Hazlitt Magazine

Closing Pandora's Box

Reckoning with the swift decline of Twitter. 

'The Language of Other Things': An Interview with Stephanie LaCava

The author of I Fear My Pain Interests You on inevitable doom, writing through absence, and cows. 

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What Does the Sea Sound Like?

On music for floating.

There’s a photo I love of the French documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé on the coast of western France. The year is 1935. Painlevé wears a classic oval-shaped dive mask which completely covers his face—nose, mouth, and all. There’s an oxygen tank slung over his shoulder, a relatively new and novel invention for the time. But it’s his arms that draw your focus. The muscles in his forearm ripple as he grips a massive metal box, leaning backwards to counterbalance the contraption’s immense weight. The box is half as long as Painlevé is tall and contains a crudely waterproofed camera. When people think of underwater documentaries, if they think of such things at all, they probably think of the legendary subaquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau. But Painlevé came first. He was one of the first filmmakers to use underwater footage in a film, and he wanted to depict the minutiae of undersea life as naturally and authentically as possible—right down to his choice of music. Painlevé’s films prompted a simple question: What should the sea sound like? What should a viewer hear when watching kelp forests sway or seahorses fight? It wasn’t something anyone had to consider before, not seriously. Songs about the sea tended to focus on distance, adventure, danger, and longing—on human concerns happening on the surface, not life beneath the waves. But Painlevé wanted his audience to see the ocean as a world like our own; a world of dignified seahorses, stylish crabs, and seductive octopuses, the human condition rendered bubbling and bulbous. He wanted emotion, movement and vibe. Much to the chagrin of scientists, who did not want such things, Painlevé chose jazz. I hadn’t given the question of what the sea should sound like much thought until about a decade ago when I first heard The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a 2002 album from the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. I learned that to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium, organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival thought it would be clever to connect past and present. They wanted to have modern-day musicians score old silent films with new, original work. The musicians would be free to interpret the films however they saw fit. In 2000, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine was tasked with scoring a collection of avant-garde shorts from filmmakers such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger. It went well enough that the festival’s organizers wanted to do it again the following year. They asked Yo La Tengo to score a handful of Painlevé’s early films. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science captures the result. In Yo La Tengo’s interpretation, synthesizers whoosh like water being filtered through mouths and gills. Brushes dance on drums as delicately as fins, while Rhodes piano shimmers like refracted light. Guitars noodle in the distance, drenched in tremolo and reverb on long, looping delays, while creatures jerk, thrust, jitter, flop, flap, wiggle, pulse, and convulse on-screen. The constant thumping of the bass drum evokes the distant churn of the tide as heard from the seafloor, sending seaweed into a slow dance, shuffling side-to-side. At times, notes slide and linger while sonar pings skip like pebbles across a placid surface. At others, there is discord, danger, chaos—the crunch of crustaceans in combat, the crash of cresting waves, a flurry of fuzz, and deep, urgent toms. The whole thing is sublime. It is music for floating, drifting, writing, thinking. But in the depths of my mind lies a dark, terrifying thought: that, increasingly, this is also the soundtrack to a threatened world, a sonic snapshot of a place that no longer exists.  *  The sea, of course, is far from silent. In fact, the fathoms are full of sound: the clicks and whines of dolphins and whales, the low rumble of distant earthquakes, the scrape of tsunamis on the seafloor. There’s the belch of volcanic vents, the breath of glaciers through freeze and thaw, or the mechanical salsa of passing ships. But just because the sounds are there doesn’t mean they’re easy to hear; you can’t stroll the seafloor like you would a forest, and what’s audible from shore isn’t a proxy for life below. The problem has always been accessibility. So, for decades, it’s often fallen to musicians to bring the soundscape of the sea—both real and imagined—to life. In the 1960s, surf rockers ran their jangly guitars through reverb units to create sonic textures that washed over listeners like waves, paired with dark, propulsive picking that spoke to the danger that lurked below. Dub went further, chaining reverb, delays, equalizers, and other effects to "displace time, shift the beat, heighten a mood, [and] suspend a moment,” writes musician and author David Toop in his book Ocean of Sound. As per Toop, the music evokes “the sonar transmit pulses, reverberations and echoes of underwater echo ranging and bioacoustics.” Synthesizers proved especially versatile, with alien tones both eerie and fantastical, equally fit for space and sea, separate sides of the same tape. By this point, even Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon—his longtime collaborator and wife—had abandoned traditional jazz, scoring their 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus with a soundtrack of experimental electronic sounds. Around the same time, popular music had started replacing more traditional orchestral arrangements in film and TV. Underwater documentary was rising in popularity, too—thanks, in no small part, to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Before long, the trajectories of musical experimentation and ocean exploration converged, the ocean as both subject and vibe. One of my favourite artifacts from this era is Sven Libaek’s Inner Space. Libaek composed the music between 1965 and 1974 for a long-running Australian television documentary of the same name that followed the adventures of shark-diving couple Ron and Valerie Taylor. The reissue record label Light in the Attic calls the compilation one of the key entries in the underwater music genre. Another label, Trunk, described Inner Space as “where jazz meets the great white shark, where waltzes meet wildfowl and longboard surfers meet a lively sea of cool flutes and groovy, spacey, moody vibes.” Votary Records calls it “a whirlpool of sublime aquatic jazz exotica.” I can confirm all of those descriptions are apt. But what I love most about Inner Space is the sense of depth and movement infused in some of my favourite arrangements—the soft yet propulsive patter of brushes on the hi-hats, the shimmering tones of reverb-drenched vibraphone, the gurgle of electric organ chords. It’s the slippery sway of the wah-wah and the tremble of a tremolo guitar, fingers flitting across the fretboard like frantic fish, and, best of all, the low, mysterious reediness of the bass flute—urgent and undulating and undeniably cool. I first encountered Libaek’s music on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—both a spoof of and homage to Cousteau’s televised adventures. But whereas the music used by Cousteau feels relatively staid and predictably orchestral, Libaek’s music is stylish and electric; a perfect sonic match for Anderson’s whimsical, impressionist vision of the sea. What I’ve since learned is that Libaek was not operating in a vacuum. By the 1970s, an entire genre of underwater music—or aquatic jazz exotica—had emerged, fuelled by the growing demand for television soundtracks and film scores that might evoke the sea. There’s Italian composer Egisto Macchi’s Fauna Marina, “a set of eleven compositions intended to accompany the images of a hypothetical fish fauna documentary.” There is also Alessandro Alessandroni’s electronic Biologia Marina, Daniele Patucchi’s Men Of The Sea, and Armando Sciascia’s Sea Fantasy. The Sonor Music Editions catalogue has more. The Italians are so well represented in the genre that I recently discovered a sprawling Spotify playlist devoted solely to Italian library music, with no shortage of underwater-themed tracks. Much of it is deeply weird, atmospheric, and experimental; it’s what you might expect from jazz and rock musicians working in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the boundaries between genres collapsing beneath the sonic weight of new technologies and their new sounds. Cousteau famously called the sea “the silent world”—but here were visions of the sea so lush and sonically rich they were practically not of this planet. This was no accident. From Lovecraft to Libaek, there is a rich tradition of alien allusion in our descriptions of the sea. Libaek had already gestured to the similarities between sea and cosmos with the term Inner Space, but he made the connection explicit with his next collection: Solar Flares. Considered a spiritual companion to his ocean work, Solar Flares uses a similar sonic palette, reinforcing the notion of sea as space and space as sea—remote, inhospitable, mysterious, and largely unexplored, but also alive with wonder and the promise of life. Wes Anderson scored much of The Life Aquatic with gentle acoustic covers of Starman-era Bowie by Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge—who appears throughout the film as a bemused, Cousteau-like deckhand, looking out across the endless surface, asking “is there life on Mars?” But of course, we know the sea is not space. It is here, and it is a part of us. And the connection between what happens on land and sea has never been more urgent, more clear. *  In Painlevé’s early days, underwater documentary filmmaking was no easy feat. Sometimes it meant spending hours wading in the shallow coastal waters of Saint Raphaël, gripping his heavy waterproof camera, or draped over the rocks on his stomach, arms half submerged like a diver, frozen mid-entry, camera held fast beneath the waves. And, as recounted in the book Science Is Fiction, this was an improvement on his prior films.  Before the invention of the Fernez-Le Prieur breathing apparatus, Painlevé had to be tethered to a boat and fed air through a hose. He resurfaced often—to replace the camera’s film, which could only capture a few seconds at a time, and to curse the boat’s crew for pumping either too much air or not enough. When it wasn’t feasible to record his critters underwater, Painlevé would instead try to recreate their natural environments in a tank—with oft-disastrous results. While attempting to film male seahorses giving birth in tanks in his Paris studio, their enormous glass aquariums shattered twice under the intense heat of the lights needed for high-speed filming. The sudden gush of seawater sent crew members flying and corroded spare camera parts. Another time, an octopus escaped its tank, fled the studio, and made it to an embankment next door, startling hapless bathers. During a trip to Brittany, the most northwestern point of France, Painlevé and crew lugged an incredible amount of gear in the back of a truck: two generators, myriad lamps, a microscope, and of course, containers to hold his actors. It was a disaster. Glassware smashed. Equipment melted. The truck broke down. They overloaded their lights with electrical current, broke one of the generators, and even set fire to a fireproof screen. Sand blew everywhere, into everything, wreaking havoc on animals and instruments alike.  But the Fernez-Le Prieur was so freeing that Painlevé imagined one day building an underwater studio—a place where he might float with ease in perfect conditions, able to visit his subjects at home at last. Though he died in 1989, I wonder what he might have made of something like the BBC’s Blue Planet II. To me, it feels closest to the vision Painlevé had in mind. Filmmakers for the 2017 series spent more than six thousand hours capturing underwater footage, going to depths and extremes Painlevé could have only dreamed. They piloted submersibles, used remotely operated vehicles, shot with cutting-edge cameras designed to capture the most exquisite of details in ultra-low light. The quality is remarkable, resplendent, a hallucinogenic smear of texture and colour. Viewed like this, I tend to think of the sea as an alien place; all those tentacles, those ghostly pools of brine. It hardly seems real. And then there’s the music: grand, sweeping, orchestral, dramatic. It has all the style and substance of a big-budget film score—not bad per se, but comfortable and familiar—which made sense once I realized prolific Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer was involved. It reminded me, at least conceptually, of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which also paired seascapes with orchestral scores—soundtracks for the sea, but not exactly of it. Which brings me back to Painlevé’s early question: what should the sea sound like, then? The sounds I find the most compelling in Blue Planet II are also the most fleeting; they don’t come from horns or strings, but from dolphins and shrimp. The truth, I think, is as radical as it is simple: the sea should sound exactly as it sounds.  * If you asked me to describe the sound of shrimp, I would say: like raindrops in a puddle, the crackling of a log fire, like branches snapping, or the electromagnetic morse code of cellphone data passing through a speaker. This, to me, is how shrimp sound on Jana Winderen’s 2009 composition “The Noisiest Guys on the Planet.” Winderen is a Norwegian artist who mainly works with field recordings of underwater sound. Over more than a decade, Winderen has captured the sounds of fish, melting ice, whales, shrimp, and the inescapable noises of human activity that seep into even our deepest underwater soundscapes. What I love about Winderen’s work is that it doesn’t merely evoke the ocean; it is the ocean. In the right place, with the right equipment, it’s startling just how much you can hear. Winderen’s main tool is the hydrophone—an extremely sensitive underwater microphone that converts pressure changes into sounds we can hear—and she often deploys three or four at once, dangling them from cables at different depths. The resulting works are both a reminder and a provocation—that the sea is not silent, that there is so much for us to hear, and that what we can hear is not necessarily healthy. Speaking on the BBC podcast Between the Ears in an episode about her practice, Winderen says there is almost always engine noise present in her recordings. Shipping traffic, seismic testing, even vibrations from land—“from the first moment where I put a hydrophone in the water, you immediately start to hear human-created sounds,” she says. The types of creatures she can hear, the sounds they make, the sounds we make—all of it reflects how the thrum of human activity has irreparably changed our planet, and how the consequences of our actions ripple out over time.   Winderen is part of a long lineage of scientists, artists, composers, and musicians who have used hydrophone recordings for decades to surface rarely heard sounds of the sea. The 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale was such a revelation upon its release that it became one of the most popular nature recordings of all time, with more than 125,000 copies sold. Contrary to Cousteau’s The Silent World, advances in hydrophone technology have made field recordings an integral part of underwater documentary film. But Winderen, I think, is in a league of her own. Her recordings are inherently, unmistakably, the sound of climate change, and for Winderen, sound is a way to reorient our relationship to the crisis. “Sound is a more direct, physical presence,” said Winderen on Between the Ears. “An image of an iceberg melting—it is looking very beautiful and will always be at a distance from you, while a sound comes very close and all around you.” Over the years, Winderen has presented many of her works as large-scale sound installations—the kind where sound can wash over listeners like the sea. But thankfully, with a good pair of headphones, you can also listen to many of them at home. Depending on the composition, whales can sound like an orchestra tuning up, haunted bows sliding across a ghostly violin. Evaporation is a cavernous, expansive account of disappearing ice—nearly 20 minutes of deep background rumble and industrial-sounding drone against the foreground’s drips, bubbles and squeals. Energy Field is like a slithering wall of sound, layering wind, waves, and wildlife. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone often sounds like the endless descent of a malevolent elevator—stopping only for clicks, whines, and creaks that punctuate distant, glassy whispers. The sounds in these recordings are utterly, overwhelmingly alive, but it’s impossible not to wonder: for how long? “What Winderen is creating, then, is not just music but—in the idiom of sound art—documents as well,” wrote MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich. “If earlier generations of composers sought simply to replicate a submarine sublime, today’s sound artists hope not just to soak in sound but also to broker ear-opening accounts of human relations with the water around us.” To Helmreich, Winderen’s field recordings are like listening to the vital signs of our oceans—of “soundscapes that harbor evidence of global warming, of sea creatures under stress.”  In that sense, I’ve also started to think of the works of Sven Libaek and Yo La Tengo as documents in their own way—important records of how we used to think about the ocean, creativity caught in amber, reminders of what we stand to lose. To me, listening to the work of Libaek and Yo La Tengo is like listening to the platonic ideal of a healthy ocean, an imagined ocean, the polar opposite of what you can hear in Winderen’s work. As much as I enjoy these albums, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization they do more than merely evoke an exaggerated vision of an uncharted and mysterious sea; they exist as soundtracks to a worldview, an era, an innocence that can no longer exist today. The ocean environments that inspired these works are increasingly threatened. Before long, they may not look so redolent with life. And when that happens, what kind of music will we make instead? Perhaps the sea may start to inspire sounds a lot like the surface—those of shipping and mining and warming and death. “Dialing [into] deployments of sound deleterious to dolphins and whales might reveal a genre of underwater music no one has yet considered: cetacean death metal,” Helmreich writes.  Ironically, I think it’s the surreality of that submarine sublime that keeps me coming back to the music of Libaek and Yo La Tengo. It’s not how the sea actually sounds, but how I hope it would, and maybe again could—healthy, hopeful. The ocean as both subject and vibe. Listen to Matthew's Sea Sounds playlist on Apple Music or Spotify. 
Closing Pandora’s Box

