Hazlitt Magazine

'History Unaddressed Recurs': An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.

Concerning the Many Legends of the Cyclone Named Jack Trice

He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.

'Haunted Literature Can Be a Powerful Medium for Looking at the Ignored': An Interview with Laura van den Berg

The author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears on spectral encounters and exorcisms, America’s rejection of history, travel literature, and boxing.  

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‘History Unaddressed Recurs’: An Interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Speaking to the author of Caste about the insufficiencies of the term “racism,” objectivity versus balance, and the opportunities America’s coming demographic shift presents.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, is a landmark study of the Great Migration, the period between WWI and the 1970s when millions of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow South. It was an epic subject and an epic task. Told through the lives of three individuals, Wilkerson spent fifteen years exhaustively reporting and conducting interviews. Curiously, despite the subject matter, the word “racism” does not appear once in The Warmth of Other Suns. In the course of reporting The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson realized the term was insufficient for describing the elaborate framework that organizes U.S. society. What she was writing about was actually a caste system, and this became the subject of her second book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is no less ambitious than Wilkerson’s first book. By comparing the racialized system in the U.S. with the millennium-old one of India and that of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson distills what she calls the “eight pillars of caste.” She describes caste as a hierarchical system that assigns roles to members of society at each rung of the social ladder. In a caste system, consciously or subconsciously, everyone knows their place and the place of others simply by looking at them. In a caste system, it is dangerous to act out of place, to break from the script. I spoke to Wilkerson about how the U.S. caste system was born from slavery and how it has mutated throughout history, her choice to include personal experiences, and why the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority, could be a turning point for the U.S. caste system. Connor Goodwin: I'll begin with the obvious. The U.S. is not usually viewed as a caste system. What convinced you that caste was the best way to frame how U.S. society organizes itself? And what insight does this caste fretwork provide that, say, race or class alone, does not? Isabel Wilkerson: That’s a great question. It started with my previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the exodus of six million African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to all points North, Midwest, and West. In other words, it was the out-migration of people who had been born to and trapped in a caste system known as Jim Crow. I was describing the world anyone [in the Jim Crow South] was living in, whether the people were in the dominating caste or the subordinated caste—and what life was like in that world. A lot of people who’ve read the book in intervening years have often described it as a book about how they were fleeing racism in the South. But I do not use the word “racism” in the book. Racism did not feel sufficient to describe the organized, multi-layered, fixed repression of the people in that world. That repression was bigger and deeper and more far-reaching than [racism]. So the word I used was “caste.” [“Caste”] was a word that had actually been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went to the South during the Great Migration, primarily in the 1930s—the word they come up with time and time again was “caste.” So when sociologists and anthropologists went to the South and studied it when the caste system was in full force, in its most formal and brutal iteration, they used the word “caste.” In writing about the experiences of people in the twentieth century who were fleeing that caste system, only to arrive in the big cities outside of the South and to discover a different kind of hierarchy that they then had to navigate, additional restrictions that they might not have anticipated, that actually arose because of their arrival. In other words, fleeing the caste system did not free them from the caste system as it existed in other parts of the country. It shadowed them wherever they went. As a result, the language I have come to use is “caste” because it speaks to the structure, that often hidden and unrecognized hierarchy, and the boundaries that the structure imposes to keep the parts separate and ranked. That is why I use the word “caste.” What I found most convincing was that a caste system ascribes roles to people at each tier and everyone subconsciously knows these roles. Can you speak to this idea of scripted roles and what happens when someone steps outside their role? Well, there’s so many examples. Perhaps that is why the word “caste” is so appropriate, because it reminds of just what you said—the roles that we’ve been assigned. We did not choose these roles, they were assigned and affixed to us. In many respects, they hold everyone back because we often don’t get choices as to how we’re viewed, how we’re seen, what our potential is viewed to be. One of the metaphors I use is that of being in a play. If you have a long-running play, everybody knows who’s in what role, and people have been in the roles for so long they know where someone is supposed to be on the stage before they even step on the stage, because that’s what happens in a play. It’s interesting that the word “cast” is applied to a play; “cast” is what’s put on an arm when there’s a fracture to hold the bones in place. So the idea of holding someone or something in place is a hallmark of what caste means. The origins of the American hierarchy of caste began with enslavement. Literally what you looked like determined the kind of work that you would do in the country for 246 years of enslavement and then for 100 years after that in the Jim Crow caste system, [which] did not end legally until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. For most of the country’s history, it was very clear who was doing what based on what they looked like, which signaled where they stand in the caste system. The dirtiest, most dangerous, most dreaded jobs were assigned to people who were enslaved, who had no choices in what they might do, had no choice over their bodies, and this went on for over twelve generations. Even with Covid-19, studies have found that Black and brown people were getting sicker at a higher rate and dying at higher rates. Much of that had to do with the occupational caste hierarchy that became evident during the crisis, especially in the early going, when there was limited protections, limited masks for anyone. These were the people who were on the front lines: the ones stacking shelves at the grocery store, the ones who were driving the busses and public transportation, the ones making deliveries. They were on the front lines, exposed to the public without the protections we now know were necessary and advisable, and allow[ed] others to shelter-in-place and be safer from the virus. Every other week there seems to be another example of someone, generally from what would be viewed as the dominating caste inserting themselves or intruding as an African-American is going about their life and calling the police on them for something that would be seen as perhaps benign by someone else. Someone called the police on two African-American men waiting for a friend at a Starbucks. Someone called the [campus] police on a student at Yale University who was studying and resting her head on her books. There’s police being called on people who are at a pool. These are the current-day manifestations of policing the boundaries and the instant recognition of or belief that certain people belong in certain