Hazlitt Magazine

Searching for Duke

After years of whispers in her Polish community, Anna finally learned the truth about her father. And then she decided to go to Sri Lanka to find him.

The Queer Appetites of Ismail Merchant

The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.

'There Was a Desire to Write Myself Back Into Existence': An Interview with Kate Zambreno

The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.

Latest

Searching for Duke

After years of whispers in her Polish community, Anna finally learned the truth about her father. And then she decided to go to Sri Lanka to find him.

Anna Kopec always knew she was different. Until she turned eight, she thought it was because she was adopted. "Even just sitting at the dining table. I looked around, and I didn't look like them. I didn't look like my family," she says. That's not entirely true. There is a resemblance between Anna today, at age twenty-seven, and her mother Maria; she has the same aquiline nose, dimpled chin, and dark brown hair. But her dark complexion, skin the colour of caramel and eyes like pools of amber, stand out in the framed photos that line the walls and mantel pieces of her Polish family's home. Back in the '90s, when she was growing up in Edmonton, there were whispers in her tightly-knit Polish community. Heads turned when Anna attended Sunday mass; she could feel the eyes boring into her back as she sat attentively during the service. But the whispers and close attention didn't get to her until, at around age five or six, she started Polish dance classes. Even though Anna was dressed in the same colourful outfits as the other kids, a red skirt and white shirt worn with a black vest and white lace apron, decorated with multicoloured floral embroidery, she stood out. The students called her chocolate—which didn't bother her at first, it echoed a nickname from her grandfather. But, for the two years that Anna attended the classes, she would often end up sitting by herself in a corner, reading a book. The Polish woman running the program occasionally got her own son to dance with Anna. When Maria found out that her daughter was being ostracized, she was furious. She yelled at the dance teacher and said Anna wouldn't be coming back. "That's when I realized something was going on." Every now and again, Anna would ask her mother why she was brown, why she was darker than everyone else in the family. Her mother would say she would tell her soon or change the subject. When Anna's sister Barbara was in grade four or five, she asked their mother the same question. Why did Anna look different? "She had told my sister that because I was born premature, I was put in an incubator," says Anna, shaking her head. Barbara repeated this explanation to her friends at school, and Barbara's friends went back home and told their mothers, who told them that's not how it works. Kids can be cruel, and Barbara became the laughingstock in the schoolyard. One day, after a shopping trip to buy Anna a figure-skating dress for an upcoming performance, her mother took her to McDonald's. Anna was excited to get a Happy Meal because her mother didn't usually buy fast food. "I can still remember the skating outfit was hanging off the back of a chair," says Anna. "I was eating Chicken McNuggets." That's when Maria told her that Woody, the man Anna had grown up calling Tata, was not her biological father. Her real father came from Sri Lanka. His name was Duke.  When they got home, Maria gave Anna a picture of Duke. Anna felt a sense of relief. Her mother was still her mother, and she didn't feel any different towards her Tata. Her siblings Barbara and Lukasz were still her sister and brother. A few days after her mother told her about Duke, Anna wrote the following entry in her journal, in alternating purple and blue glitter gel pens: It wasn't until years later, when Anna was entering her teenage years, that she started to ask probing questions. Who was Duke? Where in Sri Lanka did he come from? Was she like him? Maria didn't seem to understand why Anna needed to find out more about her Sri Lankan side when she already had a family that loved her. The rest of Anna's family was sympathetic to her search but couldn't help. When she was sixteen, during an annual trip to see her extended family living in Germany and Poland, Anna decided to try to find out more information about her biological father herself. It was a spur of the moment decision, which she hadn't discussed with her family in Canada. Her parents had divorced, and Anna was living with Maria. While Maria didn't seem to understand Anna's quest, Woody encouraged her to find her own answers. She enlisted one of her German cousins in her search, and managed to find a date of birth and date of death for a man named Duke Santhira. Woody's mother showed her a few more photos, but that was all Anna could find out. A few years later, in October 2013, a chance conversation with one of her university professors put her in touch with Sri Lankan Canadian academic Amarnath Amarasingam. He was travelling to Sri Lanka in January. He asked Anna if she wanted to come along.   "I didn't even have to think about it," says Anna. Immediately she wrote back: Yes.   Ten days before Christmas 2013, Anna and her now-husband Gurvinder Gill travelled to Sri Lanka. This is all they had to go on: A name, likely assumed. Duke Santhira. Duke's birthday and the date of his death. A few pictures. Poland: When Woody Met Maria Wlodzimierz Kopec first saw Maria Czweryn on a bus in Warsaw, Poland. It was the early 1980s. She was eighteen, and he was twenty-three. At the time, Poland was still under the rule of a communist government that played by the Russian rulebook. Wlodzimierz saw Maria on the bus on his way to work at Mazowieckie Centrum Rehabilitacji Stocer, a hospital in Konstancin-Jeziorna. It was a long bus ride from his home in Warsaw. He was working as a nurse's assistant there. Maria's bus stop, on her way to a horticulture school, was a couple of stops before his. "Caught by her beauty," he says, he asked if he could walk her to school just as she was about to step off the bus.   Wlodzimierz, who started going by Woody after his move to Canada, sits in the dining room of his Edmonton home. He's wearing a white shirt and jeans, his blue eyes piercing through a pair of Hugo Boss glasses. He speaks in short, Polish-accented bursts. When he stops speaking to collect his thoughts or search for the right word in English, he stares out into the distance, looking through the glass sliding doors that open into a small backyard blanketed in snow. As it happened, Maria lived very close to Woody; he passed by her apartment every day. They dated for a year, and then Maria wanted to get married.  Woody had lived an idyllic childhood. He came from a middle-class family. His father had served in the army, and when he was a child, both his parents worked at Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, a famous automobile manufacturer. The family lived in a hotel for factory workers, sharing one room separated by curtains to create a bedroom, kitchen and living room. Just before he started school, the family moved into a new apartment in Warsaw.   After finishing school, he went straight to work at a newly opened factory for retreading old tires. He got the job after meeting the director of the factory through his father. After a stint working at the hospital instead of military service, an assignment that was the result of his poor vision, he returned to the tire retreading factory. "It was a new plant in Poland, with Italian equipment. [The boss said] there might be a chance to go to Italy for a course," says Woody. "Getting a passport was impossible. Only party people had them. Regular people stayed in Poland and worked where they were told to." Maria's father had been a middle-ranking officer in the Polish army. When Maria was seven, he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Maria's mother moved with her four daughters to Warsaw in 1972, where the army gave them an apartment. "We weren't poor-poor, but we didn't have much money," says Maria. She's moving around her kitchen in Edmonton, putting together a meal of pork tenderloin and vegetables, while constantly apologizing for not being able to make a proper dinner. Maria lives a short drive away from Woody. Compared to Woody's minimalist home, with neutral beige walls punctuated with family photos, Maria's home is warm and cozy, with a large Christmas tree standing tall in the living room. Dressed in a chic blouse and pants, her eyes sparkling with flecks of glittery gold eyeshadow, Maria is charming to a fault, constantly offering a glass of wine or a cup of tea.  "My mother had major depression, and she was bringing up four daughters. I was practically raised by myself … My sister Anna had left for Germany when I was in high school. I didn't have the greatest relationship with my mother." Outside their family home, an apartment in an historic part of Warsaw that was rebuilt piece-by-piece after being obliterated in WWII, tanks were rolling down the streets following the announcement of martial law in 1981. "You had to be home by 8 p.m. There was rationing of meat and sugar."  While she aspired to become a psychologist, Maria took a practical look at her options, and told Woody she wanted to get married. And so they did, in 1983. Life was not easy after marriage. They had to contend with the challenges of living in a communist society. "Corruption was enormous," says Woody. "It was the main reason to leave." Barbara was born in 1984, and Lukasz in 1986. The family was living in a simple cottage in a small district in Piaseczno County. Woody was doing shift work at the tire factory, also making some money under the table, and he and Maria were fighting. "Main reason for Maria was that I drink too much." He did drink a lot, he admits. It was easy to buy vodka, and much harder to refuse his friends who wanted to drink after work. Besides, he wanted to stay away from Maria's screaming. Maria remembers being stuck at home with two little kids and washing and boiling an endless load of diapers. "I got twenty diapers, you know how? Each gynecologist gave you ten diapers for a baby. Cloth diapers, not the modern ones like now. So, I went to two different gynecologists," she says. "I was twenty-two years old, with no running water, no heat … We didn't have milk for the kids. Only vodka for the men to drink and get angry."  Maria's three sisters were already in Germany. Woody went to Germany in 1988 and started to work in the black market  doing industrial renovations-drywall, taping, cleaning work spaces and delivering materials. "What I made in one hour in Germany was worth more than a month's work in Poland," says Woody. His idea had been to stay in Germany for a few months at a time to work in the black market and spend the rest of the time in Poland. Life was tough while Woody was in Germany, says Maria. "I used to wake at 5 a.m. and take a stroller that was made in Czechoslovakia and walk five, six kilometres to the nearest market. It was a big used stroller, so no bus would take me. I would get eggs and the best meat," she says. "But sometimes there was no food. I had to go around and barter for milk. So, one day I put on my nylons and lipstick, and one of my sister's friends came and took me to the German embassy. There were people sleeping on the streets for three months to get a visa. But somehow, when I went, the person opened the gate and I walked out with a visa. We went with my sister's friend in a car to Germany. Woody was not impressed when I showed up there." Maria arrived with Barbara and Lukasz in Germany in September 1989. "Maria wanted to apply for asylum in Germany. I thought it was a stupid idea, but all the sisters persuaded me," Woody says. Germany: When Maria Met Duke In 1989, communism fell in Poland, and getting asylum in Germany was tough. Maria, Woody, and the children were facing deportation. Maria had heard Canada was taking in refugees from Germany and had written 180 letters to Canadian and American sponsors. A sponsor in Edmonton agreed to take them in, extending their temporary refugee status in Germany. While they waited for the papers to get processed, the family was sent to live in a small town called Rüthen, where many other refugees were also sent to live. They were given accommodation in the upper portion of a two-storey home in a lower-income housing complex, a place that the family came to call the refugee hotel. Although they were given an allowance to meet their living expenses, Woody continued to work under the table. Every week, he travelled to Cologne, a two-hour trip one way taking a bus and train, to save up money for the airplane tickets they would need to travel to Canada. "That's when Maria met Duke, Anna's father," says Woody. Duke worked in a pizzeria in Dortmund. When he wasn't working, he'd visit a friend living next door to Maria. In Rüthen, Maria walked everywhere. To the market, to take the kids to preschool. "With my luck, it was always raining. One day, this red car stops, this red Ford, as I'm walking. It's Duke. And he says, 'Don't be afraid.' I got in and he took us to the daycare. I left the kids and went grocery shopping with him. Then I invited him over for tea." Woody knew Maria was lonely in Rüthen. "She was complaining I was out of town, staying with friends. I was drinking," says Woody. He told her, "I know it's hard for you. But listen, we decided we are waiting to go to Canada. I have to suffer, you have to suffer." Meanwhile, Maria says, Duke took her and the children to McDonald's and the zoo. They started becoming very close. He told her some stories about life back in Sri Lanka, how his father had the first car in Jaffna. But he didn't talk about why he had left or the civil war that had started in 1983. Instead, she found out through his friends that he had been tortured. "He had scars on his body," she says. "He had the biggest smile. He didn't laugh loudly, but his smile was beautiful. He sang in Tamil, he was always whistling. And he got these beautiful letters from his mother, the [writing] was like artwork." They fell in love. "He was a really gentle man, a gentle soul. And I had lots of suffering inside me. We had our little talks, but people who go through things, we don't talk about that stuff. It's not what you want to remember."  When Maria found out she was pregnant with Duke's baby, she was shocked. Her first instinct was to go for an abortion. She even visited a doctor with her sister Elzbieta but couldn't go through with it in the end. She told Woody about the pregnancy. "I was devastated," says Woody. A deeply Catholic man, he decided this was God's will. He told Maria, it's "something not for you or me to decide. I know I wasn't maybe very good to you. Maybe I have made my mistakes. Maybe that's the price I have to pay for it. And I forgive you everything. Let's start life together. It's new life in front of us, new country." Coming to Canada Anna was born on December 29, 1991. The Kopec family left for Edmonton in May 1992. "It snowed the day we landed in Edmonton. It was a huge snowstorm, there was a big dump of snow," says Anna. "My mother used to joke that she should have known to go back right then."  Like many new immigrants to Canada, they struggled at first. They started out living in the same house as their sponsor, Piotr, who had a younger brother, Jacek. Woody started helping Piotr paint and do renovations, eventually found a job in landscaping and gradually started picking up piecemeal work in construction. Maria worked three jobs, sending the kids to visit their grandparents, aunts, and cousins in Europe regularly. She learned English by reading Danielle Steel novels, and cleaned townhouses to help with the family expenses while Anna napped in a stroller. Eventually, she became a nurse.   For four years, Woody and Maria stuck it out despite their differences. They were immigrants in a new country, and it made more sense to live together. Moreover, given his faith, Woody did not want to get divorced. But in 1996, they decided to go their separate ways. They got a divorce in December 1998. The transition to Canada wasn't without bumps for Barbara, Anna's older sister, either. She has fond memories of growing up in Poland. Barbara looks straight ahead as she talks, as if watching a movie about her own life, trying to rewind and pause. Sitting in the expansive kitchen of her large suburban Edmonton home, light filtering in the large windows, Barbara pushes her bottle-blonde hair behind her ears and pulls on the sleeves of her sweater. She's lithe, petite, a no-nonsense version of Renée Zellweger.  In the beginning, life in Canada was an adventure—a new school with new friends, new experiences like making snowmen outside the house, Jacek dressing up as Santa Claus for Christmas. But Barbara started to notice the strained relationship between her parents. On a road trip one summer, Barbara remembers telling her brother Lukasz that she thought Jacek was in love with their mother. Barbara struggled with the tense atmosphere at home, disappearing into the basement to hide her tears.   "When I visited my dad, I would take cutlery or cans of food because he left with nothing," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. "That was my Grade 4." Meanwhile, Barbara was also dealing with the constant chatter in Edmonton's tightly knit Polish community about Anna not being her real sister. "I hated going to church, hated going to religious class because it was all Polish. I hated going to the Polish Saturday School because a teacher pulled me aside one time and asked me, 'Why is your sister brown?'" Her animosity towards the Polish community and the Polish church deepened further. When she was hanging out with her non-Polish friends, there were no questions. Her resentment was so deep that she didn't even want to go for her Communion, dressed up in a hand-me-down outfit, her hair in a formal 'do. The classes leading up to the religious ceremony had been unpleasant, with kids whispering loud enough for her to hear them question whether Anna was adopted, and whether Woody was her real father. Barbara remembers being about thirteen when her mother Maria showed her a picture of Duke. All the resentment she had felt about dealing with the rumours at school and in the Polish community turned towards Maria. She says she told her mother that Anna needed to know the truth. Barbara had pulled away from Anna. It was partly the age difference between them, and partly the bullying she faced because of Anna's parentage. So, when Maria decided to tell Anna, Barbara wanted no part in that conversation. "I feel like I ignored her until she was about fifteen, sixteen," says Barbara, overcome with emotion. She walks away for a few minutes, composes herself before taking her seat again. It wasn't until Anna was a young adult herself, and Barbara was getting engaged, that they truly bonded. Even so, a few years later, when Anna started to look for her father in earnest, Barbara couldn't help her. "I could not remember anything." Anna's Story The dreams started when Anna was about twelve years old. At first, they were simple. She saw herself going for a walk with Duke, who was always in a green shirt, the same shirt he was wearing in the photograph that Maria had given her when she was eight years old. This was around the same time that Anna had started to ask more questions about why Duke hadn't come looking for her. Maria told her that Duke had been sick with some sort of blood disease, and he'd died because he'd stopped taking his medications, collapsing in the pizzeria where he worked.  By the time she was fourteen, the dreams had turned into nightmares. Anna dreamt she was holding a bottle of pills, Duke's medicine; sometimes he was sitting by her bed, sometimes on the floor and sometimes kneeling over the toilet, asking her for them. But for some reason, Anna couldn't give him the pills. "I would wake up sweating and crying. I was terrified," says Anna. Barbara had been right about Jacek and Maria—the two married when Anna was around twelve. "He'd been in our lives since day one in Canada. He was always there," says Anna. Jacek became like a father-figure. When Anna started having her nightmares, she first confided in Jacek. "He said, you need to talk to your mom."  Despite Anna pestering her for details, Maria didn't tell her much about Duke beyond the fact that he was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. When she asked Maria why Duke didn't visit her before he died, Maria explained that Duke had kept in touch for a while, but he couldn't get a visa to Canada. She remembers her mom telling her that he asked for Anna to visit, but by the time their family got their Canadian citizenship, allowing them to travel, Duke was dead. But the stories also kept changing. Anna remembers that Maria told her that Duke and Maria had stopped talking. In one version, she told Anna that Duke had managed to get as far as the United States border, but that he was sent back. "The story was never really the same," says Anna. "Sometimes she would give me little stories. That he loved spicy food. Or that the civil war had been really hard on him. Or one day we were sitting on the couch painting our nails, she had a nail file in her hand, and she said, 'I don't know what to say. He laughed a lot.' I randomly started thinking that maybe he's alive, she doesn't want me to see him. The rebellious teenager in me started thinking, maybe I will find him." When she was fifteen, Anna wrote to Dr. Phil and Oprah, hoping one of them would help her with her quest. She didn't hear back from anyone and decided to take matters into her own hands. Anna had been travelling solo to Germany and Poland to visit her extended family since she was nine. By the time she was sixteen, her relationship with her mother had started to deteriorate. Anna decided to go back to Europe with a mission to find out more information about Duke from her other family members. She didn't tell anyone about her plans until she landed in Germany, and contacted an older cousin, Michael, her godfather. Michael lived near Dortmund, the city where Duke had lived. After Michael agreed to help her, Anna told her aunts about her plan. They didn't have much information about Duke. Her grandparents didn't have much to add either, even though Anna knew about Woody's father's animosity towards Maria and her infidelity. But her grandmother was understanding about Maria's situation. Her own marriage to Anna's grandfather had been more for convenience than love. She showed Anna photos she had of Duke and shared her memories with Anna. "She told me, 'I could tell they were in love. I could tell something was there, that it wasn't just [a fling] to her."  Anna visited a hospital where she had stayed as a baby and the housing project where Duke and her mother met. She and Michael went to Dortmund's registry offices, to look for Duke's birth and death records. At first, the officials weren't prepared to give Anna the information, because she wasn't legally on his records. Anna was crying out of frustration and said her piece to a woman in the death office. Anna isn't sure what she said, or how she said it, but something struck a chord with the woman. After they left, the official started looking through stacks of paper files. When, at first, she couldn't find a record, Anna's hopes lifted for a moment; maybe there was a chance that Duke was alive. But Anna got a call later that night; the woman had stayed back at the office, searching for hours. The official gave her a date of death, April 24, 1995, and a cause: a brain aneurysm. Duke had no grave. His ashes had been scattered.   Anna was distraught, and called Maria in Edmonton, hysterical. But Maria didn't understand. "Well, you knew he was dead," she said. When Anna returned from Germany to Edmonton, she went to a cemetery with Jacek and Woody to set up a little plaque for Duke. Her relationship with Maria continued to break down. Going to Sri Lanka When Anna was in her third year at the University of Alberta, one of her professors introduced her to Amarnath Amarasingam, a Sri Lankan Canadian academic who has studied the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and its politics. Amarnath was working on a project on post-war reconstruction in Sri Lanka. The professor suggested that Amarnath may be of some help to Anna in her search to know more about Duke. Anna sent Amarnath an email on October 27, 2013. It was a Sunday afternoon. "My story is a little complicated, but I will do my best to tell it in a swift and quick manner as to not take up too much of your time," Anna wrote. She provided a brief summary of her story, including her father's name, which she acknowledged might be an alias: Duke Santhira Sathusigaman Pillai. When Amarnath received the email, the first thing that struck him was how little information there was. "All she really had was this name Duke, and the fact that he came from Jaffna. That's like me saying I need to find a guy called Duke in Toronto. Actually, scratch that. It was like, I want to find a guy called Duke in Ontario." Anna had attached two pictures of her father, as well as a picture of herself and a tiger pendant that Duke had given Maria. It was like a puzzle. The name wasn't a common Sri Lankan Tamil name. Then there was the tiger pendant, suggesting an affiliation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, a militant organization that sought a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. It added complications to asking questions about Duke and his family. Nevertheless, Amarnath could understand Anna's desperate attempt to look for her father. Amarnath asked family and activist connections back in Sri Lanka if they could help by tapping into their community network. However, there wasn't enough information to go on. A few weeks passed, and it became apparent to Amarnath that any meaningful search would need to happen on the ground in Sri Lanka. "Especially with that pendant. Usually people don't want to have anything to do with any Tiger-related stuff … We knew nothing about his connection. It could have been nothing. Or he could have been some high-level guy. We didn't know why he fled to Germany," says Amarnath. "People are usually more willing to talk face to face."  