Reckoning with the swift decline of Twitter. 

Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. I first signed up for Twitter in March of 2009. My tech-savvy friend and tourmate DJ Co-op encouraged me to start an account. Already fatigued after migrating from MySpace to Facebook in 2007, I asked him what the point was. Turns out this new website was essentially a micro-blogging application that mimicked Facebook status updates. You could text out a tweet via SMS and it would show up online for all to see. Everyone was talking about what they had for lunch or what they were listening to. Here’s an example of an early tweet by me: [[{"fid":"6708741","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In the years that went by, I became increasingly addicted to the dopamine rush provided by this app. I started using it as a news aggregator. Breaking news was reported on Twitter at a speed that made going on Facebook feel like waiting for the town crier to shout the day’s comings and goings. Twitter became the perfect place to discuss live events like award shows and sports matches as they happened. Black Twitter seemed to be where every meme on the internet originated. The app unexpectedly became a useful tool for revolutionary dissent and organizing protests. Things that happened on Twitter began to impact the real world. My Twitter account probably contributed to me getting a book deal. I used Twitter to crowdfund hundreds of dollars for the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. Fans who followed me on Twitter once helped me find a vintage jersey of the Edmonton Trappers, my home city’s long defunct AAA baseball team. Lars Ulrich started following me, played my song on his Apple Music radio show, gave me backstage passes to Metallica’s 2017 Toronto show at Rogers Centre and invited me to a private afterparty with a full banquet where I talked at length with his personal pilot about the English Beat.  Still, I’m somewhat relieved to see Twitter decline, if only for my own sanity. When Trump used it liberally during his presidency, there was a simmering sense of unpredictability and chaos for four straight years. He would threaten countries with nuclear war with the same level of nonchalance I might muster to tweet about a really good croissant. After Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was assassinated and Flight PS752 was accidentally shot down by Iranian missiles in January 2020, I combed through tweets about a potential World War III and worried for my wife’s relatives in the region. I remember doomscrolling during the early months of the pandemic, following every update on the virus. It’s hard to think of a time in my life when I ever felt worse than when I was doing that. Twitter is the answer to the question, “What if you could know about everything that was happening in the world at once?” What that amounted to was immediate knowledge of every celebrity death and global natural disaster as well as every instance of political malfeasance and interpersonal wrongdoing on the planet, packaged into an addictive format that made it impossible to look away.  Seeing one of your tweets blow up can be intoxicating. A tweet I made earlier this month was seen by literally a million people. Twitter is probably the most efficient tool for the dissemination of information (and disinformation) in the history of mankind. But to quote Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, with a business like this, there's a gnarly downside. Viral tweets brought me media attention and opportunities to write for money. But those same posts have also brought me an outsized tsunami of hate and anger from total strangers who even follow me to other platforms to give me a piece of their mind. Who profited more from one of my viral tweets: me or the platform? Every time I posted about a public event, it got attention, made its way off of the app and became news. News producers were always roving around for content that resonated with people and garnered engagement. I felt obligated to be thoughtful and responsible with my personal platform when all I wanted to do when I first started my account was make jokes about basketball players.  Social media platforms are only as valuable as the people who use them. To paraphrase Nilay Patel in his devastating piece for the Verge, when Elon bought Twitter, he essentially paid $44 billion dollars to buy himself. As Musk becomes more hostile to the authors, journalists, artists and public figures who helped turn Twitter into the internet’s town square, the value of his asset declines with every notable person who leaves. Musk claims that “Twitter usage is at an all-time high lol,” but who are these users? Are they mostly trolls attracted to Twitter’s new thirst for “free speech” that saw instances of the n-word rise by 500% after Elon’s acquisition of the app? Are they flocking to the app to make one of the countless parody accounts that have now inundated the site, one of which caused Eli Lilly’s stock price to tank? Or are they just there to watch the car crash unfold?  Musk’s desperate gambit of convincing people to pay $8 a month for a verification badge was a clear attempt to destabilize the app ahead of the US midterm elections as well as a way to lessen the influence of public figures. But it’s also an idea that only a rich guy would come up with: buying status instead of earning it. If you pay for enough bottles of champagne with sparklers to get brought to your private table at the club, people might start thinking that you’re someone important. Unfortunately, you can’t buy credibility. People who paid for the now-suspended Twitter Blue program have since become an object of ridicule on the app. Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter shows the corrupting influence of capitalism on the web. He fired half of the company’s staff immediately after taking the reins. He came up with the ill-fated $8 verification badge program to increase revenue. Musk is essentially pushing the “freemium” model used by games on the App Store that incentivizes in-app purchases and upgrades that improve your user experience. For that system to become profitable, the free experience has to be made more intolerable. We’ve seen it happen on Facebook and Instagram where organic engagement has been throttled and paying for ads is the only way to reach an audience. There hasn’t been a meaningful update to Facebook’s rickety user experience in years but the app’s advertising infrastructure is possibly the most robust on the internet. It shows you where their priority lies. Damon K’s excellent recent post inspired me to sign up to Mastodon, a competing social media app. I was reluctant when I saw a few folks complaining about it on Twitter, all of whom were verified users with massive followings who had reason to be unreceptive to an alternative. They found it confusing and unintuitive. When you sign up, you pick a home server. From there, you can post on other user’s pages on other servers, which is referred to as “the fediverse.” I haven’t totally gotten the hang of it yet but I do appreciate one of Mastodon’s founding principles: they’re a decentralized network.  As a result, there’s no profit motive. There are no ads. Every server is controlled by someone else. There is no single owner of Mastodon. You can post multiple links on your profile page because no one cares if your followers go elsewhere. Of course, all of this could change with time if the platform grows and somehow gets infiltrated by corporate interest. Mastodon recently attracted one million active monthly users for the first time in light of Musk’s takeover. Twitter has around 237.8 million active users EVERY DAY. Thankfully, Mastodon isn’t trying to be Twitter; it’s aiming for something different. Perhaps the difficult learning curve might lead to something slower and more thoughtful. Maybe I'll be free to talk about what I like there without the looming spectre of going viral hanging over my head. I'm ready to let go of the pressure to produce the content that keeps Elon's investment whirring. I won't be making a big performative post about how I'm leaving Twitter. But I will certainly be more mindful of how much of my intellectual property I use there and definitely how much mental real estate I let the app take up in my mind going forward.
‘The Language of Other Things’: An Interview with Stephanie LaCava

The author of I Fear My Pain Interests You on inevitable doom, writing through absence, and cows. 

