An ode to a vibrant public commons.
“Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...” -Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978 ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life” On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering. That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys? The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day. Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love. This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth. Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes. ACT II: “Question Everything” My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago. Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire. That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile. From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.” Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today. He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate” If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message. Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys. For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places. More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites. It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too. As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons. One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky. “Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...” For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true. ACT IV: “The Hourglass” In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls. For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins. The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history. But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear. Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.” Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street. And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart. The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit? ACT V: “Speed Control Zone” Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls. This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed. The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe. And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog. Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life. That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon. Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t. Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.” With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.
Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.
Welcome to Untimely Meditations, a monthly column about fashion for people who hate fashion time, and are perpetually late. There was a time when the French ruled the world. Now, it seems more like playacting. Enter #SadMacron, a collection of images from February and March that the internet memefied, poking fun at the French president’s seeming burlesque of seriousness. Taken by Macron’s official photographer, Soazig de la Moissonoière, the pictures show the president after a (seemingly fruitless?) conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Missing his characteristic navy blue blazer, and attempting something that approximates human emotion, these images seek to launch Macron into the pantheon of historical importance. For those of us who missed Cold War myth-making the first time around, the #SadMacron images are underwhelming updates to the genre. Stealing Kennedy valour, Macron goes for the just-add-water mystique of legacy building. He colourizes and reverses Jacques Lowe’s “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph that sees JFK turned away from the audience, without internalizing why that image works. Steadying himself on the resolute desk, caught between two flags—the symbol of the people on one side, and the symbol of the presidency on the other—Lowe’s interpretation of Kennedy hinges precisely on the tension between the president’s strong silhouette and the gravity of his office. Cutting a shadowy figure, Kennedy is armoured in a midcentury suit, the look calling to mind his wife Jackie’s plea to designer Oleg Cassini to “PROTECT ME.” In contrast to Kennedy, Macron drops the jacket, and faces the audience, caught between nothing in particular. Bracketed by rococo cherubs, he is a “sober” intrusion into a world of pastels and gold. The removal of the suit jacket implies a “willingness to get down to work;” yet, without loosened tie or rolled up sleeves, it looks as if the president is posing. In other images of the #SadMacron series, we see furrowed brows and attempts at despair, all of which have the subtlety and range of a staged paparazzi shot. Yet, what is most compelling here is not what the president does or does not do, but rather the tension between the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and the codes of modernity, best exemplified through Macron’s crisp suit. * Unlike the gilded whimsy of an Ancien Regime interior, the contemporary suit means business. It is a triumph of the bourgeois mode over the aristocracy that came before it. Even without the accoutrements of work—namely, piles of papers, folders, and envelopes—the suit exudes seriousness. Changing little over centuries, the suit intrigues due to its simplicity of design, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the physique and character of its wearer, eschewing most ornamentation. For the architectural modernist, Adolf Loos, the suit was a holy garment. Per the fashion historian, Christopher Breward, Loos saw the suit as a “fundamental component of an enlightened existence…the suit had seemingly always been there to remind man of the responsibilities and prizes attached to his higher state.” It became the garment of masculine republicanism par excellence, with the psychologist J.C. Flügel remarking that it was a sign of “the great masculine renunciation,” which argued that from the late 18th century onwards, men abandoned the more ostentatious garments of the past, opting instead for sartorial minimalism. Flugel writes: “as commercial and industrial ideals conquered class after class, until they finally became accepted by the aristocracies of the more progressive countries, the plain and uniform costume associated with such ideals has, more and more, ousted the gorgeous and varied garments of the older order.” Despite being called “Jupiter” in the French press—a veiled reference to both a god and the French king, Louis XIV—Macron is neither. His penchant for the suit reveals the heart of a bourgeois technocrat whose proximity to the Sun King perhaps comes from schoolboy imaginings, lofty ambitions, and a certain inflexibility of temperament. We accept gods and kings to be more opulent in their presentation, but the suit is often an exercise in restraint. In comparison to the gleam of the crown, the contemporary suit is aesthetically parsimonious. It is the stuff of clerks, industrialists, and civil servants—hardly ordained by god to govern, but apparently the market is fitting replacement. Yet, the suit—as we now know it—has its origins in Restoration-era England, a sartorial salve in an era of instability. Though some date the birth of the suit to Revolutionary France and the Romantic era that succeeded it (or Beau Brummell, anyone?), the fashion historian David Kuchta argues that the three-piece suit emerges in the late 17th century, as a means of re-articulating aristocratic power following the English Civil War. Disagreeing with the “Great Masculine Renunciation” theory, Kuchta believes that the suit “shifted elite masculinity from a regime that valued sumptuous display as the privilege of nobility to one that rejected fashion as the concern of debauched upstarts,” instead inscribing modest consumption as a public virtue. And it started with a vest. Introduced by King Charles II in 1666, the vest, per English diarist Samuel Pepys, was an attempt to “teach the nobility thrift” by introducing a style that “[they] will never alter.” Consciously unadorned, the vest meant to deflect from condemnations of English aristocratic excess made by radical reformers such as the Puritans. Per Kuchta, the vest could also be seen as a way for the English court to combat French influence by introducing a distinctly English style. Lord Halifax wrote that “[the English must] throw off [French] fashion, and put on vests, that we might look more like a distinct people, and not be under the servility of imitation.” This economic and political rivalry with France recast luxury and tyranny as distinctly “French vices” that the English imported—at their peril—through dress. As the poet Sir Thomas Overbury wrote, “vainglory, new fashions, and the French disease are upon terms of quitting their country’s allegiance, to be made free denizens of England.” Sumptuary nationalism further solidified the trend, with wool becoming England’s “manly and moral fibre.” By 1688, extravagance in dress was seen as “base effeminacy,” with a gentleman’s reputation increasingly reliant on perceptions of their public piety, which was seen through the absence of adornment. By introducing the three-piece suit, the restoration court, according to Kuchta, “temporarily reversed the relation between power and display.” In forgoing obvious luxury, the crown regained its moral authority, and grounded it in a particular vision of masculinity—one that deliberately did away with the ornamentation of old. * English mores eventually found their way to France smuggled in the works of Enlightenment era thinkers like Voltaire. Entranced with English pragmatism, French fashion changed accordingly. It embraced English styles like the frock coat, gilet, and greatcoat, and according to the costume historian, Aileen Ribeiro, the Anglomania of the 1780s influenced French dress towards the sobriety of the black suit, a look “worn by middle class businessmen and the professional man—the lawyer, the doctor, the official—which was to become the urban dress of the nineteenth century man.” Yet, unlike the suit’s ability to unify at a time of social upheaval, Anglomania was a symptom of a society coming undone. Another influence on the suit’s design were innovations in military dress. The uniform retrained and refit bodies and minds for combat, according to Breward in The Suit: Form, Function, and Style, “the military uniform was a potent agent of court and state control,” allowing for the expression of the staunch hierarchy of the Bourbon era state. It was a sensibility that continued throughout the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era. Drawing on the historian Daniel Roche’s comments, Breward notes that “Uniform is at the heart of military logic…when war is a necessary continuation of politics. Uniform constructs the fighting man for mortal combat. It imposes control, a source of efficiency in battle and means to social power….it creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence….uniform is central to a utopian and voluntarist vision of the social which reconciles the conflict between automatic docility ‘and the concrete economy of the individual liberty in which the autonomy of each constitutes the measure of his obedience.’ It impregnates the whole of society.” For revolutionaries in particular, English style suits became the antithesis of aristocratic opulence; the simplicity and rigorousness of its tailoring made it the perfect assertion of the new order. Countering the tyranny of an immaculately baubled aristocracy, the suit was infused with the austere self-confidence of neoclassicism—a new masculinity. As Barbara Vinken writes in “What Fashion Strictly Divided,” the Revolution did away with the sybaritic noble, reducing their symbolic power to mere trinket, instead promoting “the citizen-man—the only real man—[who] stands in a negative relation to the world of frivolous appearance. He is. He does need to represent.” The suit was no mere uniform, it became, in Roche’s view, part of a new delineation of public space, [establishing] distances, a code of human and social relations, and it was all the more persuasive in that it developed an aesthetic.” * On March 14th, Macron swapped Kennedy-core for purposeful schlubbiness. Emerging for the press in jeans and a black French special forces hoodie, he looked uncharacteristically casual. Instead of memes, the internet noted a curious similarity between Macron’s new look and that of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, war hero du jour. As Oleksiy Sorokin of the Kiev Independent quipped on Twitter: “A month ago it would have been hard to imagine French President Emmanuel Macron trying to copy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now it’s the reality we live in.” Compared to Zelenskyy’s man-of-the-people greens, Macron’s new look reads as army man cosplay. It’s odd that the avatar of the “Jupiterian presidency” would even deign to be perceived in sweats. Stranger still is that anyone remotely deserving of a mythological moniker would dress like a post-Gordon Geckko style corporate raider devoid of sleaze and personality. Nevertheless, he persisted. Relatability gambits will never die. Though the internet lambasted Macron’s jeans-and-a-hoodie as an attempt to copy Ukraine’s wartime leader, his look was less post-Maidan everyman, and more 2000s tech bro. A fashion revolution of a different kind, the tech bro uniform of t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and Patagonia vests implied the same Protestant impulses as the proto-suit, with a decidedly amoral twist. Uninterested in the hereafter or any particular religious statement (unless relentless optimizing and money is your god), its “dogma,” wrote Hannah Murphy in the Financial Times, is that “minimalism and monotony yield extra productivity.” Social media titan Mark Zuckerberg famously stated, regarding the monotonousness of his dress, that his intention was to “clear [his] life to make it so that [he had] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve [the Facebook] community.” He continued: “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Though he shed the suit, he never shed one of the most potent ideas behind it; that you are what you do, not what you appear to be. By relentlessly simplifying until there’s barely anything left and posturing at a kind of anti-fashion, the tech bro uniform undermines the suit’s potency, highlighting in the latter a kind of stuffy pomposity and lack of intellectual rigour. This sentiment calls to mind Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s disdain for CEOs in suits. As he wrote in Zero to One regarding how his company chooses to invest: “pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings.” It’s a similar logic that underpinned criticisms of French aristocratic fashion during the French Revolution; if you are what you say you are, contend the investor and the critic, then why are you laden down with needless accoutrements? If power in Silicon Valley derives from mental acuity and obsessiveness, slickness and attention to detail in dress suggests a lack of intellectual virility; a need to preen and pose, and a lack of attention to what really matters, vision and code. As Thiel wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.” The tech bro uniform suggests a shift in where real power lies. The symbols of the past cannot hold. Instead, power belongs to those who create and control the attention economy: tech titans, and those best placed to surf the fickle waves of the discourse. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to seem “real,” or at the very least, “disruptive.” That’s something that the likes of Zuckerberg got, and what Zelenskyy in his army greens understands. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Macron aimed for war hero and emerged instead as dweeby tech despot. Thank god he didn’t go for a vest, bulletproof, Patagonia or otherwise. After all, we’re in the midst of a social media war—where it’s as much about creating spectacle as it is combating it. So why not pay tribute to those who ultimately shape what and how we see? Why not don the guise of the new gods? Jupiter is so passé.
How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?
In 1996, fifteen years after its seismic launch, American television network and cultural kingmaker MTV surprised viewers and skeptics alike with an untypical announcement: it was hosting a fiction-writing contest. Embarking on a new creative endeavour was not, in and of itself, unique to the brand. After all, MTV’s very existence was born from a brazen experiment uniting popular music, visual culture, and a brassy, free-swinging attitude. By the mid-nineties, the brand’s reach had unfurled in a variety of directions—often adjacent to music culture, but by no means focused on it—perhaps most famously those of animated programming (Beavis and Butthead, Æon Flux) and reality television (The Real World, Road Rules). But literature is a domain often regarded, however snobbishly, as antithetical to the sorts of stimulations available on MTV. What’s more, the lofty, cerebral associations of the written word did not align with the channel’s bawdy reputation. The knowingly provocative music video for Duran Duran’s 1981 single “Girls on Film” initiated what critics regarded as a catalogue of garish smut. As early as 1983, journalist Steven Levy described MTV in a Rolling Stone cover story as “the ultimate junk culture triumph.” The channel won a Peabody Award for its 1992 “Choose or Lose” programming, which sought to mobilize young voters, and succeeded in its aim—at MTV’s inaugural ball, newly elected president Bill Clinton declared, “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton–Gore victory.” Still, the channel’s efforts to achieve something so serious as heightened political awareness were widely lampooned. But MTV did not cower before mockery. And though its faltering start augured an uncertain future, the brand’s imprint, MTV Books, ultimately captured the hearts of its target audience of elder millennials who kept their dog-eared copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower close and lovingly at hand. I was among them. A fickle fan of MTV’s television programming, I wondered whether MTV Books could offer me the nourishment I only occasionally found in the channel’s prodigiously splashy media. It did. And, in so doing, it secured my allegiance to that hell-raising colossus that loomed at the back of my generation. MTV Books was the MTV I wanted. *** Together with its cosponsor, Pocket Books—the entity through which MTV would found its own literary imprint—the music entertainment behemoth solicited entries for “The Write Stuff” from aspiring, yet heretofore unknown, writers. The contest winner would sign the inaugural MTV Books contract, launch the imprint with their debut novel, and reap a $5,000 advance in the process. In the twenty-first century, these spoils might seem meagre, even exploitative, but a book contract, especially one tethered to such mighty commercial influence, is a seductive prospect for any labouring writer. So too is fame—and this MTV intimately understood. To qualify, “The Write Stuff” entrants were required to submit three chapters from a work in progress and be under the age of twenty-four. The latter stipulation accommodated the brand’s glorifying emphasis on youth and youth’s weightiest and most cutting-edge preoccupations. In other words, MTV was in the market for prose that aligned with its programming, so predominantly focused on the tangled, horny sociality of kids coming of age in the nineties, like the contestants on Road Rules or, when the animated sitcom premiered in 1997, Daria. Maybe the characters of a future MTV Books title watched MTV—if they had cable television, that is—or maybe they thought MTV was garbage. Regardless, targeting teens and early twenty-somethings made it more likely that the submitted manuscripts would express the current milieu. But whether due to lack of access or disinclination, the so-called “MTV Generation” hesitated to participate; at first, turnout for the “The Write Stuff” languished at two hundred entries. As the deadline neared, the New York Times ran a short article about the contest which noted, with mild derision, the shallow pool of manuscripts. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every misunderstood youth must be in want of a publisher. Or is it?” the piece asks, as if with eyebrows raised. Then-MTV executive Van Toffler expressed a similarly detached bemusement. “Apparently they’re taking their time,” he told the Times. “There’s no denying it. Literature is not the most popular art form with our audience.” The adolescents and young adults of the mid-nineties—the audience in question—had long been maligned with the rest of Generation X as inert and intellectually disengaged. Writes Jonathon I. Oake in his 2004 article “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” “Thus, the deviance of Xer subculture lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing’. . . Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict.” The prevailing assumption—accurate or not—was that young, would-be literary stars were too busy watching MTV to pick up a pen. Tepid press is press nonetheless. Despite its brevity, and its equivocations, the Times write-up must have roused interest in MTV’s new venture. Ultimately, “The Write Stuff” yielded over five hundred manuscripts, and Robin Troy, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was named the winner. Connecticut-raised Troy’s debut novel, Floating, imagines a dinky, dusty town in Arizona where its comely protagonist, Ruby, falls in love with her husband’s estranged, cowboy brother. One might imagine it adapted for late night on The WB, after Dawson’s Creek, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Skeet Ulrich smoldering against a sunset. Surely MTV Books hoped, as any imprint would, that its first title would be met with a warm reception. But when Floating was published in October 1998, it and, by extension, MTV Books, inspired brittle critique. “One of the differences between cake recipes and novels is the greater likelihood of actually getting a decent recipe from a contest,” begins Kirkus’s trade review. Individual critics were similarly grim. “If this is the future of fiction, bring on the music videos,” writes Patrick Sullivan for the Sonoma County Independent. Sullivan’s review, devastating in its sneering dismissal of Troy’s book, also insinuates that MTV’s primary cultural contributions are too feeble to portend the brand’s success in the intellectually elevated domain of book publishing. In fact, he likens Floating to a music video, referring to it as “its literary equivalent . . . full of quick cuts and perspective changes.” Whatever its accuracy, this comparison heaves with the weight of MTV’s spotted reputation, one that largely turned on the critical response to their music videos. As early as 1984, video director John Scarlett-Davis belittled the channel’s main fare as “masturbation fantasies for middle America.” Many agreed with his assessment and claimed to be repulsed by the videos’ reliance on sexed-up, scantily clad women and the broadcasting of so-called loose morals. In 1998, MTV’s viewers thirsted for replays of Brandy and Monica’s music video for their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” and teenyboppers panted after a glimpse of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys as they hopped and thrusted through their choreography—but as is so often the case, this searing popularity did not coincide with highbrow assignation. If Floating’s structural template was an MTV music video, it was doomed to sink. Yet Troy is not to blame for this fumbled literary entrée, insists the Kirkus reviewer, who nonetheless sinks their teeth into the book and leaves puncture wounds. Rather, it is MTV Books who is responsible for sending “this novel-like object” into the world and perhaps “[devastating] any ambition [Troy] might have had.” By sharing her debut with that of the MTV Books imprint, Troy shouldered a prodigious burden. Implicit in Sullivan’s review is the belief that MTV had trespassed into territory beyond its expertise, dabbling wantonly where more robust powers of creative discernment were required. As the first expression of this breach, Troy’s work was bound to attract skeptical scrutiny—when, indeed, it garnered notice at all (Floating, like so many other books written for young readers, did not receive much critical attention). The shortcomings of any novel can be wielded as evidence of larger lamentable trends; this sort of intellectual synthesis is an expected function of literary criticism. If Floating was regarded as the crude effort of an undeveloped writer, it doubled as a symptom of MTV’s thought-annihilating influence on literature. In Sullivan’s estimation, MTV Books was not so much committed to telling stories as it was concerned with perpetuating its brand aesthetic. “As a physical object, Floating seems designed to provoke the same reaction as a stuffed animal (or a Backstreet Boy),” he writes. “The book is little, it’s funky looking, but most of all, it’s terribly cute. The chapters are all roughly ten pages long (just about right for perusal during a lengthy commercial interruption).” Rather than existing for its own sake—for the sake of a narrative, and for the possibilities exclusive to writerly craft—Floating seemed designed to complement MTV’s programming. Perhaps MTV earnestly hoped to encourage the habit of reading, so long as the practice did not infringe upon its raison d’être, that is to say, televised programming. But how much influence did MTV expect to brandish when it came to young readers’ literary interests? The success or failure of one book cannot predict the life trajectory of an imprint. If Floating’s prickly reception was not auspicious, surely it did not indicate doom, or anything else, for that matter. Readerly attention is finicky; so is the ebb and flow of cultural preoccupations. As a result, meteoric success eludes most published books, whatever their flaws or strengths. Floating might have been more elegantly crafted—and it might not have mattered. *** Then, on February 1, 1999, MTV Books published The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slender, epistolary novel by debut novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Chbosky. And whether due to the narrative’s easy resonance with many among the MTV viewer set—the main characters are white, suburban high school students—the intimacy of its language, or some unquantifiable alchemy, it was a hit. To date, Perks is MTV Books’s best-selling title, and the most recognizable of the imprint’s nearly forty novels and short fiction collections. Rapid, fervent popularity amongst teenage readers fostered robust circulation; by October 2000, MTV Books was printing Perks’ hundred-thousandth copy. And twinned rivulets of momentum, cult readership and educator enthusiasm, solidified the book’s material success: after the production of a high-profile film adaptation in 2012 and a stint atop the New York Times bestseller list, the title is ubiquitous. Even without the confidence of hindsight, this commercial success would come as no surprise. Perks emerges from MTV’s crowd of early aughts literature as an eager shepherd, scouting out its flock of pubescent misfits: the guileless, the preemptively jaded, and the rest of us wobbling from one emotional pole to the other. The 2012 film adaptation, written and directed by Chbosky, cemented the book’s stature as a darling among contemporary bildungsromans, although initially, critics did not receive it with unanimous enthusiasm. In fact, Perks’ trade reviews weren’t much better than those lobbed at Floating. Kirkus called it a Salinger “rip-off,” and Publisher’s Weekly accused it of being “trite.” Then again, the sort of reader who finds Perks “trite” might prefer the irritable machismo of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An epistolary novel is structured by the pursuit of human connection, and in the case of Perks, the gesture is unvarnished in its earnest, almost puppyish, hopefulness. Chbosky’s narrator, Charlie, writes to his unnamed recipient—someone he has never met, but has reason to think well of—just as he trepidatiously begins freshman year of high school. Charlie’s only friend has recently died by suicide, and his own experiences of trauma and mental illness are growing evermore unwieldy. He is befriended by two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick. But as Charlie sinks into the novel joy of these intimacies, his determination to be an attentive and loving friend churns with a twinned, subterranean urge for self-obliteration. As a character, Charlie is emotionally generous, but he also prefers not to think about himself, and to instead commit to passive observation (he is, of course, the titular wallflower). However, this is a coming-of-age novel, and so all that Charlie carefully avoids, he must ultimately confront. As an adult, I find the novel warm and, at times, rather effortful. At sixteen, I thought it was a perfect triumph—and that, perhaps, is the appraisal that matters more. When teenage me encountered Charlie’s now-famous pronouncement, “I feel infinite,” the words hummed, carrying me to the lip of synesthesia. I received this expression of tranquil, comradely bliss—vague, yet invitingly capacious—as both revelation and yen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, in my adolescent estimation, the Rosetta Stone of teenage angst, the Key to All Adolescent Mythologies. And, as its issuer, MTV Books had distinguished itself as a purveyor of unabashed truth. Charlie’s journey towards self-understanding, strewn as it is with romantic missteps, hallucinogens, and live Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, plausibly coincides with MTV’s carefully cultivated brashness, but his wide-eyed earnestness might, at first, seem at odds with the acerbic cool so central to the brand. Then again, perhaps MTV Books was heeding the zeitgeist’s elevation of things red-heartedly sincere. For, although the nineties are canonically understood in terms of disaffection, many sought respite in softer territory. James Cameron’s Titanic, exultantly melodramatic, debuted in 1997 to near immediate, orgiastic obsession and cleaned up at the following Academy Awards. Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster’s suitably extravagant love theme, was inescapable, practically atmospheric. The Billboard Top 100 was flush with similarly impassioned declarations: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight;” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply;” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” In the meantime, America gawked at the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton’s pungently insincere sex life and the simultaneously public excoriation of Monica Lewinsky: dismal proceedings which perhaps inspired us to scout out sweeter expressions of humanity. With Perks, MTV Books sauntered nearby, pairing coming-of-age sensitivity with of-the-moment stylishness. *** It would have made sense if, after finishing Perks, I had scouted out more of Chbosky’s work. Once besotted with a literary work, this tends to be a reader’s next move: investigate the author’s back catalogue and nurture a bit of fandom. Granted, Chbosky was a relative newcomer, and in fact, he didn’t publish a second novel until 2019, twenty years after his first (this follow-up, Imaginary Friend, was published by Grand Central Publishing, not MTV Books). In 2002, the results of any research would have been lean. But I confess that I did not seek out more of his writing. Instead, I meandered the aisles of Barnes & Noble in pursuit of more titles from MTV Books, the entity that had delivered Perks’s keen fluorescence into the world. This was the first literary imprint I had ever recognized as such. And although I lacked understanding of the logistics, I was receptive to the whispers of its branding. Surely my response was no coincidence. In an interview with Variety’s Jonathan Bing, Kara Welsh, then-deputy publisher of Pocket Books, explained that Perks’s success derived partially from the imprint’s kinship with MTV. “It’s a coming-of-age story aimed right at the MTV audience,” she noted. Bing then emphasized the prodigious advertising potential generated by such porous boundaries. “MTV produced an on-air spot for the book,” he explained, “a marketing coup enjoyed by few novels, especially first novels by little-known writers.” Implicit in these remarks by Welsh and Bing is the potency of the MTV trademark and its enticing associations of stylish audacity and cultural relevance. *** The guiding principle of any brand is this: be distinct, visible, and seductive. The MTV of the early aughts achieved this end. Still unimpeded by Napster and the gradual digitization of music, it reigned as the chaotic angel of entertainment. Its logo was—and still is—unmistakable: the solid loom of the “M” pressed against that hurried, inky dash, “TV.” Every weekday, Total Request Live (TRL) commingled the anticipation of a top-ten countdown with the tomfoolery of celebrity guests. And thanks to the exposure of MTV’s Time Square studio, it whipped Midtown Manhattan into an ecstatic frenzy. The MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s answer to the Grammys, offered more feral pageantry and commitment to shock. When, in 2001, Britney Spears strutted across stage with the thick rope of an albino snake draped across her shoulders, viewers spoke of little else. I can’t recall whether I watched Britney’s performance on the night that it aired; my television privileges were spare and strictly monitored. But as an elder millennial living in suburban Virginia, I harboured an abiding influence in MTV’s programming events, like The MTV Video Music Awards, or a thrilling celebrity guest appearance on TRL. If I was home alone, I would turn on the channel in search of boy bands and Daria reruns. And if the programming ever seemed crass, absurd, or try-hard, well, I was captive nonetheless. MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on American music television (with the exception of its more benign sister channel, VH1). If one wanted to hear the buzziest hits, and if the radio felt too unpredictably curated or one-dimensional, MTV prevailed as a brash sensory playground. Of course, my peers and I complained about its provisions. The music was redundant and vanishingly deprioritized; Carson Daly presided over TRL like an amiable automaton set to power-save. And by the early aughts, happening upon a spate of music videos felt as rare as a sighting of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the same room. As Amanda Ann Klein writes in Millennials Killed the Video Star, MTV gradually supplanted music videos with reality shows like Laguna Beach and Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Market research suggested that “millennials wanted to be a part of the media they consumed.” If this was my generation’s majority opinion, then I heartily dissented. Above all else, I chased the music video’s walloping glut of sound and fleeting images. And despite increasingly paltry offerings, I continued to watch. For a cloistered high school junior, MTV—even this diminished iteration of it—signified worldliness. Its programming instructed me in how to be young and how to pretend I enjoyed it. MTV Books piqued my interest because they had published Perks, but my curiosity was amplified by their affiliation with this popular culture juggernaut whose material endorsements guided my hand and my babysitting cash. For despite my quibbles with their early aughts lineup, I loved MTV. My musical tastes were sufficiently omnivorous to be satisfied by TRL; I knew that Tori Amos and Smashing Pumpkins weren’t likely to gain airplay, but Shakira and Britney Spears would. When, in 2000, MTV broadcasted their first feature-length film, 2gether—a satirical rendering of the boy band phenomenon perpetuated by the channel—it was an urgent cinematic affair. And although I doubted that Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane would have given me the time of day, I admired the animated series as the epitome of perspicacious wit. Surely, then, an MTV literary venture would unite good storytelling with a youthful, uniquely de nos jours attitude. Perks bore out this hypothesis, and so I was motivated to follow the thread. Over the years, I had consumed a healthy dose of young adult literature; although, in 2002, that taxonomy was not so ubiquitous, at least not among my peers. (Yet American librarians have been referring to adolescents as “young adults” since the 1940s, and the term “YA literature” has long been in circulation.) There was no shortage of decent—albeit homogenous—writing for and about adolescents when MTV Books launched in 1998. And while I treated my copy of Perks with attentive ardour, it had never previously felt necessary to read about modern life in order to locate emotional or dispositional familiarity. Why had MTV Books turned my head? At the risk of ellipticity—because MTV turned heads. The allure of MTV Books was always, to some extent, aesthetic. And it’s not surprising that an imprint with MTV’s influential heft would understand the craft of packaging. As their name suggests, Pocket Books creates mass-market paperbacks, soft and easily tucked in a coat. MTV Books’ offerings were designed according to this model, and in the years following the imprint’s launch, they manifested a reliable artistic calling card: candid, lowercase typeface, thick monochromatic blocks, and scraps of imagery loosely relevant to the narrative. They were “perfect for sliding into your messenger bag clad with pins and patches,” recounts one of my high school classmates, a fellow elder millennial. Any book can be wielded as an accessory, but MTV’s paperbacks complemented a particular look, one that was punky and chic. And for someone like me, hapless in her polo shirts and humdrum shoes, they supplied an air of subversion. The irony of this—brandishing slickly designed, commercial paperbacks to adopt a more alternative posture—sailed over my tidy, pony-tailed head. Teenage rebel I decidedly was not; subversion only interested me if I could practice it in good company. MTV seemed to assure me that I was. Although its fiction traded in misfits—Perks’s Charlie, Brave New Girl’s Doreen, the titular Fuck-Up—MTV Books was offering its alienated readers a means of fitting in. What a heady, beguiling paradox: come as you are, and you can be like us. I was addicted to the possibility of belonging and resonance, particularly when it was stained with rebellious aspirations. Relatability is more pleasant when it rhymes with validation, when the person on the page reminds us of ourselves, if only we were more audacious or capable of poignancy at the most cinematic moments. Hungry for that poignancy, we lonely millennial readers chased the unruly narrators of MTV Books. Narrators who listened to The Smiths and The Pixies, who wielded “fuck” with confidence, and who pontificated self-seriously the way we did on LiveJournal. Narrators who were existentially stymied and frustrated and bewildered by eros. Narrators who were emotionally bruised, who had survived traumas that, perhaps, vibrated in time with our own. Narrators who were love-voracious yet flinty, who bore shields of self-sabotage and well-whetted wit. In return, MTV Books hailed us, offering itself as both the drug and the dealer. *** In recent years, MTV Books has abided, at least publicly, in a quiet lull, without marketing razzle-dazzle or new releases. The imprint’s most recent output was a hardcover edition of Perks commemorating its twentieth anniversary, released in September 2019. We may, however, be at the lip of an MTV Books renaissance. In January 2021, various literary media outlets broadcast the imprint’s imminent “relaunch,” to be helmed by industry veteran Christian Trimmer. I confess, I am skeptical. In a cultural milieu brimming with screen-based diversions, how can the brand wield even a portion of its early-aughts might? Does Generation Z want their MTV just as its predecessors did? With the glut of accessible digital media, I’m inclined to say no. What’s more, in a marketplace now flush with YA literature, and so many authors, both seasoned and debut, triumphing within the genre, I wonder how this new iteration of the MTV Books imprint will distinguish itself, tethered as it is to a diminished pop culture giant, a relic of a society oriented towards cable television instead of YouTube and Instagram and TikTok. *** I discovered MTV Books nearly two decades ago, when my peers and I stood unknowingly at the cusp of a great digital onslaught. But for the time being, we wandered mall food courts and Blockbusters without the truss of a cell phone, and internet activity was oriented around winking AIM chat boxes and legally dubious mp3 downloads. Dawdling in Barnes & Noble served as another reliable pastime for a bookish teenage girl too callow for parties or heavy petting. My best friend and I would station ourselves there on Friday nights, drawn to the sugary scented hodgepodge of the café’s Starbucks coffee and baked goods and the ready supply of magazines—Cosmopolitan, Glamour, NYLON—which I preferred to read at a distance from my father’s skeptical gaze. But we would also roam the aisles of books, announcing themselves like so many slick, bound promises of intellectual sophistication and worldliness. One evening, mid-meander, no doubt riding the rush of a cinnamon bun the size of my face, I spotted the MTV books; they were housed together, like a serial—The Baby-Sitter’s Club, if Kristy, Mary Anne, and Stacey were soused in cigarette smoke and sexual longing. The early aughts marketing does register as libidinous: it flirts, tosses its hair, and urges starry-eyed obsession. “Like this is the only one,” razzes a bulletin at the back of one paperback, before listing the rest of the imprint’s catalogue. “Don’t even pretend you won’t read more,” teases another. And to be fair, they had my number. After finishing Perks, I seized upon Louisa Luna’s 2001 novel, Brave New Girl, highlighter in hand. I visited Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up (1999) on intermittent bookstore visits, eyeing it like a shy girl at the high school dance. I didn’t dare bring it home. Yes, my parents would have reeled at a book entitled The Fuck-Up, but perhaps I was shrinking from an agitating boundary. Did I trust myself with such provocations? “I don’t feel like putting on MTV because all they play is trash,” narrates Luna’s protagonist, the fourteen-year-old Doreen. Another provocation, lobbed casually, and presumably at the author’s discretion. And yet its placement seems almost fastidious, as if the result of a pointed conversation. MTV hovers like a paternal spectre, insistent on performative accommodation. “We can take Luna’s joke,” they seem to say. “See? Look at us, taking it.” When I read that line as a girl, I was thunderstruck, even though I understood that this broad-swathed disdain suited Doreen’s character. She likes what she likes (The Pixies and Ted, her only friend) and is unimpressed by the solicitations of mainstream culture. I may have recognized that a behemoth like MTV could tolerate mild ribbing, that the suits in the room harboured no illusions about their motives or their product. Still, it unmoored me, this recognition of permissibility. Louisa Luna could lampoon MTV in a book they championed. But of course, this cheeky line was hegemonically sanctioned. Rebellion in MTV Books rarely takes too outlandish a shape, and it predominantly manifests in white, middle-class, able-bodied characters who are inevitably more attractive than they perceive themselves to be. Beck, of Rachel Solar-Tuttle’s 2002 novel, Number 6 Fumbles, self-medicates with booze and the company of frat boys, but still dazzles her UPenn professors with papers dashed off at the eleventh hour. In Fake Liar Cheat (2000), Tod Goldberg situates his everyman protagonist, Lonnie, in a bourgeois variation of Bonnie and Clyde—note the rhyme—but events devolve into such outlandish tumult that the narrative reads not so much as an anti-consumerist critique, but rather as the noirish wet dream of an aggrieved office drudge. Alongside Claire, a comely, chameleonic femme fatale, Lonnie frequents glitzy Los Angeles restaurants, dining and then dashing without paying the bill. When, eventually, his sneaky accomplice frames him for murder, there’s little surprise. At base, Fake Liar Cheat is a nihilistic tale for young men who want to have sex with beautiful women and then blame them for ruining their lives. Like Goldberg’s Lonnie, the unnamed narrator of The Fuck-Up nurtures a diffusive, hyper-masculine dissatisfaction that propels his undoing. He flings himself through 1980s New York City, seemingly hell-bent on bludgeoning his life, but his every predicament arrives after limpidly evident bad choices. Ultimately, he is offered salvation and takes it. MTV Books chronicled all manner of suffering in the early aughts, most of it cruel and undeserved. It was also the suffering of the systemically blessed. Despite the exploits within, these are primly woven stories that deliver snug denouements, implicitly rendering the characters’ subversions controlled and validated, their hardships, if not easily solved, then at least socially legible. Perhaps we ought not be surprised: their packaging—audacious and distinctive yet streamlined and contained—seems to promise these tidy, digestible rebellions. And for MTV Books’ target readership, so vastly dominated by white, upper- and middle-class school kids, this was a digestible, satisfying dosage. Donning the solipsistic lenses of coddled adolescence, resonance and familiarity can easily masquerade as literary virtuosity. A trendy book cover might look like an invitation to a new home, one that feels safer and intrinsically true. At the start of The Fuck-Up, Nersesian’s narrator—comfortably separated from the novel’s sordid events—briefly appraises the circumstances of his domestic harmony. “Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film,” he recounts. The vicissitudes of a placid adulthood: a dinner that tastes good, but not great; a film that entertains but doesn’t transport. This sort of mundanity might send you searching for Charlie’s beatific infinitude—searching, perhaps, in a rowdy little paperback whose logo promises wild delights. And when you’re sixteen and full of ache, you’ll believe in them.
