Hazlitt Magazine

Crazy Wisdom: A Love Story

My parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, the cult leader.

The Memory Weavers

Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference is something women have done for centuries.

'When I Go Into the Forest, I'm Always Reading Into It': An Interview with Jessica J. Lee

Talking to the author of Two Trees Make a Forest about changing ideas of home, our bodies as maps, and how the natural landscape influences human connection.

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‘A Fossil of Our Youth’: An Interview with Marlowe Granados

The author of Happy Hour on charm as currency, the resilience of feminity, and getting away with things. 

“Can we go for cocktails and charge Hazlitt?” asks Marlowe Granados when I first approach the novelist about conducting an interview. It’s a line that could have been pulled straight out of Happy Hour (Flying Books), her singular, stylish debut chronicling the capricious adventures of Gala and Isa, two insouciant naïf-types who embark on odd jobs like selling vintage clothes, life modeling and seat-filling at a network TV show amidst glamorous evenings spent drinking and flirting at flimsy social engagements throughout the course of one sweat-drenched, heatstroke summer in New York. Happy Hour depicts life not as a propulsive narrative but a fascinating character study of two women daring enough to engage in that most anathema pursuit—doing nothing in New York. Though I was too sheepish to ask Hazlitt to foot the bill, I agreed cocktails would be the perfect backdrop to discuss a book where one character ends up unwittingly on the cover of the New York Post. We met on the back patio of Bar Piquette on Toronto’s Queen Street, on a warm night amidst a few occupied tables of revellers. Full disclosure: Marlowe and I are quite friendly, having met through what I am loath to describe as the “Toronto literary scene,” and have plenty in common—our mutual love of glamorous designer clothes is a defining characteristic. I felt the need to dress up for our meeting, and donned a vintage linen Max Mara dress that reveals a sliver of décolletage for the occasion. Marlowe arrived looking angelic in a hot pink Dolce & Gabbana slip dress, hair pulled up in a cartoonish chiffon scrunchie and eyes perfectly shadowed in a shade of pinky-red that might portend illness on someone else but looked divine on her. She was the physical embodiment of her own quote, ”I am passionate about glamour—because it is illusive, hard to define, yet identifiable.” Happy Hour conjures up the carefree spirit of pre-Covid era, when it was not yet deadly to drop into multiple events in one evening or crash with a stranger whose name you may or may not remember in the morning. Part Shopgirl, part Slaves of New York, Happy Hour is an Old Hollywood screwball comedy dressed up in a vintage Versace silk slip dress scrounged up at the thrift store for a song. Like Breatharians, Granados’s lighthearted heroines seem to subsist purely on fun. The prose goes down like champagne sparkle garnished with a lemon twist. There isn’t a single throwaway line in the book. In between plates of oysters and glasses of Prosecco, we discussed unreliable narrators, generational trauma, underage party girl exploits, and the importance of taking fun seriously.  Isabel Slone: I’m going to start with the question that you probably hate, which is, how much of the book is real? Marlowe Granados: The book is loosely based on a summer I spent in New York when I was 21. I started writing it when I was 22 and finished it when I was 25. I draw on the events of that summer but also on a lot of things that I had experienced over the course of my life. I started going out when I was 15, so a lot of the observations I had from that period I definitely put into the book. It was as though I had been saving them for something.  A lot of people read the book and think, “Oh, it's you” about the Isa character, but no, it’s not. Isa has this weird way of seeing things that I’ve grown out of as I’ve gotten older. A lot of the events that happen in the book, I would react quite negatively to, but Isa’s kind of this weird gel, she doesn’t really feel affected by other people’s actions. She's really positive in the way she spins things. Writing the character was quite challenging, because when you get older this kind of scornfulness takes over. There is a real Gala and a real Nicolas. I was saying to Gala the other day, there are times when I actually can’t differentiate between what actually happened and what I’ve written. I don't remember the real version of events anymore, I only remember how I fictionalized them. It’s very bizarre. The book is kind of this commemoration of the way we were before. And not only when we were 21, but when we were 18 or 17 or 16, living in a city and being a little wild. Tell me about going out when you were 15. I was left to my own devices a lot as a kid. My mom travelled a lot during the week, so I was kind of unsupervised. I realized that the best nights to go out were mid-week, Wednesdays and Thursdays. I had a part-time retail job so I made friends with people who were older and cool, and they helped me get into parties. I was just bored, I guess. I loved it. I spent a really weird summer in New York when I was 18. I had written a script and was trying to get it made. All my friends and I would sneak into these clubs—I didn’t realize how odd it was until later. At the time I was obsessed with i-D magazine; I collected every single issue from when I was in Grade 7 until high school. It always came out in Canada a month after it was originally released. Later on, I realized I had met all these people who were featured in i-D. All of a sudden, I was hanging out with them all the time, going out in New York, getting snuck into bars… I guess this making it work mentality has always been familiar to me and it was really great source material, because I met all these crazy people at the time.  The thought of going to New York alone at 18 sounds terrifying to me. Were you just fearless? I was definitely crazy and a little bit wild when I was young. I’ll tell you this one story that I’ve never really talked about before. When I was 15, I told my mom that I was going to go to London with these girls that I had met on MySpace. I had met them in New York before, when my mom and I had gone down there for a cute trip. I had gone a bit crazy with plane tickets—this was before Photoshop, I used to doctor things to show to my mom. It was really bad. So, I went to London by myself and I was supposed to stay with these girls, but when I got there, they were like, no… I remember getting off the plane and being in Hyde Park at 7 in the morning, having nowhere to go at first and realizing, “Okay, I guess I have to just survive this.” My mom, like, fainted, when she found out I was alone. I stayed there for a full week. I just wandered around and went to parties. I didn’t have that much money. Someone would offer to let me stay at their apartment and then never come back so I would hang around in the hallway outside the apartment door, being like, should I sleep outside the door? Did you sleep outside the door? No, I found somewhere else to stay. I remember at one point I booked a hostel—it was so scary. It was in this Victorian house with no heating and cracked mirrors. It was meant for people to room together, so there were two twin beds in a room. It was terrifying. I vaguely remember being there and thinking, “I can do this. This is fine.” For a long time I just had this mentality where I believed everything was going to be fine. That was the beginning of my party girl phase. After that, everything was like, whatever. I didn’t think anything after that could compare to this really scary moment where I was so far away from home. I stayed there for the whole week in London, just kind of going around. After that, I used to take the bus to New York all the time by myself and my mom was okay with it. It was a weird way of growing up, a little bit hippie.  So, you learned this extreme sense of resourcefulness early on and it served you very well into the future.  Yeah. When my mom left me alone during the week, I did everything by myself. I had to make myself dinner, I ate grilled cheese sandwiches every day after school. I watched TV and went to school on time. It was all on me. So really early on I fell in love with this kind of lifestyle—I had all these magazines and realized you could meet all these interesting people and just have fun and be wild. It was completely in my reach, so I would just go after it. That reminds me of a line in the book, “As much as this summer is about branching out into a semblance of adulthood, it is also about fun. I take both seriously.” Where did you learn how to take fun seriously? I think that having fun and taking these things that tend to be cast aside as nothing serious is so important. It’s so disappointing to me that people often don’t understand how important lightness is. The ability to fight for lightness is so much about how you enjoy life. And now, in a pandemic, people are starting to come to terms with that a little bit more. The ability to have a life that’s spontaneous and exciting, that’s something people have really been missing even though they might not have taken advantage of it originally. This striving for lightness was also a problem for me earlier on in publishing. It was suggested to me that Gala and Isa didn’t have this clear-cut trauma that people could respond to. It doesn’t follow a plot where something bad happens to these girls and then they spend the rest of the book trying to get over it. I don’t think that’s realistic. All the women that I’m good friends with all have different things going on in their lives—whether it’s family, grieving, heartbreak—but the whole point is that when we're all together, that doesn't really matter. We’re all able to bring each other up and be really giddy and funny and laugh. That’s so important, and for me, kind of enriching.  You mentioned that it was hard for you to sell the book—I’ve heard you say before that your agent once told you that you would have to write a second book in order to sell this one. Why is that?  Basically what happened is in 2017, my agent went out shopping the book in the US, and no one wanted it. It was the summer after Trump was elected and right before #MeToo happened, so people really wanted stories from women about how hard it is to be a woman. That’s been an overarching trend of how I’ve had to pitch this book. People are always saying, “Oh, she’s a woman of colour, can we talk a little bit more about that?” I’m not going to make this about my racialized experience. Even being a woman of colour, the only time I ever realized it was when people kept pointing it out to me as I grew up. Isa’s not walking around being like, “I’m a woman of colour,” people are always just pointing it out to her in public spaces.  Men love calling her “exotic.” Yeah, and she’s just like, “Ew, gross, get away from me.” She doesn’t internalize it because it doesn’t really matter to her. But it’s definitely the way the world is. I don’t want it to be a situation where white people get to feel good about reading my book because they’re hearing this different perspective. The whole idea is the girls are camouflaged. That’s something I wanted to slyly sneak in there. I only very briefly touch on the fact that Gala’s character is originally from Sarajevo, and Isa has this parentage, similar to mine, from countries that have these wildly political and catastrophic histories from the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of the time, you ask your family about those times, and they don’t want to share it. I recently called my dad because I wanted to clear up some things I've heard about our family. He was like, “I would never talk to you about the civil war in El Salvador because it doesn’t have good memories for me.” And I was like, “Fair enough.” That's a lot of the vibe from my mother’s family too. They came here from the Philippines and they haven't gone back since, and that’s just the way it is. It’s one of the least-navel-gazing books I’ve ever read. Isa and Gala are constantly observing and describing the events happening around them, instead of reflecting on it internally. I used to read a lot of books that had these manic pixie dream girl characters, but never from their perspective. So, I always wanted to write a book from the perspective of the type of girls who are always being observed but never seem to be making their own observations. The strongest part of these characters is the way they can see through people’s inauthenticities. With them, it’s not about whether they’ll get taken advantage of, but whether they’ll give whoever they’re talking to the time of day. They’re like, “I understand what you’re trying to do and I kind of feel sorry for you, but are you going to pay for dinner?” I hate novels where the protagonists are only thinking about the internal. I find it very disingenuous. I think it’s just as important to have narrators who are in on the action, really in it. I guess I’ve always just thought that internal voice has always been a bit corny and stilted and heavy handed. It’s also a little bit bitter, and I hate bitterness. I’m really unsentimental but I also hate bitterness. There’s no need for it. I’d rather read about characters who are like, “You know what? Fuck ‘em. I don’t care.” That’s interesting, because at times I felt like the characters were yearning for something ephemeral they could never quite reach, and at other times I felt like there was no sentimentality on display at all. Do either one of those resonate with you? I think a lot of the yearning you refer to is the desire to be preserved. Gala and Isa want to have some sort of legacy, to have had a say in how they are perceived. Isa keeps a diary throughout the book that basically functions as the last word on her life. It’s how she’s going to remember things, reframing her life in a way that maybe isn’t the most accurate but felt like the way events played out in real life. There are these Victorian literary archetypes of the angel and the trickster. Isa's definitely the angel and Gala’s the trickster. You have these two powers, and they're kind of feeding off of each other. The only way that you can get Isa’s vulnerability is when you hear from Gala, who is cutting into the artifice a little bit. Since Gala and Nicolas are both based on real people, how did you decide what to preserve and what to obfuscate about the characters? I could have just changed the names, but I kind of liked the idea of preserving them as a fossil of our youth. Even if it had never been published, this book is kind of my homage to them. Gala’s more unrefined and kind of brash. She can step into any situation and be like, “What the fuck is going on?” That’s an important friendship dynamic to have. If you’re stuck talking to someone you don’t want to talk to, you need a friend in the Gala role who can just say, “We’ve got to go right now, such an emergency, we must leave.” There’s this tension between being rude and polite, a bit on edge and a little bit spicy with the people around them, because they’re always going to be stronger as a unit. I think that’s the core of the friendship. It is a novel mainly about Isa, but it is also the story of balancing a friendship in very close quarters, where your actual survival is hinging on it.  Every line in the book is so tight—on every single page, there’s like, three life lessons that you’ve dressed up in really punchy language—like an Emily Post etiquette book, but far more modern. One of the suggested titles for the book was One Must in the sense of “One must do this...”  When I started writing this book it was that the voice came to me before anything else. The rhythm of the way Isa speaks and the way that she gives advice, in a manner that’s lighthearted but also... not snotty, but it’s a little bit of, “I know better and you should listen to me because I’ve lived.” She has this worldliness about her that she wants to share so that you don’t get into trouble. What is it you want readers to walk away from the book with a sense of? It's very much about using charm as currency, and also about the resilience of femininity. It’s kind of a survivalist novel in a sense, only the girls’ standards of survival are different from others. It’s not like they’re going around eating beans or whatever. That's something people criticize my writing for; they’re always like, “But they’re not suffering enough.” There’s this film, Redheaded Woman starring Jean Harlow, where she plays a real down-home, showgirl-type character, with a poodle and a sugar daddy. The screenplay is based on a book by Anita Loos, who's one of my favourite writers. The whole idea is she’s this woman who gets away with things, and at the very end, she gets away with it all. People hate that. They always want women to be taught a lesson, and I hate that. Even when I was 22, writing the book, I thought, “I don’t want to write something where these women are punished.” Because I had already been punished for certain things in my own life. Ultimately, I wanted something to celebrate the fact that you can get away with certain things without a scratch, and that's the best part a lot of the time. You don’t have to have this story that ends in deep-rooted trauma that you’re going to pass on to your children... I just think that’s not true of the world. To be able to have a negative experience without any bitterness, without feeling any sort of ugliness, is important, I think. That’s the world that I want to live in, at least.
Crazy Wisdom: A Love Story

My parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, the cult leader.