places and others do not. Is there a way in which the ongoing protests as part of the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the caste script? I think that all the liberation movements that have occurred throughout American history have been an effort to challenge the pre-existing caste system. This is part of a continuum. History unaddressed recurs. American history is one that can be characterized by the underlying structure that we live with, but then these advances that have occurred over time that were often swiftly followed by retrenchment and backlash and a long period of plateauing. It’s this cycle that seems to be recurring and this is a continuing manifestation of the efforts to bring light to, and to somehow transcend, the hierarchies that have been the basis of so much injustice and inequality in the country. You speak of caste as a rigid organizing system that seeks to keep the dominant members on top and the subordinate ones on the bottom. While this organizing system is rigid, what constitutes someone as a member of the dominant caste has changed over time. In what ways has the U.S. caste system reconstituted itself throughout history? The essential hierarchy—the structure—remains the same. But who qualifies to be in the dominant group, who can be permitted, admitted, into the dominant group is one of the focuses of any caste system. The people who qualify to be in the dominant group have changed over time to meet the needs of changing demographics and infusion of people into the country. In 1790, the people who would’ve qualified to be in the dominant group, the people who qualified as white, would be completely different from who would’ve qualified in 1890 or 1924 when a major immigration bill passed that actually restricted people who were coming in from Southern and Eastern Europe and other parts of the world outside of Western Europe. The fact of a dominant group has been ever-present. The fact of a bottom rail has been ever-present and has been more static in its membership—descendants of the enslaved have always been consigned to the subordinated bottom of the caste system. The changes have occurred in the top. This is the reason why [we talk about] the idea of race as a social construct. But we have been so acclimated and so socialized to believe in [race] as [a] law of nature that it has come to be seen as the way things have always been. But it turns out race is not actually that old of an idea, only four or five hundred years old. It arose as a concept with the populating of the Americas which brought together people from different parts of the world who otherwise would not have been identified on the basis solely of their color. They would have been identified as Ethiopian or as Polish or as Hungarian and suddenly they get to the United States and they are put in a queue based on what they look like, based on where they fit in the hierarchy that was created as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. People who had not needed to think of themselves as white, not needed to think of themselves as Black, are suddenly assigned to racial categories that did not exist before, that did not need to exist before. This is how relatively new [race] is, but it has been around long enough, become so much a part of how we think of ourselves, we don’t question it anymore. The language of caste is this new language for understanding ourselves, for understanding our history, understanding how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and how we have inherited this framework. No one alive is responsible for creating [and] it’s not anyone’s fault they were born to a particular place in the caste system. This is what we inherited. But once we become aware of it, it is our responsibility to see how it affects us, how it hurts all of us and what we can do to work together to transcend it. In Caste, you reluctantly introduce some personal experiences. Why did you choose to include these, and did that choice in some way resonate with the recent discourse around “objectivity” in journalism? The idea of objectivity was not an issue for me. There’s a whole long conversation that could be had about objectivity. We are a species known for our capacity for emotion, for empathy, for taking in information and inputs from many different sources in order to survive. By definition, it means that we are not machines that can be seen as objective. We are, by definition, taking in inputs and sensory information that we then encode subconsciously and consciously that affect how we see a particular thing. Objectivity is not the same as authority. Objectivity is not the same as doing the research. Objectivity is not the same as doing the hard work to create a document that reflects the research one has done. The goal should be balance. The goal is not to pretend we are machines. We fool ourselves if we think any one person, or any one group, has a lock on objectivity. My work has always been about telling a bigger story through the lives of other people and not making it personal so that someone would think this is singular to her. I’m more accustomed to and feel very at home with focusing in on the stories of others in order to tell a larger story through narrative nonfiction. That’s what I do, that’s who I am, and that’s what I prefer to do. In the process of doing the work that I have felt called to do, I have also run into the very phenomena I am writing about, so that’s the reason why it seemed necessary, reluctantly for me, to include examples from my own experiences. Your last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, told the history of the Great Migration through the lived experiences of three individuals. Whereas that book was very biographical and consisted of extensive in-person interviews, your new book relies more heavily on archives and academic studies. How did this affect your reporting for Caste and did it present any unique challenges (like you couldn’t go back for more interviews)? That’s a really good point. There was a mix of all those things. I did do extensive interviewing and interaction and conversation with people who were dealing with caste in their own ways. The difference is that this is not the same kind of focus on just three people like The Warmth of Other Suns was. This is a chorus of people testifying to the experiences that they might have had of caste. In addition to that work of listening to, hearing, searching out, and being attuned to the stories of people that I was meeting or talking to, I also was looking to the other disciplines that touch upon caste in order to understand it as fully as I possibly could. Anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, economics—all of these various disciplines. I was awash in books. Books, books, books. Books that were written about caste from, say, the nineteenth century. British scholars writing about caste. Indian scholars writing about caste. There was a point where I was having to read a book a day because there was so much coming in, so much that needed to be done. The work was massive to study, absorb, and then distill these disparate cultures, different disciplines, [and] try to condense this into something that would be readable, absorbable, and perhaps illuminating to people. Throughout the book, you bring up the 2042 census projection, which predicts white people will become a minority in the U.S. In what ways might the 2042 census upset the current caste system and, since it is based on race, how might the caste system reconstitute itself if whites, the dominant caste, become a minority? The country will be facing a turning point in its identity and it has a choice to make as to how it will move forward, how it will perceive itself, how it will reconcile a demographic combination that it’s never seen before. If projections hold, this will be a new experience for everyone wherever they might be in what I call a caste system. What I’m trying to say is it will affect everyone and the choice is whether to embrace this change and become stronger for it or to further retrench and reconstitute the caste system as has happened in the past. When you look at the 1924 immigration bill, the response was to shut down additional immigration to keep the country constituted the way it had been. The country is facing an existential question about what it will be, how will it constitute itself, will it embrace a demographic that’s different than what it’s done before. The caste system has been in place from the beginning and has shown itself to be incredibly resilient and enduring and, unless there’s an awareness and enlightenment about that, the possibility is that, without enlightenment and awareness, it will just reconstitute itself as it has in the past.