Watching Irrfan Khan over the years
A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say. Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us. There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing. Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene. *** The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again. From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset. I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break. I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project. Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again. *** Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.” His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house. In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.” Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film. Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking. He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain. I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses. Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on. The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat. *** I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed. When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face. The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan. By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen. Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads. In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work. Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments. On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find. *** What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him. Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up. The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.” In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance. *** Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.” It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?” Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night. *** “You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives. I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us. *** The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence. Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state. I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi. After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage. Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.
“If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany.”
When the coronavirus came to New York City, I began spending more time in Central Park. For much of 2020, it was one of the few places to escape the sound of sirens, safely unmask, and inhale the scent of a hyacinth rather than your own halitosis. That patch of Manhattan, between 59th and 110th Streets and Fifth Avenue and the Avenue once known as Eighth (now Central Park West), has always felt sort of miraculous. The fact that you can be in the dizzying tumult of midtown one moment, and then suddenly lying in Kentucky bluegrass with your shoes and socks off, or gazing at a Great Egret gliding across a pond, is wondrously absurd. 18,000 trees. 843 acres. 2,373 squirrels, according to the last census. Its creators called it “the lungs of the city.” It’s also been described as a “synthetic Arcadian carpet grafted onto the grid” (Rem Koolhaas), an “Eden for everyone” (Cynthia S. Brenwall) and “#3 of 1,291 things to do in New York City” (TripAdvisor.com). During the Pandemic, the place has not only felt lovelier, but more necessary than ever. I’ll also say what everyone’s been thinking: It was especially nice without the tourists. When the pandemic hit, armed with a trusty foldable map, itself larger than many actual urban parks, I began treating Central Park as an actual destination. For the first time in eight years, I took a proper look at the carvings in the New Brunswick sandstone at Bethesda Terrace, the cast-iron filigree of the Ladies’ Pavilion, the mortarless cyclopean stones of Huddlestone Arch. I noticed the 500,000-year-old mounds of bedrock that punctuate the park, and admired the chalky-handed boulderers who have a different name for every climbing route (the Polish Traverse, Nipple Twist, Smack the Dragon). When concert halls shuttered, I realized that the Park is the most exquisitely diverse live music venue in the city. On any given day, you might hear “Moon River” on ehru, or an aria from Carmen reverberating off the tile ceiling of the Bethesda Arcade, or some white dude playing “No Scrubs” on keyboard. I include the pitchy clanging of the Delacorte Clock’s seasonal playlist in this too. Plus, nearly everywhere you go, the sweet sound of sax. One saxophonist, calling himself Young Nomadic, told me in between songs that he aspired to create a suitable “soundtrack to paradise.” I’ve become better acquainted with the Park’s wildly diverse array of sculptures, from the characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, polished by sixty years’ worth of clambering little palms, to King Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, looking like he’s about to gallop maniacally off his plinth straight into Turtle Pond. I must have perused every plaque inscription on every one of the Park’s 9,000 benches (a quote from Kung Fu Panda, on a bench in the Ramble, is a favorite) and, though I haven’t yet sampled from the Park’s veritable smorgasbord of foragable herbs, greens, nuts, berries and mushrooms, I still might. All the while, I began to grasp the enormity of the work of the Central Park Conservancy, who plant tens of thousands of flowers a year, weed, hedge, prune, mow, till and irrigate, not to mention perform a terrific range of non-horticultural jobs, like maintaining the regulation pitching mounds in the North Meadow Ballfields, or stabilizing the Park’s 193-ton granite obelisk from ancient Egypt. During the pandemic, the essential work of caring for the Park simply carried on. In an otherwise intensely confined and claustrophobic time, I especially appreciated the Ramble, the 36-acre simulacrum of an upstate forest, a kind of Disney World Adirondacks. It is the Park’s most eloquent riposte to urbanity: a place of nonlinearity, mystery, discovery. Sure, you can navigate with the help of street-referencing digits inscribed on the lampposts (whose luminaires, by the way, were redesigned in the 1980s to be “a kind of botanical event”). Or you can get pleasantly, wonderfully lost. (Incidentally, the Disney analogy holds up, in the way that the transverse roads and operations buildings are “planted” out of view, and the way those strolling the Mall in the 19th century could also glimpse Belvedere Castle in the distance, made to look farther away with Disneyland-esque optical tricks.) Most profoundly of all, I feel like I finally understood the Park as a designed work of participatory art and artifice, a scripted experience with the visitor as the protagonist. I became aware of the way, upon entering the Park, the visitor is often coaxed away from glass and steel to grass and sky with a shift in topography. Wander those meandering pedestrian pathways, and you realize the Park’s designers, working in 1858, were intentionally creating an enchanting kingdom of chlorophyll as an antidote to the stultifying rigidity of the Manhattan grid. “If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany and the labyrinthine design,” tour guide Speed Levitch told me. “It’s as if the designers of the park are saying, ‘You're not getting out of here without convening with nature. You will convene!’” * It’s fitting that the fountain at the very heart of Central Park is a symbol of healing. Since 1873, the Angel of the Waters has stood on her fountain-top perch looking over Bethesda Terrace, beckoningly visible from the promenade of the Mall. From the positioning of her feet and the upsweep of her dress, it looks as if she has just landed there. Her arm is outstretched, her palm downward, a beneficent gesture that seems to say: “Chill out, my dudes.” Originally, the Angel referred to the rejuvenating qualities of water conveyed to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. But it’s easy to see her as a more general representation of the Park and its soul-soothing powers. (Pigeon-repelling spikes on the Angel’s mighty wings undercut the beatific vibe a bit, but on the other hand: badass.) Central Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, envisioned the Park as a respite from the increasingly crowded city. Olmsted wrote, with a sometime journalist’s penchant for alliteration, on the need for relief from the “cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town,” promising a “specimen of God’s handiwork” for New Yorkers who couldn’t easily take a trip up north to actual nature. Originally, the land did not look destined to become an idyllic pleasure ground. The Ramble was an unpromising pile of rocks. The Mall was quicksand. There were bone-boiling works for the recycling of animal carcasses on the west side, and even the pigs in the area, it was noted, were gaunt. “The stench,” Olmsted noted, “was sickening.” For 15 years, a small army of workers wrestled with around 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth, laid down more than 40,000 cubic yards of fertilizer, and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. The land’s rocky outcrops were sculpted into grassy knolls, and topographical depressions were transformed into tranquil lakes. When you think of Central Park as an elaborate artifice, its outsize ambition starts to feel as egomaniacal as New York’s soaring skyline. No nature? No problem! We’ll make our own. The gently cascading waterfall in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, to pick one example, emanates from a valve hidden among artfully placed rocks, having traveled through miles of buried pipes—and gets switched off, as unceremoniously and easily as a bathroom faucet, in the winter. * Long before 2020 turned it into a pandemic catch phrase, “We’re all in this together” was already the implicit message of Central Park. Olmsted wrote proudly of parkgoers’ “evident glee at the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose … each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each … poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.” Vaux fantasized about the Park not even having walls. Unfortunately, there are walls, and the problems of the wider world, and America, don’t just stop politely at them. In 2020, in the Ramble, a white woman threatened to call the police on a Black birder after he asked her, as per Park rules, to leash her dog. It was an awful thing, made even more appalling because it occurred in Central Park, where today’s New Yorkers go to escape this kind of interpersonal friction. Historically, incidents in the Park tend to be over-reported by the media. “It shocks people,” as a park police precinct captain explained more than half a century ago, “like crime in heaven.” But there’s plenty of darkness in the annals of Central Park’s history. Of course, the park is psychically linked with the Central Park Five case, the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. Until very recently, a statue of Doctor J. Marion Sims—who performed gynecological exams on 12 enslaved women without anesthesia—stood on the Park’s perimeter. And, for all of Olmsted and Vaux’s democratic aspirations, the acquisition of land for Central Park involved the displacement of the people of Seneca Village, a community primarily made up of African American property owners. The Central Park Conservancy has worked, with the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, to uncover and display the stories of these displaced people in that section of the Park. Doctor Sims is no more. (In 2020, #BlackLivesMatter protesters streamed past the now-empty spot.) Similarly, this January, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by two nameless African and Native American men, was removed from outside the American Museum of Natural History, across from the Park. These are welcome healing gestures, comforting in their symbolism. But the humane spirit of Central Park is on display year-round. You simply have to pay a visit on a pleasant day, and drink up the sight of New Yorkers enjoying literal common ground with other New Yorkers. This is the real attraction of the place. The catch-and-release fishing, sailboat-racing and snowman-building; the basketballers shooting hoops, archers shooting arrows and dancers shooting TikTok content. Joggers circling the billion-gallon Reservoir, cyclists hurtling around the bike track CONVERSING VERY LOUDLY, Instagram influencers doing whatever it is they do. The birders, moving in flocks, in silent pursuit of the latest celebrity bird, and Beatles singalongs at the teardrop-shaped parcel of land called Strawberry Fields. (Let’s be thankful it’s a Beatle who gets a memorial in Central Park, and not, say, a member of Bachman Turner Overdrive.) And all the parkgoers strolling the elm-lined cathedral nave of the Mall where parkgoers have strolled for 150 years, where youngsters once enjoyed goat-and-cart rides and where future generations will, I guess, zip along on hoverboards. A lot of my knowledge of the Park was absorbed from the “parkies,” like Birding Bob, whose ornithological email updates I receive every couple of days; “Wild Man” Steve Brill, who was once arrested in the Park for eating a dandelion; and Janet Ruttenberg, who has been painting Sheep Meadow for twenty years with a paintbrush the size of a broom, drawn to that spot, she told me, by the “humanity.” On any given walk, I’ll be politely asked to take a photo, invited for a game of chess, or offered a free hamster (I declined). So, sure, Central Park is an escape from the city. But, at its best, and even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a thrilling and vibrant part of the city too. This was surely what E.B. White was getting at in Here is New York, in which he writes of the “magical occasion” of an evening on the Mall, lovers on a bench “swathed in music,” strollers and popsicles, breeze-ballooned skirts and bare shoulders. Frankly, Matthew Perry puts it more succinctly in Fools Rush In. “Stay here long enough,” he says, “and the whole city walks by.” Right now, crocuses and daffodils are emerging from the soil, turtles are clambering onto rocks to get some sun, and the Ramble is a veritable Grand Central Terminal of avian passers-through on the Atlantic Flyway. Before long, the first buds of the Yoshino cherries will blossom, the boats (and that one gondola) will venture back out onto the Lake, and thesps will be treading the boards of the Delacorte Theatre in the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It (“tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones”).’’ Sitting in the shade of a tree planted 150 years ago, I’m reminded how the very existence of the Park was an act of generosity and optimism for the future. That the forward-looking New Yorkers conceived of it fundamentally as a gift to… well, us. When it seems that all is lost, I feel lucky to make the most of that gift, and grateful for a part of the city that does everything it can to remind you that life is beautiful, and will go on. Unfortunately, the tourists are truly back now, but I guess you take the good with the bad.
The author of Natural Killer on surviving cancer, parenthood, and the “sick girl novel” genre.