You do not have to find the beginning at all. It is a primordial situation, so there is no point in trying to logically find the beginning. It is already. It is beginningless. -Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche [[{"fid":"6707566","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] This is my mother: a scant four-foot-eleven, narrow-shouldered, and a kind of very-thin-but-soft that comes from treating both food and exercise as tolls paid for being alive. She doesn’t drink because it makes her fall asleep, never wears makeup, hates to shop. Her wardrobe is mostly hand-me-downs from her children. She still wears a pair of navy corduroys from Jacob Junior (vintage 1998) with a ladder of wear lines at the ankles from each time the hem was let out to accommodate my brief and only middle school growth spurt. When she was a toddler, my mother pulled a pot of boiling soup off the stove and over the right side of her body. The scars are frames frozen from a home movie—a play-by-play of the accident that caused them. The taut, shiny nucleus on her elbow splashes outward, the skin buckling and creasing as it spreads, a second splatter over the outside of her right leg where her knee meets her thigh. Over the decades, these scars have ceded territory to the soft, freckled skin around them. If you met her now, you might not even notice. When my mother was a child, though, the damage was notable. Her own mother insisted she always wear dresses with three-quarter-length sleeves to hide the worst of it—that blight on my grandmother’s parental record—and so my mother’s back-to-school Septembers on the humid bay between Coney Island and mainland Brooklyn were woollen and stifled. As a teenager, my mother developed scoliosis and was locked into a full-time back brace designed to bully her spine upright. The brace was metal, and graceless, and ‘50s. A bear hug from a robot. It didn’t even work. If you stand behind her, it still seems as if the upper and lower portions of my mother’s back are keening in opposite directions; the left hip leans in to confer with its neighbouring armpit, while the opposite shoulder blade wings back. It’s like a visual effect, an optical illusion. The brain does a kind of stutter-step, trying to straighten out the error. My father has always liked to take moody, poetic photographs of people walking away from the camera. There is nothing my mother hates so much as a picture of herself from behind. When I describe her physical presence, it seems as though the sum of mother’s parts ought to add up to a tiny, broken, bird-like whole. That’s not my mom. In fact, my mother is exactly what people mean when they say someone is a force. She walks the streets of Canada’s placid, nature-laced capital at an emergency clip, stopping traffic to jaywalk by thrusting her palm and belly-yelling “Heeeey!” at stunned Ottawa drivers. “I can’t believe I’m short,” she complains. “I feel tall.” She never answers the phone with a question: it is either a stunted, declarative “hello” or, if she is really cranked up to full speed, she flings her full name, first and last, into the receiver in a single, hurry-up breath. A storm of will and decisiveness, she is an American in Canada: unassimilated, unaffected, and—the cardinal Canadian sin—unapologetic. It’s the deepest corner of winter and twenty below (“but it’s a dry cold,” we incant, protecting exposed flesh against frostbite and stuffing long johns under jeans). The snow banks pile and tower, and it’s hard to open your eyes as much for the cold as for the light, which has a determined, proselytizing way of getting at your retina from every angle. Hunkered indoors, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a highlighter-coloured hoodie from a soccer team I played for almost twenty years ago, my mother looks out into the frigid glare and asks like she means it: “Why do I live here?” [[{"fid":"6707571","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] In 1959, a pack of Buddhist monks and nuns several-hundred strong walked out of Tibet and over the Himalayas into India, fleeing the Chinese invasion. Among them was Chogyam Trungpa, a nineteen-year-old lama who’d been plucked from a tribe of nomads as a toddler when he was identified as the eleventh reincarnation of a great Buddhist teacher in the Kagyu lineage. Though he was raised in a monastery, the teenaged Trungpa’s spiritual path was proving neither straight nor narrow. On the gruelling march out of Tibet, he had a love affair with a fellow refugee nun. (She was later kicked out of the order when she gave birth to his son; Trungpa was allowed to remain among the fold.) In India, Trungpa devoted himself to the unconventional, worldly task of learning English. His intellect and curiosity earned him the attention of sympathetic Brits, who arranged for a scholarship to Oxford. In 1963, the young monk went West. Trungpa and a fellow lama-in-exile established a monastery in remote, rural Scotland—the first of its kind outside the east. The Telegraph ran an article in its glossy weekend supplement featuring a full-page photograph of the dozen or so Samye Ling residents gathered on the monastery lawn, standing behind a grinning Trungpa, his ruby robes a warm shock to the grey-green Scottish hush. This picture inspired a flutter of pilgrims, some of whom left jobs, school, and homes, turning up at the monastery on foot, trekking for hours from a transit station twenty-five kilometres away. While his co-founder pictured a sanctuary for Tibetan Buddhist ideas and teachings, Trungpa had different ideas. He taught like he was in a college dorm, gathering students in his room to stay up all night drinking and talking about the nature of reality. He wanted to attract Western students, to meet them where they were. Besides, Trungpa had discovered he enjoyed the pleasures of a more secular life. In 1969, he blacked out (likely drunk, but no one knows for sure) at the wheel of a sports car and crashed into a joke shop, leaving the left side of his body partially paralyzed. Taking the karmic punchline to heart, Trungpa saw the accident not as the result of drinking and driving, but rather as a cosmic rebuke for having disguised his bodily desires by dressing them up in a holy mantle. And so he gave himself to the former, and gave up the latter, renouncing his monastic vows and his robes to become a lay teacher. Scandalizing British and Buddhist alike, he took a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl as his child-bride, and in the first days of the new year and the new decade, the guru headed to America. [[{"fid":"6707576","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] My father is an athlete who hails from a time when you didn’t stretch or build or work your muscles—you just used them until you couldn’t anymore, and that was sports. Too slight to carry on with football past high school, he took up cross country running when he went to university in Ottawa. He says it was the island of misfit varsity athletes, eccentrics who woke before dawn to crack eggs on their teeth and open them into their throats, run punishing distances along the Rideau Canal. My father is in his 70s now, and despite an old-man gut and arthritic hips and a turning radius of maybe thirty degrees in his neck, his endurance is insane. He still outlasts people decades his junior at activities he shouldn’t even be capable of doing anymore. He stops to play a few rounds of tennis en route to a hip replacement consult. At Christmas, we all haul up to the Gatineau Hills outside Ottawa to go skate-skiing—an ultra-aerobic sport that will burn half a day’s calories in a session—and my septuagenarian father cruises gracefully over the snow for hours, leaving me, my sister, my track-star brother-in-law all struggling in his wake. He laughs and yells at us to hurry up, white hair floating around his head in tufts like an expressive, dying weed. He didn’t go white by way of salt-and-pepper, nor bald by way of any kind of pattern; his hair just leached both colour and volume for twenty-five years, always thinning and never quite fully gone. He often carries booze on him when he skis, his athletic force of will equalled by his hedonism. Leather wineskin on his hip, his blue eyes sparkling under the frost caught in his eyebrows, he is like something out of a Nordic faerie tale: a red-faced winter gnome, harbinger of mischief or joy. The second son of a Wing Commander, my father was raised reliably transient, moving every other year to government-issued homes across a litany of Royal Canadian Air Force bases. After skipping a couple of grades, he was shuttled off to university early, his education paid for by the military in exchange for the promise of service At summers spent in basic training, my father liked the games. He liked being blindfolded and dropped in the woods in the middle of the night, commanded to scrap and survive and find a way back by dawn. He liked placing in the middle-distance events at the annual base track meet. He hated everything else: the rules, the yelling. This bullshit of lines so straight and narrow there was no room to move or swerve or look around. It was as if everything that would ever happen to you had been preordained, and life was only a matter of putting in the time. When he dropped out of the army, he gave his resignation to a fat-faced General with a row of stars blinking from his shoulder. This man knew my grandfather and took it upon himself to play paternal proxy, telling my dad that his life would be a waste, that everything he touched from now on was destined to fail. My father got a job as a radio announcer for the overseas forces—a gig he scored with a charming interview, in spite of what he will admit is not a classic radio voice. He spent the years people mean when they say the ‘60s in Europe, getting high and learning that wine comes in varietals, not colours. He would stay up all night and drink bottomless coffee all day while he broadcast the news in his floaty tenor for the benefit of people living under the command of something he’d walked away from. He dated French women and told himself he found armpit hair attractive. He drove a motorcycle, got into an accident that really should have killed him trying to jump a watermelon patch just to see if he could. He went to Turkey, to Greece, hung out on Mikonos before it was that Mikonos (I’m pretty sure Lindsay Lohan owns it now). When he travelled, he didn’t worry about where he’d be at nightfall—he could curl up anywhere, snatch sleep at the side of the road. He wasn’t afraid. He drove with a friend across a border (don’t ask which one, but trust me when I say it was a bad idea) with a brick of hash inside the car’s wheel, thudding ceremoniously on each rotation as they cruised past the armed checkpoint. He was dared to do a handstand on beer bottles, and when the blood leapt from his wrist it arced all the way across the bar like it had been waiting its whole life to try that, like it was answering a call. At the end of the decade, my father came home to drop out. He moved to a cabin outside Sooke on Vancouver Island, joining what might now be called an intentional community had the whole point not been to avoid the goal-orientation of intending anything at all. A kind of low-key, lazy man’s commune: the non-binding associations of the likeminded and deliberately lost. There were draft dodgers and deserters, drop-outs and drug-addicts-to-be. No one was going to judge or lay a trip. The only dirty word they knew was “should.” Like most of his friends, my father planted trees in the summers and bobbled through the rest of the year on EI. There was plenty to keep him busy. Some of his friends had dropped out of science degrees, and they were putting their first-year chemistry knowledge to use, working their way through the branches of pharmacology, figuring out which drugs and how much to go up, or down, or outside yourself. This was terra incognita, and they didn’t have a guidebook. There’s a difference between trying drugs and experimenting with them. It was also pretty common to dabble in spiritual practices and mysticism. Like anything else, it was all just an experience to be had. Try it out, see if it felt good, move on if it didn’t. Some of my father’s friends were into meditating, so he did a bit of that. A couple of others got into Hare Krishna, and he used to sometimes hitch a ride with them into Victoria, chant a few hare-hares for the free food. In 1974, my father and some friends drove to Boulder, Colorado, to attend an event they’d caught wind of (how did they know without Twitter?): a series of East-meets-West lectures, courses, and readings organized by Chogyam Trungpa’s growing organization, Vajradhatu. Ginsberg was there, as were Gregory Corso, John Cage, and Ram Dass, among others. This would later be called the First Summer of Naropa, and the summer session would secure the founding of the liberal arts college Naropa University, where Ginsberg, one of Trungpa’s most famous students, would found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. My father liked meditating, and Buddhism intrigued him, but he wasn’t searching for a path to follow or a guru to lead him down it. He was still wary of anything that demanded too much compliance. But after several years of trying to not think too hard about anything, he had to admit that Trungpa’s lectures blew his mind. He describes the experience as “an intellectual feast.” Naropa was run in two six-week sessions, and my father had intended to attend both. Instead, he bailed out of the second round of classes, joining up with a group of Trungpa’s followers as they headed into the mountains to deepen their practice with a month-long meditation retreat. [[{"fid":"6707581","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] In the early ‘70s, my mother went to law school at night and worked two jobs during the day. One was at the South Brooklyn legal aid clinic. She loved this job—she felt she was learning a lot, doing work that lined up with her politics and ideals. That’s where she met a clinic volunteer named John. He called himself a “spiritual seeker,” which is, apparently, something men in the ‘70s said unironically to women they wanted to date. They started going out. One weekend, John borrowed my mother’s apartment and laid himself out in a shrine of candles and sweet grass. He left a note saying that should he stray too deep into the Bardo and not be revived, she should ring a bell and softly chant a mantra in his ear. If that didn’t work, he’d left the phone number for someplace in Vermont called Tail of the Tiger where she could reach the followers of a man named Chogyam Trungpa. They would know what to do. Trungpa came to New York to give a talk, and John brought my mother along. The event was a in a church basement, and my mother remembers that Trungpa showed up an hour-and-a-half late, which, it would turn out, was typical. As he spoke, he downed glasses of what my mother believed to be water (she would later learn it was sake), and after the talk he was carried offstage by helpers, which my mother assumed was a result of his paralysis (retrospect: he was too hammered to walk). My mother’s first impression of Trungpa was more or less a shrug. She wasn’t seized by the specialness of the experience, but neither was she bored or turned off. She was, as she puts it, “open.” At John’s encouragement, she started attending a meditation class at the local dharmadatu and found she liked the practice a lot. She describes it as “totally unintellectual.” Where the law was often abstract, sitting meditation felt concrete. A way to quiet both her body and her mind. In 1974, my mother and John decided to go to Boulder for the Naropa lectures. She couldn’t get the time off work, so she missed the first session, but turned up for the second. *** Trungpa was reviving a tradition he called “crazy wisdom.” This was his interpretation of the Tibetan notion of drubnyon, stories reaching back to the 15th and 16th centuries of monks and holy men who were charged with profound spiritual knowledge but behaved in convention-defying, disruptive ways. Trungpa embraced this part of the Tantric lineage of Buddhism he’d inherited. He put crazy wisdom at the centre of his teachings. It was a smart move as far as American branding efforts went. This was the ‘70s; people liked to party, and Trungpa’s students were drawn to the idea that their serious spiritual endeavours might get raucous. And though Trungpa warned against this simplified, goal-oriented approach to the Vajryana path, he dosed his own example of wisdom with plenty of crazy. What this looked like: he might burst in on a student while they were taking a shit, ask another about her masturbation habits, cut someone’s hair in their sleep. Students remember that he had a talent for divining deep sources of shame or pride and conjuring the swiftest, most shocking way to expose them. And if the means were ruthless, or violent—that was strategic. Trungpa would say that the brutality was necessary in order to wrest a person’s spirit from the clutches of their ego, to disabuse them of the lies the mind tells when advocating for the primacy and coherence of the self. He would claim that this kind of first-person narration—thinking of oneself as a consistent set of facts, as a singular “I”—only keeps a person bound to a version of the world that is aggressively self-serving, and thus spiritually impoverished. Trungpa did not only target his student’s frailties: he also offered himself and his own frail body up in service to the cause by drinking heavily, smoking cigarettes, and having sex. This, he said, was a means to dispel the myth of a guru as sacred or pure. He claimed to be forcing students to confront their expectations of spiritual authority, making them recognize just how conventional those expectations were. It was hard to say when Trungpa was guiding you down your spiritual path, and when he was body-checking you off of it, destabilizing your attachment to the journey itself. He was as likely to issue warm words as he was to fuck with you, totally mess with your head. Both approaches were equally valid, equally crazy-wise. This gave rise to a culture of relentless self-examination among Trungpa’s followers. The guru would act, and students would observe their own reactions to his behaviour, scanning for signs of their own resistant egos to unpack, dismantle, and discard. *** At a meeting of Trungpa’s followers in Boulder in 1976, my mother was with the party from the Manhattan sangha—the largest in North America—while my father represented the flyweight dharmadhatu from Nelson, BC, which, at a dozen or so practitioners scattered throughout the Kootenays, was Vajradhatu’s smallest. My father met my mother, but she didn’t return the favour. He noticed her laugh and remarked on her ability to wrangle the higher-ups in the Vajradhatu organization. Buddhism notwithstanding, he says they were just like any bureaucrats made petty by power, and my father was impressed with how my mother seemed preternaturally able to navigate the system. That my mother didn’t notice my father’s existence doesn’t surprise him. “I didn’t say much,” he tells me. “I was kind of a clueless bumpkin.” Her first memory of him comes two years later, when they both attended an annual meditation retreat called Seminary. Seminary was no joke. For three months, a group of ninety or so committed students sat and meditated for up to twelve hours a day, then listened to Trungpa give talks at night. The experience was designed to mimic the phases of the traditional Vajrayana path, moving first through an examination of your own mind, then a period of outward-facing compassion, and finally brushing up against tantric, ecstatic knowledge. By the third act, Seminary became a nightly rager. In her version, my mother would get “crazy” by singing show tunes and ‘60s bubblegum numbers with some pals. (When she tells me this, she does a shoulder shimmy and sings the chorus of “Rubber Ball” to demonstrate.) My father—who’d come to the retreat with his then-wife—had a different experience. “Your father was spending a lot of time with another woman who was actually getting married at Seminary. And her fiancé—who became her husband—was sleeping with Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife,” my mother explains, matter-of-factly sketching out the intra-Buddhist banging network. Monogamy was seen as pretty uptight, my mom remembers. But this was one part of the scene she was never into. “There was one guy in New York who was, quote, ‘putting the moves’ on me,” she says, doing the scare quotes with her hands. “When I found out he was married, I said I wasn’t interested. I think that would have been surprising. Most people we knew just didn’t back off for those reasons, but I did. That was a very strong value for me, personally.” *** In his early days in America, Trungpa’s message attracted mostly hippies and dropouts. Trungpa wanted to fully experience the world his students lived in, but he also found their tastes kind of gross. They dressed shabbily and spoke imprecisely, their music was noisy, they arrived in a haze of patchouli and weed. The guru was down to do the Western thing, but he’d been hoping for something a little higher shelf. Which makes sense when you remember where he was coming from. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t democratic and chill—it’s rigidly hierarchical. Trungpa had abandoned a holy posting he’d been groomed for his entire life, giving up the tradition that had raised him on the bet that delivering the dharma to America, in an American way, was his true spiritual vocation. Now that he’d arrived, he wasn’t content to reach the far-out fringes of the counterculture. He wanted to find the centre. He wanted to go mainstream. The way he went about this was not always on point. Some of his students like to remember him as a chameleon who preternaturally insinuated himself into American life. Frankly, that portrait ignores a lot. Trungpa was really more of an Anglophile, and his tastes ran aristocratic in ways that showed a naïve understanding of where exactly the pulse of his adopted culture lay. He would go full Pygmalion, making students croon elocution drills in the Queen’s English like a mantra for hours at a stretch. He was a sucker for rituals of precision and performance: Japanese tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, archery, meals with a full entourage of silverware fanned around the plate. He ordered bespoke military uniforms—with crisp, white, unspecific colonial flare—and occasionally wore them to deliver talks. The British teen he’d married was a horse girl, and so the equestrian sport of dressage—a sort of ritualized prancing—was tossed into the mix. The details of this syncretism sometimes missed the mark, but the broader point was this: Trungpa wanted his students to get their shit together. Because in a weird way, he was kind of a conformist. Despite his shock tactics and irreverence, his claim to be exposing the limitations of convention, he also had a pragmatist’s belief that if you want to change a system, you have to do it from the inside. He demanded his students be joiners, that they groom themselves for the world, enter into society with others. And so even as they delved deeper into an esoteric spiritual practice, Trungpa devotees who stuck around also started wearing suits, cutting their hair, getting real jobs. [[{"fid":"6707586","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] My mother is a do-er. It’s like she can’t even help herself: once she’s identified a problem, she steps in and runs the show until it’s solved. This is not a characteristic everyone on the seekers’ circuit necessarily shared. A little know-how was a useful asset. And so at the New York Dharmadhatu, my mother was called upon (or did she volunteer?) to plan and stage-manage events, handle visitors, help out. She soon found she’d meditated and managed her way into an organization she’d started out with only a casual interest in. At some point, she actually moved into the Vajradhatu, living in a one-room loft off the shrine hall. At some point, she and John broke up. My mother moved to Boulder, Colorado, because Trungpa’s next-in-command, the Vajra Rejent Ösel Tendzin (a white guy from New Jersey, né Thomas Rich) asked her to. Boulder was where the Vajradhatu action was, and they needed someone to play second fiddle to the organization’s legal counsel. My mother would be working under a senior male lawyer, naturally, but it was implied that keeping things on task would be up to her. And so, for a pittance of a salary and an appeal to duty, my mother gave up a good entry-level job with the federal government and her post-shrine apartment—a tiny but affordable place in the borderlands between Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The dharma called, and she answered. In Boulder, things were getting, as my mother puts it, “just weird.” Trungpa and his family were living in a large house called the Kalapa Court, which they shared with a complement of attendants. The vibe was very Upstairs, Downstairs. Adherents would put on frilly maid aprons and butler’s tails in a ritual that was considered a kind of meditation through service. Dinner would turn into an elaborate game in which, it seemed, part of the point was to lose track of who or what was being spoofed. In a similar conflation of irony and sincerity, Trungpa started a paramilitary organization in which Buddhists would train to be warriors of the dharma, performing marching drills and setting off cannons in their all-khaki uniforms. And then there was the Shambhala thing. In Buddhist lore, the Kingdom of Shambhala is a utopic, peaceable society guided by compassion. It’s generally considered a metaphor, but Trungpa intended to make it a real place, moved by visions he’d begun having as early as his flight from Tibet. Boulder didn’t seem like the right place to break ground. The vibe was wrong, the living was too easy. Materialism was so tempting in America. Trungpa wanted to find somewhere more remote. With fond memories of his time in Scotland in mind, he looked to Canada’s “New Scotland,” setting his sights on the craggy, rugged coastline of Cape Breton, and Halifax, the nearest major port.  At the time, the Shambhala wing of Trungpa’s plans was a partial secret, known to some but not all of his followers. Trungpa considered it a terma—esoteric knowledge that had been revealed to him prophetically, and which he must in turn reveal to followers only selectively. My mother was in on the partial Shambhala secret. But she didn’t like it. “The idea was that you already had a place in the Kingdom, you just didn’t know what it was yet. So, when I was introduced to Shambhala, I discovered I was already the Kingdom’s Deputy Minister of Justice” she says. “I mean, honestly. Can you imagine?” Being privy to the Shambhala vision meant an invitation to the Kalapa Assembly: Trungpa would rent out an off-season ski resort or dude ranch and bring his courtiers to plan their Kingdom and revel. He held balls, and the enlightened would assemble in gowns, tails, and white gloves, playing at being lords and ladies. It seemed a long way from Brooklyn and the legal clinic. “I started to think: Okay, this is really crazy,” my mother says. “I kept thinking: what am I doing here? Where have my values gone? But people would tell me: oh, don’t worry, it’s a metaphor.” She wanted the perspective of someone wasn’t dealing in all these metaphors and riddles, dressing things up and stripping them down, parsing and re-mixing crazy into wise and back again. But she felt she couldn’t talk to family and friends about it: the first rule of Shambhala was you don’t talk about Shambhala, and she’d sworn an oath not to share the secret with unenlightened commoners. “That’s when you start to wonder whether you’ve been drawn into a cult,” she says.  *** I wrote about all this for a class once. This was in America, where the creative writing workshop was invented in the mid-century and ritualized into what’s practiced in universities today: the author bound by silence, the rest of the class working through a process of praise, deconstruction, demand. In this workshop, everyone referred to Vajradhatu as simply “the cult” with a breeziness I found dislocating. I considered that maybe I’d been going around with my head tilted to one side, trying to make everything look complicated, giving myself a crick in the neck for no reason at all. The character everyone was most interested in was my mom. Why did she stay in “the cult,” they wanted to know. How exactly did someone like her join “the cult” in the first place? No one found my explanation about her go-to-it-ness and urge to problem solve very convincing. It didn’t seem like enough, did it, to account for such a hard veer off-course, for winding up somewhere so extreme. Not one but two people in this class of twenty used to be Mormon. One of them wrote beautiful, dizzying essays about false archaeological records, prophetic gold tablets dug up from American mountains, underwear laced with divine protection. When we talked about her work, the class spoke reverently about what it is to be a part of something larger—a whole world—and then lose the thing that kept you there. Everyone said the word “faith” like it was a tiny, fragile bubble they were releasing into the air.   [[{"fid":"6707591","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] In one way, North America was a spiritual seller’s market in the ‘70s, with plenty willing to join games of follow the leader. But things also cut the other way, and gurus were not exactly in short supply. Some came from away, bearing or claiming the authority of spiritual traditions from elsewhere (revealing how Westerners tend to fetishize authenticity if something is Eastern and old). Others were of the homegrown variety, declaring themselves according to the American tradition that all true authority, spiritual or otherwise, is conferred by and for and upon oneself. The upshot: there were choices. Listen, and you’d hear any number of calls to which you might answer. Differently put, you might call out with your troubled questions and find any number of sources willing to deliver answers: religious noblesse, enlightened philosophers, nascent Ponzi capitalists, whackadoo clowns. Seek and ye shall find something or other. Chogyam Trungpa often warned that spiritual practices are, themselves, highly susceptible to hijacking by the ego. He called this the paradox of “spiritual materialism”: how enlightenment can become goal-oriented and thus subject to all the pettiness of competition, envy, satisfaction, pride. Under the influence of spiritual materialism, self-consciousness is like a superbug, feeding on every attempt to eradicate it. Even a good-faith effort at spiritual growth might only exacerbate the conditions under which self-involvement thrives. So if you’re enjoying the journey, feel like it’s doing something for you, seem to be getting closer to an enlightened end—Trungpa would say that you’re probably doing it wrong.  Chogyam Trungpa was a guru who both totally embodied and totally rejected the trappings of the role. Part of his appeal was a downward mobility, holiness-wise: he didn’t seem to hold himself aloft, hadn’t made himself inaccessible in his enlightenment. Students took this as a kind of democratic generosity, even sacrifice. Trungpa was more fun than your average guru, but also more fallible. It was a kind of lifelong, full-bodied act of translation: the spiritual making itself accessible, allowing itself to be corrupted by the impoverished conditions of the material in the process. As his students imagined it, Trungpa chose to live in the world because he was choosing them. But while Trungpa would say his more radical behaviour was meant to destabilize the implications of authority itself, the claim to be manifesting crazy wisdom also implied an authority and power beyond reproach. The logic of crazy wisdom was a total surrender to Trungpa’s whims—faith that whatever he did, no matter how outrageous or shitty, it was ultimately serving some higher-order aim. [[{"fid":"6707596","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"7":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"7"}}]] The first time my father took the LSAT, he practically flunked it. He’d driven all night through a blizzard and across the U.S. border to get to the nearest testing centre in Spokane. But when he sat down and opened the standardized booklet, he realized he’d made a mistake. “I had barely read anything for about seven years at that point,” he says. “A little bit of Buddhist stuff, but I never saw a newspaper or anything, and my reading speed had slowed to a crawl.” The test wasn’t that hard, but he didn’t finish a single section. Between that and a mixed bag of out-of-date marks from undergrad, law schools turned him down. He kept planting trees. A couple of years later, Vajrayana was recruiting Canadian followers to set up shop in Halifax and establish a dharmadhatu there. My father and his first wife had split, and there wasn’t much tying him to BC. He answered the call. Before heading to the Maritimes on his dharma mission, my father decided to spend another summer in Boulder enjoying the Buddhist social life. My mother was still working for the Vajradhatu council there. At that point, my parents had run in the same circles for years but had never really hung out. My mom saw my dad around, and one night, she invited him over for dinner. There was no food in her apartment when he arrived, so they went grocery shopping. He bought her toilet paper. They both say it was a great date. [[{"fid":"6707601","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"8":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"8"}}]] One time when I was in my early 20s, I went on a cross-country lark to visit a pen pal I thought I might be in love with (it didn’t work out, but that’s another story). When I emailed my mother to tell her my plans, it felt like a confession: admitting that I could be so irrationally moved by romance. I thought my practical mother would tell me to make it a round-trip bus ticket or remind me to pack a sweater, but she surprised me by saying she could relate. After all, she and my father had gone on only two dates (“might actually have been only one,” she amends) before he left Colorado for Halifax. He eventually started law school there. They wrote the occasional letter, and then he invited her to visit over Christmas. “I did the irrational and flew from Boulder to Halifax,” my mother wrote to me in an email when I told her about the pen pal. “When the time came to actually get on the plane, I wanted to cancel, but my friends insisted I go. I complained all the way to the airport that I was crazy to fly across the continent for a weekend fuck.” This is classic my mom—no idea how funny she is, just telling the story as straightforwardly as she sees it. “Of course, we got engaged that week,” she adds almost as an afterthought. If you ask my father, he will tell you about the full moon’s reflection scattered in the waves of Peggy’s Cove on the night he proposed. (He’ll forget to mention the part where she said no and told him to try again when he really meant it, which he did two days later to a better result.) While my father waxes about the moon, my mother emphasizes pragmatics: they shared values, friends, a religion, a community. They were in their thirties. They both wanted kids. But it was his letters that drew her there, and surely she must have been taken with this, too: my father’s often gratuitous giving over to feeling, his unfakeable, earnest marvelling at just about everything around him. These letters are long lost. I ask my dad if he remembers what he wrote, thinking there must be something there to foreshadow not only how these two people came together but, more improbably, how they’ve stayed there. I want to understand the origins of such duration. “Well, I might have been writing letters to a few women,” my dad admits. “About seven or so? I dated a lot before I left Boulder.”  *** My parents were married at the Boulder Dharmadhatu in the spring of 1981. Before they could make it official, my father needed a divorce from his first wife—a detail that had been neglected. My mother represented his ex in the legal proceedings. At their wedding ceremony, my mother wore a pale yellow dress, my father an ‘80s-loose grey suit. There was chanting in Sanskrit and a long bout of meditative sitting. Kneeling on pillows, my parents repeated their Buddhist vows in tandem: they promised to find refuge, together, in the Buddha, their example; the dharma, their teachings; and, finally, in the sangha, their chosen community of fellow travellers, their spiritual companions. My mother’s parents—secular Jews born and raised in the Bronx—declined to kneel on the shrine room floor and perched on chairs at the back instead. “I don’t worry about them,” my grandmother said to anyone who would listen to her at the reception later, “but what about the children?” I ask my mother now if she would have married my father if he hadn’t been Buddhist. She isn’t sure. She keeps coming back to what they had in common, trying to parse what came from Vajrayana and what didn’t. “We did share the Buddhist notion of mind as a construct, that you are not necessarily stuck with the thoughts that you have, that they are transitory,” she says. “But remember that when we got engaged, your father had started law school. A lot of our conversations were about social justice. That was a value we shared, and it brought us together.” She pauses. “At least that’s what I’m hoping we talked about. I don’t even remember. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Probably we were just struck by whatever hormones were raging at the time.” [[{"fid":"6707606","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"9":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"9"}}]] There’s a whole subset of human characteristics defined by the fact that we’re bad at talking about them: charisma, it factor, star quality, je ne sais quoi. These refer to the way someone makes others feel, not so much how they do it. When we say someone has it, that thing, we throw our hands up and admit defeat. It just is. You have to feel it. You have to be there. The most compelling evidence I have that Trungpa Rinpoche was the real deal is something I know won’t be convincing to you: my mom was there. How can I explain to you how unlike her this is? How can I convince you that she isn’t the type? The very fact of her participation in something like this—whether you think it’s a kookily benign charismatic movement or a full-blown cult—remains a flaw in the prism I hold up to the world in order to make a mess of facts into something like sense. There’s a rich trove of Trungpa content online: photos, transcripts, audio and video recordings. I’ve listened and watched and read a lot. Which isn’t to say that I understand, only that I’ve spent time looking. There are these moments in the archive I keep coming back to—places of heightened absence, where effects turn up orphaned from any cause. As if some crucial context has been left off, some detail eroded from the record over time. Take this: a photo of Trungpa holding a gun to his own head, finger on the trigger, his other hand casual in the pocket of tailored suit pants. He’s wearing suspenders, a crisp button-up with stripes that change direction according to some frantic order, a kaleidoscopic tie. His gaze has slid off to the side, towards the weapon he has pressed to his temple, and his smile is taking up space, but seems faintly gripped. I find the degree of mirth impossible to track. Or this: not infrequently during Trungpa’s lectures the audience flushes with laughter that seems spontaneous and inscrutable, responding to some quality of the moment that hasn’t crossed over to where I’m sitting. I listen to these parts over and over through headphones that promise to cancel noise, trying to catch a signal. This feels physical to me—more a matter of form than content. I picture the waveform opening, separating over and over, as if, by dividing enough times, it might eventually reveal some secret remainder, something I could touch. [[{"fid":"6707611","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"10":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"10"}}]] When she immigrated to Canada, my mother was nearly turned away, flunking a mandatory physical screening over the concern her curving spine would be a drain on the bounty of Canadian health care. A second opinion was solicited, and several mounds of paperwork later she was waved through into Halifax, giving up her job and her country to join my father in what was then little more than a foggy, provincial port town. Here, her world shrunk to Trungpa devotees and Kalapa courtiers, and my mother’s doubts about Vajradhatu only increased. She began to openly question where the organization was going. “If you leave, you’ll lose all your friends,” she remembers one woman telling her. My father’s priorities were changing, too. My sister was born when he was in his final year of law school. His ties to Vajradhatu weakened casually, like a hobby you let linger in the basement, a friend you find yourself not making plans with and can’t quite say why. My parents’ journey into Buddhism took a decade. The trip out was much quicker. After he graduated in 1983, my father got a job at a legal aid clinic in Ottawa. They got into their Ford Mercury Lynx and made what was then, on a less-developed highway, a solid eighteen-hour drive west—my one-year-old sister protesting her car seat, rain haunting them down the TransCan—and were never Buddhist again. *** In September 1986, the same month and year I was born, Chogyam Trungpa made the Vajradhatu’s move to Nova Scotia official. A trickle of immigration had been slowly wending north, growing the Buddhist community in Halifax, and the enlightened Kingdom of Shambhala seemed to finally be in sight. Within just weeks of arriving in Halifax, Trungpa’s heart and breath stopped, and though he was revived, he never really recovered. He died with all the hallmark bodily failures of acute alcoholism in April 1987. Witnesses claim that his body remained warm after death, suspended in a sacred state of Samadhi. They say the Halifax harbour—which had been frozen over out of season—broke apart and melted with his last breath. In the wake of Trungpa’s death, hundreds of his American students made good on their guru’s wish and immigrated to Canada. As Trungpa’s succession plans had dictated, the Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin —the same man who once told my mother it was time to be a good Buddhist and head to Boulder—took over the organization. Even more than Trungpa had been, Tendzin was famous for a conflation of sex and spiritual instruction. Tendzin lead the organization for only a few months before it emerged that he’d been having unprotected sex with followers for several years despite knowing he was HIV-positive. He believed that Vajryana purification practices would protect him. Trungpa, he claimed, had told him so. All he’d done was follow the guru. A sangha member contracted HIV and infected his girlfriend with the virus before dying of AIDS. Tendzin fled with a small cohort of the faithful to California where he, too, died in 1990. Though the Vajradhatu organization was shaken, it did not disappear, unlike so many other stunted branches on the ‘70s spiritualism family tree. The son Trunpga had sired in the Himalayas, Sakyong Mipham, was called to take his father’s legacy in hand. He eventually merged the two streams of his father’s work—the enlightened kingdom and the religious practice—coining the term Shambhala Buddhism in the early aughts. Not everyone was happy with this, but as a practical measure, it seemed to work. Home to a community of around two thousand Buddhists, Halifax remains the de-facto capital of Shambhala: a kingdom of some 12,000 practitioners spread across the globe. In 2017, a second-generation Shambhala Buddhist (a “dharma brat” as those born into it are sometimes called) launched Project Sunshine: a series of reports documenting abuses of sex and power in the Shambhala Buddhist community. The reports include, among other things, consistent allegations against Trungpa’s son, Sakyong Mipham. From the outside, Mipham has always seemed mild-mannered almost to a fault—an unlikely inheritor of his father’s radical teachings. Unlike his father, who was, if nothing else, transparent, Mipham hasn’t made sex or drinking a part of his outward-facing persona. He has never publicly embraced the excuse that true wisdom is cracked open and wild. The testimonies collected by Project Sunshine are highly specific, but also grotesquely, bluntly familiar. I’m starting to think that might be the worst part: how stories of abuse and its dissembling have already coalesced into a genre, a narrative dulled by repetition. I resent that I’ve become conditioned to expect all of it. I feel like I’m giving up something important about detail and nuance—something about how to value subjectivity.   In the years since Project Sunshine was launched, a never-ending series of Open Letters have come out from all sides, trading revelations and contritions and meditations back and forth, like call and response. Sakyong Mipham has largely denied the allegations against him, while also stepping back from his role as head of Shambhala and issuing the occasional mealy-mouthed statement of regret. In 2019, he left Canada for India and Tibet, where, according to an article published this September in the The Walrus, he’s rallying the faithful, paving the way for a return to power. [[{"fid":"6707616","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"11":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"11"}}]] In one piece of audio from a Q&A at a meditation retreat in Vermont in 1974, a student asks Trungpa a question about romance. This student stumbles for a while, struggling to express himself, trying to figure out what exactly he’s asking. His concern, it seems, is that he’s doomed to trek the Vajryana path solo. That a budding awareness of the human condition has made him unsuited to love. “I don’t think anybody can fall in love unless they feel lonely,” Trungpa tells him. “Nobody can fall in love with somebody else unless they know that they are lonely, and they’re separate individuals. And if by any misunderstanding, by any strange coincidence you think that you are the other person already, there’s no one to fall in love with.” He goes on to frame this as a math problem. “One and one being together is union. Otherwise, if it’s just one, you can’t call that union. Zero is not union, one is not union. But two is union.”  Another student follows up: what’s the difference between a romantic union and the bond formed between any practitioner and the rest of the sangha? “If two people are together, the types of loneliness may be a similarity. The fact that one person reminds the other person more of their loneliness. That you feel your partner feels you, seeing you more lonely.” *** There are points along the Vajrayana Buddhist path where you have to commit. First an initiate will take the Refuge Vow, and later they will pledge to become a Bodhisattva—someone whose quest for enlightenment is guided by compassion rather than self-interest. In a formal ritual, the guru gives the student a new name, something to represent the thing that is both their strongest tool and also their greatest impediment. Long before they were a couple, at ceremonies at opposite ends of the continent, Chogyam Trungpa graced each of my parents with the same moniker: they are both “Highway of Patience.” This seems to me like some real bolt-of-lightning shit. My father confirms that it’s an unlikely coincidence. He says he’s never met another patient highway, nor has he heard of another couple whose Bodhisattva names are twinned. “It’s very, very rare,” he says. “It doesn’t mean we’re compatible or anything,” my mother argues. “It just means we have similar problems.” My mother has pretty thoroughly rejected most of the Buddhist teachings she once followed, but this name still means something to her. “I have to work to be patient. And I wouldn’t have said I was then, but I think I’ve become a good listener,” she says. “Probably having been given the name is a great influence. It’s not like I never think about it. I do.” “Sometimes your mother and I have conversations where we just say, ‘Yeah, I know,’ ‘I get it,’ ‘You already told me that,’ ‘I know,’ back and forth at each other. Like two impatient highways running off in different directions,” my father tells me, laughing. “I think it’s funny that we have the same name. It’s neat.” My father has started meditating again. He took it up a few years ago, when he turned 70, right around when he retired from a career in refugee law. “I’m pathetic,” he says, “I only do ten minutes a day.” He doesn’t kneel on the floor anymore, although they still have the dense, bright yellow and red meditation pillows that have been squatting in corners of their house for as long as I can remember. “Meditating is hard on the body,” my dad says. “My hip just doesn’t bend that way anymore. I sit in my computer chair.” My mother is unlikely to follow. It’s hard to imagine her sitting still without being occupied by a task or four, and I’m sure she’ll never meditate again as long as she has an iPad. Lately, though, what she’s been talking about is learning Hebrew. She’s thinking idly about having a Bat Mitzvah instead of a retirement party. She’s been reluctant to talk seriously about retiring at all, but maybe she would consider it, maybe, if she found a way to tie it to her roots, to a ritual with some meaning. A coming-of-age. Maybe if she had a goal. *** At their wedding, my parents professed their faith to a set of laws they no longer follow. They promised to build their union within a community they’re no longer a part of—one they’ve abandoned. The truth is, their vows are long broken. They’ve been married for almost forty years. I want to know: Do they feel a little weird about that? A little guilty? “No,” my mother says in a Highway-of-Zero-Patience voice. “I don’t have that feeling whatsoever.” I thought my father might be more nostalgic, but he doesn’t put much stock in it either. “No, no, I don’t feel weird about it at all. It’s just where I was at the time. Now it’s kind of an exotic story when you tell it at parties.”  I’m talking to them long-distance over Skype. They’re in Ottawa, in the house they’ve lived in since just after I was born, sitting side-by-side on the couch my mother has been carting around since her Manhattan days (a mod burnt pumpkin colour when I was growing up, since re-covered in earth-tone stripes). I’m in BC planning my own wedding. Without religion, I’m finding it hard to sketch the contours of the ritual. When I tried to write my marriage vows, they came out sounding like a murder-suicide pact. My mother took a pottery class recently, and she holds up the results, showing me a series of wonky mugs that never quite found their centre. “Pathetic,” she declares.  “But the colours are fabulous,” my father adds enthusiastically. He’s mostly off-screen: a glimpse of his ear, stray white hairs wavering at the edge of the frame. “Dad, I can’t see you,” I say. “I’m eating chicken!” he calls, yelling too loud, sticking his hand in my mother’s face as he gives the webcam a greasy thumbs-up. She pushes his hand away. “Pottery’s over. I need a new hobby,” my mother says. “Maybe I’ll divorce your father.”  “Good idea,” I say. “Something the two of you could do together.” She leans into him for a moment. Skype starts to stutter and glitch, and their laughter comes out sounding like they’re being choked. The screen freezes: my mother’s eyes are shut, her head resting on my father’s shoulder. I can see half his face now, ruddy and pixelated, thrown back mid-laugh. For a moment, they are preserved this way. Then her neck jerks upright like a marionette, their movements drag in awkward bursts between tableau. “What? What?” they say to the computer. “We can’t hear you.” “Give it a second,” I say. “Just wait for it to pass.” “You’re frozen! We can’t hear you!” They’re both yelling. My mother pulls on her glasses and leans towards the screen. My father’s head moves out of view again. “It’s not working.” “Just wait,” I say.  [[{"fid":"6707621","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"12":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"12"}}]] A lot of people’s dads will tell you they were a hippie back in the day. I suspect this means they smoked pot in university, went too long between haircuts, wore jeans with flagrant ankles that now seem like a punchline. My dad was a dropout. For most of his twenties and into his thirties, he was off the grid. His beard and hair straggled below his sternum, ruddy and sun-scorched. He got fucked up on whatever weird, hard, home-concocted drugs came into his orbit. He got fucked up on solitude, living alone—one year, or maybe it was two—in a cabin he jerry-built right into the side of an ancient spruce, cobbled from driftwood and washed-up lumber, squatting on a beach of crown land on the western edge of Vancouver Island where thousands of unbroken kilometres of Pacific Ocean hurled up storm after wild, grey storm. He didn’t go to the doctor. He abandoned his bank account. He forgot how to read. That my father became a man who wore a suit to work, who made a career of helping people, who knows and follows and teaches society’s laws—I don’t know what to call that but a miracle. This an orienteering tale: a man is lost in the woods, and he tracks his way back to the world. And because of all those dads like mine, dads in suits who remember that they were there, too, I find it hard to place just how common this sort of thing is. In one way, it might be the story of late-20th century counterculture and its aftermath: trying to ditch one set of values on a quest for something more spiritual, more true, only to wind up at some very hard, material centre. Maybe it’s only the story of how, by trying to shake the rigid ‘50s, all we got was the empty, plastic ‘80s. Is this version sad? All that pointlessly performed freedom, all those ideals failed and abandoned. The world never renewed at all, just more and more of the same. It’s a huge bummer when you add it all up, when you call it a generation. It’s bummer when you are the direct product of it, and your whole life exists in the long, stupid hangover of what’s left. But hone in on just one individual, and the movement out and back isn’t so easy to characterize. Surely it’s better than one very real alternative: staying dropped out until it’s no longer something to choose. Never finding your way to any path at all. Dying, maybe, or else doomed to be permanently ancient, wandering coastal highways and lingering on downtown corners, so long burnt-out you register to others only as dust.   My father says that when he thinks about this juncture in his life, he pictures an escape sequence from an action movie. A huge, metal door descends, aiming for the ground with its great, final weight, and he’s diving and rolling, just barely passing through a narrow opening before it disappears. In the movie version, the hero crosses the threshold because of his quick reflexes, his strength of will. Because the story is his, and the story is always out there, on the other side of the door. In real life, my dad tells me, it just isn’t like that. He senses that the counterfactual still has some claim on him. And the difference between stepping into the rest of your life and being crushed right there on the brink, or left behind and forgotten: he says it isn’t anything but luck.  My mother’s story is less common than my father’s, I think. Or maybe it’s the same story told backward, turned inside out. Maybe you have to play the record in reverse to hear it. Before she met Chogyam Trungpa, my mother hadn’t been sent spinning out to society’s fringes. She wasn’t off the grid; she moved across it like it belonged to her, speed-walking down Manhattan streets, stopping cars with her hand. She was twenty-five years old, fearless with optimism, making good on her parents’ every hope for intergenerational mobility. She lived among the tallest buildings. She had a million boyfriends. She was in the centre of the world. “I think about this every once in a while,” my mother says. “How my life in general has moved along: in the ‘50s it was rock-and-roll-pop, in the ‘60s it was Beat Generation, and then in the ‘70s: I got religion! How is that possible? What a freaking cliché. I look back, and I can tell you all the things I thought were important, all the decisions I thought I was making. But now it seems that I was just so much flotsam and jetsam, moved along by the Gulf Stream.” What if something is both a guiding light and a hard wind; a true north calling the wayward compass into line and also the entropic force that blows everything apart, sending particles fleeing from security or pattern or sense? What if you feel it, follow it, and this is what you get: a whole lifetime of exchange with another human being, bound by a promise to pool your resources, your reason, your pleasure? Say you mix yourselves up right down to your very cells, mingling the most ancient codes your body keeps, trading all the secrets it knows. That’s such a crazy thing to do. [[{"fid":"6707626","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"13":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"13"}}]] It’s tempting to abuse retrospect, to herd so many coincidences, so many little hooks of karma, or plot, until the present falls in line, giving itself up as an inevitability. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—my parents’ bizarre, unlikely matchmaker, his voice ready to gloss on their story—would probably say that this kind of mythologizing is the very worst kind of ego. There goes the flailing, neurotic “I” grasping for coherence, asserting its own importance. I’m sure he’d say I’m doing a lot of things wrong. The dharma Trungpa taught was an invitation to find comfort in instability, to be at home in impermanence. He taught that living could be both immersive and yet, still, somehow a release. I don’t know if he was good, or right, but I still ask myself often if I could do it: be all the way in the world without trying to gather everything up and hold it, take it with me, take it apart. I ask myself if I could ever love something without thinking, always and always, about how it will die. I don’t know if where we wind up, or who we get there with, is a measure of anything like purpose, traces of tectonic forces slipping and pushing beneath what seems like boring, everyday stillness. That it’s unlikely doesn’t stop me from trying to catch it. I know it doesn’t matter, that there’s no point in parsing the difference between choice and fate. Even if you believe in the latter, it’s not like the former stops happening. You have to keep existing, and that’s always just a little bit tensile, a little bit decisive. You can’t discount the possibility what you were fated is, itself, the opportunity to choose. Here’s something I’ve been thinking lately: maybe believing in anything—like, seriously, anything at all—isn’t a matter of being faithful to gods or gurus, to organizations or other people. Maybe it’s only a weird kind of loyalty to yourself. Locating a feeling you’ve had and allowing the memory of it to be what you make promises to, letting its imprint be your lodestar. Maybe it’s just picking a version of yourself to act on behalf of. I have to think that even if you’re prone to hear a restless call like doubt, it’s still possible to build your life around some kind of certainty. Trust that you were right, and lucky, if you caught it even once. I’m saying just because something is a feeling, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good idea. And what your body wants, and what your body gets—I think that matters. I think it counts. You probably have to be there. You probably are. [[{"fid":"6707631","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"14":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"14"}}]] I got married on an island in the Discovery Passage off the coast of Vancouver Island, on my in-laws’ rocky snaggle of Pacific rainforest land. I don’t remember what I promised in my vows, but I know I meant it. I know they’re written down somewhere. The moment the reception started, my parents took to the homemade plywood dance floor, and within seconds they were owning it. That cinematic moment when a couple’s whirlwind sends the rest of the dancers to bob and sway and look on from the outskirts, pushed there by a centrifugal certainty that this moment is only theirs to witness.   The night we met I knew I needed you so. Ronnie Bennett’s voice warbles into the soft halo of light holding the forest at bay, those dozens of pine sentinels spindling towards a sky matted with stars. Oh, since the day I saw you, I have been waiting for you. You know I will adore you ‘til eternity. My mother’s eyes close and she tilts her chin up, shimmying her shoulders and punching the syncopated snare beat with jazz hands. My father spins, gyrates incomprehensibly, and flings her the full breadth of the dance floor as though they’re holding two points on a Spirograph before pulling her back in, closing the gap, his wildness tethering towards her simple grace in some hilarious, ecstatic, intimate pattern of their own making. Bypassing hindsight to record this memory straight to the best-of collection, I laugh so hard I feel sick, leaning into the moment so fully and so headlong it seems I’ve reached the other side of it—someplace shimmering with morbid beauty, where my whole self churns with the wish to please keep just this one thing. And with this perverse, impossible prayer I give myself up like a band of film, open an aperture, and let the shards of silver skate and cluster to hold onto the only thing they can: all the places where light isn’t. 
‘When I Go Into the Forest, I’m Always Reading Into It’: An Interview with Jessica J. Lee

