormous risks. Trying to figure out how to protect people without actually helping the bad guys by deciding, no, I don’t care if you want to tell me your story. I’m not going to do it because I’m not going to put you at risk. Then you have actually done what the tyrants want, which is self-censorship. So you’ve got to think, how do I let you tell me, which I need you to do, while at the same time not endangering you. I think my sense of where that balance is has changed. As journalists, how can we protect people? Just check back with them. In other interviews, I’ve many times travelled doing stories where I get back to my hotel room and I’m sure someone’s been through my things, they’ve been through my notes, they’ve been through my tapes. I’ve arrived at the door of somebody in another country and they say, you can’t come in, the police have just been here. How did they know I was coming? I’ve interviewed young people who are idealistic—they’re in Cairo, in Tahrir Square, the Umbrella Revolution, and they’re willing to tell you that they want democracy and liberty for the country. They’re caught up in the moment. It’s not just that you do your due diligence beforehand to make sure you’re not putting people at risk, but that you look back over your shoulder and call back and stay connected and make sure that they’re okay. Now, having seen what the refugee system is like, and struggling on this end to try and help a family reach safety, what do you think should change? It was so frustrating. I would think, what am I doing wrong? There are millions of refugees in the world and they’re all on the move. Why can’t I make progress here? Why can’t I help them? These walls, these obstacles, this corruption. I thought, if it’s this difficult for me in Canada with a lot of connections and resources, if I can’t do it, what’s it like for them? It’s extremely difficult to get into this country. Anyone saying, we can’t be a doormat to the world, you can’t just let people in here willy-nilly—believe me, they’re not letting people in here willy-nilly. The amount of screening is absurd. When you make it that difficult, people will find any way they can. Because their lives are at risk. People will do anything. We would do anything to get out of the mess these people are in. We would scale walls, we would climb through fields, we would walk across Europe, we’d get into rubber dinghies that were unsafe and maybe lose our children. If we make it so difficult for people to find refuge and shelter, then they will do anything they can to get here.
Home and High Water

Baseball is not yet undergoing a revolution, but it is no coincidence that in 2017, even this politically timid game now carries a whiff of the resistance.

Paint the Corners is a monthly column about baseball. Just in time for those of us whose teams are scuffling or free-falling toward mathematical elimination, Major League Baseball recently threw out its annual September life preserver: next year’s schedule, proof that your squad, no matter how pathetic, will live to fight another 162 days. The slate will be wiped clean and you can once more indulge the wrongheaded, heedless optimism that is every baseball fan’s springtime right. The MLB master schedule is a marvel of geographic and temporal planning: 4,860 games across six months and a whole continent, all divisions and rivalries in balance. But if 2018 is anything like this season, that logistical miracle will be run aground many times over. Weather-wise, 2017 has been the baseball equivalent of “man plans, God laughs.” By May there had already been a notably high number of rainouts, but even that was no preparation for the multiple meteorological catastrophes of the past month, storms of historic proportions that have made sports seem meaningless and even inappropriate. As Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, the Astros’ series with the Rangers was moved to Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays’ home. Just a few weeks later, it was the Rays who had to flee disaster, “hosting” the Yankees at Citi Field in Queens as Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida. That same storm forced the Miami Marlins to play as the home team in Milwaukee, where the Brewers kindly decorated for the occasion. Ultra-expensive Marlins Stadium was built to withstand hurricane-force winds, which it did, though not without suffering damage to its delightfully named “roof membrane.” And now Hurricane Maria has potentially jeopardized a two-game Twins-Indians series that is to be held in Puerto Rico April, which is certainly at the very bottom of the list of humanitarian concerns, though baseball has broad national implications: that brief series is part of a $5 million investment MLB is making in Puerto Rico in recognition of many of its best players coming from the island. (The league recently announced an additional $1 million to communities in Puerto Rico and earthquake-stricken Mexico, as well, which is more than the federal government has offered either place. As I write, Trump’s entire public outreach to Puerto Rico has consisted of a single tweet noting that the country was in “deep trouble.”) These are the obvious ways that baseball has been affected by climate change, though scientists have observed subtler implications for the game for years now. Rising temperatures have forced new approaches to player performance and hydration, caused new worries about groundskeeping in the face of drought, and may even be partially responsible forbad tempers and intentional