‘People are Grappling with Losing the Life They Had Before’: An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak

The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death. 

In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss. In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.”  While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on. Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now? Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that... I returned to California and it’s now a disaster. Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic? In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I've never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that's been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability. Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it. It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of... just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can't even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it's somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what's happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they're gone. It's just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we're all suffering from a collective grief as a society. I truly don't believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I'm okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you're not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they're dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It's such a profound experience. It's really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief. The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book?  I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it's a specific time: it's not the aftermath. It's the wave that's coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn't think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion's work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like. Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book? The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there's a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work. I'm certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it's interesting because there's certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don't want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they're dying. They're really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it's not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I'm terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments. In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don't examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible. And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it's terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can't let go. I've had friends whose parents have died. It's really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what's really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don't want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I'm willing to say, like, past this point, I'm not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children... that's something that I put in there, too. You don't ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they're going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It's almost like you're giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they're suffering and there's no “what's next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up!  I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change?  I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn't be in third person. And writing that whole draft... I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn't feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn't want to put out a book that I didn't want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I'm gonna take the time I need. I'm going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it'll take me ten years. I just don't want to feel like I'm being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she's in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you're supposed to have by the time you're nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn't had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I'm really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here. You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around? I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It's hard because in all of my books, I've always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you're supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way. I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn't want to write about women who aren't making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it's uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself. I was going to say! [Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don't think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier! In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn't want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward. I was like, “maybe I'll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It's growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It's not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term...I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn't seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written. At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo. Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails… Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving? I think you either have denial about what's going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don't think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn't thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don't even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don't have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I'll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I've listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there's a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn't—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn't and it's impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare? I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot. With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories. We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else. So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too. For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose. Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention? Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training. I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone. With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something. The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like. And what the end of it should like. Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy. Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it. We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like. We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives. It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work! The bereavement leave? Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like? I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me.  And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.” Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately. I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.
