The Montréal cartoonist on his debut book The Pursuer, the evolution and influence of comic books, and how a lifelong passion for drawing became a career.
Villal Pando leads a double life similar to many of the costumed heroes he’s read about in the pages of comic books. By day, he is an elementary school art teacher; by night, a freelance illustrator and emerging comic book writer. The Montréal cartoonist’s penchant for shifting identities likely came from his late father, who was a stage actor. As with many masked heroes, losing his dad motivated Pando to follow in his father’s artistic footsteps. His debut book, The Pursuer (New Friday) opens in Crayton City, a fictional American metropolis, in the year 1929, with the abrupt murder of Warren Blake, a wealthy socialite who moonlights as the eponymous masked vigilante. Pando’s story feels at once traditional and also new, reminding readers of the creation of characters like Batman during the Golden Age of comic books in the 1930s, while also feeling reminiscent of the Dark Knight’s more recent turn to gritty realism, a hallmark of Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s and onward. Many of the iconic works from this time broke precedent by portraying morally ambiguous superheroes who weren’t pure or star-spangled. As a young reader, these works shaped Pando’s creative sensibilities. Frank Miller’s two most famous Batman stories—perhaps the most famous Batman stories—provided modern bookends for the classic character: a new grounded origin story in 1988’s Year One, and an endpoint in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns. Just as these two seminal works bookended the Caped Crusader’s canonical journey, so too did they for Pando’s creative journey. When he was gifted Year One as a child, it kickstarted his journey as a comic book storyteller, while The Dark Knight Returns inspired the fulfilment of his vision years later through The Pursuer. As in Miller’s iconic story, Pando’s protagonist faces off against a super-powered government lackey, in many ways, a stand-in for the Batman vs. Superman confrontation cemented in popular culture for generations. The powerless and gun-toting Pursuer takes on the bulletproof Noble. It’s not just an homage to one of the comic book’s most iconic hero-on-hero fights, but also the perfect metaphor for an indie cartoonist trying to make his break in the comic book publishing world. Pando published The Pursuer through New Friday, an imprint of Lev Gleason Publications, which prides itself on releasing “100% creator-owned and controlled indie comics and graphic novels from exciting new voices.” I first met Pando at the Montreal Comic Arts Festival in May of this year. In our interview, we discussed his journey as a comic book writer, his creative influences, his experience navigating the current independent publishing landscape, and the lessons he’s already learned which he hopes to bring with him throughout his career. Tim Sale, the illustrator of the iconic story Batman: The Long Halloween, passed away on June 16th this year. As one of his most important creative influences, it’s fitting that Pando’s debut title came out just weeks after Sale’s untimely death. Vikram Nijhawan: What initially inspired you to work in comics and illustration? Villa Pando: I’ve always loved drawing as a kid, but I never saw myself as an “artist” or doing this as a career. My father was a stage actor and was very artistically inclined, but I saw his professional struggles and it was scary to imagine myself going that way. It took a long time for me to make the jump. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a true cartoonist or illustrator, because it doesn’t pay all the bills, but I’m happy to be published and to have gigs. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than thinking of an idea and making it real, tangible, and palpable. Drawing has always been a passion of mine, and I just couldn’t quit it. I tried to stop myself. I tried to be reasonable and go in other directions, but I always got pulled back. I know you do a lot of commission-based artwork for comedians and podcast ad designs. Where does your main professional revenue come from? I’m a primary school art teacher. Right now, I’m a substitute teacher, which means I jump around from school to school, but the flexibility allows me to work on my own independent projects. I guess that also means you have some interest in education, in addition to your general artistic interest. Is that fair to say? There’s a lot of intersection between my artistic career and my teaching, but I do try to share my love of comics and drawing with the kids. It’s enriching to find a kid who’s really passionate about art and connecting with them about that. I can take the time to give them tips, and imagine that kid possibly going into the field someday like me. Did you have any formal artistic education yourself, or were you mostly self-taught? I studied arts education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), but it wasn’t specifically in comic books or illustration. In those fields, I’m mostly self-taught. I still have a lot to learn, but I think learning to draw is a lifelong process—the older you get, the better you get. So, what inspired you to write The Pursuer? The idea for the story came to me in a flash years ago. The concept continued to grow and stayed with me. I think the death of my father pushed me. I lost him about ten years ago after he had a long battle with cancer. He died fairly young, and that made me realize that you only have so much time to pursue your artistic dreams. That’s very touching and inspiring to hear. I’d love to get into the details of the story world you’ve created. Your book is set during the Great Depression in America, in the early 1930s. There are a lot of familiar genre elements, in terms of neo-noir detective stories, as well as classic vigilante superhero stories. Why did you choose this particular milieu? I’ve always loved that historical era—the stories, the architecture, the clothing. It was also a time of struggle. We had gone through the 2008 recession around the time I started my script, so that time period resonated with me personally as well. Superheroes also came from that era. Superman was created in 1938, Batman in 1939. Those characters were pure representations of escapism from that difficult time, so setting a superhero story within that era felt right at home. You seem like someone who’s quite knowledgeable about the history of superheroes and comics. Are there any characters that you’ve found particularly inspiring for your own creations? I do love pulp heroes from that time period, classic personas like the Phantom or the Shadow. Basically, I’ve always loved the “dark brooding vigilante” type. Maybe they’re a little less colourful than Superman or Iron Man, but they speak to me. That’s clear to see from the protagonist of your book. Yes, he’s kind of an archetype, and he’s a pretext to the story itself. His colours are toned down, the superpowers are toned down, and he’s overall more grounded. I’m not saying he’s super realistic, but when creating him, I tried to tone down the superheroics, and concentrate more on the human side of the character. The Pursuer inhabits a gritty and realistic world, but as you mention this is also a story with superpowers, namely through the character of Noble, who’s a more Superman-like character. Why did you choose to incorporate the more traditionally fantastical aspects of the superhero genre alongside your story’s gritty realism? I think this story could’ve been done without the superhero context, but I chose it because I love that tradition, and this book was aimed at readers of superhero comics. That’s how I felt when I started this project at least, but honestly I’m not sure if I would have made that same decision today. After working on this book for so long, I might take a break from the superhero genre for my next project. But when I was writing The Pursuer, I absolutely knew that I wanted to pay homage to Frank Miller’s work by adding in my own little Batman vs. Superman confrontation scene, but portrayed in a more realistic way. “Realistic” may not be the right word to describe my approach, but ultimately, I didn’t want to see two gods fighting each other; I wanted to see two human beings with all of their flaws. The flaws were certainly present in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and that’s what makes the story so interesting. “Vulnerable” is the word I’m looking for. I tried to create vulnerable heroes. The dynamic between The Pursuer and Noble is very reminiscent of Miller, and I’m sure your readers who are comic book fans appreciated that. Aside from Miller, are there other writers or artists that have been influential on your work? Yes, but I’m not sure if any of my other influences were as conscious as The Pursuer and Noble’s confrontation was meant to hearken back to Frank Miller. In terms of artists (who I’m not comparing myself to in any way), I love Tim Sale, Mike Mignola, the late Canadian artist Darwyn Cook, and—since I’m a kid of the ’90s, and grew up on the show Batman: The Animated Series—Bruce Timm, who probably considers himself more of an illustrator and animator than a comic book artist. As for writers, Alan Moore and Frank Miller are of course huge names and have influenced me. If their works set the standard for modern comics, then it’s on any emerging creator in the medium to read their catalogues and soak up the quality. But I see myself more as an illustrator than a writer. I had the story idea for The Pursuer in my head, but as I kept drawing, the idea kept changing and evolving. That’s what happens when you’re both a writer and an illustrator. As you grow as an artist, your tastes change. They don’t necessarily improve, but they change. At the moment, I’m going back and reading the comic classics, the established names like Will Eisner, Wally Wood, and John Buscema. I go through phases—right now, I can’t get enough of black-and-white comics. They really are the best way to enjoy an artist’s line work. I want to go back to something you touched on earlier, about how the idea for your story changed throughout your creative process. In what ways did it change? I might go on a tangent here. In Québec, most Francophone readers grow up reading the catalogue of great French-language and European comics (or “bandes-dessinée”), like Tintin, Asterix, Spirou, and others. When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me two iconic American books, translated from English into French: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, and J.M. DeMatteis’s Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt. Those two titles were meant for slightly more mature readers, and they were vastly different from what I was reading at the time, but I fell in love with those stories, and with the superhero genre in general. My standards began at a pretty high point, because after all, Frank Miller was my baseline. I continued to read the popular and acclaimed American comic titles as I grew older, but I never imagined writing one myself until years later. When I was nineteen, my girlfriend gave me a copy of the DC Comics second issue of Identity Crisis, which reignited my interest in superhero comics. It’s an imperfect story, and I know some fans have trouble with how it changes DC’s continuity, but I still think it stands out well as a contained story, with some great artwork, storylines, and human interactions. I read Batman: The Long Halloween after that, which I loved. Tim Sale’s artwork fascinated me, with his mastery of panel composition, and how he handled flow on the page. It was something I felt I could approach in my own work. I grew up in the ’90s, when everyone seemed to be emulating the style of artists like Jim Lee, Scott McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld. As much as I respected these guys, this style just didn’t appeal to me. Sale, on the other hand, resonated with me. There was something about his style: slightly more cartoonish, bolder lines, less clustered. It gave me the itch to try something of my own. My story began as an experiment with no specific goal in mind, and it ended up being two hundred pages. I abandoned the project for years as I pursued higher education and other opportunities in my life. My father’s battle with cancer lasted five years, and after his death I returned to the story. I’d grown as a person since I last left the book, and through the process of completing it, I shifted the focus more toward themes of grief and loss, which by then I could properly grasp. The most interesting characters for me are the side characters rather than the protagonist, which is what I wanted to emphasis as I rewrote the story. What’s your favourite panel or sequence of panels from the book, and why? It’s difficult for me to say, because I’m hyper-critical of my own work—keep in mind I still have a lot to learn. But I found two pages where I think the visual storytelling kind of works. This is the scene where Deputy Police Chief Robert Luntz returns to his home, and checks in on his wife Theresa who’s asleep. On the right page, there’s a clipping from an old newspaper on the hallway wall, showing a photo of The Pursuer receiving the key to the city in a big ceremony from years before. There’s nothing too special about this scene, it just depicts a daily occurrence, checking up on a loved one. But it’s a very human moment, and I think it says a lot about the character of Luntz. It visualizes his dissatisfaction with his work, and his inner struggle to do his job and leave his wife behind every day. I notice there’s also very little dialogue in this scene. Yes, ideally you want a page to work without the dialogue. When you can take out the dialogue and understand the story, that’s the goal for comic book artists. The newspaper clipping also tells you a little more about The Pursuer’s exploits before he returned to the city, how he was celebrated as a local hero after saving Theresa’s life. The vibe is a lot brighter and happier, in contrast to the situation of the present day storyline, so it also reveals a certain moral decline in Crayton City. The one thing I intended to do was to let the readers play detective with the story, looking for details in the background, and putting together the backstory for themselves. What I find interesting is how The Pursuer appears before his alleged death and after. In the article photo, he resembles the classical perception of a “Golden Age” hero, like portrayals of Batman from his 1930s comics, whereas the version of the character that returns is more like Frank Miller’s darker interpretation of Batman from the 1980s. His transformation almost seemed like a metatextual acknowledgment of the evolution of vigilante characters that The Pursuer takes inspiration from within the real world history of comics. Was that a conscious decision you made, or something you had in mind? I think so, because in general the story’s full of homages to popular aspects of the superhero genre. I’m not pretending that I’m bringing any new ideas to the table in terms of content, but I felt like if I could tell a story that was done well, it would work. This book is kind of my love letter to superheroes, or to what I love about superheroes, anyway. How would you describe the publishing process for this book? This might not have been the smartest move, but I wanted to complete the book before approaching potential publishers. Especially since I wasn’t an established creator, I felt that I needed to have a finished product. It was a good decision in the end, because I realized it was easier for companies to take a chance on you if you have something to show them. I felt an immediate connection with the publishing house New Friday. It helped that they were a Canadian company. It seems a lot of independent comic creators are opting to self-publish, and that the landscape has changed to become more author-centric as opposed to creators relying on name recognition from major publishing companies. Have you noticed this trend? Definitely, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that. Firstly, because of the internet and social media, it’s possible to gain notoriety without these big companies, whereas the traditional route for most aspiring creators in the past was to land a gig at one of the “Big Two” (Marvel or DC Comics). These days, people’s interests have become so wide-ranging, and there’s a lot of content out there to satisfy those interests. Creators now want to tell their own stories, and there are more niche audiences for those stories. New technologies have also helped independent creators, like the ability to mass publish on demand, or funding sources for independent creators like the website Kickstarter. Although it is a double-edged sword. There’s a lot more stuff out there, but it’s also a lot more difficult to get noticed as a creator if you don’t go through the traditional publishing channels, which is where social media comes in, I guess. It’s easier to create now, but it might not be easier to get to the reader. You’ve got to have a great product, and be prepared to work your ass off to get your product out there—along with a little bit of luck. I’m fairly new to the process, so it’s hard to tell you, but at the moment I’m hopeful. Speaking of social media, you describe yourself in your Instagram bio as a “reluctant social media user.” Could you describe your relationship with social media, and how that affects your promotion and perception of your work? I’m a fairly private person. I’m not exactly introverted, but I prefer to put my work out there and allow it to speak for itself. I realize it would be a smart thing to sell myself, because it’s a useful tool for promoting your work, to have consumers get attached to the person behind the work. It’s tough for me, though, because I work at a slower rhythm that isn’t the best for social media, which requires constant posting, content creation, and reaching out. I’m not criticizing this approach, because I see the value in it. I’m just having difficulty getting myself to follow suit. I’ll be putting aside my freelance illustrations for a while to start my second book, or at least completing the script. I’m also looking into hiring an artist to collaborate with, because I work a little too slowly on my own. I’m aiming for a smaller book this time, as well. You draw for “comics” in two senses of the word, with your side gig doing commissioned artwork for comedians. How did this come about? I’ve been doing illustrations for clients for several years. I had a few constant gigs with chemical plants, theatre groups, and other service-based industries. During the pandemic, I began listening to the podcast Bad Friends, co-hosted by the comedians Andrew Santino and Bobby Lee. I’m always looking for content to have playing in my ears while I draw, and I enjoyed listening to them. I knew the podcast was going to blow up, because these guys were funny and renowned. I figured if I did some work for them, some of their followers would check out my work. I did a few illustrations for them for fun, and eventually they contacted me to do some paid work: t-shirt designs and promotional graphics. After that, other emerging comedian podcasters saw my work and contacted me—it’s mostly word-of-mouth in that scene. I don’t have a lot of social media followers, but making that conscious decision to reach out to them and promote myself was worth it. Going from nearly zero Instagram followers to a thousand made a big difference for me. For someone who’s looking to get into comics, given the aforementioned overwhelming amount of content out there right now, how would you suggest a newcomer navigate this abundance of choice to find content they will enjoy? First of all, if you’re lucky enough to have a neighbourhood comic book store, that’s a great place to start. The guys and gals who work there are probably passionate about comics, and they’d be happy to provide recommendations, so they’re a great resource. Comics can be expensive, especially since the pandemic, with the higher cost of paper. People only have so much money to spend on (I’m not going to say “frivolous”, because I don’t see comics that way) that type of product, so they want to make sure they’re getting good content. Comic book store employees will gladly steer you in the right direction based on what you like. If you have a local library, take a little trip there, because they should have a decent selection. If you’re looking for more niche or independent titles, I’d also suggest following comic book artists on social media and taking a chance on their work. It’s easy to go online and search up “what’s good”, and you’ll end up with popular works like Maus, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. But if you want to step out of that narrow selection, social media’s a great route. In some way, I think readers should see comics as pieces of art. Maybe not in the sense that they should all be hung in museums, but still, they are medium for artistic expression and I’d have difficulty thinking that reading a comic would ever be a waste of time. You’re never going to regret reading a book. Even if it’s not great, you’ll never regret it. You might regret spending $20,000 on a mint condition Spider-Man title, but you don’t need to do that to get into comics. You just need a comfy seat and a little time.
The author of Nightbitch on anger, needy toddlers, and writing as emotional exorcism.