Talking to the author of Two Trees Make a Forest about changing ideas of home, our bodies as maps, and how the natural landscape influences human connection.

The mainstream notion of an archive generally consists of documents—photographs, letters, publications. But an archive, a site of history and inheritance, can be much more expansive. An archive can be a piece of fabric, an oral story, even a body. Many recent publications have explored a broader notion of archive from the perspective of people whose stories and lives are sparsely documented, or entirely erased, from the Western forms of historical annals. From Saidiya Hartmann’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments to Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, and even fiction like Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, what constitutes an archive is more imaginative than the narrow confines of paper and ink. Jessica J. Lee’s sophomore memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest (Hamish Hamilton, 2020), engages with this theme of archive in its own far-reaching way. A memoir of family, landscape, and natural history, the book begins with Lee coming across some letters written by her grandfather before he passed away from Alzheimer’s. Lee’s mother is Taiwanese, but Lee grew up in Canada. She returns to Taiwan with her mother, to get to know her family and herself through getting to know the land. There she explores the landscape of the island on foot and on bicycle, from mountains to coast, all the while navigating the things that are lost and found in translation: translation of her grandfather’s letters, of her mother’s body language and her own, of her grandmother’s stories, and of the imperialist and colonialist mapping of Taiwan and its flora and fauna. “The story of a place—lithic, living, and forgotten—can be found in maps and what they include or leave out,” Lee writes. When Chinese, and later western European, imperialists began mapping Taiwan in the 16th century, they imposed their own stories onto its landscape and people. Taiwan, Lee writes, resists mapping, as its interior landscape is difficult to access and traverse. “Today, maps continue to show Taiwan tangled in mystery,” Lee writes. As she journeys into this mystery, she learns about the international and interpersonal conflict, the language and lack thereof, and the inherited narratives that shape humans and landscapes alike. “The gaps that bind us span more than the distances between words,” writes Lee. “Nature stitches a seam between our anthropogenic divides.” I spoke with Lee over Skype about family, history, and the meaning of place. Sarah Neilson: So much of the narrative of Two Trees Make a Forest is about gaps—between fault lines, mountains, languages, diaspora, and the gaps within families. In what ways are those distances limiting, and in what ways are they sites of possibility? Jessica J. Lee: The issue of gaps was the central thing for me at the very beginning of working on the book—it was probably the first theme that really emerged. In fact, the original title of the book was centered on the theme of gaps. So it was really apparent to me, because I came to the story with the issue of the primary language gap, and then that gap in time and connection to Taiwan. It became a space, as you said, of possibility, a space I could occupy to just ask questions in a more spacious way than I could if I felt like I had to know everything. It allowed me to not know things, and therefore to write that learning into the book, to ask questions of my grandparents' stories and of history. I think if I was trying to write a book where I wanted to take a position of authority, it wouldn't work. It's very much about not being an authority, about trying to get to know a place, about trying to bring the language that I know best, which is that of landscape, into the gaps that were there to offer some connection. I wanted to ask you about that natural landscape language—you divide the book into four sections, roughly translated as “Island,” “Mountain,” “Water or river,” and the last section is “lin,” which has two translations: forest, or a group of like persons. What are the metaphorical and literal meanings behind dividing the book into these natural phenomena? It was partly a structural thing. I didn't start out with those divisions, but the more I sat with the story, it really helped me to frame what was already a very fragmentary story. It was always going to be a challenge to piece it together, because the key text I was working with, which was my grandfather's life story [in some of his letters], was a series of fragments. It was written when he had Alzheimer's and was developing Alzheimer's. So I think it helped me not push against but work within the limitations of a fragmentary structure. I thought about those words a lot, because they're really basic words in Chinese—they're the first ones you learn, really. But they were also words that really shaped my experience of landscape in Taiwan. When I was learning how to read, and when I didn't know where I was, those were the kinds of words I could always read on a street sign or on a trail marker. That was really important to me to give myself some framing so that I wouldn’t feel completely adrift. Also, it was hard for me at times to figure out the right place for certain parts of the story. And that's why, at the end of the book, I turned to this idea of the forest. The forests were not the key framing idea of this book when I set out, but they very quickly became that. I’m particularly interested in that last section because of the elegance of the image of a group of like people as a forest or grove, connected by roots and symbiotic relationships with its growth media, its place—its soil. How do you think natural landscape influences or embodies human connection? How do you think politics and its violences does the same? The reality is, when I go into the forest, I'm always reading into it, reading personal things into it, even when I'm trying not to. I bring literature, I bring details, I bring family history, I bring that kind of knowledge with me. I feel like it's really important to acknowledge that, and to really see those things as layered, and to not assume that we can speak about landscapes as pristine or apart from us, as if that was ever possible. So much of the natural world has been shaped by us. And so it's inherently political. It's inherently cultural. For me, Taiwan was a really ideal space to think about where these things converge. There were the personal elements, there was the more intellectual interest in natural history, but also a really strong desire to understand history that I didn't understand until I really delved into it—to understand that a history of a place happens on so many levels. There's that personal experience of the place, there's the family, there's the political, and they're not distinct. You explore the idea of mapping quite a bit, and the question of who draws what maps. So much of what is known, on a global scale, about Taiwan’s biodiversity, geology, and geography in general bears the marks of imperialism, colonization, industrialization, war. Can you talk a little about mapping your own exploration of the island? Was there anything that surprised you, while you were there in person and/or when you were researching historical documentation? I was really confronted with the challenge of not only mapping, but getting places was in a way my big challenge in Taiwan. I didn't have a strong knowledge of Taiwan's interior in the central mountains before I set out specifically to [explore them], which in some way reflects that strange history of the flatlands being very accessible, and the mountains being very much off limits. I was really struck by the ways that you could get to know the landscape there in such a patchwork way, and feel simultaneously [it] was sort of inexhaustible as a place. I've been to huge sections of Taiwan now, a bunch of different mountain ranges. And I feel very much like I've done very little. And I would really like to keep going. But I do think the one thing in Taiwan that is always sort of with you is that consciousness of it being colonized land and colonized space. I was always sort of hyper-conscious, also of my hybrid position as Taiwanese diaspora but also a Westerner in some sense, and as white passing. That shapes my movements through the landscape there because I'm not necessarily seen as belonging, and it shapes how you're received and what you have access to, and a whole manner of other things. I think I carried a lot of consciousness of that historical relationship of mapping and politics in the place and where I fit in a contemporary frame moving across that same landscape. To expand on the idea of maps, in what ways are our family artifacts maps, and in what ways are our bodies maps? And how is the body not only a map, but a tool of mapping? This book brought to mind for me the range of things that could be a map, or that could be treated as a landscape. There's my grandfather's letter, which is a more obvious one. There’s my grandmother's stories and her clothes. It's really interesting, just the other day I found a bag with a bunch of clothes that my grandmother had sewn. It's nice to still have them because I don't have a whole lot, but those are really personal things to have. When it comes to the body, the thing I think most of is actually my mother, and my observations of my mother moving in Taiwan, the way her entire comportment changed. I have basically spent my entire life thinking my mom has a terrible sense of direction, and that she doesn't really like to get out and do things on her own. When we went back to Taiwan, it was like she felt like she belonged. She felt much more comfortable. She would still get lost, but there was something in the way she moved that I think was really familiar to her and familiar to that place, but I hadn't seen it before. So just sort of getting into your body again, and feeling like your body is in the place where it belongs in some way. That familiarity, the familiarity of climate, all of those little things. In many ways Two Trees is a story of inheritance. What do you feel you inherited while writing this book, and what new inheritance(s) do you create with it? I think the book gave me the connection that I had never really had to my family's past. I didn't really give it enough thought when I was growing up, and I kind of took it for granted. [The book] gave me that very direct connection to my family's legacy, and to my culture, in some sense. That was really valuable. I think the biggest thing that I took away from working on this book aside from connecting with Taiwan, and language in place, was extra time with my grandparents. I was working on this book for two or three years, and it was kind of like I was having conversations with them all the time, even though they both passed away. It was like this extra time that we had to spend together, to really think about our family, to learn about one another. It was completely one-sided—it was just me and my imagination, and these words on a page that were my grandfather's, and my own. Did your idea of home change at all while you were writing this? I don't know if it changed so much as grew. I think I always had a very dislocated sense of home. For me, it's a question of plurality and multiplicity. Having gotten to know Taiwan a lot better and really coming to spend a lot of time there, it added itself, I guess, to a list of possible homes and places in which I belong. I don't know if I've fully resolved that yet. It's a conversation my husband and I have every few months—should we move to Taiwan? Would we feel too far away from people back home? It's always sort of there in the back of my mind now, especially as my mom's planning to move back. And it really shifted the gravity of the world for me, in a way. I’ve been thinking about the word solastalgia a lot lately. It’s defined as “a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change... best described as the lived experience of negatively perceived environmental change.” It was coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2005 in the context of the specific feeling of loss, of homesickness, experienced under climate change. This connects back to the idea of humanity as a forest, an interdependent organism. What are the places of your life, and how do you mourn them and love them at the same time in a world that now requires both? How do love and grief that are connected to place also connect to family? It's interesting to bring up that word, because for me, it overlaps so much with the kinds of grieving we do for people and for family, because the body is a kind of landscape and a record. And I think, when we think about the natural world, it is a record—it's a record of memories that we've had and places we've been to. And it's so much bigger than us. When I go to places in Taiwan like the coast, where you can see so much changing, or the forest near the end of the book... you can see environmental change so starkly. In this flooded forest, you can see what's possible on this planet. That, for me, is one of those kinds of spaces where it brings me out of myself and my own personal grief a little bit and reminds me how big and powerful this world is, and also how much impact we can have on it. I spent a lot of time swimming here in Germany, where I've been living. I'm a really avid winter swimmer. I swim when there's ice. And that, for me, has been a real process of record-keeping in a way. Because I feel like by returning to places again and again in the landscape, you bear witness to the thing that's changing. The past couple of years for me have been about bearing witness to receding ice. We don't have proper winter anymore. The lakes haven't frozen in years. And that's like a personal kind of devastation, but it's also something that that we need to witness and we need to document and we need to take personally. And also, how do we balance that personal narrative with not seeing ourselves as the center of the universe? I don't know. For me, returning to different places in the landscape and having that cyclical relationship to it is sort of my way of marking change and witnessing change. But yeah, it's really tough. I mean, in Taiwan, I'm always going back to the same places again, and again, sort of compulsively. I very rarely go to new places. I really like to go to the same five places, just to see if there's a slight difference. And just to see if I can get that moment back again. But that’s never possible. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A Voice of Bells

What ever happened to Ofra Haza?