Concerning the Many Legends of the Cyclone Named Jack Trice

He was a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him.

Dozens and dozens of college football stadiums are named after people, and there’s a story behind each. Those backstories are often pretty simple: Some guy gave a lot of money to a university, or a lot of people died in a war. Not much room for mystery there. Well, most of them are pretty simple. Jack Trice was the grandson of enslaved people and the son of a Buffalo Soldier. In 1864, Tennesseans named George Wallace and Phyllis Trice gave birth to Green Trice, the man who would become Jack’s father. Two years later, the federal Army Reorganization Act called for the formation of regiments composed “of colored men.” These calvarymen, who would be given the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by Native American tribes, became part of America’s bloody conquest of the West. Green joined the United States Army in 1882 at Fort Davis in Texas—a fort named after a former U.S. Secretary of War who’d since been the president of the Confederacy. Davis’ Confederacy had then lost a war against that same U.S. Army during Green's lifetime.11Green Trice death certificate We do not know where Green served, only that he helped win the white man’s war against Indigenous people. Green would eventually leave the military and return east. He would marry a woman named Anna, and they would reside in a small town about 30 miles outside of Cleveland. In 1902, their son Jack was born. Green died when Jack was just a young boy, leaving his mother to raise him alone for most of his life. Anna was fearful for him. She wanted her son to know what he would be up against and worried that Hiram, Ohio, a town with very few Black families, would isolate him from racial realities. When Jack was ready for high school, his mother sent him to live with an uncle in Cleveland. She wanted “to get him among people of his own kind, to meet the problems that a Negro boy would have to face sometime, and to give him an opportunity to make social contacts with people of his own race,”22Steven Jones, Football’s Fallen Hero according to a childhood friend. That friend said Trice “was always a part of our school parties in various homes, with never a thought of any difference of color of skin.” But it’s folly to assume any Black child in America didn’t feel racism’s sting, as those in predominantly white upbringings often feel isolation they do not or cannot show. In Cleveland, Trice attended East Tech High School and became a multisport star. The football coach was former Ohio State player Sam Willaman, and the team was nearly unbeatable throughout Trice’s career. One of their few losses was a de facto high school national championship in 1920, when the team rode a train to play in Washington state. Trice played tackle, making him a lineman on offense and something like a modern DE on defense. He was all-state. In 1921, he was one of East Tech’s two Black football players.33Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story “No better tackle ever played high school ball in Cleveland. He had speed, strength and smartness,”44Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 1979 said Johnny Behm, a high school teammate. Another teammate, Harry Schmidt, said Trice was skilled enough to become all-conference at the college level, even All-American. His barrier against playing football in college was skin, not skill. Deep South powers didn’t integrate until the ’60s and ’70s. Some Black players starred closer to his home, but were usually exceptions. As Jack was completing high school, Iowa’s Duke Slater was an All-American. Near Jack’s hometown, Fritz Pollard was becoming the NFL’s first Black player-coach—but the league wouldn’t hire another Black head coach for 68 more years. After Trice graduated in 1922, Willaman got the head coaching job at Iowa State. Two of Trice’s teammates at East Tech, brothers Norton and Johnny Behm, turned down Notre Dame to join their former coach. A few other standout Cleveland players also became Cyclones. Trice was working road construction when Willaman came to invite him to join the team. Football looked to be Trice’s ticket to a better life. His dad, a farmer, doesn’t appear to have started the first grade until after turning 20. Trice was poised to become the first Black athlete in Iowa State history. The school’s first Black student and first Black faculty member had been George Washington Carver, who’d received a master’s degree in 1896 and gone on to deliver agricultural innovations to Southern farmers.55Kansas City Star, August 2004 Jack enrolled in Iowa State’s animal husbandry program with the goal of earning a degree and using it to help Black farmers in the South. The Des Moines Register called Trice one of the best linemen on Iowa State’s freshman team (until 1972, most college football governing bodies banned freshmen from varsity games). He also won a shot-put event in a Missouri Valley Conference track meet. By 1923, his sophomore year, he was a varsity football starter, which was especially noteworthy. Per that era’s rules, if a player subbed out in the first half he couldn’t come back in until halftime. If he subbed out in the second half, his day was done. After what amounted to a tune-up against Simpson College, Iowa State’s student newspaper recapped his varsity debut: The big colored boy, Jack Trice, is by far the most outstanding performer and gave evidence of being one of the best tackles in the Missouri Valley this year in the last weekend’s play against Simpson. Trice is fast, strong and a heady player. You can find accounts that describe Trice as damn near