He had been planning a trip to Sri Lanka to conduct field research and interviews with former LTTE fighters who had undergone rehabilitation. A friend, Kumaran Nadesan, a Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian who works as a senior business consultant with the government of Ontario, was going to join him. Kumaran was looking to do some ground work in establishing a not-for-profit that provides assistance in sustainable development in the north and east of Sri Lanka. On October 31, 2013, Amarnath sent his flight plans to Anna. Anna's email and subsequent phone conversations with Amarnath had shown her how little she actually knew about Duke or her Sri Lankan heritage. While Anna had read up briefly on the civil war that affected the country for twenty-six years, she wasn't aware of its complexities. Every time she corresponded with Amarnath, he was full of questions: which town in Jaffna was Duke from? Are you sure you've spelled his name right? However, the minute Anna read Amarnath's email about his upcoming trip to Sri Lanka in January 2014, she knew she was going to tag along. The only person who knew about her plan at that point was her now-husband, Gurvinder. The flights to Sri Lanka during peak season were expensive. At the time, Anna had no money and Gurvinder was working, so he fronted the $3,000 for the airfare for the both of them. "We booked the tickets without talking to my family," says Anna. "I was totally not thinking rationally." Anna finally told her family a few weeks before she and Gurvinder were supposed to leave. Her sister was skeptical but supportive, Woody was excited, and Maria was shocked. As the date for their departure crept closer, Anna got more and more excited herself, but it wasn't until shortly before the flight to Sri Lanka that the anticipation really hit her. An avid journaler, Anna kept a record of her visit in a black-and-gold embossed notebook. It's titled Sri Lanka: Dec. 15, 2013-Jan. 11, 2014. A Journey to find myself. The first entry reads: As they stepped out of the airport into the humidity of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, and started the drive towards their hotel in Mount Lavinia, Anna was struck by the lush landscape, where the palm trees grew in clusters. But as the highway gave way to an urban environment, she started to truly get a sense of the chaos of a large Sri Lankan city. The buildings looked older, dotted with large, brightly coloured billboards, the traffic was a mess, with a car honk signaling, "Oh hey, I'm gonna do this, okay?" Their hotel room had a view of the waves of the Indian Ocean slamming into the shore. After a quick shower, Anna went for a walk on the beach with Gurvinder. They came across a snake charmer with a cobra and a monkey, crude boats and shanties. Anna started thinking about the poverty she was witnessing in the midst of the beautiful surroundings. "I think back and wonder what he lived in, what his family, if alive, lives in now," she wrote. The entry for the day ends with: "I feel like it hasn't hit me yet, except in some particular moments. But I am ready to embrace me, my other half. Daddy I feel you, please be my tour guide." Discovering Sri Lanka Navigating this new place was a daunting task, and one that Anna wouldn't have had to figure out if Duke had been there to guide her. Every time she noticed the local men, she thought she was seeing Duke. It would be almost two weeks until Amarnath and Kumaran joined them. Anna and Gurvinder spent that time taking in some of the spectacular sightseeing spots in Sri Lanka. They explored Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals, the rock fortress Sigiriya, the Dambulla cave temple and the city of Kandy, which houses a sacred Buddhist relic in one of its temples. "One of our tour guides, he was Tamil. I asked him how it was for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I got a kind of a crash course," Anna says. "I liked it that way, physically being there … But then there were times when I disconnected from Sri Lanka." While the landscape was breathtaking, their mornings started with delicious local food and fruits, and evenings ended with one spectacular sunset after another, the devastation of the decades long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE fighters was apparent behind the facade of the tourist attractions. Anna had long had an interest in political science. She had studied various conflicts in Africa and travelled to Kenya after high school after saving up money from working a few retail jobs. On the flight to Sri Lanka, she skimmed through Amarnath's PhD dissertation to augment her Google searches on Sri Lanka's painful past. She was "aware of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide" from an academic perspective but didn't know much about how the country was moving forward in its reconciliation process. When she first saw large billboards of then-Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa dotting the landscape, he seemed like a "wannabe Putin." It wasn't until Anna and Gurvinder accompanied Amarnath and Kumaran to the northern parts of the country that had seen the worst of the conflict that she could appreciate the devastation. For the moment, however, it was too much to take in. Instead, Anna concentrated her mind on the task at hand—finding any information about Duke. A Motley Crew The vacation part of their trip was over. The day before New Year's Eve, Anna and Gurvinder met Kumaran and his friends at a restaurant in Colombo. Kumaran and Gurvinder instantly hit it off, joking around like old friends. Over crab and fish curry, which Kumaran insisted they eat the traditional way—with their hands, which was a novel experience for Anna—he and his friends heard Anna's story. "It just sounded like such an amazing adventure," says Kumaran. "And I was impressed that Anna had decided to go on this journey." Over the next couple of days, as they met more of Kumaran's friends, Anna would tell and retell her story. She was taken aback by how touched people seemed, and how everyone wanted to help her in some way. They would try to fish out more information or ask her questions about things she may not have considered in her search.   For people who heard the story, it was kind of a contained problem, says Amarnath. "It's not like we were trying to fix world hunger or something. We just needed to find this person called Duke. Plus, Anna came off as quite charming and innocent. People wanted to do something and help."  For Anna, the help she was getting from relative strangers was completely at odds with her mother's apparent lack of interest. As each day passed, she was feeling more and more aware of how little information she had to go on.   Amarnath arrived in Colombo on New Year's Day. Amarnath, Kumaran, Anna, and Gurvinder walked around the city. While Kumaran and Gurvinder joshed around, and Amarnath maintained his circumspect air, Anna's frustrations continued to build.  The next day, the frustration she'd been dealing with the day before had manifested itself as a throbbing headache. A sense of helplessness and self-pity gave way to anger. She and Gurvinder stayed in the hotel, stepping out only to grab a bite of pizza. Anna finished reading Secret Daughter, a book by Canadian author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, about a young woman who was adopted out of India as a baby by an American woman, and who travels back to India to search for her roots. The not-so-happy ending reminded Anna that her own search may not end the way she hoped it would. It helped her come to terms with her own situation. The quartet left Colombo for Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka's northern province, on January 4. It was a Saturday, and sitting at the airport, Anna was anxious, trying to keep her expectations low. The drive of about 400 kilometres from Colombo was covered in a little over an hour by a small propeller plane. From the sky, Anna could see green trees and bright red dirt. But the bus ride from the airport to their hotel showed a different landscape, in stark contrast to Colombo. The buildings in Jaffna were older and looked poorer, many houses missing half of their structures. While the protracted civil war affected much of Sri Lanka, it was nowhere more apparent than in the northern region. The LTTE's stronghold, it bore the brunt of a sustained offensive by the Sri Lankan government.   At the time, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was still in power. It had been five years since the brutal end to the civil war, but not much had been done to heal the deep wounds of the long battle and its grizzly finish. Facing heavy criticism from Britain and the United Nations calling for an investigation into human rights violations in order to properly launch efforts at reconciliation, the government continued to deny allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army, refusing entry to the UN team tasked with the investigation. Meanwhile, rebuilding homes, returning land, and dealing with displaced people weren't given as much importance as repairing physical infrastructure such as roads and electricity networks. A military presence continued in the north, and many former LTTE rebels as well as civilians spoke about living under a constant sense of surveillance. Anna was slowly becoming aware of some of these realities. In Jaffna, the group had been mulling over the idea of taking out a newspaper advertisement, looking for more information on Duke. A journalist working for one of the Tamil papers cautioned the group against publishing Anna's story, suggesting instead that they look at the government birth registry. Working on the assumption that Duke might have been Catholic—because his did not sound like a Hindu Tamil name—the group visited a Catholic priest Amarnath knew, Father Vasanthan. Father Vasanthan suggested that if Duke was indeed Catholic, there would be a record of his sacraments. However, with records dating back to the 1700s spread out over thirty parishes, they needed to narrow down the search. Time was running out; within a week, Anna was supposed to leave Sri Lanka. On Sunday morning, Anna attended mass. Father Vasanthan and another priest were running the sermon, about the biblical Magi, or the Three Wise Men, and their journey to find Christ. She wrote that "the priest said how it is a journey we all take to find ourselves. Directly speaking I am on that journey. Finding out more about him means finding out more about myself." After praying at the church, Anna and Gurvinder walked with Kumaran to a temple. They stood in front of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god said to be the remover of obstacles. Anna closed her eyes, and asked for help. On Monday, with five days left in their planned stay, the group, along with Father Vasanthan, went to the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat to speak with a civil servant. Nothing. The rickshaw driver they had hired called two of his friends who lived in Germany in the '90s but came up empty. The priest asked one of his friends who also lived in Germany, but it turned out to be another dead end. With every no she heard, Anna's heart sank further. Based on some Facebook research conducted by Amarnath's reporter friend, the group visited the Catholic church in a nearby village and looked through the baptism records there. They found an entry for a man named Duke, but it wasn't Anna's father. Annoyed, Anna stepped out of the church to call her mother, who was again unable to give her any more answers. Anna lashed out and hung up. Anna's calls to Maria were frustrating for everyone, says Amarnath. "We felt she had more information that she was not telling us. That became difficult to get beyond. So, I told Anna to stop calling her. I figured either she doesn't know, or she won't tell you," he says. Gurvinder was cracking jokes and trying to make Anna laugh, but sometimes ended up exasperating her further. They were like an old married couple, says Amarnath. Meanwhile, wanting to get on with networking for his own project, Kumaran would have to leave the group for meetings. And he wondered, even if they manage to locate Duke's family, how they would react to Anna. As a last resort, the group went with Father Vasanthan to the offices of Uthayan, one of the largest Tamil newspapers in Jaffna. The visit to the newspaper's office once again brought home how brutal the Sri Lankan civil war had been. "There were posters everywhere with pictures of dead journalists and other dead workers who were murdered by the army or the LTTE," wrote Anna. "There were bullet holes, some with casings, still in the wall. It was insane." They took out an advertisement with two of Duke's photos, giving Father Vasanthan's contact information in order to dissuade chances of spurious claims. They met the newspaper's founder E. Saravanapavan and Anna told her story once more. Saravanapavan forwarded Duke's picture to someone he knew in Germany. After the visit to Uthayan, the group broke for lunch. Amarnath told Anna that he would post Duke's photo to online news sites in Toronto, while Father Vasanthan would pass the photos around in other parishes. A Breakthrough The advertisement was black and white, printed on the side of the seventeenth page. Anna saw people waiting at roadside stalls and standing outside their homes reading the newspaper. She hoped someone would recognize the photo and call. In a small town called Puthukkudiyiruppu, the group visited another Catholic priest who talked about the many challenges faced by the people of his community, ranging from issues of child abuse to prostitution. At another town called Putumattalan, they saw remnants of a blown-up school that was used as a makeshift hospital towards the end of the war. All that remained standing were parts of cement walls. There were still medical supplies strewn about the rubble. A new school was being rebuilt on the same spot, and the group met a few of the students. On the way from Putumattalan to Amarnath's home in Mullaitivu, they stopped by a hospital. Although the area had been a designated safe zone, doctors claimed the building was bombed during the final stages of the war by the Sri Lankan army. The claim was denied by the Sri Lankan government.   On the way back to the van, Father Vasanthan got a call. The woman was calling from Germany. She identified herself as the sister of the woman in one of the pictures of Duke. Father Vasanthan put the call on speakerphone, with Amarnath and Kumaran huddled around. Anna looked on, bewildered, unable to understand the conversation going on in Tamil. When Anna tried to ask questions, the others shushed her. The woman in Germany remembered Duke as one of her husband's friends, but her husband now had dementia.   Suddenly, Father Vasanthan said a name: Manipay! He was repeating what he was hearing on the phone, making sure he got the name right. It was the name of the town that Duke came from. The group couldn't believe their luck.   Manipay Manipay is a smaller town in Jaffna, about a twenty-minute drive from the downtown core. The group started their search with the local Catholic church. The priest there didn't know anyone by the name of Sathusigamani Pillai, and the name didn't turn up in the baptism records either. But the priest called the caretaker of the church, who recognized the last name as that of a man he used to work with at a cement factory, who was now dead. The priest told them to visit an old woman in the village, who knew all the families in the '80s. It was a long shot, but the group decided to take a chance. When they arrived at the woman's house, she wasn't there. About to turn around to leave, they noticed an elderly woman walking towards them. She invited them in. When Kumaran explained why they were there, speaking to her in Tamil, and told her Duke's last name, the woman smiled. Kumaran says they knew the woman knew something. "You could just tell, the way she had smiled. I was sure she knew exactly which family we were talking about. But we couldn't do anything. She said she didn't know and asked us to leave, so we left." At that point, Anna told herself it was over. But the rest of the group persisted. The tuk tuk driver took them to a Hindu priest he knew. The priest's mother told the group to try the village doctor's house since he knew everyone. Anna stopped herself from rolling her eyes, and the group made their way to the doctor's house. As they stopped to ask for directions, Amarnath noticed an old man slowly cycling down the road. He told Kumaran to ask the old man if knew the family name. It turned out that he did know the family, and where they had lived. For Anna, the old man, Mahendran, was like an angel on a bicycle. Amarnath says that's how villages work. "You want information, you find the old people."  Mahendran led the group to a big house with a bright blue gate. The ladies who owned the house didn't have any information but Mahendran took them to another house a few doors down. The couple living there knew the Sathusigamani Pillai family quite well, even their son, Duke.  They pointed them in the direction of the house of a relative who lived a few blocks away, and the group rushed there. The houses in the neighbourhood had brightly coloured boundary walls, sloping, tiled roofs, barred windows and an entrance decorated with potted plants. The group found themselves knocking at an elaborate gate. A woman in a sleeveless dress appeared before them, her hair down, a puzzled look on her face. The woman's name was Sitha. She invited the group in and told them what she remembered about Duke. The living room was filled with wooden cabinets and display cases, a family photo hanging on the wall. They sat around a coffee table, Amar and Kumaran talking to Sitha in rapid Tamil as Anna smiled. Duke was one of eight children; he was naughty but studied well. Given Sri Lankan Tamil cultural traditions, Sitha could have been engaged to marry Duke. And she told them about one of Duke's sisters, Sarojini, who didn't live too far from her house. Duke's mother also lived somewhere in Jaffna District. As she left Sitha's to find her aunt's house, Anna couldn't help crying. Anna thanked Mahendran, who also had tears in his eyes, and wouldn't accept any money. At Sarojini's home, introductions were a little more abrupt. Initially, Sarojini and her husband were perplexed to be introduced to Duke's daughter, as they knew he had not married. Anna's uncle said he'd seen the ad in Uthayan but was confused because it had mentioned a daughter searching for relatives. Again, Anna couldn't understand most of the conversation in Tamil, and Amarnath and Kumaran translated. Although the aunt and uncle welcomed them, and answered their questions, they looked guarded. Anna found out that one of Duke's brothers had died. Sarojini's husband told her that he used to take Duke to the movies, that he was a patient young man, but also got into some trouble. He also told the group that Duke had been sympathetic to the LTTE and had been interrogated and beaten by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 to disarm the militant outfit, the IPKF found itself embroiled in the conflict, and has been accused of human rights violations in the course of its operations. When Anna asked if they had any pictures of Duke, they showed her one where Duke looked bigger but was wearing the same green shirt that he wore in the picture that Anna had. She also saw a painted portrait of her grandfather. The couple wasn't in contact with Anna's grandmother, they added, and suggested that she might disown Anna given that Duke was not married. Throughout the meeting, Anna felt as if she was causing some trouble by being there. Still, her aunt hugged her several times, with tears in her eyes. The group grabbed lunch before setting out to find Duke's mother. Answers Duke's mother Gunalakshmi lived in Valvettithurai. Sarojini hadn't given them many details or an address. The group asked around, stopping passersby on the roads, but they weren't getting anywhere. They asked at a convenience store, but no luck. Then they noticed an old woman sitting outside her house. At first, they asked the old woman if she knew where Gunalakshmi lived. The woman said no. However, based on a photo that the aunt had given them, Kumaran and Gurvinder were convinced that the old woman was Gunalakshmi herself and started accusing her of lying. Meanwhile, another woman approached them. She had heard about their search for Gunalakshmi and offered to take them to Gunalakshmi's house. They took a winding path, through a house and long backyards. When they reached the house, an older woman came out. They asked if she was Gunalakshmi, Duke's mother. The woman started crying and said yes. The group went inside and arranged some chairs in a circle. Kumaran asked the woman if she knew that Duke had children. Gunalakshmi told the group that Duke had told her he had met a white woman. Kumaran pointed to Anna and told Gunalakshmi that she was Duke's daughter. When Anna took out Duke's picture, Gunalakshmi got up to get out her glasses. She burst into tears. For the next two and half hours, Gunalakshmi talked to them about Duke.   Gunalakshmi told Anna that Duke was named after one of his father's European friends. That he was handsome and got into a lot of trouble, loved school and wanted to be an engineer. He was the baby of the family. He had been affiliated with the LTTE for three months and was shot by the IPKF. Fearing for her son, she had faced off with one of the main leaders of the LTTE, Colonel Kittu. He was known for his fierce loyalty to the cause, and his ruthlessness. He told Gunalakshmi that Duke couldn't escape his association with the LTTE, that he would get killed either by the LTTE or one of their enemies. Gunalakshmi told Colonel Kittu that if she could not save her son, she would shoot him herself. Gunalakshmi had Duke shipped off to Colombo, and then to Germany. Every six months, she'd travel to Colombo to place a call to him. Then one day, her older son stopped her from travelling to Colombo. News had come from Germany of Duke's death. Anna's grandmother turned out to be a feisty woman, who had decided to live by herself to avoid squabbling family members. During the group's visit, she was cracking jokes, questioning Kumaran's marital status and attributing Amarnath's shaved head to his kids. She asked Anna if she had a lover; when Anna pointed to Gurvinder, she told them that they'd better be married when they came to visit her next. It was turning into evening, and the group had to head back to Jaffna. Anna and Gurvinder had to fly to Colombo the next day, and then leave for Canada. Anna and her grandmother hugged several times, as if unwilling to let each other go. Anna felt Duke in Gunalakshmi's arms. She told Gunalakshmi that she would learn Tamil, and promised to write and send photos, and come back to visit. The group had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant back in Jaffna. The driver remarked that what had unfolded that day only happens in movies.   Last Days in Sri Lanka The night before Anna and Gurvinder's flight out of Jaffna to Colombo, Anna barely slept. She kept waking up with a start, not believing what had happened. Their last day in Jaffna was a beautifully sunny one. As Anna and Gurvinder said their goodbyes to Amarnath and Kumaran, Anna struggled to express herself. After the flight that took them over the lagoons and coast of Sri Lanka, Anna and Gurvinder made their way to a friend's home in Piliyandala. That's when Anna called Maria. Their conversation was awkward and distant. Anna remembers answering Maria's questions about Duke and his family dispassionately. Maria doesn't remember asking any questions at all. Anna still could not believe that her mother didn't have more information that could have helped in her search.  Anna and Gurvinder spent their last day in Sri Lanka walking the beach at Galle Face. After a quick trip to shop for souvenirs, they were headed to the airport. During the drive, Anna felt a sense of peace. She was leaving with answers she had only dreamed of having. Afterthoughts Sitting in his living room, Woody says it was a miracle that Anna managed to find her grandmother in Sri Lanka. After living for so many years with so many questions—about Duke, why he had ended up in Germany, why he died—Anna had found some answers. She had strangers helping her through some of her darkest moments.   He uses the word miracle again, this time to describe Anna herself. "Anna is like the glue for the family. She's the fire extinguisher because sometimes our family is almost like a bomb," he says. He pauses for a few minutes and looks outside the glass doors of his living room. His eyes are glistening when he turns back, and he asks, with a catch in his voice, "Do you think I'm a hero?" His question about his decision to acknowledge Anna as his own child is rhetorical. "No. I'm not. I don't think I did anything special. I wouldn't have been able to look myself in the mirror." "Our life is like karma—whatever you do comes back to you, or sometimes even harder. Everyone makes mistakes." Maria maintains that she didn't know much about Duke's history other than what she had already told Anna. Maria and Anna are on better terms now; Anna's marriage to Gurvinder in the summer of 2018 brought the family together for the wedding celebrations. But Duke remains an unresolved issue between them. And Maria felt disappointed by Anna's estrangement. When Anna went to Sri Lanka, Maria says she was scared for her daughter. She was unsure whether Duke's family would accept Anna. But Maria says, "I believe in the power of the dead. I was sure Duke would look after her." There's no question in Anna's mind that she needed to look for Duke in order to find herself. When she tells the story, there's always a reaction of disbelief, as if something magical happened. There's some truth to that, Anna says. "Yes, it was a magical experience. But it was also very difficult. In a way, I didn't have that fairytale ending. If someone were to read this story as inspiration for whatever their search may be, I would say that you may have questions, and all you can do is try to find the answers."
The Queer Appetites of Ismail Merchant

The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.