Inside you, it is said, there are two wolves—one of whom is insatiably hungry for meat. At least that is true of Nightbitch, the hilarious, newly feral central figure of Rachel Yoder’s 2021 debut novel, Nightbitch, just released in softcover (Vintage Canada). At the novel’s opening, our eponymous bitch is deep in her flop era. Once a promising artist, she has ceased to be productive due to motherhood; her creativity is hampered by a lack of sleep, personal space, and adult conversation. Nightbitch’s main source of engagement is with her two-year-old son, in which Yoder captures the delight, tedium, and mild-to-spicy psychosis of spending all your time with a barely verbal agent of chaos. Mentally fixated on the banal freedoms experienced by her on-the-road husband and pursued by a gregarious blonde mom (who is either trying to draw her into a multi-level marketing scheme or an herb-centric cult), Nightbitch’s body begins to…change. Her teeth sharpen. Unusual hair grows. A tail emerges at the base of her spine, along with the desire to wag it. At first, this troubles her. Then it cues an after-hours world of lupine delight. Yoder anchors Nightbitch’s fantastic universe in bodies of flesh and myth, communicating the protagonist’s new power, impulses, and violence with visceral joy. With its cinematic imagery and rich characters, Nightbitch is already being adapted for the screen by Marielle Heller and will be starring Amy Adams in the title role. Last summer, I spoke with Yoder via a Zoom call from home in Iowa City (her own son was in the kitchen making brownies with his grandmother). Eloquent in speech as in writing, Yoder has an endearing habit of leaning toward her camera when reaching the pinnacle of a thought. Naomi Skwarna: I recently read the essay you wrote in Lithub about dealing with chronic pain and illness. It seemed of a piece with Nightbitch, which is such an embodied novel. How did you tap into that palpable feeling of becoming a dog-wolf-human character? Rachel Yoder: I think if I have any superpower, it’s probably feeling everything very much. It’s both a superpower and a burden. I’m very sensitive emotionally, and my emotions are closely tied to physical sensations. They’re not disembodied ideas of emotions; emotions have their weight in my body. For instance, it’s hard for me to watch really emotional movies because it feels like work to get through them, and that’s not enjoyable for me. Before I started writing Nightbitch, I’d been having a lot of feelings for two years, and they were trapped in my body. It’s really hard to be incredibly angry and incredibly sad, and to have those sensations in your body and not be able to move through them, not be able to transform them in some way. We have all this language for talking about feeling stuck. I’ve been going to therapy on and off for many years, and therapists would say you have to move through that. What I’m realizing is that that’s a very actual, physical directive. It’s not a figurative way of talking about it, but literally: how can I take the anger and get it moving in my body, from my chest to another place, out of my body? You start to think about howling and screaming as a way to move anger, and it’s very effective. Man, I wish that were more socially acceptable! The closest approximation I have for that is writing to move stuff through my body. It’s been that way from when I first started writing. Everyone writes for their own reasons, but I need a way of taking what I’m feeling and moving it because it’s too much to hold in my body. And it does make me sick if I don’t move it. Nightbitch felt really good to write because as you can probably tell from what you’ve read, it was just rage sort of pouring onto the page. I was finally able to get it out of my body. The whole book was a practice in doing that, to a certain extent. It’s very cathartic to read. What is it about a toddler-aged child that cues the Nightbitch—both the character and the novel? My son was three when I wrote this. When he was zero to one, I was so happy every moment of every day. I was basically getting high off my baby, holding him for hours and staring at his face. By the time he was three, I’d been home long enough, doing the stay-at-home mom thing, and we’d formed this intense bond. When kids are that young, and really with just one caregiver for most of the week, it’s a very intense relationship. By the age of three, he was very verbal, very demanding as three-year-olds are, and very bonded to me. That was really hard, because it’s an intensity I’d never experienced before—of not only being responsible for someone else, but him literally telling me what to look at, like, no, Mama! Look here! It was very intense, [my son] trying to take ownership of my entire existence. That felt like the tipping point, and a transition needed to happen. The transition was: mother needs to start writing, and you need to start going to daycare a couple hours a day—which was, y’know, a huge tragedy in his little life. Not to project too much autobiography, but in the book, Nightbitch experiences a kind of feral rebirth as a mother, simultaneously becoming a more radical version of the artist she was previously. And so I was wondering: is Nightbitch also about writing the book Nightbitch? The short answer is yes. I had a really bizarre experience of finishing it, writing that final scene, and then just sitting there in a sort of fugue state. I tweeted something like, “The thing about writing a novel is that the process of it makes you the sort of person you need to be to write it.” You know what I mean? Like, you’re not only writing the novel, it’s writing you, and you’re turning into the person that you need to be to write it. That felt true for this book. So much of it was about Nightbitch being authentic and finding her voice. I needed to do that—I needed her to show me how to be authentic, how to be honest. The entire book was an exercise in that. I’ve never heard of writing a book described like that before. It’s a little bit sad though, because you only become that person when you get to the end of it. [Nods in assent] Did you ever have any concern about how some of the Nightbitch’s violence might be interpreted? I might have worried for a minute. But I’ve been—and I don’t quite really understand how or why—somewhat Zen about the book, and that I don’t have any control over how people are going to read it. It’s a weird book. Some people are not going to get it, and/or hate it. I think that’s great. I wouldn’t want to write a book that everyone uniformly loved and was really easy. I’m not saying I’m trying to write books that people hate, but— No, sure, but maybe it’s not your job to worry about how they read it. Yeah. And I guess I just wasn’t as concerned about the violence. Certainly, I’ve seen a lot of content warnings, but I think it all fits into the mythos of Nightbitch. It needs to be there. The parts that were kind of exquisitely bloody, I enjoyed those so much. But I got so anxious and worried about her becoming Nightbitch in social situations! Like, not now, not in the restaurant! I’m the same way. I feel more uncomfortable when she goes full Nightbitch around people. About a third of the way through the novel, Nightbitch notes the difference between being a woman and a dog: dogs don’t need to work; dogs don’t care about art. She also notices that since becoming Nightbitch, she’s become a better mother, and her instincts are pushing her towards being an artist again, too. What I’m wondering is—do we care too much about the wrong things? Yes! Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially with women—how we are conditioned to be so competent and so ready for everything. More so than boys are conditioned, right? I’m definitely one of those overachiever types, who is always like, I can do anything! You need me to do something? I will figure out how to do it faster than you need me to do it. It’s like that sort of thing. I really feel like underachieving can be an act of profound self-care and radical feminism. To say, I’m not going to learn any more competencies, I’m done with that. I am my competencies, and my talents are here to serve me. And I’m going to protect those. They’re not to be given away. I’m not here to overachieve in service of other people. I’m here to focus on my dreams and my goals. I think that’s what she’s trying to untangle in that little section. If I do this, I’m happy. How to untangle all of this stuff? This instinct and this ambition and this love for my child? How do I make it all work? She makes it all work by getting really clear about what she needs, what she has to give, and focusing solely on that and not being distracted by all these people who want things from us that take our energy. Do you think most artists can benefit from reaching into their more feral, nature-driven sides? I guess it depends on what sort of artist you want to be. You have to be open to being in touch with a reality that most people aren’t walking around in. And if art is not only what you do, but how you lead your life, if you’re committed to an artful life, what does that mean? We take all this stuff, and we turn it into words, and we put it on paper. We’re not working with clay or working with paint or immediately in touch with a form. If there’s some part that we need to be in touch with, it might be the chaotic part of ourselves. I would liken chaos to nature, and believe there is some need to move into nature and into chaos, and into seeing a new arrangement of the world. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to do? We’re trying to see through the scrim to understand what’s really going on and capture that on the page somehow. In that way, we’re trying to commune with nature. Another way of saying it is, when you go to make art, when you go to write, you have to de-rationalize yourself, right? You enter into an irrational space; you’re not there to find really good points. You’re there to investigate utter chaos. Of course, you can’t always de-rationalize yourself, you have to come back. And so, it’s this constant touching of two worlds—going in and saying: I don’t know why I’m writing. I don’t know why I’m writing a book where a mom turns into a dog. It seems like the worst fucking idea I could think of. And yet, I’m going to enter into this deeply irrational space and see what happens. Art gives us a place to be irrational, be wild, be an animal. And then it’s so lovely because we also have our big rational brain to give it order. How did The Field Guide to Magical Women become a part of Nightbitch’s story? I think I’ve found what my writing tic is, and it is writing a book and then putting another book in the book. Is that something you’ve done before? I have an abandoned novel—I wasn’t very deep into it. It also has a made-up holy text within the text, which then I just wanted to write. I have this impulse to figure out where to put the things I wrote in my MFA! I wrote these beautiful little, you know, lyric essays when I was in my MFA program. Like, what is this? But then I thought, oh! That could be a thing within a bigger thing. I do have an affinity for mysterious, beautiful little texts. So that’s part of the reason it showed up in there. It’s also such an ingrown instinct for me, if I have a question, to go and get a book. So again, it’s just natural. Of course, you go to the library! That’s what everyone does. So the novel ends, to put it vaguely, [minor spoiler here] with a performance that organically integrates her son, and suggests acceptance and recognition from a discerning audience. It feels like a real curtain call. But I wonder, what happens next for Nightbitch? I think it’s a great question. I also know that you’re probably like, I ended the book there! I don’t have to keep writing it! I don’t know that it gets easier. I think it gets different. She’s not holding the anger in her body anymore. She’s using it, and it’s propulsive. She’s learned how to harness it and to focus it, which has been this huge gift, and she has worked through it. [All the characters] are in a different place, but it’s still going to be this negotiation of who gets what time, and how do we make this all work? But she’s moving now. She’s moving, and I don’t know where that’s going to take her but to the fact that she is not stuck. She’s not stuck in the house, stuck in her feelings. She’s able to move and I have a lot of hope and confidence in her that she’ll keep moving. It would take a lot to get her to stop. I love what you said about it not being easier, but different. And that seems like maybe the most hopeful thing any of us could ask for after this year and a half, things feeling so static in a lot of ways. Difference is vital. My therapist always says that your feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s a narrative arc; there’s movement. I’ve seen that I can just get stuck. Like, I’ll say, No, this is where it stops. And I keep returning to the beautiful comfort that the structure of a story can give us. Not only in storytelling, but also as we try to work through our daily lives. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end, like everything. You just gotta keep it moving! It might not get easier, but it’ll be different. And you’ll be someplace new. And then you can keep moving from there. That’s really all I know at this point. And that’s what Nightbitch gave me.
The author of How You Get Famous on Brooklyn drag, RuPaul, and genderfuck.
Early in How You Get Famous: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn (Simon & Schuster), Nicole Pasulka’s chronicle of ten foundational years in the Brooklyn drag scene, a nascent queen called Merrie Cherry hosts her first party at a Williamsburg dive. Onstage, performers cover themselves in fake blood, strip, and break furniture while lip-synching to Björk and Éric Serra. This is not, in other words, your grandmother’s drag show. “Merrie had busted open the doors of Brooklyn nightlife,” Pasulka writes, “and invited the amateurs in.” Those amateurs, and the experimental, messy, expansive scene they created in Brooklyn in the early aughts, are the heart of Pasulka’s book and the root of her interest in drag. She follows a handful of performers as they fight their way onto the tiny stages of grimy Brooklyn bars “in search of attention, cash, and adventure”—and the chance to truly make it as a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Along the way, Pasulka makes the case for drag’s unique ability to constantly redraw the contours of identity and mess with expectations. She spoke with Hazlitt about her path into the world of drag. Amelia Schonbek: What’s your first memory of encountering drag? Nicole Pasulka: When I was a kid, in the 1980s and ’90s, we had no cable. But we got one station that played this music video program called The Box every day. It was fuzzy and black and white and you could only kind of tell what was going on. But I remember seeing RuPaul’s “Supermodel” video, which was released in the early ’90s. It’s her sort of vamping around New York City, obviously in full drag, singing a song about being a supermodel. I remember seeing that and being like, whoa! Wait, what? That’s a man, but it’s also a woman. It was all very mysterious how this person existed. I remember being so fascinated. I remember feeling like I thought the world was meant to be like this and look like that. And the idea that it could be different was very intriguing and very exciting. After you moved to New York, did you have a moment of realizing, “Oh, now I’m living a life where I can explore this world?” Every year, the Friday before Pride, there’s a drag march from Tompkins Square to the Stonewall. It’s a lot of radical faeries, a lot of people who are long-time residents of the East Village who dress up in their most inventive DIY finery and march across Manhattan to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in front of the Stonewall. That’s where I was like, “Oh, this is the spirit of RuPaul’s genderfuck,” more so than the drag I saw in the bars, which prior to 2010 felt a bit old fashioned. I found it incredibly liberatory. Eventually you developed your own drag persona. What did that open up for you? Did it shape your interest in eventually writing about drag? In the early 2000 in New York, there was a lot of lesbian community, a lot of lesbian nightlife. My experience of that scene was that it was pretty earnest: it was about being out and proud and representing yourself in the most easily identifiable ways. Being queer was about figuring out who your quote unquote authentic self was. What I discovered along the way, and especially when I started paying attention to drag and getting more into the radical faerie community and gay male nightlife, was that there was this other thing that really appealed to me, which was playing with characters. Camping it up or being intentionally tacky or outrageous and finding parts of yourself through that, too. So, I had a drag persona who was an eighteen-year-old straight guy who rode a skateboard and did graffiti and was kind of your classic dumb pretty boy. He wasn’t exactly failing upward; he was good-natured, he was never unpleasant. That was really fun because people could interact with that persona and I could express some desires I had, or whatever. None of it was serious. I eventually got bored of him because he wasn’t very articulate. But I think I started to realize that the experimentation, the play with identity and gender and personas, was a form of narrative. And it had all of this potential to make things less heavily determined, which was something that I felt like I really needed. Hearing you talk about it makes me realize how few opportunities there are in the world to experiment in that way. Totally. I think when you feel you occupy any kind of marginal identity, a lot of the focus becomes about being understood: clearly communicating who you are and advocating for yourself and making sure that you’re seen. That is all right and good—it makes sense. But I think it can crowd out a really enjoyable type of play that can remind us that none of this needs to be as serious as it is. And, you know, I hate to be that guy, but capitalism also rewards a certain type of clarity, a clearly communicated persona. To be a person who has an easily summarized identity, attitude, politics, whatever—we benefit in our jobs, sometimes in our relationships, in our families, on our social media profiles. You know what I mean? It’s rewarded. It’s also in some ways really unfulfilling. When you start to fuck with that, to disrupt that, to try to think of other ways to show people who you are, suddenly it’s this exhale, this relief. Because the reality is, it’s all to some degree an affectation. It always sounds glib when you say it, but the notion that you can be whoever you want to be—there’s a way in which that is totally not true. But it is still meaningful that a person can make up a character and of their own volition, just put it on stage and work it out. Some of the best drag out there is going to remind you that all of this is a facade. You write in the book about a performance that the drag queen Sasha Velour gave in 2015 in which it feels like she’s messing with the type of facades you’ve been talking about— “the constraints of beauty standards and the expectations placed on female sexuality.” In that performance, Sasha is a Gollum-esque type feral character performing Britney Spears’s “I Wanna Go,” and being hunted by two backup dancers in khaki safari outfits who capture her and turn her into a pop star before she eventually breaks free and sort of mauls them. Sasha was really interested in exploring monsters, you know? Monsters are expressions of our greatest fears. They’re also the outpouring of our cruelty. They are things to be controlled, but they have this power—there are all these tensions. Drag is really good at tethering high concepts to a lowbrow sort of pop culture. When you do Britney Spears, you are specifically playing with what many people think is the most vapid pop there is, but finding, actually, the idea—the self-expression and the manufacturing of it. To be clear, I don’t think Britney Spears is the most vapid pop out there by any means. But there’s an understanding that you’re going to get a completely formulaic, perfectly designed innocuous pop song. And you can project your own cultural criticism onto that story. The fact that drag is often working in the realm of pop songs is not accidental to both its popularity and why people find it such a good place to explore weird ideas. When you started thinking about taking on all of these questions by writing about drag, was there a world of similar books in which you saw this one fitting? I’ve been writing about queer people and LGBT issues for at least ten years, maybe longer. And I always felt it was as relevant to our cultural moment as something like tech or sports. But there’s this idea that queer culture is distinct from straight culture and that LGBT issues are distinct from broader issues in health care and employment and relationships and whatever. Which always seemed to me just rooted in homophobia. So I wanted to write a book that’s on the level of something like Friday Night Lights but is about people who generally just don’t get that level of consideration within literary journalism. The assumption is that if you’re writing a queer book, it’s going to be for a queer audience. The idea of a “queer audience” is just as constructed as anything else. Take a book like Random Family. Many people who read that book don’t have the same kinds of experiences that the subjects of that book have. But more broadly, we all exist under the same institutions, in the same broader culture. There’s no real reason you couldn’t read and appreciate and understand and empathize with the stories that are in that book. Or, what do I have in common with a hedge fund manager, right? But I still want to know about their work. I want to know how they make decisions, what motivates them. The notion that you would only want to read about gay people if you’re really out and involved in the queer community is frankly ridiculous and supports this really false distinction between gay culture and straight culture. Of all of the performances you watched during your reporting, are there any that are especially close to your heart? One of the most spectacular, exciting things I’ve ever seen is a queen called Horrorchata perform Selena’s “Como la Flor” at the Brooklyn drag festival, Bushwig, in 2018. She was in these lavender crushed velvet bell-bottoms. Stunning. But it was really just this moment—the sun had fully set. The crowd was at capacity. People were fucking hype. She co-founded Bushwig, this is her show. And she’s so devoted to Selena. People don’t talk enough about something drag does really well, which is how it can take the context and the emotion and the vibe of a song and repurpose them or reinterpret them, you know? It was this moment of someone expressing their passion and their individuality, but also connecting to community. It was just joy: joy from the audience, joy from her, joy from Selena’s singing on the recording. For people who don’t participate in the drag scene, it’s sometimes still baffling why people like this shit so much. This is why.
I’ve always believed that a carefully chosen frame makes for the more appropriate film poster.