a Black Paul Bunyan, listing him as 6’2 and 200 pounds, quite big for the era. A program from his first varsity game had him at 182 pounds,66Joshua Kagavi, The Jack Trice Story already the third-heaviest Cyclone. When Jack returned to Ames for his sophomore year in 1923, he’d brought along Cora Mae, his wife. The two had married the year prior. Black people weren't allowed to live on Iowa State's campus, so the Trices lived upstairs in an off-campus Masonic Temple that still stands today. They did the things young lovers do. Jack worked a side job as a janitor, so he had keys to the campus pool, and the two would sneak in to go skinny-dipping, according to the family’s telling. In a letter Cora Mae later wrote to Iowa State, she recalled a conversation they had just before he left for Minnesota, the site of his first major-level college football game. “He came to tell me good bye,” Cora Mae wrote. “We kissed and hugged and he told me that he would come back to me as soon as he could.” Now picture Trice in his Minneapolis hotel room, the night before the game. He sat down on Friday night and wrote a letter on hotel stationery. There’s no telling whom he intended to mail it to or if he intended to mail it at all. The emphasis is his: To whom it may concern, My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life. The honor of my race, family, & self are at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will! My whole body & soul are to be thrown recklessly about on the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break thru the opponents line at stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference & fight low with your eyes open and toward the play. Roll block the interference. Watch out for cross bucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack It is a poignant note. It’s also the only thing I could find written about Trice by Trice. It looks like something a Hollywood screenwriter would dream up and in your head you can hear soft strings building toward crescendo. Maybe some drums as the scene cuts to the pregame locker room. Trice knew he was about to be the only Black man on the field, probably the whole stadium. He knew Minnesota was especially imposing. The Gophers already had a national title in their history, and this year’s team would finish 5-1-1 with two All-Americans. And Trice surely knew the risks of football. For decades, football had been killing people on the field. During the 1905 season, President Teddy Roosevelt had met with college leaders and told them to clean the game up. That season, at least 19 high school and college players died, and another 135 were injured, according to the Chicago Tribune, too much even for the ol’ Rough Rider: I have no sympathy whatever with the overwrought sentimentality that would keep a young man in cotton wool, and I have a hearty contempt for him if he counts a broken arm or collarbone as a serious consequence when balanced against the chance of showing that he possesses hardihood, physical address, and courage. But when these injuries are inflicted by others, either wantonly or of set design, we are confronted by the question, not of damage to one man’s body but of damage to the other man’s character.77The Washington Post, October 1905 The next year, admins overhauled football’s rules, which had only evolved so much since the game’s origin as a brawl with a ball. The biggest change was to allow the forward pass—even though incompletions were penalized, which discouraged one of football’s few tactics that didn’t resemble trench warfare. Along the way, college football got rid of some dangerous mass plays like the flying wedge, which meant slamming together tight packs of bodies at full speed. Yet as of 1923, other mass plays remained. Helmets were still leather, and shoulder pads were still insignificant. In 1923, over a decade after the partial implementation of the forward pass, the toll remained similar; at least 18 college football players died that year from injuries suffered on the field. Most accounts of Iowa State’s 1923 trip to Minnesota agree on a few things. Trice was injured on one of the first few plays: a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed in the game. According to the rules, if he left, he couldn't have returned until the second half. At some point in the third quarter, Trice got hurt again. This time it was his abdomen, and this time he was unable to continue. Later, some reports would say doctors found lung hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Trice likely downplayed what was happening inside his body. Multiple accounts say he protested to keep playing but was helped off the field by two teammates and taken immediately to a Minneapolis hospital. A doctor there said his condition was serious, but allowed him to go back to Ames. The injuries were not professionally diagnosed until after Trice rode home on a straw mattress in a train. Perhaps that doctor failed Trice. But note this: We have no way of knowing whether anyone investigated it. Trice arrived at Iowa State’s campus hospital. Sunday night, a specialist determined there was nothing they could do for his internal bleeding, not even emergency operation. Cora Mae was in the campus cafeteria Monday afternoon when one of Trice’s fraternity brothers summoned her to the hospital. “When I saw him, I said Hello Darling," she later wrote. “He looked at me, but never spoke. I remember hearing the Campanile chime 3 o'clock. That was Oct 8th, 1923, and he was gone.” If that first doctor missed Trice’s injuries, what else might be missing? What do we know? The answer depends on which account you’re reading, and when the account was