In 1975, a seventeen-year-old Ofra Haza appeared in an annual televised concert called the Oriental Song Festival. It was the first time many Israelis saw the singer who would become, and who arguably remains, the country’s most internationally celebrated artist. Black-and-white footage available on YouTube shows Haza marching onto the stage in a long-sleeved, V-necked, empire-waisted, floor-length dress, dark with a floral print. She wears a two-inch Star of David around her neck and around her crown a delicate headdress with a filigreed pendant. For a brief moment, she almost wobbles, stepping wide and swinging her arms to keep her balance. She steps to the microphone and the bass comes in, then keys, guitars, strings, and horns. She begins to sing and her voice is loud, clear, steady, and pure. It is perfectly in pitch. The song, “Shabbat Hamalka,” is religious, adulating the Sabbath as a queen who “descends in splendour from the heavens” and “brings joy to those in sorrow.” I am not religious, but watching this performance, I have an “almost” moment. It is this moment that leads me to ask, “What ever happened to Ofra Haza?” I had no idea how loaded this question was, how it has haunted people for the past 20 years. When I tried to find out, I discovered a potent narrative: a girl from the ghetto beats back every obstacle and gains her rightful recognition, then is ravaged by one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases. Adding to this potent arc were Haza’s beauty, her famous penchant for privacy, and perhaps above all the fact that she was possessed of that most coveted and revered of gifts: the ability to radiate, in song, all that lies unsaid, and often unknown, inside the beating human heart. Israelis called it “kol pa’amonin”—a voice of bells. *** Ofra Haza was born in November 1957 in Tel Aviv, the youngest of seven daughters and two sons. Haza’s family lived in Hatikva, an underserviced neighbourhood principally populated by Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent; in Hebrew they are described as Mizrahi (of the East). Her parents had emigrated to Israel from Yemen in 1944 with three children in tow—their fourth was born just after the family disembarked in the port of Haifa. Haza’s mother, Shoshana, had been a wedding singer in Yemen, and was the centre of lively gatherings on Motzei Shabbat, the end of the Sabbath, when neighbours congregated in the Haza home to sing and dance. Like many families who came from Yemen to Israel in the mid-century, the Hazas kept kosher, went to synagogue regularly, and refrained from working from sunset on Friday to sundown on Saturday. When she was twelve years old, Ofra Haza knocked on Bezalel Aloni’s door, asking to audition for the theatre workshop he led in Hatikva. Aloni came from a similar background. Born in 1940 in Petah Tikvah, a mid-sized city in central Israel, he was one of ten siblings whose parents emigrated from Yemen in the 1930s. Though he didn’t live in Hatikva when he set up his theatre workshop there, the neighbourhood was his central pre-occupation. In 1947, after the declaration of the Jewish state, Tel Aviv did not incorporate Hatikva as part of the city and it remained effectively segregated into the 1960s. Aloni’s plays depicted and critiqued the egregious state of its streets and schools. “My soul is a protest soul,” he told me during a brief call this past January. The day Haza showed up at his house, Aloni told her she was too young for his group. “But I want to sing, too,” she said. “I’m from Hatikva, too.” Perhaps amused by her gumption, Aloni agreed to listen to her sing. Her voice, he says, gave him “shivers in my skin.” He allowed her to begin sitting in on the group’s rehearsals, where she memorized all the songs and all the actors’ parts. When the male lead in a play called Sambusak, When Are the Elections? bailed two hours before opening night, Haza filled in and stole the show. A few months later, she was in the Sinai, performing for soldiers fighting in the Yom Kippur War. She was 14 years old. Aloni began writing for her specifically—the play First Love was about a relationship between a Yemenite girl and an Ashkenazi (a Jew of European descent) boy. It included “Ga’aguim” (“Longings”), a performance which Aloni has described as capturing Haza’s essence. The song itself has a stunted melody and metaphors, but Aloni is right. I listen to a recording of “Ga’aguim” over and over, trying to divine whether some one thing is responsible for my eyes repeatedly pricking, whether it’s Haza’s phrasing, or her timbre, or her vibrato. She is at once hopeful and sad, her voice fragile and robust. Each day, she sings, I wonder. Will all my dreams help me find my place? Will all my striving leave me with only a dream? When Aloni’s group performed at Kibbutz Shefayim, a coastal community between Tel Aviv and Netanya, he invited Avraham Deshe Pashanel, the country’s biggest entertainment producer, to attend. “Look, I don’t know what to do with the play,” Pashanel remembered telling Aloni during a 1999 televised retrospective of his career. “But give me the singer, and I will make her a big star.” Aloni eagerly agreed. But Pashanel’s patronage was not enough to launch Haza’s career. “I wasn’t able to get a single song for her,” he said. According to Aloni (in a 2019 interview with Israeli TV personality Yoav Kutner), Pashanel told Haza to give up singing, get married, and have children. That was when Aloni realized it was up to him to ensure that Ofra Haza’s talent wasn’t squandered. They had visited Pashanel’s office on a rainy day in Tel Aviv; when they left, Aloni had trouble kickstarting his sodden Lambretta. Driving home—with Haza crying on the back of the scooter—Aloni began composing the first song he ever wrote for her solo career, “Hageshem,” “The Rain.” To my ear, “Hageshem” is a mediocre composition, with lyrics lacking any degree of nuance and a melody dripping with schmaltz. But let me imagine for a moment that I am Aloni on that rainy day in Tel Aviv. I am probably a little panicked. More protest soul than pop composer, here I am, responsible for making sure this girl—a girl I’ve been taking care of, in a sense, since she was a child—has a song to sing. A lot of songs, in fact. And so, as I splash home on my Lambretta, I reach for one. And when “Hageshem” comes, it is a huge relief, a lifeline, a Hail Mary. Fortunately, Haza carries it. It becomes a hit. More mediocre compositions follow, which Haza converts to radio hits. For four years in a row—from 1980 through 1983—she is chosen Israel’s singer of the year by popular vote. And, finally, the professional songwriters start coming around. In 1983, Haza represents Israel at Eurovision in Munich. Chai, chai, chai, The people of Israel live, Haza sang on a German stage, flashing her sunny smile, stepping a delicate toe behind a slender heel, wearing a shimmery outfit of yellow—the colour of the star Jews had been made to wear in Germany just a few generations earlier. She was the celebrated runner-up in the competition. That summer, at my Jewish camp in Muskoka, Ontario, we must have sung “Chai” upwards of 75 times. But I didn’t actually know Haza’s name until four or five years later, when my Israeli cousin told me about “Shir Hafrecha,” “Song of the Bimbo.”  (The translation does not capture the particular offensiveness of the slur, which was typically reserved for women of Mizrahi descent; Ayelet Tsabari explores it at length in “A Simple Girl,” an essay from her 2019 collection, The Art of Leaving.) Haza sang “Shir Hafrecha”—extremely reluctantly, according to Aloni—as part of her role in a 1979 feature film called Schlager. The lyrics self-refer to a frecha as being vapid and “loose,” caring only about shoes, makeup, and finding a man to marry. Haza hammed it up for the movie—undoing her hair, pulling up her pant leg to reveal a shiny black high-heeled boot, slapping her own thigh. But even as she followed the sexpot stage directions, she emanated innocence, and more than that, a knowing bit of wit. The song makes fun of frechas, yes, but also of the people who make fun of frechas. Haza “debunked what the word meant,” says her niece Inbar Algov-Kaplan, more than forty years later. And get this: When Haza first went into the studio to perform “Shir Hafrecha,” the composer played it an octave higher than originally planned. He’d hoped for a different singer, Haza explained in a 1999 interview, and was seemingly trying to cast doubt on Haza’s suitability for the role. “But I pushed myself,” she said, with a hint of triumph in her smile, “and I prevailed.” ***  In my 30s, I joined a band. I taught myself some chords on the guitar and I wrote a decent song or two. But when I sang—and oh, how I wanted to sing—I was flat. Not always, but often. For about three years, I tried to remedy this—taking lessons in an effort to train my ear, flouting humiliation to practise while roommates were home, hollering along with the tape deck in my car—until I reached the conclusion that I would simply never be a singer. It was painful, but it was clear, and it freed me up to understand my part when it comes to singing: to listen. For a while, I was obsessed with singers—singers with perfect pitch, singers with a five-octave range, singers whose talent makes background music of full orchestras and thrashing rock bands. Singers like Celine, Aretha, Whitney, and Amy. I would watch footage of these singers and wonder what it’s like to be able to do something—maybe the one thing—that every single person in the world wishes they could do. We adore them, to be sure; I wonder if, deep down, we aren’t also envious. Surely this is part of the reason we are so fascinated with singers, especially those whose lives end in tragedy: Their mortality practically shocks us.   Since her own tragic death, Haza’s story has been repeatedly told by others, and perhaps principally by Aloni, who has been cast as something of a Svengali in her career. Most of the people I talked to who worked with Haza told me that she was quite independent creatively; Aloni, it seems, was important in other ways. Itzik Yosha, an Israeli journalist who became close friends with Haza, saw Aloni as the person who “mediated” everything for her—music, business, even her personal life—as she struggled to balance ambition against the pull of family and cultural expectations. “I’m not sure she always knew how to navigate between these worlds,” Yosha said in a 2010 documentary. Then, almost by accident, it seemed as if the solution fell into her lap. In 1984, Haza recorded an album of traditional Yemenite songs—Shirei Teiman—as a gift for her parents. She and Aloni brought in Israeli-Yemenite singer Aharon Amram as artistic adviser and hired Israeli-Yemenite percussionist Chaim Gispan to play the “pach,” a big hollow tin can on which Gispan tapped his fingernails and pads to produce beats. Haza opened the album a capella, with the first lines of a song called “Im Nin’alu”: If the doors of the righteous are locked, the doors of heaven never will be. Her voice—her undulation and breath, her rich vibrato—moves like a surfer in the sweet spot of a wave. Her tone is an uncanny complement to the lyrics: mournful, uplifting, regal. It is forty-six seconds of sublimity, perhaps the signature forty-six seconds of Haza’s career. Like “Im Nin’alu,” several songs on Shirei Teiman were adapted from the poetry of a 17th-century Yemenite rabbi named Shalom Shabazi. The record was a bit pious for commercial radio, so the record company brought in Izhar Ashdot, an Israeli rock musician-turned-producer, to remix the Amram-written “Galbi” as a single, resulting in a sped-up dance track that wove breaks and vocal effects into the original version. The new version started circulating in clubs throughout Europe; a year later Ashdot remixed “Im Nin’alu,” and Haza’s a capella found its way into another artist’s remix—“Paid in Full” by the American rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. That’s when she truly went global. In 1989, Haza spent three months in the Hollywood Hills home of Thomas Dolby, the British musician and producer best known for the 1982 single “She Blinded Me With Science,” where she recorded her next record, Desert Wind. Dolby describes Haza’s voice as an extension of her personality. “There are very few vocalists that have that gift that they just communicate what they’re doing,” says Dolby over the phone. “There’s no reason to stop and analyze it from a technical point of view, tuning or timing, because it’s just, you know, expressive. And Ofra was very much like that.” The songs on Desert Wind and on Haza’s next record, the Grammy-nominated Kirya, often told medieval stories—about vengeance and exile and honour—and typically included Eastern accents, whether through the style of percussion or strings or through Haza’s interspersing of Hebrew and Arabic lyrics. The videos conjure One Thousand and One Nights: sand abounds, as do veils and turbans. At the time, I would have dismissed it all as cheesy; today, I can’t help but find it objectionable. But I am mesmerized by Haza’s performance. It strikes me that her instrument was stronger than ever and her artistry was at its height. Don Was, known for working with Bonnie Raitt, Ziggy Marley, and the Rolling Stones, was Kirya’s producer. “To get that special, clear sound out of Ofra’s voice, I used a very intriguing technique,” he said in a video promotion shortly after making the record. “I put a microphone in front of her, and then she… sang.” By then, Haza was in her mid-30s. She still made her home in Yehud, a city ten minutes from Ben Gurion Airport, where she lived next door to Aloni. She still had dinner with her parents every Friday night and spent all of Saturday with two of her nieces, Ori and Talma, who were just a few years younger than she was. Talma Schoen Algov says Haza “was like my mom,” cooking, driving her to and from work, and singing to her in the car. Once, Haza gave Talma a preview of a song called “Ze Yavo Pit’om,” “It Will Come Suddenly”: It will come suddenly and out of nowhere/He will come, and the dream of love will come true. “She was a very optimistic person,” Talma said of Haza in a 2005 documentary called Secrets. “She always believed that love would come.” Haza was not known to have serious boyfriends and she was often described as having been quite chaste. But there is a ballad on the 1986 record Yamim Nishberim, the only record for which Haza wrote all the songs for herself, called “Hake’ev Hazeh” (later recorded in English as “My Aching Heart”) which describes the end of an intimate love affair. “She wore her heart on her sleeve on that song,” Izhar Ashdot, who produced the record, tells me over the phone from Tel Aviv. “She cried the first time she sang it for me.” When I ask if he knew what the song was about, I can almost hear him roll his eyes. “It was obviously about a relationship,” he says.  But Haza didn’t have any relationships, I want to say in response. And then I think: How do I know that? And also: What does it matter? “Good songs are always coded,” Ashdot tells me. “You don’t understand exactly what the story is. Every listener makes the story about himself or his life or his relationships.” *** “Ze Yavo Pit’om” came out on Haza’s 1994 record, My Soul. In July 1997, Ofra Haza married Israeli businessman Doron Ashkenazi, a divorced father of two, on the roof of the building where her parents lived in Hatikva. She had known him less that a year. Bezalel Aloni has repeatedly said that he distrusted Ashkenazi from the first, that he warned Haza against marrying him, and that he believes Ashkenazi disingenuously convinced Haza to distance herself from her family and friends. “Bezalel probably had a good sense [of Ashkenazi],” Talma tells me. “If she had listened to him, she would be with us today.” Near the end of her life, Haza reached out to her niece Inbar, a young musician who was serving with the choir band in the Israeli army. She asked Inbar to come over with her keyboard and help her work on her new album, which Haza was keeping very discreet. Inbar tells me how honoured she was by the invitation but also that she felt out of her depth; she offered to introduce Haza to a talented young producer named Ran Aviv whom she knew from the army and whom she trusted. Aviv had a studio in his parents' home in Petah Tikva, a mid-sized industrial city in central Israel, and Haza began recording with him there. But the album was never completed. In early January 2000, Haza cancelled a scheduled session with Aviv; she told him she wasn’t feeling well. Then she cancelled a second time. After that, Aviv later said in a television documentary, “All conversations were with Doron.” In less than two months, Haza was dead of complications from AIDS. In the 2002 documentary, The Life and Death of Ofra Haza, several of Haza’s sisters describe visiting her at home through the beginning of February 2000, trying to help her convalesce from what they believed, then, was the flu. But her condition worsened. They repeatedly asked Ashkenazi to call an ambulance, and, they said, he repeatedly deferred. Finally, there was no choice. In the film, one sister breaks down as she describes the ambulance paramedic reacting to Haza’s state in astonishment, telling the family that she was “already gone.” Haza was admitted to hospital in mid-February 2000. In a documentary released earlier this year, one of the doctors who treated her said that when she was first admitted, the medical team believed Haza was suffering from a severe stomach infection. Then, Doron Ashkenazi came to the doctor’s office to tell him that Haza had HIV. After ten days in intensive care, Haza’s heart stopped. She was pronounced dead of complications from AIDS on the evening of February 23, 2000, at the age of forty-two.  Many have questioned whether or not Haza knew she had AIDS—whether she may have “died of shame,” spurning treatment so as to hide her illness. “I visited her two weeks before she died,” Talma tells me. “She did not know what she had; she did not know she was going to die.” A recent documentary reported that Ashkenazi also carried the virus. He died just over a year after Haza did, in April 2001, of a drug overdose. This, then, is the story I find when I go looking. But Ofra Haza's life, so rich in narrative, is not actually a story. Stories are contrived, constructed on the scaffolding of foreshadowing, climax, and denouement. Lives, on the other hand, begin and end randomly. That’s the way I see things, anyway—no grand design, no universal intervention. Some things happened to Haza, some things she made happen, and this feedback loop continued from the time of her birth until the time of her death. We shape what we know of someone’s life into a story, as I have done here, for the purpose of taking something from it. Indeed, we often speak of stories as having takeaways. In this sense, a person’s life is like a song—coded, as Ashdot said—fluid, opaque, and interpreted differently by each listener. The takeaway, then, depends on the taker. Sometimes, though, there is something in a song—and in a singer—that breaks away from the loop and hovers in the atmosphere, somewhere over our heads. We feel the muscles loosen in our necks and the shiver in our skin; maybe we have an “almost” moment. Many people can sing in a voice that is loud, clear, pure, and steady. But only a few of them become the essence of the song itself. “Who is she?” we ask, demandingly. Who was Ofra Haza? But this is the work of art—to leave the question unanswered and to leave us unknowing, envious and infatuated, bereft and fulfilled.   
The Memory Weavers

Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference is something women have done for centuries.

Darcy Losada was trying to save up enough money to pay for her undergraduate degree in Design and Communication. Her favorite flower was the black rose, and she hoped, one day, to publish an anthology of poems she had been working on. A young man called Omar Alejandro Dueñas Zamora began stopping by the ice cream shop where she worked to flirt with her. He would flatter the color of her eyes whenever he bought an ice cream. Eventually the two began dating.  One evening when it was Darcy’s turn to close the shop, thirteen thousand pesos went missing from the cash register. Being the only other person present at the time, Omar was a suspect. The shop owner delivered Darcy an ultimatum: she had to break up with her boyfriend and compensate him for the loss, or he would report both of them to the authorities. Darcy consented. Omar began sending her threatening, descriptive messages about how he intended to kill her. On March 24, 2013, Darcy’s mother, María Isobel, received a call from her daughter’s phone at 9:15 p.m. Amidst a cacophony of shouts, punches, and blows, María Isobel could hear Darcy sobbing. Then the line went dead.  María Isobel had a gut feeling that the worst had happened. She left the house and begged the authorities for help, but was not taken seriously. Her first stop was Mexico City’s investigation unit that specialized in kidnappings, but they dismissed her peremptorily since no ransom demand for Darcy had been received. After being asked to go to another department of the attorney general’s office, which also couldn’t assist her, María Isobel finally managed to get a missing person’s report filed at the Centro de Apoyo de Personales Extraviadas y Ausentes (Support Center for Missing and Absent Persons). They were reluctant to do so immediately, suggesting that she should wait a day in case Darcy showed up. At 7 a.m. the next day a female body was found in the San Simón Ticumac area. The victim showed signs of asphyxiation and was covered in bruises. Later on, María Isobel would tell the press that, when the police called to notify her that a body had been recovered but it was unlikely to be her daughter because it was a “woman aged between 30 and 40 years old,” she felt a small breeze in her hair. “Darcy always used to ruffle my fringe,” she said. “Mothers have a special intuition. I knew it was her.” She was right. Phone records confirmed that Omar had been in San Simón Ticumac at the time of Darcy’s murder. These were backed by video surveillance footage that showed him coercing her into a van, where she had presumably been murdered before being tossed back onto the street. At Darcy’s burial, someone left a black rose on top of her grave. She would never get to fulfill her dream of going to university. The Mexican journalist Oscar Balderas, who is known for his investigative reportage of femicide and sex trafficking, had been invited to Darcy’s funeral, where he was able to speak to family members about her life and get a better sense of who she was beyond what had been written in the police files. Her family and friends were well aware that Omar had been abusive in the months leading up to Darcy’s death. She had said repeatedly that she feared for her life, even tearfully imploring her mother to look after her cat, Sally, in case she was killed. Nobody went to the police despite the high risk of a femicide because of a complete lack of trust in the system of law enforcement. They were terrified that Omar would almost certainly kill Darcy in retaliation if he found out that the police had been notified. Balderas recalls one of Darcy’s uncles lamenting the fact that, “If we had trusted the authorities this crime would not have happened, but in Mexico, when you file a complaint, it’s like buying endless trouble with your aggressor.” *** Purple is the color of dissent in Mexico City. It comes to the city at the beginning of spring, when the jacaranda trees begin to flower. They appear overnight, dotting the lush canopies that hang over the historic center. The blossoms intermittently dot the green paths of Alameda Central, the first public park in the history of Latin America. The closer you get to Zócalo, the main plaza of the capital and once the ceremonial heart of Tenochtitlan at the height of the Aztec civilization, the fewer jacaranda trees you’ll see. This year the jacaranda is early. On Valentine’s Day, a paroxysm of purple explodes outside the National Palace in the form of a crowd of demonstrating women. The scarves and balaclavas over their mouths are an angrier shade than the light blueish-lavender of the jacaranda. “Ni una más,” they chant, brandishing posters and cloth canvases on which they have written or stitched the names of other women. Ella Aguilar. Fernanda Sánchez. Diana Velasquez. One name appears repeatedly, accompanied by the photograph of a smiling young woman with bright eyes: Ingrid Escamilla. The weekend before the protests, Ingrid was brutally murdered by her partner, who skinned her corpse and discarded her organs in a drain. At the crime scene, the Mexican police took photographs of her mutilated body. These were leaked to the tabloid Pásala, under the headline: “It was Cupid’s fault.” Ingrid was twenty-five. In an interview with CNN, a representative from the National Institute of Women lambasted the distribution of the images of Ingrid’s body as an egregious example of how violence against women is constantly rendered banal and inconsequential. Protests like these are common in Mexico. In 2016, the “violet spring” saw tens of thousands of purple-clad women pour into streets all around the country, taking a stand against the malaise of apathy that permeates public discourse surrounding femicide. Similar movements have been organized year after year ever since. The videos and photographs from these events are visually strident. They show livid eyes flashing behind purple scarves, sprawling banners that decry the multiple failures of the state to protect its women, mothers and sisters. Amidst these vignettes of fury and hopelessness, one particular scene recurs. The women demonstrating hold up oversized white pañuelos, on which the names and stories of slain women have been embroidered. Brenda Tlatelpa Mora, 20 years old, originally from San Pablo del Monte, Tlaxcala, was strangled. Her body was found in a hotel room in Tepeaca, Puebla. The purple messages are as delicate as the petals of the jacaranda flower, connecting the dead to the living in silent sisterhood.  *** María Fernanda Segura Ruiz. I am 19 years old. I was going by public transport to my entrance exam at the polytechnic. I was shot in the early hours of the morning. There are no witnesses. No-one responsible has been detained. These words are stitched in pale violet on a diaphanous piece of cloth: an indictment, a reproach, the record of a spectral voice. In a café in the Navarte Poniente district of Mexico City, Minerva Valenzuela folds the cloth carefully and returns it to her backpack. Embroidery, she tells me, is similar to respiration. “The needle goes in and out of the cloth, like inhaling and exhaling. I think about the physical space that the words occupy on the cloth. The breath that was ripped from a woman in a matter of seconds becomes material, something we can feel with our fingers.” The mainstream press in Mexico reported Maria Fernanda’s murder in July 2019. There are thousands of others like her. The Mexican penal code was amended in 2011 to include a separate definition for femicide, and to appease public outrage over the unsolved murders of nearly four hundred women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez dating back to the late 1990s.  Bodies constantly surface, violated, with degrading injuries. They are desecrated and displayed in public places. Investigations have also revealed that women are often stalked for months before being kidnapped, assaulted, and killed. I am sitting at the café with Minerva and two other women, who I shall call Athena and Bruna. All three are members of Bordamos Feminicidios, a collective of craftist guerrillas founded by Minerva, who also works as a burlesque dancer and instructor. Based in Mexico City, Bordamos Feminicidios is determined to confront those who do not take femicide seriously, who have willfully looked away while women die. Using needles, thread, and any white handkerchief they can find, Bordamos Feminicidios honors slain women by embroidering haunting memorials to each of them. The members take these handkerchiefs with them when they travel around the country to participate in large-scale protests denouncing violence against women. At each protest, the handkerchiefs are stitched together, a sprawling brocade of sins that have not been answered for. Solidarity is infectious. It often catches women unaware, when they’re in transit. A few months ago, a young woman was embroidering in the subway en route to a Bordamos Feminicidios meeting when she struck up a conversation with another commuter. “The second girl came along to the meeting,” Athena laughs. “She had no idea how to embroider, but that’s not important. Some never touched a needle until they joined us. The point of this collective is not to make pretty things.” Athena, in striking blue eyeshadow, is a writer and teacher who runs classes for erotic literature at one of the universities in Mexico City. She found a kindred spirit in Minerva when they met at a burlesque workshop, “dancing around naked like the party animals we are.” This was in the early years before Bordamos Feminicidios expanded from a small roomful of women to hundreds of embroiderers around the city. Athena became so devoted to the mission of Bordamos Feminicidios that she started organizing her own sessions for her students. Bruna discovered the collective through a feminist workshop she attended at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia (The Memory and Tolerance Museum), where she works frequently with textiles. It is a grassroots movement that has spread primarily through word-of-mouth. But after eight years, the sheer ugliness of what Bordamos Feminicidios is forced to confront is beginning to take its toll. “I don’t think what we do has helped,” Minerva says. “Five women were being murdered each day in Mexico in 2011. Now it’s gone up to eleven. It’s very romantic to say we are strong, and that we’re awake. But now, if I even consider that I could change something, I would be frustrated all the time.” In the past, it was easy for people to reach out to her via the Facebook page for the collective. Torrents of derisive and hateful comments, some from media outlets, have since forced her to turn off the messaging function. “If they really want to join us, they will find a way to contact me.” Minerva still regularly receives case files by email from the Observatorio Ciudadano Nacional del Feminicidio (OCNF), an organization that documents the murders of women and puts pressure on the state to prevent and punish female-targeted violence. The increasingly grotesque nature of the murders makes her sick. She began noticing that there are certain patterns in the femicides, not all of which she can explain. In the weeks after female-led protests, for example those for reproductive rights, there always appears to be a spike in the number of women killed, typically by partners or men they shared their lives with. These are epidemics of male vengeance. Other times she has found phenomena that are sinister and baffling in equal measure: “In one week, I hear about four different women being killed, all of them called Veronica Lopez. I mean… what the hell is going on here?” *** There are only three basic requirements to be part of Bordamos Feminicidios, and for Minerva to assign you a story to embroider. First, the embroiderer must tell the narrative in first person. “I want them,” she says, “to really try and imagine the life of this woman, who we only know in her last moments.” To honor her is to build a profound empathy with the fantasy of a life fuller and more complex than a broken body. Second, the embroidery should be done on a pañuelo, a standard white handkerchief, though Minerva has begun allowing deviations to this rule, because she finds it endearing when the embroiderers add personal touches to their work. “I have received tablecloths or fabric of all shapes and sizes, stained with coffee and wine, with little cats and flowers sewn into the bottom,” she says. “I love it. It means that these women are working on the embroidery everywhere and whenever they can, and the decorative details are like little kisses to the deceased.” The third rule, she says, is that the words must be in purple. Transforming craft into an act of protest against indifference, against the lack of willpower to reverse or address a societal ill, is something that Mexican women, and women around the world, are familiar with. For centuries both in reality and the literary imagination, women have been the faithful scribes of tales revealing personal and social resistance to injustice or oppression. They did not do this with pens, or quills, or rigid implements that were good for scratching script onto stone—all of these were traditionally believed to be instruments that wielded real power in the realm of the public, where only men’s words counted. Instead women spoke through the objects they had created with their hands, some of which would never cross the threshold of the home. At times, it was not the actual item that was a symbol of protest, but the act of making or even unmaking it. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope eschews the advances of the lascivious suitors encroaching on her during her husband’s absence by telling them that she will select a worthy replacement for him, but only after she has finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law. In the day she works on the shroud, but at night she secretly undoes it again, because the men have no idea how long it takes to make a shroud. This goes on for three years, until one of her maids betrays her. It is a wily, elaborate way for a woman to say no. Greek mythology also presented us with the sisters Procne and Philomela. Procne is married to Tereus, king of Thrace, but he desires her sister instead. He rapes her and cuts off her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone else what had happened. Refusing to be silenced, she tells her story through a tapestry that she weaves, and gives it to Philomela. In more recent history, the British suffragettes wove and knitted militantly as they attempted to mobilize support for the women’s vote. Janie Terrero was a suffragist belonging to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and one of the over 1,000 women incarcerated at the Royal Holloway prison from the early 1900s to the beginning of the First World War for their participation in the movement. While on a hunger strike in 1912, Terrero embroidered the names of the women in her cell block, including herself, who were fed by force and subjected to other demeaning violations. At the top of the handkerchief, in purple, she stitched the words “WSPU: Deeds not Words.” Other women were to follow, soundlessly recording their experiences of jail time using simple textiles. Ironically, they were probably allowed to do so directly under the noses of the guards who watched them because women’s craft was felt to be innocuous and benign. Latin American history is replete with craft-led protests. During the worst years of the Pinochet dictatorship, when Chileans regularly vanished without a trace or ended up in detention centers, hauled from their homes in the middle of the night, the women assiduously embroidered arpilleras—colorful patchwork made from scraps of burlap—depicting the horrors being unleashed by the military police. One arpillera features three people sitting at a dinner table, with a question mark stitched into an empty seat. A portrait of a man hangs above the seat, with the words “¿Dónde están?” floating above him in accusing block letters. Another shows women looking on as soldiers in green uniforms herd the men into vans. The majority of the women in the arpillera movement were from working class families, who had no access to legal advice or a listening ear. They hid their work in their purses and sneaked them abroad as evidence to the world of what was happening in Chile. The domestic arts, despite often being devalued and belittled, have always been a means of expressing anger at the tears in social fabric, of articulating hope that these tears can be sewn shut.  *** There are conflicting accounts of how the jacaranda, not being native to Mexico, suddenly became a mainstay of the country’s urban landscapes at the beginning of the 20th century. Some say that the trees arrived from Brazil through the harbor in Veracruz. Five hundred years ago, Veracruz was the site of one of the earliest Aztec encounters with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Saying that his people were “stricken by a disease of the heart that can only be cured by gold,” Cortes led his crew of conquistadors on a trek from Veracruz to modern-day Mexico City. His journey paved the way for Spanish explorers, driven by the same febrile desire for the expansion of empire. Some went as far north as California, which was, to their chagrin, not as easily exploitable in terms of natural resources. But others went in the opposite direction to the southern state of Oaxaca, where the indigenous Mixtec people wore dresses in a vivid shade of purple. The Spaniards noticed that the men had purple-stained fingers and nails. Accompanying them on a march to the coast some three hundred kilometers away, the colonizers were astonished to see them climb onto the rocks by the sea, prying out snails that had been washed into the crevices. Tixinda, the Mixtec called them. They laid them out with quiet reverence on the shore, gently rubbing the bellies of these snails. This induced a white liquid which, when exposed to the sun, quickly turned green and then purple. Rubbing the liquid onto the yarn that they had brought with them, the men then returned the snails to the sea and made the arduous walk home. The Mixtec women made quick work of these purple threads, weaving them into clothes, rugs and purses. Entire Mixtec villages were decimated by overwork, and by smallpox and other diseases that the Spaniards brought. Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan journalist and writer, suggests in his seminal work Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent that the native people of the Americas totaled “no less than 70 million” before the arrival of the conquistadors. One-hundred-fifty years later, only 3.5 million of them were left. Onwards of 1531, the uprisings against Spanish rule in Mexico increased and were ruthlessly quelled. At each of these insurgencies, the Mixtec, along with other indigenous women, were likely to have been wearing huipil, the traditional garment that continues to be worn today. These huipil bore ornately embroidered geometric patterns, which carried with them the cosmic worldview of an entire people, and which came to life in variegated colours—including the magical purple harvested from the sea. The textile arts became a medium through which sacred knowledge that was regarded as profane, and therefore prohibited by the Catholic colonizers, could be passed down covertly through the generations. In this way, embroidered clothing became an indelible mark of resistance against the erosion of ethno-religious identity. Over time, embroidery became the accepted vernacular for the condemnation of unchecked power and impunity, and to remember the names of rebels, activists, fighters, and journalists who had been killed in the course of their work. And now, Mexican women are stitching together a collective appeal for justice. *** Bruna says she remembers every story that she has embroidered, because she takes great pains to research them. In comparison with Minerva and Athena, who were expressive in their outrage, sadness, and humor, Bruna took slightly longer to speak. She grew up with a “very macho” father and brothers, and gradually realized as she got older that the sort of swaggering braggadocio that she had become accustomed to might not be healthy, either for men or for women, “because we have it drummed into us that this is the only way we can live.” After she started working at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, she had the opportunity to organize and participate in female-led events and exhibitions. This, she says, was the inception of her feminist awakening, and in the last five years she began researching women’s groups to be involved in. Shortly after she joined Bordamos Feminicidios, Bruna requested to embroider a pañuelo for Angelina, a woman she knew, a murder that had not been covered by the Mexican media. Angelina was the daughter of Bruna’s mother’s best friend, and she saw her habitually at parties and other social gatherings. “She was forty-one, doing really well in life, was working for the civil service and had just bought an apartment. I felt like I knew her better than I actually did, because my mother would speak glowingly of her,” Bruna says. Two years ago, Angelina was murdered in her apartment by a man she had been seeing briefly. No further details about her death are known: the family never spoke about it to anyone else. Embroidering the date and circumstances of Angelina’s death, Bruna maintains, is her way of “making a memory.”  “It’s still difficult,” she continues after a long pause. “Some of the members of my family—including my older sister—disapprove of what I do with Bordamos Feminicidios, or don’t get why I want to be part of it. But my younger sister has learnt a lot, and is asking me all these questions about the fight for women’s rights in this country. I have been to protests with Bordamos Feminicidios where little girls, no more than ten years old, are curious about what we do. I wish that other women who don’t think that the issue of femicide is important would see that we are all sisters at the end of the day. We face the exact same problems whether we’re out on the street or at home.” Being a member of the collective, Bruna reflects, has made her feel much less alone. The woman that Athena remembers most is one whose face has lingered in her mind for years. “I recall very distinctly that it was a regular Monday, and I had received an internal bulletin at the university, one of those leaflets that you read and then left for someone else. There was a news item about a girl who had gotten a perfect score in her admissions examination, who was planning to choose chemistry for her undergraduate degree. I don’t think there has been another example in recent history where someone scored full marks—you have to understand that this is incredibly rare, close to impossible. I looked at her face and I thought, you are a genius, you are going to go on to do great things. Two months later, she was killed. Again, nobody ever found out what happened exactly.” Her face crumples. “I will never know her. We will never be able to do anything about it.” As for Minerva herself, the spectre of Darcy Losada—the girl who worked in the ice cream shop—has followed her to the present. “I saw her all the time,” she smiles sadly. The stories of sex workers who were killed move her the most, because people seem to care less about them, because they haven’t “lived in a way that society thinks is correct.” Having to remember those that everyone else is bent on forgetting is emotionally strenuous for the women of Bordamos Feminicidios. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has appeared to lose patience when asked about the femicide crisis, snapping at reporters that the issue had been “manipulated by the media.” He has also insinuated that the protests were politically motivated to hurt his government. The implied sentiment—which is shared by a significant percentage of the population—is that femicide is not a priority, and that the women protesting are public nuisances who will eventually tire and retreat. Violence against women has surged since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. López Obrador’s reaction was to implement a 75 percent budget cut for the federal women’s institute, with further plans to slash state funding for women’s shelters.   “We don’t deal with it,” Athena finally says. “We just live through it. I write about it—mostly poetry about femicide, for example, but I would never write about femicide for theatre or for a novel. I seldom talk about it in therapy, I talk about it with my friends, I talk about it with my granny who’s ninety-three, and sometimes I cry and fight with my wife about it. She worries about me whenever I go off to a demonstration, and she’s scared that I could be arrested, raped, or kidnapped. Because these are all things that could happen to women, even if you do everything right, whether you’re ’good’ or a whore. I received a death threat in my mailbox at university a few years back. But I’m doing this because I want someone else to not have to do it. What we do is not to manage, to control, or to get over it. I don’t want this anger to fade away, until I have something else to talk about.” *** In a small bar in the Colonia Juárez district, an illustration of a living room with two sofas and a kitschy “love” sign has been projected onto the wall above the stage, which is flanked by two red curtains. The bar is packed. Minerva’s mother, who sports a cool bouffant of blue hair, is there to cheer her on. The audience dissolves into raucous glee when Minerva starts to sing a medley of well-known Mexican love songs. She bounces across the floor, holding out the microphone to various individuals. She casually sips from someone’s glass of wine and wiggles her bottom. She looks radiant. I think about something Athena said about her friendship with Minerva and what they both do at Bordamos Feminicidios. “Minerva and I have a special connection in that we’re both cocky, and we admire each other a lot. But our relationship has also changed over the years,” she mused. “It gave me a notion of searching for something together. We’re not just friends: we’re looking for the same kind of world, even if it doesn’t exist yet, or never will exist. Now I have someone to do something with that seems completely meaningless, because we create that meaning together.”
‘A Good Deal for One Person is a Bad Deal for Someone Else’: An Interview with Eula Biss