beanballs. (Tempting as it is to assume weather has led to this season’s record-breaking dinger barrage, the research is indeterminate at best.) This beautifully complex MLB season has stretched from late March in Denver through August in Arizona, and could go into late October in Boston, Chicago, New York, or Minneapolis depending on how the playoff winds blow. That’s a lot of potential vulnerabilities to changes in the weather. As the southernmost teams have now learned, there is no hiding from the climate in this game any longer. There is a distressingly apt metaphor in the Florida-Texas musical chairs that resulted from this season’s hurricanes: when it comes to climate change, we’re all the home team. * This summer, our moronic president mentioned baseball as frequently as he mentioned climate change, which is to say not at all. The national pastime doesn’t play to his ego: unlike the NFL and NBA, MLB currently lacks the same extremes of outright Trump supporters or antagonists in its ownership and player base, and so therefore it might as well not exist. But he has run rampant with barstool-blowhard sports opinions, demeaning socially conscious football players on Friday and then disinviting Steph Curry and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to the White House on Twitter early Saturday. These mind-meltingly petty and racist messages elicited widespread response among pro football and basketball players, no small thing considering the blackballing that Colin Kaepernick has endured from his league. But the reaction in baseball was earth-shattering in its own relative way: more than a year after Kaepernick first took a knee, the Athletics' Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel in solidarity with the victims of racial injustice. As part of a longstanding military family, Maxwell being the person to break this barrier is significant. “It’s basically raising awareness,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The whole point of this is to inform people there is a problem… It’s to inform people that there are people in this country being mistreated because of the color of their skin or where they come from or their heritage, and that’s why I’m doing it.” But as a rookie with no great clout or national name recognition, he risks inciting the worst possible baseball insult: He’s a hot dog, a head case, he puts himself above the game. Even veterans and All-Stars are dissuaded from taking big social justice stands in this sport, as Rays ace Chris Archer made clear in light of Maxwell’s gesture. “I agree with the message. I believe in equality,” Archer told USA Today, before adding, “I don’t want to offend anybody. No matter how you explain it or justify it, some people just can’t get past the military element of it and it’s not something I want to do, is ruffle my teammates’ feathers on my personal views that have nothing to do with baseball… The other sports that do that are predominantly black. Our sport isn’t, so I think the criticism might be a little more harsh. It took somebody really special that had a unique background to take that leap.” So far, Archer’s concerns seem over-cautious. Maxwell has said he received a smattering of deadbeat comments from the stands, but in his first at-bat since taking the knee, he received a standing ovation. And the Players Association has expressed its unequivocal support for him as well. Earlier this season, Archer was one of a handful of black players to participate in various roundtables and recognitions of Jackie Robinson, who entered the Major Leagues seventy years ago in April. MLB and ESPN handled the anniversary wonderfully, eliciting insights from players who don’t otherwise say much about race and addressing issues of identity and personal struggle in a way that the game doesn’t often promote. The discussions didn’t extend much past the celebratory weekend, but perhaps Adam Jones, who last year shared Archer’s belief that baseball was a “white man’s sport,” had Robinson’s bravery in mind when he decried the racist taunts at Fenway Park in May. Between the Robinson commemoration, Jones’s incident (which was echoed by other black players including C.C. Sabathia), and now Maxwell’s lonely acknowledgment, this has been a relatively radical year for baseball. As with climate change, the conditions outside the game itself have made certain realities impossible to ignore. The reaction from fans, media, and other players has been muted but generally respectful, nothing like the circus of moral preening and patriotism hot takes around football over the last week. But it is certainly newsworthy—and, for anyone who has followed baseball for any length of time, stunning—that these discussions are happening at all. This is Trump's gift. He is incapable of resisting the chance to play the heel, and he is so self-explanatorily loathsome that he can prompt people to otherwise unlikely action simply to avoid association with his bullying. Baseball is not undergoing a revolution or grappling head-on with his ongoing attack on civil liberties, but it is no coincidence that these small but meaningful conversations have popped up during the 2017 season. Trump has raised the cultural temperature so much that even this politically timid game now carries a whiff of the resistance. We’ll see next season if Bruce Maxwell is treated like a league pariah or a presidential punching bag, but regardless, MLB will have another 4,860-plus games to play, and that’s challenge enough without a head of state who seems content to let the world drown.