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. Late one night in Hiroshima, a woman is driving an older man, a visiting actor, back to his hotel. They are in an old red Saab 900, which the actor bought fifteen years ago in Tokyo. He isn’t allowed to drive his own car because of some arcane rule at the theatre residency where he has been invited to direct a play. Initially he had to be persuaded to take the woman on as his designated driver, but he has come to appreciate having her around. His affinity has its limits: the red Saab is, after all, his sanctum, a green room where he is accustomed to contemplating, alone, his messy art and life. He learns not to mind practicing his lines aloud in the back seat. He never lets her smoke inside. That night the actor is slightly drunk and sitting in the passenger seat. Moments ago, they dropped off one of his colleagues from the residency who happened to also know the actor’s dead wife. The colleague said something during the ride that had taken the actor by surprise, something that made him wonder about the extent to which he ever understood his wife. Now that it’s just the two of them in the car, the woman—by now, both chauffeur and confidante—speaks up. “He didn’t appear to be lying,” she says, referring to his colleague. “I know because I grew up with liars.” She tells him what it was like, growing up with a mother she couldn’t trust to save her life. He responds by lighting up a cigarette from her pack, then offers to light another one for her. “Are you sure?” she asks, before accepting at once. He slides open the moonroof, and they take quick drags and hold their cigarettes above their heads to allow the smoke to escape. They look up and glance at the cigarettes in their hands, glimmering like stars in the distance. Halfway through Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning film, Drive My Car, we see two cigarettes sticking out of the roof of a car, framed by the city lights and the night sky above. The moment seems almost inadvertent in its overwhelming beauty, one of those throwaway scenic shots meant to mark the transition to the next scene. And yet the image also sums up the essence of Hamaguchi’s vision: three hours of running time is contained in that one frame. What gets relayed is a sense of connection—two new friends baring their souls at night—and also liberation. The woman and the actor might as well have been holding up little torches of freedom. Having just revealed to one another their respective traumas, their faces appear carefree, unburdened by the past. I’ve always believed that a carefully chosen still makes for the more appropriate film poster, instead of airbrushed headshots or those post-production images meant to hard-sell the central theme. The publicity materials for Drive My Car, for instance, predictably feature the two protagonists, played by Tôko Miura and Hidetoshi Nishijima, posing with the red Saab in a parking lot or somewhere in the middle of a road. Imagine, instead, a billboard with no garish fonts and no Saabs, just two hands holding cigarettes up in the air one night. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously wrote about the punctum of a photograph: the one accidental but meaningful detail in an image which “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” The punctum of a movie, I feel, is an incidental still frame, that rises up from the sequence of scenes and pierces the viewer, and is therefore best placed as a standalone image to lure more viewers in. In Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Julie drifts through her twenties studying medicine, then psychology, even writes a provocative op-ed in the wake of #MeToo, before ending up as a still photographer on a film set. We see Julie, played by Renate Reinsve, working alone in her apartment in the final scene, touching up the portrait of an actress on her desktop. Moments before, she discovered that the actress is married to one of her ex-boyfriends, Eivind— while packing up her camera by a window, she’d seen them kiss on the sidewalk and then push a baby stroller together down the road—but over the course of the film, she has learnt to tragically accept that the prospect of a romantic relationship is not the governing force in her life. She first met Eivind years before when she gatecrashed a party one night in Oslo. Back then, she was dating an older man—Aksel, a graphic novelist—but the attraction to Eivind was immediate. That night the two of them didn’t kiss, but instead spent the hours until dawn chatting, sniffing each other’s armpits, and later, watching each other pee in bathroom stalls. More than the other two films in his Oslo trilogy, Trier seems alert to visual possibilities in The Worst Person in the World. In just about every moment, the camera seems aware of what Julie, as well as the audience, might be watching, which is why it was disappointing to find multiple film critics reviewing the movie more as a book. Yes, the story is revealed in grandiose chapter headings like a 19th-century novel (there is even a prologue and an epilogue), and there are the usual blind spots that come into play when a male filmmaker portrays the life of a younger woman, but the fact that Trier is thinking in terms of images, not plot, is evident in Julie’s eventual career choice. The very first shot is of Julie with her back to the camera—surely a nod to the opening image in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror—smoking a cigarette and staring off of a porch. Later, for three silent minutes in the middle of the film, she traipses home through the streets of Oslo and at one point is moved to tears by the splendour of the skyline at dusk. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker that the film’s popular freeze-frame sequence, where Julie imagines the world literally stopping in its tracks so that she can meet up with Eivind, is “superficial and . . . blatant,” but it seems to me that the scene becomes frustrating only if you’re expecting it to somehow advance the storyline. Once, in my early twenties, when I fancied myself an aspiring scriptwriter in Bombay, I was told that studio executives didn’t so much as squint at a screenplay if it didn’t have a crisp elevator pitch, a plot that could be neatly reduced to an epigram. (Decades ago, Satyajit Ray had mocked this practice by pointing out that even his contemporary Mrinal Sen’s experimental masterpiece, Bhuvan Shome, had conventional underpinnings, a story that could be summarized “in seven words: big bad bureaucrat reformed by rustic belle.”) To judge a film by its story, however, seems to me inadequate. If done well, the message still ends up being prioritized over the medium. A riveting dramatic scene on the page almost always feels tonally imprecise onscreen. I prefer the idea of a movie as a progression of mesmeric stills instead of a recorded form of theatre. In his 1978 essay, “Uses of Photography,” John Berger outlines the difference between private and public photographs: In the private use of photography, the context of the instant recorded is preserved so that the photograph lives in an ongoing continuity. . . . The public photograph, by contrast, is torn from its context and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use. Staged promotional blowups are typically dead objects. They are prised away from the original meaning of the movie and frequently leave nothing to the imagination. Stills, on the other hand, are akin to those keepsake Polaroids you tuck away in your wallet and sometimes pin up to your desk. They tether you to the memory of watching the film or whet your curiosity about their significance. We are drawn to the “context of the instant” preserved in that one image, that arrested moment, and likelier to lose ourselves in it.
There’s something special about the anonymous graffiti artist with his own cult following.
At 11:04 p.m. on February 12, 2015—all of twenty-five hours before Valentine’s Day—Twitter started going off. Like Beyoncé and Radiohead before him, Aubrey Drake Graham had just dropped a new album without much more than a whisper of warning. It was called If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it was, like everything Drake touched in 2015, an instant smash hit. The songs were great, particularly the moody, anthemic “Know Yourself,” but true to the Drake experience, the songs were never the whole point. As the internet picked the thing apart—was it a mixtape or a real album? Was it released only to facilitate his exit from his Young Money contract? How many more songs about his mom was he going to write?—there was one thing that fascinated everyone: the cover art. Apart from a tiny Tarot-esque prayer-hands emoji at the bottom and a requisite parental advisory warning label, the cover was just seven unpunctuated words written in black on a white background, arranged into four lines, slanting downwards as they made their way from left to right, walking a crooked line between the uncontrolled scribblings of a child and the highly intentional creations of a deranged, brutalist-inspired calligrapher. It was the sort of handwriting you’d expect on a note from a psychopathic killer, perhaps written with his left hand to throw off the Feds. And the message—particularly the “too late” aspect to it—seemed to back that up. Was it a subliminal diss to Birdman, Drake’s estranged label head? Or, in the classic Drake-onian style, a kiss off to an ex (or, possibly, several exes)? As it turns out, what it was, first and foremost, was Jim Joe. 1-800-JIM-JOE Who Is Jim Joe? I’d been seeing Jim Joe’s work in the alleys and streets of Montreal since 2010 and running a Tumblr devoted to his work since not long after that. Watching my favourite graffiti artist introduce himself to the world on one of the most high-profile releases of 2015 was as pleasing as it was unexpected—the odd experience of coming across Jim Joe’s name in the storm of online content about the album, the sudden sense of recognition at the starkness of the handwriting. It was a new style for him, but something about it fit instantly. It felt like a kind of promise: that weird writers could toil in obscurity only to blossom on the big stage, that doing what you did and doing it well could garner the right kind of attention, that it was possible to have success on your own terms. But almost seven years later, the man behind the handwriting is still a mystery, and it’s arguable that he isn’t exactly experiencing success at all, let alone on whatever his terms are. He is, for all intents and purposes, still nobody. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (yet), despite his name appearing in the pages of W magazine and the New York Times, and online at High Snobiety, Juxtapoz, and The Fader, as well as at Complex on multiple occasions, and in a veritable slew of NYC blogs. He even merited a glossy (albeit brief) profile in Saturdays Magazine in 2017. A member of Kanye West’s creative team probably uploaded an old picture of him to Instagram in September 2015, but that’s the sole full-face shot that’s currently known to exist, alongside a bunch of half-hidden appearances he’s made that seem to confirm that he’s a skinny white guy. His real name isn’t public, nor is where the name Jim Joe came from. (The title of one of his gallery shows, “WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND HOW DID YOU CHOOSE IT,” may be a winking reference to the question.) Despite the amount of work he’s done in New York City and his connection to Drake’s Toronto, he claims to be from Montreal. He almost certainly attended McGill University there in 2009, meaning he’s likely in his 30s, but, short of a real name, any detail about him must be considered an educated guess at best. Less a matter of speculation is the fact that, in a few short years, he went from being the most omnipresent graffiti writer in New York City (or, at least, in the East Village and Lower East Side) to probably the hottest visual artist in the rap game, and then, nothing. Receding into the background in a way only the truly anonymous can. It’s a fascinating story, frankly. How does someone create the most iconic rap album cover of the past decade and yet remain a complete cipher? Who is he, and what is he doing now? But let’s start elsewhere. Why care about someone like this before the Drake cover? Graffiti is one of the least respected forms of art in the world, a public nuisance people pay to erase from their property, an infection that won’t go away no matter how many times it’s painted over. But it’s simple, and I know it because I’m not the only one. The truth is, Jim Joe is—was?—special. ITS MOVING KIND OF SLOW The Humble Beginnings If street cred—respect from the common fan, the absence of doubt from a performer’s narrative arc, the reality that an artist’s artifice is so fake it seems real—is the currency of the rap world, then another hip-hop pursuit, graffiti, has a rough equivalent: ups. Ups means you put in work. Ups means you’ve been taking risks. Ups means you’ve been up late making your way through back alleys, climbing things that weren’t meant to be climbed, finding your way into buildings where you don’t belong so as to access their rooftops. Ups doesn’t mean you’re good—it means you’re all over the place. For graffiti artists—writers, in the parlance—ups is literal, physical, concrete proof that you live your work. The more ups you have, the more work you’ve put in, the more cred you have in, and on, the streets. Every lamppost, there you are. Every streetcar, there you are. Every brick wall, you, you, you. Your name rings out in the arena, your enemies undone in a blizzard of fat markers, big cans, and aerosol pssssshes. Beginning in 2009 in the snowy rues and avenues of Montreal, home of his purported alma mater, McGill University, and then graduating to the avenues and alleyways of Brooklyn and Manhattan, an artist named Jim Joe started getting, as they say, mad ups. Buildings and rooftops, doorways and New York’s signature roll-down gates, lampposts and fence posts, mailboxes and bus stops, garbage and particle board, newspaper boxes and phone booths, stop signs and fire hydrants, dumpsters and bathrooms, trucks and vans and construction equipment—any solid surface seemed to be game. There’s even Jim Joe on the road. By sheer dint of his omnipresence, his tags have made it into pop culture—keen eyes can spot a Jim Joe on TV (30 Rock, Louie), in music videos (“The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” by Charles Bradley), and in film (The Big Short). Some of his tags even got archived by Google Maps before they were wiped away. Eschewing the tell-tale visual complexity of the graffiti artist, from the beginning, Jim Joe sought another form of complexity—a lyrical one. Where other writers strive to outdo one another with more complex handstyles, more overwrought tags, more colourful throwups, Jim Joe kept his style relatively simple—one colour only and no unnecessary zig-zagging or criss-crossing. From his inception, Jim Joe had a few different styles. One was a cursive, signature-like one, a scribble you’d expect to find in the lower right corner of a cheque, or an oil painting. He had a face whose features, when closely examined, turned out to spell his name, a little trompe l’oeil trick of a tag. And he had just plain JIM JOE in blocky capitals. Even your grandparents could read it. Over time, those blocky capitals edged out the other two fancier tags, though he seemed to shift their exact style every six months or so. They’d slant forward, then fall back. The E would change, or the J would shimmy a bit and start looking like a U, or lose its curl—I’ve seen people online ask who Vim Voe was before. For Jim Joe devotees—who came together on Tumblr and Instagram to discuss his art and share photos—the styles could be studied like a cross-section of bedrock, a relic from history that told a tale about its unfolding. Or perhaps they represented periods, as Picasso’s Blue. But all of this would be academic if not for what he was writing. A SLICE OF LIFE OK ASSHOLE Jim Joe’s Street Poetry Put simply, his best work was poetry: a Jenny Holzer-esque mad verse that obeyed no rhyme or reason—nor copyright law. Appropriative from the very beginning, one of the first Jim Joes I saw, long before I knew his oeuvre would be one I’d come to study for the next decade, in an alleyway off Montreal’s quiet De Maisonneuve Boulevard, just said: CALL ON ME / BY / JIM JOE. “Call On Me”—a one-line dance number whose throbbing beat and pure simplicity make it more of a Platonic form of a song than a real track—is an interesting pick, disputed as its authorship is. Some claim it’s originally by DJ Falcon and Thomas Bangalter, the latter one half of Daft Punk. Others know it for its release as an Eric Prydz single. As I read through a YouTube thread trying to determine who was its true genitor, I was convinced by both viewpoints alternatingly. In the end, I realized, it didn’t matter. In the streets, it was by Jim Joe. Many of his early works replicated the “by Jim Joe” formula; one tag in the Montreal Metro had him as the creator of Raw Power, the Stooges’ infamous 1973 LP. But, as time passed, he dropped the “by” and began simply incorporating context-free quotes, like a Bob Dylan lyric or a Dirty Pretty Things line, dropping all pretence of punctuation, even the hyphen. Some quotes he cut off, some had multiple sources. Yet more of his writings turned up nothing upon Googling—they sounded like snatches of dialogue he might have overheard wandering around, a sort of one-man Overheard in New York: SUCCESS IS EASY; I WEPT ON AN AIRPLANE TODAY; ITS COLD IN THE D. Of course, though he’s name-checked Marcel Duchamp, the art world’s favourite thief, in interviews, he was more than just other people’s quotes. Since the beginning, his words—sprayed on subway walls or across the tops of buildings, written in marker on lampposts, mailboxes, furniture left by the curb, even in sidewalk chalk—had played with the notion of the writings we expect to see in public spaces, particularly copywriting from advertisements and public service announcements. Works like “1-800-JIM-JOE” and giant swooshes with “JUST DID IT JJ” appended in place of the familiar Nike logotype were common for him, exhibiting both a playfulness and a thoughtfulness about the role of graffiti. Often, he appended years to the end of his tags, dating them as would an artist on a painting or a gallery curator. Even these couldn’t escape his penchant for rule-breaking, though, as he frequently used them to time travel—dropping dates both a year or two ahead of or behind the actual date of the tag’s creation—so frequently that eventually the only way to tell when a tag was from was to study the style of his letterforms. Though naked tags—just “JIM JOE,” nothing else—represented the majority of his work (if you’re going to get the kind of ups Jim Joe was getting in 2011 and 2012, when Gothamist noted “it is hard to look at just how much of the city he's managed to get his ink on and not be at least a little impressed” and called him “one of the most omnipresent taggers in Lower Manhattan,” you can’t treat every single tag as a grand statement), what drew his fans to his work was the words he appended with regularity. In addition to quoting others, he used them to be playful (one early one said “NOT LONG IS HOW LONG THIS TAG TOOK ME”), or meta (“MY LEAST FAVORITE JIM JOE,” read one winkingly self-deprecating tag), or to explore his predilection for tweaking pat sayings into pithy turns of phrase (“DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING STAND THERE”). His favourite words tended towards the prosaic—working, sleeping, and walking were his go-to verbs, and “please,” “OK,” “God,” and “asshole” recurred frequently—but there was a beautiful unpredictability to his writing. He was the class cut-up, always trying to recast the constants, always trying to undermine the mundane for a cheap laugh. In addition to the fact that it was hard to tell what, exactly, his pieces meant, making them a sort of Rorschach test, you never knew what the next Jim Joe you saw was going to say, and in that way, seeking new ones out became a fun game of discovery. As several different Jim Joe fans I interviewed while writing this piece pointed out, his tags turned the city into a sort of urban treasure hunt. AT LEAST YOU CAN READ IT Walking The Line Between Street Art and Graffiti Even though Jim Joe’s sheer ups earned him street cred with blogs, his text-centric, lo-fi handstyle earned him few fans in the graffiti community. Though he came up in a city with a long and storied history when it comes to spray paint, where there are art galleries devoted solely to graffiti and something called Mural Festival every summer, in the streets, Jim Joe’s work never seemed to show up in conjunction with other Montreal writers’ tags, as it would later in NYC. Rather than running with a crew, as many serious graffiti artists do, he was a lone wolf, his slight tags fighting to be seen through the haze like all the others. Part of the apparent disconnect from any Montreal scene might be down to a simple point: what he’s doing isn’t exactly graffiti. Though the average passerby would be likely to label it as such, graff scholars might be more likely to call it street art. In essence, where graffiti is insular, seeking to impress other graff writers with its omnipresence and technical skill, street art is more interested in using public spaces as a platform to communicate a message to the public travelling through those spaces—a truth about life, about the artist themselves, about the space in question, or some combination thereof. A good rule of thumb is that if your grandparents would appreciate it, it’s street art, not graffiti; though, ironically, businesses and municipal governments often hire graff writers to create street art for them in the form of murals. Indeed, street artists often start out as graff writers, and people often create both coincidentally, but given the near mutually exclusive hallmarks of the two genres, it’s rarer to see work that has a foot clearly planted in both worlds. Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, often incorporates graffiti into his work, but his work is unquestionably street art. With Jim Joe, it’s harder to say. What other graffiti artists are making use of negative space like this? Jim Joe, by merging a largely readable handstyle, a penchant for street poetry, and a relentless drive to tag, was creating something that wasn’t exactly either, and the tension between the genres produced something fascinating. Was he a really bad graffiti artist, or a graffiti-influenced street artist? Did he himself see his work in those terms? ITS PART OF SOMETHING BIGGER The Beginnings Of Jim Joe’s Art World Cred In the late 1970s, before he became an international art celebrity famous for his text-stuffed paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New York City graffiti artist. He went by the moniker SAMO—short for “same ol’ shit”—and he tagged Manhattan walls with pseudo-philosophical political messages: things like “SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE” and “SAMO©… AS AN END TO THE 9-TO-5, WENT TO COLLEGE, NOT 2-NITE HONEY BLUES.” Eventually, he ditched the practice (“SAMO© IS DEAD,” read one tag) and the latter portion of his career saw him thronged by millionaire collectors and art-world celebrities like Andy Warhol. It’s hard to know how intentionally Jim Joe was following in Basquiat’s footsteps, but before long he, too, started to attract the attention of the more graffiti-conscious end of the city’s art elite. Gallery shows at The Hole followed: first with other writers in May 2011 and then solo shows in June 2012 and January 2014, as well as one in Paris and one in Toronto. Jim Joe’s gallery work turned out to be a mixed bag. He expanded on several tropes of his wall work, retaining his low-fi drawing style and his habit of borrowing from instantly recognizable imagery (his favourites, the Nike swoosh and his stripped-down line drawing of Mona Lisa, made regular appearances) without venturing too much into territory where he would have less sure footing. Apart from da Vinci’s most famous painting, his street work had occasionally incorporated a winking relationship to the art world—once, he tagged a tree like a gallery work, and one garbage piece was a discarded canvas with, apparently, a better painting on the back. Still, his early gallery work, if devoid of serious missteps, wasn't generating much buzz. Was this the same artist that a Purple Magazine write-up had called “pure raw talent” in 2012? It seemed to suffer, as the work of street artists and graff writers often does when transplanted away from the street, from its new, less fraught context: absent the illegality of the work, was it still any good? Or, put another way, if a graffiti writer spray paints something, and nobody gets mad about it, can it have any value? If the medium was an important, inextricable part of the message, how would the message fare in a completely new, desaturated medium? In 2010, comments on a subwayartblog.com post had labelled him “the worst writer in NYC” and “Jim Joke,” and a few years later, he was the target of similar disses from a different type of critic—see articles like “Tagger Jim Joe Pretends to be an Artist @ The Hole NYC.” But while none of his gallery fare took off online the way his funnier tags had, this period was far from a step back for Jim Joe. He continued to plaster the streets and alleyways of New York, and his work began to pop up in places more than a bus ride away from his alma mater: Las Vegas, Rome, Berlin, even in the Catacombs in Paris. Meanwhile, a seeming sponsorship deal with KRINK markers and collaborations with an urban fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, helped bolster his burgeoning image as an aloof, enigmatic, artistic bad boy. Despite the detractors, by 2013 the rest of the world seemed like it was beginning to buy what Jim Joe was selling. And luckily for him, he was about to make some real connections with another group of ultra-famous artists interested in, above all else, words and quotes. MY NAME IS MY NAME How Jim Joe Got Big In The Rap Game Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Joe was able to garner fans in the rap world. The two artforms are, if not brothers, at least cousins, both kin from the four corners of the hip-hop world, along with breakdancing and DJing. In fact, graffiti scholar Anna Waclawek posits that since rap’s inception, graffiti has been used as a visual signifier of its sonic uniqueness everywhere from album covers to movie posters to advertisements, a marriage of style and sound that seems to exist as much in corporate America’s conception of Black culture as in actuality. While rhythmic, rhyming writings and writing on other people’s property both share long histories dating back to the inception of speech and writing, respectively, the modern incarnations of rap and graffiti both trace their lineage to African-Americans and Latinx culture in 1970s New York. And, in part because of where they come from, for many years they were kept to the margins of American culture, demonized by white middle- and upper-class Americans as forms of creation more degenerate than genius, more rule-breaking than real art. (And, of course, they both tend to be pursuits that glorify straight male braggadocio; but while they both tap into it and create avenues for it, as a corollary they also both often exclude women and queer people, narrowing the scope of what is said, and by whom.) But to those in the in-groups of either culture, it’s not hard to see why a creator of one might see a creator of the other as a peer. And to be honest, it’s not like Jim Joe wasn’t dropping hints. When I asked him where his inspiration came from in an email interview for Concordia’s student newspaper The Link in 2010, his response was typically cryptic (and clearly poking fun at the interview process): I CLOSE MY EYES, OPEN MY BOOK AND POINT AT SOME WORDS. THAT'S USUALLY HOW IT WORKS. The upshot of his apparently scattershot approach was that a lot of rap lyrics made their way into Jim Joe tags—Chief Keef and Lil Wayne among others, but mostly Drake lyrics. It’s not hard to imagine him listening to the moody tracks as he made his way around New York after dark, the unrelenting forward momentum of the brags and the beats propelling his aerosol hand. In rap terms, his first big break came in 2013 when Kanye tapped him for some illustration work through DONDA, his creative team—likely through the late Virgil Abloh, a Kanye-affiliated designer Jim Joe had worked with on the stunt clothing line Pyrex Vision. Though West didn’t use Jim Joe’s cover as the final Yeezus artwork, opting instead for the non-art of the see-through sleeve with the red square, a classically Jim Joe-esque rendition of the infamous ski mask portrait from West’s infamous New York Times interview—when he compared himself to Steve Jobs—took up visual landscape on the album’s iTunes page. At the time, Kanye was a lightning rod in the rap world, and it wasn’t hard to find people taking notice whenever he tried something new. Drake, expert borrower that he is, was next in line. Where Yeezy had only given Jim Joe a feature verse, if you will, adapting his talents to Kanye’s vision, Drake brought him on in more of a co-producer role, devoting the entire cover of If You’re Reading This to Jim Joe’s vision. The cover was pure Jim Joe, showcasing not just his work and his style, but also spotlighting his primary mode of communication: enigmatic, faux-deep phrases clipped of context, done up in his jerky, angular handstyle. It was also a significant departure from the typical, gaudily over-Photoshopped rap mixtape cover art aesthetic; the starkness of the If You’re Reading This cover reiterated that less really is more. While the songs were quickly embraced and added to the Drake canon—future ghostwriting rumours be damned—the cover alone was an overnight hit. The release seamlessly introduced Jim Joe to the Drake meme-o-sphere, as reworkings of the titular phrase quickly began to pop up on everyone and their mother’s Instagram feeds and Tumblr timelines. Font nerds created free, downloadable versions of the font and web nerds created “create your own Drake album cover” sites that would dress up whatever you typed in in Jim Joe’s stark, off-kilter scribble. Today, on Etsy, you can buy birthday cards or credit card covers riffing off the design, or cloth COVID masks reading “If you’re reading this, you’re too close.” Elsewhere, you can find hoodies that say “NO INFLUENCE” and hyper-niche bartender humour T-shirts: “If you’re reading this, put the vermouth in the fridge.” The handwriting style even migrated, sans “if you’re reading this,” onto T-shirts with body-positive phrases like “fat icon.” It’s an enduring look that’s lasted so long it’s no longer even really attached to anything, a direct result of an artist deeply uninterested in suing anyone for intellectual property violation. For a few years following the album drop, Jim Joe’s presence in the rap world pantheon seemed cemented. He did the If You’re Reading This-era merch and tour visuals. His work was making regular appearances on Drake’s Instagram, and other rappers wanted some of the magic: mere days after Travis Scott name-dropped him in the same breath as Basquiat in an interview with Canadian music nerd extraordinaire Nardwuar, Pusha T dropped an album that went so far as to namecheck him in the opening bars of the song “Got ‘Em Covered”: The flow plays limbo courtesy of Timbo Strip it down nigga, Jim Joe Lest anyone doubt this Jim Joe was the Jim Joe in question, Pusha stopped by Genius.com to annotate the track himself: “Jim Joe is an artist. His style is very minimal. I was introduced to him through Kanye.” An unverified annotation adds, “Jim Joe is an artist known for his very basic, stripped-down font.” U WILL DIE AS WELL Where Did Jim Joe Go? If Jim Joe’s career has had one constant, it’s been change. His home city has changed. His handstyle has been constantly evolving. His medium has shifted and expanded. He’s always been faced with the problem of the temporary quality of his work: his tags always being painted over by anti-graffiti crews, or tagged over by other writers, or even tweaked to insult him (an early detractor turned giant JIM JOE tags into RIM JOBs; I’ve also seen at least one turned into a JIM JOKE). And that’s just the spray paint and marker ones—some were even more fleeting. His chalk writings were washed away by the rain; his works on pieces of trash have all been picked up, whether by art collectors or, more often, garbage collectors. Then there were the ways in which his writing was rearranged by the city itself. A “SLEEP JIM JOE” tag on three consecutive “Post No Bills”-style panels would get jumbled up so it read “IM JOE EP J SLE;” a “SOLO SHOW” might become “SHOW SOLO;” a separate letter on a string of six garbage cans would end up showing “J M JOE,” the “I” turned around or lost to history. As a reaction to that reality, he’s had to settle for a constantly forward-looking approach. (As he told me in our 2010 email interview, “I RARELY SEE THE MAJORITY OF TAGS I DO AFTER I DO THEM AND BECAUSE OF THIS I HAVE LEARNED TO EMBRACE EPHEMERALITY. THE PHOTOGRAPHS BECOME THE WORK.”) So why shouldn’t he be able to continue to blossom and flourish, working with the crème de la crème in one of the most vibrant, culturally energizing art forms out today? Of course, there’s a bit of a hiccup here, because if his career has had a second constant, it’s been his anonymity. So little about Jim Joe has permeated out to the culture at large—in large part because he’s closely guarded his identity even as he’s become more and more famous—to the point that his secrecy and the lengths he’ll go to preserve his anonymity constitute a major chunk of what we know about him. The mystery has also made me ask myself things like: What if Jim Joe is a collective rather than a single person? What if Jim Joe is a Dread Pirate Roberts-like conceptual graffiti/street artist identity passed from one torchbearer to another over the years? Or what if Jim Joe isn’t a man at all? Some tags—“MAN BOY,” “I AM NOT HIM,” and “I AM NOT A MAN”—gesture in this direction. And is there not something queer, in a Halberstamian sense, about this refusal to embrace one’s success in the mainstream, always skulking around and doing your thing at night, in secret? On the flip side, over the years, that familiar sense of dread crept into my thoughts on occasion: If he is indeed a man, what if he’s … for lack of a better term … bad? Uncritical fandom of men is a dangerous business, after all, and the details we have about him don’t necessarily suggest someone who cares a lot about others. The lone wolf graffiti artist is someone whose M.O. is to break rules, often inconveniencing and annoying those around him. His refusal to communicate—with me or others I spoke with—other than in cryptic, all-caps sentences is only so far removed from the dictatorial vibes far too many successful male artists give off. Would it surprise anyone to discover someone like this had left behind a trail of hurt and harm? Of course, accusations of anything concrete would likely be easy to find. Around Jim Joe, though, there’s mostly just a confusing, staticky silence. While holding tight the reins on details of your own identity is a trick that many artists have used to bolster their ascensions to stardom (The Weeknd, for instance, refused interviews for the first few years of his career) or elongate one’s career by keeping the baying hounds of fame at bay (rapper MF DOOM, whose all-caps style Jim Joe likely owes a debt to, wore a mask for all his public appearances for decades prior to his 2020 death), becoming famous without anyone knowing even your name, let alone your age, birthplace, and so forth, might not even be possible anymore. How big could Jim Joe conceivably get without his real identity being exposed? Or, on the flip side, how much longer before someone (a disgruntled hater, an overeager fan) lets slip his true identity? Of course, I myself do know his real name. I learned it not from high-tech sleuthing and going down digital rabbit holes, but the old-fashioned way—from a friend of a friend. But what good is that knowledge, to me or anyone? His identity remaining a secret is an opportunity for us to get something more unusual. Who among us would out Batman, knowing that the world would be left with only a beleaguered Bruce Wayne from here on out? And yet who among us, knowing Batman’s true identity, wouldn’t want to tell someone, to tell everyone? Or at least to drop hints? It’s a temptation I push against in this very piece—trying to lay out the facts in a way that paints a complete portrait of his enigma without letting slip one detail too many. So often, carefully guarded secrets are blown to smithereens by people in love as much with the mystery of an artist as they are with the work; writing this, it was hard not to recall the way food writers could ruin secret hole-in-the-wall joints simply by alerting the general public to their existence. There’s something about the way people aren’t able to help themselves—they simply have to write about a cool secret, they simply have to flock to check it out. Some cats can’t be put back into bags; so many things in life genuinely are better left undisturbed. BUT I DONT WANT TO MAKE A PAINTING The Strange Beauty of Jim Joe’s Uncompromising Approach Still, the best way to stay anonymous is to be uninteresting. Maybe that’s something Jim Joe began to understand. Starting in about 2013, he had a really strong half-decade or so run. He did the alternate Yeezus artwork, the Drake cover, and all that OVO merch. He was namedropped a handful of times by rappers you’ve heard of. He did design work and music videos for artists you haven’t. He collaborated with a marker brand and a clothing brand. He had a handful of shows at New York’s The Hole gallery, one in Toronto, and his work on a car appeared at FIAC 2018 in Paris. There was even a limited-edition carpet in 2019. But the 2020s haven’t seen much by way of Jim Joe. While my NotJimJoe Tumblr account inbox used to be a popular destination, with user-submitted pictures of new tags appearing every few weeks or months from 2012 to 2017, its relative quietude as of late feels like a proxy for Jim Joe’s diminishing street presence. Despite the mainstream success he enjoyed in the late 2010s, submissions have slowed to a trickle in recent years. I only got one in 2020, none in 2021, and none so far in 2022. Of course, there’s nothing especially surprising about an artist shifting media as they become more successful—not least when what got you there could, in theory, mean fines or jail time. But if Jim Joe is done with tagging, he doesn’t exactly seem to be launching himself into anything else, either. There was a Zoom video class for a Harvard design course during the early days of the pandemic, and he contributed, apparently, to Virgil Abloh’s final Louis Vuitton show, S/S2022, prior to Abloh’s untimely death from a rare form of cancer in the fall of 2021. It seems likely that he’s spent at least some time at Kanye’s Sunday Service thing in Calabasas, but, as one person I spoke to said, a lot of people have collaborated with Kanye. Sure, he’s still tweeting cryptic phrases, but you can schedule those things in advance, and they don’t take a ton of work to write. So, what exactly is he doing with his time? *** Perhaps a more salient question than “Where did he go?" is “Why do I care so much?” When I first encountered a Jim Joe tag in 2010, he was nobody and, by every metric I can think of, he essentially still is. There’s no Wikipedia page; no biographical details; no fawning, sprawling magazine profiles. He also expressly wanted to remain nobody. Why did he feel worth maintaining a Tumblr about, one I’ve now worked something like forty or fifty unpaid hours on over the years? Why did he feel worth writing an essay about in my university graffiti course, and in a Google doc created in 2015 that would go on to become the framework for this piece? But there was something fascinating at the core of it all. I spoke to twelve different people while working on this essay: doing interviews over the phone, Zoom, email, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram DMs with Jim Joe fans, the owner of The Hole gallery, other people who’d interviewed him, someone who knew a family member of his, people who’d picked up one of his garbage pieces off the sidewalk and found themselves enmeshed in the strangeness of his story. Some demurred, or tried to, feeling that what they knew or had to say would amount to little, but most of them had a surprising amount to say; a few of those who didn’t clearly had a lot to share but held back for fear of compromising Jim Joe’s secrecy. Still, themes recurred—finding his tags was a sort of game; his work came to symbolize the excitement of the big city for young Americans who’d moved to New York for jobs; his mysterious approach to his persona was part of the appeal; people bonded with others, whether friends or romantic partners, who also got a kick out of his work; he was forever hard to pin down, and his email persona was relentlessly Jim Joe, to the point where it became hard to tell where the bit ended and where his real personality began—or if there was anything separating them at all. But perhaps the central compelling factor to the Jim Joe enigma was his steadfast refusal to let what was interesting about his work grow beyond his control. One of the people I spoke to for the piece highlighted how in the mid-2010s, other New York–based street artists had capitalized on their cachet, striking deals with businesses looking to use graffiti’s street cred to sell things. For Jim Joe, apparently the list of businesses worth collaborating with was vanishingly short. To this day, who knows what he does for a living. Is he still coasting off the Drake money? Does he come from wealth? His rent isn’t being paid by cushy fees from soft drink or cell phone brands. He’s not collaborating with Nike on limited-edition runs of anything. Is he intentionally being extremely selective, or are brands simply not engaging? If it’s the former, his ethos surely must’ve cost him tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the number would be in the millions. In 2017, for instance, Gucci started working with an artist named Coco Capitán whose style (cryptic quotes in a skittish handwriting) bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Joe’s, one that he appeared to comment on himself, tweeting “FIRST THEY LAUGH, THEN THEY COPY”—the line itself, of course, a rip-off. Was it a case of him having turned the opportunity down, or of having created a market for others to fill? On Instagram a few years ago, I came across an account called Maison Hefner, with over a hundred thousand followers and a coffee book deal, ripping off the same vibes and offering little but slightly less interesting quotes. “There, but for the grace of God, goes Jim Joe,” I thought. Invariably, every artist makes compromises in order to get their work out. They strike deals with organizations they have mixed feelings about, brown-nose people they hate, stay on in contracts they can no longer morally justify in order to put food on the table, to pay for their children’s educations, to maintain a standard of living they’ve grown accustomed to. What about Jim Joe? Does he have a full-on Superman-style desk job, pushing paper, hitting deadlines? Is this lull in his output a calm before the storm, or the sign of someone walking away from a compromise he’s not willing to make? He feels unbelievably improbable, an artist we need but do not fully have, an enigma wrapped in a mystery shrouded in a can of spray-paint particles. Whatever the politics lurking in the words and phrases he tacked onto his tags—he was, unsurprisingly, anti-cop, and, perhaps slightly less obviously, pro-Bernie—there was always something steadfastly, resolutely anti-capitalist to his approach. For a while I kept on waiting for him to make his next big move, wanting to time finding a publisher for this piece with something newsworthy in his career, but at this point, I’ve stopped bothering. As the person who made the crack about lots of people collaborating with Kanye put it, “He kind of just dropped off! Which is fine. Totally fine.” The idea that every artist—that every person—needs to be constantly growing towards greater heights of success isn’t just unhealthy, it’s also deeply out of touch with the reality of how life works. Until recently, his work was available on an Artsy profile with a dozen or so gallery-style works, giving off Martin Kippenberger vibes, priced (very modestly for the art world) between $2,500 and $10,000, and one garbage piece reading “YO SPLIFF WHERE DA WEED AT JIM JOE 2010” in his early-career font. I contacted Marcel Katz Art about the price but never heard back. One person I spoke to had successfully sold a piece of his garbage work, for a figure she recalled as being $700 USD, back in 2017. Poking around a bit, I even found a fake, a misattribution so half-hearted it must be intentional—perhaps the greatest sign of an artist’s success. One of the people I interviewed, a co-founder of the now-defunct website Cult of Joe—which aimed to collect what was special and what was known about him, before he emailed to ask them to take it down—shared a note from an email exchange where there’d been a discussion of collaborating on some T-shirts. In his traditionally inscrutable manner, JJ had replied “NO COIN, NO COTTON.” And yet there is such a thing as a Jim Joe T-shirt—a limited-edition collaboration with French designer Agnès B, who put on his first—and thus far, only—solo European gallery show in 2012. And, if you count them, all those bootleg tees on Etsy. One even brags that CUSTOM TEXT CAN BE MADE FOR YOU, which sounds like nothing so much as something Jim Joe would write somewhere, whether on a wall, in a tweet or on a canvas.