In the spring of 2002, Harriet Alida Lye came down with what she describes as "a bad cold that never properly went away." A few visits to the doctor’s office turned into a trip to the emergency room turned into an extended stay in SickKids hospital as Harriet, then only fifteen, was diagnosed with a form of leukemia referred to as “natural killer.” It was a cancer with an average survival time of fifty-eight days, with no known survivors. I met Lye in 2015, when we were both volunteering at a story writing workshop for children. We followed each other on social media and saw each other at literary events, and I came to know her as a bright and pleasant person who wrote lovely essays on Paris and was working on a novel about a honey farm. It became easy to project my own ideas onto her life, as it often is with people you casually know and genuinely admire. Reading Natural Killer (McClelland & Stewart), Lye’s memoir of her illness, meant exploding open whatever preconceived notions I had unwittingly brought along with me. The book is many things: a horror story about being betrayed by one’s own body, a treatise on making sense of the senseless through art, a love [letter?] to the author’s relentlessly loving parents. It’s a collage, made up with excerpts from journals that Lye’s parents kept during the year she spent in the hospital, as well as medical records and her own diaries. ‘When things aren’t serious, people can take an indulgent, almost shameful pleasure in experiencing pain,’ she writes astutely, about packing a suitcase to go to the hospital for the first time. ‘When things are serious, there’s no time or room for the fabrication of feeling.’ The book is also a memoir of motherhood, as Lye’s teenage experiences are interspersed with an unplanned pregnancy at thirty; unplanned, mostly because she was told that her intense chemotherapy would leave her unable to conceive. Natural Killer is a book that will give those already familiar with Lye’s writing insight into the experiences that shaped how she moves through the world. It will give newcomers to her work the feeling that they’ve known her for years. A note on the timeline: We had originally planned to conduct this interview in person when the book was first scheduled to come out in April 2020; these plans were delayed for reasons that are probably obvious. The book release was pushed to late December, and we spoke in early 2021 over Zoom. It wasn’t under the most ideal conditions; I had been temporarily living with family, and instead of my usual trusty recorder, I was using an app on my phone to record our conversation. An automatic iOS update rendered the app incompatible; all my recordings were lost, tears were shed, and I gave up hope of ever recovering the audio file until a recent iCloud miracle brought it back into my life. My deepest apologies to Lye for the delay, though I hope you will agree her insights are timeless. Anna Fitzpatrick: Your book was originally supposed to come out in April 2020, and it was pushed to December 29, 2021 because of COVID-19. What was it like spending most of last year on the verge of having a really vulnerable book about to come out? Harriet Alida Lye: I think I kind of forgot that it hadn’t come out. When I would remember that it was still coming out, I would think, "Oh, I do have some things still to look forward to." I had hope that it would have a better life in being delayed. Even though the world is on fire, perhaps even more so now, I think in April people still had such little bandwidth, and the publishing industry was still figuring out how to pivot. I’m glad it didn’t come out into that world. It really did shift my year. I was thinking that it would come out in April and that I’d go on tours and go to festivals in the summer, and in the fall, we were going to put [my son] Arlo in day care and I could start working on a new book, but I just didn’t feel like I could have closure on Natural Killer until it really came out. Given the subject matter and how much the world changed in 2020, has that altered how you anticipated the book’s response? In that it’s a book about dealing with illness and experiencing a huge shift in the day-to-day sense of living. Yeah. I feel like my time in the hospital—but also my time as a parent of a young child on maternity leave—prepared me for a radical shift in my day-to-day experience. And I think that now so many other people know what it’s like to have your daily routine and your daily life completely changed for reasons outside of your control, even if that’s not from their own personal reasons but rather imposed externally by the world. And so, I think that there might be a resonance for people with this inward-looking time of isolation. In the hospital, I was literally in isolation for so much of the time and paranoid about catching germs from people. I carried Purell everywhere and wouldn’t let people touch me. So, I think that there are echoes now that there wouldn’t have been before. In writing the book, you drew on the journals your parents kept, old documents, a forum that your cousin set up. But you also write about your attempts to fictionalize your experiences, and reference early versions of a novel. When did you decide to make the switch to nonfiction for this story? In the book, I write about how it was a friend of mine who was like, "Well, did you want to die?" Because the girl in the novel that I was writing dies. When my friend asked it like that, I was like, "No!" People would always ask things like, "Why did you make it so the character is fifteen and doesn’t have any crushes or boyfriends? That’s weird!" People would ask these questions that I didn’t feel like I could have an answer to unless I wrote the truth. It was a story that I circled for so long through fiction. I think when we met, Anna, I had a deal for the fiction version of this book with a publishing house that had a big turnover. A bunch of contracts moved or got dropped and my editor dropped my book and I never got an explanation for why. It felt like this huge failure. I think I was twenty-five, and I felt like this book contract gave me an identity as a writer. I felt like I lost that identity when I lost the contract. I left my agent because he handled it so poorly. I think that that process was actually very important to approaching this book and making it feel like a more nuanced memoir. Your life experiences have also changed so much. It’s a memoir about illness, but also a memoir about motherhood, and these two ways that your body can feel like it belongs to something else. Totally. Like, it’s not your own body. I feel weird about the word "memoir" because I think that most people think of the word memoir as like, my life story. Even though memoirs right now are so exploratory, exploding that concept and showing just how varied the form can be, I sometimes just tell people that it is nonfiction. I tried to write it as nonfiction in sort of a short-form series kind of thing, and it always felt like it was too navel-gazing—or like it was just too much about me and too much about a sick teenager—and it just didn’t feel right. And even though my friends reading it were telling me that it was compelling and it really was much bigger than that, it wasn’t until I got pregnant that I really felt like it could be a story about something else. As soon as I got pregnant, I had this fear of what would happen to my baby. I think that it gave me this understanding of what my parents would have felt like, and what parents in general feel like when their children are sick. Also, just the hope that I had with having my own baby, I think that it was a counterbalance to the book. It allowed light and the future to come into the narrative in a way that it wouldn’t have if it was just a chronological story of my illness. Had you been reading memoirs about illness or motherhood? No, actually. Even though this is obviously a book about illness, it doesn’t feel like a book about illness in my mind. I think the book that I read that most closely matches Natural Killer is On Immunity, by Eula Biss. The way that she talks about how her pregnancy changed her perspective on vaccinations, and the history of vaccinations, and conversations she had with other mothers about their hesitancy vaccinating their children. She dived into this mythological history and cultural history and geographic history and etymological history. There’s a medical aspect and a personal aspect. She’s not anti-vaxxer at all. She’s very pro-vaxxer. But she shows the journey in a way that I think would appeal to somebody who might be vaccine hesitant. The personal and medical aspects are braided together very well. I hadn’t read a ton of memoirs when I started writing mine. I didn’t even really know that I could do it the way that I was doing it. Once I got the deal, and once I started writing my book, I read more and more memoirs and I realized just how different they could be. I really love Annie Ernaux, the French writer. She wrote a book called Happening, which was about her getting an abortion when abortions were still illegal in France. The whole book is about this one event, how it happened, and her feelings about it. If there’s no access to abortion, you have to be incredibly covert and discrete about who you talk to. So that was another book I liked that had a medical aspect to it without being about sickness. You said something earlier about how pregnancy shaped your perspective of what your parents went through. The book ends with the birth of your son, and now you’re living with this little human at home with his own little personality outside of you. Has that further shaped your perspective? I’m really glad that I wrote it when I did because I think for me, the fear was most heightened during pregnancy and immediately afterwards. It was that feeling of like, my body betrayed me when it got cancer. I was really afraid of my body betraying me with having the baby. That fear was very poignant and profound in those early times. For the first year, I had anxiety, but I think that’s normal for most first-time parents. I don’t know a single parent who doesn’t worry about their child, but the more Arlo grows up, the less I’m able to think about it. So I feel like I wouldn’t be able to access those fears now, because I just can’t let my mind go there. Like almost every other parent I know, I go into his room when he’s sleeping and make sure that he’s breathing. I was thinking about that just this morning, how every parent I know does that. And I haven’t heard a single story of a child dying peacefully and inexplicably in their sleep. Yet children get sick or have accidents, and those are the things that are much more likely, but I feel like I can’t let myself think about that. If I do it just paralyzes me. Had you revisited those forum posts and old journals from when you were sick in the intervening years before you started working on this book? I’m sure I looked at the forum posts in the years afterwards, but it was fifteen years later that I started writing this book and by that time the website was so old that the servers that hosted it had long since dropped it. But my dad is the kind of very organized engineer who, of course, archived them. He had those for me to look at when I asked later, when I was starting to write the book. I hadn’t looked at any of my medical records because that was all in the hospital. I had looked at the journals in passing, and I would occasionally glance through them because in the years that I would go to my appointment for my checkups—first weekly, then monthly, bimonthly, then annual—my dad was always reminding me to bring the journals. It was just part of this routine. I actually found it very, very hard to read the journals from start to finish because there’s this feeling of a climax in them. There’s a very natural arc of, "Oh my God is she going to live or is she going to die?" Even though obviously I know that I lived, it was still really dark. I could just sense the possibility that there would have been the entry being like, "Well, 4:03 a.m., Harriet died." When I was reading the part in which I was in the ICU and getting sicker and sicker and the doctors didn’t know what the infection was or how to cure it, in both the journals and medical records, I think my doctors and nurses and parents were striving for a neutrality, like a factual record of the events that happened. But of course, there’s so much personality that comes through in my dad’s voice and my mom’s voice and the doctors’ notes and the nurses’ notes in there. The doctors’ notes were generally a lot more sterile than the nurses’ notes. I think the nurses have to write in a certain structure, like, "Received patient awake," or "Received patient asleep with father at bedside." There’s a formula to the way that they write them that naturally has a bit more emotion to it. The doctors’ notes are usually just numbers, or "biopsy plan for 12:40 tomorrow with imaging," or whatever. There were the moments when I was super, super sick, and I could just sense the emotion in the notes. When the fever broke, one of the doctors wrote "Fever Broke!!!" Three exclamation marks. I could just sense his relief and joy, and that was really moving. Reading this book, as you said, obviously you survive. But even with the best possible outcome, that you’re in remission and that you have this beautiful family, you still went through this incredibly traumatic thing. Both that fear and the daily trauma of this experience really comes through the page. I think adding the present-day narrative was, for me, about adding the element of what it’s like to have survived that. Rather than just focusing on living through it, the present-day narrative allows me to have these interjections of thinking, "How did this affect the rest of my life?" There was a definite before and after in my life, and I think that so many people have these kinds of events in their lives that mark a before and after, whatever that might be. For me, it was very much about what it was like to have lived fifteen years without having had cancer, and then living the rest of my life having had cancer. I think there’s so many ways in which that experience changes a person, and adding these thoughts throughout the book from a present-day self allows for these questions to echo throughout the book. A few years ago, when I was working at a children’s bookstore, I remember there being a wave of young adult novels coming out about illness, cancer specifically, written for the most part by people who hadn’t gone through that experience firsthand. Like [The Fault in Our Stars author] John Green. Exactly, and a lot of similar books that came after his success. You would have been outside that age demographic, but did you read any of those books? I hadn’t, but obviously I heard all about them. The fiction book that I was writing that I talk about in the book, called Everything We Could, I had been working on it for such a long time. It got submitted right as The Fault in Our Stars came out, and a lot of editors were like, "ehhh, it’s a similar theme." I was so frustrated, because I was like, "This is a different story!" you know? It’s a personal story. I think that making it nonfiction definitely helped make it different from that genre. The "sick girl novel" genre. If a book like Natural Killer had been around when you were fifteen, detailing someone’s experiences of having gone through this and surviving, how do you think you would have reacted to it? Oh, I think it would have been so, so important. As I write about in the book, so many of my peers who were in the hospital died. You don’t see that many hopeful stories, and it was really hard for me and my parents to not know anyone who had survived. My illness was so rare and unique. I didn’t write about this in the book because it’s about somebody very specific, but a young woman who actually went to the same university that I ended up going to, she had AML, which was one of the variants I had. She had a bone marrow transplant, which I was supposed to have. I can’t remember who it was that connected it—it might have been a social worker at SickKids—but she was treated at a hospital in Kingston. It was an adult hospital, so certain procedures were different. She wasn’t anesthetized for a lot of procedures that they anesthetize children for. Anyway, when I was in the middle of treatment, we were connected and she came to visit me a couple of times. And I remember, that was a huge light. For both my parents and for myself, the idea that she had gone through this and now she’s in university. She ended up getting her PhD and I think she’s a doctor now. It was just really important to know that people live.
The author of Bewilderness on opioid addiction, childhood friendships, and the mysteries of the North Carolina mountains.
Stuffed into a tattered green and white Winnie–the-Pooh folder and stored at the back of my cupboard are hundreds of letters all written by one person: my high school best friend. On ruled sheets, inside handmade cards, on sketching paper, we wrote each other constantly: on our single beds, under pine trees, during chapel service, even while sitting at adjacent desks. Some things are too difficult to say out loud, and when you’re a teenage girl, almost everything feels a little bit too difficult. The letters, then, were our confession, our shared diary, and most of all, an evolving document of how hard we clung to each other. At 17, I’d never loved anyone as much, and at 33, I suspect I never have since. As Karen Tucker writes, “It was like the song of her head had become stuck on a loop in my head.” In Tucker’s debut novel Bewilderness (Catapult) we follow the story of Luce and Irene, teenage best friends hustling to survive—and get high—in rural North Carolina. Perched “at the edge of a strange, enchanted forest,” the girls forge their bond by walking into the dazzling woods of opioid addiction hand-in-hand and stay there until Luce decides to get clean, leave town, and start a new life with her boyfriend. Moving seamlessly from the girls’ first wild forays to their later, less bewitching consequences, Bewilderness’s stark prose runs at an even keel—an almost startling lack of sentimentality that nonetheless finds sweetness in unlikely places and reveals pain in far too many others. As lives continue to fracture under the weight of a rigged game, Irene reflects: “I’ve heard it said the system is fucked, but the way I see it, it’s working the exact terrible way they planned all along “ Ultimately, though, Bewilderness reads as a story of friendship—which, as a teenager, is also the story of who you are. As Irene says, “As long as Luce was around, you knew you’d be alright.” So what happens if she isn’t? I have hundreds of handwritten letters that all attest to the same thing: no teenage girl ever wants to know the answer to that question. Richa Kaul Padte: Karen! It’s weird because there are so many things I wanted to ask you that felt personally relevant, but I realized while preparing for our chat that most of those questions would involve an immense betrayal of people I love—including at least one who is “no longer with us” (as Bewilderness’s dedication reads). Betrayal is a thread that runs through your text, and I’m wondering, can storytelling itself be a kind of betrayal if the story isn’t yours? Karen Tucker: Hey, how about I be really annoying and say both yes and no? In the no column: I'm reluctant to police storytellers in any fashion, and that includes making any sort of claim about who gets to tell what story. Flap your wings, storytellers, fly free! Because while freedom comes with risks—including the risk that certain individuals will take advantage—it seems to me the larger risk arrives whenever we introduce even the tiniest seeds of surveillance and patrolling into our culture. They never evolve into anything but tyranny. I’m also suspicious of the whole ownership angle. Aren't owners typically people with more resources and advantages, and therefore more power? Does that mean only the most central, most powerful person in a given story should be able to share their perspective? My favourite stories are told by people with little tangible power—people who might be said to exist in the periphery. Bewilderness is narrated by a part-time food server from a low-wage community, and was written by an underpaid grad student/former career food server. I don't own the story of the opioid epidemic and I certainly don't have any power in that realm, but I also don't want to read Purdue Pharma's version of the narrative unless it comes from a court transcription. Now I'm all worked up and I can't remember what was in the yes column. Thank you for that question. I'm sorry the story felt personally relevant. I'm with you, and you're not alone. A lot of pop culture in this genre works hard to explain the “whys” of drug use: trauma, poverty, childhoods, etc. But in your book, you never provide these big, almost cathartic explanations. We get glimpses of the characters’ pasts, but finally, it is what is, and the only context is now. What led you to this approach? A lack of knowledge. If I had any answers, I would have done the book and myself a huge favour and shared them. People like answers—they're so easy to file away and ignore! But questions are pesky creatures. They always burrow into the most uncomfortable places and ride around with you as you go about your business, taking toothy little nips every so often, reminding you of their existence. Until harm reduction strategies become standard practice and people are no longer dying of substance use disorder, we could all stand to have those whys nipping meanly at our hide. It feels to me sometimes that harm reduction is moving in a one step forward two steps back kind of way—not just in the U.S., but around the world. On the one hand, there’s growing public awareness around the rights and autonomy of marginalized people, while on the other, you get legislation like FOSTA/SESTA that snatches away those rights in one fell swoop (in that case, of online sex workers the world over). Where do we go from here? It's absolutely baffling that harm reduction—an approach to substance use disorder that focuses on keeping individuals alive—is ever met with resistance. Once someone suffers a fatal overdose, the chance for them to achieve better health in the future has gone up in smoke. Yet all over the U.S., efforts to establish safe needle exchanges fail due to political and community opposition; fentanyl test strips and Narcan remain costly and hard to come by; methadone and buprenorphine programs continue to be elusive, particularly for people in Black and brown communities; and safe injection sites, despite their proven success rates in other countries, and despite support from Sanders and Warren, are still illegal. Until drug use is decriminalized and these harm reduction tools are cost-free and accessible to all, here are some U.S. resources: Find Narcan here. Get Fentanyl test strips and kits here. Find needle exchanges here. Each of us also needs to interrogate our own biases against individuals with substance use disorder, educate ourselves about this medical condition, and fight for policy and health care changes at all levels of government. I feel like I’m about to ask you a question that’s the equivalent of people asking me about Bollywood, so, apologies in advance! I grew up on a mountain in Southern India, in a residential school established by American missionaries, so there was a lot of country music in my childhood. And your home—the Blue Ridge Mountains—seemed like a glorious idyll (our school literally had its own version of John Denver’s “Country Roads”). Is this . . . weird to you? I feel like Luce and Irene would be rolling their eyes right now. Ah, the Blue Ridge Mountains are glorious! The Uwharrie Mountains are glorious. The Smokies, all of it. Luce and Irene have plenty of stuff to roll their eyes at, and American missionaries would probably be on that list, but not the landscape of their youth. If anything, the North Carolina mountains might be one of the last good mysteries remaining. I’m so glad my childhood fantasies remain intact! Something that struck me was that even though Irene and Luce have smartphones, the internet doesn’t feel woven into their lives the way it often is in contemporary fiction (and existence). They use it, but it never feels essential, a part of their identity. Why? I love your distinction between usage and identity. I never thought of it that way! Because yes, they do use phones quite a bit: texting friends for rides because their licences have been suspended, posting on Reddit and watching YouTube videos, reading a friend's obituary, researching methods for quitting illicit substances, including cold turkey and tapering strategies, texting dealers, calling out sick, looking up Florida rehabs, and more. But you're right, their phones do feel more like a tool and not a reflection of who they are or hope to become. There's no self-promotion or personal branding. No profiles are being curated. Their usernames on social media are anonymous IDs. A big reason for that anonymity stems from the fact that in the U.S., the behaviours that often accompany substance use disorder are criminalized. Funny how some people can cause the death of so many others and never face jail time—members of the Sackler family would be a prime example—while others suffer incarceration and/or lose their own families, even their lives, for falling into the trap the wealthy and powerful have laid in an effort to further increase their wealth and power. At the same time, even with anonymous social media IDs and the twelve-step practice of using first names only, it's important to remember that Irene and Luce have in no way escaped surveillance. For many of us, they might appear to be little more than figures in an annual CDC report, but all over this country vast quantities of dollars are being made off vulnerable individuals and communities. Unscrupulous rehab facilities and the for-profit prison system are always looking for ways to add to their coffers. The seeds of tyranny bloom again. I really loved the bits of Bewilderness that take place on Reddit. It’s such a vast world in there, but I’ve rarely seen it included in literary landscapes. r/opioids is where Luce and Irene often end up, and you do such a great job of representing how those threads unfold—the way feelings and comments move in a chaotic way online. Irene says: “I only wanted some advice, maybe a little support in the process, but the responses that came in got me even more freaked out and angry.” So many of us have had this experience, yet we still turn to the internet for advice, right? Much like chemists in labs who rearrange molecules to create illicit substances, social media developers engineer their products to be highly addictive and highly profitable. Anyone compelled to scroll through their phone, despite knowing the harmful effects this activity produces, is succumbing to the same impulses as someone compelled to ingest a risky pill or powder. We all love our little dopamine hits. We'd also all do well to remember that the next time we glance up from our screen and pass silent judgment on someone nearby who appears to be in active addiction. There’s this very intense feeling I used to have as a teenager of wanting my friends to be mine and mine alone, of not wanting to share them with anyone else. And I love the way you explore that, because this possessiveness is usually attributed to romantic relationships, not friendships. Is it healthy that we often grow out of these intense feelings about our friends? I can see how it might be, but it also feels somewhat like a loss. It is, it is a loss! Probably what we've gained outweighs what's been taken, but that doesn't mean there's no lingering hole. It wasn't until recently, when people began to ask me about the friendship that Luce and Irene experience, that I started to understand why it came out that way on the page. I wrote this story as a lonely non-traditional grad student. While I found a few wonderful friends during my years in Florida, it wasn't enough to tamp down that painful longing for more, more. It brought me back to those old, sad, grabby feelings of childhood. That possessiveness you mention. When nothing can ever be enough. And if the medicine you need is scarce and hard to come by, chances are you'll have to get creative. Just like Irene and Luce find inventive ways to secure the painkillers they need to get away from what hurts them, I had to invent my own friendships to relieve my pain. For a while, the trick almost worked! And now, hello, I'm back at my desk. Is the invention you’re talking about the work of writing Luce and Irene into existence—is Bewilderness itself the trick? What medicine are you fashioning at your desk now? Right now, I'm brewing up a story about full-service sex work, though I probably won't know until well after I've finished what led me to this particular trick.