‘People Like to Watch Feminism as a Spectacle’: An Interview with Lauren McKeon

The author of F-Bomb discusses men’s rights activists, the changes in modern feminism, and why the movement can’t be a monolith. 

Decades from now, when humans not yet born scroll the archives of feminism in 2017, it will be easy to envision an era of unity—the #womensmarch hashtag on Instagram boasts 1,437,462 tagged photos, “The Future is Female” slogan has re-proliferated everywhere from baby onesies to New York Fashion Week.  Women’s marches around the world crammed the streets with feminists of all genders last winter, even men who aren’t actually feminists but say they are because it’s cool for them to do that now. According to Ivanka Trump, her father is a feminist. But as author Lauren McKeon boldly uncovers in F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism (Goose Lane Editions), as both a concept and a function, feminism is in pieces. McKeon, a Toronto-based journalist, spent three years investigating the women-led anti-feminism movement, tracing back to its origins and doggedly interrogating the movement’s current resurgence. Though for as long as there’s been feminism there has been anti-feminism, too, the backlash at the heart of the matter stems from the first wave of the men’s rights movement, which began in the 1970s. MRAs—women among them—“cringed at the idea of women with autonomy” and protested the demasculinization of men, hoping instead to preserve traditional gender roles. “The same rhetoric was re-emerging, only now it was wilder, and, also, everywhere,” writes McKeon of the present day. “Social media allows the ideas underpinning both anti-feminism and post-feminism (the idea that we’re past the need for feminism) to spread and to connect, and the anti-feminist movement—and its many octopus arms—have grown beyond the usual suspects.” F-Bomb is an awakening for those who believe feminism serves everyone equally. As McKeon notes, there are valid reasons for opting out. But it’s also an alarming peek into the lives of women who fiercely impugn the need for gender equality at all, women who feel feminism has instituted moral panic around rape culture, encouraged the hatred of men and boys, that it has limited women’s potential by portraying them as perpetual victims, that it has interfered with tradition and that it has devalued motherhood. The book is an intense and enlightening inquisition, not just as a corrective for future generations who will gaze upon the Instagramability of our righteousness, but for those recalibrating the meaning of feminism right now. Carly Lewis: You write that many feminists, upon learning of your research, questioned your pursuit with a sense of “curiosity akin to a five-year-old studying an especially nasty bug.” I’ll admit that I went into your book feeling… something like that. Lauren McKeon: I’ve gotten that a lot. By humanizing someone they almost become scarier. I wanted to humanize these people—though I don’t know if humanize is quite the right word—and really talk to them, and see what they were like and what they really believed and why that was. If you think these movements are just full of monsters… well, monsters don’t exist. It’s very easy to dismiss a monster and think that the ideas of monsters won’t connect, that they won’t gain traction and won’t infiltrate policy or thinking or media. It’s harder to grapple with the fact that these people go to their kids’ soccer games and go to book clubs and go to work. There’s a point in the book where two women tech executives stand in the kitchen of a start-up and deny that the industry has a gender imbalance. You deftly note that their office has more foosball tables than women. What impact did this process have on you personally? Three years is a long time to spend with people who fundamentally oppose your principles, especially when you’re with them as a journalist, not an opponent who can speak freely. I’d had a hunch that these ideas were bubbling up of course, but it was watching them unfold in real time and seeing how much traction anti-feminist thinking has really gained, and how pervasive it is and how normalized it’s become that made me tired. It also made me curious, and it made me more convinced that we need to shine a spotlight on what’s happening as opposed to trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. Did you see Tina Fey’s Weekend Update appearance where she suggested that if we just let violent white supremacists tire themselves out in Washington Square Park they’d go away? I understand the machination of compartmentalizing, but doing so in this case seems like giving them permission. That’s a lot of what we have been doing, just talking amongst ourselves. (I mean people who are progressive.) There’s value in commiserating together, and poking fun at the other side, but at some point we have to realize that there are real effects to what’s going on. We can’t just eat our proverbial cake and hope that it’s going to go away. It’s not as if it came out of nowhere. We shouldn’t have been ignoring it. Early in the book you write, “Though dissent isn’t inherently terrible, it’s hard to understate how much of it is fracturing us.” How do you write a book like this while knowing it will contribute to the fracture? It’s so thorny to speak out. By speaking out I could be contributing to the fracture, by speaking out I’m also