The author of You’ve Changed on identity, competition, cloud storage, and shedding colonial histories.
"How many accents is it normal to have?" It’s a question I avoid considering too closely, because between my American missionary education, a coming-of-age (and then some) in the U.K., and my Indian family and friends, the best description of my speech is: a mess. A mess best ignored, at that. But when my first book came out—a process involving public events, podcasts, and BuzzFeed videos—I felt, for the first time, the pressure of consistency. I needed to sound like the same person, irrespective of who I was speaking to or where I was. In other words: would the real accent please stand up? Frustratingly, though, there was no real accent, no singular authentic self. My multitudes speak differently, and so, in the end, I settled for the voice that made me feel confident, projected intelligence, and which I believed lent me the most authority (but also the safety of distance, as a young woman writing about sex in India). No prizes for guessing that this accent was British. In You’ve Changed: Fake Accents, Feminism and Other Comedies from Myanmar (Catapult), Pyae Moe Thet War writes: “Speaking from experience, if I had to make a list of the top five things about myself that have served me the most throughout my life, my American accent could very easily rank number one.” For Pyae, born and raised in Myanmar with university degrees from the U.S. and the U.K., the question of accents is also a question of privilege and perception. She writes that in comparison to her boyfriend’s supposedly “sexy” native British speech, or her friends’ “stylish” French or Italian voices, “no one’s ever described a Myanmar accent as sexy, or if they have, I certainly haven’t come across such an account.” From switching accents to passport privilege, from baking a “perfect platter of fudgy brownies” to never cooking Myanmar cuisine, the essays in Pyae Moe Thet War’s debut collection are engaging, spirited, and fast-paced accounts of what it means to be a Myanmar woman today—both inside and outside her country’s borders. Resisting easy categorization and drawing us into the author’s multiple worlds and lives, You’ve Changed candidly explores the many ways we navigate identity in a world whose mainstream culture is dominated by the West. As for accents? When Pyae first moved to the U.K., “people were very quick to point out that . . . Brummies sounded different to Scouses who sounded different to posh Etonians.” She goes to write: “When people ask me to do a Myanmar accent, I ask them what they think a Myanmar accent sounds like, and they say, ‘I don’t know, like, a Chinese one?’ But shame on me for thinking that all Brits sound the same.” Richa Kaul Padte: In You’ve Changed’s opening essay, “A Me by Any Other Name,” you reference writing the essay’s first draft in 2012 when you were a teenager in college. You also talk about revisiting things you’ve written since the age of seventeen. I can’t imagine even re-reading, forget actively using, anything I wrote at that age! What does this process look like for you? Pyae Moe Thet War: Two things help me keep track of everything I’ve ever written: I only write digitally, and I don’t believe in the delete button, at all. I also just love building on my past work. I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but my brain has a tendency to subconsciously put a pin in the pieces that (for whatever reason) it’s particularly attached to. The opening essay is a great example because that was a piece that I’d rewritten and pitched multiple times to different outlets over several years but no one ever took it (thank god!). But I just knew in my gut that it was special and that I loved it so much, and so I just kept holding onto it and periodically revising it until it found its perfect home. And I’m not always aware of what pieces of writing I’m subconsciously holding onto until something will trigger a memory, and then I go into my archives and dig it back up; and it’s the best feeling when I’m now looking at it with fresh eyes and I’m like, “Wow I’m so glad I didn’t delete this because I didn’t know how to make this better back then but I absolutely do now.” Wow, this is very inspiring to me, as I am a very chaotic notebook-writer with even worse digital organization systems. But I do sometimes glimpse memories of writing and ideas I have lost to this mess, so maybe our conversation is the kick into organization I need! I’m probably getting sidetracked here, but do you use hard drives or cloud storage for all this archiving? I’m very curious about what writers do with their stuff, like, where does it live? I am terrified of losing projects so I do pay extra to have them all backed up onto two separate cloud storage systems. I don’t do this with first/second/third drafts, but if a project is in its final stages, I’ll also email the latest version to myself. For books, I have separate folders for projects that are in the actual manuscript stages, but snippets of drafts are just floating around. I feel like I lied a little bit when I referred to my mess of a cloud storage folder as an “archive.” In my mind, archiving is meticulously organized, like a library. What I’ve done is more akin to getting a giant box with a very secure lid and just throwing everything in there; and it might take me a while to dig up something old, but I always know that it’s somewhere in the box. Does that metaphor make sense? Yes! It makes perfect sense, and is also kind of reassuring because I do think I can manage a massive, disorganized box. You write: “For a long time, my only creative goal was to have a stranger read my writing without once realizing that I wasn’t white.” It was a process of erasing context and specificities—names, places, foods—where, “instead of lying, I just left it all out.” The flip side, you explain, is that now, many years into a public writing career, “Every time I write something that doesn’t have to do with skin whitening creams or my grandmother’s curry . . . I’m terrified that my writing has lost its one appealing trait.” Has this second fear supplanted the first, or have they sort of intermingled? (Or, disappeared all together?) I try to just push that aside altogether, and, almost paradoxically, the way I do that is to let both of those fears coexist. I say this literally all the time, but these days, I write for myself—which is something that I didn’t always do, hence my many fears about how others would perceive my writing. But—and I feel like this is a cliché but it’s so true—at the end of the day, the only thing you have control over when you’re putting your work up for public consumption is the writing. People have asked me how I know when something is good enough to be published or how I overcome these fears of what other people will think, and my answer is that if I like it and I think it’s good and I enjoy reading it, then that’s all that I need. It’s also all I can do that’s entirely in my power. There’s this other aspect of writing marginalized identity that you explore with wonderful honesty: “There was an ugly knot in my stomach that . . . another Myanmar writer, especially . . . another young, female Myanmar writer, would put their book out on submission at the same time as me. . . . Am I allowed to say that? Does that break some sort of code of solidarity among writers of colour?” I loved this, because we’re constantly told, especially online, to replace a “scarcity mentality” with an “abundance mentality.” But the reality of, say, the publishing statistics that you reference in your book, is that there is only a very tiny room for marginalized people that we are implicty or explicitly competing for. I don’t know if you’ve read Zakiya Dalila Harris’ novel The Other Black Girl (it’s great!), but your words about the “other” imagined Myanmar writer really reminded me of Harris’s work. Do we perhaps need to reimagine solidarity in a way that recognizes scarcity rather than forces us to pretend at abundance? Yes, definitely! It’s okay to say “Hey, doesn’t it suck that it feels like we’re being forced to compete for so few spots?” It’s a really tricky line to walk, and I hate that the onus is on writers like ourselves to walk it; it’s also why I personally don’t like to think of these perspectives as “mentalities,” because I feel like doing so shifts the conversation to an It’s all in your head context. It takes a lot of privilege to say that it’s not a competition, and blindly pushing that narrative just sweeps these actual issues and inequalities under the rug. And it’s also a form of gaslighting, if you ask me. I specifically reference statistics because otherwise someone could try to tell me that I’m being irrational or dramatic or that there’s “room for everyone” or whatever, but the stats explicitly state otherwise. It’s like, we know it’s not a competition, but it sure does feel like it a lot of the time! And that aforementioned privilege could be in the context of race or gender or socioeconomic class or even where you are in your career. Now that I’m a published author, it’s easier for me to step back from this competition mentality, but that absolutely wasn’t the case just two years ago when we were going out on submission—and that’s something that I try to keep in mind when I talk to younger, unpublished writers. I’m like, “This is the reality of the situation. Try to not think of it as a competition, but also know that it’s normal if those feelings do creep up. It sucks! I know! We’re trying to change it!” You talk at various points about returning to Myanmar with a deeper understanding of feminism, thanks in part to your time spent at universities in the U.S. and the U.K. I wonder if you ever experience it the other way too? That is, bringing the perspectives and learnings of Myanmar feminism and women’s movements to Western feminist thought? I’m curious, because for me, even ten years after moving out of a white country, this remains the harder learning, the bigger task. I’ve always noticed a respect for mothers and grandmothers in Myanmar culture that you don’t really find in Western cultures. Yes, of course you love your mom and you celebrate Mother’s Day and stuff, but for Myanmar people, there’s this deference and recognition that this woman literally gave you life, that you are on this planet because you came out of this woman—and I don’t really see that in American or British culture. Additionally, I am ambivalent towards marriage, but if I were to ever get married, I cannot fathom changing any part of my name. Obviously it’s a personal preference, and it’s not inherently an anti-feminist decision to take your male spouse’s last name, but if my potential white fiancé got bothered by my not taking his last name, I’m not even quite sure how I’d bring it with up with Mom and Grandma because it would sound ridiculous to them that that’s even a point of contention. I will also say that I try not to view these different ideas and perspectives as contrasting, or to “pit” them against one another, which is easier said than done. When I was writing [the essay] “Laundry Load.” I absolutely worried that I was arguing that one perspective was “better” than another. What helped was a conversation with my friend Khin where I was confessing precisely this and about how I didn’t feel comfortable talking about “American” (or Western) feminism versus “Myanmar” feminism. She pointed out that my feminism and feminist thoughts were just that: my feminism and feminist thoughts and ideologies, and they were a mix of everything I’ve encountered thus far in life (as opposed to strictly “Myanmar” feminism or “Western” feminism). And that was so freeing to realize because she was absolutely right. I love how you explore the ways that names intersect with power. The name Burma was the product of British imperialism, and post-independence, the country was renamed Myanmar. It was, you write, a “shedding of . . . colonial history,” but also an act “by a new military government. . . . What better way to assert your power than by literally changing an entire name?” This really speaks to what is happening in India right now: a renewed drive towards renaming cities, streets, monuments, and airports to more Hindu-ized words. This is claimed as a rejection of British colonization, but in reality, it’s a set of actions by a right-wing Hindu government intolerant of diversity. How do you balance acknowledging the devastating brutalization of colonization with what are often equally harmful post-colonial governments? Especially when your readership is directly descended from colonizers, and still reaping imperialism’s rewards? Asking, um, for . . . a friend. I really appreciate this question because I think that a lot of white, Western readers don’t necessarily pick up on that specific conflict, because it is admittedly easier to view it as a more straightforward dichotomy when, as you say, it’s . . . not. I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but the best answer that I have is that you do acknowledge that simultaneous struggle, and you kind of never stop acknowledging it. You can’t simply overlook one side; to do so would be to ignore the historical and present complexities of our country (or countries!), and while it might be simpler to posit one approach as “better,” it’d also be inaccurate. Like 99.9% of life, stuff like this isn’t black-and-white, and I’m not sure if it’s even possible to strike a “fair” balance when talking about these topics, but it’s imperative that you’re recognizing that there are multiple discussions to be had and it’s not a clear-cut “one side clearly has the moral high ground” situation.
The author of What We Both Know on literary scenes, abusive relationships, and weary characters.