Many of the answers to the question of how to fix food media come from within.
In June 2020, writer and historian Soon-Tzu Speechley tweeted a criticism of the typical food writing published in The New York Times. “Writing about US food the way the NYT covers Asian fruit,” Speechley wrote: “In a nation torn by racial conflict, one unlikely food unites. To those accustomed to chopsticks, the greasy parcel known as a ‘burger,’ a sort of split bao, is crude and messy. Yet it encapsulates a nation’s violent past.” Social media users, especially those in the Global South, were delighted with Speechley’s exposure of the condescension often adopted by Western publications towards foods and cultures with origins outside North America and Western Europe. That same month, The New York Times published a piece titled “Eating Thai Fruit Demands Serious Effort but Delivers Sublime Reward.” The piece is a dispatch from the markets of Bangkok, in which the writer, Hannah Beech, describes fruits—jackfruits, durians, rambutans—as unwelcoming and even diabolic. She calls mangosteens “an exercise in disappointment,” and durian “an infamous fruit, which stinks of death.” The piece itself reeks of confident, nonchalant bias. Often, Beech sounds like she is under attack. It was a year when food media companies faced heightened scrutiny online. Discussions about systemic racism and the discrimination and disadvantages that non-white media professionals face in the field came to the fore. Food media giant Bon Appétit’s former editor Adam Rappaport resigned after a photo from 2004, where he posed with his wife in brownface, surfaced. The photograph set off a wave of call-outs about Bon Appétit’s toxic workplace, ill-treatment of employees of colour and overall callousness when it came to racial sensitivity. Following the upheavals at Bon Appétit, there was a promise to build better structures, especially for Black, brown, Asian and Indigenous writers, editors, and chefs in the United States. In the middle of the reckoning, Nigerian chef and writer Tunde Wey, who lives in New Orleans, noted the alliance of the white food media in the United States with Black and brown folks at its own convenience. In a piece titled “White food media and the commodification of resistance” for Scalawag magazine, he wrote, “In a system where goodwill is eventually monetized, charity and virtue has become currency for white food media… Because what use was a politicized identity when it couldn’t be sicc’ed on something?” *** Even when the language employed for non-Western food in Western media is favourable, it’s often paternalistic: dishes are translated as “comfort foods,” “heritage dishes” or established as the “real authentic.” As foods from different origins enter the pantries and media landscapes of the West, they are rendered in eulogizing stereotypes, meet-cutes are staged, “discoveries” are made; everyday ingredients are captured in high-definition, and these foods are often Westernized to the point of disintegration. A boost in mainstream integration of Indian food in the American imagination synced with the established and rising power of the wealthy, dominant-caste Hindu Indian diaspora in the United States. A 2013 editorial in n+1 called South Asians the most powerful and successful immigrant minority in America. “No immigrant group in the US is so uniformly rich, so well placed in professional and executive ranks, so widely dispersed and integrated into wealthy white society.” As elite Indian immigrants succeeded to white-adjacency, Indian cuisine became a covetable culture, an assimilated brand into the American capitalist ideal. An aesthetic was created for Indian-ness that edged on rose-tinted mysticism and nostalgia, full of buzzwords: tradition, healthy, colourful, family. A small group spoke about Indian cuisine with tones of romantic zeal and ardour, and were welcomed as proprietors of representation for South Asians, both in Western diasporas and in the subcontinent itself. Through them, carefully curated Indianisms were filtered through American sentimentalism. Suddenly, samosas were racked on fancy ceramic plates; words like Dishoom, the name for a popular Indian restaurant in London and the sound associated with a gunshot, were enveloped in bourgeois glory. Indian foods and by consequence, Indians, became cloaked in metrics of wholesomeness, there was a homogenous paradigm of sameness for Indians (and South Asians) that watered down our representation to the rest of the world. But the production of the aesthetic has remained dissonant from its place of origin. The plain fact that every experience of food in India is embroiled in the violent and segregated system of caste is never touched upon. The elevated language employed for Indian foods and cultures glosses over the physical, economic, and social realities of the subcontinent, where under the authoritarian right-wing rule of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, farmers rights remain curtailed; and large-scale unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic has created more food insecurity and hunger than the years before. This model aesthetic also spoke over the foods of India’s neighbours in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and glossed over regional foods outside the North Indian mainland. It was a bizarrely simplistic mode in which to perceive a country infinitely creviced by topography, land culture, social location, language, caste and class. The cuisines of working-class South Asians, Muslims, and Indigenous people, as well as audacious, inventive modern foods that had no connection to tradition whatsoever, never made the cut. Most grating was the celebration of Indian vegetarianism: a tool of surveillance and discrimination by dominant-caste Hindus in India on Muslims and marginalized-caste communities. In the West, the lifestyle was elevated to a cultural boon. To observe the same things that signified supremacy in India be celebrated as milestones elsewhere felt eerie. As for myself, I did not grow up in a kitchen where meals were conducted like delicious operas. I was raised in a family of Tamils, who had for three generations lived far away from our immediate roots, first in Rawalpindi, then in Karachi, then Delhi. We ate with the agency afforded by caste, with the functionality of middle class city-dwellers. My diet and palate were bound to the market and what was considered frugal and utilitarian, I did not find much that was glorious about my family’s dining rituals. I do not possess heirloom tricks passed down from my grandmother; I spent a life, like my father and grandfather, eating whatever came my way. We were a family of middling cultures, far from what was considered traditionally accurate and celebratory. The energy that I grew up around and embodied did not find a place in glossy geometries of representation and culture as commodity. Even as Indian food made inroads in the United States, the complexities and even cruelties within it were often obscured, the various regional and sub-regional ways in which people ate and lived were discarded for more cliché, colourful claims. *** Intimacy between food and language can light up the intricacies of a certain individual or community; there are great things possible in the way food spurs specific language to take shape. In White Trash Cooking, a spiral bound cookbook by Ernest Mickler, an American chef from the South, he writes about onions: “Cook ‘em, slice ‘em, till you can see through ‘em,” introducing a world so vivid and distinct from the otherwise shiny cultures of North America that many of us living elsewhere have imbibed since we were children. Longthroat Memoirs, a book of essays by Nigerian writer Yemisi Aribisala, succeeds in taking back language, neglecting stereotypes of “stodge,” and “soup” that Aribisala notes were often reserved for foods like hers. She writes of “puff-puffs” eaten at crowded road corners, a ram riding on a scooter that would soon be dinner, and akara, the black-eyed bean she heard stories about as a child in her native Nigeria. “The word akara is soft, seductively broken on the back of the letter k, so you can conjure up a squish and hushed chew, the compression flowing through the respiring pores of hot, freshly fried pillows of seasoned, milled beans,” Aribisala writes. “No one ever talks about the oil insidiously escaping out of the kitchen towel, oozing from the akara, direction to every self-righteous resolution of fried foods you ever made.” Aribisala’s language is laid with idioms and tonalities of the specific English of her upbringing. She mediates English with insertions of Igbo, and the foods she writes about do not pander, or make themselves small to appeal to anyone else. In 2020, a London-based newsletter was pioneered by writer and editor Jonathan Nunn, publishing pieces with dialect-driven representation of food and language. Nunn introduced Vittles by saying: “I’ve always thought it strange that food writing—something that literally everyone in the world, no matter what class or race or religion, has an opinion on—is actually one of the least democratic forms of writing that gets regularly published.” From the get-go, Vittles has decentred the British capital, questioned American dominion, favoured regionalism, and complicated the banal reservations so often kept about the British North and working classes. Perhaps what is most notable about Vittles is its devotion to a diversity of perspectives about foods and not just food itself; and its keenness to tilt an axis of relativity in which Western foods and cultures are considered the centre, from where others branch out. Vittles does not consider one perspective, region or country primary, instead treating every perspective with the same universality afforded to the cultural centres in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. In one of my favourite pieces in the newsletter, Nina Mingya Powles discloses that she cannot translate dòufu huā into English, as “it loses some of its taste, its shape…The direct translation is ‘tofu flower’ and Beijingers call it dòufunǎo, ‘tofu brains.’” Mingya Powles writes. “In English you could call it ‘soft beancurd,’ or even ‘jellied tofu’ as my dictionary app suggests. ‘Tofu pudding’ is the one translation that makes sense to me, owing to its custard-like texture.” Mingya Powles does not concentrate on strip mining the item for those like me who may not know it, but with illustrations in Chinese characters, dòufu huā remains fairly unknowable yet completely visible, a full form. Perhaps what is most liberating about this kind of work is that these writers write in affirmation. They do not write in combat, but there is a victorious aloofness to fighting the Eurocentric and American-capitalist perception of non-Western foods. They write, somehow, for themselves. *** In India, food journalism is a relatively nascent genre. It sits in the lifestyle industry, and its reins are held by elite critics and influences, who decide what a nation of a billion, splintered by social hierarchies, should eat. For me, the idea of working, instead, for the global food media was exciting. Writing for publications abroad, I thought, would allow me space to use food to think about the political and socio-economic climates of the country and continent where I lived. I aspired not to introduce what we ate to the West, but to think about the things—trade, migration, gender, and economic fluctuation—that surround the foods we consumed, the ways in which we cooked. As the food media in the United States confronted these imbalances with varying degrees of successful accountability, I wondered what these developments would mean for writers in the global South. Would non-Western foods still be positioned as a sign of gastronomic daring or multiculturalism? In this new, reformed food media, would Indian food still be limited to an array of vegetarian mothers, Ayurveda, over-the-top giddiness at eating raw turmeric? Would writers from Karachi and Cairo still be interchangeable? When stories from countries outside North America and Western Europe were included, would they be plastic wrapped in friendly semantics for easy absorption? But when I began to pitch to American food publications, big and small, I found myself shifting my perspective to match the one expressed in dominant publications like Bon Appétit and The New York Times food section. These Americanized perspectives influenced the way I thought and felt about food. I read the publications with feigned interest driven by misplaced aspiration, in the same way that, as teenagers with sudden access to American television, my friends and I would laugh mechanically in sync with Friends reruns even though the references and humour were out of any real reach. Very soon, I found myself approaching things familiar to me with a fairy tale-like mysticism. When I spoke about foods I grew up with around Delhi, I began to glorify and dissect. I racked my brain for praises of dal-chawal. To write neatly digestible text, I tried to code familiar foods into adaptable Western packages for an American readership. I translated everyday things as a “kind of crepe,” or a “sort of sauce.” I believed that I had to explain, instruct, and pander to a comfortable fantasy staged in the West about the cultures of South Asia. Even though I knew it was untrue, I found myself responding to assumptions about the dispositions of Indians–docility and good-behaviour, the stereotype that governed Indian women and families—domesticity, generosity, and an affinity for nourishment and care. In early 2021, I was coaxed into the dreary task of cultural spoon-feeding by an editor for a piece I was writing about the emergence of home kitchens during the pandemic in India. I did my job, writing lazy Wikipedia-style suffixes for each region in the subcontinent. “Make it clickable,” prodded my editor, also Indian, also jaded. “Make it simple. So they understand.” The focus of food media and writing about food remains to drive consumption. Many of the answers to the question of how to fix food media come from within it. Wey’s critique is important, as are suggestions from writer Alicia Kennedy, who proposes that food media, like literature, should work in translation. In her newsletter, Kennedy asks, “How much more accurately would the culinary world be depicted if we let people speak in the language that allows them to say what they want, not just what they can?” In a piece written in 2020 about Alison Roman, Navneet Alang illuminates how food media’s whiteness lies in its geometry. “It is more accurate to say that the way we define what is contemporary and fashionable in food is tied to whiteness as a cultural norm—and to its ability to incorporate other cultures without actually becoming them.” Alang writes, noting how it is the spectrum that must be dismantled, instead of certain non-white cultures being brought about at whim. In his book, Taste Makers, writer Mayukh Sen questions what he calls the “food-establishment” when he profiles seven immigrant women who changed how America ate. “Capitalism can encourage artists, including chefs and cookbook authors, to suppress parts of themselves to cater to market’s desires.” As I continue to write about food, I don’t want to buy into predisposed, inaccurate notions of British food as tasteless; Chinese food deviant, West African food heavy, and other stereotypes of soup, stodge, and spice. But I also do not want to write another shining, friendly sentence about a food like the samosa, one I know only from the street, eaten while shouting at uncles and glaring at my friends as they try to reach for my crusts in scorching Delhi heat. I cannot read another listicle glorifying dominant-caste Hindu food practices without context, when my country remains in the grip of a Hindu nationalist government, my friends arrested, and our lives torn apart. When food writing is not done in exclusion, it lives outside the genres of glistening recipes written with over-compensating zeal. It is a solemn, celebratory narrative, a web of scene and place. If the food media can let go of their penchant for either disdain or exoticism, we may be able to create an industry that gets at the heart of what matters about cuisine and culture.
Olivia Robinson was and is much worse than I am. She’s also, in the sense that matters to her and to our world, much greater.