contributing to the elevation of white women’s voices, by speaking out I’m also shining a spotlight on the alt-right and anti-feminist movements. There are arguments to be made for not doing so. But what I hope the effect of speaking out will be is to present a thoughtful, considered, well-researched argument. I hope that people will continue the discussion. I think that’s what we need right now, to talk more, and to get off of our soapboxes. That’s a lot of what contributes to the fracturing: people want to be right. They don’t necessarily want to listen, and they don’t want to self-reflect. They don’t want to be open to criticism. It’s really hard to get anywhere when that’s happening. We’re in the age of bullshit. People are just bullshitting each other. I hope part of the antidote to that will be having a conversation. And that will mean listening. I also couldn’t possibly talk about the anti-feminist movement without talking about and self-reflecting on the feminist movement. It’s important for us to do that, too. That’s how feminism itself will grow and become more inclusive and get better and relate to more women. It needs to go through the same process of interrogation. Are you familiar with Carla Lonzi and the Rivolta Femminile? Lonzi’s ideas were about connection through disparity. There are some parallels between Lonzi and what you’re saying, I think. What were you able to conclude after speaking with so many women whose ideologies did not mirror your own? This is not an argument that is unique to me, but we need to move toward a plurality of feminism. Women are not monolithic. Feminism can’t be monolithic either. If we allow for that plurality of feminism, we can work apart but together. We’re all affected by the same issues, but we’re not affected equally by those issues. The feminist movement hasn’t done a great job of acknowledging this. We really need to chip away at that. Feminism is going through a round of growing pains right now, and some of that is clumsy and some of that is awkward. But we are moving toward something that’s better. Part of what made me optimistic even after spending a lot of time talking to people who made me worried about our future was talking to other young women, and girls, and seeing where they’re taking the movement and how they’re making it more inclusive. There’s a lot that’s going on that I don’t like, like the mass-marketing of feminism, and how it’s cool to wear a feminist T-shirt but it’s not cool to actually have politics, but there is this new movement that’s being forged by the next generation—it is smart, savvy, inclusive and diverse. That’s just how they see the world. And that makes me feel positive. I work in arts and culture media, and I am full of joy about the generation of young women writers coming up after mine. Things that it took me ten years to decline on—cowering to misogynistic paternalism, the anxiety of not being liked—they seem to reject right away. I see them advocating for themselves much sooner, which is incredible to behold. I want them to take over. At the same time, I don’t know that I, or we, collectively, have done enough to make the media industry safe for them to inherit. I agree with you. I don’t know that we have. Part of me wonders if the reason why they’re so good at standing up for themselves is because it’s been thrust upon them. Maybe that’s a cynical way of thinking about it, but in my conversations with teen girls it’s become clear they are dealing with horrible, horrific things—being grabbed in the hallway, having "slut" shouted at them. And that’s normal to them; they expect that as a normal part of life that they have to learn how to navigate. That’s the other side of them being so engaged with these issues. As much as I’m optimistic, on the other hand, teens have to deal with [sexism] in a much more extreme, intense way than I did. It’s not that that culture didn’t exist back then, but people weren’t sharing nudes on Instagram. People didn’t have cell phones in school, or social media. It wasn’t such a pervasive part of our lives. We were still slut-shamed of course but it wasn’t happening in the magnified, intense way that it is now. So you think it’s to survive that they’ve become so bold? Right, and that’s sad. That’s a lot more depressing than thinking the next generation has it, but it’s also true. Our generation and the generation above us, we were so busy trying to get a foot in the door that we put up with a lot. “We’re so happy to be here!” It’s only now that we’re starting to realize being here isn’t enough. In the book you mention a 2014 interview in which Lana Del Rey says feminism is uninteresting. I interviewed her a few months ago and asked her about that. As she tells it, it was a response blurted out after feeling somewhat antagonized by the guy interviewing her. It was her way of rejecting the expectation that she have an opinion about feminism at all. I wonder if others who find feminism unnecessary—and I don’t mean those who reject it because it doesn’t serve them, I mean those who dismiss it—also do so out of exasperation. Feminism is still a dirty word for a lot of people. In some ways being able to say you’re a feminist is courageous, sure, but it’s also privileged. (If you’re Justin Trudeau, what do you have to lose from calling yourself a feminist?) Especially now that it’s cool again to be a feminist. But of course some