The author of Having and Being Had on the place where sensibility meets ideology, mid-life retrospective reckoning, and writing yourself into realizations. 

In Having and Being Had (Riverhead), Eula Biss wonders if she’s on her “way to becoming an asshole.” I wasn’t sure what to expect when I called her to talk about the newly released book. In articles, interviews, and lectures, the author is often introduced with a long list of accolades. It’s both impressive and boring, the way the recital of prizes, awards, and fellowships precede her ideas. I figured my preamble would be different, but I still seem to be drawing attention to the fact that Biss is highly acclaimed. It’s not Biss’s distinction as an essayist that made me unsure of how our conversation might go. Throughout her four books, the author presents a complex self-portrait. And yet, it wouldn’t work to classify Biss’s output as autobiography or memoir. This isn’t so much due to the writing not fitting the definition of those terms, but rather that the prose is too varied in its scope, approach, and presentation for standard designations. She’s described herself as a “poet who writes in prose, or a prose writer informed by poetry,” a flexible taxonomy that exemplifies her style. Her writing is often beautiful and marked by a shrewd self-awareness. She’s a clear, deliberate thinker who sinks into her discomfort. She discloses and critiques, and she’s fine if you disagree with her. She would likely be disappointed if no one did. Her honesty can make me cringe. In one of her new essays, she tells of visiting a laundromat to wash a comforter. When she finds out the machine is broken, Biss—whose new book is centered around purchasing a nearly $500,000 home that she and her husband live in with their 11-year-old son—asks for her two quarters back from the attendant, “out of principle."  I dial her up and she asks in a friendly, disarming tone, “How is your pandemic existence going?” I tell her something nonspecific, that it’s weird and I hope it will be over soon but that I don’t think it will be. She says, “I think we’re in for the long haul, like a couple more centuries of this struggle, but it's a struggle worth having.” As someone who strikes me as particularly protective of her time, Biss doesn’t seem to mind when our conversation extends well past our allotted hour. It could be that being the subject of an interview has its charms, but it’s not as if Biss hasn’t had an abundance of opportunities to talk about herself throughout her career. Instead, I get the impression that she’s genuinely interested in talking, affable even. With generosity, she fields my questions about capitalism and writing, and it’s apparent she has thought about both subjects a great deal without becoming intellectually fixed in place. Her worldview has a certain open-endedness to it. While her writing contains many internal investigations, whether or not there is a straight answer is typically neither here nor there. Andru Okun: I wanted to start by acknowledging the passing of David Graeber; his writing plays a significant role in Having and Being Had. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how his work influenced your own.  Eula Biss: It’s such a devastating loss. I haven’t fully assimilated what the loss means for me and my work and my thinking. Although I haven’t finished reading all his work yet, so I feel like I at least have that remaining. What I really appreciate about Graeber and what I value about him as a thinker was his skill and ability to put really nuanced, complex ideas into clear, straightforward, and often beautiful writing. There are moments in his prose that I think are transcendent, poetic really. You can read him without feeling like the prose itself is throwing up barriers—which is how I often feel about academic work or theory. I have neither the training, sensibility, or inclination for that kind of writing. I struggle through it when I need it and there’s an idea or concept I know I need to familiarize myself with or work through, but sometimes I get really angry when I’m reading work like that because I feel like the author could have done more to bring the ideas to the reader. Part of my tremendous gratitude to Graeber is all the work he did to bring his ideas to the reader, to us. And his ideas don’t float free, they are always nested in a really complex and often fascinating thicket of research and information. Like in Debt: The First 5,000 Years; I had been avoiding it actually. People had been recommending it to me for years by the time I read it. It didn’t sound like a book I could possibly enjoy, and its size also intimidated me. I ended up reading it three times, and I think I listened to it one time on tape. It was a pleasure, his prose itself, the way his ideas move from chapter to chapter, and even internally within chapters. There’s a really elegant organization of ideas. He has a really amazing piece on consumption that I wrote about in Having and Being Had that I’ve probably read a dozen times. The deepening of his investigation and the layers of meaning that he’s navigating is just so dazzling to me, as both a writer and a thinker, that it never gets old. I could sit down and read that piece right now and find something new in it and delight in it all over again and feel awe and newly educated by it. That’s how I feel about Baldwin too. I’ve taught Baldwin’s “Notes of A Native Son” for nearly 20 years, and every time I return to that essay I find more and I glory in his artistry and I learn from the sensibility on the page. I feel like these thinkers who are also sensitive to the written word and the power of clear prose are tremendously valuable. Recently my partner floated this idea where he asked if the ideas of people like Marx or Freud would have ever taken off in the way that they did if they hadn’t had a way with words and with metaphor and knew their way around a sentence. I think that’s a really interesting question. What if Freud wrote in the kind of prose that is typical to the academy today? Would his ideas have ever caught like wildfire the way they did? I kind of doubt it. That’s probably as far as I should go—I don’t want to get too deep into disparaging academic prose.    One thing that is noteworthy about Graeber’s prose is that it’s written less from a place of strict craft and more from a place of praxis. The politics are meant to be accessible and the language follows suit. There’s an ideology there, one that I happen to share. I do believe that every aesthetic has its ethical and moral dimensions. As an artist, as a writer, I am extremely dedicated to a particular vernacular, and for reasons that feel very political to me. I think I sense a similar aesthetic stance [in Graeber’s writing] and respect it, even though I think aesthetically speaking we work in different worlds. I don’t think that someone would look at us and say that we share an aesthetic, but I think that in the place where that sensibility meets an ideology we share an aesthetic and a value system around what language can do and can be for, how it can be used. I like this expression: “Sensibility meets an ideology.” I think this might be an entire area of philosophical study. My sister is a philosopher and a professor of philosophy; one of her areas is the intersection of ethics and aesthetics. So I only know through conversations with her that it’s its own enormous area of study, but it’s also through those conversations that I gained an appreciation that there is a theory out there that every aesthetic stance is also an ethical stance to some degree. That’s why people get so fucking passionate about their aesthetics. At one point I was in a bar in Chicago for a poetry reading and a poet punched another poet. It was over an aesthetic disagreement. We come to blows over aesthetics! I think the real underpinnings of our aesthetics are ideological and ethical. When asked to describe your writing process, you once stated, “It looks a lot like doing nothing.” This reminds me of something you write in Having and Being Had: “I think it’s a gift to give another person permission to do something worthless.” Do you see these ideas as related?  Yes, related in that the work of artmaking can often be illegible within the logic and everyday practice of capitalism. It’s one of the problems for an artist within this particular economic system: our work often doesn’t look like work and it’s not compensated like other work. Its value isn’t measured in the same way as other work. I think that can have a profound psychological effect on an artist. It’s one of the things that can lead to the kind of despair that I think is unique to an artist living within this particular economic system, a despair that comes from dedicating your best energies into something that is routinely undervalued and not seen or understood as work. I was joking a little bit when I said, “It looks a lot like doing nothing,” but it actually does. That’s an accurate statement. It can be hard when there are other commitments and demands pressing in on your life to insist that you must do nothing. When there’s so much to be done and culturally there’s so much encouragement to fill every moment and be busy in a way that is legible to others, it can be hard to insist that it’s absolutely necessary to your life and endeavors to do nothing. It can be hard to justify, especially if you’re living a life that involves the demands of caring for other people. That sort of work can take as much time as you’ll give it. It can be hard to say, I'm now going to pause in the work of caring for other people to do what appears to be nothing, but is actually incredibly essential to my work and development as an artist. When I’m teaching, especially at the undergraduate and introductory level, a lot of my work is about teaching the sensibility of an artist more than the craft of an artist. The craft comes in as well, but at that introductory level what I’m often introducing students to is a stance—a stance towards your own work and a mindset that, to some of my students, is entirely new. For some people it’s more of a struggle than others. Some people really have a hard time wrapping their mind around how work that doesn’t earn any money can possibly be valuable. Other people have no trouble at all with that concept and have already lived it to some degree. Bits and pieces of your earlier writing reanimate in your latest book. I notice pianos, Dracula, a German cabinetmaker—Joan Didion makes multiple appearances throughout your published work. Do you find yourself intentionally returning to symbols and concepts or is it more of an instinctive process that leads to their reoccurrence?  It’s both, but in this particular work I was engaged in a very intentional, sort of mid-life retrospective reckoning. That encouraged me to look back on former work and engage with it and sometimes make fun of it. The title of one of my essays, “All Apologies,” comes up in a setting where in my mind I’m making fun of my earlier work. In this piece called “Right White,” I’m kind of teasing my own over earnest stance in that previous essay. It’s probably more or less invisible to most readers, but I’m taking a dig at myself and engaging in a little self-critique. At some point I understood this book as a conversation between my nearly 40-year-old self and my 20-year-old self. I wrote my first book, The Balloonists, when I was around 20. [Having and Being Had] is in some ways, formally, a return to my interests as an artist at that very early point in my development and career, where I was engaging with prose poetry really directly and playing with genre, messing around on the border between poetry and prose, doing a kind of mash-up of autobiography essay and poetry. I think I return to that artistic sensibility while trying to talk with my former, earlier self and her ideologies, because the life I had just stepped into would have been very foreign looking to the me of my 20s. I think I was asking myself if my value system had changed: Has what matters to me changed? Have I sold out? Or is there some continuity in what matters to me? Am I making different decisions on a practical level than I was in my twenties? Or is it that I’m finding new ways to support the same values and ideas that I was trying to support at that time in different ways? Those were some of the animating questions of this book, so I think that did draw me into conversation with my younger self and my earlier work.   Do you feel like you answered those questions? Oh, you know. [Pauses] Not fully. And to be honest, I never feel that I fully answer the questions that are most important to me. The questions that are really important to me are the questions that feel like they contain a lifetime worth of work. I rarely take up a question that I walk away from feeling satisfied, like, Ah, I really solved that one. What I think I’m always going for in my work—whether I’m writing about race, motherhood, vaccination, public health—I'm always trying to reach more clarity than I started with. The project is less answering the question than coming out clearer and gaining some lucidity. I do feel like I came out clearer on those questions I was just mentioning. One of the things that I learned in my 20s was that dwelling in financial precarity was going to take a toll on my artistic work. I did really intentionally strive for the economic security that would allow me to do my work as an artist. One of the things I came clear on is that no, I haven’t abandoned the value system of my 20s, but I’m unhappy about what I had to do to gain basic security. That’s something that in general is enraging about our country, our financial system, our lack of public safety nets— you have to become upper-middle-class before you have what I think of as basic financial security. And what I mean by that is reliable health insurance, a retirement provision, and the ability to send a child to college. Those are the three kinds of securities that I’d like to have, but for most people in this country to have those things you have to have an upper-middle-class income.  Has interrogating life under capitalism compelled you to live differently in any way?  It has. I wrote myself into realizations that changed my life. Some of those you can see evidence of in the book—you can see me mulling over whether to accept more precarity in my life and step away from my very secure and well-paid job at the university to take on a much less secure existence as a freelancer. I was very strongly considering quitting my job and becoming a freelancer, writing for a living, while I was writing this book. I eventually kind of split the difference. I wasn’t ready to totally let go of my access to a retirement account and things that I get through my salaried employment, so I went down to part-time, which made a tremendous change in my life. I took a large salary cut in order to do that, but it freed up an enormous amount of time for my writing. The thing that I didn’t know was going to happen, that I couldn’t have predicted—and this happens outside of the narrative time of the book, so it doesn’t show up—but in the very last scene I'm digging a hole and I decide to sell the book that I’m writing. And I do. What I don’t yet know in that moment is that selling that book will produce, at least for a few years, more income than I was making as a professor. That won’t last—this is the thing about book advances, they get used up, they’re not a salary, they’re spread out over installments. Then that money is gone, unless you get a similar deal, which can’t be guaranteed or predicted. Once my advance is gone, I’ll be back to a lower baseline in terms of salary. I essentially decided to make less money and to give less of my effort towards pursuing making money. I was at an interesting turning point when I wrote this book; I could do something that was not an option for me during the previous 15 years of my career. I suddenly had the ability to make money off of my writing. That wasn’t an option for me for many, many years, in part because I was doing weird stuff. I was writing poetry and there’s just zero money in that. And then all these new opportunities got kicked open for me, and there was a moment where I was just working way too much. It was actually when I started the initial writing for this book. I was teaching full time and I was doing various kinds of promotion work for my previous book which had just come out, and I was parenting, and I was doing the volunteer work that I do in my community, and I was traveling a lot to do talks at universities and guest teaching at various places. I was essentially saying yes to every opportunity to make money. I developed migraines for the first time in my life. I didn’t stay in that space for too long, but it was really destroying me. There’s a repetition of the words “death” and “dying” throughout the book and it actually scared me when those words started appearing. I didn’t know why and I didn’t understand what their appearance meant in the book. The book ending on a grave was a little disturbing to me. [Laughs] I understood it as a metaphor but I didn’t quite understand what the metaphor was telling me. I’m still in the process of doing some of the interpretative work that happens after you finish a book. For me, the work is finished before I have finished understanding it, which I think is sometimes surprising to people who work differently. I’m still in the process of gaining a better understanding of why I did what I did in this book. I think that repetition of “death” and “dying” and the appearance of the grave is because I really did feel like that way of life where I was taking every opportunity to make money and letting money making be the priority in my life, that it was killing me. That it was going to kill me. Maybe not literally, but there was going to be an artistic death that I was unwilling to accept. Notes from No Man's Land was originally published in 2009. Last year, you wrote about how the increase in conversation around white supremacy and white privilege made the book feel “new again, and newly unfinished.” Has the pandemic shifted your thoughts or feelings regarding your work in a similar way? It’s an interesting question, and it’s such an interesting facet of aging as an artist in that my understanding of my work and my interpretation of it does not stay static. The events of the world definitely change the way I read my own work. I think that’s true for other people, too. My work is read differently now—especially my writing on race—then it was ten or 15 years ago. I’m not sure if I’m finished figuring out how the pandemic has changed my own understanding of my work. I think in both On Immunity and Having and Being Had, which I finished right before the pandemic, there were things I was exploring and trying to observe that felt subtle or unseen at the time of the writing. A lot of the work was seeing and acknowledging there was something in the shadows, hovering behind louder rhetoric. One of the things the pandemic has done is make many of those issues less subtle. Inequalities that were somewhat invisible—say, economic inequalities that people could happily forget about before the pandemic—have really been laid bare for us. And many people have made that observation, that the people whose work is most essential to our lives don’t have basic security and are not treated as if they’re essential to our daily lives. In a logical economy, in an economy that made sense and wanted to keep going, the people who were doing the absolutely essential work would be well supported and their health would be maintained. We wouldn’t be in a situation where people who are in a comfortable middle-class position like me are depending for their everyday needs on grocery store workers and delivery people who don’t have basic securities. I think that’s now abundantly obvious. I was writing in a time when it took a different kind of work to see that. I think that some of the observations that I was making, like in writing about Virginia Woolf, I was thinking about her vexed relationship with her servants. But I was also thinking about the way that we (meaning the middle-class) still have that relationship. We’ve just outsourced it, in part so we don’t have to live with it or look at it. Amazon has now replaced the role of the servants in Virginia Woolf’s house. In her time period, a middle-class person would have someone who lived in the house and went out and fetched everything, and now that is not the norm for middle-class people in this country. We don’t have someone in the house, but we still have people who do that work for us, we just don’t really look at them, think about them, or necessarily even talk to them. I think that’s much more obvious now than it was when I wrote the book. In some ways I think that the pandemic has set up this book to be better understood than if some of these things hadn’t surfaced.  You write that “the social cost of some things is their very cheapness.” Can you elaborate on that idea? There’s a lot of thinkers out there who have looked at this with particular products or in particular areas. I think I once heard Michael Pollan on the radio discussing the true costs of cheap McDonald's foods, particularly the costs for agricultural workers but also the costs to the environment. The argument he was making was yes, this food is cheap, but it costs our society and our planet something, so really that cheapness is expensive, we just don’t see the expense immediately. There’s a sleight of hand going on. I was reading this other book, The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel, a book that looks at a variety of things, including chicken nuggets. Those ideas really spoke to me and I think I’ve grown to be suspicious of cheap things. I wonder who suffered to make this cheap thing for me, basically every time I encounter something that isn’t expensive. Who got screwed? Was it the worker? The maker or producer? Where in the chain did somebody get shorted? This is what I ask myself. For me, there’s very little pleasure in what we would usually call a good deal. What’s usually a good deal for one person is a bad deal for someone else. I think that’s what I mean when I talk about the social cost of a cheap thing being its very cheapness. What we have to do to make certain things cheap is cheat people out of fair compensation, most often for their labor. There’s also cheapness produced by devastating the environment or engaging in a kind of monoculture. There are various strategies that can be used to produce cheap goods, but almost all of them are destructive and often in ways that are not immediately visible to us. Sometimes when I see these cheap products they’re vibrating with violence. It’s like an aura around them.   That is a devastating thought. It takes the fun out of those little things that come in gumball machines. You juxtapose prosperity with precarity, writing that “health is a mark of money in our time.” I think this statement is applicable to both people and places, but there was a point in time when this wasn’t true. When do you think things changed? That’s a great question. I just need to pause for one second to let my son know there’s food on the table for him, but I will be right back. [Pauses] Sorry about that. I don’t think I have the knowledge or historical chops needed to answer that question, but I’ve read enough to stab around that question. Our medicine has gotten better. There was a time period where it didn’t do you much good to pay a lot of money for a doctor because doctors really were not doing a whole lot for people. In the era of what is called “heroic medicine” in the 1800s, you were probably better off using folk medicine than engaging in the expensive services of a doctor. We have now arrived in a time period where paid medical professionals are offering services that are extending people’s lives. Not everyone has access to that. There’s also the post-industrial impact around diet and access. This is talked about really beautifully in the book Sweetness and Power, this shift from nourishing diets to empty calories, lots of sugar, and little access to vegetables and nutritious food. That’s only one small component; I think there were all these simultaneous shifts happening. Right now, a certain kind of upper-middle-class lifestyle allows you to commit time to exercise every day, eat healthful food, access preventative medicine, and get cutting edge treatments. All these things are less accessible to people who have less money, but it is hard for me to say where that shift happened. I do think that once you understand that money can buy you a longer lifespan, you get greedy for more. There’s also the reality that the process of acquiring money, which can be used to extend your life, can also kill you.   That is one of the saddest and most depressing things. When I was writing this book, I looked into some of the research about why there is such a gap in the US between the lifespans of the rich and the poor. Some of that is easily quantifiable and traced, and some of it comes back to things that are less quantifiable like deaths of despair. This is a term now: death of despair. Suicides of poor people are falling into that category now. The despair is partly economic, but it’s also the despair of spending all your energies on work that isn’t satisfying or personally rewarding. It’s destructive to a person in ways that take years off a lifespan. That was one of the most disturbing things I discovered.   What do you think are the benefits and limitations of using the personal or private to address political frameworks? One of the limitations is that a lot of people won’t see or understand what you’re doing. A lot of people think of the personal and the political as two distinct spheres. I don’t. But if you do, it can put you in a position to not properly interpret the work. When I see my work misunderstood it’s often by people who see it as being about my personal life. I feel like I’m usually writing through or from my personal life, but I’m writing about something else. The way that I get to that something else is through my lived experience. But it comes up for me all the time that people don’t see it that way. That’s an obvious limitation, but I’m not going to write differently just because some people aren’t equipped to do the interpretative work that needs to be done. I’m going to write in the way that is most productive for me as an artist, and for reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest, that often involves my lived experience.    I know you don’t use social media. I’m curious about what your media consumption habits or routines look like. I fear that if I tell you about my media consumption it will seem to be the product of some ideology that I actually don’t have. I don’t watch TV. But I don’t believe TV to be bad and I’m not against TV and I don’t think there’s not great art making happening on TV. I went through a large period of my life, during my childhood, where I didn’t have a television. It’s not part of my rhythm or expectations. It’s something that I forget exists, essentially, even though I have a television now. Like, every six months or something I watch a television show or a series. I think I consume far less television than most people, but it’s not because I feel that it’s not a medium that is interesting. I also don’t see a whole lot of movies. I don’t do a whole lot on the internet except read newspapers. I think the portrait that is emerging is a really constricted engagement with media [Laughs].   But you have a smartphone? I do. I put it off for quite a while, but in that period where I was working and traveling a lot I felt like it would really enhance my life to have a smartphone and to be able to read the newspaper on my phone and stuff like that. I read a few newspapers pretty much daily, but I’m not that sophisticated when it comes to media. I think that puts me at a disadvantage in certain conversations and probably puts me at a disadvantage as a knower and a thinker. There are things that I just don’t have access to. I find out about things after everyone else. I think being in grade school and not having a TV during a time period when television was the cultural touchstone accustomed me to being out of the loop. I’m not that uncomfortable with being out of the loop, in some ways that puts me in a useful position as an essayist because I’m informed differently than other people around me. I don’t necessarily arrive at my subjects with the same assumptions or the same information or having read the same critiques. I don’t think it’s all bad, but I’m especially aware of this when I'm talking to students and hearing what they’re learning and the kinds of conversations they’re engaging with, like over Twitter. Particularly Black Twitter, which is a really significant cultural presence. That’s something that I just don’t have knowledge of and that’s kind of a blind spot and a loss for me. But I also think this comes back to time; I make a lot of compromises in my life to have time for my work as an artist. That involves not engaging with various forms of media so more of my time goes towards creative production. What do you think of this concept of “ethical capitalism”?   I don’t know. Can you tell me what that is?  [Both laugh] Oh, that’s a good answer. No. I guess the easy answer would be to say it’s bullshit or something.   [Still laughing] That’s not at all what I was implying, I just really don’t know what it is. Me either. Obviously, your work addresses capitalism, but you’re also often talking about wanting to lead an ethical life. That’s an idea that goes far back in your writing. Maybe what I’m actually wondering is if you think it’s possible to live an ethical life under capitalism. I think there are all kinds of ethical maneuvers that could be made within or around capitalism. And I do think it’s useful to be reminded that our system—even in the US, which is such a capitalist country—we do operate with other systems mixed in. We have forms of socialism and things like Medicare and Medicaid. Other ethics and practices can coexist next to and within capitalism, and it’s useful to remember that, especially because it does feel like an all-encompassing system and it can feel like there’s no way out. To circle back to David Graeber, one of the really exciting and inspiring things that he said is that we don’t have to invent alternatives to capitalism—they're actually right here and we’re living them right now. We just need to see, appreciate, and invest in them. The alternatives already exist, and to me that’s a really exciting idea. The tricky part is you have to live this alternative within the system. You don’t get to totally separate yourself, but I do feel like all kinds of ethical decisions are available to us, especially if you do away with some of the commandments of capitalism, if you stop working towards constant increase and expansion. That frees up a lot of energy and resources to devote towards things other than the pursuit of profit. But I think the ethical choice to not exploit other people’s labor is available here and there in a system that is essentially built on that principle. We still have opportunities to not exploit other people.
‘When Humans Get Involved in Anything, it Can Lead to Mistakes’: An Interview with Sarah Weinman

The editor of Unspeakable Acts on the problems inherent in true crime reporting, the human desire for narrative, and the failings of the criminal justice system. 