Certain stories are for wielding, not telling. I used to have one before it was taken away. It was more of a joke, a few lines of generic airport experience and television borrowings honed into a minor weapon for use in business situations. But I counted on it. The final time I used it was at the AAP Conference in October 2018. Seven listeners and I were on a sickle-shaped couch in the lobby of a generic hotel implanted into the superstructure of a retired castle in Montreal. The couch was upholstered in washable light gold fabric that rasped against pants and skirts and felt like Kevlar against my palm as I pushed myself deeper into the cushion, hoping to discover a secret angle or groove free of the rigid springs that were pressing into my tailbone. “I don’t blame them, I’d pat me down too. I am always, no exception, late to the airport, sweated up when I get there. The air conditioning freezes it on my face and gives me that hospital or strapped-with-plastique sheen. Then there’s the whole ‘this’ thing.” I added, as I did every time, to the invitation of my smile with an up-down displaying wave of hand over face. The downstroke acknowledged the skin that caused the airport situation and the unease of my listeners. The upstroke, a toss like I was flinging salt or a spell, dismissed any tragic significance, sent race into the ether, let my listeners join in a laugh if they were brave enough to start it. Anyone who takes pleasure in rendering even brief power from goodwill and fear is shit. When I used this story, I was no exception. I want to make it clear that I understand this, and that it doesn’t prevent me from discerning that Olivia Robinson was and is much worse than I am. She’s also, in the sense that matters to her and to our world, much greater. The six listeners who weren’t Olivia reacted exactly as I wanted them to. Mouths balanced between self-evaluating smile and moue of concern, quickly hidden by a mug or glass held up like a quivering masquerade visor, eyes shy to meet mine and saturated with a compassion begging for transmutation into accepting, accepted laughter. The features of these people have vanished now, from AAP’s offices and from my memory. Eye colour, ruddiness, dental details—all gone. Enough of them were white for me to have deployed the story, remarkable considering the company’s diverse employee pool, which Nena Zadeh-Brot called a “rainbow whirlpool of mediocrity blending into a calming diarrhea tone when stirred with the correct human resources stick.” I only remember that they were watching me correctly, that they were doing what I wanted them to do. But Olivia Robinson just looked like me. Her expression. She looked like the person telling, not the person listening. Her appearance, classed by Nena as “tolerable Aryan prettiness,” has nothing in common with my aging Indian softness, other than the strip of upper gum we now both reveal when we speak. I say “now” because this first meeting took place during Olivia’s closed-mouth speaking period, when her lips only allowed the occasionally flickering sight of tongue against darkness, never a gap or archwire or elastic or point of enamel. And now that she’s speaking with her new mouth, with its perfect teeth, I’m in recession. If I still spoke to people and cared about how I presented, I’d have to reprogram myself to talk through the same flat pucker she mastered. As my gums retreat and blacken, the teeth look like they’re growing into my head, as though they mean to bite my brain, also shrinking and darkening in its nervy membrane pouch. “What about the power of it, though?” “Of what?” I scratched my thumbnail against the cushion just in front of my crotch, then turned the motion into a brush at the immovable pills on the knees of my suit pants, in case anyone thought I’d been subtly gesturing toward my dick. Olivia saw the gesture, and beyond it. I am myself when I’m inside a doubt. “In the airport. Instead of feeling abject, targeted—which, totally, I understand you are—what about feeling how scared of you people are? Isn’t it powerful that there are spaces in this world where you’re not you, but a menace? No one’s ever scared of me.” None of the others saw how much smarter she was than me, and I hadn’t yet understood, either. But I did feel it. Olivia played it perfectly to look like she had no sense of humour, which people are always ready to believe about a person like her. Perhaps it is true in her case, but she at least has a sense of senses of humour, or she wouldn’t know when people hope she will laugh, and that would be too great a tactical weakness. I couldn’t see how this exchange benefitted Olivia until the next day, when she allowed me to know. But I did understand that it had been fair to rob me of my pathetic charge of control. The drinks in our group’s hands were appropriate to an early afternoon with two conference sessions left before dinner—coffees, sodas. Olivia had a lemonade. She was younger than me, perhaps twenty-seven to my thirty-eight. I chewed ice. My story died, not because Olivia had exposed it, but because she had begun to consume it, at the outset of a long game that began when she indicated a pretend path to power on that acrylic couch. I’m going to try to avoid making these pronouncements with the false sense of distance and ironic knowingness I want to slip into. The truth is that my airport story’s morsel of leverage was meaningful to me, and I was sad to lose it. I’m still sad about it. Sad that I am a person who wants a tool like this, sad that I no longer have it. As I mentioned, no one else in my audience for this impromptu conference-adjacent seminar on race and terror still works for AAP. In pursuit of the ideal of efficiency that our leadership requires, and with any of the many who have attempted to form a union paid off or terminated long before their organizing can come to term, there is a lot of churn. It’s painful, because AAPers are hired for their devotion, their programmability, their willingness to pronounce their liberal arts degrees both useless and crucial, their servitude to the ideal of technology making knowledge masterable and advancing education beyond the cave. When AAP leaves these employees behind, they are so completely indoctrinated that they are cut off from their pasts. They can only move on to one of AAP’s lesser competitors, begin doomed start-ups, or fling themselves into the pensioned, shutting maw of university administration. After Olivia routed me, I left the lobby and skipped the afternoon session. This was still possible before the enforced scans that were instituted at the January 2019 AAP Edu-Jam. A point of AAP structure that we present to clients as proof-of-efficiency is that there are only ever 100 upper-level employees. Thus, there should be exactly 100 people in the room at every central AAPC presentation. When we talk up this streamlined aspect of our business to schools, we’re very careful not to let them think we’re critical of their own inflating administrative position numbers. The more people clustered at the broadening top over there, the better chance that one of them will subscribe to AAP. The suggestion is that we stay lean so they don’t have to. I went to four used bookstores and one bar. There, I laid out the books I’d bought on the artificially distressed but genuinely beer-stained table in front of me and took a photo to post in the near future, when none of HR’s freelance social media hawks could make the connection between my browsing time and absence from Dr. Bobby Merchant’s “Your New Paperless Memorybank: A Digital Communications Action Intensive” seminar. My co-workers would be repeating to Dr. Bobby, who had been an early champion of AAP at our crucial first two Ivy League scores, that his product wasn’t a shockingly obsolete rehash of the Palm Pilot and that the stylus was indeed an essential and neglected connectivity tool. Dr. Bobby had retained enough money and influence for his irrelevance to be denied in every zone of his life except the market. He constantly mistook me for an AAP programmer named Amandeep who’d been deported months earlier, two days after the FBI came to our offices for his hard drive. Amandeep wasn’t deported, really: he flew home with a cousin’s passport to avoid prison or ICE detention. The cousin was then deported. My superiors didn’t tell me to accept Dr. Bobby’s ongoing error, but it was made clear that I should prevent him from feeling embarrassed, or worse, asking what had become of Amandeep. Dr. Bobby presented with that tech mogul eyebrowless squint and isosceles lip-purse that suggested an unattackably itchy anal contusion caused by excessive scratching. I wanted to spend my afternoon looking for modern firsts, for J.G. Farrell and V.S. Naipaul, and so I did. I would post the photo and the prices I’d paid two weeks after the conference and a fellow collector in Devon would call me a lucky cunt in genuine rage, and I would feel happy. I drank three beers, ate two dinners, and waited until midnight to come back to the hotel with my books and bottles. Nena was only a couple of floors away, but hadn’t messaged me all day, which wasn’t unusual when we were about to see each other. * The next morning, Olivia apologized for being insensitive. She was ponytailed and her clear eyes spoke of at least a decade of sobriety, disciplined sleep and exercise. I was sure she’d spent the morning in the hotel’s gym or pool, while I roiled the sheets and coughed into consciousness. Perhaps forty other AAPC attendees could hear me forgiving her repeatedly, in a voice I had to drag from hungover glottals into the precise, gracious speech that Olivia knew I was capable of if only I tried. Nena Zadeh-Brot was across the lobby, speaking to two AAP board members and pointing at an iPad, but also watching me. We wouldn’t speak until after the sessions were over, but her glance pulled me out of the final lingerings of sleep, forcing me entirely into conversation with Olivia Robinson, to witness the creation of repentance as product, to contain the apology that was being forced into me. “It’s totally okay. I feel embarrassed you’ve even been thinking about this, truly.” The lobby smelled of fresh tile adhesive, except when a guest disobeyed the signs to use the revolving doors and let in a gust of October wind cool enough to have an immediate freshening effect, even if it was polluted. But I stayed lodged in the smell of my own head, its plaque and necrotic mucous and trapped air. From Olivia came an insistent scent of pennies and mint. “No. Osman, I know nothing of your past, of you, except what I can see and imagine. And that I—that I just interrogated you like that, told you how to process your own experience like I had any conception of what it is to live even a moment in your skin—it would be like, oh, Jesus, it would be like you telling me how I should fucking deal with PMS.” “It would not—I didn’t see it that way at all. We were two grown-ups talking about ideas, which is always okay.” It is not okay, especially at AAPC, but I was too disoriented to figure out how to claw this remark back. Olivia didn’t lean in, but her right forefinger, a questing E.T. digit with a bumblebee-yellow manicure, landed at the apex of my shoulder, the place where the hollow between muscles would be if I had a proper body. “I’m sorry. Please feel that,” Olivia said. Her expression hadn’t changed, but the eyes were clearer, wider, the pupils refracting with dark sincerity. The crowd of forty was quiet. Even the people who were speaking left pauses long enough to take in what Olivia was saying. And while I understood exactly what she was doing, finally, while I knew that she was speaking past me to an audience, that she always would be, she still made me want to try to live up to her earnestness in that moment. How the fuck does that work? That exchange is only remembered by Olivia and me, except in the subconscious of every man and woman who’d seen me dominated with such ease. It is generally forgotten because Olivia made herself unforgettable moments later by hijacking AAPC’s keynote presentation, dominating a stage she wasn’t even standing on, and reducing the speaker and anointed next leader of our organization, Elodie Chan, to just another audience member. Planted questions are part of the house style of an AAPC presentation. Every session has to come in at under twenty-five minutes, including Q & A. This time-efficiency is also part of AAP’s public face. Part of what we offer to colleges and universities is a guarantee to increase potential enrolment by packaging their existing lecture and seminar offerings as compressed online-delivered courses with an optional in-class supplement, an offering that we assured the schools was “just as beneficial to end-users,” leaving out the statistic that somewhere under 17 per cent of enrolled students actually viewed and completed the entire online package. But the profit stats and test cases were undeniable. Tuition income rose by the millions at each of our four pilot schools, and AAP’s earnings swelled on our 5 per cent ask in return for upfront-costless implementation and administration of the program. The inescapable five-year contract for sign up had been conceived of and written by Nena Zadeh-Brot in conjunction with two long-vanished members of the legal department; Nena had taken an enormous bonus instead of a promotion after its successful implementation. That’s when the board knew she planned to leave AAP, someday, and she was never offered a promotion again. 2019 was Nena’s planned final year, in fact, but only our end-to-end encrypted chat knew that. I wasn’t ready to escape so soon, but was naturally unremarkable enough to avoid offers of promotion. That same quality kept me safe from being asked to be a question-plant at AAPC. Olivia Robinson was assigned to raise her hand in minute seven of Elodie Chan’s keynote, which would end up being her last as VP, two months before her total release from the company. A particular trick of Elodie’s was to avoid cramming in prepared questions at the end. She had them peppered throughout, so she could hit minute twenty-five with a judicious wrap-up that included everything that the audience had brought to the idea. It was a reusable innovation: simulated dialectic fit the AAP tradition. It was an organized display that we could replicate and use in sales pitches out in the field. During Elodie’s wireless-mic-and-chin-thrusting speech, her arms ran through a sequence of four postures—summoning, inquiring, pensive, embracing—that she had memorized because her instinct was to leave them hanging apelike at her sides. Her set-up to the fatal question was: “What can we tell these institutions of higher learning that they’re all, from Sunnydale Polytechnic to fucking Cambridge,”—Elodie paused for the laugh here, as the top reaches of AAP were expected to display frankness and practicality by swearing in their presentations—“what can we tell them that they’re, without exception, doing wrong?” She pointed at the person who was about to depose her. Olivia rose from her middle seat in the second row and stumbled over the first set of knees she encountered, laughing at herself for the rest of her trip to the mic in the aisle. “I can’t believe I’m about to make a serious statement to y’all when I can barely walk.” The “y’all” sounded so wrong in her mouth I wondered if it was a bit of Swedish until I figured it out. “Please, go ahead,” Elodie said. Olivia had eaten perhaps forty unplanned seconds, and Elodie’s arms assumed their natural slaughterhouse dangle as she mentally cut sentences from her remaining time. “Elodie’s asking us what the schools are doing wrong, and I totally see the value in that. Absolutely. But—and I’m sorry—I just don’t think it’s the question we need to be asking right now. In this company, in this world. We need to be asking what we’re doing wrong.” The tremor of a hijack in progress passed through the room, as tangibly as if the aisle Olivia was standing in was airborne and she’d stepped into it with a clever wood-and-rubber gun. Elodie could edit, but she couldn’t improvise. Her jaw hung open a half inch, matching her slack arms perfectly. We all saw it. She fixed the mouth but the arms stayed. “And I think that how we choose the questions we ask is exactly the issue,” Olivia continued. “Who we think of as our customers, as our clients—that’s the issue. How limited our idea of inclusion is. That’s the issue.” The mic was cordless, and Olivia had silently unholstered it from its stand and turned, started to back up with perfect smoothness. She moved slowly. If you were sitting, and not exactly in line with her at the back of the room, as I was, the glide to being flush with the stage would have looked like a wedding or funeral procession: dramatic, inevitable, ending in the right place. The movement made the stage, and certainly Elodie, invisible. Even the camera tracked down to record Olivia, leaving Elodie as a pair of calves ending in grey heels, the gradual zoom briefly revealing a scuff that looked like a wad of white gum on the tip of the left toe. “End-user is such an impersonal term, but that’s what we have to think about. It’s what our clients, the schools, think about. The students. That’s ultimately who we work for, am I right? And what we’re leaving out is their humanity. That’s what we are doing wrong. I am so guilty of this myself, and I know it resonates for a lot of people in this room. “Connection is what we sell. Accelerated connection, yes, but in order to be accelerated it has to be deep, profound, immediate, true connection. Do we really understand how valuable what we’re doing is? We are the only company in the world that is both mining and enriching the same resource: students. Young humanity.” I cannot express to you how well this went over, and how well it still does—a combination of disingenuous self-criticism and laudatory descriptions of our mission. Now that Olivia was up there, everyone in the room collectively realized that this was one thing, one essential thing, that Elodie Chan sucked at. She didn’t know how to take the right shallow dips into shame and corporate self-interrogation to illuminate the glory of AAP’s path forward. This was a crucial sales and motivation tool that no president could be without. Elodie’s career ended right then, but Olivia continued with another few strophes on students, and then a transition that included my name. “Osman—is it Shah? Could you please stand? God, I didn’t even have the—I really hope I got your last name right.” She blinked self-consciously, the eyes closed for an extra moment of penance. There was a gathering of flesh around the mouth in her otherwise sharply cut face, a poised cluster of skin that suggested the protrusions her braces were correcting. Olivia summoned me to stand, looked for me in the crowd instead of behind it. I walked a few steps forward and waved, then receded back to the wall. Elodie watched me as though I were advancing with a rifle and her blindfold had slipped slightly. “Osman was telling me—telling us—a story yesterday, about his mistreatment at the airport. He couched it in humour to make us all comfortable, but it was just so clear—this was, this is, a person who deals with daily humiliations on a scale that I can’t even contemplate, and comes to his colleagues with the expectation that for us to be open to his emotional state, he has to entertain us with his despair. “This is a man who carries the certainty that even AAP, with our perfect diversity statistics, can’t be a home for his pain, unless he smuggles it in under his labour and good-hearted humour. We need to ask what we are doing wrong. We need to ask: are we really valuing diversity? Are we channelling the fullness of the experience of our Osmans—I see your faces now in this crowd as I admit I never have before—if all we’re asking is for you to help us with specific sales strategies, and not to come to us with all of your experiences, freely and with openness and the expectation of understanding? Are we working with you or just using your work?” I watched her subsume my story, annex it to her ongoing enlightenment narrative, a grander tale that she was offering AAP the chance to be part of. I’ve since read my first name twice in interviews with her, an altered telling of my tangle with security now embedded in her pruned and arranged answers about diversity, power, grace. This is the real reason I don’t tell that story anymore: it’s not that I saw the truth of what a manipulative turd I was when I told it, but because Olivia liked what I said and decided to take it away and make it useful. Now I can’t take it back without being correctly accused of theft, because she did more with that airport scenario than I ever did. While AAPC applauded, and Elodie waved redundantly behind her, Olivia Robinson unfurled a hand toward me, as though she had manifested the brown lump of tragic heroism who was leaning against the wall to take pressure off his shitty spine with its slight curve and two herniated discs. The audience turned to applaud the person who had been conjured for them. Randall Dunn, the biometrics chief analyst who worked in the chair next to mine, mouthed an apology to me as he shook his head. Our obviously curry lunchtime bit died forever that day. Olivia’s move to topple Elodie would have been laughably obvious if she hadn’t made laughter impossible by hiding the coup in an apology. The audience accepted her bid at concealment. They saw the attempt but also the quality of its packaging, and they allowed that exterior to become the reality. It’s the reaction they would hope for if they ever strategized assassination plans of their own. They would want their goodness to be believed, their ambition ignored. No matter what came to pass in the year after that summit, Olivia will always be fond of me, because her gambit worked. And Elodie, long absent from AAP, is rumoured to have died of the big flu or to be running a non-profit. It’s generally agreed that she moved to Denmark. Excerpted from A Hero of Our Time by Naben Ruthnum (McClelland & Stewart).
The author of How the Word is Passed on writing through the lens of fatherhood, reckoning with the past and confronting difficult histories, and the beauty that can rise from pain.