people don’t want to say they’re a feminist, because they’re afraid of what other labels come with that. They’re afraid of being labeled something that they aren’t. On one hand, I think that’s fair. On the other hand, I worry about where that gets us. Neutrality can be dangerous when it comes to not speaking up. You’re also sending a message when you say you’re not a feminist, or when you refuse to engage with the politics. Who gets left behind when we’re too scared to engage? Or when we just don’t think it matters to us? I heard some good reasons from people regarding why they didn’t call themselves feminists, from people who felt the movement actively excludes them or is violent towards them—a lot of trans women and women of colour, sex workers. But the reasons for opting out are a lot different from the people who are just like, “yeah, it’s not for me.” I think there’s a diligently achieved self-made state of denial at play sometimes, in the latter cases where privileged women denounce feminism because it just doesn’t matter to them. That’s a very good way of putting it. I also wonder if it comes from an attempt to get on the good side of the oppressor. In the case of someone like Faith Goldy, for example, and the well known online anti-feminists you write about in your book, money has a lot to do with it. But psychologically I have to wonder if there’s safety in being like, the world is so unsafe that I’m just going to ingratiate myself to the most dangerous kind of men, so that I become exempt from their harm. It’s certainly individualistic. “I’m okay, so everyone else is okay.” I wonder sometimes if that’s their response to pressure. The practice of trying to do anything and everything can be exhausting. The system is against us in so many ways. Part of me thinks that the response is a survival mechanism, to get in, to get along and succeed and just pretend that the rest doesn’t exist. There’s something pornographic about anti-feminism. It’s salacious and attractive to certain kinds of men. There’s a transaction of subordination exchanged between the two sides, just like in any performance. Right, they’re each fulfilling the status quo goals of gender. When we look at people who are the most successful, they’re either not going against the grain or they’re going against the grain in ways that are attractive. Most people who are successful are playing out a very status quo goal of gender and what we expect, and yeah, for sure that becomes a transaction where they each expect and get success based on the ways we’re traditionally supposed to complement each other. I thought of this a lot during the Jian Ghomeshi trial. There was a conversation around how nuanced and complicated and difficult it seemed for a strong female lawyer, Marie Henein, to represent a man accused of sexual assault. But wasn’t she doing exactly what would be expected of the law? She didn’t do anything during that case that fascinated or surprised me. She used the same tactics that are always used to discredit accusers. Ultimately it was status quo. It wasn’t necessarily her that was the problem. Like you said, it’s the system, and that we were expecting justice for survivors in the court system at all. There are so many layers to it, but they all got pinned on her because she was the one out there performing the role. We expect everything and nothing from women. In the book, you reference something Canadian men’s rights activist Karen Straughan said to you, which is that feminism is designed to make men feel awful. I latched onto this, because in some ways feminism makes me feel awful. A peer of mine recently tweeted a joke about sexual assault. I’ve crafted three different emails to this guy to try and talk to him about it, but I keep relenting. I don’t want to embarrass him. I don’t want him to turn on me. I don’t want to be seen as a problem. The burden goes the other way, too. (My earlier comments about not cowering are waning here, I realize.) Absolutely. I’ve heard so many of my friends say, “I’m the feminist in the office,” “I’m the one who always speaks up,” and that’s a huge burden. There’s social pressure on women to be likable. That’s how we make it in the world. And when you’re speaking out, you’re not likable. You are instantly not likable when you speak out. Or you have to try and think about saying it in the right way to maintain likability but still get your point across. It’s exhausting. In a world where it is still unpopular to live your feminist politics, of course there’s a burden on you for speaking out, because you never know what the answer is going to be. But it’s okay to be scared, as a feminist. It’s okay to be worried about getting yelled at, or having a Twitter hoard come after you, or being doxxed, or belittled in front of your office or to have someone call you a bitch. We put this onus on ourselves to be so tough. But it can be exhausting and frustrating and heartbreaking sometimes to be a feminist. We tell women and girls they can be anything they want, but when you try to be that thing there are so many different constraints—you can’t be emotional, and you can’t be too ambitious, and you can’t be too loud, can’t be too angry, you can’t speak out too much. You can be anything you want, as long as you’re not trying to force your way into a male-dominated industry. This idea that you can be anything really comes with a lot of contradictory