How does a character in a Stephanie LaCava novel mourn? When I called her to discuss the release of her second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You (Verso Books), it was a weekend morning for me and the afternoon for her: just a few days since coming from an event in Paris, she was spending some time in London. Jean-Luc Godard had passed away only four days earlier, and on that Saturday a line was snaking all the way around the city for British citizens to view their deceased queen. If the internet can be said to have an atmosphere, then the impulse to pay homage to a great filmmaker was strong in the air; a resistance to an overly nostalgic or conciliatory narrative that tried to erase the monarchy’s endless oppressions, even more so. In between both was that great dissociative distance that comes from viewing life through a pixelated screen. I pictured one of LaCava’s heroines clicking through tweets the way someone stuck in traffic might change the radio station: having given up on relief, she might still find distraction. I Fear My Pain Interests You is the story of Margot Highsmith, a daughter born to two parents with two very different kinds of fame. She has inherited her mother’s generational glamour, and her father’s punk credentials. With this comes a perpetual grief that she is not quite sure how to bear: she never chose to be looked at so intently, the subject of paparazzi photos and scrutiny by obsessive fans, but now that she has the attention, she is also not so sure she would choose to give it up. Half-heartedly courting an acting career while navigating the micromanagement of her grandmother’s guardianship, Margot is dimly aware that she is missing something other people have, besides anonymity. She has a condition called congenital analgesia, meaning she cannot experience physical pain.  This is, as the title suggests, a worrying way to receive someone’s intrigue. As the novel progresses, her affair with an older, more powerful director throws her into a different kind of feeling; her chance encounter with a man in a graveyard (only referred to as “Graves”) begins, after he discovers her diagnosis, to hint at what might be some ulterior motives. Depressed, isolated, and deprived of her own creative outlet, Margot’s plight is tragic, but not without its own perverse sense of comedy: no pain, no fame. LaCava’s first novel was The Superrationals, about missed connections and distant lovers amongst academics and art world workers. A critic, essayist, memoirist, and the founder of an independent publishing house called Small Press, she is intimately familiar with the way lives can contract or expand around the facts of a biography. In both works, LaCava begins her stories in the small circles that congregate around even smaller creative scenes, pulling loose the tight beliefs characters have about their power and what they might deserve, their reaction to or possession of beauty, and the limits of reaching out to people just like them. They cherish style, reject taste, and revere icons. In the interview below, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, LaCava and I spoke about her process, her artistic associations, and what comes after the end of writing a book. Haley Mlotek: Sometimes it seems that certain themes all rise to the surface at the same time. As I read I Fear My Pain Interests You I was thinking of Crimes of the Future, and how people find themselves linked around a similar idea. When you began working on this novel, were you actively noticing some of those references, or was it more like you found them as you went along? Stephanie LaCava: The book was just what was going on with me at that moment, in my own vortex. It had nothing to do with anything else, but I find it magical and fascinating when it does happen in the culture. My friend got me that shirt from the film— “Surgery Is The New Sex”—it was so crazy that that happened.  But then, there are ideas right under the surface, and a lot of them are political themes coming up at the time. They’re macro themes that are broken down into visual art, music, anything like that, and it just sort of happens because what’s in the air is often what’s happening in our world all over. There are certainly what could be called fashions of literature, where the political climate or cultural obsessions that writers are exploring are easily grouped together. I’ll have to say that that question has attacked me from all angles in ways I didn’t expect. People have tried to ask, like, Are you part of the disassociated feminism thing? And the answer is definitely not, and I explained why. Then they would ask, Are you part of the sad little pretty girl thing? And I would say definitely not, and here’s why. Is it similar to My Year of Rest and Relaxation? Definitely not, and I explained why. It made me realize something about my own writing. Through these questions, I was suddenly able to form my own kind of theory. My book is almost post-all of those, in a sense. It’s definitely not a #MeToo story, it’s not a trauma story—it’s actually the opposite of a trauma story. I mean, again, not on purpose; I wasn’t aware of it as I was writing, but it happens to be the opposite. It’s a story of a woman who is aware of her complicity and aware of the politics underneath wanting to be something better, but she lives in the world that exists as it is. The idea of feeling pain or no pain changes the whole realm of that kind of theoretical discussion. I don’t think I Fear My Pain Interests You fits in with any of them. I think it’s the next thing. How would you define a timeline of those pre- and post-genres that you’re describing? Sometimes I feel like everything is so over-categorized; everything is just made to be contained, whether it fits in or not. But it is true that often one thought or theory follows another. How did you lead yourself to a place you describe, of writing into an era that comes after now? What’s going on with Margot—the voice of the book—is what’s different. Parts of the book are more about spacing, about absence . . . I’m not a literary history expert so I’m not so qualified to say much about what these genres mean, or to enter into a discussion with those kinds of books . . .  There’s something about literature and novels that can feel so daunting! They come with this strange weight. And in English! I’m so interested in works in translation. I sometimes think that my work reads as in translation, even though it’s written in English, if that makes sense. The cadence has more of a French approach to punctuation; and we accept different things as readers when the characters are different, when the symbols are different, for example. I think about all of that, and then I think about what’s not on the page. That’s harder to discuss, but it’s something intuitive, maybe? It could be like reading screenplays, in the idea of the spacing on the page. I’ve been reading a lot of Louise Glück recently, which I hadn’t before. I read this book about a garden throughout the summer. I decided to read essays about writing poetry because I felt like I could learn something about my writing through that. I don’t want poetry, but I’m interested in studies of it—not because I want to try writing poems, but because of the way I want to write prose. I’ve always thought poets write the best prose. Yes. And wanting to learn the language of critiquing poetry . . . I just want to learn the language of other things, like, I don’t know, mountain biking.  Maybe that’s a good way to start talking about your process, and how you find and build your ideas. You’ve spoken before about finding a clipping about congenital analgesia, and how that ended up becoming a fact of Margot’s character in I Fear. How do those early sketches become a story? I found that clipping and I knew I wanted to write a story about it. I wasn’t heavily researching the systems; it was more about the idea of the absence of pain than the actual neurochemistry, although I was interested in the neurochemistry too. I had also always been interested in this idea about love being based on oxytocin, which comes when one orgasms, and what that means for bonding and the realities of falling in love—what is lust, what is real, what is chemical. The specifics of what I wrote were more about wanting it to act as an absurdist, surrealist device. I started there and wanted to see where it would take me. Interestingly, it started with the cows, too. I guess I have a little penchant for cows, too. There’s the Peter Hujar portraits in the inside cover, and obviously the epigraph is “Cows are not sentient beings.” There’s an idea that cows are these creatures that are raised knowing, in many ways, that they are there to suffer. The sadism of the condition comes up throughout the book, what it means to be a creature that’s inevitably doomed but also revered. We’re all so many things, and symbols can mean so many things. I would take notes in these notebooks that my son does watercolours on. I would fill each notebook up, sometimes writing the same thing over and over again, or sometimes I would just sit with it. It’s almost like I keep writing until it becomes this thing, and then the writing process happens super fast. This book was ten years in the making, but it wasn’t ten years being written at my computer. Yes, because so much of writing is that thinking and processing. You’ve also mentioned this concept of absence or space in your finished work. Was there ever a time when you stepped away from this idea for a period, and then had to get yourself back into it? Did time change the writing? To be honest, I probably should do that more. That would be something everyone in my life would tell me to do. But I’m a bit compulsive, and obsessive, so that’s hard for me. I think I just wrote through the absence, if that makes any sense, which is kind of apropos: I wrote the absence. That paradox is just what it is. I kept writing until it was no longer an absence, or it was a deeper absence. A purposeful absence. And you mentioned screenplays—was there any work you did to understand your characters that might not appear on these pages, in the same way we often have to understand a film character by the way they behave rather than what they say? My work is very cinematic, in terms of setting the scene. And I feel like the way I write on the page looks like a screenplay. So much of the book is about what’s left out and withheld, and that’s so much of who Margot is . . . so I can’t tell you. Oh, so it must stay a secret. Well, there is a rich tradition of a woman at the center of a story who will drive you crazy because you can’t tell what she’s thinking. As I was reading I Fear My Pain, I was alternating between the eulogies for Jean-Luc Godard, and thinking about the different ways different audiences romanticize and project onto his images, and the kind of Tumblr user who would have come to Godard through stills of Jean Seberg. For me that goes back to the dissociative feminism thing, the aestheticizing of a certain sort of teen. Everything really does come in cycles, and I am very interested in the ways they become aestheticized. This book is very much that—it fits into these waves of taxonomies. People have said to me before that my work is a bit like being a visual artist on the page; not that literally, but that also doubles over into the idea of Margot being a beautiful cipher as a window into exploring other things. So if there are common aesthetics to your work, let’s say, “beautiful cipher” might be a good phrase to start with. Do you have a theory of or a conscious language for how you would describe what connects your work? For me, it’s very intuitive. I’ve never really tried to give it words, which is funny, because I create in words. But I’ve always left the theorizing to someone else. Can I ask you what you would say it is? Well, I did like beautiful cipher. That’s a good phrase. And I was thinking when I was reading I Fear My Pain Interests You and The Superrationals that there’s a funny fluidity of movement in both your novels—it’s very easy for your characters to get from one place to another, but once they arrive, they’re a little bit stuck. A combination of being in flight and total inertia. The fight-or-flight impulse is very present in my work, and so is dance, and both kind of converge in what you’re saying. A big thing for me, too, is this idea of being passive. Throughout the book there are examples of people who are passive, but full of words to say, and then people who are active, but silent. I think that’s a simple way of me trying to deal with a constant in my life, which is having trouble when people’s words don’t match their actions or when there’s a dissonance between them. There’s this idea that you can almost have justice by logging someone’s words; it’s a very childlike way of looking at the world. And also, how passivity can seem cool, but in the end, passivity is one of the weaker, trashier things one can do in terms of how to live a life. It’s especially a kind of privilege to believe that you can just never move. In the book, no one shows any care for Margot except for Lucy, and Lucy’s care is action. There’s a marked difference in Lucy and every other character that makes it clear she’s a true friend. And speaking of that character and theories of your work, I understand what you mean about how it’s not necessarily for you to say, because sometimes we’re too close to what we do to really see it, and that’s what a reader or a critic is for. I did, at the same time, notice there was some self-referential material in this book . . . Self-deprecating. The opposite. [Laughs] But Lucy’s mother does give Margot a copy of your book, The Superrationals. Yes. So, when you thought of Margot as a character, were you thinking of her as somebody you could encounter who could read your novels in her world? I’m just thinking of it as taking the piss out of myself, basically. There’s a lot of stuff like that throughout the book that people have been noticing—someone called it Easter eggs, which I liked—but I’m not thinking beyond just making jokes about the fact that I’m not self-serious. Right, you leave those little jokes for yourself and for your reader. Do you think of yourself as the kind of writer who writes towards a specific person, either in life or towards a reader? Definitely not. But what I am doing, and this is very honest, is often I’m dealing with emotional pain, and the only way I can get through it is by doing the story. It’s not directed towards anyone. It’s more of an exorcism for me. For me, it was like: I got to survive, and I got to process this thing that happened, I’m going to write this book.  But it’s not like you get it all down and it goes away. I mean, that would be a very shallow place for it to have started. When you’re continually asked smart questions, it makes you look to where it began, a resurgence of certain things. I’m just really, really trying not to get too dark and to start working on the next thing. I feel grateful that I get to do these things so that I can have a job writing, and now I just want to write the next book.
Memories of Oppression: Revisiting a Classic Documentary on Kashmir

Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood.

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Halfway through Sanjay Kak’s 2007 documentary Jashn-e-Azadi (How We Celebrate Freedom), he runs into a retired school teacher living in a village in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir. You’ll never forget the old man’s mellow voice and steady gaze because he betrays no anxiety while speaking of the dead. He rattles off the names of two children killed in the “Indian army blasts” nearby, then the names of three brothers who became gun-wielding militant fighters during a wave of insurgency and were later murdered, one after another. After a while, the old man starts tallying the body count on his fingers. “Forty-two,” he says, “I may have missed a few.” Kak asks him when he started keeping count. “Since 1989,” he replies, “ever since the militancy began.” Forty-two killed in 15 years—and that’s just one village. In Srinagar, the summer capital city, Kak follows a father on the way to his son’s grave. They are in a park that has been repurposed into a burial ground and renamed the martyrs’ graveyard. The father has trouble locating his son’s tombstone. “After a while, one forgets,” he tells Kak. The German essayist Walter Benjamin once quoted Flaubert to the effect that his understanding of politics was bound by a single gesture: “the revolt.” Kak’s films strike me as political in a similar way. They are haunted by the ghosts of revolts past and ongoing; inevitable, perhaps, in a country where the twin tides of majoritarian sentiment and economic progress often gloss over forgotten lives and histories. Over seven decades, the right to forget has seemingly become intrinsic to Indian nationhood: what felt like a stoic refusal on the eve of independence in 1947— to be defined by the depredations of colonial rule and the cataclysmic partition of the subcontinent— hardened soon into an automatic reflex. After Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, the upsurge of Hindu supremacy and the rapid erosion of democratic norms can make the years prior seem relatively utopian. But that older idea of freedom, too, was predicated on spells of repression, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir, which was until recently India’s only Muslim-majority state, and where the military crackdown has been brutal and absolute. Intifada is Kak’s word for the clarion call of self-determination that has echoed in Kashmir since 1989, when “old memories of oppression sought out fresh winds of struggle from across the mountains—from Pakistan, Afghanistan, even Palestine.” At the peak of the insurgency, more than thirty thousand armed militants were estimated to be operating inside the state. Last year, a Kashmir police official claimed that the number of active militants in the region was fewer than 200, yet half a million Indian troops still occupy the valley. Kak relates more startling figures—sixty thousand killed between 1989 and 2007, another ten thousand missing—but they seem only partially important to his story. The film lingers because of the cumulative power of its images; the delicacy with which suffering is conveyed without overstraining for the truth. In almost every transition shot, glimpses of the wintry landscape are impaired by a passing army truck or, sometimes, a pair of barbed wires. A soldier stands at gunpoint in the middle of a busy street but appears clueless about what he is supposed to see. A schoolgirl speaks of the time soldiers shot a man outside her house in cold blood and wouldn’t let anyone help for hours. Years after his brother’s murder, a cop recalls fainting at the sight of the body and the trauma of receiving the news while out on duty. Each time I watch Jashn-e-Azadi, I marvel anew at how the documentary inhabits a collective point of view, despite the ways it could have ended up being a personal story. Kak’s parents are Kashmiri Pandits, a minority Hindu community with a different memory of what happened in the valley after 1989. At least one hundred Pandits were killed in the early years of the uprising, and several thousand families fled their homes in the state. Kak grew up away from Kashmir—his father worked in the Indian Army—but he visited relatives every year through the seventies and eighties. In 2003, he went back after fourteen years, apparently because he had promised his daughter they’d go together. The film could very well have been a more intimate saga about a father and daughter travelling back to a lost homeland, or the story of a man coming to terms with the exodus of his community. What we witness instead is a group portrait of a population withering away under military surveillance at the turn of the millennium. Shops are shuttered in Srinagar on the eve of Indian Independence Day; the city’s lanes and alleys are ominously silent. Except for a few desolate-looking policemen humming the national anthem in a market square, you can’t spot a soul walking for miles. Elsewhere, civil rights activists go knocking on doors to record the names of the missing and the dead. Survivors queue up all day long outside psychiatry clinics. Schoolkids are frisked before they can enter a playground. Inside an army base, a regiment leader hands out a few radios to locals and promises desktop computers for the children as long as “you keep talking to us.” Amid reappraisals of prior casualties across the state, no one seems to remember the Pandits and their long exile. The film imaginatively evokes their absence, not through images but with sound. At one point, we hear Kak talking to the Pandit poet Pyare “Hatash” on the phone and asking him to read something aloud. Moments after the poet starts reading from his work—“so brothers, our home is lost…”—the line gets disconnected.  Fifteen years ago, Kak could afford to let a missed connection evoke something ineffable, but the formal choices that made Jashn-e-Azadi a classic—the expository restraint, the cinéma-vérité silences—would perhaps not be feasible today. There is the strident toxicity of Hindu nationalism that renders artistic intricacies vulnerable to manipulation. Besides, a film about contemporary Kashmir would have to reckon with a longer timeline of defining moments. Kashmiri journalists and photographers are routinely harassed and stopped in Indian airports from travelling abroad. Since 2010, the Indian army has been using shotgun pellets to disperse protests in Kashmir, despite countless instances of children being blinded by these pellets. One long August night three years ago, Modi revoked the autonomous statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, imprisoned almost every local political leader, and imposed a crippling lockdown with an internet blackout that partially persists to this day. Just this spring, a paranoid fictional drama called The Kashmir Files claimed that the targeted killings of Pandits were tantamount to a “genocide” and that a cabal of “leftist” college students, journalists and activists had colluded to suppress the truth over decades. Reports of Islamophobic chants and hate speeches at theatre screenings around the country didn’t deter Modi from recommending the movie. The remaining Pandits in the valley complained that the film’s diabolical distortion of history made them feel unsafe. By June, sectarian murders had spiked, and many of them were moving out of Kashmir again.
‘It Awakens Giants That Are Sleeping’: An Interview with Joshua Whitehead