Clint Smith was born and raised in New Orleans, a former epicenter of America’s slave trade. Despite the city’s close connection to chattel slavery, there is now little within it to commemorate this history. However, there are many streets and schools named after slave owners. In the New Orleans of Smith’s childhood, a 16-foot-tall, 8,000-pound brass statue of Robert E. Lee—a commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War—stood atop a 60-foot pedestal close to the city’s centre. Dressed in his Confederate uniform, Lee was depicted in a crossed-arm stance, defiantly facing north. In 2017, the statue came down along with several other racist monuments in the city. It was a historic moment in a struggle dating back decades, and it propelled Smith to reconsider his city of birth along with the pervasive legacy of slavery throughout the country. How the Word Is Passed (Little, Brown and Company) is the result—a remarkably perspicuous book that dispels the myths and half-truths surrounding the history of slavery in America. A staff writer at The Atlantic, an award-winning poet and educator, and now a New York Times bestselling author, Smith debuts with a narrative nonfiction account that revolves around visits to sites that help him better understand the central role that slavery played in the development of the country. It’s a narrative that includes a plantation-turned-museum/maximum-security prison, a Confederate cemetery, and Wall Street. Through recounting his travels, Smith illustrates how white supremacy and exploitation were foundational to the American project. While often painful, How the Word Is Passed also pays tribute to Black life in America and the people committed to preserving its history. Smith suggests that if we learn to reckon with the past rather than rewrite it, we just might be able to find a better way forward. The author currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I caught up with him over the phone to discuss his new book. Andru Okun: I want to start by talking about your hometown of New Orleans. When did you begin living outside of the city, and how did your perspective of it change as a result? Clint Smith: I lived in New Orleans my entire life up until Hurricane Katrina. I was three days into my senior year of high school, and my family and I ended up evacuating to Houston, Texas, where we lived with my aunt and uncle for a while. My parents then came back for their jobs, and my younger brother who was in sixth grade at the time came back as well. My sister and I stayed in Houston, where I finished high school. I think part of what happens when you’re from New Orleans and you leave is that you don’t realize all the ways that New Orleans has shaped your sensibilities and your disposition. Even simple things like holidays, I took for granted that people have jambalaya and gumbo and crawfish etouffee. The idea of not having those things that were staples during the celebratory moments of my life was strange. I realized I came from a place that had such a singular history and that the unique history and make up of New Orleans is something that everyone from there carries. I think I’m still learning every day about the ways that New Orleans shaped me. As I became a father, I learned about how growing up in New Orleans has shaped the way I think about childhood and what a meaningful childhood looks like and how much of that was animated by the sense of community and love, the sort of village I felt I was raised in within the city. How has fatherhood changed your work? I started the book in May of 2017, the same month that my son was born. So on a practical level, parenthood very much shaped the writing experience. My kids are all over this book in the sense that their emergence into my life and their presence inevitably shaped the work that I was doing and the logistics of how I wrote. I didn’t have long, extended opportunities to write; I wasn’t going away to residencies. I was writing during naptime and episodes of Sesame Street. I would take my laptop with me everywhere I went and if they fell asleep in the car, then I would pull over in a parking lot and try to get fifteen minutes in before they woke up. I was disabused of the idea that this book would be written in any sort of long, luxurious stretches of time, and I recognized it would be written during whatever moments I had, whether it was when my child was sleeping on my chest or however long I could stay awake after we put them down for bed. I remember a few years back I had lunch with Imani Perry, a professor at Princeton, and she had two young kids in the early stages of her career. When I asked how she did it, she told me that no amount of writing is too short. If you can only write for ten minutes, you might be able to write a paragraph. That sort of thing builds up, so you have to forget this idea that it’s only possible to write if you have an hour or two hours or an afternoon. You just have to take what you can get. In terms of how I thought about and approached the book, I think fatherhood further amplified the emotional texture of the places I visited: the Whitney Plantation and seeing these small statues of children sprinkled throughout different exhibits across the plantation; the Field of Angels, the main exhibit at Whitney Plantation, and seeing the names of thousands of enslaved children who died during infancy or childhood in Louisiana prior to emancipation; a slave cabin and seeing the crib or small bed that an enslaved child would sleep in—it felt so much more intimate. It wasn’t as much of an abstraction as I think it would have been previously. Throughout my experience of writing this book, I thought much more deeply about the implications of family separation than I ever had before. So much of the way that many of us are inundated with the spectacle of chattel slavery is through the brutal whippings and beatings, these violent moments of cruelty manifesting themselves. And to be sure, that was an enormous and horrific part of the institution, and I understand why that is so much of what we see in the depictions of slavery. But for some reason, I hadn’t fully accounted for the role that family separation played in the institution. And when I took a step back and thought about what it might mean if I were sleeping in my home and I woke up and my two small children had been disappeared in the middle of the night, and I had no idea where they’d been taken or if I’d ever see them again, it became almost overwhelming to think about. And that is the reality that millions of enslaved people lived through over the course of generations. The possibility of being separated from your wife, your parents, your loved ones, and your community hung over enslaved people for generations as an omnipresent threat, a mechanism of psychological terror. I experienced that emotionally in a much more visceral way and felt the tremors and the shaking in my own body when I considered what it might mean to live with that threat hanging over you every day. Kids can change so much about your life in all sorts of ways, but their presence certainly made me more conscious of the implications that this institution had on family units. How the Word Is Passed was at the top of The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. What were your expectations for this book’s release in terms of its reception? I did not expect that it would be a number one New York Times bestseller. It’s hard to explain to people how much that was not at all in my conception of what was possible. I never considered, even with all the pre-publication buzz and the great reviews, that it would become what it became. When I got the call when the list came out, I fell out of my chair. I just kept yelling expletives, basically. I couldn’t believe it was real. And it still feels very surreal. But let me say, I am incredibly wary of attaching any sense of a book’s success to external factors that are beyond my control. Going into this book, I didn’t want its success to be defined by whether it was a bestseller or if it was nominated for prizes or awards or reviewed well. There’s so much that’s not in your control as a writer. In some ways the book doesn’t belong to you once you put it out into the world; that’s what it means to create art and literature. I was very much moving through this process with a recognition of that, and I had to be clear about who this book was for and whose opinions mattered to me. I wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to read when I was in high school. So much of this book was animated by attempting to fill in the gaps of my own education, the gaps of my childhood. I also wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to teach when I was a high school teacher. Those were the driving forces that shaped how I wrote. To the extent that I had an audience in mind, that fifteen-year-old version of me was that audience, to write a book that would provide the history, language, framework, and toolkit with which to more effectively make sense of the landscape of inequality that I was seeing around me growing up in New Orleans that I didn’t know how to explain. So much of the iconography I didn’t really understand. So much of the history was embedded in the infrastructure of the city in ways that I had never known or been presented with. The book itself is this four-year journey of me trying to bring the reader along to learn about the things which I wished I had learned about when I was younger. So now you have this large audience engaging with your book and lots of white readers who may be confronted with ideas that make them uncomfortable. I don’t see it as your responsibility to make these readers feel more at ease; I am curious, though, if you ever felt the need to factor in white readers' innate defensiveness while writing this. I don’t consider what will or won’t make a white person uncomfortable. That doesn’t really factor into my writing at all. The thing about this book is that I wanted to lift up and honour the work of public historians, tour guides, descendants, and the people who are engaging with all sorts of folks from the public on these issues every day. I think the tenor of the book was inspired by the approach so many of these public historians and guides took with a recognition that our country has systematically and structurally failed to teach the history of slavery to millions of people in any way that is commensurate with the actual impact that it had. You have generations of people of all ages who have little to no understanding of some of the basic history of slavery. You carry a recognition of that, and you extend a level of grace and generosity and understanding to people who might not know information because they’ve never been presented with it. Many of these guides very much believe in meeting people where they are. They know that you have to recognize where people are coming from when you’re engaging if you want to have that engagement be meaningful. At the same time, none of that means that you soften the blow, so to speak. None of that means that you reduce or limit how transparent you are about what this institution was, or that you pull back on any of the details that are central to understanding. It’s about finding a balance between generosity and accountability, a balance between empathy and responsibility. So many of the people that I met who have dedicated their lives to telling the history of slavery do this in such a remarkable and important way. These are people who have a deep intellectual understanding of this history and who also are in conversation every day with people who have no idea. They model for me what it means to find a balance and to tell people the truth in a way that will allow them to hear it. The scene where you sit in on a Sons of Confederate Veterans gathering seems like it must have been so trying. Yet, you seemed to have been exceedingly patient with everyone you engaged with. Did you ever feel frustrated during these conversations? I think for me, those are moments where I’m just moving with curiosity. I’m really a genuinely curious person, and I knew that even though I would fundamentally reject everything that group of people stands for, I also wanted to understand why they believe what they believe. I really did want to understand how one could come to think, despite the overwhelming evidence and primary source documents, that slavery wasn’t the central cause of the Civil War or that the Confederacy didn’t secede because of slavery even though their government specifically said otherwise. What animated somebody’s understanding of history and themselves to believe things that run counter to all of the evidence that we have? I knew that if I approached them from an antagonist perspective that they wouldn't open up. If I tried to make it this gotcha moment or if I got super angry, they wouldn’t talk to me in any way that would be illuminating or valuable. What I wanted from that experience was clarity, and I think I got a lot of it. I think they were pretty honest with me about why they do what they do and why they believe what they believe. In those moments, I’m less interested in engaging in what feels like a performative antagonism at the expense of getting honest responses and then letting the history itself serve as a rebuttal. That’s what I wanted to do in that chapter—I wanted these people to open up to me and tell me about how they’d come to believe these different things, and then I went to the primary source documents to make it clear to the reader what is true and what is not in ways that I think are far more interesting and effective than me attempting to do any of that in real time. I also wanted to make clear to the people that I was talking to that I’m not a quote-unquote objective or neutral party; I had very direct conversations with these people about how they feel a sense of pride when they visit a cemetery for tens of thousands of people who fought on behalf of the Confederacy, because all I see is people who fought a war to keep my ancestors enslaved. I am honest with them, and I think there’s a difference between being honest and antagonistic. I think it’s important to paint these folks in three-dimensional ways. It can be very easy for them to become caricatures of themselves, and I think they’re often depicted as caricatures, but the truth is that these are people who hold their grandchildren on their lap the same way my grandparents did. These are people who sit down for family dinners with people they love. They are human beings with their own interior lives that I think need to be taken seriously because it reminds us that they’re not cartoon characters, they’re people. And that makes the implications of what they believe all the more urgent and frightening and dangerous. It is because they are real people that what they believe is so concerning, not because they’re cartoonish notions of people we can toss to the side and discount. In fact, they represent people who are all around us. Your book digs into the misconceptions and myths of American slavery. One of the more bewildering narratives is that of the benevolent slave owner. How did this particular falsehood become so common? Earlier on in slavery, during the Jeffersonian age, the people who engaged in slavery largely knew it was wrong. Jefferson wrote about this, and he knew it was a pretty terrible thing, but he also said it was necessary for social and economic foundations. It was this thing that many people seemingly did begrudgingly, and they hoped that, ultimately, they could move toward a time that it would not be necessary. That shifted when slavery became much more entangled in the American economy. It became much more central to it and then the narrative turned into slavery being a civilizing institution. In the words of the late senator John Calhoun of South Carolina (who was also once our vice president), slavery was a “positive good” for both Black and white people alike. You could look at the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, who perpetuated the idea that plantations were civilizing institutions, that enslaved people were treated well and slavery had rescued Black people from the savagery and anarchy of Africa—that it had given them Christianity and civilization, a specific and important role to play in the American project. I think once people realized that they didn’t want to give slavery up because of all these sorts of social and economic conveniences and the power that it afforded them, then they did what humans do, which is make up a different story to justify their actions. So then they thought of themselves as doing the enslaved a favour, giving meaning and structure to people who would otherwise have no idea what to do in the world. As Yvonne Holden at the Whitney Plantation said, when white people come to the Whitney one of the questions she gets the most is, “Were there good slave owners?” And these questions come specifically from white visitors, and I’m paraphrasing, but she basically says if someone kidnapped your child, no amount of niceness would take away from the fact that they were a kidnapper who stole children. I think that’s a helpful framework because within the context of chattel slavery there is no such thing as a good slave owner. If you own another human being, you are engaging in behaviour that is morally abhorrent and unacceptable. The formulation of the benevolent slave owner is in and of itself a contradiction. This sort of reminds me of how people talk about Angola Prison after Burl Cain [the former warden] arrived. Angola is said to have been this really horrific place before Cain, and he is widely credited with shaping it up and improving the lives of the people imprisoned there. But we’re still talking about the country’s largest maximum-security prison sitting on a former plantation, a prison named after the origin country of the enslaved people forced to work there. It’s one of those things where it’s a both/and. Obviously, I write about Angola in the book, and I wrote my dissertation about education and incarceration, and I think a lot about mass incarceration, the history of chattel slavery, and our current carceral landscape. I think we can recognize that it is a good thing that Angola Prison is not as violent as it once was. It is a good thing that it is safer for the incarcerated people there than it once was. That is a different thing than saying that a place is good. Recognizing that there is less harm being enacted on the minds and bodies of incarcerated people than there were two or three decades ago is not the same thing as saying that Angola is now a good place to be, because it’s not. For me, I’ve been teaching in prisons and jails for the last seven years. I take seriously what it means to mitigate the harm that people currently incarcerated are experiencing. I think people who are currently incarcerated should have better health care and access to education and better food. I also believe that we should build a society in which it’s not necessary for prisons to exist because we have provided communities with the necessary social infrastructure that would prevent people from becoming entangled in the criminal legal system in the first place. So it’s that both/and. From what I understand, Burl Cain came in and made reforms that have mitigated the harm that people in Angola experience, and that is good. It also doesn’t mean that he made Angola Prison a good place. Another misconception you write about is that slavery wasn’t simply a result of southern white supremacy. As your book notes, northern financial institutions bankrolled and profited from slavery, and the demand for slave labour was directly related to international demand for cotton and sugar. Why do you think popular narratives of slavery often limit its horrors and impacts to the American South? I think a lot of people like to think of themselves as not as culpable. As you alluded to, the concept of the North as “the good guys” doesn’t account for the ways that so much of the economic, social, and political infrastructure of northern cities were deeply entangled and invested in perpetuating slavery in the South. New York City was once the second-largest slave market in the country. The banks and financial institutions provided the capital that allowed slavery to subsist, and so much of what slavery excavated from the soil was sent off to Europe. New York was so invested in slavery that on the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City secede from the Union alongside the southern states because the city’s existence was so deeply tied to their fate. I think it’s important to recognize the reality of these northern cities, and I wrote about New York, but I could have written about Providence, Boston, or a host of northern cities whose histories are inextricably linked to slavery. It’s a history that’s not often told because Americans genuinely like to create clean demarcations between good and evil. So we say the South did this terrible thing and the North did this good thing, when the history is much more complex than that, in the same way that we now know what we call “red states” and “blue states” are not just red and blue. In Louisiana, it’s a quote-unquote red state, but there are millions of people who vote for democratic causes or politicians in cities throughout the state. Louisiana in the mid-19th century was a slave state, but there were also many people who were sympathetic to the Union; in New York City, which was in a quote-unquote free state, there were a lot of people sympathetic to the Confederacy. No city or region is monolithically anything, certainly not monolithically good or bad. But when we retroactively look back, we often attempt to create narratives that overly simplify the nature of what was happening. It’s often done to provide a level of cover or to stave off culpability for harm that has been done. You write, “Our country’s teachings about slavery, painfully limited, often focus singularly on heroic slave narratives at the expense of the millions of men and women whose stories might be less sensational but are no less worthy of being told.” As a writer and a historian, how do you determine which stories are worth telling? I’m really interested in the people who are not anthologized in our textbooks, the people who did not necessarily write their own autobiographies or end up on our posters on the wall. That’s part of why I appreciate the Federal Writers Project slave narratives so much—even with all of the limitations and problems embedded within them due to how they were transcribed and how white interviewers engaged them—I think they can tell us so much about what the ordinary, quotidian nature of slavery was like for people who were not Douglas, Tubman, Jacobs, or Equiano. Those narratives tell us what it meant to be a human, to make a sense of meaning and purpose for yourself in the midst of these unimaginable circumstances, and they’re more reflective of how the majority of people experienced slavery. They were trying to build community and find love and meaning and respite in these small moments where they could, to remind them that they were people who had agency despite being oppressed by an institution predicated on taking that agency away. I thought one of your book’s most affecting chapters was the one in which you speak with your grandparents. Their stories felt so personal and unfiltered. How did you come to include them in this project? I was writing this book, travelling across the country and having conversations with all these different people, and I was asking strangers these really deep questions about their lives. I realized that I’d never brought the same level of formal attention to conversations with my own family, gaining a sense of all of their life stories and talking to them with a level of intentionality and specificity that I hadn’t before. As I write in the book, I realized that some of the best primary sources aren’t in archives. Rather, they’re right next to you. My grandmother and my grandfather are their own sort of monuments to a history that wasn’t that long ago. I think I had a moment when I realized my grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved, and I saw my son sitting on my grandfather’s lap and was reminded of how recent this was and what not only our physical proximity to slavery is, but also our temporal proximity to this history is. It’s this story we’re told that happened a long time ago, when in fact it wasn’t that long ago at all; there are people who are alive who loved and were raised by and in community with people who were born into intergenerational chattel slavery. I was just doing a local NPR show and an older woman called in and talked about how in her earliest years she was raised by her great grandfather, who was born a slave. The idea that slavery was a long time ago is just so profoundly untrue, and at worst it is morally and intellectually disingenuous to suggest that it was. It was important for me to have conversations with my grandparents about their own proximity to that history and what their lives were like in the more direct aftermath of slavery. My grandfather was born in 1930 in Mississippi, which is only 65 years after the end of slavery—there were millions of people alive when he was born that were once enslaved. Much of this book was interested in questions of proximity and intimacy, and I wanted to better understand my grandparents’ stories to make sense of my own, to more effectively situate myself in this history, but also to get a sense of what it felt like for them to be so close to it. While on a slavery tour in New York, your guide, Damaras Obi, noted that race is a social construct that isn’t supported by any scientific or genetic evidence. When, if ever, do you think America will be ready to grapple with this concept? That’s one of the million-dollar questions, I think. I mean, it’s another both/and. You have to carry recognition that race is completely made up with the specific intention of creating and demarcating lines of power—that it’s grounded in the history of capitalism and exploitation. Another physical mechanism could have been used to decide who was and was not a citizen, but they used race. And race is what has come to shape not only our contemporary social, political, and economic infrastructure, but our global infrastructure as well. So you have to hold the recognition that it’s made up, but it also has profound implications that are with us now and will likely be with us forever. Part of what Black people have done is taken this thing that was used as a mechanism of oppressing, subjugating, and violating us and turning it into this remarkable culture that has emerged out of such pain. Whether it be the music, the art, the literature, the sensibilities, or the language, these things came out of the history of chattel slavery. I often think about how remarkable it is that things so beautiful could have emerged from something so ugly, but that is the incredible story of Black life in this country.