Though he was hoping to see Rock Hudson or Doris Day on the street, Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman didn’t see any stars when he first arrived in New York in 1958. The 21-year-old Indian man lived in a drab room on the sixteenth floor of Martinique Hotel in Manhattan’s Herald Square. The neighborhood was nothing like he pictured. Given the number of movies he’d seen featuring New York City, he was a naïve believer in the cliché that each street was paved with gold, so he was spooked by the sight of the homeless people who clung to liquor bottles.  Animal desire drove him to the city. On August 11, he boarded a boat that snaked its way from his native Bombay to Genoa, hopped on a train to London, and then flew to New York. He had finished his degree in political science and English literature at Bombay’s St. Xavier’s College, where he spent his last year applying to American business schools. He was desperately hoping to gain admission to the University of Southern California, which would provide easy passage to Hollywood. Cinema was his great love in life, after all. The world would come to understand him in such terms when he re-christened himself Ismail Merchant, paired himself creatively and romantically with the Oregon-born James Ivory, and produced such films as A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992) under the Merchant-Ivory label. These films trafficked in lush imagery, their moods carefully calibrated to convey the inner lives of characters who found themselves unmoored in the world and struggling to express their longings. Some films, like The Bostonians (1984) and Maurice (1987), came out in the thick of the AIDS epidemic and reckoned with queer desire.  He ended up going to New York University instead. It only took hours after arriving for the young man to wonder if he made a mistake in moving to the city. Most disorienting of all his new home had to offer was the food. He was puzzled by a place called Horn & Hardart, a clinical coin-operated food operation unlike anything he’d ever encountered. The sense of sterility extended to the grocery store, where all this food was sheathed in cellophane and he had to silence the impulse to touch and smell the food as he could in Bombay. He couldn’t make peace with the hot dogs and hamburgers in America. Not even the street food consoled him.  Maybe he should have foreseen this disappointment. The Bombay of his youth was a gastronomic wonderland, where bazaars felt like tactile museums: He could poke the poultry, sniff the melons, pinch the produce. He walked through Null Bazaar’s seafood stalls, made from marble slabs wobbling on wicker baskets. He gazed at the fruits and vegetables at Crawford Market as if they were jewels, filtered through forgiving skylights. He saw 20, sometimes 30 chickens cramped in straw baskets as they cawed and clucked, listening to their screams before slaughter. The absence of refrigeration in his Bombay home meant that any meat was cooked the same day his family bought it home from the bazaar. Merchant didn’t do any of the cooking, though. The men of his middle-class, Muslim family were discouraged from entering the kitchen, primarily the domain of women like his mother and six sisters, though the hired help tended to be men. Merchant relays these stories in two of his cookbooks, 1986’s Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine and 1994’s Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals, both published well after he became an esteemed producer. America, Merchant explained in his cookbooks, was always the imagined destination. Once he had his business degree in hand, he found himself jobless, and he could only afford to eat meals from coffee shops like Chock Full O’Nuts. By then, he was trying to get financing for a short film, which would become 1961’s Oscar-nominated The Creation of a Woman. He needed a way to entertain his potential investors. The only way for him to survive was to learn how to cook. In New York, he had the latitude to perform all the kitchen tasks he couldn’t in Bombay: cooking, serving, entertaining. Cooking came naturally to him. As if by osmosis, he’d unknowingly absorbed the lessons of his family’s cooks. He could make a simple dal or a keema of minced lamb and peas. These skills always lived inside him, awaiting articulation. Cooking became a form of currency for Merchant, capital he used to ingratiate potential investors who could help finance his career in films. He knew it was odd for a would-be producer to feed investors himself rather than take them out to restaurants. But his food was a great equalizer. “I like to think that my cooking and the occasion softened some of them up a bit,” he wrote of his guests. Merchant went on to achieve greatness in the culinary realm, making meals that had become legendary in their own right, particularly amongst the artists in his orbit. Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey called him “a shrewd horse-trader” in the foreword to his 1994 cookbook, a man who could “inject a sense of easy camaraderie between those high up in the entertainment establishment and those barely on the rise” through food. (Jaffrey, one of America’s doyennes of Indian food, has credited Merchant with kickstarting her culinary fame. He persuaded Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to write a 1966 piece on Jaffrey’s culinary talents in a bid to generate publicity for 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, a film Merchant and Jaffrey worked on together.) “In India we say that the ability to create flavor is in the hands,” Jaffrey wrote. “Some people just have it. Ismail certainly does.” In the kitchen, Merchant was a creature of instinct. Cooking was not a merely iterative process oriented towards producing a favorable result for him; it was an opportunity to experiment with abandon. Merchant’s greatest fear, he wrote in his second cookbook, was boring his guests with a static repertoire. “I disobey all the conventions and laws of cooking, preferring to improvise and make new discoveries all the time,” he wrote. His recipes flaunted the rules he knew in Bombay. He tossed leftover lemons that were sitting in his refrigerator into his masoor dal. He cooked fresh ginger root and green chili into his burgers. He cooked shrimp in Dijon. The food was sly, giving convention a knowing glance before tilting it ever so slightly.  When Merchant wrote of his distaste for the rules that guarded cooking, he was, of course, referencing blind devotion to ingredients and techniques. Implicit in this statement of culinary rebellion, though, was his skirting of the rules of a world that told him that a cook must be a certain kind of person, must be a certain gender. On trips back to India, he tried his best to keep his culinary inclinations a secret from the women in his family, until he couldn’t hide it any longer. His mother became too sick to cook one day, so he prepared a meal of large prawns in mustard sauce in fewer than fifteen minutes. His mother and sisters never quite got used to the idea of the family’s only son inhabiting the kitchen, though. It was as if he was committing an act of transgression, a man who took on a feminized trait and performed it. There are codings in Merchant’s food writing that remind one of the unavoidable fact that Merchant himself was a gay man who was never publicly out, moving through spaces that could have very well been inhospitable to him had he been an openly gay man. Merchant died in 2005, at age 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. His widower, James Ivory, has recently stated in unambiguous terms what was once unspoken: The two men were in love.  In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, when pressed as to why he and Merchant dodged questions about the nature of their relationship, Ivory suggested that keeping them both in the closet was a shrewd way of protecting Merchant. “That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever!” Ivory told the paper of Merchant’s sexuality. “You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.”  Understanding that Merchant maintained his public life in the closet shades his food writing with notes of queer desire, as if the kitchen gave him a chance to fulfill yearnings he had theretofore repressed. In these cookbooks, Merchant conjured a fantasy world, the kind some may associate with the prototypical domestic goddess. Merchant became the impresario who spun wonder out of groceries from Gristedes in the stuffy confines of 5 ½-by-8-foot kitchen equipped only with a four-ring gas stove and oven. “A great cook should be able to do something well with the snap of a finger rather to toil over it,” he wrote in the introduction for his first cookbook. “He or she should be inventive, be someone who can whip up something from nothing.” A culinary wizard, to his mind, could practically assemble a salad from two strands of straw. Tucked in his recipe headnotes were the names of people most of us have only seen on celluloid: Maggie Smith, Christopher Reeve, Raquel Welch, Vanessa Redgrave. He summoned an existence a casual reader may dream of when standing inside their own kitchen.  The brand of domestic performance that Merchant perfected has long been coded as female. As writer Emily Gould noted in The Cut in 2017, the kitchen can cloister women as much as it can provide them a stage for expression. It follows, then, that when Merchant’s first cookbook was published in 1986, the most visible Indian cookbook authors in America were two women: the aforementioned Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, a dancer-turned-architect-turned-cookbook author who’d grown up in a Tamil Brahmin family.  Merchant published his first cookbook when America was finally disabusing itself of the notion that Indian food was too intricate to bring into the American kitchen. (Merchant’s first cookbook shows its age when it includes a recipe for fried paneer that calls for Cheddar cheese.) Both Jaffrey and Sahni had, the spring before the fall publication of Merchant’s first cookbook, published two cookbooks, A Taste of India and Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, respectively, illustrative of the point to which the genre of Indian cookbooks had grown.  But Merchant’s cookbook was not an Indian cookbook, per se; he certainly didn’t classify it as such. To start, he was operating from a different center of gravity than Hindu Indian food writers, having grown up in an Indian Muslim household who regularly consumed nonvegetarian food, thus disrupting the worn myth of the Indian national who is automatically vegetarian. More crucially, the cookbook is neither national nor regional in scope. Instead, as Craig Claiborne of the New York Times noted, it is “simply one man's inspired notion of what his native land's cookery should taste like. It is tailored to his own sophisticated and remarkably original palate.” Only Merchant could have written these recipes, in other words. Sitting alongside this cultural history of women inverting the trap of the kitchen into a province of creativity is an obscured history of gay men pulling off a similar magic trick. The kitchen has long been an arena for expression for gay men, too, a tradition that food writer John Birdsall unwrapped in his 2013 piece for Lucky Peach, “America, Your Food Is So Gay.” Birdsall gestured towards a working definition of food shaped by gay men (Claiborne, one of the 20th century’s most influential culinary gatekeepers, was one). This was “food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture.”  Birdsall wrote of his own impulses as a young line cook working in a casually homophobic San Francisco kitchen. He weathered prejudice routinely in these spaces, resulting in a fury that he soothed into spirited artistic output. He was “fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.” Merchant’s writing suggests a similar cognizance of the fact that his cooking possessed a whiff of radicalism, as if he was overcoming the boundaries others had set for him. His friends came to regard him as a master chef. He interpreted the compliment as a testament to his boundless imagination and fearlessness in execution, rooted in a desire to prove his own worth. In his eyes, as he wrote in his first cookbook, a master chef “must have imagination, a flair for mixing conventional and unconventional ingredients, an appreciation of different seasonings, and a desire to satisfy his or her ego.” Today, some of the most prominent male voices in America who have written cookbooks borrowing tenets of Indian cooking—Nik Sharma, Suvir Saran, Raghavan Iyer—happen to be gay men, as if Merchant’s culinary spirit echoes in this current generation. Call it coincidence. (This is to say nothing of the queer women, like Preeti Mistry, who have written cookbooks.)  Reading Merchant’s gentle pleas to “be adventurous and not be afraid to make discoveries” in the kitchen brings to mind Sharma’s Season, the 2018 cookbook that brims with similar refrains. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food,” Sharma writes, as if explicating what Merchant could communicate only in hushed tones. “It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago, one that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter.” Sharma’s is a philosophy that tosses curry leaves with the buttermilk batter for popcorn chicken; that grills pork chops with chaat masala; that puts paneer in places some may least expect to find it, like a salad of cauliflower and lentils. He, like Merchant before him, is guided by reverence to tradition without unwavering fealty to it. His is cooking that moves towards freedom, mindful of the worth of culinary tradition and carefully breaching it. Merchant developed a vocabulary of cooking that was entirely his own long before these men, his queerness contained in whispers. He encouraged the curiosity that motivated him to take cooks places they may not otherwise have imagined. These recipes flowed from him freely, as if he was, in the kitchen, a man who had nothing to hide.
‘There Was a Desire to Write Myself Back Into Existence’: An Interview with Kate Zambreno

The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.

Kate Zambreno is drawn to the ambulatory nature of the photographer and writer Moyra Davey’s work, how she uses texts to roam through an idea. A film by Davey features her pacing—a visual metaphor for the monologue she's speaking—through her apartment, talking evenly into a microphone that picks up the gulps of air she takes before her next sentence. I picture Zambreno, the author of books including Heroines, Appendix Project, and most recently, Screen Tests (HarperCollins), as she works, physically moving in the same way Davey does, roaming through genre, time periods, and mediums. Zambreno works within the same interdisciplinary nature that once caused Anne Carson to be accused of naïvety. We can hear Davey speak in the film, but she’s not necessarily speaking to us. It feels like she’s making a voice note for her own reference—layering the life of Mary Wollenscraft with that of her own and her sisters, the timeline overlapping like tracing the contours of a drawing with vellum. Who is Zambreno speaking to? In Screen Tests, short texts are removed from the reader, allowing them to process each sentence in private. This distance begets texts that feel more personal than Appendix Project. The second half of Screen Tests is saved for essays—or rather, fragments linked together to form an essay, further proving Zambreno’s knack for lack of specificity. In both books, Zambreno gives the reader insight into the ambulatory nature of her process, a generosity atypical of writers. The following interview provides further insight into Zambreno’s nesting doll mind, motherhood, bad reviews, and the nature of performance.  Tatum Dooley: In Appendix Project, you're using French philosophy and children's books as a lens to view your life in a way that it becomes an autobiography. Kate Zambreno: I’ve been thinking about not how to fill a text with myself, but how to empty myself from a text. Recent work, since Heroines, has been characterized by an ambivalence towards the first person. A lot of the specificity is emptied out of Appendix Project but it penetrates through almost unknowingly.  The children's book stuff is my favourite part of Appendix Project. I think my meditation on the strangeness of these children's books is about how these appendices, these lectures, were written in pure exhaustion. There's this pure ghostly state of exhaustion. Exhaustion is so much like grief and grief is an exhaustion where everything is slowed down and so you notice the strangeness of everyday life. I read each talk in Appendix Project as a mind map. A single talk connected William Mumler to Roland Barthes to your own photo albums to the film Wanda to Goodnight Moon. How do you make those connections? I think that's definitely what I intended with the talks, for them to be about the connections the mind makes and about finding surprising connections between things. The truth is I just read the same things over and over again. Bhanu Kapil's work is so much in Appendix Project because I teach her work and I read her work over and over again. I feel like Roland Barthes is throughout everything. Appendix Project is my failure and my attempt to write about the last couple of years of Roland Barthes's life. I'm really interested in the sort of ambulatory, or the idea of, like, walking in an essay. I think about the writer and photographer Moyra Davey a lot. She'll take on a subject for a book, like the notebooks of Jean Genet, but then she'll drift through all of her reading and put everything in connection to each other. For each of the talks I had about five or six objects that I was thinking through. I allowed for some accident and randomness.  You've mentioned that you had writer’s block after you published Heroines until your daughter was born. Was that a symptom of something larger? Do you have an idea of what brought on the writing block? I was used to writing books that had very little readership except a small community. Heroines broke through and it kind of astonished me. It surprised me and I think it estranged me from myself. Some people had very, very, very strong reactions to Heroines when it came out. I found that paralyzing.  Then I moved to New York. I felt very much closer to New York publishing which is closer to thinking of writing as a commodity. People began to ask me what my next book was and wanted it to be something as buzzy and as loud as Heroines was. I found myself withdrawing and wanting to go more into a private space which is the space of writing. I had to almost revolt against what New York wanted of me and what publishing wanted of me. What came out of that was a rich period of writing. I thought I had writer's block but really it was that I chose to think and read for a while. As soon as I gave birth, I stopped feeling writer's block. The demands of my life meant I had to take on more commissions and I had to be a little less precious about being paralyzed. I had to have a little bit more confidence. I've noticed in Appendix Project and Screen Tests that you keep returning to the origins of things, the town you are born and also motherhood. Book of Mutter only cracked the surface of me trying to write my origins. I feel like that's something that writers are uncomfortable about, it has a lot of shame associated to it.  Those tend to be some of the most interesting areas to write, but they can take a long time. One of the areas my work has started to think about is childhood. I haven't really wanted to write [about] childhood or origins and since I don't really want to write it, the work kind of has a bruise under the narrative. I was surprised to find, in Screen Tests, how much I write about my father. In a recent Paris Review interview, you said, "With the talks and shorter appendixes I felt more liberated to try to think through a weird collage of concerns and ideas, a live-wire essaying. I allowed myself to exist in this space of unknowingness. Maybe it helped that I was not planning on publishing them as a book, until they became one. They were more ephemeral, they were refusing the monument.” I wonder, is this writing similar to what you're interested in with the artist On Kawara—is the text a performance that's ephemeral? I think that there was a lot of desire not to have the talks printed. I thought that that would have been really wonderful for me to have resisted having them made into a book because I think that would have been truly a tribute to their mortality and the performance of them. There was a moment in the book where I write about the writer Sofia Samatar, our dialogue about our desire to write a book and distribute it in train stations without our names. How literature can have this energy of performance, which is a desire of mine. The first talk is a meditation on the daily paintings of On Kawara. I was really interested in this idea of painting as ritual and painting as process and painting a date much like Roland Barthes writes a journal in his Mourning Diary. The paintings stand in for a life lived. What is art but time and transcending time?  I have this quote I've been thinking about a lot lately, which was in one of my notebooks from three years ago. It's from an obit of a painter who is really a critic. I don't have his name. He never sold his paintings, but he kept on painting. This is what he said about why he started painting again: "Although my guess is that the art object is done with. I myself go on making paintings but this doesn't have much to do with making saleable physical objects, making them is more like philosophical investigation, art criticism, or yoga.” I think in some ways the appendices were art criticism, philosophical investigation, and yoga. And so, my desire for writing to have that process feel to it.  The last sentence in each of the short stories in Screen Test twists the knife in the same way Lydia Davis does—it almost becomes like a poem. There’s a cadence to the stories that is enunciated in the last line. I feel like I'm a prose writer who will never be seen as a poet, but everything I write is a desire to be a poet. When I finished Heroines, which felt like this very maximal work in a way, all I wanted to do was write one sentence stories. I'm really drawn to short forms, to the fragment, to smallness. I'm a huge Lydia Davis fan and also of Diane Williams. Anne Carson writes, in the Gender of Sound, which you write about, how she's been called naïve in her use of bringing together different time periods and sources. And I wonder if that's ever been an accusation lobbed at you. Yeah. That passage is about the accusations that she's been naïve in the past for bringing in all different time periods and styles. There was a review last week that brought in Heroines as being incredibly naïve. So much of Appendix Project is a talk about talks—it’s very meta in terms of being aware that I'm often invited as a wild outsider who does this naïve form of scholarship that would be considered very criminal in the university and academia, which is why I don't have a full time job. The truth is I don't identify as a scholar. It’s hard for me to imagine Anne Carson being called naïve. Maggie Nelson has spoken about earlier reviews of her books where she's been called similar things. When Heroines came out, the writer Sheila Heti sent me a very tattered copy of a book called Manet and his Circle, which is about when Manet's paintings came out he was derided as completely naïve, as a plagiarist, as a copyist, and that his paintings were incredibly ugly. It's very hard for us to realize that because Manet is in museums and these works are so beautiful but they were seen as, like, not painting. The idea that in certain time periods if you do something that's considered naïve or ugly you're threatening. You write that Anne Carson says she always has six books by her side when she's writing. I wonder if you do as well, and what are those six books?  Well, it just changes with every piece that I'm working on. I'm currently writing a book about Hervé Guibert's To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I'm thinking through Guibert's Compassion Protocol. And then I have Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries and The Station Hill Blanchot Reader and I have Foucault's Birth of the Clinic and I have Anne Carson's Decreation.  When people ask me if I'm reading, what I'm reading, I'm like, I'm just reading Hervé Guibert all over again in translation. I’m thinking back to when you said you started writing when Leo was born. Alice Munro talked about starting to write when she had children, that there was an urgency to write and finish a story as her children napped. So did Raymond Carver. There’s an urgency to write to provide, but also time constraints. Ninety-nine percent of the Screen Tests and Appendix Project were written when Leo napped. Some of the times I had childcare and some of the times I did not. I sat next to Diane Williams [at an event] and I spoke to her about that, I think she started writing when she had children too. One of the things I said to her is that when you're a mother you're a ghost, there’s a sense of you being in the dark and being quiet for the baby. This difficult thing happens, your identity is through another. There is almost a loss of the self that happens, especially at first. It's about the baby. For me, this extreme loss of self was also a form of decreation. I think that's why I really desired to write. Writing is a way into and out of existence. I often write when I'm feeling the most ghostly and I felt extremely ghostly right after I gave birth. There was a desire to write myself back into existence, to mark, like the On Kawara paintings, I am still alive.
Women Between the Wars

In Jean Rhys’s novels, women exhibit a particular kind of English suffering, a perfect illustration of the female condition in the interwar years.