written. Sunday, October 7, 1923 Three stories from reporters who’d attended the previous day’s game reference Jack’s injury directly: Minnesota’s student paper, the St. Paul Daily News, and the Des Moines Register. As part of play-by-play details, each reported Trice was on offense as Iowa State got to the 45-yard line on a reception by a Behm brother, though they differed on which one—two said Johnny. Each described Trice getting injured during that play, then leaving because of it. The Minnesota Tribune’s Sunday edition only has a reference to Trice being substituted out in the third quarter in its box score, but its play-by-play is generally less comprehensive. Monday, October 8 The Ames Daily Tribune said, “Jack Trice, colored tackle, was forced out of the game in the third period with internal injuries and it will probably be four weeks before he will be in condition to scrimmage again.” By mid-afternoon, Trice was dead, as a late edition of Iowa State’s student newspaper reported. He had been trampled in “an off-tackle play.” Tuesday, October 9 In reporting his death, the Minnesota Tribune added to the list of outlets referencing Trice playing offense at the time of the injury, also describing him as one-on-one blocking downfield: “Late in the third period another play was directed at his position and Trice broke through to block the Gopher’s secondary defense. He blocked his man but he failed to get up.” But in other outlets, the particulars of the play that killed him remained vague. “The Minnesota team piled on top of him in an off-tackle play,” the Des Moines Register said. “Trice was crushed in a play through his position,” the Associated Press said. “Crushed in an off tackle play,” per the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And the Minnesota Star differed significantly from the initial reports by attendees. It moved Trice to defense and described him engaging in a dangerous action: “Trice playing a defensive tackle position dived into the interference of an off tackle Minnesota play and was crushed under the weight of several members of the Minnesota team.” Wednesday, October 10 An AP story held up Trice as a sort of martyr. The headline in bold letters: “DEAD FOOTBALL STAR’S LETTER, WRITTEN BEFORE GAME, PLANS SACRIFICE” with a subheading: “Jack Trice intended to use his body and soul recklessly for honor of his family and Negro race.” At this point, the narrative had shifted to fuse not only vague and opposite recollections of what Trice had been doing during the play, but also a grand interpretation of his letter, found in his jacket pocket after he’d died. Recollections of Trice’s death have gotten more confusing over the years, evolving into nothing like those initial reports. Even former teammates ended up saying Trice had been on defense. In 1973, former linemate Schmidt, then in his 70s, recalled the play: Well, [Minnesota] had a powerful offensive drive with good interference, and they had three blockers ahead of this runner. Jack had said in [his] letter that he would throw himself before an interference. He did a roll block. And someone just happened to step on his stomach.88Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice  He maintained that any stomping wasn’t intentional. Johnny Behm—one of two brothers described by press box reports as catching the ball on offense during Trice’s injury—remembered it like this in 1979: In the third quarter they tried a power play over him. I was in the defensive backfield so I can’t tell you for certain what happened. But I’d swear the Minnesota end who had to block Trice tackled him instead. Jack landed on his back and the Minnesota fullback ran right over him. Maybe the interference did, too, I’m not positive. Around this time, Trice’s freshman coach William Thompson added to the foggy recollection: Jack used a block against the Minnesota backfield. It was a dangerous block to use in my opinion and it was safe enough if you had the good fortune and the strength to end up on all fours. This was called a roll block. You had to roll under the backfield and that had a devastating effect on the runner, you see. It trips him right at the ankles. The interchangeable nature of football terms and positions from that era can also lead to confusion. What did Trice, Schmidt, and Behm mean by “interference?” John Wilce, who’d coached Ohio State when Willaman played there, wrote this in 1923: Many people do not seem to understand the term ‘interference.’ Interference simply means blocking by players immediately in front of the runner. […] The man with the ball is usually close behind his interference. [...] The roll block by one player followed by a similar block by another, the break block, the combination hard-shoulder block, and the running side-body block are most commonly used by interferers.99John Wilce, Football: How To Play It And Understand It By that definition, which comes from a coach who taught Trice’s coach, interference and the roll block are strictly offensive terms, similar to lead blocking by a modern fullback. But Trice’s letter leads you to believe he considered the roll block a two-way term or perhaps a defensive one, since he mentioned it right after describing his need to be vigilant “on all defensive plays.” So were the initial reports right? Or were the later recollections right? Are Jack’s letter and these football terms helpful in reconstructing the scene? Does Jack’s letter even need to be injected into what happened against Minnesota? And since the most popular version of the story is at odds with reports written by witnesses, what else don’t we know about the play that killed Trice? One would think all these differing accounts, even within the week after the game, would help warrant an investigation. But the day after his death, his school declined a request to investigate. That request came from the head of Minnesota’s conference. John L. Griffith, Commissioner of Athletics for the Intercollegiate Conference, sent a message to [ISU] officials: ‘Associated Press Dispatch from Ames states that your boy died from injuries received when most of the Minnesota line piled on top of him in an off tackle play. Would you care to issue as to whether or not injuries were result of unfair plays?’ An [ISU] official replied to Griffith the same day, stating, ‘Willaman and the men under him advised me that they did not discern any special massing on Jack Trice. He was an exceptional player and of course made trouble for the Minnesota team.’1010Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice That response arrived in a letter with no name or signature. Two weeks later, October 24, Iowa State dean S.W. Beyer sent Griffith a curious note. Inasmuch as Mr. Trice was a colored man it is easy for people to assume that his opponents must have deliberately attempted to injure him. In my experience where colored boys had participated in athletic contests I have seen very little to indicate that their white opponents had any disposition to foul them.1111Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football The lack of official investigation is why we will never know exactly what happened on the play that cost Trice’s life. In general, everyone has since gotten the benefit of the doubt. Ten days after Trice’s death, Minnesota’s president Lotus Coffman sent a letter to Iowa State’s president, offering condolences and saying the play happened directly in front of him. “It seemed to me that he threw himself in front of the play on the opposite side of the line,” Coffman wrote. “There was no piling up." It’s also worth noting Coffman would later ardently defend segregation in campus living at Minnesota, writing Black people desired it: The good sense and sound judgment of the colored students and their parents with regard to this matter has been a source of constant gratification. The races have never lived together nor have they ever sought to live together.1212Minnesota Star-Tribune, September 2017 It is not hard to suppose Coffman wanted to just move on. And any school would have motivation to avoid dwelling on it. Who knows what else an inquiry might have dredged up? Many players died in those days, but if conclusive evidence emerged that a player had been killed with intent, it could have started a second great referendum on the sport, 18 years after Roosevelt put his foot down. The theory of Trice’s self-prophesied roll block leads to a confident conclusion that the whole thing was just an accident. This is the result of a century-long game of telephone. If he screwed up a maneuver and got stepped on, then oh shucks, it’s just a darn shame. It also boosts the poignancy of his letter, creating an eerie prescience. And it could have been an accident. But it also could have been murder. It is not far-fetched to believe the only Black player on a field in 1923 was targeted. According to many reports, Minnesota players deliberately injured Iowa’s Ozzie Simmons 11 years later. They knocked him unconscious as many as three times, forcing him to leave the game by halftime.1313Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football "[Simmons] took quite a lot of physical abuse around the Big Ten because he was Black," said former Iowa sports information director George Wine.1414Chicago Tribune, October 2001 In 1935, Iowa governor Clyde Herring told reporters that the rematch might get out of hand.1515SB Nation, October 2017 “Those Minnesotans will find 10 other top-notch football players besides ‘Oze’ Simmons against them this year. Moreover, if the officials stand for any rough tactics like Minnesota used last year, I'm sure the crowd won't," Herring said.1616Minneapolis Tribune, November 1935; Minnesota’s governor would respond by attempting to cool tensions (and missing the point). He bet Iowa a prize hog. This would later evolve into the bronze Floyd of Rosedale trophy, which the two teams still play for. Simmons would tell a Minnesota newspaper in 1988: “I really had the feeling they were after me because I was good. Oh, I think me being Black added a little oomph to it.” Simmons, like Trice, was a talented player, naturally a focal point for any opponent. So the lines of guilt blur when you try to discern whether the Gophers targeted Simmons because he was talented, because he was Black, or both. At least Simmons lived to tell his side of the story. Wanna know what I think? Forget about the damn letter for a second. Laud it as a beautiful note about what he felt he was up against, but set it aside instead of grafting it onto the facts. We know four of the earliest reports have a consistent version of events, three of them published the day after the game. We don’t know whether Trice was attempting an especially dangerous technique or not, although if you want to theorize he tried a roll block, then perhaps he was engaged with a defensive player and realized the play was particularly screwed, so he chose to “roll block the interference,” which might have played out like a modern-day cut block. And we don’t know why or how key details of the narrative shifted to a certain consensus. The attempt to figure out what happened to Trice is not about trying to find whitey guilty. A probe would have likely reached an inconclusive end, according to a former Iowa State professor who spent years lobbying the school to name the stadium after