Halfway through Unspeakable Acts (HarperCollins), the new anthology of true crime writing edited by Sarah Weinman, I saw myself as clearly as if I were looking in a mirror. In Alice Bolin’s essay “The Ethical Dilemma of True Crime,” the Dead Girls author identifies a dichotomy in true crime lovers: “There are people who consume all murder content indiscriminately, and another subset who only allow themselves to enjoy the ‘smart’ kind. [...] The prestige true-crime subgenre has developed its own shorthand, a language to tell its audience they’re consuming something thoughtful, college-educated, public-radio influenced.”  I’ve never thought of myself as a lover of true crime. I would not even list it in my top five favourite genres. Yet I know exactly what Bolin is talking about, because I have watched and listened to nearly all the programs and podcasts she means: Criminal, OJ: Made In America, Wild Wild Country, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, the list goes on and on. I love these types of programs. I’ve downloaded and binged them and lost hours googling their details. But I’ve never really thought of them as “true crime” stories—or myself as a “true crime enthusiast.” Instead, I just think of them as stories, and myself as a viewer, neutral. This is no accident. In this kind of “highbrow” true crime, Bolin says, “the stance of the voyeur, the dispassionate observer, is thrilling without being emotionally taxing for the viewer, who watches from a safe remove.” As a white middle-class person who has never really experienced the direct interference of law enforcement in my life, these types of stories provoke my curiosity without ever forcing me to wrestle with the moral implications of my interest, or their addictiveness. They encourage my natural inclination, which is not to ask too many questions—of them, or of myself. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis explains that media images of prison have “become so much a part of our lives that it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life” without the carceral system. The ubiquity of the prison allows us to imagine it as a natural feature of the world like any other, something that cannot be changed or gotten rid of. It is this kind of imagined neutrality that allows many of us to accept and uphold oppressive systems without questioning them. As a genre that frequently relies on and repeats the same kinds of themes and structures (beginning/middle/end, good/evil, success/failure, victim/perpetrator, good cop/bad cop), true crime has historically played a major part in solidifying and entrenching our cultural conceptions of crime and punishment. No matter how much I understand about corruption or misconduct, the foundational elements in the true crime stories I consume often feel fixed, unquestionable: cops, jail, the legal system, all parts of a conveyor belt the real human “characters” in these stories travel along from beginning to end. But true crime is also a genre uniquely positioned to complicate and ultimately dismantle these perceptions. The pieces in Unspeakable Acts explore this potential; they examine the ways in which carelessness, bias or built-in systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system fail victims and perpetrators alike. They talk about what bullets do to bodies, what border agents do to immigrants, what police do to people, what parents do to children, what children do to each other. The book is tonally, stylistically, and thematically diverse. There is also not a single Black author in it. Only one of the contributors, Karen K. Ho, is not white. In a country whose prison system is a direct lineal descendent of the slave trade, in an era where Black writers like Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and Wesley Lowery win Pulitzer Prizes for crime reporting—and in the midst of a fresh and roiling pop-cultural awareness of the inherent white supremacy of law enforcement—it seems like a glaring oversight for a book that wants to demonstrate the expansive potential of true crime writing. Weinman is aware of this problem. She wrote a piece in BuzzFeed that came out just before Unspeakable Acts was released; she also tipped me off to Elon Green’s recent published piece about “The Enduring, Pernicious Whiteness of True Crime.” Throughout our conversation, she was eager to talk about her anthology’s shortcomings as well as its successes. She sees the book, she told me, as a kind of link between true crime’s past and what she hopes will be its future. Emma Healey: I really appreciated this book for the way that it worked to expand my understanding of what true crime can do. Sarah Weinman: I feel like you can’t—or I can’t—put together a collection or a book if I don’t have some kind of underlying argument, or reason for people caring. There had been earlier true crime anthologies; there had been a series called Best American Crime Reporting, which collected the year’s best in true crime. What I concentrated on was mostly that it was, like so many genres, male-centric and very white. True crime is an inherently white genre, which I’m hoping will change. It hasn’t gone far enough. Looking back to how popular Serial was, and how it opened the door to people who, perhaps like yourself, didn’t think of themselves as consumers of true crime... they weren’t aware that true crime is a really elastic, even nebulous genre. Which is generally what I think of all genres, that they’re very porous and they’re in conversation with other genres and that everything is sort of this big soup. That’s better, because it allows for all sorts of different ways of telling stories, or shifting focus and perspective. I remember reading Alice [Bolin]’s piece right around the time it came out, and almost cackling. I just thought, Yeah. We need somebody to interrogate this really close to the bone. I also gravitate more toward “highbrow” true crime, but I think it’s also important to recognize that there are traps in those types of programs and books and podcasts and documentaries. Just because it has a sheen of “respectability” or broadening narratives doesn’t mean that it’s not falling into all the same traps that traditional true crime is falling into. It seems to me as though true crime can be very much used to either pick apart some of these oppressive systems, definitions of “crime and punishment,” the carceral system, all that stuff. But, also, it can be used to reinforce those structures. It can absolutely be used to reinforce those things. And I think that certainly in the last few months, with protests and the various calls to defund police, [there’s a need] to figure out, “Well, who’s the carceral system for? And who is actually benefiting from the way that the criminal justice system is working or mostly failing to work? And who is not just not benefitting but is being absolutely failed by the way that the criminal justice system works?” Obviously in Canada there’s been so much talk about how to address proper reparations to First Nations. That’s gone to some degree, but clearly it cannot go far enough, because the harm that was done was just orders of magnitude more than we’re able to comprehend. It’s the same thing in the States, with respect to Black and brown and other persons of colour. But especially Black people. We have 400 years of slavery that has to be reckoned with. The way that police were set up, which was essentially to enforce white supremacy… you can’t just snap your fingers and undo it. These are gigantic questions, and the structure of true crime storytelling has often not been well-equipped for addressing those gigantic-picture ideas. But in order to properly reflect what is happening in the world, we have to at least try.  There are those more explicit ways that the genre can be set up to elide or ignore the complexity of a lot of these issues. As you mention in the book, people are attracted to a narrative that has a beginning and a middle and an end, certain tropes or types of characters. That is a thing the genre can be drawn towards repeating, that makes it sort of binge-able. But, also, there are less explicit ways that true crime can reinforce those structures, like how a story often has to go through certain channels before you can write about it. There have to be official documents, or transcripts, or people who have gone through the criminal justice system before you can report on what has happened to them. There are some very successful examples in this book of people critiquing those systems as they report on them, but to be writing about these systems and to be working inside of them and also to be actively working to deconstruct them at the same time… it seems like a difficult transition for the genre to make.  When you take real-life trauma and pain and transform it into a story, what gets left out? Often, it’s the messiness. Let’s say you are a victim of sexual assault, or your family member was murdered. That is an abrupt thing that occurs, that act of violence, but the ramifications last often for the rest of that person’s life. And yet they still live, and they still have to function in the world, and sometimes they function quite well, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they do both at the same time. It’s this nonlinear way of living that I don’t think is necessarily reflected in a lot of true crime storytelling. I think it’s a little bit more reflected now, especially in modes of story that aren’t necessarily wedded to a neat and tidy ending, or they might live in the uncertainty a little bit more, or that focus more on the person to whom the worst thing has happened as opposed to the narrative put forward by law enforcement. Because as we continue to see over and over again, the inherent structure of law enforcement and the criminal justice system doesn’t really do a lot for people who are victims of crime. If anything, it can retraumatize them. The nature of interrogations can lead to the wrong person being arrested and spending many years in prison for a crime they may or may not have committed. I also think there hasn’t been enough focus on judges and how they’re frankly not necessarily equipped to deal with humans in administering the law. True crime is this conflict between what the law is supposed to do and isn’t doing, and humans and their understandable emotional needs, and damage. It’s this collision course, and sometimes worse things emerge from that as opposed to better ones.  There was a conversation, I think it was the event that I did at Calgary Wordfest with Karen K. Ho, who was one of the contributors. She had brought up that while she was working on the story that became “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge,” having never reported out true crime, she didn’t really know what the tropes were. But it also meant that she didn’t necessarily get the access to court and to the cops that more traditional crime beat reporters might have. I think that was for the better, because the focus was more on the family and people around the family, and her own experiences in the community. And frankly, those are stories that haven’t been told enough. We need more of that. What do you think needs to happen for true crime to become an expansive and flexible genre that works to critique these systems and center the stories of victims and the people who are oppressed by them? And do you think that will happen? Given the way things are now, the “true crime boom” that’s been building over the past few years, and the [ways] people are currently rethinking their relationships to these systems, do you think things will change, or go back to the status quo?  The true crime industrial complex is really stubborn and hardy. That’s why [in the book’s introduction] I say that true crime has basically been in a moment for centuries, because humans have always been fascinated by blood and gore and extreme behaviour, and people doing the worst possible things that they can imagine. Like, I love what Dateline does, and what 20/20 does, but they have a certain genre formula and I don’t see that changing. They’re not suddenly going to become much more enlightened. But I think representation everywhere is a constant source of conversation and hopefully change, and that has to happen in true crime as well. That was why I wrote the BuzzFeed piece. Because in the wake of the recent protests, I was looking at Unspeakable Acts and just really being brought home that there’s one nonwhite writer and no Black writers. When Black creators get a chance to tell crime stories, what kind of stories are they telling? The more that we have crime stories that reflect the communities who are most impacted, written and produced and created by the people who are most impacted, I think that it will just lead to [the kinds of] stories that are missing right now. If I, a white lady, want to pursue a story involving Black victims, it means that I have to gain the trust of this community. Not that it’s impossible, but they have no reason to trust me, the interloper, in a way that they might be more forthcoming with someone who is part of that community, and understands things that outsiders can’t. In that BuzzFeed piece you mentioned Serial specifically—how it handled its subject very differently than other things like it had done in the past, but also how it was really missing a key understanding of the communities and the cultural nuances at the heart of the story. That’s an interesting thing about the genre as a whole. You can be critiquing the system, seeing part of it for what it is, and missing this whole other crucial aspect of it at the same time. As a journalist I really try hard to be as morally culpable as possible, because, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, I’m essentially contacting someone or cold-calling them or trying to get in touch with them to spill their guts about the worst thing that ever happened to them. And in order to do so I can’t just go in like some callous, parachuting whatever, because they’re gonna clam up. And frankly, why should they tell me anything? I’m not entitled to their story, and no one is [required] to share anything. It’s really important that I keep that in mind, and also just try to be as open and transparent and clear about what may happen if they talk to me, and what could happen if the piece publishes. You can never predict everything and anticipate everything, but we live in an age where everything is even more under scrutiny the moment it’s published, and to not walk sources through that is, I think, a real problem. You talk in the book about the ethically thorny proposition of consuming true crime. Do you feel like writing it is also an ethically thorny proposition? I think they’re connected. I mean, I don’t think you can necessarily divorce the writing or the creating of true crime from the consumption of it. I’ve been fascinated by crime since I was a little girl. I would read up on unsolved murders of sex workers in my hometown, or the murders of girls in and around eastern Ontario that we now know were committed by Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. To know that Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, among others, were very close to my own age… there’s this identification with the victim. That’s something you do. But what does that actually mean, to “identify with the victim?” Is it real identification, or are you just creating some artificial link between yourself and these girls?  These are just important things to come into. To be mindful that, yes, you’re trying to be as ethically sound as possible, but journalism itself is an ethically thorny enterprise. Anytime that you turn real life into a story and it becomes closer to entertainment, there are always going to be these pitfalls. You might not be able to avoid them, but I think that awareness is always the first good step. What’s it been like for you, as someone who has been interested in true crime from a young age, to watch the evolution that’s been happening over the past five or six years as it’s moved into the mainstream? Like with everything I’ve become fascinated by that at first seemed like only a secret to me or a handful of people, once it becomes more “mainstream,” you become a lot pickier about what you consume. So, yes, I’ve probably listened at least in part to most every true crime podcast, but most of the true crime podcasts out there are not necessarily all that good. But that’s also a function of, I’m a journalist, so I’m going to gravitate more towards those that are reported with rigor and care and empathy, and that have real investigative chops behind them, as opposed to the podcasts where, you know, just a couple of people are talking. That said, one of the contributors to the anthology, Sarah Marshall, co-hosts this amazing podcast with Michael Hobbes called You’re Wrong About, where, yes, it’s two people talking, but the level of research and understanding and flipping scripts is so key. If someone wanted to describe Unspeakable Acts as You’re Wrong About: The Anthology, I wouldn’t put it past them. It’s part of the same overall conversation: rethinking things we thought we knew and seeing them in a different light. My hope is that if there ever is a follow-up anthology or some kind of collection, it would reflect the moment that we’re currently in and all of the conversations that we’re having and continue to need to have, and that the representation is a lot more accurate. I suppose that the collection that I put together is a bridge between how we saw true crime before and how we have to see true crime in the future. [Marshall’s piece, “The End of Evil”] felt like an excellent example of that. It really took something that I thought I knew the story of, and then dug deep to figure out what was actually going on inside of it. I thought it worked really well as a bridge inside the book from one side of it to the other, from the more narrative pieces to the bigger, broader ones. Structuring an anthology is always tricky in terms of what pieces should go where, but I felt like, with this one, I always knew that it had to have that three-part structure. It’s like, “Here are the traditional, excellent longform narrative stories. Then here’s the section where we talk about what true crime is supposed to be doing and how we narrate it and how it should make us uncomfortable.” And then it really opens up in the last section, just rethinking how we even see true crime, and what additional stories we might not necessarily fold into the genre, but we should be folding in.  To go back to Sarah’s piece, until I read it I was massively disinterested in anything to do with Ted Bundy. Just because there was already so much that had been written or televised, and there were podcasts…. that [piece] was a trapdoor into seeing what happened in an entirely different way. Looking at the stories of the people who were harmed and decentralizing the myth of the serial killer. I wanted a story where we were talking about the American fascination with serial killers, but in a way where the script, again, was flipped.  Something I kept seeing in the book was that anytime a person in any of these stories thinks of themselves as purely an observer or a bystander, they’re actually directly implicated. Like the people in that piece who come out to watch Ted Bundy’s execution. Or in [Rachel Monroe’s piece about a romantic scammer, “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t”], where she gets tricked by the same man who scammed the victims she’s been reporting on. It seemed directly related to the way that I, as a white woman, have often thought about stories about crime and punishment. I think of myself as an observer when I’m actually directly involved in these systems. There’s so much magical thinking related to how we’re supposed to take in true crime. This idea of, I need to consume this story so that if something like that happens to me I’ll react differently. That’s a real problem because it assumes that somehow, whether you realize it or not, there’s some kind of inherent moral superiority in your reaction versus the person who an awful crime was committed against. Like, they’re suddenly worse on the behaviour scale than you are? No. So much of it is dumb random luck. I never think that I’m better than someone just because I haven’t been violently attacked. And frankly, all you have to do is look around, when one in three women have been victims of some kind of sexual assault. Everyone is in the same boat, there’s no moral superiority at all.  So many of the most famous stories about serial killers often involve white women victims who are attacked out of nowhere, when actually the reality of crime is that many of the victims and also many of the people who are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes are not white. As a white woman who has consumed those narratives, I’ve noticed there’s a weird tendency to center yourself as both someone who that could never happen to and someone who is constantly in danger. When really my life has not been touched by the vagaries of the criminal justice system in the same way many other people’s lives have been. It’s not just luck that these things haven’t happened to me. It’s a tremendous amount of privilege. Absolutely. I’m 41, so that means I was a child in the ‘80s, and the ‘80s was a time when there was this idea of, “Don’t talk to strangers, terrible things may happen.” The Satanic Panic was going on, and there was this real disproportionate idea that terrible things can happen to young, impressionable white children. What is the damage that has been done from that idea? We still need to unpack what that actually means. There’s just so much more work that needs to be done on that scale, in terms of undoing it.  I was thinking of one of the more recent series of CBC’s Uncovered, which I generally like a lot. There was one season on Martinsville, and the Satanic Panic that happened there. Even now, it seems like they’re not really quite sure what happened, not fully cognizant of this series of terrible procedural mistakes and the warping of this idea that you always have to believe the children. We’re still dealing with this conflict between wanting to indulge in believing in extreme behaviour, which I think leads to conspiracy thinking, versus just the everyday horror of what can happen inside a home. That also goes to things like intimate partner violence and violence within communities; somehow they’re just not deemed “worthy” enough for big true-crime storytelling. Or, one of my own pet peeves, which is just revisiting the same famous cases over and over again. I don’t need the 25th version of Ted Bundy unless it’s telling me something absolutely new and fresh. Can we find a new case, or a different case, that tells me something I don’t know?  I think one of the reasons I gravitated a lot towards mid-20th century and more historical stuff was so I didn’t necessarily have to deal head-on with a lot of these things. I could just be like, “I’m dealing with history, so that’s a way for me to think about bigger pictures and try to retroactively apply them to now.” But at the same time, in doing that, it’s like, well, if I’m avoiding the present, what am I actually avoiding here? I think that’s worth interrogating for any journalist, but certainly for me. You’re working on a book now. Do you find that those questions are informing the work that you’re doing currently? I’ll definitely be taking that into account. The story is about the time when William F. Buckley, who founded the National Review and was an architect of the neoconservative movement, helped get this man named Edgar Smith off death row in New Jersey for the murder of a fifteen-year-old girl in the late 1950s. [The book] is about an instance where a major public figure believed in the innocence of a man on death row, and that led to real catastrophic results, because of flawed thinking. What does that do, and who gets damaged as a result? Who got lost? I’m hoping once the book is done and ready for publication, a lot of these questions will be fully explored. It definitely made me see the criminal justice system a little bit differently. I already was, I think, primed to do that, but I think it made me a little more radical about the mistakes that have happened in the pursuit of criminal justice, and how those mistakes keep getting made over and over. That reminds me of Leora Smith’s piece in the anthology [“How a Dubious Forensic Science Spread,” about the history of blood spatter analysis], which absolutely blew my mind. It was such a specific story but also it felt so applicable to so much of what we’ve all been thinking about the criminal justice system lately. It’s so easy to manipulate these systems, but it’s so much harder to unravel and undo the damage that can be done once someone has figured out how to do that. I have a master’s in forensic science, so I’m especially interested in stories about junk science. Forensic science is and should be a scientific discipline, with all of the usual built-in checkpoints that scientific inquiry has. But the problem is that in the courtroom, accepting a technique as valid, it has to go through various hearings, and they’re not necessarily done by people who have a lot of scientific expertise, so it can be really gamed. That’s how junk science can get entrenched. But it’s also about magical thinking. I think a lot about lie detector tests. You can never get that through a courtroom, and yet government organizations like the FBI and the CIA still rely on them for interviewing employees. It’s ridiculous to me! This is not a technique that should ever be anywhere, and yet people are still believing that it has some value. It’s like chasing a white whale. Like, “Well, maybe we can find the lie-detector test that is scientifically accurate.” You might as well be a psychic. But ultimately, the techniques aren’t the issue, it’s human interpretation. Humans get involved in anything, it can lead to mistakes, it can lead to biases, it can lead to all sorts of problems. I think that’s what Leora’s piece brilliantly illustrates. Forensic science is in the middle of its own reckoning, and I think that’s going to continue. That binge-able idea of a straight narrative with a beginning and a middle and an end where there’s a good person and a bad person... that’s the sort of magical thinking you’re talking about. It’s embedded in the ways so many crimes are actually treated and prosecuted. Humans crave narrative, and that’s absolutely true in the criminal justice system. We have an adversarial system, it’s, “Whose story is better, whose story is more believable, who is more credible?” And that creates a lot of problems, especially when the wrong person is deemed “credible.” If we can get away from that and accept the nonlinearity of what actually happens with crimes, especially violent ones, and construct narratives that better reflect that, we are ultimately going to be better off.
Rulo

I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology.