“The closest thing to perfection is a relationship unexamined,” remarks Hillary Greene in Fawn Parker’s What We Both Know (McClelland & Stewart), a novel constructed to prevent its narrator from leaving any of her family relationships unexplored. Hillary is a writer who can’t quite think of herself as one yet—but in her new role as caretaker to her famous, literary-legend father, she has a chance to produce a very unique kind of book: her own father’s memoir, assembled and ghostwritten by her hand. Leaving her life in Toronto behind, and dealing with the aftermath of her sister Pauline’s suicide, Hillary immures herself in her father’s rural home, excavating memories of his abuse and secrets from his notes, files, and increasingly distorted speech. As he fades into dementia, Hillary takes on the task of confronting the truth about her family and herself, and of constructing the last element of her father’s legacy on the page. What We Both Know is Toronto writer Parker’s third novel, after two novels with Winnipeg’s ARP Press, both intense examinations of deception, family connection, and the small and sometimes poisonous communities clustered around the worlds of writing both on-campus and off. Parker returns to these themes with increasing precision and genuinely unsettling clarity, in a relentless novel that manages to be both gently funny and ruthless. Naben Ruthnum: Hillary is tasked with writing her father’s memoir in the book—he’s in rapid mental decline from dementia, and she’s taking his notes to assemble this final book for her father, who had a storied career as a sort of Mordecai Richler or John Updike-like writer—a 20th century “lion of letters” who also, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an abuser. As Hillary performs this task, she’s getting both closer to and further away from her own family story: does this allow her to see herself more clearly? Fawn Parker: I think that’s one of her fatal flaws: she doesn’t see herself at all. She doesn’t see what’s happened to her, she isn’t really able to look at her life. She describes herself as a terrible writer, and obviously we’re not supposed to think she is, but that might be what’s missing for her (from her writing): she just doesn’t know how to capture herself. I’m interested in how emotion and connection work in your books—both here and in your first novel, Set-Point—they’re both emotional novels, to me, but skimming the Goodreads I found what I suspected I might: what reads as richly emotional to me is interpreted as cold by many other readers. I do hear that feedback a lot—even about my own person. It’s important to me, when I’m writing, to not shy away from any emotion, because what I always want to read in a book is the most raw, intense feeling. That’s what a book is to me. There’s something about going at that that does feel cold to some people, and I do see that in the Goodreads reviews—they hate the thing in the book that happens with the dog, they don’t like a lot of the sexual abuse—it’s almost like it reads like overkill, like I’m not being sensitive at all. Some of it is that—your narrators can be almost clinical in detailing what happens to them. At one point, Hillary says “When I am watched, it is as though I see myself from the outside.” These narrators also seem to write “from the outside.” I think there’s definitely a distance. I think a lot of my characters are a little bit worn down. They can describe the emotion, but it’s not even affecting them anymore. I like to write a really weary character. You think that weariness is where a reader might find a gap in emotion on the page? Yeah. The characters are never going to break down and cry. They’ve already been there, a hundred times. Are there cathartic moments in this book? I think so. It always happens in the aftermath, when Hillary is alone and she realizes something, or she goes over something for herself: that’s where her catharsis happens. It’s never really—I don’t think she’s present, a lot, in the moment. There’s genuine love and affection in certain scenes between Hillary and her father, which is one of the disturbing aspects of the relationship, especially as we find out more about him. I think it’s really specific to anyone who has loved somebody abusive. You sort of develop a way to split and to love things about them. It can also, sometimes, deepen it, because of the intensity and the toxicity of abuse. It can keep you feeling very alive and very focused. That’s how abusers get people, they’re very charming, charismatic, and lovable in some ways. But I do think that I was signalling to a certain group of people who have experienced abuse—that you do, you do love in that way. I wanted to make this a portrait of dangerous, painful love. And her father has different relationships to love and sex, including the transactional sexual relationship he once had with his ex-lover Catherine, who remains an important figure for Hillary. That stems from someone in my extended family, who used to do that. He would bring home sex workers, to the family home, and sleep with them upstairs as the rest of the family would operate downstairs as though it wasn’t happening. I thought that was so disturbingly beautiful, the chaos of that whole situation, the disrespect by the head of the household. I wanted to play off of that, this character from my family, and I wanted to explore what that would be for the sex worker—for Catherine. Who she was, who she is when she’s alone with Hillary. She’s another hurt woman, who admired this man. You brought up something else I wanted to ask about: Hillary has this sense that something is missing from her writing, that she’s not good, though she does have these little glimmers of confidence. Stylistically, how do you capture the writing of a writer who thinks of herself as incompetent? I think when she has moments [of confidence about her writing]—she’s able to experience those moments through anonymity. When she’s writing as her father, she can see it as good and bad, because it’s not hers and her name’s not on it. When it’s just hers, she projects her own badness onto everything she touches. We see her writing as her father in these excerpts you have of the memoir—but the narrative voice, I feel that’s also her writing. I think so too. I think maybe that part is a little bit of a joke, a bit of self-deprecation: the whole book could be bad. I struggle with that within myself too. With the excerpts from her father’s memoir: I think those were fun for me. They’re gross, they’re hyper-masculine. I wanted it to be something that she could see as embarrassing and over the top. Part of Hillary’s sense of being an imposter is the way she’s been earning her living for the past few years, before coming to be her father’s caretaker: she’s working an admin role in a creative writing department. She’s around writing and writers but emphasizes that she’s not actually involved. I wanted her to be stuck. She’s outside of Toronto, where she feels her true life is. She’s not in any sort of real relationship. Her only connection is with Catherine, her father’s past lover. She’s always on the outside looking in, especially in this writing position that she’s in, and I think that’s the place: maybe it’s where I feel I am sometimes, and I wanted to explore that in a more overt way. Hillary’s father has tendrils all over her life, including that job, and we get this sense that getting her that role in this department that he haunts—he stopped teaching there after a harassment scandal, but the department has never turned on him—it’s part of his controlling, abusive reach. Something I think about a lot—my previous novel is a campus novel—I think about campus politics and how that world operates. It’s not really changing at all: we keep firing men and then hiring new ones and firing them. Hillary has that moment where she reaches out to the coordinator and he just defends her father. It seems like satire, but it does seem to me like what’s actually going on. I keep saying “Hillary’s father” because he goes by a couple of names in the book: his “real” name, Marcus Greene, and the name he used throughout his writing career: Baby. What are the origins of this pseudonym? That’s my dad’s name. He’s also adopted, he’s nothing like this character, but his birth name as a foster baby was Baby Davidson. They just give you the surname of the biological mother and the first name is Baby. I thought that would be so funny for a grown man to have to revert to this name because he’s ruined his other name, Marcus Greene, in his agent’s eyes. I like the part of story of how he “ruined” his name; it’s one of the lighter parts of the book. Can you talk about that? He had this past as an anarchist poet in undergrad, under his real name. He was in a troupe of writers called the Arthurs, who published a literary magazine, or zine. His agent wanted to sell him to New York as a big, American-style writer, so they tried to kill off that true identity and make a new one out of his previous identity. It’s the Arthurs troupe part that I especially enjoyed—what part of literary culture were you touching on there? That just feels so CanLit to me, and hopefully that doesn’t sound like an insult. I love the idea of the Arthurs, even though I make fun of them. Canada’s so… no one ever wants to make it, and in previous generations it feels like there was so much collaboration and teamwork, and communities of people who really focused inward. You’d see the same people at every reading. I love the way that it operates, especially the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal little cluster, and I think that it’s so different from the way that people who do make it to New York blow up, like Baby. The Arthurs are what I love about the writing scene. And you are involved in community things—not exactly in a troupe, but you’ve run reading series, and even represented authors? Oh God, yeah. I tried to. It didn’t go very well, but I did want to. I think I was doing more harm than good, but I tried to help. How did you do more harm than good? I just didn’t sell a book. I tried to be an agent for a year and a half. I edited some contracts, so maybe did some good there, but I told myself that if I didn’t make a sale by the end of the year, it was over. What gap were you trying to fill? It’s sad to me than there’s no representation for poets, and there’s no representation for small press authors, and it’s so hard working with small presses—and hard for the presses too, because those houses are always operating on grants. But for the authors, they’re signing option clauses and they don’t know what that means, they’re getting $500 advances at best… I just wish that everyone had a little bit of a cheerleader with them, helping out. What could read as condescending about the Arthurs—which didn’t, to me—comes from a genuine fondness for this kind of community. Yeah. I do love it, and I kind of make a mockery of it. I kind of exist in both worlds, which is maybe a bad thing. Baby’s celebrity was another thing that I got stuck on, because there’s something nostalgic about it, like this memoir is not only a remembrance of his life, but of a literary life that’s increasingly rare. The kind of celebrity that Baby has is increasingly rare, boutique—what new writers have it? Sally Rooney, obviously, but it’s a very short list if we think of people in their twenties and thirties… And the ones who are there, it’s more fleeting, and I think because we all have access to this big conversation it’s more nuanced than just celebrity or not. I don’t think there is a Baby Davidson figure right now. I think it also has to do with the fading cultural primacy of literature… which obviously concerns me. You too? Absolutely. It’s all I have, literature. It simultaneously concerns me and is quite beautiful, because as the group of us narrows, the connection becomes more intense. I’m so excited when I meet other writers who really love writing and literature. Aside from the authors, there’s a constant humour to What We Both Know: certainly not a jokiness, but moments of comic remove that both break and deepen the sadness. My approach to humour is to demonstrate the things I think are so funny about people. When I write a character, I want them to exist in the humour. I don’t want to write a character who’s going to tell jokes—I know sometimes I do that—but I think the funniest thing is just the nuance of how people form a sentence, and the strange things they do.
An ode to a vibrant public commons.
“Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...” -Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978 ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life” On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering. That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys? The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day. Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love. This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth. Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes. ACT II: “Question Everything” My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago. Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire. That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile. From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.” Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today. He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate” If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message. Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys. For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places. More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites. It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too. As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons. One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky. “Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...” For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true. ACT IV: “The Hourglass” In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls. For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins. The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history. But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear. Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.” Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street. And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart. The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit? ACT V: “Speed Control Zone” Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls. This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed. The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe. And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog. Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life. That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon. Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t. Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.” With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.
Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.
Welcome to Untimely Meditations, a monthly column about fashion for people who hate fashion time, and are perpetually late. There was a time when the French ruled the world. Now, it seems more like playacting. Enter #SadMacron, a collection of images from February and March that the internet memefied, poking fun at the French president’s seeming burlesque of seriousness. Taken by Macron’s official photographer, Soazig de la Moissonoière, the pictures show the president after a (seemingly fruitless?) conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Missing his characteristic navy blue blazer, and attempting something that approximates human emotion, these images seek to launch Macron into the pantheon of historical importance. For those of us who missed Cold War myth-making the first time around, the #SadMacron images are underwhelming updates to the genre. Stealing Kennedy valour, Macron goes for the just-add-water mystique of legacy building. He colourizes and reverses Jacques Lowe’s “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph that sees JFK turned away from the audience, without internalizing why that image works. Steadying himself on the resolute desk, caught between two flags—the symbol of the people on one side, and the symbol of the presidency on the other—Lowe’s interpretation of Kennedy hinges precisely on the tension between the president’s strong silhouette and the gravity of his office. Cutting a shadowy figure, Kennedy is armoured in a midcentury suit, the look calling to mind his wife Jackie’s plea to designer Oleg Cassini to “PROTECT ME.” In contrast to Kennedy, Macron drops the jacket, and faces the audience, caught between nothing in particular. Bracketed by rococo cherubs, he is a “sober” intrusion into a world of pastels and gold. The removal of the suit jacket implies a “willingness to get down to work;” yet, without loosened tie or rolled up sleeves, it looks as if the president is posing. In other images of the #SadMacron series, we see furrowed brows and attempts at despair, all of which have the subtlety and range of a staged paparazzi shot. Yet, what is most compelling here is not what the president does or does not do, but rather the tension between the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and the codes of modernity, best exemplified through Macron’s crisp suit. * Unlike the gilded whimsy of an Ancien Regime interior, the contemporary suit means business. It is a triumph of the bourgeois mode over the aristocracy that came before it. Even without the accoutrements of work—namely, piles of papers, folders, and envelopes—the suit exudes seriousness. Changing little over centuries, the suit intrigues due to its simplicity of design, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the physique and character of its wearer, eschewing most ornamentation. For the architectural modernist, Adolf Loos, the suit was a holy garment. Per the fashion historian, Christopher Breward, Loos saw the suit as a “fundamental component of an enlightened existence…the suit had seemingly always been there to remind man of the responsibilities and prizes attached to his higher state.” It became the garment of masculine republicanism par excellence, with the psychologist J.C. Flügel remarking that it was a sign of “the great masculine renunciation,” which argued that from the late 18th century onwards, men abandoned the more ostentatious garments of the past, opting instead for sartorial minimalism. Flugel writes: “as commercial and industrial ideals conquered class after class, until they finally became accepted by the aristocracies of the more progressive countries, the plain and uniform costume associated with such ideals has, more and more, ousted the gorgeous and varied garments of the older order.” Despite being called “Jupiter” in the French press—a veiled reference to both a god and the French king, Louis XIV—Macron is neither. His penchant for the suit reveals the heart of a bourgeois technocrat whose proximity to the Sun King perhaps comes from schoolboy imaginings, lofty ambitions, and a certain inflexibility of temperament. We accept gods and kings to be more opulent in their presentation, but the suit is often an exercise in restraint. In comparison to the gleam of the crown, the contemporary suit is aesthetically parsimonious. It is the stuff of clerks, industrialists, and civil servants—hardly ordained by god to govern, but apparently the market is fitting replacement. Yet, the suit—as we now know it—has its origins in Restoration-era England, a sartorial salve in an era of instability. Though some date the birth of the suit to Revolutionary France and the Romantic era that succeeded it (or Beau Brummell, anyone?), the fashion historian David Kuchta argues that the three-piece suit emerges in the late 17th century, as a means of re-articulating aristocratic power following the English Civil War. Disagreeing with the “Great Masculine Renunciation” theory, Kuchta believes that the suit “shifted elite masculinity from a regime that valued sumptuous display as the privilege of nobility to one that rejected fashion as the concern of debauched upstarts,” instead inscribing modest consumption as a public virtue. And it started with a vest. Introduced by King Charles II in 1666, the vest, per English diarist Samuel Pepys, was an attempt to “teach the nobility thrift” by introducing a style that “[they] will never alter.” Consciously unadorned, the vest meant to deflect from condemnations of English aristocratic excess made by radical reformers such as the Puritans. Per Kuchta, the vest could also be seen as a way for the English court to combat French influence by introducing a distinctly English style. Lord Halifax wrote that “[the English must] throw off [French] fashion, and put on vests, that we might look more like a distinct people, and not be under the servility of imitation.” This economic and political rivalry with France recast luxury and tyranny as distinctly “French vices” that the English imported—at their peril—through dress. As the poet Sir Thomas Overbury wrote, “vainglory, new fashions, and the French disease are upon terms of quitting their country’s allegiance, to be made free denizens of England.” Sumptuary nationalism further solidified the trend, with wool becoming England’s “manly and moral fibre.” By 1688, extravagance in dress was seen as “base effeminacy,” with a gentleman’s reputation increasingly reliant on perceptions of their public piety, which was seen through the absence of adornment. By introducing the three-piece suit, the restoration court, according to Kuchta, “temporarily reversed the relation between power and display.” In forgoing obvious luxury, the crown regained its moral authority, and grounded it in a particular vision of masculinity—one that deliberately did away with the ornamentation of old. * English mores eventually found their way to France smuggled in the works of Enlightenment era thinkers like Voltaire. Entranced with English pragmatism, French fashion changed accordingly. It embraced English styles like the frock coat, gilet, and greatcoat, and according to the costume historian, Aileen Ribeiro, the Anglomania of the 1780s influenced French dress towards the sobriety of the black suit, a look “worn by middle class businessmen and the professional man—the lawyer, the doctor, the official—which was to become the urban dress of the nineteenth century man.” Yet, unlike the suit’s ability to unify at a time of social upheaval, Anglomania was a symptom of a society coming undone. Another influence on the suit’s design were innovations in military dress. The uniform retrained and refit bodies and minds for combat, according to Breward in The Suit: Form, Function, and Style, “the military uniform was a potent agent of court and state control,” allowing for the expression of the staunch hierarchy of the Bourbon era state. It was a sensibility that continued throughout the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era. Drawing on the historian Daniel Roche’s comments, Breward notes that “Uniform is at the heart of military logic…when war is a necessary continuation of politics. Uniform constructs the fighting man for mortal combat. It imposes control, a source of efficiency in battle and means to social power….it creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence….uniform is central to a utopian and voluntarist vision of the social which reconciles the conflict between automatic docility ‘and the concrete economy of the individual liberty in which the autonomy of each constitutes the measure of his obedience.’ It impregnates the whole of society.” For revolutionaries in particular, English style suits became the antithesis of aristocratic opulence; the simplicity and rigorousness of its tailoring made it the perfect assertion of the new order. Countering the tyranny of an immaculately baubled aristocracy, the suit was infused with the austere self-confidence of neoclassicism—a new masculinity. As Barbara Vinken writes in “What Fashion Strictly Divided,” the Revolution did away with the sybaritic noble, reducing their symbolic power to mere trinket, instead promoting “the citizen-man—the only real man—[who] stands in a negative relation to the world of frivolous appearance. He is. He does need to represent.” The suit was no mere uniform, it became, in Roche’s view, part of a new delineation of public space, [establishing] distances, a code of human and social relations, and it was all the more persuasive in that it developed an aesthetic.” * On March 14th, Macron swapped Kennedy-core for purposeful schlubbiness. Emerging for the press in jeans and a black French special forces hoodie, he looked uncharacteristically casual. Instead of memes, the internet noted a curious similarity between Macron’s new look and that of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, war hero du jour. As Oleksiy Sorokin of the Kiev Independent quipped on Twitter: “A month ago it would have been hard to imagine French President Emmanuel Macron trying to copy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now it’s the reality we live in.” Compared to Zelenskyy’s man-of-the-people greens, Macron’s new look reads as army man cosplay. It’s odd that the avatar of the “Jupiterian presidency” would even deign to be perceived in sweats. Stranger still is that anyone remotely deserving of a mythological moniker would dress like a post-Gordon Geckko style corporate raider devoid of sleaze and personality. Nevertheless, he persisted. Relatability gambits will never die. Though the internet lambasted Macron’s jeans-and-a-hoodie as an attempt to copy Ukraine’s wartime leader, his look was less post-Maidan everyman, and more 2000s tech bro. A fashion revolution of a different kind, the tech bro uniform of t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and Patagonia vests implied the same Protestant impulses as the proto-suit, with a decidedly amoral twist. Uninterested in the hereafter or any particular religious statement (unless relentless optimizing and money is your god), its “dogma,” wrote Hannah Murphy in the Financial Times, is that “minimalism and monotony yield extra productivity.” Social media titan Mark Zuckerberg famously stated, regarding the monotonousness of his dress, that his intention was to “clear [his] life to make it so that [he had] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve [the Facebook] community.” He continued: “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Though he shed the suit, he never shed one of the most potent ideas behind it; that you are what you do, not what you appear to be. By relentlessly simplifying until there’s barely anything left and posturing at a kind of anti-fashion, the tech bro uniform undermines the suit’s potency, highlighting in the latter a kind of stuffy pomposity and lack of intellectual rigour. This sentiment calls to mind Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s disdain for CEOs in suits. As he wrote in Zero to One regarding how his company chooses to invest: “pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings.” It’s a similar logic that underpinned criticisms of French aristocratic fashion during the French Revolution; if you are what you say you are, contend the investor and the critic, then why are you laden down with needless accoutrements? If power in Silicon Valley derives from mental acuity and obsessiveness, slickness and attention to detail in dress suggests a lack of intellectual virility; a need to preen and pose, and a lack of attention to what really matters, vision and code. As Thiel wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.” The tech bro uniform suggests a shift in where real power lies. The symbols of the past cannot hold. Instead, power belongs to those who create and control the attention economy: tech titans, and those best placed to surf the fickle waves of the discourse. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to seem “real,” or at the very least, “disruptive.” That’s something that the likes of Zuckerberg got, and what Zelenskyy in his army greens understands. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Macron aimed for war hero and emerged instead as dweeby tech despot. Thank god he didn’t go for a vest, bulletproof, Patagonia or otherwise. After all, we’re in the midst of a social media war—where it’s as much about creating spectacle as it is combating it. So why not pay tribute to those who ultimately shape what and how we see? Why not don the guise of the new gods? Jupiter is so passé.
How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?