The author of Making Love with the Land on transforming pain into love, entering as a guest into the recesses of literature, and birthing a body of text from a body of experience.

“The land, like the body, teaches us the fundamental rule of ending: that no such thing exists,” Joshua Whitehead writes in “The Pain Eater,” an essay in his new book, Making Love with the Land (Knopf). The book, in many ways, embodies an ending and a beginning, but is a text that writes from the throbbing middle: “the middle of global destruction;” the middle of a grid in a digital world; "from middle point, the belly button and first mouth of origin;” “middle of sîpiy;” of an eating disorder; in the middle of “the nebula of these lands;” “in the middle of the night;” a dance floor; the middle of an opioid crisis; a breakup; an apartment flood. “In the middle of me;” “my middle of nowhere;” which is everywhere. "I know nowhere is an everywhere." This collection positions itself in the center in order to stay with the trouble and alchemise pain into love. Throughout Making Love with the Land, Whitehead traverses vulnerable and diverse subject matter, brilliantly uprooting explicit and implicit violences and personal and collective struggles, carving out a space for seeds of futurity to form. “We need to make our stories animate beings, we need to place them into oratories of history and of futurity. We need to conceptualize our fantastical dreams as very real decolonized futures,” he writes in “My Body is a Hinterland.” What emerges from the process of this imagining is an opening up of urgent space within the recesses and ruptures of life and experience for healing and new connections to inflorescence, for new mountains of relationality to rise. The essays, collectively, are a lesson in how to love what is bad and what is hard, again and again, and a testament to the essential art of care. Here, writing is both cure and poison, language is a vein. Making Love with the Land is about transforming pain into love and about creating connections where there weren’t any before, nurturing pathways of cultural reclamation, a task Whitehead traverses with his stellar gifts of storytelling and poetics, sensually and sensorially birthing difficult subject matter so that the body of the text can access empathy, care, pleasure, forgiveness, tenderness and belonging. “Transformation always begins with the tongue,” he writes in “Me, The Joshua Tree.” And In “The Pain Eater:” “I need to, and must, exist beyond the constriction of Western linguistics.” Making Love with the Land sees Whitehead, then, returning to his cultural and linguistic roots, invoking nêhiyâwewin/the Cree language as a tool of transformation throughout to create and claim new centres, worlds, relations and meanings. As Whitehead describes in “I Own a Body that Wants to Break,” “I think of English as cerebral and nêhiyâwewin as kinetic.” Whitehead’s exploration of nêhiyâwewin allows for new connections and meanings to form: “Words branch into other opportunities, other meanings.” By reclaiming and utilizing nêhiyâwewin, and in illustrating the limitations and restrictions of the English language, Whitehead writes himself into a new vaster world of belonging, an exalted expansion of self, queering language’s borders and creating new meanings to grow and heal inside of in the process. How do we nurture the ties that bind us together, even when those ties hurt? What this collection does is lovingly challenge its readers, inspire us to think in new ways, in and outside of language, of material and immaterial realms, of ownership and binaries, and to open ourselves up to being in good relation. The epigraph of the book reads: “By the way, I forgive you,” a quote from a Brandi Carlile song. This book is about forgiveness. Making Love with the Land invites us to enter as caring guests into the lands and terrains of its text and biostories. These essays remind us that we have a responsibility, as guests, when we enter into other people’s spaces and lands, as well as when we enter the psychic space of books. It asks us to consider that a body of text is birthed from a body of experience. I consider us all lucky to be welcomed as guests into the hinterlands carved out and seeded by Making Love with the Land. I met with Joshua via Zoom two days after the official release of Making Love with the Land. What follows is a slightly edited version of our one-hour long conversation. Ashley Obscura: I would ask you “How are you?” but, I did read your essay “The Pain Eater” and absorbed your musings on how this seemingly casual question can be “a bewildering jab.” How a “simple asking can so easily become a violent undoing,” which I resonated with so much. So, to start things off: What has felt good for you lately? What has brought you joy? Joshua Whitehead: I've just been in a whirlwind here in Toronto. Interview after interview. Which has been really fun, but it's exhausting. At the end of the day, you talk for eight-plus, nine hours. I’m very happy my partner is here with me. A lot of music lately. I've been listening non stop to Maggie Rogers's new album, Surrender. I can’t get enough of it. And also Game of Thrones. I just watched the new episode of House of the Dragon last night and it was so rejuvenating to be back in Westeros. [laughs]. [Laughing] Would you live there, if you could? I feel like I would die very quickly [laughs] but I imagine myself as being among, I guess, the Prince of Roses. It seems like the queerest place to be, in Highgarden. So I would go there. If Making Love with the Land had an aura, what colors and scents would be a part of it? Ooooh, that's a fun question. Its aura… I'm a very obsessive person with colour. Mint is, by far, my favorite colour. My entire house is decorated around it. I feel like the colours I would attribute to Making Love With The Land would be mint in its joyful elements, and then scarlet when it's more personal, more grieving. But its scents... The first scent that comes to mind is the sense and the senses within “Me, The Joshua Tree,” like woven… that kind of sweet, musky smell of summer sweat at the river and, like, wet soil. Yeah, I was gonna say something wet. Apparently all my books are soaking wet for some reason. With Jonny Appleseed everyone was like “There’s so much fluid in it!” [Laughs] Are you a water sign? I’m a Capricorn. Oh, me too! I love Capricorns. I don't act like a cardinal earth. I feel more attributed to a Cancer or Pisces, because I'm very emotional at all times. I love the title that you arrived at with Making Love with the Land. Was this always the title you knew it would be, or is it something that was developed over time? Originally it was Making Love to the Land. But I thought that was too penetrative, too masculine, too much revolving around heterosexuality but, also, topping in queer culture. But the title came to me from Jonny, actually. I keep talking in all of these interviews about how I'm trying to move out of the shadow of Jonny… But then I’m like “The title actually came from Jonny!” Maybe it was Jonny's final gift. He is continually gifting me all these years later. All sorts of things. But, the bear scene in Jonny Appleseed—wherein Jonny's in the mountains and he's having this dream of this bear topping him, and he's placing his hands deeper and deeper into the mud— I remember thinking about that scene when I was starting to conceptualize this as a book. Instead of it being a foray into thinking about my own mental health, that scene kept flashing in my mind. When I was writing it and going back to my old notes of Jonny, one of the lines in that vignette was “making love with the land.” The title came to me from there, and then a lightbulb went off and I thought, I have a book on my hands! The title was the gravitational force of it all. What was the most healing of the essays for you to write? I think they each have a medicinal element, but I would say “Me, The Joshua Tree” was the most healing. You know, it's like the most cliché, overwritten topic: a breakup. I wanted this to be that but not be that because I wanted to show myself and my previous partner—who's a dear, good friend of mine now—and also the readers in the world, that relationships aren’t about ownership or death. And, actually, this comes from something that Lee Maracle taught me, I think in 2019. When I was writing this book and writing “Me, The Joshua Tree” we did this event at the University of Calgary, and she came along with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and she was giving this speech and talking about the late Richard Wagamese at the time. She kind of broke down, and held us all accountable to Richard's death… You know, his hard life and his addiction to alcohol, and told us that we can't afford to abandon one another. And that really drilled into my head and made me think about how we do that in terms of relationships, severed ones, but also in a kind of queer and Indigenous sense. We really can't afford to abandon, unless egregious errors are made, because we as queer folks need that community and if we keep ostracizing ourselves for the sake of the discomfort of how to mend a relationship into a friendship, or not even wanting to do that—I still think we need to be in community at all times. “Me, The Joshua Tree” was probably the most healing for me, overall, as it helped me mend that relationship, helped me transform pain into love, which is the whole thesis of this book. And yeah, it really showed me how, at the core of everything, it's about relationship and kinship versus other attributes like love or sex or desire. Those are just around it. Every strong relationship, at the core of it, is this motoring skeleton that is friendship, and I couldn't afford to forget that. That essay made me cry. I resonated with it so much, especially in regards to the way in which you refuse to use the word “ex.” I wish I would have had this essay to read six years ago when I was going through a truly awful breakup. I remember feeling so disposable, and also thinking about how it was such a reflection of our time, too—the way we use and discard objects constantly and all of these materials and plastics… like we just live in such a disposable society, and that is reflected in our relationships as well. I feel that we all crave feeling more rooted and cared for, especially during breakups. Where did you write Making Love with the Land? Do you have a specific space that you like to write from? Or are you more of a fluid writer who likes to write in different spaces? I'm very erratic in that sense. Most of the book was written in my condo and in the wee hours of the night when I couldn't manage the dam that was all of the stories wanting to come forward. But a great deal was written on road trips through Alberta, specifically the mountains. And, then, “The Pain Eater” was written right up in the mountains in Golden, BC during a kind of retreat. That's where I finessed and finished a lot of the book because the essays weren’t quite done, I felt. And so it's owed a lot to the kind of idyllic scenes of Alberta, which has such a beautiful range of ecosystems, from desert straight to Arctic. The mountains are always a creative hub for me. I finished Jonny in the mountains, and I finished this book in the mountains, just on opposite sides. Mountain goat energy! [Laughing] Capricorn, right? Do you think that writing this book has changed you at all? And if so, how? I think so. What this book really taught me, and what I hope readers take away from it, is the universal elements of it. It's very specific. Again, it's personal. But it's also Cree and queer and Indigenous, and also academic. So I think the lenses of its specificity are pretty niche, but a big part of the ethics of this book was, as I write about in one of the essays, mental health, and SA and having this youth overdose on my desk and opioids... and so what the book taught me was really, as a Capricorn, I'm really good at repressing things [laughs]. And in the stasis of COVID, it really forced me to talk with myself and unearth some of things like sexual assault, and talking frankly and openly about eating disorders. And so I think the greatest lesson I took away from this book was to be truthful to myself. Because, as I was saying, as a Capricorn but also as a writer, I think I've mastered the ability to take things that are perhaps traumatic or joyful even, and immediately catalogue them into story. So learning to be a person first and writer second, I think that's what this book is talking to. There is this transmutation that happens, especially in this book where you're writing about very painful subject matter, but you're transforming it and trying to find the light and love in it. I've always found there's this very powerful and healing alchemy that happens with writing where, if I'm able to get something down into writing that's sending my mind into spirals or twisting my heart into two, it's almost as though I can separate myself from it and overcome it, to an extent. Does that resonate with you in regards to your writing? Is there a release, or a purging when you get something difficult out onto the page? With this book it feels like an exorcism to me, almost. Or a purging, too. In that, you know, we have all these things, like talking about anxiety or depression. It's immaterial but, again, it's really embodied and materially felt. A big ideology of this book was to transform pain into love. To make love to something, it has to be embodied, it has to have a body. And the book does. But, also, to make the immaterial material. And I think this was the transformation of it from pain into love. And, for me, I can hold it, but I can physically and metaphorically put it down and put it away. It allows me to kind of be released from it, but still in relation to it. What have you done to prepare yourself for this book launch cycle? Because I can imagine it takes a lot to promote a book to the scale that you do. And I'm just wondering if you've prepared for it in any way? Have you needed to ground yourself, or is it more that you need expansion during these times? Yeah, talking has been tiring. Also, it’s a lot of mental work and emotional work and spiritual work, too, going into all these interviews. Specifically the quick-paced ones that are like five, ten minutes. Like snap, snap, snap, where you don't get to get into a rhythm. I also knew I should not be alone doing this, so I'm happy my partner’s here to join me, and I have friends and family here in Toronto as well, who I'm trying to make a point to see, at least for dinner in the evenings just to kind of release. But I've also come to know the power of rejection, I think. I’m thinking about it as a generosity and a gifting. And I think we as writers know, but maybe we don't love it, but it's a generative gifting sometimes to be getting those rejection letters for submissions, in that it teaches us to rethink, remodulate, and reconceptualize. And so I've also been using that as a kind of a methodology in these interviews, specifically with the quick ones. Trying to conceptualize “no” and rejection as me letting them know “I'm telling you something so that you can learn something from this, too,” and myself as well. Criticism, too, as a gifting. After reading “Me, the Joshua Tree” I was left reflecting on how you wrote about a manuscript as being an “animate being. Through it, you survey my body, my memory, my spirits, my heart, my emotions.” It made me feel like contemporary publishing is so out of touch with this reality in regards to authors. And how the art of marketing literature can often feel and literally be extractive. You also speak of traditions of storytelling as being a space for conversation and dialogue. As a publisher, I often think about these things and I'm often thinking about how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada to reflect this reality, of writing being such a vulnerable thing. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on how we can improve the culture of literature in Canada? I feel like It's such an important question for us to be asking. Definitely. I can speak for myself. I think there’s a difference between quality and quantity. I think it comes from a tradition of publishing in Canada and the US, that also comes from publishing from the UK—stories of who is writing and what is writing. And I think the idea that we, as people, are so devoid of the work… it's objective rather than subjective. And things we teach in creative writing classes and high school too… not to infuse the self with the work. And I think with who's being published, what’s winning awards, who’s winning awards, who's being recognized, and the new waves of folks that are following in the wake really quickly—and of course need to be there—I think we also need to conceptualize that the whole writing needs to be devoid of the self and writing as a solitary act—like The Old Man and the Sea, like Hemingway, or something—is very much a privileged, white, male, het, cis person and ideology of that which is the canon, right? It's very curated, very selected. It's very strategic. And who's being published and what's being published— I think it’s reflective of the true experience of living as a Canadian who is BIPOC, or queer, or living in a country that's colonized you. Or has disempowered or disenfranchised you. I think that we're getting that kind of truer, ghastly, and kind of profound and profane image of what Canada is, how it treats its peoples. So with that, clearly I can speak for myself, I have to attach my body to the body of text. They are in relation and they feed each other. And I think what I would like to see is for publishers, editors, Q&As and festivals, to recognize the labour that goes into crafting and birthing a body of text from a body of experience, and that they can't be annexed from each other. As much as we are taught to do that, right? To read the text, to pull it apart, is also like a form of autopsy, as I write in Making Love with the Land. So recognizing the cost on the writer, and the expectation of the reader to enter as a guest into the spaces of these recesses. So much of this book made me feel like identity by nature is so blurry and transient, and it's a fallacy to think that we are bound into these little boxes and binaries. And you know, as you explore in this book, this could be related to the very language that we share, English, or perhaps other languages of colonization as well as literary genres. Your art is simply sublime at resisting structures of genre, of gender language, that bind us to limiting identities and modalities of being. But, in essence, I feel that it's also about you insisting on space for nuance and complexity, and especially of wholeness. It's as though Western culture wants us so desperately to be simple, but nothing really is. And I'm wondering if this resonates with you, this concept of trying to arrive at a sense of wholeness? I think you are one hundred percent correct. But I think my concept of wholeness is to be ghastly, ghostly, to be immaterial and, in that, defying and pushing away from all these boundaries of genre in form and tradition. If I’m going to be decolonial and not recognize provinces, territory, national borders and, instead, recognize sovereign Indigenous nations on the land, I also need to do it on the page. So that was my attempt to really defy an outcry against the bordering of genre and form, and how limiting it is to Indigenous writing. But I think to Black and trans writing as well, and the intersections of those. And also—this is something I've learned from folks like Billy-Ray Belcourt— that to be indecipherable and to be untranslatable and to be unrecognizable to the nation-state that is Canada is a radical act of freedom. So I think I was also wanting to maintain, as I write in the book, the idiom of working and being a mirage, where you can't be grasped or held, you're always ephemeral. But there's still a wholeness in being ephemeral like that. It's kind of like being a poltergeist, just to haunt, but also to be whole in a home, too. For those of us who are immersed in literary dialogues around multilingual texts and the ethical issues of othering non-Anglo languages by italicizing or providing translations to those words, it seems obvious why you didn't choose to provide footnotes or translations to the words that you were using in Cree. Is this because you are prioritizing a Cree audience, or is it something else? I was curious how you approached the footnotes and your thoughts around that. There are some footnotes and translations in “Me, The Joshua Tree” because I wanted to leave the door open for that one, because I thought it was one that people would resonate with but also need from me. With “The Geography of Queer Woundings” or various other ones I didn't want to do the translation work because I wanted my readers as guests to the book. Even other Indigenous readers also have to meet me halfway and do some of the work, too, which I'm consistently doing as an academic, as an English speaker, and as a reader—of having to do etymological work of these words to understand their full meaning. So yeah, I wanted readers to have to move through a maze and meet me in the book rather than just having free, unbridled access to every single room of my psyche. There are some keys that you need to earn. So yeah, there’s that expectation of meeting each other. It puts a responsibility onto the reader. Were there any ever any talks about having a glossary in the back? Not particularly. My editor and publisher at Knopf, I think, has been trained so well as Eden Robinson's editor. She was like “I trust you, just go ahead. We don't need to have the translation.” So maybe I just got the luck of the draw being with an editor who didn't mind, and I never had this either with Arsenal Pulp [Press]. But I do have kin and friends who have had complete horrendous battles around having to include glossaries or full on translations, or having to do the dreadful thing of italicizing non-English words. But yeah, I've never had to have that. But I think publishing… I see a change. But there is a history of having to completely other and also de-market and disfigure non-Englishness and non-whiteness, right? I love how this book explores how identities are tied up with different languages. And I'm very curious about the journey you've had back to your ancestral language. As a Mexican-Canadian woman who was not raised speaking Spanish, for my parents thought that it would make it difficult for me to fit in, I often mourn the loss of a part of myself. But this part of myself also comes to life when I begin sounding Spanish words, or when I'm in the presence of Spanish. So for those of us who are not raised speaking the language of our ancestors, learning those lost languages can be such a life-changing experience, and an act of reclaiming ourselves, and it awakens parts of us that have been dormant. At least that's how it's felt for me. I love the ways in which you write about Cree, and how learning this language has given you a larger vocabulary to speak your expansive truth. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey towards learning Cree, and what that means for you, or how it's changed you? Growing up in Manitoba, I definitely heard and grew up in a house that spoke Cree and Anishinaabe, Soto and Michif as well. Specifically, Treaty 1 is such a mix of languages, as a central hub. But, again, it was not something I was privy to. My father, because of the murder of my grandmother, never had access to it and my mother and her mother, because of residential schools and boarding schools, also never had access to it. Life would be so much easier if I could just, like, ring up my aunt or my grandma and be like “Hey, how do you say this?” “Here it is.” Done. Instead, my journey to it has been autodidactic. I had to basically teach myself through lovely Cree dictionaries and, you know, buying textbooks for children. I’m actually having a lot of fun doing mazes and stuff. I’m nostalgic for those. And conversations I've had, when I’m able to, learning with fluent Cree speakers. And so, I think I agree with you one hundred percent in that it awakens giants that are sleeping, worms and bones of something that might have been encased in amber or crystallized, in that sense. With the more and more I learn—I think you can start seeing in each of my books—hopefully one day there will be a whole book just in Cree. That's the end goal. But it's been a long journey, and a difficult journey, but it's been, probably, the most profound one I've been on in that it calls me home, too. And it's also taught me these vernaculars that we use specifically on reservations or in urban reservations. That is the language, it’s in the sound. And I think it's lying there waiting to be awakened. And it's never been a dead or forgotten thing, it's just been forgone. So I think what I'm trying to do is awaken it in myself and do an act of practice of not just thinking about reconciliation but reclaiming, and doing that through language revitalization for myself and hopefully for others. I'm curious if you think it would be appropriate for Canadian settlers to learn our Indigenous languages. What are your thoughts around that? Or do you think that knowledge should specifically be for people who have origins within those roots? I mean, that's a great question. I think… not that I'm doing this [laughs] but I should be, as I learn my own… that we should all be learning the Indigenous languages of any land base that we visit here in North America, or if we’re going abroad, because it teaches you the history of that people, it teaches you the language of people but also their relationships with the land and the rivers around them, and it also teaches you their Indigenous law which, you know, might stop people from being gored by buffalo [laughs]. But yeah, I would definitely love to see that. It's also something I'm hoping to take up, too, as I ground myself more in Cree— to also be learning more about the Blackfoot Confederacy, where I am a guest in Treaty 7. I think it's important. How could you not? It is the original language. Even to know a small semblance of it gives you so much more privy to knowing the full breadth and beauty of that land base, rather than just partaking in the cities and the urban space. A city is a city. They're all similar. What’s beautiful is the surrounding area, right? What was there before. I love the line you wrote in “Writing As a Rupture:” “Orality is an entry point into community” enrichment. I was wondering, what other entry points do you think lead to community enrichment? Beside the language and the stories, I think the biggest one that I've learned and seen is laughter. Humour. Specifically, in Treaty 7, we still have a shared lexicon of joy. And so cracking those little jokes, which sometimes come from drama and from being colonized, opens this little pocket. So I think, for me, I would say that humor and joy has been an everyday practice that I can do for enrichment, in that sense. Where do you find sources of light and luminosity in the world? Where do you draw those sources from? I keep joking with Lynn Henry, my editor, how I think the fifth or sixth book is literally just going to be a musical [laughs]. But music has been a big source of that. And even in the acknowledgments of this book, and in the epigraph, is Brandi Carlile. I continually thank her in the book for always meeting my grief head on. In those moments, to be completely awashed and to drown in lyricism but also in musicality and rhythm, is to be sensorially gone. And it allows me to process and think and remind myself that there is also beauty, even in the raising. And all I have to do, sometimes, is find the motoring noun “that is.” It allows me to be at rest and see myself from an outside vantage point. When do you feel your most free? I love to give my dog a hard time, but when he's in a cuddly mood—and he also loves to watch Homeward Bound, which is the funniest cutest thing—and I’m having a bad day, having this huge German Shepherd curled up laying against me and everything is quiet, and we're just watching a television show together, and everything kind of stops. I think that, to me… it's very freeing. And it's something I have an ease of access to, at least in my home. And the same experience, as I write about in “The Pain Eater,” of being with my niece—and now I have a nephew— just kind of lying in the grass, looking up at the sky and mispronouncing things. This must be what sovereignty feels like, just to have all of these generations cascading through the breath of a stem, the movement of a sternum. Being around kids is such a great feeling. It's just so nice to be around humans who still see the world through fresh eyes. Exactly. Like getting to see through their eyes and hear their laughter, and willfully mispronouncing things, but also having that close range to the imaginative again, and knowing, too, that children and infants also come from elderhood. So they also have this breadth of knowledge that I think sometimes we just disregard as childhood innocence or curiosity. But I still think we have so much to learn, even in their unlanguage, which is a language. Totally. Children seem, in some ways, almost more wise than we are, truly closer to the source. Just listening to and observing them…. There's just so much they can teach us. I'm wondering if you have a favorite flower or tree, or something that you feel very connected to? I do very much love a rose. One of my goals is to see a Joshua tree in real life and go to Joshua Tree National Park. So, I'd say, that is one I'm wildly obsessed with and in love with, because I guess it’s my namesake but, also, the stories they have as being keepers of the desert and waypoints. That just look so mundane and quotidian, but have all of this knowledge, too. Within your book you write about technology and digital culture, especially in “A Geography of Queer Woundings.” If you could have an avatar replace you in the real world, would you? [Laughs] I mean… part of me wants to say yes, but we’ve seen Black Mirror and what can happen … But I think I would. We can thank Donna Haraway for my obsession with cyborgs, with automatons, the digital and virtual in that I think there's a lot of connection that they share—the mechanical, the virtual, and the technologic, and also the natural at the same time. I'm so happy you brought up Donna Haraway. I'm such a big fan of hers, especially Staying with the Trouble. And It's interesting because I was going to share this quote with you at the end of this interview, but I feel like It's appropriate to bring it up now because it really reminded me of the wisdom that I was absorbing from your book, which is a quote of hers: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” But back to technology. We're living in a time where the metaverse is creeping up, virtual reality is becoming a big thing, and artificial intelligence is here. Do these technologies inspire you, or are you more of a critic? I mean, it very much inspires and excites me so long as I’m also horrendously traumatized by Terminator 2. Sarah Connor burning in the playground is in my mind at all times. But I'm very much on board. I just think accessibility becomes a thing. We have Elon Musk building his own private spaceship to fly across and colonize another space. How I try to attribute technology is not to weaponize it and also not to use it as a colonial tool, but to be in relation with it. Because those technologies, these computers that we're using, these headphones, are also made from the land— from silicone in the phone straight to the data chips being mined. I think sometimes what we forget is the cost that it takes to make these, because we can turn a blind eye to the work and extraction that's happening overseas. So I would say, remembering that the cost of technology and building a rocket ship is to deplete the earth. And remember it in a sense that maintains an ethics and protocol of care, the responsibility around it, as well. In “On Ekphrasis and Emphases” you write how “connection is a technology.” I feel that, oftentimes, people think about technology in the sense of being other to us. But I've always felt like technology is ancient, has always been around—like connection, as you write, and also love. What's your concept of technology? As I wrote about it in Making Love with the Land—in thinking about connection as a technology that indigeneity perfected— I think about trickster spider who, in the trickster stories at least of North America, crafted and spun the first world wide web. And, again, this was the world to Indigenous folks of Turtle Island, that had all these kinds of webs of connectivity, connection, kinship, trade routes and peoplehoods crafted all across the land. And so I think about that as… that's a technology. It doesn't have to be mechanical. It doesn't have to be cold or metal. In fact, it can be ephemeral, and it can be emotional and connective like that. So I think some motoring form of survival and a motoring form of resistance, really. To think about connection in that same sense and to not forget that we ourselves, there's a mechanic to us. We ourselves are machines in that sense. Totally. Yeah. Our hearts and all our organs are motors. We are machines, beautiful and natural and slightly cyborg. [Laughing] [Laughing] Thank you, Donna. I was reading your acknowledgements and I was really struck by this line: “I hope everyone can see the invisible labour of being in relation.” For me, it really sums up so much of what I was gifted by reading your book, which is a deeper understanding of what it means to be in relation not only to ourselves, but to each other and to the whole living earth. I think that is also a bit of the heart of the book, right? In thinking about the invisible labour of being in relation, specifically in the pandemic and specifically in COVID and the lockdown. It's kind of like that “how are you?” question, which becomes a huge undertaking. This book—and wanting to think of myself not as a solitary writer or someone who writes in a vacuum, but someone who is amassing and can tell stories through community of all sorts, and always wanting to give—I attribute back to everyone who has helped shape and form this book and me. There is a lot of labour to be in connection with someone that often goes overlooked, beyond the grand gestures of getting a gift or going on a date or taking a selfie and posting it. It's also everyday, small little acts. Sometimes even just checking in, or sometimes even just saying a word, or sending a meme or recommending a song, or even just being in silence side by side… It's a form of labour that needs to be remembered. And also is as grand as any form. And I can't forget that.
Graffiti, Through Grief and Discovery