If you consume Jean Rhys’s first four novels one after another, the books begin to bleed into each other. You may try to be logical, making a note of names and ages. There are, after all, four different protagonists: the 18-year-old chorus girl Anna Morgan (Voyage in the Dark), the 28-year-old wife Marya Zelli (Quartet), thirty-something Julia Martin (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie), and the middle-aged woman Sasha Jensen (Good Morning, Midnight). But after a while, the protagonists start to look like the same person, distorted in funhouse mirrors—this one a little younger, that one a little poorer, one with a fur coat, one who has already sold hers. They are all, even Anna, sad about aging and obsessed with clothing; they’re largely underemployed and dependent on the palely awful men they date for food, board, and taxi money; they flit from depressing lodging to depressing lodging, and they spend the course of the novels inhaling one drink after another. It’s tempting to chalk these similarities up to the novels being largely autobiographical: if the heroines are the same person, maybe that person is Rhys herself? Indeed, in an essay in The Guardian, her Wide Sargasso Sea editor Diana Athill argues that Rhys’s novels were “based on things that really happened.” Several details from Rhys’s own life neatly dovetail with plot in her work: the chorus girl career and abortion in Voyage in the Dark, the affair with Ford Madox Ford in Quartet, the characters’ drinking habits through all four novels. But are these novels really best consumed as autobiography? These four books seem at their most powerful in portraying a general female melancholy that speaks to the conditions of the interwar years rather than one specific to Rhys herself. The financial precarity, the hostile landladies, and the blurred line between dating and sex work sound all too familiar when we look at the historical context. Of course, the geography of these novels matters, too. Nothing feels more characteristically Rhysian than Quartet’s Marya gazing down the Rue de Rennes in Paris and thinking of Tottenham Court Road or Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’s Julia spending 600 francs on new clothes before her trip to London in the hope of looking respectable enough for her family to welcome her. Rhys’s novels are obsessed with England and Englishness,11I will be using the terms “England” and “English” in lieu, in places, for “Britain” and “British” throughout the essay since these are the words Rhys uses over and over in these four novels.regardless of where they’re set. But while her heroines are preoccupied with a sort of establishment Englishness that they feel shut out from, Rhys (who was born and grew up in Dominica) uses these novels to portray a new form of Englishness. Her take on Englishness is markedly multicultural, reflecting how the British colonies have disrupted and dispersed English identity. These novels suggest that to be an English woman in the interwar years is to be unhappy, no matter where you were born or where you live. In Voyage in the Dark, Germaine, a French woman, says “Scorn and loathing of the female—a very common expression in this country… I wouldn’t be an Englishwoman… for any money you could give me or anything else.” In Good Morning, Midnight, a male escort named René claims, ‘“England isn’t a woman’s country. You know the proverb—‘Unhappy as a dog in Turkey or a woman in England’-?”’ In her short story “Till September Petronella” (published in 1960, but written in the ’30s), we hear the same old ditty from an English man himself, someone from the heart of the establishment, telling the eponymous Petronella, “You poor devil of a female, female, female, in a country where females are only tolerated at best!” In Voyage in the Dark, a suitor asks Anna about her work as a chorus dancer, her accommodation in lodgings. When he finds out her wages, he responds, “Good God… You surely can’t manage on that, can you?” How did a generation of women make things work when their wages and bills didn’t quite equal out?  *** In the years Rhys was writing about, two competing fairy tales were being circulated. One was heartening. Things had changed forever for women in Britain. After a surge of women into the workplace during World War I, the gentler sex were on an almost-equal footing to men: they worked, lived in lodgings in big cities, drank, dated. Flappers existed! Everything was thrilling. The other fairy tale was comforting, like someone rocking you back to sleep after a bad dream. After women held the fort while British men were away fighting, now the men were back and the old order could resume. Women could work for a while if they liked, could live in lodgings if they liked, but the vast majority of women would end up marrying and dropping out of the workforce. They would be financially cared for by men or by their families. The truth, situated in the space between the two competing narratives, is painfully clear in numbers. In her study on British lodgings, British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature: Alternative domestic spaces, literary critic Terri Mulholland notes that the number of single women over the age of twenty-five increased by over half a million between 1911 and 1931, which meant they outnumbered single men. This is presumably a disparity partially caused by the loss of male lives in World War I, a disparity which would have felt particularly exaggerated in the middle and upper classes, since the largest loss of life was sustained in the officer class. She tells us that 50 percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921 were still single a decade later. The obvious conclusion is that women whose families were unable to support them would have gone out to work. But Neal A. Ferguson reports in “Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles” that throughout 1911-1931 approximately one-third of all “employable women” had jobs. In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha’s hostile English employer asks her to explain a five-year-long gap in her resume and draws his own conclusions with a sneer. But this wouldn’t have been uncommon. As Ferguson explains, “Underemployment was not a temporary condition; it typified women’s economic position.” While women were eligible for unemployment benefit, their benefit was set at a fraction of what was granted men. Counterintuitively, the number of women in lodgings soared in Britain, implying women were no longer living with their families. A lodging or boarding house was a house in which a person could rent a room. According to Kate Macdonald, lodging houses were structured differently depending on the class of their guests—“there were ‘common lodging houses… hostels for the poor and homeless.’” In these houses, multiple beds would be crowded into one room. “Next up on the scale was the rental of a room rather than a bed.” This is the sort of lodging Rhys’s heroines stay in, but Macdonald emphasises that even within this point on the scale, there was slippage: “At its worst this room would be in a crowded slum building, with a bare minimum of furniture and heating, and no means of cooking other than at the fireplace.” Mulholland observes that between 1861 and 1911 the number of female clerical workers in London more than doubled. She concludes that the increase in women workers resulted in an urgent need for affordable housing “that was simply not available.” What these statistics depict is a society out of step with reality. It was a system, for the most part, structured around the idea that women would be financially provided for by their husbands or their relatives. But there weren’t enough men for women to marry their way into financial security and even middle-class families no longer seemed to be financially stable enough to provide for their daughters. The wages women earned, at approximately half the male rate in most industries by 1931, probably weren’t high enough to live comfortably on while paying the rates demanded for “respectable” lodgings. While Mulholland notes that boarding houses “run by philanthropic organisations” did offer some women on lower incomes cheaper rooms, these were primarily targeted at women under the age of 30, contributing to the idea of lodgings as a short-term solution for working women before married life.                                          ***                                                In Rhys’s books, many heroines come close to going broke. And it is part of these novels’ very particular brand of tragedy that when our heroines work (and for much of these novels, they’re supported by men), they are mostly drawn to professional roles with a built-in expiry date. It would have presumably been more challenging to make a living as a forty-year-old chorus dancer or a forty-year-old artist’s model or a forty-year-old shop mannequin, than a clerk, for example. And this isn’t broadly representative of Britain at the time—according to social historian Katherine Holden, during the 1930s nearly a quarter of all occupied unmarried women worked in retail or clerical work. A secretary or a typist or a shop assistant might not have to be young in the same way a chorus girl would to hang on to their job, but ageism was still prevalent: Holden notes that 75-80 percent of workers in these areas were under the age of thirty. In her study of British lodgings, Mulholland quotes an unemployed 38-year-old woman seeking office work: “I went to the Employment Exchange and to my utter astonishment I was told my age was against me. Now I was made to realise that having put 38 as my age on application forms, no employer had any use for my type of services.” The same woman makes a confession straight out of the pages of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: “I am tired of the struggle […] I am always hungry. All I can do all day is wander about the streets. No one needs me. There is no place in the world for me.’” These precarious conditions didn’t go unchallenged by the women they affected. In 1934, Holden reports, a group of middle-class women in central London set up the Over Thirty Association, a group formed to campaign on two problems. The first was female unemployment, which was “widespread” at the time, but the second issue was arguably even more pressing: the deplorable living conditions that so many unmarried women tolerated. *** Rhys’s heroines are grappling with alcoholism and brutal misogyny and mental health issues, but to compound these problems, they have no permanent home—just rooms in boarding houses and hotels. They could get kicked out of their lodgings any time, and they do, over and over again. There’s Anna in Voyage in the Dark, whose landlady gives her the boot after she gets new clothes and comes home late a couple of nights in a row. In Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia’s lover insists she bring him back to her London boarding house—he suspects they might get caught and she might get kicked out, and that’s his kink. And sure enough, she does. This wasn’t a problem specific to Rhys’s characters—this was an interwar issue. Holden writes of an “invisible majority” who “lived in lodgings, boarding houses or institutions or who had no permanent home.” In a boarding house, Holden notes, bachelors were given the “services usually offered by a wife,” like help with housework, meals and laundry. Despite women paying the exact same rent on less wages, these services were rarely included for female boarders and it was common for landladies to regard their female tenants with suspicion. As Mulholland notes, unmarried landladies with no male relatives living in their boarding house were at risk of their establishments being labelled brothels.  The way out of this precarious housing system—buying property—would have been unachievable on the average female wage of the time. So, what would you do as an unmarried woman trying to live comfortably, instead of paycheck to paycheck, or save money in the years between the wars? Possibly, you’d have supplemented your wages as an amateur sex worker. Rhys’s heroines usually “manage” by supplementing their income by moonlighting this way. As literary critic Sue Thomas has noted, this isn’t as clear-cut a deal as traditional sex work—instead of settling on a price from the beginning, the exchange would be “implicitly negotiated,” with sex made available in exchange for gifts of money and clothing, dinners out, drinks. In this exchange model, the sex worker has markedly less power and autonomy—another key difference between sex workers and their amateur equivalents is that most sex workers would have multiple clients but an amateur typically has just one. In other words, these women occupy the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife. In Kerry Chamberlain’s investigation into interwar sex work in Liverpool, she observes that from 1926 onwards, the number of arrests for amateur sex work “consistently, and often significantly, outweighed” the number of arrests for traditional sex work. She also observes that unlike traditional sex work (which was predominantly carried out by younger women), a wide range of women of different ages were arrested for amateur sex work, which she believes implied that women carried out amateur sex work “at different stages of their lives on a casual and short-term basis, perhaps in response to periods of economic difficulty, departing from the trade before the point at which they came to be legally recognised as ‘common prostitutes.’” Of course, there is nothing inherently harmful about exchanging sex for money. But what’s painful about the amateur model is the way it obscures intention. The woman is reduced to acting on blind trust—that the man will be generous, that he will give her enough money so that she can not only provide for herself but set some aside. There’s no safety net here, no other clients to cushion things if he ups and leaves (which we see in one of the most upsetting novels of the era, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off). The amateur’s own feelings for the man are also entirely irrelevant: leaving isn’t an option. Which might explain Rhys’s curiously numb descriptions of the men her heroines date. This wasn’t an attitude exclusively held by those carrying out sex work. According to history writer Ellie Cawthorne, a common tip from 1930s advice columnists was to prioritise financial security above all other attractions when considering settling down with a man: “Readers ‘were reminded that if a woman married for stability rather than romance, although she may be ‘starved emotionally,’ she would ‘at least be sure of her daily beef and potatoes.’” ***  Rhys’ first four novels all have the same stutter. They’re all compulsively, repetitively focused on Englishness, with hundreds of asides about England and English people (which are fun to read; like Thomas Bernhardt on Austria, Rhys is at her best when she’s dripping contempt for the English). There’s Anna, a white woman who hails from the West Indies but moves to London aged eighteen—more or less exactly like Rhys herself. Marya is so English it’s repeated twice in the first ten pages, except that she’s married to a Polish man and seems so foreign that a fellow Brit isn’t sure of her nationality. There’s Julia, who grew up in England, but whose mother is Brazilian. Then there’s Sasha, who’s English but previously married a Dutch man and spent a sizeable chunk of her life in France. The novels coax out a new vision of English identity that seems to reflect the dispersed England of its colonial history. These novels seem to argue that it’s no longer only the Mr. Horsfields or Walter Jeffries of this society who are English. To be English is no longer just to be from England, but to be from everywhere and nowhere, to have no single national affiliation.  In Rhys’s early work, Englishness becomes a sort of trauma you’re powerless to shake—something which also reflects the reality of English colonial rule. England took formerly healthy countries and bled them dry. In these novels, England does the same to its women. Her characters do not enjoy the same privilege of being English as a Mr. Horsfield—they seem partially disqualified from enjoying the same automatic social acceptance by marrying a foreigner or having a foreign mother. But these women still seem held hostage by their national identity and infected by the same sadness that they associate with England. Like the countries England colonised, they’re given second-class status while remaining beholden to England. In both Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet the protagonists talk about relocating to Paris as a great escape. But none of Rhys’s heroines can ever escape the island, not really. In Paris, at a gathering, amongst new friends, we find Sasha “talking away, quite calmly and sedately, when there is it is again—tears in my eyes, tears rolling down my face. (Saved, rescued, but not quite so good as new…)” Considering what life for unmarried English women of the time was like, these sad, hard novels do not end unhappily. Not as unhappily as they could, at any rate. Nobody is homeless. Nobody kills themselves. An attempt at assault is averted. And despite their precarious existences, the heroines always find money somehow, from someone. “People talk about the happy life,” Sasha says, “but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes.” Sasha, along with her heroine doubles, is well on her way.
Good Faith

How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.

In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally. That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.” And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIAR!” Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets. Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you. Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion. That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power. * From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room. After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex!   Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away. Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me.  * I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult. In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority. In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years.   I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves? Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism. * Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst. Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs.  Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino? “They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic. Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going. “By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said. The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that. Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members.   “That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.” Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners. Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.”   Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic:   “Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each other with a bat, and then they would perform a​ ​three-day sex ceremony​ involving prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’” Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition.   My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be. My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult.  * “Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.” I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused. I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention. I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails. In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online. The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money. “So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods. “Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is. “Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.” “So, why do they call you brain?” I ask. “Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.” “So, your name is Brian!” “Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing. The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening. The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room. Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand. Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn. They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and… “She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised. I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented. I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.” So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either. After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives. M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself. Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain. Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up!  And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says. “Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry? M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet. M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this? “It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween. “Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me. Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting. Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly. This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building. My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character. Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation. Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.” “I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams. I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me. After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me. I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me? In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it. I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers. I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word. M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now. But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle. As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.” Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things. The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.” Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister. We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe. Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan. I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck.  Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible.   My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new. Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent. When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden.  * My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance.   My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero. People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none.   “You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!” If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.    
‘We Can’t Change History, But We Are Complicit in Perpetuating It’: An Interview with Lisa Taddeo

The author of Three Women on desire, community, and the male gaze. 

When Lisa Taddeo set out to write her new nonfiction book about desire, three women she met stood out. It took eight years for her to map out the inner workings of Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota who develops a relationship with her English teacher; Lina, a housewife in Indiana who works tirelessly to please a husband who refuses to kiss her; and Sloane, a poised restaurant owner in Rhode Island whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other couples.   Throughout each account, we watch as the women unwind. As the coils holding them together give way, they experience a kind of renewal, face condemnation, and wrestle with their newfound freedom. And Taddeo is there not only to bear witness, but to observe and unpack the reactions of the women and communities surrounding Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Three Women (Avid Reader Press) is not just a book about desire, but the consequences for acting on it. Sara Black McCulloch: What led you to write about desire from this perspective? I read that what partly prompted this book was that you were reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and that you were put off by it—that it was written from a very particular and male perspective. Lisa Taddeo: The main thing with Mr. Talese’s book was that, and you know I met him and he was an unofficial mentor for a certain part of the process, but you know, I found that there was just not a lot of emotion behind the acts he had been describing, and his book was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it—I enjoyed it very much. But at the same time, I just wanted to know more about... you know, there was a lot of swinging in it. And what I found with a lot of swingers is that they kind of go, “Oh you know, it’s fine.” And maybe for you it is fine and you don’t feel sad, but I just wanted to know about more of my own biases. I don’t judge them, I’m just so fascinated by it, but I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to know why these people could, in a sense, do it. I just feel like there wasn’t much talk about why—the whys about everything—and that was where I wanted to have a departure. I think Talese was interested in different things, but I was also so fascinated by swingers that I went looking for swingers. I spoke to a lot of different groups of swingers and I could not find someone who gave me the sort of complexity I was looking for until I found Sloane and that was game-changing for me because she was the person I always looked for. I don’t think she’s necessarily representative of swingers, but what she is for me is representative of the complexity I wanted to know more about.   How did you find the women? I know, for instance, that you met Lina in a discussion group you were running.  I posted signs across the country, literally in bars and casinos. I posted them on windows of cars too, just everywhere: churches, bus stops, truck stops, everywhere. I went to the Four Seasons, seedy motels... I was just trying to find people. I moved to Indiana because of the Kinsey Institute [which researches sex and gender] and because I met a doctor who was administering these hormone treatments to women and he was telling me about them. I found Lina really early. I think I spoke to her on the phone before I moved because the doctor had given me a number of his patients who were interested in talking to me. I didn’t know how fascinating she was going to be until she walked into that room and started telling her story.  I had read about Maggie when I was in North Dakota researching a different story. It was about women who were working as waitresses during the day at this coffee shop and by night, they were being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there. So, I was reading about Maggie in a coffee shop and I read about the trial, which had just ended. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, asked if I could come and tell them more about what I was doing, and then drove to North Dakota the next day.   I found Sloane by moving into her town to speak to several other people and at that point I was hearing rumours about not just a woman who was swinging, but a woman whose husband wanted to have sex with her every day and that not only did she allow it, she wanted to do it too. And that was the rumour. What was shocking to me about that, and indeed every woman and person that I spoke to, was the ways in which they were reviled by their communities for doing things like that. I just don’t think you should judge other people for their lives. So, I was interested in that. That was how I found those three, but I spoke to hundreds of other people, at least 20-25 at length. I also noticed a shift in voice and POV throughout the book, from diary entries to third-person accounts. What was the reasoning behind these particular choices? They were all different choices, but I wanted the voices to be reflective of the women. For Maggie, one of the reasons why I started with the second-person was because she had been so reviled in the local press that I had in mind the most staunch disbeliever and I wanted that person to be able to instantly get inside her head in such a way that it would be impossible for them to not at least try to understand her. I wanted the literal experience. I did the trial and the other stuff more in the third-person to keep it factual. With Lena, she found herself in the sexual moments—I would say more than anyone else did—and so I wanted her section to reflect that. I mean she told me everything so openly. It was just so infinitely interesting to me that I wanted to show how present she was in those moments.   With Sloane, who was the most reticent to talk and also the most eloquent but detached, I tried to tell her story in her rote voice. You explored some really small communities that judged and condemned others for living their lives, and I wanted to know if you believe that there is such a thing as community anymore? You moved to these towns where these women lived—do you feel like a community is there to essentially police and surveil people now? I do. You know, it’s funny, because my daughter is four years old and we live in a rather rural part of Connecticut, and a lot of people have said to me, "You should move here and here because there are a lot of moms and kids." But I moved to so many places and I’ve seen so many moms and dads, and no! There’s a lot more competition than there is community or a sense of community. You know how people say a child is raised by a community? I just don’t see that anymore in any way. Even with social media, it’s really become so much about who’s got what, and whose kid is doing this, and whose partner has a better career, and a nicer house—all of that! That’s what I found in almost every place. There were some places that were kinder than others, but for the most part, it was not a loving situation.  You don’t just discuss how women condemn each other but how they compete with each other, too. There was something really striking that your mom told you: “Never let them see you happy,” and by “them,” she meant other women. Were you noticing this in your discussion groups and even how these women were communicating with you? One of the reasons I was most drawn to these women was because they were the victims of these things. They were less judgmental about the things that happened in their lives. They were victims of men, to an extent, but also the victims of other women. They were not so much the aggressors, and I found that really warm about them—that they didn’t want other women to necessarily suffer, whereas I found other women who wanted other women to suffer. All the women that I observed for the final cut of the book were all, in some way, jealous or just condemning of Maggie, Sloane, and Lina. A lot of this is frankly biological, as men are not necessarily competing against each other, at least not the same way. The women are competing to be the thing that is chosen and that’s sociological and biological. The idea that men spread their seed—not be clinical—across a large group of women in order to perpetuate the species, whereas women are meant to stay back with the child and bear the whole situation. I find that really informs the way we move about. The sociological implications are that we also, at the same time, want equality. We’re very sentient, wise beings, but our biology and our sociology either mix or they don’t, depending on the day. I really think it’s other women because we’re fighting against each other for men or whatever—at least in heterosexual relationships. (It’s different things across different orientations and sexual predilections.)  The male gaze really fuels that too, but it many ways it also fuels the desires of these three women too. We’re still rooted in it. We can’t change our history, but we are complicit in perpetuating it in the present. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and we can’t just wake up one day and change. We first have to admit that it’s there before we can figure out how to combat the negatives in our lives. When you’re immersing yourself in someone else’s life, especially as a journalist, there is always talk of objectivity. Did you ever find yourself slipping, in a way, and judging these women, or would their stories force you to confront something within yourself? Or trigger the memory of a personal situation? Did you find yourself connecting with them on a deeper level? It’s funny because there were countless things, but the thing that I think about the most is that when I was a kid, like 10 or 11, I was going to Puerto Rico with my parents. I had helicopter parents before the term was coined, and they wouldn’t let me out of their sight. And I just wanted to take a walk down the beach. They finally said yes and I was so happy. That day, I packed baby oil because I wanted to get super-tan. I was wearing a black bikini with little neon butterflies and I loved it. I was so happy. I took Stephen King’s The Stand with me because I was a depressive kid. I laid down in the sand and fell asleep. I woke up with two things: one was a second degree burn across my body that was insane. The other thing that woke me up, in fact, was a man, I don’t know if he was 30 or 40, but I knew that he was a man and I was a kid. He was licking my arm. The first thing I thought—I remember the feeling very well, and not just the tongue, but the feeling I felt in my head, which was, “I don’t want this man to think I don’t... like him?” I don’t know, it’s weird, but I still have that feeling today and I’m nearly 40 years old. It was shocking.  I went back to my parents and I did not tell them about the situation for two reasons: one, that I didn’t think they would ever let me out of their sight again, and two, that they would think I was a slut. And that’s what I thought. I was an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have put baby oil on my body, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. It’s super interesting, and multiple things like that came up. And mainly, it’s about how the formative years shape the way that we are, and we desire, and in other ways that are more obvious in the present. And a lot of people weren’t aware of it. Neither was I! We internalize those experiences and feelings of shame, and that plays out in very different ways: you have to be careful with how you’re perceived by other people. You need to be constantly vigilant. I noticed, too, that even the women you talked to couldn’t fully let go of this vigilance either. It’s a weird kind of invisible service in their public and personal lives. They’re always making sure that everyone else’s needs are being met. And just the performative aspect too—just being aware of yourself and your attractiveness and I found that so much in everyone that I talked to—women and men. But men have this goal, which is an orgasm, no matter how sloppy and smelly they are. With women, some of them can, and I’m inspired by the women who can, but I myself have never personally found that. I will not do anything if my teeth aren’t brushed.   I wanted to talk about parents and what we inherit from them. In the introduction, you talk about your mother and the secrets she hid, and how that creates a barrier to communication—or not telling your parents what happened to you.  Yes, but also, it’s not that I didn’t think I could talk to my parents, it was more that I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, too. I didn’t want them to stop letting me be alone. I didn’t know that I needed to go to them—I don’t think what they would have said would have been helpful. With Maggie, we see that too—that she didn’t really confide in anyone because she couldn’t. The women you spoke to had these fractured relationships with their parents and people in their lives and they really had to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and themselves. I think that a byproduct of growing up years ago—although this has less to do with Maggie, because with her, it’s more of a byproduct of where she’s from in the country—but with Lina and Sloane, they both had parents that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going to with the things they experienced. With that said, I think it’s the time, and that now there are a lot more studies about how to be with children. I don’t think people were really looking at that back then. Are any of the women planning on reading the book? Two of the women have read it. I’m in touch with all three of them pretty frequently, so they’re very much aware of the book’s publication date. I’m not supposed to reveal which two have read it. Some are a little more nervous than others about it.  Are you planning on keeping in touch with them and seeing how their lives turn out?   Yes! I am so interested. I’m close to them. I would call all of them friends, but the nature of our relationship is very much—it was mostly one-sided because I was asking the questions. With that said, there were many intimate moments that we shared about their men and about my own stories whenever I thought it was something they would want to hear or that would help them or make them feel comfortable because they were giving so much of themselves. It was organic. One of the things that allowed women to explore their sexuality and desires was the advent of birth control, and in terms of what’s happening now in the U.S., this is going to have an impact on everything, but what impact will this have on desire? I think that to make any heaving step forward, there’s going to be a thousand steps back. It’s always shifting and what’s going on now is awful, but I also hope that it won’t last very long and that eventually those people in power are going to die off and when then do, hopefully there will be less people taking their place that will deal with it the same way. It’s definitely going to change the way women talk about it, but I also think that it’s making voices louder because there’s a lot of rage. Also men—in general and in the book—are threatened by their desire and tend to use it against these women in many ways. Men get nervous when women have desires that go above and beyond their desires. I think that’s why there’s such a rise of this incel community coming out of the woodwork, because they’re hearing about what women want and they’re translating it into, “Women want to have sex with good-looking guys.” For centuries, men have wanted to have sex with good-looking women, but the fact that we’re hearing from women now is making a lot of men who are not confident—and this is sad and they should be heard—but the way that they’re trying to be heard is despicable and that’s a perfect example of what happens when men feel nervous about female desire.
Epcot World Showcase

Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.

Visiting the World Showcase at Epcot when you've had three red wines and a Canadian beer in the outdoor pavilion so you drunkenly ask the attendant at the movie theater in France what Paris is really like: The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.” She says: If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it's dark they don't care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says "home" like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers. Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier. "The music is from Beauty and the Beast," she whispers in my ear. "Like from the Disney version." If you lay on the floor after the lights dim you see people's feet and bagged merchandise from every country in Epcot. Around the world in less than an hour if you don't stop to watch the sixteen-minute movie in France. A woman feeds her partner a chocolate-covered strawberry bought from the pavilion and he licks the residue from her fingers. You're not supposed to eat in the theater, but according to the attendant, nobody cares what happens after the lights dim. These people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and wear sport sandals. They’re climbing each other like real sports enthusiasts, I tell the attendant. One of them kicks a bag and it rustles. Ocean waves crash against the rocky shore. Sheep bleat beside a moated castle. The attendant says she’s heard it a thousand times before: the movie soundtrack and the fucking. The lights have dimmed so we’re on the floor and she's untying the delicate knot at her throat. I knew this would happen just like I knew it would happen the last time like I know it will happen again. Next weekend. A month from now. Tomorrow. Every sixteen minutes the attendant introduces a film about her home in a peasant top that ties delicately at the throat. The cyclists speed down the road past a cart full of bread. Sheep saunter up the hill, guided by a man in blue slacks. People in the back of the theater wear sport sandals and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck next to a rustling bag of Epcot merchandise. Tiny, yellow wildflowers. During her introductory speech, the attendant says you can leave at any time by exiting the theater to your left. No one gets up. There’s only rustling bags, chocolate-covered strawberries, sport sandals, fucking. When I ask the attendant if she ever stays to watch the movie with special guests, she takes my hand. Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you lie on the floor with me? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you untie the delicate knot at your throat? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: I will not take you to dinner after this, we won’t go home together, I did that in another life with a woman like you but that tenderness is gone now, sixteen minutes is all I can offer, please, I’ve already given the other parts of myself away, do you understand? Pan over a snow-capped mountain. A line of people ski down its frozen side like a trail of ants. I tell the attendant the frosted mountain looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream and she laughs. “I haven't heard that one before,” she says, but I’m positive she has. Villagers sell pink and white flowers from a wooden cart. The attendant pulls up her skirt, loosens the knot at her throat. A woman on screen carries too much bread. The man herds sheep in his blue slacks. "Three red wines and a Canadian beer," I tell the attendant when she asks what I had for dinner. She's asking what I had for dinner because she’d like us to get dinner. There’s no dinner in our future, but we will lay on the floor of the movie theater. I know this the way I know the movie repeats every sixteen minutes. The attendant touches the delicate knot at her throat and undoes it using only two fingers. Wooden cart, castle. Pink and white flowers. Bleating sheep. Midway through the film a couple exchanges marriage vows inside a crumbling chapel. The music piped over the ceremony is familiar. “It’s what they use in Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film,” says the attendant. The bride wears a white dress and a shimmering veil. When the couple kisses, it looks like they’d rather die than let their lips touch. When my wife kissed me on our wedding day, she was so nervous her lips trembled. We did not listen to Disney music and there were no castles. Her hands left damp marks on the paper she carried so she could remember the order of the vows. We lit a white candle and the wind blew it out. Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back. In the movie theater, the lights dim and the attendant hikes up her skirt to reveal socks that buckle over the knee. “They’re regulation,” she whispers, when I slip a finger beneath the elastic band. Behind us, plastic bags rustle and people's legs move back and forth as they fuck and the attendant wants to know why I'd have three red wines and a Canadian beer for dinner, but what she's really asking is why won't I have dinner with her. Dinner isn’t on the table. We served chicken at our wedding so stringy I picked the gristle from my teeth and my wife kissed me with a mouth full of regrets. Why’d you drink dinner, asks the attendant, and I’m answering her question by ignoring it completely. This is a repeat of the conversation I had last week, two days ago, tonight, tomorrow, three weeks from now. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. On screen a girl in a yellow dress delivers flowers to a market full of smiling, happy people. She hands out flowers until her cart is empty. In sixteen minutes, she'll do it again. Flowers, the wooden cart, cyclists, skiers racing down the mint chocolate chip mountain, a lone woman carrying too much bread. The attendant rolls down her regulation socks and undoes the delicate knot at her throat. My hand slides up her thigh. Sheep dot the landscape like someone ripped open a pillow. There are castles everywhere. I ask the attendant what Paris is like and she says "it's exactly like this," but her eyes get wide when she says it and I know “exactly like this” means she’s willing to be whatever I want. Why did you drink dinner, she asks, and it's an echo in the valley between the ice cream mountains as the bags rustle and the people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck in their sport sandals and we lie on the floor, once the lights are dim. The couple gets married in the crumbling chapel every sixteen minutes and they kiss like strangers. We lit the candle at our wedding and the flame blew out while I laughed, but my wife’s lips trembled and her hands sweat all over our vows and there were no castles anywhere. Why did you drink dinner? The attendant asks, and up come the lights. People pick up their bags and move out of the stained seats so other people can sit in the stained seats and set down their bags on the floor beside bits of popcorn and discarded gummy candies. In a few minutes, the attendant will loosen the knot at her throat. Roll down the regulation socks. Three red wines and a Canadian beer slosh in my stomach in lieu of dinner. There will never be dinner with this woman. There will never be dinner with any of them; there will never be. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. The attendant says: “Please enjoy this introduction to my home,” and we begin again. Sheep. Crumbling chapel. The couple kisses in the church and their mouths are trembling. Every wedding kiss is an earthquake. Pink and white flowers. Castles. We can slip down to the floor, the attendant whispers, once the lights dim.
In Search of Absence in Antarctica

It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went, exactly. It’s more that the trip accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life.