The author of Damn Shame on finding the universal, empathy and the X-Files.
David Pevsner’s new book, Damn Shame: A Memoir of Desire, Defiance, and Show Tunes (Random House Canada), is a road map for those journeying toward full sexual expression who find themselves stuck in the ditch of sexual stigma. Pevsner has a lot to teach the reader: he’s a writer, actor, former escort, and at 63-years-old, a current OnlyFans content creator. His story is of a man split by shame—the actor who plays straight doctors and lawyers on mainstream television, and the horny gay sex worker who makes porn for fun. With panache, Pevsner shows us that fearless, honest storytelling, despite the myriad of risks, leads the way to the shameless integration of the self. Narcissism is a main character in Pevsner’s sex work memoir. In college, mustering up the courage to exit the closet and tell his shrink about a crush, the doctor disturbingly responds: “He probably looks just like you. All homosexuals are narcissists.” Beyond homophobic stereotypes, Pevsner becomes a self-described narcissist as he grows out of his awkward musical theatre teen years into the hot daddy of his own dreams. His superficiality increases in tandem with his insecurity, with a mixed bag of results: Ten hours/week in the gym (good!), lots of hot sex (great!), and standards so high he inevitably hurts the suitors who care about him most (bad!). Narcissism, based on the much-maligned Narcissus of Greek mythology, is a dirty word. Narcissus was a man taken by his own beauty, who could not stop looking at his own reflection until that staring led to his untimely death. As artists, as sexual beings, and as integrated humans capable of both, what’s wrong with beauty looking itself in the eye? Self-reflection is the root of art, especially when that art is explicitly autobiographical. As a writer, performer, and sex work memoirist myself, I, too, have been called a “promiscuous narcissist.” Promiscuous for being a whore, narcissistic for making art about it. It’s one thing to be a slut, we are told by those clutching their pearls; it’s another to tell everyone. Reading Damn Shame, I felt an intimate kinship with an artist who, I can only presume, feels his sexuality and creativity are inextricably intertwined. That hiding one part of ourselves impedes the expression of all others. For the promiscuous narcissist, the performative nature of sex work feels like home. When Pevsner ventures into sex work as a mature escort at thirty-six, his superficiality is challenged in a transformative way. The man with high standards must learn to love the less attractive stranger. The narcissist comes to realize that men are more than their looks, and that, for an agreed upon sum, he is capable of compassionately loving anybody. What a gift! Grounded with a more empathetic view of humanity, Pevsner’s heart is newly open to true love. But when Reid, Pevsner’s shitty, whorephobic boyfriend, is informed of his partner’s sex work, he writes a breakup note that calls the artist untrustworthy, undatable, and disease-ridden. He signs it, “With love, without respect, Reid.” Besides money, at least Pevsner always received respect from his clients. Is there such a thing as love without respect? For Pevsner, the memoir is a mirror, but its reflection is a moving target. “I know what you’re thinking,” he writes at various points in Damn Shame, as he prepares to divulge even more shameless truth about escorting, pornography, and homosexuality. He engages the reader and calls them out on their perceived assumptions. In Pevsner’s reflection, the image is wearing boxing gloves, and rightly so: he’s a man on a crusade against ageism, sexual stigma, and homophobia. He is, of course, still David “I would have fucked me in a second” Pevsner. He’s hot—the nude photos in the book prove it!—he knows it, and lucky for us, he’s not even close to being done. Thank goodness. Those of us promiscuous narcissists on the same path, creatively exploring our whoredom both in private and in public, are deeply grateful. Andrea Werhun: In the midst of your acting career, sick of taking on restaurant jobs to subsidize your life in New York City, you ventured into “mature” escorting in your mid-thirties. On the elevator ride up to your first appointment, you calm your nerves by repeating, “You’re an actor, you can do this!” What are the connections you see between acting and sex work? And what are the similarities between the way you’ve approached both professions? David Pevsner: When I started, I thought I’d have to use my acting talents to be able to engage with guys that I maybe didn’t find attractive, to be able to be sexual with them. But the more I did it, the less “acting” I had to depend on. I found things about every man that helped me connect to them, both personally and sexually. Going beyond the looks or the bodies. Plus, my caretaking and sense of humor also helped make these sessions go by sweetly. I got special requests to indulge certain fantasies they had: the repairman who shows up to fix the TV but needs a shower first and then, oops, his towel falls off; the superhero bottoming for the man-in-distress; the lothario who romances the guy and sweeps him off his feet, sure. There was a lot of acting/role play involved, and that was always really fun. And sometimes they just wanted me to be a nasty daddy top or submissive boy bottom, and I treated everything as if I was about to play the role off-Broadway. Very fun. I found, just as in my legit acting work, that the more I feel organic about what I’m doing, the more pleasurable it is and the better the connection. I can’t stop thinking about Reid’s breakup note sign-off after he discovers your sex work: “With love, without respect, Reid.” Do you think it’s possible to love someone without respecting them? And is sex work a form of respect, without love? Can you really have one without the other? As I found in the aftermath of that shit-show of a relationship, you cannot have real love without respect. Or, let me put it this way: I don’t think I can have real love without respect. It made me realize how much respect I had for so many people in my life, even if they were going through difficulties that made them do some disrespectful things. I make an analogy to Mulder and Scully (I love The X-Files!) and their relationship. They didn’t always agree, but they had each other’s back and respected and trusted the crap out of each other. To me, that’s a perfect basis for love. As for sex work, I can’t say I respected everyone I fucked, but that has nothing to do with the work. If they were a crappy person (and very few were), the respect went out the window, but I still had to perform. Almost always, I had utter respect for the men who hired me because I could sense their need and it was real and I was there to make them feel better. I also respect everyone who photographs my nudes and videos if they are artists, even if we’re just shooting something porn-y. The sex work I’ve done has always been better when there was mutual respect and manners, even if it was down and dirty. You transitioned from in-person sex work to posing for erotic photography and today, you are a prolific content creator on OnlyFans. All along the way, you’ve had to grapple with your nudity and sexuality posing a threat to your mainstream acting career. What have been the showbiz implications of being open and honest about your sex work and sexuality—and what does Vanessa Williams have to do with it? That last line made me do a spit-take with my coffee. I talk about the “Vanessa Williams Rule” in my book. When her Penthouse Forum nude photos were discovered, she lost her Miss America crown, and though she said that it was a mistake (mainly because they were published without her okay), she didn’t apologize and didn’t call them morally wrong. She owned up, handled it well, and that’s why I believe she’s had the career she’s had. They will come for you if you apologize and cower to conventional wisdom. “Take control of your own story” was some advice I got from a publicist friend, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. It’s all out there, but I do not believe it should hamper my ability to work as a mainstream actor. And though I lost a couple of agents over my photos, I’m still getting auditions, and really, the folks I want to work with, the Duplass Brothers, Ryan Murphy, even Martin Scorsese...do you think any of them really care if my dick is on the Internet? You are an autobiographical wonder. You’ve written two one-man shows, To Bitter and Back and Musical Comedy Whore, and now this memoir, Damn Shame. How do you transform a personal story into a tale with universal relevance? When does art go from a narcissistic pursuit to something that’s relatable to everyone? That’s a fabulous question. I’ve gone to shows and read books written by people who have had awesome experiences, but I was left feeling cold because I didn’t really identify with their journeys. They didn’t find what was relatable in their stories, to go beyond “hey, look what I did!” I became aware of finding the universal in my work when I wrote my song about getting hard-ons in the showers in gym class. So many guys told me that the feelings I wrote about in that song hit home with so many of them, and that it was both fun and healing to know they were not alone. I found by really gleaning my experiences, getting deep into what I felt while things were happening, really exploring the humanity in every situation, the more folks responded to the stories I was telling. As I like to say, you can write a book about penguins in Guam, but if you don’t give me a reason to read it beyond the plight of the penguins; to bring out the animal lover in all of us, the caring about our planet, the relationships between the penguins and how it mirrors our own, the funny shit they do and how they walk—that will get me involved. And then if something good or bad happens to them, I feel their joy or pain or whatever in my soul. A cute penguin ain’t enough. That’s all a pretty long analogy, but hopefully it makes my point. As you age, does the insecure narcissist of your youth ever rear his beautiful head or has getting older rendered him insignificant—or rather, unrecognizable? Has your anti-shame, anti-ageism, and pro-sexuality crusade put the narcissist in his place? How do you get comfortable with getting older? Oh, he’s still there. I don’t think he’s ever going away. But he has other things to balance him out that have come more to the fore as I’ve gotten older. When I feel him going over the line, I focus my attentions outside of myself and usually that will pull him back. I’ve always been a very empathetic person, but also a very judgmental one, which sometimes overran the empathy. But as I’m getting older, having been through all I’ve experienced, I’ve become much more forgiving and in tune with folks, because none of us is perfect, and really, what the hell do I have to be judgmental about? And I’m hoping that my “crusade” as you put it (a great word, actually) helps others. I guess you could say I’m still a narcissist, but much more tempered and for a very good cause. For me, if I can just maintain my health, physically, mentally, and emotionally, I am more than okay with aging. But I want us all to be okay with it, that there is no age limit on feeling sexy, passionate, accomplished, whatever. You’re only done if you decide you are. I’m not done!
For centuries, queerness and horror have been intertwined, horror relying on queerness for shock and pungency, and queerness relying on horror for visibility and validation.
Ever since my mother first read me to sleep with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, I have sought to find my place in them. Was I the farmer’s wife being chased by three blind mice? Was I Little Miss Muffet, running screaming from spiders? Or was I the wicked witch, the dark fairy, the evil stepmother? Even at that age, I knew that I wasn’t the bland, courageous prince who would chop through a forest of thorns to rouse his love with a kiss. From the earliest days of childhood through to my teenage years, the books I read, the movies I was taken to, the TV shows I watched—everything told me I was destined to be a villain or a victim, or possibly both. For most of its history, horror has been an inherently conservative genre, as fear is an innately conservative emotion, and horror has traditionally been employed to uphold conservative values: the triumph of the virtuous, the punishment of the wicked, the rejection of the different, the dissident, the unknown, the preservation of family, country, and God. As I write in the genre, I continually have to question whether I am demonizing sides of myself that I should be embracing and celebrating: my values, my relationships, my sexuality, my otherness. * For centuries, queerness and horror have been intertwined, horror relying on queerness for shock and pungency, and queerness relying on horror for visibility and validation. The genre we describe as horror today has its roots in the romance and Gothic genres of the eighteenth century, which in turn were influenced by the pre-Romantic movement known as the Graveyard Poets, the more gruesome works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and Middleton, as well as the works of Milton and Dante, which described in graphic detail the torments of Hell that await those who had sinned. While the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras were more liberal in their depictions of queer historical figures, relationships, sexuality, and romance (though often with tragic ends), such positive portrayals declined as the Church and the State both worked to criminalize and demonize such behaviour. With the arrival of Gothic novels, the early Victorian thrillers known as “sensation novels,” pulp novels, and penny dreadfuls, we stepped into the spotlight in one of the few great leading roles we were allowed to fully inhabit: the villain. In such works as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (who warns his “brides” as they approach Jonathan Harker, “He belongs to me!”), queer attractions and subtexts could suddenly be explored, and queer characters could take a role at the heart of the story, albeit as predatory unnaturals with perverse desires, seeking out innocents—including children and animals—to corrupt and consume. From Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, chances are that if you read a story from this period that depicts “a secret side,” a “hideous transformation,” a “debilitating disease,” a “tainted bloodline,” “wanton decadence,” “unbridled hedonism,” “a duplicitous nature,” or a “twilight underworld,” you are likely confronting a carefully coded example of queer horror. Queer writers found we could work within the confines of this most conservative genre, using metaphor and allusion to describe meeting places, encounters, relationships, occupations, and networks through which queer people could find each other, gather, and form community. At least for a while, it was better to be seen as a monster than to remain unseen. However, in our zeal to use the genre to portray some aspect of ourselves, what we most often revealed—or were required to reveal—was our self-hatred. For queer readers, hatred, and self-hatred, were the stinging medicines we were forced to consume if we were to satisfy our need to see ourselves. * So-called sexual deviance and perversity continued to play a starring role in horror past the turn of the century and into the early 1900s, through two world wars and the deeply conformist 1950s and early ’60s. As stage plays, fiction, cinema, and television became more permissive, explicit portrayals of lusty lesbian vampires, pansexual covens, mother-obsessed maniacs, and cross-dressing cannibals shocked and titillated mainstream audiences and enraged censors and queer activists alike. The lines between good and evil began to blur, the anti-hero became a dominant protagonist, and the prim, prudish, unfailingly heterosexual heroes were subtly mocked for their dullness while the outlandish monsters and murderers were quietly cheered for their rejection of social norms. Up until this point, family as a microcosm of society had been held up as a sanctity, as the source of strength and safety, and heroes would do anything, including sacrifice themselves, to destroy the monster and restore order. Then we began to see a transition from the common theme of “destroying the abnormal to preserve family and society” to the implication that family and society were themselves the abnormal and would destroy you. This new wave of horror was the one I grew up with, precociously reading novels such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Stephen King’s Carrie, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. In these stories, family and society were where the monsters were made—through divorce, abuse, neglect, through isolation and exclusion, and especially through a disregard for and degradation of the rules of gender and sexual identity that “good families” obeyed. This was the new order, and while “good people” and “good families” could try to combat it, they risked sacrificing themselves for no reason or, worse, becoming monsters themselves in the process. These narratives unfolded in stark contrast to those I’d seen in old creature features on television, where the monster, even if created by our greed or misadventure, was still an external force we could fight and destroy. Now we were in the era of Bob Clark’s influential proto-slasher Black Christmas, where the obscenity-spewing woman-hating killer—whose perverse and monstrous tirades alluded to abuse within his family—was calling from inside the house. As LGBTQ communities became more vocal and visible in our demands for civil rights, portrayals of queer monsters and villains and grotesques were decried as homophobic and transphobic. As a queer young man who loved horror, who, like many, was drawn to darkness, I struggled as I confronted images of myself and my friends that openly maligned us, and recoiled with a different kind of fear as I imagined my parents, my employers and co-workers, my straight friends and their families, seeing these films as legitimate depictions of my life, my experience, and my desires. In recent years, the queer villain/anti-hero has made an interesting and largely welcome return within horror, as we have seen an increase in the psychological complexity of its monsters and the conflicted nature of its heroes and victims. Michel Faber’s cerebral sci-fi horror novel Under the Skin (and its more oblique 2013 film adaptation with Scarlett Johansson) presents an alien who performs gender, taking on the image of a vulnerable, feminine woman to attract, ensnare, and harvest her human male prey; her journey both illuminates and subverts the trope of “trans woman as male deceiver.” In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In, the genitally mutilated child vampire Eli befriends and imperceptibly grooms the bullied boy Oskar to replace the aging “father” in Eli’s thrall. Oskar and Eli ultimately escape the town where Eli has been feeding; we understand that Oskar too will grow older, will become protector and facilitator and “father,” as Eli remains ageless. And then there is the titular creature of the 2014 film The Babadook, who was embraced by film-savvy queers as a darkly dapper symbol of queer resistance—“I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet: the more you deny, the stronger I get.” Once it bursts out of the closet, it refuses to be repressed or restrained. In the end, despite all attempts to exorcise it, it cannot be defeated, nor can it be driven away; it can only be integrated into the family, fed and nurtured, accepted and embraced. * I’ve had to reckon with my own personal history with queer horror, how it has shaped my view of my community and of myself. So much of it is about the aspects in queer culture that straight people fear, that straight society fears: strength and independence in women; vulnerability and intimacy in men; the upending of gender and family roles; the repudiation of the primacy of reproduction; the hollowness and bankruptcy of the dominant social structures; challenges to the pronouncements of the Church. And our intrinsic invisibility, our insidiousness—that we could be anyone, anywhere, hiding in plain sight. I have to admit, there is something delicious in that—that we would provoke so much unease, so much discomfort, so much irrational, unfounded terror just by existing. But what are queer people afraid of, apart from the obvious? I asked myself this as I was writing my first novel, The Bone Mother, which included an array of queer and trans people among its many monstrous and human characters. We are afraid of death, of course, of violence and torture and sickness and suffering, of being exposed and humiliated and shunned and persecuted. We are afraid of being erased, or unseen, or forgotten. We are afraid of being alone. Sometimes being queer is about all those things; they are at the heart of our history and the root of our oppression. Sometimes being queer is about being cast out; sometimes it’s about casting ourselves out, walking or running away while we still can. Sometimes being queer is about being the monster, the one who corrupts, the one who devours. Sometimes—after everything and everyone has been stripped from us—sometimes being queer is about being the last one standing. Excerpted from Red X by David Demchuk (Strange Light Books).