footnotes. On that level I understand why some women reject the burden. Actually a lot of men’s rights activism and anti-feminist activity happens inside the home, alone. There are conferences and rallies, but so much happens from behind a computer. They’re already opting out physically. Well, they’re living in the world of soapboxes and angry Twitter hordes too, right? A lot of the women I interviewed showed me the online threats they get. It’s not like they aren’t saying horrible things, but when the conversation descends into death threats, where are we really getting? As much as I talked to the stars of these movements, the public figures, what we have to be worried about is how those ideas are connecting on a mainstream level and how they’re playing out with who we vote into office, our attitudes at work, our attitudes at home, our day-to-day attitudes. It’s so easy to be outraged by a video we see on YouTube or a tweet that is meant to provoke us, but I think we need to ask how this rhetoric is being normalized and what it means for turning the tide of conversation. These things have been around and never went away, we just pretended they did. You note that many MRAs make a point of saying that that they don’t hate women. I think it’s a way of making their ideas more palatable to a mainstream audience. People don’t want to say “I hate women.” Well, most people do not want to say that. That’s not a contemporary thing to say. But to say, “Oh, I’m concerned about where women’s roles are going,” and, “We need to value mothers,” that’s something people still feel justified in saying. That’s something you can build an argument on. In the same way that people can say “I think we need to be concerned about immigration,” it’s all very coded language. It’s language that’s acceptable. It’s language that can spread. Have you kept up with the conversation around Lido Pimienta winning the Polaris Music Prize? I have, and I think it just plays back into this idea that we don’t like women who advocate for themselves. We still expect women to behave a certain way. The idea of a strong woman still happens in certain confines of how we expect women to be. “Well, we elevated you, and you’re a woman, shouldn’t we pat our backs for that, and shouldn’t you pat our backs too?” That’s not where we need to be. Stuff like that makes me so cynical. We want to be congratulated for doing the right thing for women, but we don’t actually want to hear what women have to say. We want to put them up on a pedestal but we don’t actually want them to be human. A large media company hired me to write, in their words, “feminist hot takes” a few years ago. When I got there they had me editing more than writing, and as soon as I started taking misogynistic sentences out of articles and declined to hire an accused serial rapist, my day-to-day work life was made impossible by men who didn’t want me there anymore. They’d hired me to churn out cool feminist click-bait. When I tried to implement not just feminist politics, but basic safety for others in the actual workplace, they were like, “no, get out.” People like to watch feminism as a spectacle, because then they can tear it down or ridicule it. When it comes to living it and implementing it as politics, it’s so much harder. It forces people to confront things in a way they’re still not prepared to do. People don’t want to hear you be thoughtful, they want to hear you be angry, because then they can say “look how ridiculous you are.” You write that, “In all the great women-on-women wars, none has more controversy than Stay-At-Home Mom versus Working Mom.” As you say, this strife really picked up when, in 1975, Simone de Beauvoir told Betty Friedan that no woman should be permitted to stay home and raise kids. How much of a role do men actually have in shaping the ideologies of anti-feminism? Is this movement more about women themselves than men? I think it depends on what level of the continuum you’re on. I certainly don’t think by any means that these women are like puppets to the men in their lives. Even though one might not agree with their politics, they fall into the stereotype of the strong woman. They have their own thoughts. They do their own research and they form their own opinions. Often the men in their lives are not as radical as they are. It’s not even that they hate women, I think what they’d say is that they hate the feminist ideology, because it presents women as perpetual victims and it tells women that they can have it all, when really we were better off in traditional gender roles. Even though a lot of them are men’s rights activists, it’s almost as if men don’t factor in at all. In another sense, men factor in because as feminism succeeds, traditional roles for everyone will break down. So they look at the traditional roles of men and see that those are not as entrenched as they once were, and they blame feminists. There’s this idea that if men’s traditional roles are under threat, women’s traditional roles are under threat, and if no one has their traditional roles then where are we? Chaos reigns. When it comes to that, it’s not only about wanting men to maintain traditional roles and their place in the world, it’s also about women maintaining their roles and their place in the world. There’s comfort in that for women who find themselves lost or just as baffled by the changing world as some men do.