Antarctica is cold, but it’s not the coldest I’ve ever been. The worst cold befell me shortly after I moved across the country, from New York City to Seattle, Washington, nearly a decade ago, just as the year turned over. It wasn’t the northwest winter, which barely earns the right to call itself brisk. That February, I came down with a fever, red-hot and unremitting, some nameless virus announcing itself to my immune system. I threw up. I hallucinated my tattoos dancing off my skin. Only installing myself inches from a gas fireplace under no fewer than four blankets and adhering to a religious regimen of antipyretics could pause the shivering that transformed my body into one long groan. Eventually, the fever broke, and I surfaced to lucidity. But I think it left a psychic mark. That kind of cold is less a sensation than a discrete emotion, a shouting need to feel any way else. Feeling that bad leaves a residue of fear for the feeling’s return. For years after, I dressed warmer than the weather required, accumulated blankets in my home, suspicious of an unheralded, invading chill. Still, in January of 2017, I spent about 30 hours in air transit and nine days on a small cruise ship, the MS Hebridean Sky, in pursuit of seeing what was to be seen at the bottom of the world, where the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded (minus 94.7 degrees Celsius, in 2010). The second coldest I’ve ever been was while trying to run, but in fact stumbling, into the waters of an Antarctic caldera wrapped in the arms of Deception Island, in the South Shetlands. The volcano last erupted in the 1970s, damaging nearby science stations. Long before that, the area was a whaling village. Rust-colored oil tanks dot the island’s edges like a Richard Serra installation, flanked by decrepit houses, piles of shattered wood barrels, traces of primitive graveyards, and the remains of a whaling vessel. In the other direction: whale skeletons, biblical and anatomic, great vertebral chains, left over from a time before whalers discovered bones were oil-rich, too. It’s a grimmer setting than I had pictured for our vaunted “polar plunge.” I had imagined slipping off a little platform on the stern of the ship, the winter version of a Caribbean snorkel, propelled by only a split-second will to jump, gravity picking up the rest of the tab. Instead, we strip down to bathing clothes on a rocky beach—beach is a generous word—and propel ourselves, step by step, into the water, determined to have done with it.     We wade through a layer of sulfurous steam along the coastline, warmed by subterranean hot springs. Then: the slap of frigid water, brutal, the kind of cold that makes you believe you will never be warm again. On this, the single overcast day of our voyage, the cool air offers no relief. I swim a few strokes, hoping to encourage circulation. On shore, wiser, drier travelers wave encouragement. I have to put my head down, I think, get my hair wet, or I won’t feel I’ve really done it, haven’t committed. I have to submerge all the parts of me into this gesture. For a moment, I duck under the surface and the world goes numb and quiet. Everything external fades into irrelevance. Just for a moment. *    *    * Here are some facts. Antarctica remains the only continent on Earth not permanently inhabited by humans. In 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. In 1959, after many more incursions, the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System preserved the continent as a neutral and peaceful area of scientific discovery. Today 30 countries have research stations there, the only place in this world far from the madding crowd, unowned and unguarded. Here is another fact: the Antarctic is impossible to describe and pictures cannot do it justice. It takes two days’ sail to reach Antarctica. We leave the port town of Ushuaia, traverse the Beagle Channel, named for Darwin’s ship, and then we are in open water. An albatross tails us all the way from Argentina to the peninsula, an enormous, white-winged blur, diving ostentatiously around the ship, a benediction straight out of Coleridge. A Tristan's albatross, not a wandering albatross, says one of the guides, an Australian ornithologist. I am unable to remember which one blessed (then cursed) the ancient mariner. Seasickness eclipses the anticipation of arrival for me. I spend most of the first full day in bed, at first too nauseated, then too blitzed on Dramamine to do anything else. The boat pitches back and forth like a drunk. So much for the state-of-the-art balancers with which the Hebridean Sky has supposedly been retrofitted. Tiny for a cruise ship, the HS can accommodate 120 passengers in 59 cabins. Larger ships are not allowed in Antarctica. IAATO, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, delimits the volume and spread of visitors to the continent, so as not to hasten the anthropogenic destruction already guaranteed by global warming. Somewhere around 40,000 tourists visit each year. I’m not sure there are many more trying to break down the door. It is far away, and it is expensive.  By day two, the Drake Passage has settled, and I venture outside the cabin to take in the edgeless, white capped waters. It is the first time in my life I have been unable to spot land on any horizon. *    *    * It’s not that I divide my life into the periods before and after I went to Antarctica, exactly. It’s more that the trip occurred during and in some ways accelerated a gradual change that has been happening all my life. I was, in a few words, moving inward, away from the world and toward myself. Perhaps this shift is universal, the logical conclusion of self-object differentiation. Maybe it’s the result of a life lived in too many thin-walled apartments. Maybe it’s just what happens after a certain amount of heartbreak. I don’t mean to suggest that something calamitous happened which impelled me to seek out the kind of extremity Antarctica embodies. It didn’t. I went because my mother, an inveterate explorer, asked me if I would like to go with her.  It’s hard to describe going in search of an absence. But, in a way, that’s what I was doing: trying to find that innermost part of me impermeable to loneliness and loss, what T. S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world,” where everything pauses and gives way to a perfect inertia. I didn't expect to find it—but then, it’s the sort of thing that’s found incidentally in the pursuit. I sensed I might find that salutary emptiness within by seeking emptiness without. It is hard to imagine a place more bereft than the polar South. During this time, in this faraway mood, I read a host of books about vast spaces, person-less places, the cold. Places of absence. Strangely, post-Soviet literature seemed right: Snow in May, a lovely collection of short stories by Kseniya Melnik, who immigrated from northeast Russia to Alaska, and whose stories are all set in her hometown of Magadan which used to be the way station for prisoners en route to Stalin’s camps; Vladimir Sorokin’s bizarre and eerie Ice Trilogy; The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya, Lev Tolstoy’s granddaughter, a harsh, satirical novel about a post-apocalyptic landscape clearly meant to comment on the absurdity of human society. In these books, meaning ceases to have meaning. Cause does not lead to effect. Life is arbitrary, surreal, and casually cruel, just as it was after the fall of communism in Russia. If communism demanded sacrifice, at least it made a certain austere sense. It was for the good of the country, the good of its collective people. But after 1992: splintering, hardship, chaos. The organizing principle of a massive state upended, just like that. Only the long, hard winter reminded you where you were. [[{"fid":"6705371","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":{"height":"3000","width":"4000","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] This is also the period when the work of the writer Gretel Ehrlich came into my life. In 1978, California native Ehrlich precipitously moved to rural Wyoming and became a cattle rancher, enduring social and geographic isolation, and a brutal climate. Here she wrote her first and best book of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces, rendering life among the animals, and her turns of mind and heart. Prone to choosing hardship over comfort, Ehrlich went on to spend many seasons in Greenland, of all places, embracing the winter desolation and darkness of the far North. About this time she wrote This Cold Heaven, a hybrid chronicle of her experiences and early history of the land. Erlich’s voluntary privation obsessed me. I felt a kinship with her desire to break away from the balms and gratifications of quotidian existence, to, as Thoreau put it, “front only the essential facts of life.” But she had actually pulled the escape hatch. I knew I never would. I tend to idolize the monastic lifestyle Ehrlich found—the unerring commitment and seriousness of it, the way no time is wasted in frivolities—but I lack the discipline and impulse control. The best I could do was live it in words, a vicarious stoicism. *    *    * Early in the third morning aboard the HS, expedition leader Hailey’s New Zealand lilt, bright as the polar sun, cuts through our cradle-rocked sleep. Go outside, she says, with urgency. I will try to tell you what we saw that morning, and each day for the next week, but I will fail. All I can hope for is an asymptotic kind of evocation. The most common description of Antarctica is that it looks like an alien planet, and that is true. It is true not only because of Antarctica’s distance from the known world, but because of its unfathomable scale. One’s puny human systems of measure and value fall by the wayside. Scales geologic and planetary reign. Its ingredients are familiar and elemental—ice, sea, air, cloud—but they conspire to form an exotic whole, utterly foreign to the incidental visitor. Over the course of the week, we learn the aesthetic pendulum swings of the place. In the days, a blinding brightness overlays shimmering bands of water in every direction. It is summer—you can only visit Antarctica in summer—and a cloudless blue canopy lords over the landscape. The sea is a great silvery glass of ice water, celebratory like a cocktail, poised in the moment before it is slung back and drunk. It splashes unhurried onto calm peninsular shores. The land cuts a sliver between sea and sky, a seam stitching the world together. Its snow drifts sail and swoop across the horizon. Smooth surfaces belie the violent storms that made them. The scene makes for an almost lurid vista, highlighting an excess of cool tones, neon reflections necessitating the use of sunglasses. A painter would be accused of exaggeration. [[{"fid":"6705391","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"}}]] Before leaving and upon returning to the ship, we rinse our boots in a cleaning solution, which feels symbolic. We drive from the HS to shore in small motorized rafts called Zodiacs and walk from the shallows to dry land. There we see penguins for the first time, and countless times after, great, teeming colonies of black and white and gray-brown chicks. We note the absence of moisture in the air, its ubiquity on the ground. A surprise: Antarctic summer feels like a balmy week of Northeast winter, low to mid-thirties Fahrenheit each day, the sun beating down unhindered. Our first expedition off the ship teaches me I have worn too many layers: a thermal skin, insulated snow pants, a stretchy shell, a fleece, and a ski jacket. Five minutes on land sees the coat tied around my waist, leggings stuck to the insides of my knees. At night, the sky is a watercolor wash. Sunset tries to push in but day resists, never giving over to real darkness, instead smudging the blue over the glaciers peach and mauve. Waterfalls of glacial rock glow rose and coral in the perma-dusk. Clouds roll in just to catch the pinkish light. Distant peaks are scoops of sorbet. Everything seems impossibly far apart, held together precariously in any moment by the eye, always about to drift even farther. In Antarctica, the calendar year, quartered into seasons like a twice-sliced pie, looks like the artifact of a strange civilization. The continent follows the logic not of four but of two: of light (October to February) and dark (March to September). Light and dark, mirror to the human psyche, and like the human psyche, slightly favoring dark over light. Not multiplicity but dichotomy. The Midnight Sun prevails yet I feel sleepy all the time. I tumble into bed each night unreasonably wiped, fall into sleep like a meteor hitting the Earth. Maybe it's the constant soft rocking of the ship, like being in utero. At night I lie in bed, back on the HS after a day of trekking the continent, listening to the ship's joints complain of the thrashing waves. It sounds like the water has grown fingers and is trying to punch through the hull. Foam scrabbles at our porthole. At times the HS lifts me bodily from my repose, a gentle reminder of who is in charge here. *    *    * Searching for a salutary alienation in Antarctica has the whiff of the absurd about it, when you consider the kind of mass-scale, coordinated human enterprise it takes to get you there, not to mention that you can pretty much only go with a bunch of other people. A tour company coordinates the logistics, then delivers you an itinerary like a school chaperone, demanding obeisance to parliamentary procedure and time table.     You also can’t go very far in, at least not as a casual visitor. Steep glacial cliffs thwart maritime access to most of the Antarctic, so tours confine themselves to the peninsula, a tail curling off the continent toward South America. Once we arrive on Antarctic soil, there can be no doubt: we are an invasive species, a flock of flailing, red-jacketed warblers whom the natives sanction with benign neglect (having no reason to fear us, penguins amble past at knee-height, indifferent to our comings and goings). Camera shutters open and close like bird beaks. Antarctica is a photographer’s paradise, all shapes and shadows playing across the firmament. Some of my fellow travelers walk the ice with small fortunes of photography equipment in tow. [[{"fid":"6705396","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"}}]] Even the crunching of my own boots grates. Quiet must be stalked like prey. Wishing everyone else away at all times, I adopt strategies on expedition for tuning them out: focus on the three-foot radius around me; lock eyes with a tern perched a little ways away; find a quiet outcropping to rest, preferably over a hill from the main action. I like to sink a foot or two into a soft snow bank, coming to rest with my eyes almost at ground height. Disappearing myself into the land like this, I notice more. Slick penguin feathers pierce the surface of the shallow water near shore. A massive rock reveals the taupe hide of a hulking, smug-faced elephant seal who drowses in the heat of the day. Often, I pass an hour or two in this way. Other tourists mostly respect the wishes of those wanting solitude, so I am left to my own thoughts, and leave others to theirs, regrouping now and then to marvel as a gang at our extraordinary good fortune. I am never bored, only idling at a slightly quieter level of consciousness than usual, which lends a certain plainness and clarity to my thinking, stripped of what Ehrlich called the “ornamental” in us.  At times, the openness of my surroundings leaves me feeling small and lightheaded, like I might hot-air-balloon into the ether. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard equates snug, confined spaces with personal history. For him the fundamental unit of selfhood is the house, the first place we occupy, and therefore possess forever, because it holds our memories, which we return to over and over like a protective shell that reminds us who we are. “If one were to give an account of all the doors one has closed and opened, of all the doors one would like to re-open,” he writes, “one would have to tell the story of one's entire life.” In other words, the story of one’s self. What, then, of a place without any doors or rooms for hundreds of miles? A space like that might vanquish the self, lift the weight of our memories from our shoulders. *    *    * But this land, wide and strange though it be, is far from empty. In fact, entertainments abound for those who would take notice. Observation—sincere, prolonged observation—is a form of meditation, the oldest trick in the book for mastering the whims and vagaries of the ego. Paying close attention means leaving the self behind, inhabiting Emerson’s transparent eyeball. Eliot considers this the ideal practice of the artist, who engages in a “continual surrender” of the self to the tradition which flows through it. We are each, after all, the artist of our own life. Ehrlich puts it another way. “Keenly observed,” she says, “the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.” A circus of animal life surrounds our staid human party, putting on a nonstop show of labor and play. There are, of course, the penguins: the saffron-beaked gentoo, the bleating Adélie, the chinstrap, so named for the black-colored line under its head. Penguins trill to their mates, clown-honk, squeak, occasionally purr. Overhead, winged critters—albatross, petrels, skuas, cormorants, sheathbills—mock their land-bound rivals. We see Antarctic and Arctic terns. Arctic terns spend summers here and in the Arctic, at opposite times of year, perpetually circumnavigating the globe. They see more daylight than any other creature on Earth. [[{"fid":"6705401","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] Seals loaf on beaches and accompany our Zodiac voyages, swimming circles around the rafts, poking their heads up for a teasing glimpse. There are elephant seals, fur seals, leopard seals, golden-hued crab-eater seals, Weddell seals, whose eponymous discoverer, James Weddell, in 1823 sailed further south than any explorer before him, and of whom Wikipedia helpfully notes, “He is one of the very few human beings to have a sea named after him.” But the creatures that draw us in crowds out of our heated cabins and dining rooms and libraries onto the frosty outer decks are the whales: humpbacks, sei whales, minkes. On the HS, the captain keeps watch from the bridge, alerting passengers to sights of interest as we pass. One evening, he advises whales are nearby, and the crew decides to open a front area of the ship not normally accessible to passengers. We huddle together against the wind, squinting into the horizon, and minutes later an orca erupts from the water mere feet from the prow. A collective gasp goes through our makeshift audience. The white-bellied giant seems to pause, mid-breach, before crashing back into the rough seas. The staff start jumping and hugging, which we take as a sign we’ve seen something special and rare. We imagine, startled into silence, that we can still hear our showy friend under the water. But perhaps it’s just the ever-present birds, diving and squawking, chittering into the wind. *    *    *  Any place is loud if you quiet down enough. Even the ice here declares itself. Bergs can be heard grumbling in the deep, air bubbles burbling to the surface from within. Glaciers calve like a long, low cannon shot, or a warning. Bit by bit, we absorb the complex taxonomy of ice. We learn to speak and read it, coached by the expansive knowledge of our expedition guides. Fast ice is sea ice still attached to land. Glacial ice is like the human psyche: many-layered, difficult to penetrate, at times under great pressure; the pressure is what turns it blue. Every hole in the glacial ice means something. A more circular one is probably a meltwater channel (where water flows through in summer); some are just crevasses that have come to the front of the glacial sheet. Black ice is very old, the result of compressed air. Its perfect clarity reflects water, which makes it invisible to boats, and therefore dangerous. Its surface looks like scales, or the outside of a golf ball, apparently formed by eddies that occur when salt and fresh water mingle. When we run into black ice, we heave a great, gleaming hunk into the floor of the boat to break up for our drinks later. [[{"fid":"6705406","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] Ice is elementary, the atom of the polar south, constantly shifting and reshaping, breaking apart and combining with bonds weak and strong, birthing and sinking and crumbling. The ice declares that we are all also formed from the same stuff made and remade into different shapes. What appears to be stasis reveals itself as continual motion. The stars of the show, of course, are the icebergs. The pressure of snow on the glaciers causes icebergs to break off and land in the water. Some cluster in groups, shimmering like pennies dropped into a fountain. Others hulk on their lonesome, like a cathedral in the desert. Icebergs feature whorls, scratch-like marks, pinholes straight through. Jagged edges facing up means they probably fell that way; smooth edges up means they have probably flipped at some point (the submerged side was worn down by the water). Vertical lines through the ice are caused by air bubbles escaping. Icebergs range in color from starkest white to eggshell blue to icy teal. They look like pillows, coral, tables, piano keys, a dog howling, a wave curling up out of the sea, a row of ill-formed teeth. I could happily cruise around the Antarctic iceberg-spotting for a week. Cloud watching will never hold interest again. Late in the week, we take a Zodiac cruise to Spert Island, across a turquoise bay then through a spectacular narrow channel flanked by sheer rock cliffs made of igneous rock that has been smoothed down by glaciers. Caves at the bottom of the cliffs, just above the water’s surface, invite speculation. How deep do they go? What lives inside them? On the other side of the channel, swells from the Drake Passage make the water violent, threatening to throw us from our craft. Being the kind of person who loves airplane turbulence, I enjoy this brush with real danger. I prefer to be at sea-level, on our knees before the sublime, even if we make a more direct target for wind off the water. That day, the harsh, chill air scrabbles at our noses and cheeks, any piece of exposed skin it can sink its claws into. We don scarves and ski gloves, which make picture-taking an elaborate dance. The mild discomfort feels appropriate to the occasion; I lean into the cold. “Part of the ache we feel is also a softness growing,” writes Ehrlich. *    *    * It’s a curious fact that I seem to experience Antarctica more now than when I was there. The remove of time and space has somehow brought me closer to my days on the ice. I recall pleasant superficialities. The zero-percent humidity polar desert blessed me with a tan and perfect hair. My chronic migraines mysteriously quiesced. Here I sit, in my warm home, with a dull ache for this strange, inhospitable place, whose allure has only been enhanced by distance. Antarctica seems like it has a secret or is a secret, and I am still trying to figure out what it is. I am what the essayist André Aciman calls a “psychological temporizer–who defers, denies, disperses the present, who accesses time (life, if you wish) so obliquely and in such roundabout ways and gives the present so provisional and tenuous a status that the present, insofar as such a thing is conceivable, ceases to exist, or, to be more accurate, does not count.” I did not know what Antarctica would mean to me until long after I left, and knowing this, I gave myself up to whatever I felt in her presence. “To be conscious is not to be in time,” writes Eliot. On one cruise, we pass an old shipwreck sticking up out of the water like a finger-wagging mariner. It leaves me wondering what would happen if I died down there, days’ sail from human civilization. Even on our luxury watercraft, survival in the Antarctic is always just barely, kind of like the rest of life. We happened to be well-prepared. Other species seem to court death. Penguin parents bring back food from the sea and stand a ways from their two chicks. Whichever reaches them first gets to eat. The other, well. On a trek, we stop dead in our tracks to watch a skua savage a wayward fluff-ball not two feet in front of us. Blood and tiny innards are everywhere. But the bird has to eat too, we reason. “There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration,” says Ehrlich. [[{"fid":"6705411","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"}}]] There’s an argument to be made that death is the most salient feature of the Antarctic, present and past, inside and outside human activity. Visiting is an exercise in devising plans for averting your own demise by exposure (or partaking of someone else’s plans). In 1914, the explorer Ernest Shackleton famously attempted the first land crossing of the continent, and famously led his crew to the brink of death (and three over the edge) by way of inadequate preparation and supplies. Arrogance is no good in this hostile clime unless you are tired of living.  Changes in the Antarctic landscape and temperature suggest, too, that humans as a group are tired of living. As the weather heats up, glaciers are calving in miles-long chunks; species are dying off; emperor penguins are retreating southward into the continent. That Antarctica reads like winter even in summer fools us into believing in a perpetual summer for humankind. The largely invisible pace of change anesthetizes us until it is too late (it is already too late).  In Melnik’s stories, the inhabitants of Magadan curry favor with Communist party leaders, securing their status until the precipitous fall of the USSR, when they lose their jobs. They indulge in witch medicine, oblivious or averse to the modernization of their country. The world has already changed and even those aware of the change fail to realize its extent, its power to alter every aspect of life as they know it. *    *    * Returning to Tierra del Fuego, we smell land before we see it. Greenery appears in our scent before our sight, the earthy, bodily musk of it. Six days of icy desert have sharpened our noses to plant life. The Beagle Channel stinks of vegetal fertility. Behind it lurks a sweet sadness. Above decks, we exchange wistful glances. We are almost home, or almost on the way to the way home. Home we came, and life proceeded as it always does, though not exactly as usual. 2018, the year after Antarctica, was a hard year for me, and all the other people on the planet. I hardly wrote at all. Bad things happened, to me and to the world, and I felt bad about them. Good things happened too, but they felt like exceptions. In the periphery of every cheerful sight, powerful men waved their hands and sang horrors. Out of options, I dove deep into the self-sprung well of solace inside me, bathed in its waters, and in the words of those who sustained my capacity for joy and connection, and who sustain me still. I recalled the pleasures of silence in my own company. I went, in other words, back to the Antarctica in my mind. “True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere,” writes Ehrlich. The poem “Ash-Wednesday” was my favorite of Eliot’s before my trip to Antarctica. Since the trip, its imagery, its cadences are bound up inextricably with the memories of that endless seascape, its looming ice giants, the clear, glacial air that christened our passage.             Because these wings are no longer wings to fly             But merely vans to beat the air             The air which is now thoroughly small and dry             Smaller and dryer than the will             Teach us to care and not to care             Teach us to sit still.  It would be too pat to say that what amounted to a two-week vacation saved my life. My life didn’t need saving, and anyway, Antarctica isn’t interested in saving anyone, not even herself. She simply doesn’t have anything to do with any of us, and that, in Ehrlich’s words, absolute indifference is a balm.  The Antarctic isn’t still, but it allows for the possibility of stillness. Its aridity is not empty, but new, fresh, no weight, all possibility. A loosening of the tether between the inner and outer worlds. The promise of infinite renewal, seas frozen and dissolved each year. The asked-for mercy of forgetting. A chilly embrace. It has become a far-off friend who welcomes my visitations, a touchpoint for my mental wanderings. Now and then, in gray moments, the elixir of that cold place, Ehrlich’s nervy courage, and Eliot’s prosody make it possible for me to go on. Ehrlich is beauty, Eliot is salvation, and Antarctica is…what? More an idea, these days, than a memory. A lovely hallucination. Anchor to a sphere spinning at baffling speeds, or else its crown, a glistening adornment. All of these and none of these.
‘Migration Necessitates Narration’: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon

The author of My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You on the collaborative nature of non-fiction, evolving family dynamics, and surviving the catastrophic plot twist. 