There was the glimmer of possibility in stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation.

1. In my last semester of college, two Swiss graffiti artists stayed in my living room. They were travelling through the US, couldn’t afford a hostel in New York, and a friend of a friend thought I might be able to host them. My roommate Kyle and I offered our living room to them for $20 a night. They agreed. Kyle and I met Marcel and Julius outside our dorm in mid-February, and were taken aback. I suppose we were expecting to meet versions of ourselves; instead, they were older, tattooed, wore streetwear, spoke the endearing and occasionally poetic English of non-native speakers. Marcel had olive skin, short stubble, a stud earring, and chewed on a disposable dental flosser. Julius was shorter, had flowing blond locks, a crooked, goofy smile and a peach-fuzz-smooth face. They had a quiet but unwavering confidence about them, a clear-eyed gaze that seemed to melt all pretense. In Zurich, they told us, they worked as little as they could at whatever jobs they could find, and with their free time and money wrote graffiti with their crew. They sat for hours, sometimes whole nights, outside train yards, taking note of cameras, heat sensors and security guards, all to later sneak past and vandalize the trains. Julius’s cherubic looks made him their designated getaway driver; the police never suspected him. Marcel was once temporarily banned from the whole country of Italy for vandalism. Kyle, who would later be banned from the whole country of Canada for starting a fire in a national park, seemed impressed—Kyle who had once jumped on the back of a garbage truck and ridden it all the way from Morningside Heights to Staten Island, who had pierced both his ears himself, one with a nail, and had pierced one of mine. Kyle who slept on two carpets instead of a mattress, who had worked as a forest firefighter in Oregon for two summers. The dedication of the Swiss artists was striking to me, especially because, as an illegal art—and as an illegal act—graffiti could not be sold, could not be parlayed into a job, could not be rendered productive. And this was exactly the point to them: it was graffiti’s essential, outlaw uselessness that made it so powerful. It was pure artistic expression, untarnished by the possibility of money. They wrote because they wanted other people to see, graffiti being above all else a public art, and they believed in what it had to say. It said, more than anything, that the law could and should be broken. Each tag, each piece insisted on the possibility of a life outside the law, and this was for them its own directive. Marcel had “BREAK THE LAW” tattooed across his back. They stayed for a week, and I was increasingly drawn to the way they moved through the world. There was a great clarity to their message to go out and vandalize. There was the glimmer of possibility in their stories of bolt cutters and train yards and spray cans—possibilities of disruption and liberation. It was simple, creative, uncompromising. They had found a way, they were not paralyzed by the whole fucked up thing; they seemed to slip and dodge effortlessly through it. I wanted to do that too. I wanted their clarity, their confidence, their sense of control over their environment. I was about to finish college, with no plan, no job. I’d be kicked out of our dorm and my friends would disperse. The places and communities I’d known would dissipate, another in a long line of displacements beyond my control.  Kyle and I had gone to high school in London, where we had known some of what Marcel and Julius did—we had broken into an abandoned RAF base, a derelict factory, the London Zoo. But that was years ago, and more and more, I felt again the urgency of that drive again, to BREAK THE LAW. Kyle and I decided not to charge them for staying in our living room. So that they have to be our friends, we said, only half joking. Over the next few days, I tried to hang out with them as much as I could.  At a bar in Harlem one evening, I mentioned an abandoned subway station I’d heard about, only a short distance away at 91st Street and Broadway. They seemed interested, so I found an urban exploration website on my phone and handed it to them. They decided immediately that they would go, right then, and I should join. We called Kyle to see if he wanted to come, but he didn’t pick up. It was not out of character; he was so habitually bad about answering his phone that people often called me to find him. Though I resented being his “secretary,” as I would remind people I was not, I did actually know where he was most of the time. But not tonight.  The three of us went down to the 86th Street station and stood on the platform, looking up the tracks. “What if a train comes?” I asked. “Flatten yourself against the wall,” Marcel told me. “It won’t be comfortable, but you won’t die.” And then we jumped onto the tracks and ran along in the near darkness with our sneakers padding on the rails, the railroad ties and the cables and the rough gravel a blur in the near-complete darkness, our breaths ragged, raw adrenaline pulsing. [[{"fid":"6708691","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] 2. Before you start to think about graffiti—to really take it seriously—it blends in. It’s just part of the backdrop of city life, like advertisements and concrete, cars and shopfronts. All of it forms a kind of visual noise. But when you start writing it yourself, things change. I began to write in January of 2018, about a year after meeting Marcel and Julius. I had graduated from college and moved back to London, where I was staying with Kyle at his family’s house. He and I started walking around at night, writing on trash cans and phone booths, thinking about everything Marcel and Julius had told us. The first thing I noticed was that the feeling was totally different from that of writing on paper. There was the adrenaline rush of doing something slightly illegal, the possibility of being seen or chased or caught. There was also something deeply cathartic about making letters as big as your head, the unrestrained freedom of moving your whole arm instead of delicate motions with your wrist or your fingers. And more than anything, there was a rare, elusive feeling of power, of being able to write on anything, to vandalize and deface, to make a mark that hundreds if not thousands of people would see, even if it was just a blur in their periphery. To shape the world around you that you otherwise could not control.  The more I wrote, the more the visual noise sifted into something meaningful. I began to develop a kind of literacy in graffiti. It started with the graffiti writer Trip. He tagged a trash can outside Kyle’s house. I took note, and then saw he was in the alleyway to the high street, as well as the utility box at the end of the lane. Then there was Duke, who was down on Finchley Road on some bus stops and a few construction site fences. Then there was the crew NWS, North West Sprayers. Trip wrote it next to his name sometimes, as did Duke and Hate and Yuck. I learned much later that Yuck was Trip’s tag before he was Trip.  NWS were all over the neighbourhood. As I read their writing, I started to feel the prestige of certain busier locations that I was too nervous to write on myself, seeing Trip or Duke had tagged the wall of an intersection with heavy foot traffic or a handrail right outside a tube station. Once I started to really read people’s tags, I began to notice that the streets were constantly changing. Trip and the others seemed to pass regularly up and down Kyle’s street—one night there was nothing, the next night a tag, the next night three, and the next day, the borough council had painted over everything. I felt like the streets were breathing. It jolted me each time a formerly blank wall read “Trip,” to know he’d been there just the night before, that we were walking the same streets, writing on the same things. Kyle started to joke that Trip and I were having a turf war; to play along, I crossed out Trip’s tag and wrote my own. The gesture meant very little to me. London is a large and anonymous city, and it didn’t even occur to me that someone might notice. But the next day, he had crossed out my tag and written his own again. We were talking to each other, directly, on some register I couldn’t quite work out. This was something new, something immediate. I looked around for a place to cross him out again, to find out more. He regularly tagged in Hampstead—but he was also all over Camden, Finchley, Kentish Town, more. I gave up on the cross-out war, clearly outmatched. But it made me realize that people were talking to each other all over. Just as Trip and I had had a short and disdainful conversation on one wall across three days, people were talking to each other over the course of days and weeks and even months, and across neighbourhoods, boroughs, all of London. People were telling each other that they’d been here, that they’d written there, that this or that part of the city could be written on. It was a conversation that you could read or follow like football or the news, seeing who’d been where and when. But you could also take part in it—there was no barrier to entry, no authority who determined if you could write, much less where or what. If people respected your work, they left it, and if they thought it was dumb, they would cross it out or cover it. A piece of graffiti was an act of interpretation, I started to think, a way of understanding the city.  *** I saved up enough to move out of Kyle’s family’s house into a friend’s place. Within a few weeks Kyle stopped talking to me. Nothing I said, over text or through friends, could get him to talk. We had been best friends for ten years, had gone to high school together and had lived together in college. But suddenly, with no explanation, he just disappeared. Kyle, who, when we fostered a cat together our sophomore year, would fall asleep with the cat on his chest—I would come back to our room and find them both snoring. Kyle, who had once stored an avocado pit in the freezer because it was “the best avocado [he’d] ever had” and he wanted to “cryogenically preserve it” until such time as he could plant it. Kyle, who, when I wore my hair in a bun, would pick up every hair tie he found on the pavement or subway platform, offering them to me as earnestly as a cat leaves a dead bird at its owner’s feet. What had I said to him? What had I done to him? What could I say to get him to come back? I sent him long messages apologizing for everything I could think of. He didn’t respond. Then my Uncle George died. I wound up in an empty apartment for two weeks. In the cold grey drizzle of London winter, I felt more loneliness than ever before. I drafted messages to Kyle that I didn’t send, and sent more messages that got no answer. In April, I went to my uncle’s funeral in Atlanta, where the pain and the sudden heat made everything feel like slow motion. In a liquor store, shopping for the wake, my dad fingered a miniature bottle of bourbon, my uncle’s drink of choice. “I was thinking about putting it in his grave,” he said. I nodded. “For the crossing,” I said. He laughed and put it in the cart, and later into the ground with the urn. When I returned to London, the sun had at last begun to break through the greasy film of winter. I blocked all thoughts of Kyle behind a wall of rage. I made new friends. I brought them along to spray some graffiti here and there, but mostly I was just reading it. I moved to Camden then, and noticed one of Trip’s tags on a railway bridge next to the Camden Road Overground station. It was a hangover piece, where a writer hangs over the top of a bridge and sprays upside down on the outside surface. It was sloppy—perhaps one of the first he’d tried to write upside down—but the absence of style pointed to another dimension of the work. I began to wonder how he’d gotten there, how he’d escaped the claustrophobic streets, the choking pollution, the lung cancer and depression. There were other hangovers on the bridge, and so I was sure that there was some kind of route up. Each time I passed the bridge, I tried to imagine how he might have climbed it. The graffiti seemed to defy the city itself, in all its stultifying and immovable weight. I would stand across the street for minutes at a time, just staring at it, trying to figure it out. I started to notice more graffiti above street level, on other train bridges, on rooftops, on high walls and car flyovers. How had those writers gotten there? Soon, wherever I went, I saw less the cold iron-and-brick brutality and more the masked persons climbing nimbly down the crosshatchings of the pilings, sprinting across the gravel, spray-painting the walls; less the steel girders and I-beams, and more the running and jumping and climbing and the thrill of hanging above the bustling road. A well-placed piece of graffiti, I realized, meant that someone had actually been there and written it—which suddenly meant that London, which is covered in graffiti, was way more open than all the CCTV and fences and walls suggested. Here’s how to look at London. Here’s how to live in London. Here I am, the writer says, in this place I can’t be. *** I wanted not just to see London this way, but to live in it. The busy streets and train tracks and cameras still felt too advanced for me, so I began to consider the somewhat calmer and less policed London canals. I decided on a wall across the water from the canal’s footpath, right next to a bridge over which ran Camden Road. The wall was accessible by a small triangle of concrete stretching between the bridge and the wall itself. I puzzled through it in the same way I had Trip’s bridge piece, standing and staring at it for minutes at a time. Finally it hit me that I could get there by boat. I was delighted by this absurd solution, this new way of being in the city. It was like something I would’ve done with Kyle, though I still couldn’t think of him. I convinced two friends to split in with me on an inflatable raft. We went for it a few days later, around midnight some Tuesday in June. The night was calm and the sky was clear. We walked in silence, the rolled-up boat sitting on my shoulder. I felt a wave of adrenaline, and everything felt a little sharper, a little more precise: the crenulations of the bricks and the leaves, the slivers of light reflected in the trash cans and the iron of the fences. On the footpath, about ten minutes downstream from the wall, we pumped the boat to life and dropped it into the water. It landed with a smack. The plastic oars plunged and murmured through the waters, which glinted as sharp and smooth as obsidian in the light from the street lamps. We drifted past a sleeping duck, which awoke in a sputter of wings and flew off down the canal. A creamy moon floated above the tops of the buildings through which we wove. Beneath us was the unknown filth of centuries—shopping carts, phones, knives, bicycles. Sometimes they found unexploded bombs in there, from the Blitz.  