In 1996, fifteen years after its seismic launch, American television network and cultural kingmaker MTV surprised viewers and skeptics alike with an untypical announcement: it was hosting a fiction-writing contest. Embarking on a new creative endeavour was not, in and of itself, unique to the brand. After all, MTV’s very existence was born from a brazen experiment uniting popular music, visual culture, and a brassy, free-swinging attitude. By the mid-nineties, the brand’s reach had unfurled in a variety of directions—often adjacent to music culture, but by no means focused on it—perhaps most famously those of animated programming (Beavis and Butthead, Æon Flux) and reality television (The Real World, Road Rules). But literature is a domain often regarded, however snobbishly, as antithetical to the sorts of stimulations available on MTV. What’s more, the lofty, cerebral associations of the written word did not align with the channel’s bawdy reputation. The knowingly provocative music video for Duran Duran’s 1981 single “Girls on Film” initiated what critics regarded as a catalogue of garish smut. As early as 1983, journalist Steven Levy described MTV in a Rolling Stone cover story as “the ultimate junk culture triumph.” The channel won a Peabody Award for its 1992 “Choose or Lose” programming, which sought to mobilize young voters, and succeeded in its aim—at MTV’s inaugural ball, newly elected president Bill Clinton declared, “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton–Gore victory.” Still, the channel’s efforts to achieve something so serious as heightened political awareness were widely lampooned. But MTV did not cower before mockery. And though its faltering start augured an uncertain future, the brand’s imprint, MTV Books, ultimately captured the hearts of its target audience of elder millennials who kept their dog-eared copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower close and lovingly at hand. I was among them. A fickle fan of MTV’s television programming, I wondered whether MTV Books could offer me the nourishment I only occasionally found in the channel’s prodigiously splashy media. It did. And, in so doing, it secured my allegiance to that hell-raising colossus that loomed at the back of my generation. MTV Books was the MTV I wanted. *** Together with its cosponsor, Pocket Books—the entity through which MTV would found its own literary imprint—the music entertainment behemoth solicited entries for “The Write Stuff” from aspiring, yet heretofore unknown, writers. The contest winner would sign the inaugural MTV Books contract, launch the imprint with their debut novel, and reap a $5,000 advance in the process. In the twenty-first century, these spoils might seem meagre, even exploitative, but a book contract, especially one tethered to such mighty commercial influence, is a seductive prospect for any labouring writer. So too is fame—and this MTV intimately understood. To qualify, “The Write Stuff” entrants were required to submit three chapters from a work in progress and be under the age of twenty-four. The latter stipulation accommodated the brand’s glorifying emphasis on youth and youth’s weightiest and most cutting-edge preoccupations. In other words, MTV was in the market for prose that aligned with its programming, so predominantly focused on the tangled, horny sociality of kids coming of age in the nineties, like the contestants on Road Rules or, when the animated sitcom premiered in 1997, Daria. Maybe the characters of a future MTV Books title watched MTV—if they had cable television, that is—or maybe they thought MTV was garbage. Regardless, targeting teens and early twenty-somethings made it more likely that the submitted manuscripts would express the current milieu. But whether due to lack of access or disinclination, the so-called “MTV Generation” hesitated to participate; at first, turnout for the “The Write Stuff” languished at two hundred entries. As the deadline neared, the New York Times ran a short article about the contest which noted, with mild derision, the shallow pool of manuscripts. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every misunderstood youth must be in want of a publisher. Or is it?” the piece asks, as if with eyebrows raised. Then-MTV executive Van Toffler expressed a similarly detached bemusement. “Apparently they’re taking their time,” he told the Times. “There’s no denying it. Literature is not the most popular art form with our audience.” The adolescents and young adults of the mid-nineties—the audience in question—had long been maligned with the rest of Generation X as inert and intellectually disengaged. Writes Jonathon I. Oake in his 2004 article “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” “Thus, the deviance of Xer subculture lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing’. . . Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict.” The prevailing assumption—accurate or not—was that young, would-be literary stars were too busy watching MTV to pick up a pen. Tepid press is press nonetheless. Despite its brevity, and its equivocations, the Times write-up must have roused interest in MTV’s new venture. Ultimately, “The Write Stuff” yielded over five hundred manuscripts, and Robin Troy, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was named the winner. Connecticut-raised Troy’s debut novel, Floating, imagines a dinky, dusty town in Arizona where its comely protagonist, Ruby, falls in love with her husband’s estranged, cowboy brother. One might imagine it adapted for late night on The WB, after Dawson’s Creek, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Skeet Ulrich smoldering against a sunset. Surely MTV Books hoped, as any imprint would, that its first title would be met with a warm reception. But when Floating was published in October 1998, it and, by extension, MTV Books, inspired brittle critique. “One of the differences between cake recipes and novels is the greater likelihood of actually getting a decent recipe from a contest,” begins Kirkus’s trade review. Individual critics were similarly grim. “If this is the future of fiction, bring on the music videos,” writes Patrick Sullivan for the Sonoma County Independent. Sullivan’s review, devastating in its sneering dismissal of Troy’s book, also insinuates that MTV’s primary cultural contributions are too feeble to portend the brand’s success in the intellectually elevated domain of book publishing. In fact, he likens Floating to a music video, referring to it as “its literary equivalent . . . full of quick cuts and perspective changes.” Whatever its accuracy, this comparison heaves with the weight of MTV’s spotted reputation, one that largely turned on the critical response to their music videos. As early as 1984, video director John Scarlett-Davis belittled the channel’s main fare as “masturbation fantasies for middle America.” Many agreed with his assessment and claimed to be repulsed by the videos’ reliance on sexed-up, scantily clad women and the broadcasting of so-called loose morals. In 1998, MTV’s viewers thirsted for replays of Brandy and Monica’s music video for their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” and teenyboppers panted after a glimpse of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys as they hopped and thrusted through their choreography—but as is so often the case, this searing popularity did not coincide with highbrow assignation. If Floating’s structural template was an MTV music video, it was doomed to sink. Yet Troy is not to blame for this fumbled literary entrée, insists the Kirkus reviewer, who nonetheless sinks their teeth into the book and leaves puncture wounds. Rather, it is MTV Books who is responsible for sending “this novel-like object” into the world and perhaps “[devastating] any ambition [Troy] might have had.” By sharing her debut with that of the MTV Books imprint, Troy shouldered a prodigious burden. Implicit in Sullivan’s review is the belief that MTV had trespassed into territory beyond its expertise, dabbling wantonly where more robust powers of creative discernment were required. As the first expression of this breach, Troy’s work was bound to attract skeptical scrutiny—when, indeed, it garnered notice at all (Floating, like so many other books written for young readers, did not receive much critical attention). The shortcomings of any novel can be wielded as evidence of larger lamentable trends; this sort of intellectual synthesis is an expected function of literary criticism. If Floating was regarded as the crude effort of an undeveloped writer, it doubled as a symptom of MTV’s thought-annihilating influence on literature. In Sullivan’s estimation, MTV Books was not so much committed to telling stories as it was concerned with perpetuating its brand aesthetic. “As a physical object, Floating seems designed to provoke the same reaction as a stuffed animal (or a Backstreet Boy),” he writes. “The book is little, it’s funky looking, but most of all, it’s terribly cute. The chapters are all roughly ten pages long (just about right for perusal during a lengthy commercial interruption).” Rather than existing for its own sake—for the sake of a narrative, and for the possibilities exclusive to writerly craft—Floating seemed designed to complement MTV’s programming. Perhaps MTV earnestly hoped to encourage the habit of reading, so long as the practice did not infringe upon its raison d’être, that is to say, televised programming. But how much influence did MTV expect to brandish when it came to young readers’ literary interests? The success or failure of one book cannot predict the life trajectory of an imprint. If Floating’s prickly reception was not auspicious, surely it did not indicate doom, or anything else, for that matter. Readerly attention is finicky; so is the ebb and flow of cultural preoccupations. As a result, meteoric success eludes most published books, whatever their flaws or strengths. Floating might have been more elegantly crafted—and it might not have mattered. *** Then, on February 1, 1999, MTV Books published The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slender, epistolary novel by debut novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Chbosky. And whether due to the narrative’s easy resonance with many among the MTV viewer set—the main characters are white, suburban high school students—the intimacy of its language, or some unquantifiable alchemy, it was a hit. To date, Perks is MTV Books’s best-selling title, and the most recognizable of the imprint’s nearly forty novels and short fiction collections. Rapid, fervent popularity amongst teenage readers fostered robust circulation; by October 2000, MTV Books was printing Perks’ hundred-thousandth copy. And twinned rivulets of momentum, cult readership and educator enthusiasm, solidified the book’s material success: after the production of a high-profile film adaptation in 2012 and a stint atop the New York Times bestseller list, the title is ubiquitous. Even without the confidence of hindsight, this commercial success would come as no surprise. Perks emerges from MTV’s crowd of early aughts literature as an eager shepherd, scouting out its flock of pubescent misfits: the guileless, the preemptively jaded, and the rest of us wobbling from one emotional pole to the other. The 2012 film adaptation, written and directed by Chbosky, cemented the book’s stature as a darling among contemporary bildungsromans, although initially, critics did not receive it with unanimous enthusiasm. In fact, Perks’ trade reviews weren’t much better than those lobbed at Floating. Kirkus called it a Salinger “rip-off,” and Publisher’s Weekly accused it of being “trite.” Then again, the sort of reader who finds Perks “trite” might prefer the irritable machismo of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An epistolary novel is structured by the pursuit of human connection, and in the case of Perks, the gesture is unvarnished in its earnest, almost puppyish, hopefulness. Chbosky’s narrator, Charlie, writes to his unnamed recipient—someone he has never met, but has reason to think well of—just as he trepidatiously begins freshman year of high school. Charlie’s only friend has recently died by suicide, and his own experiences of trauma and mental illness are growing evermore unwieldy. He is befriended by two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick. But as Charlie sinks into the novel joy of these intimacies, his determination to be an attentive and loving friend churns with a twinned, subterranean urge for self-obliteration. As a character, Charlie is emotionally generous, but he also prefers not to think about himself, and to instead commit to passive observation (he is, of course, the titular wallflower). However, this is a coming-of-age novel, and so all that Charlie carefully avoids, he must ultimately confront. As an adult, I find the novel warm and, at times, rather effortful. At sixteen, I thought it was a perfect triumph—and that, perhaps, is the appraisal that matters more. When teenage me encountered Charlie’s now-famous pronouncement, “I feel infinite,” the words hummed, carrying me to the lip of synesthesia. I received this expression of tranquil, comradely bliss—vague, yet invitingly capacious—as both revelation and yen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, in my adolescent estimation, the Rosetta Stone of teenage angst, the Key to All Adolescent Mythologies. And, as its issuer, MTV Books had distinguished itself as a purveyor of unabashed truth. Charlie’s journey towards self-understanding, strewn as it is with romantic missteps, hallucinogens, and live Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, plausibly coincides with MTV’s carefully cultivated brashness, but his wide-eyed earnestness might, at first, seem at odds with the acerbic cool so central to the brand. Then again, perhaps MTV Books was heeding the zeitgeist’s elevation of things red-heartedly sincere. For, although the nineties are canonically understood in terms of disaffection, many sought respite in softer territory. James Cameron’s Titanic, exultantly melodramatic, debuted in 1997 to near immediate, orgiastic obsession and cleaned up at the following Academy Awards. Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster’s suitably extravagant love theme, was inescapable, practically atmospheric. The Billboard Top 100 was flush with similarly impassioned declarations: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight;” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply;” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” In the meantime, America gawked at the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton’s pungently insincere sex life and the simultaneously public excoriation of Monica Lewinsky: dismal proceedings which perhaps inspired us to scout out sweeter expressions of humanity. With Perks, MTV Books sauntered nearby, pairing coming-of-age sensitivity with of-the-moment stylishness. *** It would have made sense if, after finishing Perks, I had scouted out more of Chbosky’s work. Once besotted with a literary work, this tends to be a reader’s next move: investigate the author’s back catalogue and nurture a bit of fandom. Granted, Chbosky was a relative newcomer, and in fact, he didn’t publish a second novel until 2019, twenty years after his first (this follow-up, Imaginary Friend, was published by Grand Central Publishing, not MTV Books). In 2002, the results of any research would have been lean. But I confess that I did not seek out more of his writing. Instead, I meandered the aisles of Barnes & Noble in pursuit of more titles from MTV Books, the entity that had delivered Perks’s keen fluorescence into the world. This was the first literary imprint I had ever recognized as such. And although I lacked understanding of the logistics, I was receptive to the whispers of its branding. Surely my response was no coincidence. In an interview with Variety’s Jonathan Bing, Kara Welsh, then-deputy publisher of Pocket Books, explained that Perks’s success derived partially from the imprint’s kinship with MTV. “It’s a coming-of-age story aimed right at the MTV audience,” she noted. Bing then emphasized the prodigious advertising potential generated by such porous boundaries. “MTV produced an on-air spot for the book,” he explained, “a marketing coup enjoyed by few novels, especially first novels by little-known writers.” Implicit in these remarks by Welsh and Bing is the potency of the MTV trademark and its enticing associations of stylish audacity and cultural relevance. *** The guiding principle of any brand is this: be distinct, visible, and seductive. The MTV of the early aughts achieved this end. Still unimpeded by Napster and the gradual digitization of music, it reigned as the chaotic angel of entertainment. Its logo was—and still is—unmistakable: the solid loom of the “M” pressed against that hurried, inky dash, “TV.” Every weekday, Total Request Live (TRL) commingled the anticipation of a top-ten countdown with the tomfoolery of celebrity guests. And thanks to the exposure of MTV’s Time Square studio, it whipped Midtown Manhattan into an ecstatic frenzy. The MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s answer to the Grammys, offered more feral pageantry and commitment to shock. When, in 2001, Britney Spears strutted across stage with the thick rope of an albino snake draped across her shoulders, viewers spoke of little else. I can’t recall whether I watched Britney’s performance on the night that it aired; my television privileges were spare and strictly monitored. But as an elder millennial living in suburban Virginia, I harboured an abiding influence in MTV’s programming events, like The MTV Video Music Awards, or a thrilling celebrity guest appearance on TRL. If I was home alone, I would turn on the channel in search of boy bands and Daria reruns. And if the programming ever seemed crass, absurd, or try-hard, well, I was captive nonetheless. MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on American music television (with the exception of its more benign sister channel, VH1). If one wanted to hear the buzziest hits, and if the radio felt too unpredictably curated or one-dimensional, MTV prevailed as a brash sensory playground. Of course, my peers and I complained about its provisions. The music was redundant and vanishingly deprioritized; Carson Daly presided over TRL like an amiable automaton set to power-save. And by the early aughts, happening upon a spate of music videos felt as rare as a sighting of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the same room. As Amanda Ann Klein writes in Millennials Killed the Video Star, MTV gradually supplanted music videos with reality shows like Laguna Beach and Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Market research suggested that “millennials wanted to be a part of the media they consumed.” If this was my generation’s majority opinion, then I heartily dissented. Above all else, I chased the music video’s walloping glut of sound and fleeting images. And despite increasingly paltry offerings, I continued to watch. For a cloistered high school junior, MTV—even this diminished iteration of it—signified worldliness. Its programming instructed me in how to be young and how to pretend I enjoyed it. MTV Books piqued my interest because they had published Perks, but my curiosity was amplified by their affiliation with this popular culture juggernaut whose material endorsements guided my hand and my babysitting cash. For despite my quibbles with their early aughts lineup, I loved MTV. My musical tastes were sufficiently omnivorous to be satisfied by TRL; I knew that Tori Amos and Smashing Pumpkins weren’t likely to gain airplay, but Shakira and Britney Spears would. When, in 2000, MTV broadcasted their first feature-length film, 2gether—a satirical rendering of the boy band phenomenon perpetuated by the channel—it was an urgent cinematic affair. And although I doubted that Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane would have given me the time of day, I admired the animated series as the epitome of perspicacious wit. Surely, then, an MTV literary venture would unite good storytelling with a youthful, uniquely de nos jours attitude. Perks bore out this hypothesis, and so I was motivated to follow the thread. Over the years, I had consumed a healthy dose of young adult literature; although, in 2002, that taxonomy was not so ubiquitous, at least not among my peers. (Yet American librarians have been referring to adolescents as “young adults” since the 1940s, and the term “YA literature” has long been in circulation.) There was no shortage of decent—albeit homogenous—writing for and about adolescents when MTV Books launched in 1998. And while I treated my copy of Perks with attentive ardour, it had never previously felt necessary to read about modern life in order to locate emotional or dispositional familiarity. Why had MTV Books turned my head? At the risk of ellipticity—because MTV turned heads. The allure of MTV Books was always, to some extent, aesthetic. And it’s not surprising that an imprint with MTV’s influential heft would understand the craft of packaging. As their name suggests, Pocket Books creates mass-market paperbacks, soft and easily tucked in a coat. MTV Books’ offerings were designed according to this model, and in the years following the imprint’s launch, they manifested a reliable artistic calling card: candid, lowercase typeface, thick monochromatic blocks, and scraps of imagery loosely relevant to the narrative. They were “perfect for sliding into your messenger bag clad with pins and patches,” recounts one of my high school classmates, a fellow elder millennial. Any book can be wielded as an accessory, but MTV’s paperbacks complemented a particular look, one that was punky and chic. And for someone like me, hapless in her polo shirts and humdrum shoes, they supplied an air of subversion. The irony of this—brandishing slickly designed, commercial paperbacks to adopt a more alternative posture—sailed over my tidy, pony-tailed head. Teenage rebel I decidedly was not; subversion only interested me if I could practice it in good company. MTV seemed to assure me that I was. Although its fiction traded in misfits—Perks’s Charlie, Brave New Girl’s Doreen, the titular Fuck-Up—MTV Books was offering its alienated readers a means of fitting in. What a heady, beguiling paradox: come as you are, and you can be like us. I was addicted to the possibility of belonging and resonance, particularly when it was stained with rebellious aspirations. Relatability is more pleasant when it rhymes with validation, when the person on the page reminds us of ourselves, if only we were more audacious or capable of poignancy at the most cinematic moments. Hungry for that poignancy, we lonely millennial readers chased the unruly narrators of MTV Books. Narrators who