Before reading Aleksandar Hemon, I had a theory that the best way to write about the Balkans was through fiction. The region’s head-spinning politics and hard edge of suffering were elements too raw for the inflexible mode of non-fiction writing. Hemon’s work is one of the few exceptions. His writing—perhaps because his theories of fiction and non-fiction are more complex, or perhaps simply because he’s a master of the form—manages to wrangle the truth, taming it, making it comprehensible again. Hemon’s most recent book, My Parents/This Does Not Belong To You (Hamish Hamilton), is actually two books in one, presented dos-à-dos, with a series of family photos separating them (or maybe connecting them) in the middle. On one side, the story of his parents' lives and their journey from Bosnia to Canada, and on the other, an impressionistic series of short chapters from Hemon’s childhood.  For anyone who has experienced displacement, Hemon’s writing is remarkable for its ability to describe the unbridgeable gap between homes past and present. Trauma, migration, and memory are approached with an expert’s hand and the garbled, terrifying voice of the past is made clear and lucid.  Hemon, who came to the United States from Yugoslavia in his twenties, and who still speaks with a deep-voiced Slavic lilt, has been compared to Nabokov for his sharp prose and his decision to adopt his second language as the language he writes in. But his work contains shades of Proust, too. He's able to capture the particular fine-grained texture of memory, its vivid moments and fuzzy edges. One of the first memories he describes in an early chapter of This Does Not Belong to You is the feeling of cold water being poured over his face after falling into a deep ditch filled with cow excrement. At a reading in Toronto, the day before our interview, Hemon had small containers of honey available for attendees, produced in his father's backyard apiary in Hamilton. The day after the reading, we met at a cafe in Toronto. Seila Rizvic: What is the process of actually translating a memory into a written work? How does that work? When you're writing My Parents, a more traditional memoir, do you have to be in a different mindset than when you're writing the fragments found in This Does Not Belong to You? Aleksandar Hemon: I mean, I guess it's a memoir, but I don't think of it as a memoir because it's about my parents. But either way, whatever it is, it's about a shared past. There are shared points, shared references. That is, we remember certain things in our family life that my parents also remember, and that my sister also remembers. And there might be people outside of the books who remember. And then it's part of this history of the country and the place. Everyone remembers the war, except everyone has experienced it differently. But it's a referential event. And so, there's this field of shared experience and memory of my family and our life and then the vaster field. Whereas the fragments, some of those things, I'm the only who would remember them. My mom remembers us coming back home after vacation. She says, “Yes, that's exactly how it was.” But no one remembers when I was drowning in shit. Anyway, the point is, there's a certain creative aspect in retrieving memory, you have to complete blanks, and so the imagination kicks in. And that's my territory as a writer. But it also means that often, what you remember is the story of the memory. The memory is behind the screen of narrativization. You don't have direct access to it. The experience is contained in the narrative. However small.   So, the actual process of compiling the parents’ portion would have been more collaborative and actually talking it out with others, whereas the other ones would have been more instinctual?  I think non-fiction in general is kind of inherently collaborative. Because you have to verify reality, whatever it is. From journalism to memoir, because who can remember one's life without remembering other people? The moment you're remembering other people you have a responsibility toward other people and what they remember. My previous work of nonfiction, I had to run a lot of those things by my parents, by my sister, by my friends. "Do you remember this? Well what was that like?" Whereas, This Doesn't Belong To You and fiction, it's more closely in the domain of pure imagination, storytelling that cannot be verified. It liberates you in some ways from the need for verification, because other people are not involved.  Another way to put it is that everyone, including writers, everyone invents the story of their life. Not invents, rather, constructs a story of their life. Many real parts, some missing parts—you add to it. But you are the main character in the story of your life, which is both true and constructed. It's both authentic and artificial. It's both fictional and non-fictional. But the non-fictional part is verified by the others, they check you. However, there are parts—your interiority, or your sort of narrative of yourself—that you want to sustain. “I'm a decent person.” Which might not be true. But if I think that of myself, then I will construct a narrative of my life to support that proposition. Eliminate all the little stories where I was not a decent person. There's a portion where you talk about the idea of truth and memory. You describe “a story I heard in Sarajevo from someone who had heard it from someone else, who, in turn, knew the person who knew the person to whom all this happened. In short, the story is as true as can be, even if I fact-checked none of it, because it accumulated relevant experiences and value while passing through other people.” I liked this description because it describes how, like in a work of fiction, something can be true without being necessarily based in facts or reality. It seems to me that memory can function in a similar way, where, even though a memory may be imperfect in terms of accuracy, the way that it accumulates value in transmission between people still holds an important meaning.  That would be closer to oral literature, right?  So, if you are passing a story from one person to another, it passes through bodies and minds and passes through these narrative machines that each person is. Because we do narrativize our interiority, our lives, our selves. It's incomprehensible without narrativization. One doesn't have a sense of selfhood and continuity in one's life unless it is somehow [narrativized], unless I can conceptualize the story of my life. So, to tell a story from one person to another to another, this is how, well, this is how the Iliad was assembled and all masterpieces of oral literature. But also, it aggregates, each time it passes from one person to another, it is vetted against the experience of the storyteller, and they adjust it—it stands to reason—they adjust it and reshape so as to make it fit into the experience of their life. So as to make it, as it were, enough about them so they can tell the story. I think in some ways this is basically how literature works. What do I have to do with the 19th-century Russian novel? It's an object that expands to me from other people, and I know that there are other people involved, and the field of literature that we share and these things pass. And so that's a kind of truth that is not factual, what is and what isn't. Narrative or narration is an important tool for assembling reality and imagination. That is, we have to imagine something as real before it can be real. I think there's an interesting paradox in storytelling and conversation. If you're telling a story it’s already artificial, right? So, it already blocks, to some extent, the access to the absolute truth, the actuality of it. Which is why memory is always both true and not entirely true. It can become true if it is fact-checked against other people. Were we sitting in Toronto on this day you and I, talking? If we never see each other again we might remember this entirely differently. I'm sure you experienced that. Remembering the same thing differently. "I never said that." "you were never there," "I didn't drink coffee, you drank a latte," you know, and all these things may differ. And if you remember individually, that can only be contained in a narrative that we tell ourselves and others. To make it real we have to compare our notes and come to a consensual set of facts. However, the truth of this conversation could be passed in that artificial narrative and transformed.  It's interesting that you mention fact-checking. As an actual journalistic process, it follows a defined set of rules. When I've worked as a fact checker for magazines, I've actually fact-checked fiction pieces, like short stories, as well. I imagine you've gone through this as well as a writer.  Yes, the New Yorker does that as well. Yes, it's an interesting clash of "fact" and fiction. I get the sense that the fact-checking process, asking questions piecemeal, question by question, makes it very hard for sources to get a sense of the whole article. The piecemeal approach to fact-checking can't get across the same information as reading the final piece in its entirety would. If you declare it as fiction, you agree to a different set of rules. A witness in the Hague, you want them to be as specific as possible and it then has to be checked against a number of other sources. So, there’s a legal value to the truthfulness of it. But the value of the factuality of fiction is very, very low comparatively speaking. It's never nil, but it’s very low. And it also depends on what the facts pertain to. The facts of genocide in Bosnia or the Holocaust—I'm not making this shit up, it's not within the domain of the freedom of the writer. So, I don't have an absolute answer or methodology to resolve this conflict. I think it's inherent in the very establishment of the difference between fact and fiction. In Bosnian, in Slavic languages and a number of other languages for instance, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction in literature is non-existent. Or it's more complex. In translating my previous book of non-fiction into Bosnian with my translator, the only place where I used the words—"fiction," "non-fiction"—was in the acknowledgements. And she asked, “How do we translate it into Bosnian?” It was a huge problem. We were bending backwards and adding a paragraph, which you don't want to do in an acknowledgement. There are general differences between lies and truth, but not fiction and non-fiction as modes of narration in literary text. So, I cut out the acknowledgements, rather than explaining it. But in Anglo-Saxon literature it’s taken to be self-evident, the difference and the concept. And then you run in to all these paradoxes and intentions that no one can quite resolve. For my work, what I care about, the overarching term that covers both fiction and non-fiction and sort of at least relieves the tension, is storytelling or narration.  Narrative as a container for both of those aspects. The closest translation to non-fiction in Bosnian and other southern Slavic languages is "true stories," istinite priče, because that includes that narrative aspect. I think, by way of imagination and narration, we create structures that contain truth, general truth, and create a situation in which truth unfolds in narration. It does not preexist in the narrative project, but it unfolds. Or, if you wish—one discovers it. You were talking a bit about oral history and also the shared experiences between you and your family and that shared memory component. Obviously, most families don't have someone who is a writer who will write a book that will be read by others about their family history. I'm wondering how those family stories change once they're actually written down and made available publicly. Does that change you and your family's relationship to the stories? Yes, it does. I mean, for oral histories you have to have oral activities. People have to sit around and tell each other these stories. My parents' generation, particularly on my father's side, they still do it, they sit around and tell stories: "Do you remember? It was 1941..." The story on my father's side was the narrative of my migration. Where we came from, who's there. One of my cousins also lives in Hamilton, he drew a family tree that reaches four generations. Beyond that, no one knows, because there are no documents, there are no written stories, there is only what has passed through us through all this. Every generation after mine and my cousins, my children's generation or maybe their children's generation, where will they get those stories? I could tell them, but the situation in which the whole family, or much of the family, sits around and tells those stories, is less and less available because of dispersement. If we all lived in the same place and saw each other frequently, because we live close enough, we could just sit around and tell stories, and we'd pass it down the line. But migration necessitates narration, and it also necessitates things being written down. So, it can be transacted. My mother said, with a finger raised, which is an important point, she said, "This is a monument to us." I like that she said it, it's lovely. But monuments don't change. They don't adjust. It's a solid, unchanging thing that stands in time. Which is inescapable, but it's also sad. A monument is what you raise when people are no longer around. It's an object symbolizing the present. Was there any hesitation on the part of your family when you first decided you wanted to write about them and your shared history? No. For one thing, I've been writing about them for a long time, my parents, and they're always complicit. There's also nothing embarrassing or shameful or secret in our family history. It's all complicated, complex, adult life. I remember when I was in my twenties, just before the war, I realized now we could be friends. When I was a child they were all over my ass, you know, to wear warm clothes, and study and all this, and then, somehow, I got out of that, and then we could sit around and talk about things. And then it was broken up because I moved there and they moved here, and we didn’t see each other for two years. But then once we were close enough again it was restored. We'd sit around and argue as adults. And what I also did, which is something that children don't do with their parents, I listened to them. There are times, even as a grown up, where you argue with them. In the interview situation, I would ask them, and then I would listen. I would not try to correct them, I would not try to say, "No, you're wrong about that." "Tito was this" while they think Tito was that, I'd just say, “What do you think,” and they'd tell me what they thought. And it was nothing new, what they revealed to me, but it was a different dynamic. That's sort of more of a journalistic process, of just letting them respond rather than debating. Yeah, and it's also a more generous process. More forgiving. I mean we always loved each other, there was never any scandalous situation where we had to make up. But there's a certain amount of unforgiveness that comes with being close, knowing each other, remembering everything that we said to each other, ten, fifteen years ago, from a week ago. And all these, not quite grudges, but ongoing arguments, "See I told you, remember I told you seven years ago this was going to happen." Listening to them, I mean it's necessary for journalistic interviews. It's not for me to prove that I'm right and they're wrong. You just listen. And that was great, it was liberating. That in itself was worth working on the book. You also discuss "catastrophe," or "katastrofa" as a theme in the book and as a literary term, synonymous with denouement. Catastrophe, you write, “allows for narrative escape. If you were lucky enough to have survived the catastrophic plot twist, you get to tell the story—you must tell the story.”  Is this a factor for you when it comes to why you write? It is. I was never under direct duress, my life was never in danger [during the war], so surviving is kind of conceptual. And then that transformation that comes from overcoming the obstacle, you can think of it as a narrative operation, right? To get from point A to point B, and between point A and point B is a significant obstacle, whatever it is. Getting a passport, citizenship, learning the language, whatever. When I teach creative writing I always encourage my students to think of the transformative possibilities in the storytelling. I want them to have something change. So, this transformative event, you can think of it as a catastrophe. The initial set of conditions is undone and something changes. It's kind of theoretical, but the point is that, whatever it is—you live in Bosnia, war, and then you live in the United States or Canada— and life is different. Language is different, everything is different, door knobs are different. So how do you tell the story of the transformation? Or rather, it's the other way around. If you go through this transformation, you have to tell the story. One feels, I feel, the need to tell the story. And so that means that catastrophe is the engine of transformation. And transformation, you can think of conceptually as migration, and that it's literally migration for people like us. To get from point A and point B and something happens in between. When you get to point B there may be people there who will listen to your story about what happened between point A and point B. Narration is migration squared. Migration necessitates narration.  In one chapter you describe singing “Sarajevo, My Love” on the bus during a school field trip. The lyrics you write in the book are translated from Bosnian to English. You write, “The memory of what happened on that bus is deposited behind the stained-glass pane of a foreign language. I will restore these verses into the original Bosnian, where it will be more present, but you will not be able to read it. This does not belong to you." I'm interested in whether writing in English, about events that took place in Bosnian, changes those memories somehow?  It's an interesting question. You can think of writing literature as documenting as closely to facts, whatever the facts are, as possible. And for that you have to believe that you can reduce or even avoid mediation and transformation that comes from it, that you can tell an absolutely true story. Whereas my position is that literature is a transformative aspect of that. The authentic memory is no longer available, in any language, it's always already transformed by the act of narration. There's an additional transformation in all of it existing in English.  Now one can think of it as the loss of authenticity and the loss of truth, an existential void, because nothing is real and true anymore, but to me, it is the transformative possibility of art and narration and language. That's what's great about literature. To read and to write is to engage in the processes of transformation which removes you from the original event, the original experience, but at the same time, it was never available. One might as well accept that fact. But would you agree that there's something different in telling the same story in English versus in Bosnian? Yeah, absolutely. I like this Robert Frost quote, "Poetry is what is lost in translation." A conservative, excellent, American poet who lived in the same fucking place his entire life. Only knew one language, only knew people who spoke that language. It was Brodsky who said, "Poetry is what is gained in translation." Brodsky was displaced, a Jewish person from Russia, who translated from Greek and English, and was not only a poet but a translator. And the thing is, both of them are right. You lose some, you gain some. But to think that you could exactly translate from one language to another—if one were able to translate a poem from one language to another exactly, it would be the same language! If all the connotations of all the words, and all the implications, and all the contexts, were available in two languages, those languages would be the same languages. It cannot be that. The beautiful, enormous variety of human beings, is in fact contained in those transactions. There's no literature without translation. Every time something is translated, something is lost and something is gained. And so, because the original experience is never available, there's no choice but to enter a transformative process. The question is, are you going to think it's a sort of existential, ontological defeat of selfhood, that you can never have access to the original event? Or do you think about it as a transformative operation that makes human civilization and literature possible? If we had ways to convey our original experiences, there would be no literature, there would be no need for literature. Something that sort of struck me as I was reading, in many of your books actually, is it's possible to see how the story would have been written if it had been written in Bosnian. There's a certain cadence that's familiar to me in the form of Bosnian, oral, storytelling but then, translated into a written English form, it's still noticeable. That's good. I think those are rhythms and cadences that I was acculturated to. People ask me often—you asked the same thing but more intelligently and more complicatedly—am I the same person in Bosnian and in English? Or do I change? And I am, and also I'm not. I am because, even if you only speak one language, you use different registers, different modes, you speak differently to your parents versus your friends. In Bosnian, my range is from speaking like a Sarajevo thug, to speaking like a seemingly intelligent person who uses complex words and incorporates Croatian and Serbian idiom. And so, to be bilingual is to enjoy various aspects of yourself and your personality. Everyone is more than one person and more than one thing. But if you're bilingual or multilingual than you have various languages for those personalities, but all of them are yours. To me, I don't think of myself as different in different languages at all. I have the same sensibility. Of course, who am I to say. But I don't think I become someone else, or less Bosnian, if I speak English to you. And what if you had never learned English? I've thought about this, if I had stayed in Bosnia and possibly never learned English, if I would be different somehow. And, of course, now my Bosnian has withered away somewhat, but I like the person that I'm able to be when I speak English. The analogy that I like to use is that, in a two-dimensional system of representation, three-dimensional objects are reduced to two dimensions. And so, to a monolingual person, a multilingual mind is incomprehensible—it looks like a monolingual mind. People who speak one language, they cannot understand what it's like. Even if you don't speak it fluently, it's in there, it's the culture, your parents' voices, the whole thing, it's all there. The mind is shaped. And there's neurological studies that show that bilingual children's brains function differently in many ways. So that's a great advantage. But people who are monolingual, they ask me, because they cannot understand how that's possible, “Are you the same person?” Yes, I'm the same person, with an extra dimension. But the same mind. The more languages you speak, the more dimensions you have. It activates parts of you that may not be activated otherwise, and it forces you into modes of thinking in which you have to make multiple choices. I always know that there's another way to say the same thing.
‘My Only Real Loyalty is to the Truth’: An Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

The author of Say Nothing on the Troubles, the difference between narrative non-fiction and history, and reporting until you solve a murder. 

The eight masked men and women who took Jean McConville from her West Belfast housing complex flat in December, 1972, had to contend with her ten children. Jean, panicked, asked the kids to help her—they clung to her, wouldn’t let her go until they were reassured that Jean would return in a few hours, and that eldest son Archie could accompany her. Before Jean was pushed into a Volkswagen van, Archie was told at gunpoint to “Fuck off.” Having little choice, the 16-year-old did just that. Jean McConville was never seen alive again.  New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe found his way to this story through the obituary of Dolours Price, a former I.R.A. terrorist, who claimed that Jean McConville was an informer for the British army, and was executed by the Unknowns, a paramilitary unit of the I.R.A. Price claimed that the order came from Gerry Adams, who was later to become the leader of Sinn Fein, and a crucial force behind the Good Friday Agreement. Adams has not only avoided claiming responsibility for this crime, he’s denied ever being an I.R.A. member.    In Say Nothing (Doubleday), Keefe has expanded his 2015 article exploring the McConville vanishing into a book that explores the Troubles without making a perhaps-inevitably doomed attempt at being definitive. Keefe’s focus on the McConville crime, and on the journey of sisters Dolours and Marian Price through politics, terrorism, prison, hunger strikes, and decades of consequence, makes for a painful, character-centred story with a truly unexpected ending. Many of the survivors of the recent history that Say Nothing describes seem to want leave it unspoken and unremembered, but they dwell in its aftermath, every day.  Naben Ruthnum: The title—Say Nothing—suggests one of your themes: collective denial. How does this story, and the effects not just of the McConville vanishing, but the entire unresolved trauma of the Troubles—how does denial come into it?  Patrick Radden Keefe: Maybe as a journalist and a writer, I have a bias. My bias is for openness and for truth. I tend to think that you can ignore the past, but that’s not going to make it go away.  That was something that kept coming home for me. This sense of really profound irresolution. In the absence of some process—not even for accountability or justice, but just some truth process. Not even necessarily reconciliation, but just a truth process. To talk about what happened. I do think that everyone ends up in this strange purgatory where they’re unable to move on, and they’re trapped in the past. The image I always come back to is that moment where [Jean McConville’s son] Michael McConville, as an adult, gets into a taxi and realizes that it’s being driven by a guy who took his mother away. And he doesn’t say anything. And the guy doesn’t say anything. Neither of them say anything, and the guy drops him off.  There’s a metaphor in there, and it’s a metaphor of paralysis.  Addressing this paralysis—in a sense, just getting anyone to talk to you, especially in the wake of many people involved with this story having been compromised by supposedly locked, archival interviews they conducted with Boston College being given over to the authorities—just having people speak to you about the McConville case must have been difficult. It was different [from the Boston tapes] in the sense that people knew that this was going to be public. Initially I was writing a magazine article, then the book. It was a slow process. Some people never did talk to me. Some people started talking and then changed their minds. And others, slowly, I persuaded them I was responsible and wanted to tell the story as truthfully as I could.  It’s funny. I’d written this 15,000-word magazine article, and with some people, that hurt me, but with others, it helped. I had a calling card, I could say to people, “Look, this is my approach, the book is going to look something like this.” Most people, when they read that, thought, “Okay, he’s serious, he’s thorough, he doesn’t necessarily have a particular ax to grind.” But not everyone. Gerry Adams was not more likely to talk to me after reading that piece. The people who did begin to speak to you and then took it back—how did you treat those interviews, ethically? And practically, if these people had given you information that you could act on? If we’re on the record, I’m very big on ground rules up front. Part of the reason I do that is to avoid any ambiguity on the other side. You and I are talking on the record right now. Tonight, I might suddenly have some crisis about something I said and call you up and try to take it back. But it’s my view that it’s totally your prerogative, whether or not you’re going to do that. You don’t owe that to me. We had a deal. The tricky thing with a story like this, is that some of the people you’re dealing with are pretty sophisticated about the press, and others are not. In my general career, there are people I deal with who have publicists and are old hands at this, and others who are real civilians who, in some instances, have never dealt with a reporter before. What I try to do is always be very clear with everyone about what I’m doing. In some instances, there are people who start talking to you and then kind of dry up, or say they’d prefer not to be in the book. If the deal we had in the beginning is we’re on the record, then I’m disinclined to make changes. The way I think of it is my only real loyalty is to the truth. We can make a deal, a contract, and I have to honour that. But at the point where I start pulling punches, because I like you and think you’re a nice guy? I’m really not doing my job. You talk about that New Yorker article, “Where the Bodies are Buried,” being an ambiguous calling card—how it worked in your favour with some people, with others, no. What about being Boston Irish, and having the name you do? I love the brief section in the book where you discuss coming up in ‘80s Boston but not having a particular stake in the Troubles.    Originally, I wasn’t going to be in the book at all. Then I sort of had to be in it, because of the revelation in the last chapter. But the reason [that section you mentioned] is in there is because my English publisher said to me, “You have to talk about your name. People are going to wonder.” What I wanted to do is to raise it up and then swat it aside. I had thought that it would be more of a thing when I went over there. That unionists would hear my name and think that I came from a Catholic background, think that I had certain loyalties. That didn’t happen at all.  I think there’s a lot of Irish Americans, Irish Canadians too, who feel very connected to the old country. But then you go over there, and... I’m American. Inescapably. I think there was a sense that, when they saw me, I may have this Irish name, but I was clearly an outsider. I was very much an outsider, which actually ended up helping. It neither counted for me nor against me that my name is Patrick Keefe. Weirdly enough, the fact that I immediately registered as American, not a partisan who fit into the grid there, that actually helped. In your “Note On Sources” in the back of the book, you write about how so many of the books about the Troubles are partisan. But your interviewees would get a sense from you that partisanship wasn’t part of your book. Yes. People were more likely to just assume that I would tell the story as I found it.  The identity thing is a weird one. For The New Yorker, I go to Ecuador and write a story in Ecuador, I go to West Africa and write a story in Guinea, I go Amsterdam and write a story on Astrid Holleeder—and honestly, I thought of Northern Ireland the same way. It was no different in my mind. I was a foreign correspondent parachuting in to try to understand the place. You’re really definitive, in the book, that what you’re writing and what we’re reading is narrative non-fiction. It’s not history. But then you immediately follow that statement by explaining that if you see somebody’s thoughts in the narrative of Say Nothing, it’s because that person told you that’s what they were thinking. You’re emphatic about the lack of speculation in the book. What is the real crucial difference between narrative non-fiction and history, when you’re writing narrative non-fiction about the past?   I don’t really have any one answer. Part of what I was trying to do with that passage you’re referring to was to defend the book against a certain kind of reading. It could be read as a history book, but: I was very adamant that I was telling the story that I want to tell. I’ve picked a handful of people, I’m going to follow them, tell you about their life experience. This is not a full-spectrum history of the Troubles. Don’t foist expectations on this book that were not my ambitions in writing it. If I sound defensive, it’s because so much of what gets written, so much of the discourse about the Troubles is so vexed. There’s a tendency, often, for people to really have the knives out when books come out. So, part of it for me was that. Yes, I don’t talk about Loyalists much in this book. If you want to read about Loyalists, there are plenty of good books for that. Please approach this on its own terms. That was the genre question. But that flows right into these questions about narrative non-fiction. In some narrative non-fiction, there’s an imperative to try to make everything as vivid as possible and to try to be as close as possible to your characters. And I think sometimes people get a little too conjectural for my tastes. In terms of talking about what people may have been thinking, this kind of thing. So, I wanted to be clear that, if the genre here is narrative non-fiction, I personally don’t want anything on the page that you can’t go to an endnote and see: “here’s where he got that.” The book was fact-checked by the New Yorker fact-checker. If there were things (and there were a few places where I was a little out over my skis in terms of assuming certain things), he would say—is that really in the source? He would go back to the source note. And I dialed back a bunch of stuff, because it was important to me that everything be grounded in fact. Were you approaching the true crime element of this as a way to unlock the Troubles, or was it the reverse—that you needed to explain the Troubles to make the crime story resonate? There was never any intention—the book started and the magazine piece started with me wanting to write about this story. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about the Troubles and then I found the story as a way in. It was always about the story, and if I could get some part of the Troubles—but it wasn’t the primary impetus. I like writing about crime. I’ve written a fair amount about crime, and it can be useful as a way of looking at communities, and families. It’s almost like little seismic shocks. You have something like a murder, it affects a lot of people in different ways, and you can trace those effects. The idea for the book was: what if you looked at one murder, and you looked at both the victims and the perpetrators, saw the ripples of this one act, but tracked that in time, down the decades.  I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the moniker "true crime." But it’s certainly the case that there are conventions of that genre that are here, and it’s a story about a murder. A lot of the reviews of the book have said, "it’s a whodunit, we find out who did it at the end!" But the truth is, if I hadn’t figured out who did it, people wouldn’t describe it as a whodunit. That was something that was interesting to me—structurally, it works so perfectly that you did, improbably, find out who killed Jean McConville. But it was an accident. I was wondering, in the construction of the book, were you always going to centralize the characters that you did? Or did discovering the killer cause you to go back over the draft, to shift priorities?  This was the weirdest thing: it was never my intention to find out who the killer would be. My big north star writing this book was to approach it like a novel, where there’s half a dozen characters, and if they saw or experienced something, we’d see it in the book. If they didn’t, no. I didn’t want to give you a history of the Troubles where you get obligatory asides. My feeling was that [Jean McConville’s] shooter was probably Anonymous IRA Gunman #3, and that my reader, by that point in the book, wouldn’t care if I wrote, “And then there’s this guy Joe, who we’ve heard nothing about in the last 300 pages, and it was him!!!” The weirdest thing was discovering that it was somebody who was already a character. I had this moment where—now that I know that it’s X—I should really go back and build in some foreshadowing. I started going back in the book, and the strangest thing is that all the foreshadowing was already there. Not being immersed in the history of the Troubles, part of what struck me in reading this, particularly as you’re assiduous about tracking the consequences of these acts, these times, to the current day, is the immense fallout in terms of trauma, of fractured mental health. To isolate just one thing, that the Price sisters emerged from their prison hunger strike with eating disorders. On the eating disorders thing. Some of what I was trying to do—it wasn’t the impetus for the project—but women have often been written out of the Troubles in a way. Part of what was appealing to me was that Say Nothing was the story of two women, Jean McConville and Dolours Price. When we think of the hunger strikes, we think of Bobby Sands and these ten men and Long Kesh. The idea of looking at this earlier hunger strike that we’ve heard less about, and seeing the long-term physiological and psychological damage—it was a rich vein. In terms of the toll? I think there’s a huge amount of trauma. You still feel it there today. Substance abuse has been a big part of that. Alcohol, various types of prescription drug abuse, going right back to the ‘70s, when it was tranquilizers, minor tranquilizers that people were taking in crazy numbers. There are studies that have been done about trauma passing down through generations. The weirdest thing is that even within these families—in part because of this say-nothing culture where stuff doesn’t get aired out—you have kids who’ve grown up after the Troubles who have residual trauma because they’re surrounded by all these people who are so traumatized.  Asking you that, I felt embarrassed about how little I knew about the Troubles, going into this book—I thought I knew quite a bit about the social context, the outlines of the conflict, but quickly learned I didn’t. How did you balance telling the story you were interested in and affording readers the context they needed for it to coalesce?  That is one of the biggest things I wrestled with. I didn’t want to write something that would read like an encyclopedia. There are a lot of those books out there. The trick of context was: how little context can I give you? That was a process. Some of it happened in editing, just sort of paring back and focusing on the story. Some of it was that thing I mentioned earlier—my rule was that if it didn’t happen to these people, then you don’t need to know about it at great length.  To take just one instance, Bloody Sunday, which is the seminal event of the Troubles, about which whole books are written, films have been made? It’s a paragraph in my book. [The reader]’s not even really there, because Dolours Price was in Dundalk [Gaol] when she hears about it. She’s hearing about this thing that’s happening offscreen.  Fortunately, Northern Ireland is a small place, where everyone knows everyone. So, if you’re just going to follow a few people and see history as they saw it, you can see a lot of history.
‘The Great Question Machine’: An Interview with Max Porter

The author of Lanny on ghost stories as love stories, how countries think, and leaving doors open. 