We passed below the grubby bridges, heard the cooing of their pigeon tenants. A man on the footpath saw us, with a start, when he was only metres away. Sounds of a party floated down from a balcony. I waved mischievously at the smokers leaning over the railing, but no one noticed. Suddenly, with a last few strokes, the rubbery plastic of the boat’s bow scraped against the ragged bank. I rolled out onto the triangle of concrete, bag of spray cans in hand. Cars sped by above, and the shadow of the bridge swept and jumped across the wall in their headlights. I brushed through knee-high weeds into the light. The cans clinked on the stone as I set them down. For the few minutes, the thick fuzz of air and paint harmonized with the hum of traffic. First a sketch in light paint, then the fill in and finally the thick black outline. Then I dropped back into the boat and pushed us off from the bank with my feet. We slid once more into the darkness. [[{"fid":"6708696","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]]  3 Days later, I was rushing to work and crossed the bridge that overlooked the piece we’d done by boat. Across the water, a temporary construction wall had been erected to repair the footpath. All across its surface, large and small, in simple, unobtrusive scripts, people had written what looked like “RIP Trip.” I didn’t have time to stop, but I kept looking back, wondering. At lunch, I found the news article. On the morning of June 18th, 2018, three young men were found dead on the train tracks near Loughborough Junction Station in South London. Police found spray cans near their bodies.  They were later identified as graffiti writers Trip, Lover, and Kbag—real names Alberto Fresneda Carrasco, Harrison Scott-Hood, and Jack Gilbert. Alberto—Alby, as his friends and family called him—was nineteen. Harrison—Harry—and Jack were both twenty-three. Their friends and families brought flowers and photos to Loughborough Junction Station, and covered the building in graffiti in their memories. One of their friends created the Instagram account @rip_trip_lover_kbag, which showed their drawings and paintings in notebooks and on walls and on trains. For a while, the streets of London were covered in tags of “RIP Trip Lover Kbag”—much of it from writers who hadn’t known them. Their deaths had been a kind of personal blow to graffiti artists all across London. Banksy himself wrote letters of condolence to each of the families.  I was terribly sad, in ways I couldn’t quite understand. I had known Trip—but only Trip, not Alberto or Alby. I had only known him through his graffiti. I felt again the losses of the last year, and a new loss that was all the more strange and poignant for the fact that I’d never met him, never known what he’d looked like, how old he was, what gender he was. And yet somehow we had talked to each other. In the news articles, I saw pictures of him for the first time. He was a kid. His haircut looked like mine when I was eighteen: long on the top, short on the back and sides. He had friends and a family, and two brothers, like me. He was short and smooth-faced, with a tattoo of Snoopy on his chest. “These many lives Alberto was leading,” his father wrote in an essay for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “I led some of them myself.” I felt, as I read more, that I had led some of them too. When Trip was twelve, he and his family moved from New York to London; his father wrote that the transition had been rough. When I was thirteen, my family and I had moved from Wisconsin to London. The transition, too, was rough. I remembered the disorientation, which he must have felt as well: there was the “tube” and Oyster Cards, the concrete estates and thousand-year-old churches. There was new slang—peng, wasteman—and Nectar Points and meal deals. In restaurants they gave you tiny glasses for water instead of the huge ones you got in America, and the toilet bowls were smaller and rounder. Someone from a different school threatened to stab me in the queue for McDonald’s in my second week.  Moving is a kind of semi-exile. You are brought against your will to somewhere you don’t understand or care about. You are disoriented—your geographic, cultural, emotional landmarks disappear. I could not return to the place I came from because I was barely a teenager, but that place in any case no longer existed because someone else lived in that house now with all their own stuff, and they probably repainted the walls. Most of all, I was betrayed by authority—my parents—which I could never again trust quite so deeply. So I didn’t belong in London, but after some time—a year or three—I stopped feeling that I belonged where I’d come from. Then I could see from two perspectives, and they destabilized each other. I was no longer certain that the way people talked about things was totally the way that they were. Everyone around me—my old friends from middle school in America, the British people on the tube who called us “foreign cunts,” my teachers and parents—they were all too sure about things. How do you deal with that? How do you live out what you know? Kyle, me, our friends, we stole gas and made Molotov cocktails, threw parties shut down by the police, made bonfires in Regent’s Park, ran through the London Riots of 2011. We wrestled and drank, smoked weed from soda cans and shot fireworks in the streets. Once Kyle and I played “knife baseball” in our friend’s backyard—one of us threw a kitchen knife to the other to hit with a cardboard tube. Perhaps Trip felt some of that raw, furious energy too, testing the boundaries of the world as it’s explained to us.  In the days and months after Trip’s death, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the abandoned subway station I’d visited with Marcel and Julius. At 86th Street station, we saw the train leave and jumped down onto the tracks, and we sprinted, running between the wall and the inside rail, Marcel in front, Julius in the middle, and me at the back. I could hear only the padding of our sneakers on the wooden railroad ties and my own ragged breathing. Adrenaline buzzed all the way to my fingertips, and Gothic iron arches flashed by, lit only by 86th Street disappearing behind us.  For Alby, Harry, Jack the night had been moonless, the tracks pitch black. Suddenly we were climbing onto a filthy, trash-strewn platform. I looked down at my hands and saw they were black with grime from hoisting myself up. Leaves had blown into piles against all the walls. Marcel picked up a spray can, shook it, and pressed the nozzle. A tiny puff of air came out—empty—and he tossed it down. It clinked delicately against the concrete and was still. Then we could hear the clatter of another train coming down the tracks. They must’ve heard the out-of-service commuter train coming towards them. They must’ve seen its lights. Julius motioned for me to hide behind a pillar, as he had done. Marcel crouched near the stairs. The noise grew louder and louder. They wouldn’t have been able to tell which rail the train was on; they would have tried to hide on the other track, but they guessed wrong. And then– The train shot past us, bringing with it billows of stale tunnel air. The windows were bright yellow in the pitch-black. Inside we could see the passengers slouched in their seats, leaning against the walls, hanging from the straps. They vacantly faced their own reflections, no idea we were staring at them. And then in a deafening clap of silence the train was gone. [[{"fid":"6708706","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Weeks and months passed, and Trip’s work was still there. I could still feel the paint he had painted, could touch it with my fingers knowing he had been alive when he’d written it. A tag would disappear every now and then: faded, buffed, painted over. A telephone booth he’d tagged was one day gone entirely, no trace of it left. I had a dream one night about going to Trip’s funeral: I was standing in a parking lot with all his friends, and they started to walk to the cemetery to see him interred. They looked at me questioningly, and I knew that I shouldn’t go. “You guys go on without me,” I said, and they walked away. I suspected I was somehow trespassing on other people’s grief. I was concerned, I suppose, that mourning for Trip was a way of mourning for Kyle. Kyle, I heard from friends, had moved back to New York, and then somewhere else. Far enough that we’d never have to speak again. Exactly a year from the day that Trip, Lover, and Kbag died, a “graffiti jam” was held at the Stockwell Hall of Fame, a legal graffiti wall in south London about a twenty-minute walk from where they’d died. I deliberated for a long time whether or not I should go. The dream weighed heavily on me. Around this time, out of the blue, Kyle messaged me. I messaged him back. We organized a video call. In our own halting and incomplete way, we made amends. He was living in Idaho with his wife, he told me, and breeding rabbits. I decided to go to the graffiti jam. The day was cloudless and hot, and I was sweating by the time I got to Brixton. Even from a few streets away I could smell the sweet tang of spray paint in the air. The Hall of Fame, when I arrived, proved to be a sunken concrete rectangle a little bigger than a basketball court. A thick wall, wide enough so that all four sides could be painted, divided the space in half. The whole place had been whitewashed the day before the event, and now dozens of painters were covering every surface with ornate renditions of Trip, Lover or Kbag. The blank spaces were covered with marker-drawn words: RIP, Rest in Paint, RIP Trip Lover Kbag. I took a seat on some steps at the far end and leaned back on my elbows. I recognized some of their friends from the Instagram page, and I recognized Trip’s dad from the news articles. He walked around taking photos of his son’s name. I thought about saying something to him, but I couldn’t think what. Two girls sitting at the base of the steps stood up and walked over to me. They introduced themselves as Marni and Lola. We all shook hands, and they sat down.  “What brought you here?” Marni asked.  “I always saw their pieces up around London,” I said, “and, I mean, I didn’t know them but… when I heard they died, I just… you know… I was pretty… I mean, it really…” I paused. “I was really sad,” I said, and paused again. “So I wanted to come down.” “That’s nice,” said Lola, smiling. Marni smiled too. “How about you guys?” I asked. They were both friends of Lover—or Harry, as they called him. Lola had been his girlfriend when he’d died. I told them I was sorry and they nodded in thanks.  “Do you write graffiti?” Marni asked me. “Not really,” I said. “I used to, a little, but… I pretty much stopped when I heard they died.” “You should keep writing!” said Lola.  There was another pause. “Actually I did a piece once that Lov…”—I caught myself—“that Harry covered up with his own.” This was true. It had been covered about a week after I’d painted it, but I’d realized only months after they’d died that Lover had done it. When I realized, it felt like I was talking to the dead. Lola started to apologize for him, and I, abashed, started to try to explain that I was not making an accusation. But she cut in: “Well, I guess it’s kind of nice,” she said, and laughed. “Sounds like Harry,” said Marni, grinning.  I stayed another hour or so, watching the painting and talking. For all my fear of imposing, everyone I talked to at the memorial seemed touched that I was there—that someone else had seen what their friends had written. Afterwards, I walked over to Loughborough Junction, to see the last pieces they’d done before they died. I found them on a bridge over Brixton Station Road. They were hangovers, like Trip’s piece on the Camden Road bridge, though his upside-down painting had clearly improved in the time that had passed.  I sat down on a brick wall and stared at the paint for a long time. They’d gotten onto the tracks somewhere else and had run here trackside, but all the same I tried to imagine how they might’ve climbed up here: I saw them step on the bollard, climb onto the rubbish bin, grab the mesh cage around the service ladder. I saw them edge along to the top of the wall, vault over the railing and run along the bridge. I saw them crouch and hang and spray their names and feel alive.
‘Gestures Across Time’: An Interview with Martha Schabas