Phil and Dale were too drunk to pick me up when they said they would that morning. I didn’t know Dale was coming so I was only mad at Phil. I texted him, “Dude, not cool” from the conference center in Nebraska City where I was a visiting lecturer. They showed up three hours late. I’d already checked out of my room, briefly having an altercation at the front desk. They’d tried to bill me extra because they thought Phil was my spouse, which he most certainly was not. I met Phil on a volcano thirteen years ago. The volunteer trip was packed with sing-songy optimistic youth from across upper-middle-class North America. He was the only other teenager struggling with the no smoking rule. I was seventeen and sitting at a long wooden table reading Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned when he introduced himself. Looking back now, I can see why Phil pegged me as someone he’d get along with. He told me he was from Nebraska and that his dad was a real-life poet. He pointed at my Bright Eyes shirt and said he personally knew Conor Oberst. He was trying to impress me. It worked. Until then I’d never lived anywhere outside of Fonthill, Ontario—a conservative small town predominantly known for electing a home-schooled 19-year-old as a member of provincial parliament. I didn’t know there were poets who weren’t dead or that you could just know Conor Oberst the same way you know the mail carrier or the cashier at the corner store. As an extension of knowing Phil, I came to imbue Nebraska with an esteem similar to what someone more cultivated would’ve attributed to 1920s Paris. He was beautiful. Thinnish. Curly wheat-blonde hair. A romantic drawl. Well-dressed but ungroomed so his good looks seemed totally accidental. There was never any romance between us. We’d joked about having a sham wedding so I could get American citizenship and he could throw a party but his girlfriend asked us not to. Our friendship was simple but close. We made each other laugh. We had the same spirit. Something in both of us resisted containment. I saw my childhood in his Omaha. He saw himself in my stories of Fonthill. We both listened to Saddle Creek. He was my brother. I still wonder how my life would be if I’d stayed in Omaha last year, a place where, for a month, I’d easily, temporarily fashioned a happy life for myself, instead of returning to Toronto where I’d always felt stuck and unhappy. ***  When the boys finally appeared in the parking lot in a rusty pickup, they had Sushi with them. Sushi was the name given to the three-legged pug by the Insta-ho she was rescued from. It was the only name she’d answer to when she arrived at Phil’s house, extremely traumatized. She was the most amicable creature I’d ever met; cuddly, quick witted, unfalteringly loyal with an astounding memory for each person she encountered. When I opened Phil’s front door after a year away, she greeted me with a stuffed beaver like a little diplomat. “I’m sorry. I fucked up and lost my phone. But we’re going to Rulo.” Phil had bags under his eyes and smelled like my father, a functional alcoholic who died when I was twelve. I couldn’t contain my smile when he said Rulo. Even if everything in his body language—his slumped posture, his faded expression and the way he anxiously ran his hands through his hair—indicated he didn’t share my eagerness. I knew we were only going to Rulo to make up for his getting so drunk he slept in. Rulo was an apology. He didn’t want to go to Rulo. I did.  Dale also smelled like my father but ten times more father-y. “Hey girl, wassuuuuppp…” He was wearing his uniform of camo but had switched from a tie-dye tee to a plaid button-up. Dale had soft dark eyes and gorgeous black hair that fell beneath his toque in loose curls. He was always covered in dirt and paint. He looked like redneck Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He frequently showed up to Phil’s house unannounced to nap on the couch and then leave.  A year ago, during my first trip to Nebraska, Dale had held my hand right before he leaned over the bar and guzzled booze from the tap while the bartender had her back turned. The staff at O’Leaver’s Pub made him take out the garbage and as they laughed at him, he laughed at himself. Outside, he’d asked me about why I was in Omaha and, mistaking his midwestern niceness for earnest curiosity, I started blabbering on about sexual assault.  “C’mon man, that’s not what you fuckin’ lay on a person.”  When the three of us went back to Phil’s, I sat on the cold stairs in the front yard until Dale was gone and didn’t talk to him for the rest of my trip. Phil didn’t invite him over. Without further conversation, he knew not to invite himself in or nap on the couch until I’d left the country. As I’d unloaded my suitcase in Phil’s kitchen after arriving for this trip three weeks ago, I heard a knock on the backdoor. “Hey girl, wassuppp...” I recognized Dale’s drawl. He was shaking a jar of weed in the window. I turned the knob and he pulled me into his chest in a long hug. He smelled like melted plastic and cheeseburgers. When he used the bathroom the scent of cheeseburgers permeated the modest bungalow. He pulled out two minuscule bottles of Jameson from a pocket inside his jacket and we took shots in the living room at ten in the morning before he collapsed into his nap. I wanted to remember him as he appeared in that moment, only a nose and a mouth wrapped in a perfect cocoon of camo. He heard the camera on my phone because I’d foolishly left the sound on. “Are you saving that for the spank bank?” He grinned. Later, on the way to Baker’s Supermarket where I needed to buy shampoo and conditioner, Phil made the decision to instead turn into O’Leaver’s for a quick drink and I instinctually knew there’d be no supermarket and I wouldn’t be showering that night. The bar wrapped around the bartender, Jodeen, like a rectangular C. Old records had been stapled to the wall but Dale’s eyes were narrowly focused on the tap and its proximity to Jodeen. I confessed to Dale, “I didn’t expect to see you again after the way things left off.”  “You couldn’t get enough of that hot Nebraska ass, wassuppp…”  “Like you’re not into me.” Under the counter, he folded his hand into mine like I was an instrument he used to play and just decided to pick up again. “You’re making me hard.” “Oh yeah, you want to know how I’d suck your dick?” He did, so I told him. A quiet fell between us. “Do you want to see my rabbits?” he asked. I did. He let go of my hand to retrieve his phone from his pocket and show me photos of the rabbits he’d killed. They were lined up in a neat row in the back of the pickup.   *** In the conference center parking lot, Dale eyeballed my blazer and nametag as he loaded my suitcase into the back. The blazer is a thing I wear to signify that I’m no longer the farmer’s daughter from Fonthill, Ontario. Instead, I am a serious academic. Except my hair was braided in pigtails like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, one braid obscuring my name and the words Visiting Faculty. Nebraska City disappeared behind us as we pummeled down a highway between field after field. Sushi nestled into Dale in the backseat. I passed him a can of Coors from the half-finished six-pack at my feet before opening one for myself. Phil already had his beer tucked between his legs beneath the steering wheel. The corn harvest had passed. All around us the land lay flat and golden in the sunshine. “It’s warm,” Phil observed as Sushi made her way from the backseat to my lap and then to his. She looked like she was trying to drive the pickup.  “Global Warming,” I remarked. Dale piped up, “I’m all for it! 2020! Say stuff just to piss people off! Wassuppp…” “We need to stop by St. Deroin so Dale can renew his hunting license,” said Phil. “It’s a ghost town with a nature reserve. You’ll like it. Then we can head to Rulo.”  I was troubled by gnawing guilt. The boys had told me there was an abandoned cult compound out in Rulo. I think to impress me with their knowledge of Nebraskan secrets. And I’d been impressed, slipping back into my embarrassing writerly impulse to follow stories, and nagged them to take me.  It wasn’t extraordinary for them to propose long drives in the abstract. I don’t think they often played host. Omaha didn’t attract many Canadian tourists. Phil and Dale were listing places we could go: Kansas City because Phil had never been, Chicago to surprise Phil’s ex-girlfriend, the ranch in Iowa where we’d flipped a truck the year before. Sometimes when Phil was excited he made promises that were hard to deliver on: last year he’d said we’d drive to Arkansas, Texas, New Orleans. The boys grew quiet on the subject, their expressions increasingly repulsed by my blossoming curiosity. It was apparent to me that something had been left unsaid. Whatever had happened in those farmlands all those years ago was so unspeakable that the boys didn’t even bother to try and explain. Instead, they returned to their beers, signaling to me to stop asking so many questions.   *** There was no one in the permit office so Dale slid his application for his hunting license into a lonely black mailbox. We split a pack of Marlboros between us as Phil swerved between the trees. Dale expressed his anguish at lost trees—maybe they’d been eaten by deer but he suspected they’d been burned down by the rangers.  “You sound really upset about missing trees for someone who loves global warming,” I noted as he lit a joint. He exhaled and responded, “Wassuppp…” “Why didn’t you talk to me over Christmas?” *** A week earlier, over the Christmas break, I’d messaged Dale. Phil had flown to New Jersey to visit his sister for the holiday, leaving me alone in Omaha. On Facebook chat the message to Dale had gone seen, but unacknowledged. I partly wanted to see Dale for love of all-things-Dale but, more pressingly, I was scared. An English literature graduate student, with whom I’d had one conversation about modernist poetry, sent me a song he wrote about me. Then a poem he wrote about me. Then, finally, a message about how knowing someone as lovely as me had made it easier for him to kill himself. He knew I was staying at Phil’s house. My phone only connected to 9-1-1 in Toronto. Everyone in my Nebraska-circle was on vacation. It wasn’t that Dale was particularly noble or chivalrous, but that he was the only person left in Omaha. I resented that one person had the power to redefine an entire city for me, an entire state even. My paranoia fueled my imagination about what this grad student, with his embarrassing tweed jacket and his ugly thick glasses and his bullshit love for bullshit T.S. Eliot, could be capable of. I didn’t message Dale more than once because I didn’t want to come across as needy even if I was in need. The house seemed larger without people in it. I kept checking the front window to see if the grad student’s car was parked outside. None of the guns on the wall were loaded. At night, I slept with Sushi cradled to my chest like a newborn. She was a good dog. She was a bad guard dog. I was frightened and alone. Dale had a way of speaking slow and fast at the same time, drawing out his vowels but leaving no spaces between words, “Oh damn, I gotta get better at that thing. I don’t say nothin’ to nobody, wassuppp…” I turned to face him in the backseat. “I think it’s because you’re scared of girls.” To this Dale offered only a grimace. “I bet you like my pigtails,” I added, slow and deliberate, “and that scares the shit out of you.” The cold of his fingers slid from my left shoulder, across the back of my braid, neck, other braid, to my right shoulder. We stopped along the shore of the Missouri River. Phil filled a paper cup with water for Sushi as Dale pointed out the best fishing spots for this fish or that fish. A group of tourists from some eastward city huddled around him. He named what had changed and what had stayed the same, where the embankment had swelled and where it’d retreated.  I pulled out my phone to take a video, “Tell me what river this is, Dale.” His mood shifted. “I don’t know.” “Oh, leave him alone,” hollered Phil. “You know he’s afraid of girls.” “There ain’t no river,” Dale asserted as navy waves paddled southward behind him. *** On the outskirts of Rulo, we stopped at a Runza drive-through to get burgers, Sushi charming the cashiers in the window, before pulling into a liquor store beside a hardware store. Phil tossed the butt of his smoke out the window. “There’s a good reason they put the liquor store beside the hardware store.” “To murder women?” “No,” Dale shot back, a little offended. “To make it fun to build houses!”  As we drove on, the land stretched outward like a glorious yellow cape. We turned onto a dirt road. I gripped the seat beneath me, remembering last year when Phil and I’d accidentally flipped a truck in a farmer’s field, hiking three hours back to camp. “Dale slept in your bed last night, so when we get back we’ll have to change the sheets,” said Phil as the truck bent into a sharp turn on the muddy path. “I jerked off all over it,” added Dale, the fields growing into bushels of great dead crop that caressed the sides of the truck. They reminded me of my grandparents’ orchard in autumn, the fertile hills of Niagara. I’m not from here, I had to remind myself, as I saw familiar memories in this new place to which I pledged no allegiance and where I had no previous history. We parked in front of a sign that read No Trespassing. It was tied in the middle of a chain that hung between two wooden posts on either side of the dirt road. Dale hopped the chain with ease but Phil seemed reticent to go inside. “Are there people there?” asked Phil, trying to not sound afraid.  I was more brash. “Are there people still living there? Do they have guns? What if they call the cops on us? I’m not American.”  “Naw,” said Dale lighting another joint, “Sign’s just so insiders can keep outsiders outside but ain’t nobody goin’ to get ya, little girly. Nobody’s here.” Sushi scurried beneath the chain while Phil stepped over one foot at a time. I opted to duck beneath the chain like the dog while Phil and Dale lifted it over my head to honor my humanity. “Just don’t tell anyone we were here,” Dale added. “The locals aren’t big on folks comin’ here and gettin’ into their itty gritty.” Dale comfortably navigated the path lined with thick woods, pointing to the talon tracks and proclaiming there’d been a parade of wild turkeys, pointing at spots of shit and saying “deer” or “coyote.” Phil and I followed, but Sushi lingered at the sign, whimpering like a toddler who’d just tumbled on the floor and was more startled by the sudden jolt of gravity than actual pain or injury. “Soosh,” Phil called and hit his thigh. “Come here Sushi!” She ran to him but her skip was a beat slower than normal. She seemed nervous as she circled around Phil, sniffing fallen branches. She barked at empty air. “Sushi, stop barking,” said Phil. “Something’s got her spooked.” Phil had a habit of expressing his feelings by attributing them to Sushi.  Along the path to what was once a compound, I envisioned my aunt. She hasn’t interacted with news outside her church in over three decades. I pictured her modest skirt, her hair fashioned into a pragmatic bun of grey ringlets, carrying a bag of grains to my uncle whose beliefs are so extreme he’s only allowed to preach to those with late-stage Alzheimer’s in the Christian Fundamentalist retirement homes. Yet, I wasn’t from there. I had to keep reminding myself, this was my first time in Rulo. We passed a silver silo with a faded sign mfs Stor-Age The World’s Grainkeeper before arriving at a grey aluminum building with a rusted-over baby blue door that was freckled by bullet holes. There was a fork in the dirt trail with one route going around the building and into the woods. Phil followed the other path, which stopped at the three cement stairs leading to the baby blue door. The wheat crept up the grey metal siding. An industrial sign reading FARM STEEL had halfway fallen and hung on a crooked angle near the middle of the roof. Phil haphazardly climbed the three steps and opened the door. A burst of light. Sushi pummeled forward but was startled to find there was no floor on the other end. She squealed and Phil caught her before she could fall in. He held her close, pressing her heart to his and kissing her brow but she was inconsolable, wriggling and gasping in his arms, so he slowly lowered her feet to the ground. She retreated backward, screeching as if she’d been burned. “This is fucked,” said Phil, again picking up Sushi and backing away.  My stomach hurt. I’d never seen her behave like that. As I moved toward the building, Dale stepped backward and turned away, as if the sun setting over the hills were more interesting to him than these relics of some forgotten sham-religion. I reached out my hand. The door was cold as I opened it. Another burst of light.  Inside, the floor had entirely given way to the floorboards beneath. Half of the posterior wall was missing so the framework—wooden rectangles adorned with dangling electrical wires—had a shadowy overlay that shifted into new eerie shapes as each cloud changed the angle at which sunlight entered the building. Perhaps it could be guessed there’d been a flood but, truly, no natural disaster could account for the pattern of destruction inside. It was as though something not of this earth caused the structure to implode. Sushi was still crying.  This place, this breathtaking expanse of country, what some had called Heartland and others’ God’s Land, was not responsible for the maleficent possession that I’d sensed, the wind blowing pebbles in peculiarly precise circles around my boots. Something deeply unnatural and evil had transpired here. I could feel it.  “Dale, how long did the cult live here?” He’d been singing Willie Nelson with his back turned to me.  “I’m uh not sure uh maybe fifteen years. Maybe longer. I don’t know.”  “How long ago was that?”  “Eighty-five. It’s been a while.”  I think if I’d known then what I know now I would have behaved differently. I don’t think I would have pushed to go in the first place, nor accepted the trip as an apology. I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous as to believe the reason Dale wasn’t looking at me was that he was afraid of girls. *** In the early 1980s, Michael Ryan, a white supremacist with a distrust of all earthly authority, especially the government, founded the YHVH cult on Rick Stice’s farm in Rulo, Nebraska. Rick’s support of Michael Ryan, who’d honed his views by studying the Christian Identity Movement, was strongly informed by the financial hardship that hit his family as the American economy was becoming less dependent on the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Rick’s wife had received a terminal cancer diagnoses and he was at a loss for how to support his three children. As many do in times of desperation, Rick turned to God. Rather quickly, Michael Ryan attracted a following of 21 members. They stole farming equipment from neighboring communities to support themselves and stockpiled weapons—30 semi-automatic rifles, 15 machine guns, 150,000 rounds of ammunition, $250,000 worth of stolen farm machinery, several hundred bags of charcoal for making bombs—to fight the Battle of Armageddon which they believed would take place in Nebraska.  As Rick’s wife died, Michael secured four wives of his own. The leader became increasingly agitated and paranoid. Each day, he’d read from the list of names of children on the compound and pick one to reprimand for whatever he could argue had angered Yahweh: generally small, accidental infractions like speaking out of turn or breaking the band of a watch. He’d lash out at women who looked at him the wrong way and eventually separated them from the men entirely, forbidding communication between genders. The women were barred from using the communal telephone and made to wear dresses, while the men were promoted to privates, princes and high priests.  Finally, Rick approached Michael to say that he was uneasy about the messages he claimed to be receiving from Yahweh. The leader, who’d grown jealous of Rick’s ownership of the farm, eagerly demoted him to the status of slave and chained him outside. Michael then insisted Rick’s five-year-old son, Luke, was a child of Satan because he’d cried too much over the death of his mother. In a photograph published in the Falls City Journal, Luke Stice has thin light hair, sweet downturned eyes, and oversized ears that protruded from either side of his pudgy cheeks.   Michael wrote “666” on the boy’s forehead in bright red. He declared Luke was not a boy but a dog. He called him “doggy” as he took off his clothes, forced him to roll around in a snowbank and antagonized him with a bullwhip. He called him “mongrel” when he shot him in the arm with his .30-06. He wrote “DOG” on Luke’s back before repeatedly submerging his head in the warm bathtub. He ordered his parishioners to abuse both Rick and Luke, going so far as to force father and son to fellate each other while other members watched.  Not long after, Michael found himself fighting with one of his followers who he believed to be jealous of his archangel spirit. As he stormed out of the trailer, he casually grabbed five-year-old Luke and threw him into a book shelf, breaking his neck. His father was again chained to the front porch to ensure he wouldn’t hold him or comfort him or take him to a hospital. Luke died alone that night. The following morning, Rick swaddled his son’s body in a yellow blanket. He buried him where Michael said Yahweh had instructed: in a shallow grave in front of the hog barn.  The ideology that Michael Ryan used to justify his abuse of Luke also manifested in the doctrines he instilled in his own son, Dennis. Dennis cried when his father prophesized they’d have to kill for Yahweh in the Battle of Armageddon. He said he was afraid. To this, Michael shouted “Dammit, you’ve gotta be willing to kill for God if that’s what God wants.” He passed his gun to him and added, “Son, one day when all this is over, when Armageddon is over and I’m dead and gone, then you can sit under an oak tree and cry over having to kill so many people. Until then, I don’t ever want you to cry again.” Shortly thereafter, Dennis shot James Thimm, a loyal follower, in the face. James survived the gunshot wound but was tortured by Michael and Dennis for days—they broke his bones, raped him, forced others to rape him, repeatedly sodomized him with a shovel, chained him in the hog barn and forced him to have sex with a goat before stomping on his chest until he was dead. If I’d known the baby blue door was not the door to the home where the women slept peacefully in long romantic white garments, as I’d naively imagined, but was in fact the door to the hog barn where a young man and a child had been tortured to death, I do not think I would have opened it, stuck my head inside, taken a photo and giddily posted it on Instagram while flattering myself that Dale’s cold shoulder was a reflection of his weakness in character and not mine. If I’d known this little boy had been called a dog and treated as one should never treat a dog, I would have trusted Sushi’s instincts and not opened the door. Certain experiences stay with you like a bad infection. I couldn’t sleep last night: visions of a child screaming in a field. Some doors we cannot close. *** I followed Phil who followed Dale along the path to the water. We only had an hour left of day. Raptors flew near the earth, the patterns on their brown and white feathers visible to the naked eye. Phil cautioned Sushi not to get eaten. Dale named each bird specifically and explained how he’d shot and killed this one or that one. He told me how to follow prints, which direction he’d be heading if he’d not forgotten his gun. In that moment, he seemed to me totally unafraid, the closest I’d ever come to believing invincibility a plausible trait in a person. In a place that had been ruled by fantasies of apocalypse, I was entirely certain if he didn’t succumb to alcoholism or drug addiction, Dale could easily survive anything.  We picked up our pace as we returned to the hog barn. The bullet-marked door was still half open. Day was fading. None of us wanted to be in the compound after sundown, especially Sushi, who charged forward with the tenacity of a horse.  The truck appeared as a beacon at the top of the hill. This time we all walked around the chain instead of over or under. Dale hijacked the front seat, so I settled in the back as Phil sped the car in reverse and Dale whined that he was driving too fast for him to roll another joint. “Dude, how many of those have you been smoking?” asked Phil, part-concerned but mostly just impressed.  “Oh, just a couple here or there. Wassuppp…” It occurred to me then that Dale hadn’t said wassuppp the entire time we were on the compound. I was certain the only reason he said it so much was that he was actually shy and insecure and used wassuppp to fill the void between what he was sure of and what he wasn’t sure of, to turn whatever he said into a joke. The box of beer cans that had been purchased in the place beside the hardware store was now nearly empty. Dale was trying to enter into a profound state of delirium where he’d feel more at peace with his thoughts and at home in his body. He insisted we stop at a small bar in a shack beside the Rulo Bridge, near the border with Kansas and Missouri, the nape of Nebraska. We left Sushi in the truck where she was snoozing. Phil insisted we only stay for one drink. My flight was leaving in a few hours. Dale wanted me to miss my flight and freefall with him into a pervasive fog of vivid intoxication. He reminded us not to talk about the cult grounds with locals. I was already drunk from all the beer we’d had in the truck but not so drunk I was capable of anything fantastical or outlandish.  The bar was small and square and full of gun-carrying men except for the two women working. The women looked as if there’d been something to survive and they’d survived it. “I’m going to need I.D.s from all y’all,” the larger of the women said while turning her palm upwards and beckoning to us with her swollen fingers. First, she checked Phil’s. Then Dale’s. When she got to mine, her eyes flickered between my blazer and my name tag. “Mine’s from Toronto,” I said, handing over my driver’s license but keeping my purse open. “She’s Canadian,” announced Phil. “Stuff looks a bit different there.” “Let me know if you need to see my passport,” I added, a little too eager to be helpful.  A sign on the wall read NOTICE, THIS PLACE IS POLITICALLY INCORRECT. The “in” of the “correct” had been Sharpied into a black square, WE SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, WE SALUTE OUR FLAG & GIVE THANKS TO OUR TROOPS, IF THIS OFFENDS YOU LEAVE. The LEAVE was in larger font than the rest and pointedly stoplight red. “What brings you to Rulo from Canada?” asked the woman. Remembering what Dale had told me about locals not liking trespassers on the compound, I responded, “I’m a visiting professor at the University. I was just lecturing over in Nebraska City.” “Hmmm,” she hummed as if she was trying to decide if she liked or hated me based on these few facts alone. Dale was folded into himself, a bundle of camo in a room with nothing to camouflage into. “Naw, she took us to poke around ‘em cult grounds up there. Wassuppp…”  Luckily, the woman was more entertained by Dale’s flagrant drunkenness than anything. She cackled, pouring our shots and serving our beers before sauntering to the far corner to watch the football game with the other woman and the old drunk men.  We all took a shot of Jameson, tapping the bar with the bottoms of our glasses before emptying them into our mouths.  “What’s that?” I asked Phil, pointing to a smaller TV showcasing what looked like a bingo-themed video game: a series of balls and squares, some red and some blue, that were numbered between one and eighty. “Keno. Worst odds in America. Wanna play?” “Sure.” I bet two of my seven remaining American dollars and lost. Phil bet two as well. He also lost. Dale bet one hundred American dollars. “This is foolish,” Phil commented, and Dale promptly sneezed mucus that ran across his lips and straggled in long lines dripping down his filthy jacket. “Jesus Christ man, get it together,” said Phil, handing him our only napkin. It was not enough napkin for all of the snot on his face. The woman behind the bar noticed and did not react at first but, after he carelessly placed the soiled tissue on the bar and sneezed two more times, she understood what a pathetic specimen he was and handed over a stack of fresh napkins while snickering into the back of her arm.  “You’re gross, dude,” said Phil. “Also, you lost.” He pointed at the Keno screen. “Wassuppp…” sang Dale, wiping the last of the mucus from his face but allowing the rest to settle into dim stains on his clothing. “I gotta piss.” Phil disappeared behind the corner near the ATM machine.  For the first time since Omaha, Dale and I were alone. An uneasy quiet fell between us. Was Dale wondering why I’d begged to go to the cult grounds? Was he relieved we’d gone? Did he regret losing his money to the Keno? Perhaps he had no thoughts at all but held the simple admirable desire to get fucked up.  “Wassuppp…” he sang at my face. I looked back at him: he was so silly, so dumb, so redneck. I smirked and leaned into his jovial round cheeks, half-whispered in his ear, “I scare you more than any wild bird.” The room seemed darker. It was as if the music had stopped but I don’t think it did. He didn’t laugh. He was still, maybe stunned, shell-shocked even.  Then his soft brown eyes intensified. I’d tickled some part of him. He put his hand in mine under the bar as was our way. We gently traced the rounds of each other’s grasp with our thumbs. He could be so soft. His softness was compelling to me because it had to be earned.  He moved closer, and instead of kissing me, something he’d never had the courage to do, he began to knead the back of my neck with his fingers. He pressed hard, only narrowly avoiding the boundary between hard and too hard. It felt so comfortable I didn’t care if there were others around or if they were watching. He’d handled animals. He knew where to skin, how to cut a body. He understood how to break a bone so it wouldn’t bleed out and where to make an incision to avoid wasting the flesh. So too he understood where to push on my neck so I did not strangle but still felt the relief that came with pressure on this muscle or that. My breathing slowed. Now he only smelled like earth and weed and drink. I wanted to wrap myself in him. I pictured us in a little tent on the cult grounds, him unbuttoning his camo pants and slipping into me through my professional brown dress, his hand leaving traces of paint and dirt on my blazer. His warm eyes. His long dark hair. The trees. The grass. We’d be closer to nature where I’d always felt closer to God and, for however much I’ve been educated, I still believe in God. He’d keep me safe and we could live off what we picked or killed and be truly self-sufficient, working the land the same way my father’d tried, as my grandparents and great grandparents had done. I could quit my jobs. We could hide from both our governments. I could run from my student loans. I could write remotely or, better yet, never write again. I’d never have to talk to another writer again. No more poetry readings. I’d have quiet. Beautiful black night with no people or neon or internet or cars. Quiet.  I leaned into the bar as he touched me. I was very wet. I wouldn’t have to move back to Toronto where the flashing lights of Bloor Street invade my room at all hours. Toronto, where the bar downstairs drums into my ears until dawn and people have so many opinions and phones ring and buzz and everything is swept into the alarming pace of constant movement. Maybe I wanted to return to a home that no longer exists, Fonthill gentrified and suburbanized by the urban sprawl. I could make love to Dale in fields as I had with the boys of my youth, before the world warmed and the ticks came and brought Lyme disease with them. Nobody mentioned ticks in Nebraska. It could be sweet and golden. What if I didn’t catch my flight? What if I curled into Dale who seemed to me, in that moment, an extension of a world I’d believed lost? We could live off the land. We could opt out of society. A country song transitioned into another country song. The dark behind my closed eyelids seemed sepia. I could wake up every morning with the sun and the wheat and be peacefully swallowed into the marigold hills of Rulo. It could be that easy, I thought. It could be comfortable, I thought. So comfortable. Comfortable was the last thought I had before my neck snapped backward, the skin of my forehead yanked toward my hairline, my back arched in a deep curve, my balance lost, arms waving like a bird in flight, a twist, the flickering light, the camo chest, the camo wrist, both my pigtails entwined within the screw-tight grip of Dale’s hard fist.
‘What Do You Do With a Continent You Decided Belongs to You?’: An Interview with Pete Beatty

Talking to the author of Cuyahoga about geographic feuds, stories as coffins, and LeBron James.