listened to The Smiths and The Pixies, who wielded “fuck” with confidence, and who pontificated self-seriously the way we did on LiveJournal. Narrators who were existentially stymied and frustrated and bewildered by eros. Narrators who were emotionally bruised, who had survived traumas that, perhaps, vibrated in time with our own. Narrators who were love-voracious yet flinty, who bore shields of self-sabotage and well-whetted wit. In return, MTV Books hailed us, offering itself as both the drug and the dealer. *** In recent years, MTV Books has abided, at least publicly, in a quiet lull, without marketing razzle-dazzle or new releases. The imprint’s most recent output was a hardcover edition of Perks commemorating its twentieth anniversary, released in September 2019. We may, however, be at the lip of an MTV Books renaissance. In January 2021, various literary media outlets broadcast the imprint’s imminent “relaunch,” to be helmed by industry veteran Christian Trimmer. I confess, I am skeptical. In a cultural milieu brimming with screen-based diversions, how can the brand wield even a portion of its early-aughts might? Does Generation Z want their MTV just as its predecessors did? With the glut of accessible digital media, I’m inclined to say no. What’s more, in a marketplace now flush with YA literature, and so many authors, both seasoned and debut, triumphing within the genre, I wonder how this new iteration of the MTV Books imprint will distinguish itself, tethered as it is to a diminished pop culture giant, a relic of a society oriented towards cable television instead of YouTube and Instagram and TikTok. *** I discovered MTV Books nearly two decades ago, when my peers and I stood unknowingly at the cusp of a great digital onslaught. But for the time being, we wandered mall food courts and Blockbusters without the truss of a cell phone, and internet activity was oriented around winking AIM chat boxes and legally dubious mp3 downloads. Dawdling in Barnes & Noble served as another reliable pastime for a bookish teenage girl too callow for parties or heavy petting. My best friend and I would station ourselves there on Friday nights, drawn to the sugary scented hodgepodge of the café’s Starbucks coffee and baked goods and the ready supply of magazines—Cosmopolitan, Glamour, NYLON—which I preferred to read at a distance from my father’s skeptical gaze. But we would also roam the aisles of books, announcing themselves like so many slick, bound promises of intellectual sophistication and worldliness. One evening, mid-meander, no doubt riding the rush of a cinnamon bun the size of my face, I spotted the MTV books; they were housed together, like a serial—The Baby-Sitter’s Club, if Kristy, Mary Anne, and Stacey were soused in cigarette smoke and sexual longing. The early aughts marketing does register as libidinous: it flirts, tosses its hair, and urges starry-eyed obsession. “Like this is the only one,” razzes a bulletin at the back of one paperback, before listing the rest of the imprint’s catalogue. “Don’t even pretend you won’t read more,” teases another. And to be fair, they had my number. After finishing Perks, I seized upon Louisa Luna’s 2001 novel, Brave New Girl, highlighter in hand. I visited Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up (1999) on intermittent bookstore visits, eyeing it like a shy girl at the high school dance. I didn’t dare bring it home. Yes, my parents would have reeled at a book entitled The Fuck-Up, but perhaps I was shrinking from an agitating boundary. Did I trust myself with such provocations? “I don’t feel like putting on MTV because all they play is trash,” narrates Luna’s protagonist, the fourteen-year-old Doreen. Another provocation, lobbed casually, and presumably at the author’s discretion. And yet its placement seems almost fastidious, as if the result of a pointed conversation. MTV hovers like a paternal spectre, insistent on performative accommodation. “We can take Luna’s joke,” they seem to say. “See? Look at us, taking it.” When I read that line as a girl, I was thunderstruck, even though I understood that this broad-swathed disdain suited Doreen’s character. She likes what she likes (The Pixies and Ted, her only friend) and is unimpressed by the solicitations of mainstream culture. I may have recognized that a behemoth like MTV could tolerate mild ribbing, that the suits in the room harboured no illusions about their motives or their product. Still, it unmoored me, this recognition of permissibility. Louisa Luna could lampoon MTV in a book they championed. But of course, this cheeky line was hegemonically sanctioned. Rebellion in MTV Books rarely takes too outlandish a shape, and it predominantly manifests in white, middle-class, able-bodied characters who are inevitably more attractive than they perceive themselves to be. Beck, of Rachel Solar-Tuttle’s 2002 novel, Number 6 Fumbles, self-medicates with booze and the company of frat boys, but still dazzles her UPenn professors with papers dashed off at the eleventh hour. In Fake Liar Cheat (2000), Tod Goldberg situates his everyman protagonist, Lonnie, in a bourgeois variation of Bonnie and Clyde—note the rhyme—but events devolve into such outlandish tumult that the narrative reads not so much as an anti-consumerist critique, but rather as the noirish wet dream of an aggrieved office drudge. Alongside Claire, a comely, chameleonic femme fatale, Lonnie frequents glitzy Los Angeles restaurants, dining and then dashing without paying the bill. When, eventually, his sneaky accomplice frames him for murder, there’s little surprise. At base, Fake Liar Cheat is a nihilistic tale for young men who want to have sex with beautiful women and then blame them for ruining their lives. Like Goldberg’s Lonnie, the unnamed narrator of The Fuck-Up nurtures a diffusive, hyper-masculine dissatisfaction that propels his undoing. He flings himself through 1980s New York City, seemingly hell-bent on bludgeoning his life, but his every predicament arrives after limpidly evident bad choices. Ultimately, he is offered salvation and takes it. MTV Books chronicled all manner of suffering in the early aughts, most of it cruel and undeserved. It was also the suffering of the systemically blessed. Despite the exploits within, these are primly woven stories that deliver snug denouements, implicitly rendering the characters’ subversions controlled and validated, their hardships, if not easily solved, then at least socially legible. Perhaps we ought not be surprised: their packaging—audacious and distinctive yet streamlined and contained—seems to promise these tidy, digestible rebellions. And for MTV Books’ target readership, so vastly dominated by white, upper- and middle-class school kids, this was a digestible, satisfying dosage. Donning the solipsistic lenses of coddled adolescence, resonance and familiarity can easily masquerade as literary virtuosity. A trendy book cover might look like an invitation to a new home, one that feels safer and intrinsically true. At the start of The Fuck-Up, Nersesian’s narrator—comfortably separated from the novel’s sordid events—briefly appraises the circumstances of his domestic harmony. “Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film,” he recounts. The vicissitudes of a placid adulthood: a dinner that tastes good, but not great; a film that entertains but doesn’t transport. This sort of mundanity might send you searching for Charlie’s beatific infinitude—searching, perhaps, in a rowdy little paperback whose logo promises wild delights. And when you’re sixteen and full of ache, you’ll believe in them.
Watching Irrfan Khan over the years
A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say. Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us. There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing. Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene. *** The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again. From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset. I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break. I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project. Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again. *** Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.” His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house. In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.” Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film. Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking. He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain. I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses. Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on. The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat. *** I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed. When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face. The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan. By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen. Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads. In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work. Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments. On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find. *** What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him. Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up. The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.” In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance. *** Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.” It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?” Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night. *** “You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives. I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us. *** The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence. Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state. I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi. After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage. Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.
“If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany.”
When the coronavirus came to New York City, I began spending more time in Central Park. For much of 2020, it was one of the few places to escape the sound of sirens, safely unmask, and inhale the scent of a hyacinth rather than your own halitosis. That patch of Manhattan, between 59th and 110th Streets and Fifth Avenue and the Avenue once known as Eighth (now Central Park West), has always felt sort of miraculous. The fact that you can be in the dizzying tumult of midtown one moment, and then suddenly lying in Kentucky bluegrass with your shoes and socks off, or gazing at a Great Egret gliding across a pond, is wondrously absurd. 18,000 trees. 843 acres. 2,373 squirrels, according to the last census. Its creators called it “the lungs of the city.” It’s also been described as a “synthetic Arcadian carpet grafted onto the grid” (Rem Koolhaas), an “Eden for everyone” (Cynthia S. Brenwall) and “#3 of 1,291 things to do in New York City” (TripAdvisor.com). During the Pandemic, the place has not only felt lovelier, but more necessary than ever. I’ll also say what everyone’s been thinking: It was especially nice without the tourists. When the pandemic hit, armed with a trusty foldable map, itself larger than many actual urban parks, I began treating Central Park as an actual destination. For the first time in eight years, I took a proper look at the carvings in the New Brunswick sandstone at Bethesda Terrace, the cast-iron filigree of the Ladies’ Pavilion, the mortarless cyclopean stones of Huddlestone Arch. I noticed the 500,000-year-old mounds of bedrock that punctuate the park, and admired the chalky-handed boulderers who have a different name for every climbing route (the Polish Traverse, Nipple Twist, Smack the Dragon). When concert halls shuttered, I realized that the Park is the most exquisitely diverse live music venue in the city. On any given day, you might hear “Moon River” on ehru, or an aria from Carmen reverberating off the tile ceiling of the Bethesda Arcade, or some white dude playing “No Scrubs” on keyboard. I include the pitchy clanging of the Delacorte Clock’s seasonal playlist in this too. Plus, nearly everywhere you go, the sweet sound of sax. One saxophonist, calling himself Young Nomadic, told me in between songs that he aspired to create a suitable “soundtrack to paradise.” I’ve become better acquainted with the Park’s wildly diverse array of sculptures, from the characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, polished by sixty years’ worth of clambering little palms, to King Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, looking like he’s about to gallop maniacally off his plinth straight into Turtle Pond. I must have perused every plaque inscription on every one of the Park’s 9,000 benches (a quote from Kung Fu Panda, on a bench in the Ramble, is a favorite) and, though I haven’t yet sampled from the Park’s veritable smorgasbord of foragable herbs, greens, nuts, berries and mushrooms, I still might. All the while, I began to grasp the enormity of the work of the Central Park Conservancy, who plant tens of thousands of flowers a year, weed, hedge, prune, mow, till and irrigate, not to mention perform a terrific range of non-horticultural jobs, like maintaining the regulation pitching mounds in the North Meadow Ballfields, or stabilizing the Park’s 193-ton granite obelisk from ancient Egypt. During the pandemic, the essential work of caring for the Park simply carried on. In an otherwise intensely confined and claustrophobic time, I especially appreciated the Ramble, the 36-acre simulacrum of an upstate forest, a kind of Disney World Adirondacks. It is the Park’s most eloquent riposte to urbanity: a place of nonlinearity, mystery, discovery. Sure, you can navigate with the help of street-referencing digits inscribed on the lampposts (whose luminaires, by the way, were redesigned in the 1980s to be “a kind of botanical event”). Or you can get pleasantly, wonderfully lost. (Incidentally, the Disney analogy holds up, in the way that the transverse roads and operations buildings are “planted” out of view, and the way those strolling the Mall in the 19th century could also glimpse Belvedere Castle in the distance, made to look farther away with Disneyland-esque optical tricks.) Most profoundly of all, I feel like I finally understood the Park as a designed work of participatory art and artifice, a scripted experience with the visitor as the protagonist. I became aware of the way, upon entering the Park, the visitor is often coaxed away from glass and steel to grass and sky with a shift in topography. Wander those meandering pedestrian pathways, and you realize the Park’s designers, working in 1858, were intentionally creating an enchanting kingdom of chlorophyll as an antidote to the stultifying rigidity of the Manhattan grid. “If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany and the labyrinthine design,” tour guide Speed Levitch told me. “It’s as if the designers of the park are saying, ‘You're not getting out of here without convening with nature. You will convene!’” * It’s fitting that the fountain at the very heart of Central Park is a symbol of healing. Since 1873, the Angel of the Waters has stood on her fountain-top perch looking over Bethesda Terrace, beckoningly visible from the promenade of the Mall. From the positioning of her feet and the upsweep of her dress, it looks as if she has just landed there. Her arm is outstretched, her palm downward, a beneficent gesture that seems to say: “Chill out, my dudes.” Originally, the Angel referred to the rejuvenating qualities of water conveyed to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. But it’s easy to see her as a more general representation of the Park and its soul-soothing powers. (Pigeon-repelling spikes on the Angel’s mighty wings undercut the beatific vibe a bit, but on the other hand: badass.) Central Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, envisioned the Park as a respite from the increasingly crowded city. Olmsted wrote, with a sometime journalist’s penchant for alliteration, on the need for relief from the “cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town,” promising a “specimen of God’s handiwork” for New Yorkers who couldn’t easily take a trip up north to actual nature. Originally, the land did not look destined to become an idyllic pleasure ground. The Ramble was an unpromising pile of rocks. The Mall was quicksand. There were bone-boiling works for the recycling of animal carcasses on the west side, and even the pigs in the area, it was noted, were gaunt. “The stench,” Olmsted noted, “was sickening.” For 15 years, a small army of workers wrestled with around 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth, laid down more than 40,000 cubic yards of fertilizer, and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. The land’s rocky outcrops were sculpted into grassy knolls, and topographical depressions were transformed into tranquil lakes. When you think of Central Park as an elaborate artifice, its outsize ambition starts to feel as egomaniacal as New York’s soaring skyline. No nature? No problem! We’ll make our own. The gently cascading waterfall in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, to pick one example, emanates from a valve hidden among artfully placed rocks, having traveled through miles of buried pipes—and gets switched off, as unceremoniously and easily as a bathroom faucet, in the winter. * Long before 2020 turned it into a pandemic catch phrase, “We’re all in this together” was already the implicit message of Central Park. Olmsted wrote proudly of parkgoers’ “evident glee at the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose … each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each … poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.” Vaux fantasized about the Park not even having walls. Unfortunately, there are walls, and the problems of the wider world, and America, don’t just stop politely at them. In 2020, in the Ramble, a white woman threatened to call the police on a Black birder after he asked her, as per Park rules, to leash her dog. It was an awful thing, made even more appalling because it occurred in Central Park, where today’s New Yorkers go to escape this kind of interpersonal friction. Historically, incidents in the Park tend to be over-reported by the media. “It shocks people,” as a park police precinct captain explained more than half a century ago, “like crime in heaven.” But there’s plenty of darkness in the annals of Central Park’s history. Of course, the park is psychically linked with the Central Park Five case, the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. Until very recently, a statue of Doctor J. Marion Sims—who performed gynecological exams on 12 enslaved women without anesthesia—stood on the Park’s perimeter. And, for all of Olmsted and Vaux’s democratic aspirations, the acquisition of land for Central Park involved the displacement of the people of Seneca Village, a community primarily made up of African American property owners. The Central Park Conservancy has worked, with the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, to uncover and display the stories of these displaced people in that section of the Park. Doctor Sims is no more. (In 2020, #BlackLivesMatter protesters streamed past the now-empty spot.) Similarly, this January, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by two nameless African and Native American men, was removed from outside the American Museum of Natural History, across from the Park. These are welcome healing gestures, comforting in their symbolism. But the humane spirit of Central Park is on display year-round. You simply have to pay a visit on a pleasant day, and drink up the sight of New Yorkers enjoying literal common ground with other New Yorkers. This is the real attraction of the place. The catch-and-release fishing, sailboat-racing and snowman-building; the basketballers shooting hoops, archers shooting arrows and dancers shooting TikTok content. Joggers circling the billion-gallon Reservoir, cyclists hurtling around the bike track CONVERSING VERY LOUDLY, Instagram influencers doing whatever it is they do. The birders, moving in flocks, in silent pursuit of the latest celebrity bird, and Beatles singalongs at the teardrop-shaped parcel of land called Strawberry Fields. (Let’s be thankful it’s a Beatle who gets a memorial in Central Park, and not, say, a member of Bachman Turner Overdrive.) And all the parkgoers strolling the elm-lined cathedral nave of the Mall where parkgoers have strolled for 150 years, where youngsters once enjoyed goat-and-cart rides and where future generations will, I guess, zip along on hoverboards. A lot of my knowledge of the Park was absorbed from the “parkies,” like Birding Bob, whose ornithological email updates I receive every couple of days; “Wild Man” Steve Brill, who was once arrested in the Park for eating a dandelion; and Janet Ruttenberg, who has been painting Sheep Meadow for twenty years with a paintbrush the size of a broom, drawn to that spot, she told me, by the “humanity.” On any given walk, I’ll be politely asked to take a photo, invited for a game of chess, or offered a free hamster (I declined). So, sure, Central Park is an escape from the city. But, at its best, and even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a thrilling and vibrant part of the city too. This was surely what E.B. White was getting at in Here is New York, in which he writes of the “magical occasion” of an evening on the Mall, lovers on a bench “swathed in music,” strollers and popsicles, breeze-ballooned skirts and bare shoulders. Frankly, Matthew Perry puts it more succinctly in Fools Rush In. “Stay here long enough,” he says, “and the whole city walks by.” Right now, crocuses and daffodils are emerging from the soil, turtles are clambering onto rocks to get some sun, and the Ramble is a veritable Grand Central Terminal of avian passers-through on the Atlantic Flyway. Before long, the first buds of the Yoshino cherries will blossom, the boats (and that one gondola) will venture back out onto the Lake, and thesps will be treading the boards of the Delacorte Theatre in the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It (“tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones”).’’ Sitting in the shade of a tree planted 150 years ago, I’m reminded how the very existence of the Park was an act of generosity and optimism for the future. That the forward-looking New Yorkers conceived of it fundamentally as a gift to… well, us. When it seems that all is lost, I feel lucky to make the most of that gift, and grateful for a part of the city that does everything it can to remind you that life is beautiful, and will go on. Unfortunately, the tourists are truly back now, but I guess you take the good with the bad.