The author of My Face in the Light on artistic process, phsyical mediums as a foil to writing, and the tension between surface and interior. 

Martha Schabas’s My Face in the Light (Knopf Canada) is a novel of retreat that never quite becomes escape. Justine, a young actress, is on the verge of withdrawing from her career, her marriage, and her already tenuous notions of who she is. After an odd encounter with a man on a train results in an offer of free rent in exchange for unspecified work, Justine leaves her husband and Toronto, landing in London without specific intentions, increasingly uncertain about her present as she begins to probe into the brief past she shared with her mother in this city.  Defying flight-from-a-staid-marriage conventions, My Face in the Light’s first line establishes that it’s a different fractured relationship that is central to Justine, secondary only to her attempts to investigate herself: “My mother is an artist and I am a liar.” That notion is immediately inverted: “Or, if I scratch the surface, my mother is a sick woman and I am an actress. How different is that from saying my mother is a sick woman and I am a liar?”  Schabas’s prose reflects Justine’s poise and her poses to those who perceive her—the character’s grip on how she is seen onstage and in life—and the constant restlessness of her mind.  Naben Ruthnum: Justine’s mother, Rachel, is a painter, and this novel is rife with descriptions of paintings and the process of artmaking. Did you have a particular approach to describing Rachel’s paintings, or were you more concerned with Justine’s perception of her mother’s work?   Martha Schabas: I thought a lot about the French artist Sophie Calle when figuring out Rachel’s process as a painter. Calle is so good at manipulating the tension between real life and art, toying with the apparent boundaries of each, and that’s one of the novel’s major preoccupations. Rachel’s breakthrough series of paintings—the Heroine Series—came from her habit of following young women around London with a teenaged Justine, and then letting Justine mimic these women at home. This was vaguely inspired by Calle’s obsession with following and documenting strangers in Paris. I wanted to find a way to make Rachel and Justine equally involved in the making of these paintings so that Justine’s contribution wasn’t just incidental and superfluous, but present and felt in the actual finished product. I wanted the paintings to somehow document all the trouble and intimacy in the mother-daughter relationship—Justine’s simultaneous adoration and resentment of Rachel—as much as they document these London strangers. Rachel and Justine collide in their curiosity about these women, and the paintings are meant to evoke this sort of triad of influence.  Artwork-wise, you’re not just talking about painting in the novel: Justine’s acting, initially encouraged by her mother and accepted by her as the course of her life from her mid-teen years on, is an enormous part of her character and of the novel. Just as you vividly describe paintings in the novel, you describe performances, rehearsals, moments; how did you approach writing about acting, and did you have any touchstone writers when you were examining how to execute this? It’s occurred to me that the novel is a bit “anti-acting,” and I’ve wondered what real actors will make of it. I actually trained as an actor, which is a strange thing for me to remember—or admit—because I can barely connect with my former self who wanted that career. I was objectively a pretty bad actor, but I managed to fool people sometimes out of sheer work and will. But it always felt unnatural to me. And you see this a lot with mediocre actors, don’t you? It’s all muscle and ego.  With Justine, I wanted to explore the opposite: an actor who is utterly natural and ego-less. Justine is almost embarrassed by her talent. She comes by it so effortlessly and artlessly that it feels as though she’s exploiting a physical anomaly, like being able to pop her elbow out of joint. She feels like a malleable puppet, and I guess one of the tacit questions the novel asks is if acting is just complete submission to another artist’s vision and to what degree it can be considered artful at all.  It’s funny you should ask about touchstone writers because, while I can rarely pinpoint particular books as expressly influential, there is one for the sections about Justine’s acting: Out of my Skin by John Haskell is this very weird and smart novel about a man who becomes a Steve Martin impersonator in L.A. Haskell’s writing on physicality is so vivid, bizarre, and compelling. The physical detail of the narrator’s transformation, the encroachment of Steve-Martiness onto his whole body, and his eventual complete surrender to the aura of Steve—this was all very helpful to me in my writing of Justine’s work. You’ve had a past life as a performer, and Justine in this novel is entertaining leaving performance of a different sort in the past. This is all true. Justine has an audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company that she deliberately turns away from. In addition to a chance meeting on the train, this non-audition sets the book’s action in motion. What is Justine opting out of in this moment?  She’s starting to opt out of everything, just as you’ve implied. Justine feels like a fraud in all aspects of her life, and walking out of her career as a literal fraud, i.e., an actor, signifies her first step towards truth-telling and figuring out who she really is. Your first novel, Various Positions, was about a younger artist at a different crisis point in her life and career. Something I noticed about the life of that very adult novel, after I’d read it, is that it was marketed as YA in the U.S., due to the character’s age. What did you make of this decision? Does your prior protagonist have links to Justine? It still depresses me to think how wrong everything went with the publication of Various Positions in the U.S. The novel is about a fifteen-year-old girl whose misunderstanding of sex in a patriarchal world leads her towards some outrageous behaviour. The novel was marketed as literary fiction in Canada, which is how I hoped things would pan out in the U.S. Instead, I got only one American offer and it was a YA imprint. I hemmed and hawed but eventually agreed, because my only real hang-up was my pride, and that seemed petty. I hoped that, irrespective of the label, the book would find the right readers in the U.S., but maybe that was naive of me. I didn’t know what a YA label would connote, that it imbued the novel with certain moral expectations that it was never intended to fulfill. The novel is anything but morally instructive. I still hope it will find the right American readers one day. I definitely think there are implicit links between Georgia, the protagonist of Various Positions, and Justine, despite the fact that the former finds her entire sense of identity in her art while the latter feels lost in hers. Maybe their similarities are more tonal. They’re both contemplative, introspective, living at a kind of remove from everyone else. With Georgia, the stylistic challenge was limiting her understanding of the world, distilling her rawness and naivety. With Justine I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted a sophisticated thinker who expresses herself eloquently on the page. You’ve written from the point of view of dancers and actors; do you actively resist writing from the fictional perspective of a writer? Ha, no. I wouldn’t call it active resistance. But these mediums—dance and theatre—aren’t just there to give my protagonists something to do. They interest me for really specific reasons, and I analyze them extensively in the books. They’re both very physical mediums and, in that sense, provide a kind of foil to writing. They both suggest something more instinctive than writing, something bodily, primal that feels almost “pre-thought,” and I was attracted to the challenge of vivifying that in prose.  The physical beauty of Justine’s mother and husband are prominent in the novel—and her own looks are remarkable, including her scar. How do beauty and “flawed” beauty figure into your telling of Justine’s story as both an artist and a person? I wanted Justine to be unreliable in her appraisal of appearances, both in her reverence of other people’s beauty and in her perception of her own scar. She clearly has a complex about the scar and is convinced it makes her unattractive, but people respond to it quite differently throughout the novel, which gives it a sense of shape-shifting when, by definition, a scar is static, unchangeable. In fact, Justine superstitiously believes that she needs to monitor the scar constantly, for fear that it might get worse, to the extent that its terribleness becomes something of her own construction. I wanted the scar to exist on two different levels in the novel—as a real mark on Justine’s forehead, but also as an idea that is constantly revisited and mythologized by both Justine and Rachel. In a sense, the scar is as much a work of art as any of Rachel’s paintings, and I wanted it to occupy that kind of creative space in the novel, to have the same uncanny power. I’m curious about the degrees of neglect in the novel. Rachel is upset, perhaps rightfully so, when she sees the severity of the scar her daughter got while being taken care of by someone else and the inefficiency of the repair. Justine’s treatment of her husband when she decides she wants to be away from him is another, lighter, but perhaps just as permanent, form of neglect. You’re right, neglect is a major subject in the book. I’m surprised you’ve pointed out the mishandling of Justine’s childhood accident by the woman caring for her. For me, the key act of neglect is Rachel’s abandonment of Justine, both before the scar-causing accident and when Justine is recovering. That incident, and Rachel’s absence, is the emotional underlay of the whole novel.  And you’re also right to suggest that history repeats itself. For all of Justine’s determination to be nothing like her mother, we learn that she is capable of—and has committed—quite comparable acts of abandonment, and not only towards her husband. Justine has always tied Rachel’s propensity for neglect to her self-centredness as an artist, and part of Justine’s emotional journey is the realization that that’s reductive. The two floors of Max Haleemi's club speak of two different degrees of objectification, which are deeply entwined. Yes, the novel keeps revisiting the tension between surface and interior, between what we look like and who we are and the ethical problems that arise from that relationship. It might be a very old-fashioned line of moral inquiry, but I don’t think it will ever cease to fascinate me—how completely irrelevant our appearances should be to our inner realities, and yet how impossible it is to accept that on a sheer phenomenological level. Justine takes a pivotal photo towards the end of the novel, one that suggests her relationship to her mother could change. Were you suggesting a truth to this artform that doesn’t exist, at least for Justine, in her art? I wasn’t contrasting photography and acting so much as suggesting that, for all of art’s failings at expressing truth, it’s still a powerful way of getting close to it. And art remains the most meaningful way for Rachel and Justine to communicate. The photograph references a few really key things in Rachel and Justine’s past, but it’s also a new work, full of its own implications, offering its own interpretation of the world. A photograph creates an everlasting present-tense, but this one gestures across time, too. It alludes to Justine’s history while suggesting that things are changing, that Justine has agency in the present and an artist’s control over what she sees.
‘It’s My Love Letter to Superheroes’: An Interview with Villal Pando

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.
‘Underachieving Can Be an Act of Profound Self-Care’: An Interview with Rachel Yoder

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.
‘It Was Just Joy’: An Interview with Nicole Pasulka

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.
That Arrested Moment: On Stills in Film

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.
If You’re Reading This, It’s Jim Joe

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.