This week, Hazlitt's new publishing imprint, Strange Light, is launching its first two books. (Obviously, we have impeccable taste and these books are really good.) One of these new books is Lanny, a novel from English author Max Porter. Porter is the author of the genre-bending novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and adapted into a sold-out stage production starring Cillian Murphy), and takes a similarly visceral approach to his new book. Lanny takes place in a small unnamed village outside London, and the first half splits the narration between four wildly different characters: Jolie and Robert, recent transplants from the city and parents of the precocious Lanny; Pete, a revered but reclusive artist hired to give young Lanny art lessons; and Dead Papa Toothwort, a mysterious folkloric creature who listens to the nonstop chorus of voices from the village and takes particular interest in the titular character. Then, Lanny disappears, and the residents of the village are forced to confront what they know about themselves and each other.   Porter had just started his book tour last week when I interviewed him and spoke to me from his hotel room in New York City. He is an energetic and gregarious speaker, different than the impression his prose had left me with. I had called him on his British cell phone number given to me by his publicist. Anna Fitzpatrick: I accidentally wrote down your number wrong and dialed Germany, twice.  Max Porter: Really? Were they nice Germans? It was an answering machine, and I wasn't sure if it was yours. It was me just doing my funny German answering call prank. Just in character for this book tour. But not a character that anyone is familiar with. I go off script. So, congratulations on having one of the inaugural books out with Strange Light. I didn't know what it was about when I started reading and I didn't know it was going to be really scary, so thank you for that. I was house-sitting for a taxidermist and I was alone with all these dead animals. Oh, shit. It's interesting you found it scary. What did you find scary about it? Papa Toothwort?  Yeah, the giant dead plant monster who maybe kidnapped a kid, and then [redacted for spoilers] and [redacted] and also [redacted]. Like, what part of it do you not find scary?  Okay, cool, yeah. I get that. I guess I've forgotten that because so much of the conversation I have around that book can't really include what happens at the end, and can't really include Toothwort, you know. I tend to talk about, when I'm doing events, I talk about family and myth and childhood and England and all this kind of stuff, and then I sometimes forget about part three [of the book]. Even just lying in bed because I couldn't sleep last night because I'm so jet-lagged, I was like, "Oh yeah. He does [redacted] in the [redacted]." [Laughs] Anyway, thanks for reading it. I'm going to have to figure out how to transcribe this interview without giving away the ending.  Oh yeah, it's hard. The main one, the really hard one, when I talk about the book, because I want to talk about the kind of moral framework for the book, as well as some of the formal concerns of mine, it's really hard not to mention the ending, where you find out that Toothwort himself is [redacted]. That's really hard, because I desperately want people to discover that on their own. You simply can't talk about that in advance of reading it. But that explains so much about the book, about why he behaves the way he behaves. It feels like a very subtle reveal. You have to be paying attention to get that. I hope it's less of a reveal than a kind of clicking into place. It's almost like, in musical terms, a repetition of a refrain that you had heard somewhere before but you hadn't quite realized is an important refrain. Just like a coda or something. Well, there are elements of horror and mystery to your novel, but it's not a whodunnit.   Well, we done it. We wielded it. Ah, society done it. Once again. And I hope that's sort of the point. The reveal is not a literary device or anything like that, and it doesn't really have anything to do with me as the author or any of the characters in the book. The reveal is an invitation for you to have done a certain amount of thinking throughout the book. It's to do with the relationship between book and reader, and it should kind of cast its light differently on everyone. That was my thinking about it, that your ending or understanding of him as a character, or even Lanny as a kind of an absence of a character, is very bespoke. It's yours. Hence some of the white space in the book, and some of the absence of things that you would expect to be in a novel. Even you talking about the scariness of it, or the horror, or the unease of it, that's, I hope, very unique to your encounter of it.  [[{"fid":"6705281","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"}}]] Photo Credit: Lucy Dickens Talking about separating your art from the artist, that's kind of a theme in your book. Lanny's mother is a former actress turned crime novelist, and that kind of comes back to her when Lanny goes missing. People start dissecting the content of her book. That happens to some extent with Pete's artwork, where he's being interrogated about some of the adult subject matter of some his paintings in conjunction with the missing kid. Was that something you were trying to work with in this book?  To be honest, I didn't really think about it. I made them artistic people because I'm interested in those people and I felt that was relevant to the themes of the book. But I suppose—yeah, it's nice to have some clarity on that, from your question. I suppose one of the big issues of our time is how to separate the art from the artist and what to do about bad people who make great art. These are pressing questions. But, to me they are questions that come from the artificiality of the role of the artist. I think we put the artist on too much of a pedestal anyway, so the question of whether we should care whether they were bad is sort of like, "Didn't you know they were bad anyway? Why did you think they were special?" Why in the culture industry did we need to elevate them onto pedestals, pretending they were perfect? None of us are perfect, and artists tend to be more flawed. So, it seems laughable to me to discover that these men are all creeps, because of course they were. Didn't you read the work?   So, I'm interested in that, but one of the things I'm worried about now is that art becomes a more rarefied thing and becomes only defined by its cultural worth or its place within the cultural system, but art is deeper than that. Literature is the common language, and in the same way art has a deep and important role in our society more than just pretty things in galleries to be sold. What I wanted to do with Pete particularly was to create someone truer to that, and I wanted to show how society has been unkind to those people, has othered them. I wanted the artist as threat to be explored around Pete. I didn't need to specify too much about the kind of work he made, but it kind of made sense that the kind of work he made was accepted in an avant garde context, but then becomes utterly terrifying to people in a localized, social context, where the apparatus of understanding is less developed. The classic thing of, what sense does someone like Louise Bourgeois make in a psychoanalytic context, or a context of art theory or surrealism or the New York art scene of the 1970s, and what context would that work make in a French farmhouse when someone who isn't in that world is confronted by those themes? That's always been a fascinating theme to me. But more than thinking about if artists are just good people or not, I was thinking about the ways art is viewed as autobiographical, even when it's not. I know that's a response your own work has gotten a lot.   That's why I made Jolie a writer. I was kind of yelping against a particular current in UK literary culture, which has upset me in recent years. Anti-intellectualism and misogyny go hand in hand to block the work of fiction writers, particularly when they're women, to write about lives other than their own, or to write well about their own life in the context of fiction. You have it in your own literary culture I'm sure, but it is dismaying to watch the way we don't allow women to be novelists and clobber them around the head with the kind of biographical fallacy. It happens everywhere, but it upsets me in the UK when there have been books that I’ve greatly admired either as a publisher or a reader, and then see them reviewed as if they're autobiography. I wanted to set her up as a little case study of that, but I realized I didn't need to get bogged down in the type of work she makes, or even the type of person she is. You can do that kind of deftly with that one kind of tabloid thing where it's like, let's look at the woman who writes this work, behind the mask as it were. I see that as the manifestation of the whole critical impasse anyway, that kind of moralistic judgement.   I saw Sally Rooney interviewed at the Toronto Public Library a few weeks ago, and she was saying that she purposely tries to abstain from revealing too much about her personal life, and that she feels like she's disappointing people when she reveals that her books aren't based on true stories, and that she just makes them all up.   Even still, there will be this desperate desire for personal information, an, "Oh yes, someone found out Sally Rooney lives with her partner who is a teacher, he must be Connell." Or Sally Rooney must be writing for him or around him. The desperation to do that is an astonishing thing in 2019, X many years after postmodernism, a hundred years since Virginia Woolf. It's quite extraordinary that fixation, almost fetishization, of the biography, is still so powerful in literary culture. And how boring, of all the things you could talk about with Sally's works, that that is a thing that people want to talk about. It's sort of crushing. It's a way to kill the possibilities of the form as well. The novel should be one of our most radical forms but you'd never guess from a lot of literary engagement. So, my next question is, are you Lanny? Who stole me? [Laughs] Besides society, of course. God, I've never thought about that. I did get stolen! From who! It's not funny. I've never thought about this. These questions are really unlocking me. I got stolen at the Oxford Covered Market when I was about eight or nine years old, yeah. I was just chewing my jumper, not really paying attention, and this guy just led me away. Did you get... put back? Are you okay? I suddenly looked up and started to go, "Oh, uh, er, help..." and my mom came barrelling around the corner, swinging her handbag like an ax and knocked this guy around the head. I don't think he was actually a predator or anything like that, I think he was a kind of confused drunk or something.   Was he made of plants?  Yeah, and he was shapeshifting. Lanny is the title character, but like you said, there's this space in the book. For the first part of it, you have four narrators, including Toothwort himself, but you never hear from Lanny directly. It's one of my preoccupations—I tried it in my first book and I'm going to try it again—but I'm only interested in how accomplished readers are at building characters beyond the writer's determination of them. I remember being really sorely disappointed as a child when a character was overly illustrated, or when exposition was just heaped onto a character in a way that removed the imaginative possibilities for me. Lanny does say a few things, and there is some dialogue, but not very much. I want the book to be a series of mirrors, and Lanny exists as a reflection of other people's idea of him. To Robert he's a kind of reprimand and in some respects a threat or emblem of disapproval, and to Jolie he's a kind of muse, and there's a lot of maternal and almost erotic obsession with the surface of him, and him as a kind of projection and site of trauma for her. Same with Pete and their friendship, which becomes a kind of natural thing but becomes loaded up with societal suspicion. I didn't need to write him, I just needed to create him as accurately as I could in absentia through other people's consideration of him. There were a few times when he did appear a bit more, and I realized the damage I was doing to the book as a warp and weft of ambiguity. There's a textural thing made up of other people. I did great damage to him when I put him in any great detail. There was a bit where he had a long conversation with Pete about sexuality, and I realized I was removing all possible hint and suggestion and interest for the reader to gauge their own sense of Pete as a sexual person. More happens when I took stuff out. I find that really, really, really, really pleasing to do, realizing how much the reader can do if you just give them a bit. Same in the second part. You know you can get to a person, both a character and a role within a community, and their kind of whatever, psychosexual or socioeconomic type. You can do that in just half a line. You just set them up deftly in relation to other things. It's not what they are on their own, it's how they're responding organically to other things in their ecosystem. Same with Lanny. I limit him. I make him smaller for the reader, the more I tell you about him, where I want him big. I want him up in there floating. Also, for me as a writer, he was the one character I didn't do any work on. I didn't imagine him at all. I don't have a vision of him in my head, whereas everyone else I have a hyperrealistic sense of. I know what Robert looks like naked, I know how he eats, I know how he chews, I know how he blows his nose, I know his sexual predilections, everything about those characters. Whereas Lanny just needed to remain for me an absence as well. I don't remember reading if you even gave Lanny an age.  No, I didn't. You don't need to know. I have a sense of how old he is. He can't really be teenage, and some of the things he does and some of the intellectual currents he's surfing on with the adult world means he can't really be much younger than the certain age, but yeah, I never name it. Same as I never really need to name where the place is. There's so much I don't need to tell you, which is the point for me. It's something the characters do to each other, especially in the latter half of the book. They fill in the blanks when they have their suspicions with each other, particularly when it comes to Pete but also between Jolie and her neighbour, Peggy. The point of having the kind of floating village voice which is sound rather than literature, one of the reasons is to train the reader in a way of kind of half listening, half reading, where they're not reading it as if it's normal literature. They're kind of floating over it, picking up traces and scents of things, so later on things prickle or echo or reverberate according to that texture, and so that's what I want you to be doing. I want you suddenly like, "God, had I completely abdicated my responsibilities? Why was I as a reader not alarmed that Pete was spending time with this kid? What kind of person did I think Robert was?" A bit more like a musical experience, I want you to be like, “He taught me how to play this music in part one,” and that “my notes are sounding in some of the stuff that the village is saying.” Even if some of them are kind of unsubtle. Obviously, Mrs. Larton is unsubtle and obviously I'm talking about a particular type of person, the moral judgement of a particularly religious person or the vicious gossip of a more unpleasant person in the village, but I hope they're not caricatures. I hope they reflect realistically and truthfully the way all of our minds work, even the things we don't say that become personally taboo. As if we're all moving around in microclimates of our own taboos, our own questioning of what is an inappropriate thing to think or say. The village is not just a model of individual consciousness, but also off of how our relationships work. Things you'd say to your partner that you wouldn't say to a stranger, and things that a community says to itself that it wouldn't say to its newspaper, and vice versa. It becomes a map of an individual relationship, and so a small place, and then a big place, and then I hope also of like a nation state. This is how countries think. This is how we write history. This is how we contextualize our past and so on and so forth. For that to work as I want it to work in a reader's head, so much of it has to be white space. You compare it to music, but it's a story so suited to the form of a novel. Just from the way you literally place the words on the page, to what you choose to reveal or not. You said you had a similar approach to the last book, but you adapted that to the stage. I'm wondering how your storytelling technique changes in a visual medium like the theatre. The thing about Enda Walsh who made the play is, he's a very, very visual theatre maker, and he's very collaborative. He chose to make Grief an assault on the senses. He wanted to make the book come to life in the most vivid way possible. He realized to do that, he had to focus on the wordiness of it. It's not like that guy's obsession is, you know, Chuck Berry. That guy's obsession is poetry. His trauma manifests itself through literary jokes, literary devices. The play is really, there's words dripping off the back of the stage, there's huge words scraped in the thing, typewriters come alive, bits of paper are all over the thing, the dad is always drawing stuff and always saying, "ah, look at this drawing I've done," or, "I'm writing this note." For me, the visual I had in my head writing it became very literalized on stage as words. I guess that wouldn't happen again. That was completely unique to Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. There is always a death, because with both books I talk about the ambiguity and wanting interpretive doors left open. With Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I wanted no door to be closed. So like, the idea of the crow being a metaphor, or the crow being a manifestation of the dad's obsession with Ted Hughes, or it being a joke, or it being a real crow, or it being the children's fantasy of a crow, I want them to all be possible. I once read a review, and I mean I've gotten horrible reviews and stupid reviews and all sorts of things, but the saddest review I ever got just said, "Okay, I get it, the bird's a metaphor for death." I was like, "Oh no, please don't do that!" [laughs] "You just shut all the doors. What a shame. What a shame for you, and what a shame for the boys, and what a shame for the dad, and what a shame for the bird." Where was this review? It was a famous person I shan't name on Twitter. And, fine, to each their own. Totally fine. I just felt that will be a pity for them, because there's so much colour and noise outside of that interpretation. But anyway, the theatre obviously has to make choices, and he chose to make crow and dad the same person. It's an astonishing thing, it allows for a really truly virtuoso performance. Cillian Murphy is like, I've never seen anything like it. It's a performance I'll never forget as long as I live. But it nevertheless closes down other interpretive avenues on the stage. You have to do that. The stage has power literature can't have, and literature has power that the stage can't have, and one of those powers for me is the openness.   I want to close with a softball. What is the role literature in today's society? [laughs] What is the role of our literature in our society? Or just, art in general. What's the point of art. I was just in Sydney with lots of amazing writers, but one of them was George Saunders, who was reading my books. It's amazing to meet someone you admire as much as I admire him, and him be reading my work, ‘cause it kind of charges the conversation in an unusual way, especially when there's a kind of, you know, mentorship or admiration thing going on. Like, I'm on my knees, admiring George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo is a book I thought in some ways parallels yours. There's the missing or dead boy, and the chorus of voices. They're loose parallels, but it was a comparison I held in my mind when reading. I love Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm obviously massively flattered by the comparison. I do remember when I was first reading Lincoln in the Bardo I was thinking, finally, here's the book I want to read. Finally, here's a ghost story that is a love story. That is sort of the meaning of literature to me, how to connect us to each other and to our past. For me, the best books are the ones that teach us to mourn better, to refine and revitalize and interrogate the ways in which we relate to each other, now when we're alive and after we've died and before we've been born. Squash the space time continuum. I'm relatively unapologetically old-fashioned about the idea of the novel as an empathy machine. I do think that is the case, even if that's too cozy a formulation. I read an incredibly intelligent article recently by Namwali Serpell about how that now clichéd idea of the novel is too easy. It lets us off the hook. Because we can say, "Oh, I've read books about that, so I care." And that's not real care. In fact, that might be part of a terrible Western failure to act, because we're busy looking at art that makes us care. I’m probably paraphrasing her terribly.   It's a charged question, right? I see a controversy bubbling this morning on the internet about this boat that's being exhibited at the Venice Biennale, a boat in which a bunch of migrants died. Whether you think that's good work or bad work, the work is asking the question. I guess personally, literature is about a way to worry and a way to think more carefully, and a way to express fear and love, but for all of us generally I think it should be the great question machine. If we stop asking questions as a society we become lazy and we become formulaic and we become obedient. Literature is just the way to dismantle, to ask back all the important things. Anyway, to bring it back to George Saunders. He called it, the idea that it's small entertainment for a bunch of verified people, we cannot allow that to be the case. It must be the lifeblood of our society, for everyone and relevant to everyone and being written by and for everyone. I uncomplicatedly agree with that.
I Know You Are You, and Real

Now, what wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt?

One year after my sister is dragged to the Farmhouse I place an ad in the newspaper that says Let’s Go Swimming The woman I later meet at the edge of the lake is perhaps three times my age and so thinI laugh as I imagine her scanty dinnersA bowl of brown riceA single steamed green vegetableThe simmered stem of some ascetic flower She is disgusted by my smoking My matted hair She snatches the cigarette out of my mouth and slaps meacross the face and my tearsWhich have been so long absent Are suddenly there and my vision is bright and clean Beside us The lake steams Apple cores and beer cans float around its rim She strips to boxers and then she takes off my clothes too The trees are so thickly green I don’t worry about my nudity—the Town is a mile away And I know I’ll seem to be part of the greater landscape As in a bad painting When she kneels and starts working on my shoes I close my eyes and place my hand upon her head I want to test the water with a finger or foot but watching her diveMakes me ashamed of my hesitancySo I climb an overhanging tree And sit for a moment in the fragrant creaking alien arms And then I drop into the lake from that height Not knowing if there will be rocks below In the moments before I hit the water I love her more than I’ve ever loved anyone The lake is so silty and fetid It feels like when I was a child And forced to use my sister’s old bathwater After she had been lifted out and towelled dry Now What wouldn’t I give to swim in my sister’s dirt? There is nothing There’s nothing I would not give How could our parents have thought that water fit for another personAfter they had washed her thin oily hair in it After they’d cleaned the dirt from her toes This water is as warm as saliva and the bottom is covered in strange lumpsMy companion is miles ahead already A muddy blurI want to ingratiate myself to her I want to receive the full measure of her attention Without doing anything to provoke it And certainly without revealing That her attention matters to me in any way In other words I am ordinary I want to tell her I know how to suffer With my swallowing and my injecting With my snowbanks and my hangovers With the terror that turns My organs black and sour She insists we follow the river that feeds the lake We swim against a ruthless current until we can go no further Until we are swept back cursing Still she says nothing Still I learn nothing I await what I know will never arrive I await what I wouldn’t recognize if it did (My suffering acquires a mock-spiritual cast) [[{"fid":"6705231","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"}}]]   We reach the bank I want to thank her then break her Gently apart at the joints like a chicken But there on the bank in front of my eyes She dissolves like sugar whisked into water I emerge from the lake less clean than when I enteredOur Town’s nightwatchman circles the water Even though it is nowhere near eveningHe wears huge black goggles and reinforced rubber boots In a very short time, I lost everything. The way forward is hidden from me, as is the way back. And I cannot remain here, of course.He taps his way forward with the aid of a walking stick I lie back in my round iridescent-pink sunglasses I think pink is the most influential colour in the world People motor by in a boat They’re laughing and passing around a baby I feel my usual revulsion at laughter and babies and groups I look into the opal on my finger and if I unfocus my eyes I can see my sister swimming inside the fiery lake at its core Lately I cannot decide What I believe Do I believe in releaseDo I deserve release Will I be released   Listen to this piece from the audiobook edition: [[{"fid":"6705241","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original"}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]]   From I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters, a Strange Light book.