You surely know the names of Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, but do you know Big Son? Big Son, it is rumored, “rastled” a dozen bears, “drank a barrel of whiskey and belched fire,” brawled with Lake Erie for a fortnight and won. These are just a few of Big Son’s feats as chronicled in “Big Son’s Almanac,” a fictitious collection of tales embedded within Pete Beatty’s riot of a debut novel, Cuyahoga (Scribner). Narrated by Medium Son, Big’s little brother and the bard to his feats, Cuyahoga offers a snapshot portrait of frontier Ohio in 1837, when America was just a tadpole with twenty-two states. Set on the eve of an uneasy union between the sister townships of Ohio City and Cleveland, this novel features a motley cast of characters—enterprising storekeepers barking like carnival hounds, a whiskey-soaked Revolutionary War veteran named Dog, two gasbag mayors, and “spirits” like Big. Separated by the Cuyahoga river, the two townships collide over the question of a bridge and who ought to control it, which leads to such animosity the citizenry of Ohio City take up the slogan, “Two Bridges or None,” as a call to arms. This squabble over bridges actually happened and is just one of the ways Beatty masterfully blends the elasticity of tall tales with historical fact. This is most poignant in the case of Big, a local hero who is belittled into looking for a waged job because impressive feats, like rescuing maidens from a fire, don’t pay the bills. Told against the backdrop of the financial Panic of 1837, this novel is steeped in stubborn economic realities and unchecked speculative jubilation over seemingly endless real estate prospects and rising industry. I spoke to Pete Beatty about how he honed the narrator’s distinct, folksy voice, what LeBron James means to Ohio and this novel, why Medium Son is both a merchant of tales and a merchant of death, and what that says about writing. Connor Goodwin: What most stood out to me was the narrative voice of Medium Son, which is a kind of folksy frontier vernacular with odd grammar. How did you arrive at this voice and what all went into sculpting it just so? Pete Beatty: The voice is sort of the motor to the book. When I’m unsure where to go next as a writer, I always lean back on the voice and let that be the driver. The voice of Medium Son is a combination of early 19th-century Southwestern humor, not necessarily what you think of the American Southwest, but the same voice you hear in Artemus Ward, Sut Lovingood’s Yarns, and, of course, Mark Twain. It’s also cut pretty heavily with the Bible; I listened to the New Testament as recorded by Johnny Cash a lot while writing this book. Without realizing it, I think some of that diction, that circumlocutory way of talking, bled into my brain. There's a class of people in this book called "spirits." How would you describe them and the place they occupy in this fictional world? The idea of the “spirits” is very deliberately a precursor to a costumed superhero, but also a kind of stand-in for a celebrity. The German word “zeitgeist,” depending on how you want to translate it, literally means “spirit of the times” or “time ghost.” So, it’s someone who, in the case of Ohio in the 1830s, exemplifies or articulates something the people need to summon into existence. The same way Superman reflects the aspirations and imaginations of two young Jewish guys growing up on the far east side of Cleveland in the 1930s. Also, a big part of this book was—and this sounds a little weird, but—when I started writing it, LeBron James had just come back to Cleveland. Obviously there’s no basketball in the book, but what he represents and how he became this psychological rescuer of a whole region from their self-imposed self-esteem problem was on my mind. He didn’t fix it, but the Cavs won the title and it was a really big deal. It meant a lot and it was all possible because of LeBron. I love that you brought LeBron James into this. I want to talk more about Ohio in a second, but before I get to that I’d like to ask why you chose to mix the elastic aspects of a tall tale with the more stubborn economic realities of frontier life. The best example of this is Big searching for a job because heroic feats don't pay. You write, “The only income Big had ever known was wonder won by feats." What about this tension interested you? Did you set out to explore that dynamic or was it incidental? Have you ever heard of the expression “parking by braille”? Where you just bump into the other cars until there’s room for your car? I found novel-writing kind of like this. It was very much a process of guess and check. I realized I wanted to write this kind of superhero story and at the same time (I was living in Cleveland then) I looked at some history book and saw this (justifiably) forgotten event where two sides of the city got into a fight in the 1830s. That led to me asking what was it about 1837 that made people so uptight? Well, there’s this financial crisis caused by reckless banking and financial reforms made back in Washington, and I started to read everything I could get my hands on about the Panic of 1837. In the 1830s, what was then the frontier, banks were constantly collapsing, so storekeepers would often have a crib sheet and say, based on these banks, these notes are worth this much. The very idea of money was impressionistic. I’m intentionally kind of squiggly on this point—it is a historical novel, [but] I’m not doing history. I did not set out to try and sublimate the fiscal crisis of 1837 into my fiction, but it wound up happening. Is there any way you can parse for me what historical elements you wanted to remain intact and what aspects you were okay taking imaginative liberties with? What I wanted to capture with some of the more granular historical stuff was the sense of the permanent unfinished nature of American settler mindset. This sense of moving across this vast continent you’re in the process of expropriating for your own purposes and never really finishing anything. A sort of falling-down-the-stairs cadence of American history, where you’re inventing an economy as you go, you’re selling land in these crazy places, [and] every once in a while, the economic system just implodes and everyone’s broke. It’s really hard not to write historical fiction that does not point to some kind of order. To me, history is more like, look at all this stuff going wrong [laughs]. Could you briefly tell me what historical resources you used? Personal diaries? Newspapers? My dad used to work at the Western Reserve Historical Society and he let me in the newspaper room. I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to be there. Basically I read every newspaper in the mid-1830s they had in the historical society. Most of the newspapers were just ads, but there is a fair amount of news too. I read a fair amount of historical primary sources of letters and correspondence. A lot of it tends to be people trying to convince their friends and family to move to Ohio. So it has this boosterish feel to it. This is a novel about Big, but it's also about the city of Cleveland. Set on the eve of a union between two cities separated by the Cuyahoga, Cleveland and Ohio City, the two sister towns squabble over bridges and the possibility of a union. Can you briefly summarize the history behind the city of Cleveland as it appears in the book? I’d be curious to hear if that uneasy union can be detected in the Cleveland that exists today—like, is there beef between the East side and West side of Cleveland? Like a lot of post-industrial cities—Detroit, Toledo, Buffalo—Cleveland’s rationale for existence is location. It’s at the mouth of this big navigable river that connects to the Erie Canal system, so it’s a reasonable place to bring the ore from Lake Superior to Cleveland to use as steel. Turns out it’s not that sexy or cool to be on the Erie Canal in 2020 as opposed to 1820. But the city can’t move. Speaking of that falling-down-the-stairs energy, Cleveland has been downhill since the Great Depression. Government spending after the Great Depression and mobilization after World War II were the only things that juked Cleveland back into growth. Once that spending went away, Cleveland has been losing industry, good jobs, and a tax base pretty much nonstop for seventy years. When I think of Cleveland, I think of an unfinished place. I think of some place that got so big, so fast, and then, before it could even reckon with its bigness, the ground started to shift underneath its feet. Cleveland is not unique in that crisis, but to me it’s pretty poignant. As far as the East side-West side thing goes, I think it’s a much gentler rivalry now. In the distant past, when this book is set, people were swinging axes and trying to blow up a bridge. You present a complex relationship between storytelling and life and death. This is best embodied by Meed, the narrator, who is a merchant of tales, but also of death, because he sells coffins. Tall tales enhance their subjects, making them larger than life. But then you have this line where you say Meed, in writing this almanac of Big’s feats, is also making a coffin for Big. Can you elaborate on this dynamic of writing as a force of life and vitality and of writing as a kind of grave marker? You’re the first person to mention that line to me—I remember getting that line down and thinking, “Yeah, stories are coffins.” When we tell a story about someone, in a way, we kill them and put up a memorial. There’s a moment in the book I had a lot of fun writing, which is when the almanac about Big is being assembled and people are bringing in all these different versions that Big died. He’s not actually dead. I wanted to have that cartoonish energy of Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, explodes, crashes into a wall, and bounces right back. Each one of those little deaths has its own poetry. One of my favorite pieces of literature is The Iliad. Thirty-three percent of The Iliad is just descriptions of people dying: “gripped by the hateful dark,” “craved far more by vultures than by wives,” things like that. I wanted to stay with that vision in the book, to have death and destruction always sitting in the room. Slogans of bounty and profiteering are littered throughout the book, evoking a worldview animated by ideas of manifest destiny and a Protestant work ethic. You suggest that writing, too, can be a form of plunder. In what way do you see writing and storytelling as extractive or exploitative? I’m a white cis dude and I’m presenting a story of settling America. A major part of that story—what happened to the native inhabitants of Northeastern Ohio, and the entire continent, the entire hemisphere—is not mine to tell. In the 1830s in Ohio, there were still populations of Native Americans, and they were actively resisting the government’s attempts to relocate them, and experiencing hate and aggressive racial violence from white settlers. I recently read Claudio Saunt’s Unworthy Republic, which was a revelation for me in showing how closely tied the project of Indian removal was, in the North as well as the South, with slavery and white supremacy. In a way I feel like if I am going to write about Ohio in 1837, I have a moral obligation to highlight or center what was happening to Native Americans in that time and place. And I feel like I chickened out on that score. If I had to self-psychologize, I’d say I projected a bit of that guilt into that exploitative element of Meed’s storytelling. I tried to avoid that third rail of racial trauma because it’s not really what the book is about. It’s asking different questions. What do you do with a marvelous possession, to paraphrase Stephen Greenblatt? What do you do with the miraculous, the uncanny, with a brother who can leap a skyscraper in a single bound? What do you do with some weird preacher who can raise people from the dead? What do you do with this giant continent that you decided belongs to you?
The Thief

Ebbing had perfect fetal recall.

What grown man can say that he married his own mother, and that although heartbreak was involved, no-one disapproved? At least not for the obvious reasons. Science, as well as anecdotal evidence, tells us we can’t recall our time in the womb let alone form memories before the age of two or three. But Ebbing could. Ebbing experienced things; some of which would have been better left mired in the swamps of infantile amnesia, swallowed whole by the alligators that patrol those brackish shallows. Ebbing had perfect fetal recall.   In the beginning and at the end it’s all about the heartbeat. In between there is this temporal thing we cling to we call life. At three weeks Ebbing, as large as a poppy seed, experienced his own heartbeat. A vivid tapping against his microbe-sized chest wall—exhilarating, but also frightening. Was this him? Or something trying to escape? And close by, too close, another. A faint pinprick that was his first encounter with pain, followed immediately by yet another sensation, one that smoothed over the hurt. He felt it as a cat’s tongue, as warm wax.   At eighteen weeks, two days, seven minutes and thirty-three seconds, Ebbing could hear. There wasn’t anything gradual about it. One moment nothing but physical sensations—the tapping, pricking, licking, floating—the next moment the sharp clack of castanets. Ebbing had an instant recollection of nights redolent with paprika fried potatoes and grilled sardines, an earthy-smelling woman leaning close, someone dancing, always someone dancing and singing off-key in the dark. A heartbeat besides his own joined in, a weak but distinct chiming, and over it all, an immodest banging, like the kettle drum in an orchestra. A celebratory boom boom boom boom that could be heard as well as felt throughout his blood stream. Maternal love as a victory march. And after that, the invasion of the world: One hundred and one trombones and a clarinet, a thousand scorching guitar licks of “Smoke on the Water” in numbing 4/4 time, the horrors of the pipe organ in the haunted mansions of God, frenzied banjos, dueling ouds and gamelans, the tinny pa rum pa pump um of toy snares, the itchy buzz of tissue on comb, the whistle of air through a blade of grass, the sonic-boom crack of a bullwhip splitting the air. With the collaborative effort of dawning hair follicles in his embryonic cochlea Ebbing learned to filter out the cacophony. His mother’s heartbeat, sometimes a harpsichord, which plucked pleasantly at his own, sometimes a dobro, causing him to tap his incipient toes, could now be heard above the din. But Ebbing could not mute that close-by insistent drone of the omnipresent bladder pipe.   At twenty weeks in the womb they were both still blind, Ebbing and the girl who would have been called Bente. Together but apart, each in an amniotic sac like a goldfish in a plastic bag—a precarious position for both fetus and pet fish, depending on who’s doing the carrying. Each in its own placenta, a cosmonaut and an astronaut hurtling towards a Cold-War earth, their prematurely ejected landing pods on a collision course with each other. Houston, uh, Houston? Bente was the very definition of a bad roommate. Petulant and noisy, eating food clearly marked “Ebbing,” never cleaning up after herself, sprawling madly out in all directions, taking up more that her designated share of a finite space. Her heartbeat competed with Ebbing's. Rather than the mellow groove he now preferred, she insisted on a wild syncopation, causing their mother to rush to the doctor's office on more than one occasion.                                                                  At twenty-two weeks, the one who would have been called Bente sounded like teeth on glass, the sharp grinding of a garbage truck down a war-ravaged roadway, that zany aunt—the life of the party—who loves to sing but is utterly tone deaf. Amidst this racket Ebbing could barely feel his own heartbeat, let alone hear it. The beloved mother was muffled by the atonal regurgitations of his twin who endlessly flailed and pressed too close. Ebbing, bereft, enraged, could see for the first and last time in his life. He actually saw red, or rather, witnessed it as a wild, hot flaring of crimson and carmine in front of which twisted and writhed ancient Pyrrhic dancers primed for battle, swords in hand. Their lust for victory infectious. He tugged at his own fleshy lifeline with spindly fingers, testing the resilience of the blood-ripe cord. Wrapping it taut around the one who would never be Bente, he played her like a old-time fiddle. She was his first instrument. The sounds of his sister’s weakening heartbeat were almost pleasant, a flutter-tongued flute. Their one and only duet. Ebbing would never include a flute in any of his compositions. She did not go without a fight. Her own alien fingers with their tiny, serrated nails scrabbled at Ebbing, clawing and shredding wherever she managed to make purchase. The only music in the hours that followed besides his own was his mother’s heart, a juddering klaxon.   When he was a small boy, Ebbing loved sitting in his mother’s lap as she told the story of when she first heard his heartbeat. Better than even The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin or Horton Hears a Who. “You sounded like a panting dog, panting so fast and hard it scared me to death. ‘What’s wrong?!’ I asked Dr. Heppner. ‘What is wrong with my dear boy?!’ She told me nothing, nothing at all was wrong. That it was perfectly normal, and as the baby gets bigger the heartbeat would slow...” “Show me, show me!” Ebbing would chitter. And his mother panted and panted like a dog until they both melted into laughter. She never mentioned the one who would have been called Bente. Both his mother and father thought it better if Ebbing didn’t know. But sometimes in her heartbeat he could detect the profound melancholy of someone singing fado, the saddest music in the world.   The specialists had never seen a pre-natal injury like it—both corneas so scarred that under a magnifying glass they looked like the surface of an ice rink after a play-off game. And no Zamboni in the world could repair this damage. Other than the blindness, the boy was perfectly healthy, perfectly normal.   A few days after his fifth birthday Ebbing, a boy the other Kindergarteners called Froggy, was plopped on the bench in front of an upright grand in the downstairs den of the middle-aged widow across the street from his family home. The piano teacher played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” with alarming conviction and then said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to learn how to do that?” Eyelids closed against his protruding orbs, Ebbing tapped at the keyboard with one finger, then spread his hands wide and played the notes he had begun composing before he’d even been born. In the corner of the room, on the shabby loveseat that had been banished to the basement years ago, sat his mother, heart swelling as the music burst through the confines of the room.   At twelve, as a thin, red-headed kid in black tie and tails, Ebbing made his professional debut. Playing at first as an innocent floating inside the womb, lulling the audience into submission, creating a sense of false security with a pleasing Satie-like minimalism before releasing the hounds. A few of the older patrons stumbled towards the exits, mad dogs baying at their heels. In the front row of the Orpheum sat his proud but bewildered parents, his mother’s hands clutched her chest, no idea she was his living metronome. The word genius was bandied about. Five years later The Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt performed his first full orchestral composition, placental declarations in the dark. The orchestra had collaborated with György Ligeti, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa, and now the seventeen-year-old New Music wunderkind from Vancouver, Canada. But Ebbing wasn’t in attendance. He haunted his mother’s bedside at St. Paul’s Hospital. Her heartbeat was as strong as ever but her white blood cells were fleeing like villagers escaping a Viking raid, their shrieks tearing holes in the air, their hair alight.               Ebbing tried to follow his mother’s heart, packed in ice inside a picnic cooler, as it was transported by helicopter from St. Paul’s to Surrey Memorial Hospital. Maybe it was the chop of the propellers, the screams of the gulls, the guttural coughing from the adjoining hospital room, his father’s gulping sobs, the sentimental Tin Pan Alley AABA refrain issuing from his own chest, but Ebbing couldn’t make out a single maternal note. The woman in the bed had disappeared as if she’d never been. This is where the music dies, he thought.   At Mountain View Cemetery, Ebbing didn’t listen as an old family friend recited a bowdlerized version of Auden’s “Stop all the Clocks.” He was tuned to a distant frequency—he could hear it across the miles, a stately hum like a Theremin. It had started seven hours, 36 minutes and 8 seconds after his mother was declared brain dead. During those leaden hours Ebbing had been transported back to the womb, before he could hear, before he could even feel. He was less than three weeks old again; he might as well have been a poppy seed caught in someone’s teeth.        Ebbing experienced the sound first as a vibration in his chest and he was born again. Patience was never the strongest of Ebbing’s qualities. But he waited until the steady, quiet hum began to oscillate, transforming into a more complex beckoning. At its highest registers he heard Jessye Norman performing the twin Sieglinde in The Valkyrie. He waited two years, never once approaching a piano during that entire time.   Her name was Sanjeeta and she’d been born with a congenital anomaly that didn’t announce itself until she was twenty-two and soon to be married to a man from Haridwar whom she had never met. Her parents thought it a satisfactory match. His parents, learning about her defective heart, did not. Three years later her heart was traded for another and she spent two years and a half a morning recovering from the shame she had brought onto her family. Defect was not a word they with which they liked to associate. Sanjeeta was sitting in the garden when the back gate scraped open and a young man came in and bit by bit stole her borrowed heart. Her father called him The Blind Beggar. But it was he who was the beggar and could not afford to be a chooser. Sanjeeta’s mother found something too familiar about Ebbing’s music, as if she had heard it before but could not recall where. And that blind rhesus monkey by the river in Ayodhya when she was only twelve had looked at her the same way before baring its teeth. But her husband had decided.                         Ebbing’s father said she was lovely, but – (Meaning too old). His aunt said she was too old for him, and – (Meaning too brown). But what is old, to someone who has only ever experienced age as sound? What is skin tone, to someone who has only experienced colour through music?   At age twenty, Ebbing lay in a hotel room with his new wife and ran his fingers along the thin, puckered seam between her breasts. She caught his hand and said, “My shame.” But all the virgin bridegroom could hear was a celebratory boom boom boom as he went tunneling into a place from which he would never emerge. Excerpted from The Beguiling by Zsuzsi Gartner, Hamish Hamilton 2020
‘To Be Human is to Be Unruly’: An interview with Raven Leilani

The author of Luster on surveillance in the suburbs, writing the id, and the joy of Comic-Cons.

According to Sigmund Freud, the human psyche is divided into three elements: the id, super-ego, and ego. The id represents our uncontrolled and instinctual desires, the super-ego our moral conscience, and the ego mediates those two pulling forces. In her debut novel Luster (Bond Street Books), Brooklyn-based writer Raven Leilani plunges the reader inside the mind of a 23-year-old Black woman whose life is controlled by her id. Edie’s an aspiring painter who avoids painting, instead working in a low-level position at an editorial publishing house in New York City. She falls into a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who is an open-ish marriage. After Edie can no longer afford the rent of her mice-infested apartment, she moves to suburban New Jersey to live with Eric, his wife Rebecca, and their Black preteen adopted daughter, Akila. Luster, as the title suggests, is lush with vivid references to sex. At the publishing house, Edie calls herself, matter-of-factly, the “office slut” and describes hooking up with various colleagues across departments: “Jerry who is acquiring all the cancer-centric YA, making bank and soft love to me in the conference room,” or, “Michelle from legal sitting on the copier, nylons slung around her neck as fluorescents flicker overhead.” With sex as the backdrop, the book brilliantly explores Black womanhood, suburban surveillance, millennial capitalism, micro-aggressions, and the complicated nature of interracial relationships. Leilani is careful when she speaks, frequently stopping mid-sentence to pause and regroup before proceeding. When we chat, she’s outside of her apartment in Brooklyn, where the high-pitched beeps of reversing trucks, the static of wind and other city sounds leak into our phone call. Samantha Edwards: Edie has such a singular voice that’s incredibly funny and observant, but can also be really self-deprecating and dark. How did you develop her character? Raven Leilani: The building blocks of Edie was, “How do I depict a young Black woman who yearns?” She’s a woman who is led through the world by her id. I don't really move through the world like that. There's a freedom and almost an element of wish fulfillment in depicting a Black woman who is guided by her own id. It was important for me to write a Black girl who was free. It's weird to say free because on the page, you can see the constraints, one being the fact that a lot of the action is happening in Edie’s mind. But at least in the sanctuary of her mind, I wanted to be candid about how she feels and what she wants. The observational aspect of the book comes from two things: the fact that Edie is a Black woman and the certain kind of studiousness that you need to survive. The other part is that she's an aspiring artist, and I think a fundamental part of art is data collection. And that sounds extremely unsexy, right? But a lot of art, especially the art I gravitate to, is in the business of trying to accurately reflect a specific reality. Edie yearns for sex and touch. Why was it important to make that such a core part of her person? I felt like to do anything less would be to not allow her the space to be human. There's a temptation in writing and in life to be self-protective, to be aloof, and to be stoic. I know those people exist and that kind of writing exists, but I wanted to write towards vulnerability. I think it’s always a vulnerable thing to be overt in how much you care.  A lot of Black women are called upon to bear their pain well. And that feels inhumane. I wanted to write a Black woman who is not only not bearing what she's going through well, but who responds in a human way. She gets hurt, and she also wants comeuppance. Let me try and articulate this. We talk a lot about unlikable women, and I think what we're really talking about is fallible women. I wanted to show what it looks like when you care deeply, and the way that that manifests isn't just as a virtuous person who lives by their feelings. There's an element of caring so deeply that you are paralyzed. I think to be human is to be unruly, to be a person who yearns and can be hurt. And that was important for me, to show a Black woman who was not stoic in how she bears her loss. I found the differences between how Edie and her Black coworker Aria navigated their very white workplace so interesting. Aria says she’s willing to "shuck and jive until the room I’m in is at the top” and to conform to her white coworkers' expectations, while Edie has no interest in performing in that way. She seems to revel in being a slacker. What did you want to show in their relationship? I wanted to show that both of these Black women in this professional space are attempting to survive. They just have very, very different tactics around that survival. Aria has opted for perfectionism and hyper-curation. Edie's response is one of refusal. I think both are human responses. There's one way to read this that’s a judgment on how Aria has chosen to present herself. I was trying to point out how when you are trying to advance and survive as a Black woman, you understand that your margin for error is thin.  I also wanted to talk about how this environment absolutely impedes a camaraderie that perhaps should exist between these women. When their environment indulges tokenism, it naturally pits these two women against each other. They're two different women, absolutely, but even Edie's response to seeing Aria is that she felt relief. She also finds that relief with Akila later on in the book too. I really loved how the relationship between Edie and Akila progressed throughout the book. At first Akila feels kind of uneasy around Edie’s presence, basically saying, “Don’t mess this up for me,” but eventually they do build that camaraderie. This book is very much about isolation and solitude, and loneliness that is exacerbated when you're in the business of projecting an image and managing the perceptions of other people around you. Akila lives in an environment which cannot adequately witness her. She lives in the suburbs and is being surveilled, and that surveillance can quickly become violent. Akila is searching for belonging and not truly finding it. She's not doing well socially. She has been bounced around, she's been through a couple of homes and her primary mission is to preserve the stability she finally has and Edie is a threat to that. But Edie herself is also grappling with a kind of instability. So you have two Black women who are fighting for stability and fighting for a place where they will be seen. I thought it was important to show two Black women taking comfort in each other and witnessing each other.  As they get closer, we get to see more layers of Akila, like that she's really into writing fan fiction, comic books, and video games. Edie helps her make a Comic-Con costume and I thought that was so endearing. And the Comic-Con scenes were so lucid. Have you ever been to a Comic-Con? The reason Comic-Con is in the book is because I love it. I feel like the very first way I knew how to interact with anything was as a fan. I feel like fandom for me is an earnest act. There are moments throughout the book where I got to show a Black woman engaged in a thing that she earnestly loves. For Edie it’s disco, and with Akila it's Comic-Con. All of this sort of geek ephemera is close to me. I've been to a handful of Comic-Cons, but never to San Diego, which is a bummer and I need to fix that. There’s nothing really like attending a con and feeling that enthusiasm and communal energy, and also seeing other fans who dare enough to be earnest in their overt appreciation for these imagined worlds. That is so beautiful to me. I wanted to specifically talk about that on the page with a Black woman because I wanted there to be joy in this book. There’s a lot of sexual joy in the book, but obviously that’s different than the joy from fandom. Akila’s fandom is like pure joy, and there’s no weird power dynamics behind it. What kind of stuff are you a fan of? Oh man, I'm a fan of so many things. My brother gave me his comics before he moved out and I still have them. They're in a trunk under my bed. I don't even indulge the kind of rivalry between DC and Marvel. I love them both. I grew up watching anime and playing JRPGs, which are Japanese role-playing games. When I was younger, I loved getting locked into those intricately built worlds. It’s interesting you say that, because when Edie and Akila get closer and start playing video games together, Akila kind of disses Edie for not getting as involved with some of the side characters or just missing parts of the story. That's right. I'm so glad you noticed that. There are so many different kinds of gamers. There are the gamers who want Call of Duty, where you can go in and get your rounds off. But then there are those who want a game where you have to talk to villagers like three times to get the thing that you need, games where you have to exhaust the environment in order to advance. I gravitate more towards the games that have a story. I do think there's something to be said about two Black women finding comfort in each other through the imagined worlds in which they have to inhabit these avatars. It's my fandom manifesting for sure. Perhaps it’s also me as a 29-year-old and how a lot of us have grown to relate to people through a digital medium, whether it’s online dating or your headset in Call of Duty. How does it feel to release this book in this current “moment”? I’m putting air quotes around moment because racism has been around forever, but I think reading this book now, there are certain themes the book touches on, like police violence or acknowledging micro-aggressions, that feel so urgent right now.   Like you were saying, racism isn’t new and what we’re seeing now is perhaps not new. What’s new is that we have the technology to see it in a totally different way. I have talked to older people in my family because there’s this feeling of reckoning, that something feels different. I’ve said to them, “Before I get my hopes up, can you let me know, does this feel unprecedented in terms of the response to it?” Even older people in my family do feel that something is different, especially around police brutality. The thing is, as a Black writer I was not necessarily writing towards any particular grand statement around racism. I wrote this book as a Black woman who is writing about Black women. In particular, with Edie, I was just reporting on what I saw in my own life, the way I feel my own body is in peril and the way Edie’s body is in peril. You don’t necessarily want your book to be relevant in the way that it is. You would hope that you could point to what you’ve written and it would be history. It would be a moment that is distant and illegible. But I do think that the canon of Black writers who have written about what it is like to live and try and survive while Black is a large and excellent canon. In writing about these issues, I just did my best to tell a specific story. The story just happens to be one that takes place in the consciousness of a Black woman, and that consciousness is informed by an environment that is racist, sexist, and capitalist. You and Edie share some life experiences—you are both painters, you’ve both worked in publishing and at Postmates. And because this is your debut, were you ever nervous or concerned that people would conflate you with Edie? I feel like that is a concern that a lot of writers of colour have. I don’t imagine that you get as many autofictive questions when you’re a white author. Truly though, I wasn’t particularly concerned. There is a lot of me in the book, but it’s absolutely not autofiction. There are a lot of direct lines you could draw from my life, but I couldn’t think about that reflection while I was writing. I think that would have limited me and would have put fear in the writing.  As you might have gathered on this call, I truly struggle in real time to articulate precisely what I mean. That is a major frustration for me. On the page, I feel like I have more control than I do in any area of my life. Because of that, I have the freedom to write towards the dark and the dirty. I have a friend who says that the book is my id and I am the ego. I think that is correct. In some ways, I’m writing a letter to my own self, like, “Oh my god, don’t do that.” But there’s a part of me that tried to imbue a freedom in this character that I absolutely as a real person don’t think I have. I’m actually quite subdued. I’m severely introverted. The things I write versus who I am as a person are actually quite opposed. It’s interesting to release a thing into the world and then have people feel like they know who you are. But ultimately, I just think it’s really fucking cool that people are reading deeply enough where they care about that.
The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.