Trice. "Well, if I were prosecuting the case," Charles Sohn told the Kansas City Star in 2004, "I suppose the best I could get out of it was manslaughter. I don't think there was an attempt to murder. I think there was an attempt to injure." But the clearest failure is this: Trice’s institution didn’t attempt to dig for answers. Members of the Minnesota team were reportedly “grief-stricken” by Trice’s death. And their head coach said, “I don’t know hardly what to say. He was a wonderful player. It doesn’t seem possible. It is something I wouldn’t have had happen for anything.”1717Minnesota Journal, October 1923 Without details, we can neither hold Minnesota culpable nor exonerate anyone. If Minnesota’s players were innocent, then they deserved an investigation that could’ve made that clear. The fact foul play apparently wasn’t evident to Williaman or Coffman doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. After Trice died, Iowa State immediately canceled football practice and took a half day to allow mourning. Four thousand students attended the funeral. The Behm brothers and Schmidt were among his pallbearers. The school president read Trice’s pregame letter aloud. Cora Mae and Anna accompanied Jack’s body home to be buried next to Green. Anna later wrote to Iowa State’s then-president that Jack “was all I had and I am old and alone. The future is dreary and lonesome.”1818Anna Trice letter In some ways, Iowa State publicly did right by Trice. The school collected money to pay for funeral expenses and help Trice’s mother pay off her mortgage. In private, however, Iowa State reminded us of Jack’s place in the world, whether dead or alive. Two days after Trice died, Beyer, considered the godfather of athletics at Iowa State, received a telegram from Missouri athletic director C.L. Brewer, an old friend, about the upcoming Saturday’s game in Columbia: We understand from newspaper reports that you have a colored man playing with your football squad this Fall. I am quite sure, Professor Beyer, you know conditions here, and know it is impossible for a colored man to play or even appear on the field with any team. This has been discussed in the Missouri Valley for a good many years and I know that you understand the tradition that a colored man cannot come here. This whole question is bigger than our athletics and there is no alternative for us other than to say that we cannot permit a colored man on any team that we play. The Iowa State admin responded: We had no intention of using Jack Trice in the game with you. However that is all settled because Jack's injury resulted in his death Monday afternoon. I am handing you herewith copy of letter Jack wrote the day before the game. From the letter one would not help feel that Jack must have had premonition of what actually happened. A year later, Iowa State put a plaque on its gym, an abridged version of Trice’s letter. And then Jack Trice began to fade from memory. Until 1957, when sophomore Tom Emmerson came across the plaque while working on a project for class credit. He might have been the first in a while who was moved enough to research why it was there. He’d been wandering around the gym while waiting for a meeting with a school employee. “Then I went into Harry Schmidt’s office and said ‘Harry, what about that?’” Emmerson told me. “And he said, ‘You don’t know about Jack Trice?’ And it turned out that Harry was on the team in 1923, and he told me the story from personal memory. I then went directly to the library to look it up, and to tell you the truth, I just copied a lot of stuff from articles in the library.” He ended up writing a school magazine article. When asked what happened next, Emmerson said flatly: “nothing” … until Iowa State began building a new football stadium in the 1970s. By that time, student activism was en vogue amid the Vietnam War. Professor Sohn was having a small group discussion with some English students. He shared Trice’s story. The class took up some research projects about Trice’s life, and Emmerson’s story re-surfaced in their findings. Someone suggested naming the stadium for Trice. Even after the class ended in 1974, the stadium idea had taken hold. It’s impressive how hard Iowa State’s students worked to keep it alive. There were over two dozen related stories, editorials, or cartoons in Iowa State’s student paper from ’74 onward, which doesn’t include stories in other papers like the Des Moines Register. Students petitioned. Iowa State’s student government was unanimous in favor. Students would graduate, and others would take up the cause. But Iowa State was still holding out for a big-money donor to essentially buy the stadium’s name. The money never came, and the students never shut up, not even after Iowa State tried to “cut the baby in half,” as a Newsweek article put it, by naming it “Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field” in 1983. Students argued people would default to just calling it Cyclone Stadium. Students also pushed to get a Trice statue on campus. Multiple organizations said no, including the alumni association, because “people thought it was too political,” according to a former ISU student body president.1919Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice Iowa State’s student government unanimously allocated $22,000 of student fees and commissioned the statue, which featured Trice reading his famous letter. It went up in 1988 outside a building named in 1966 for George Washington Carver. What gave the stadium movement its final win was, indirectly, Iowa State naming a building for alumna Carrie Chapman Catt in 1995. She’d been important to the woman’s suffrage movement, but once wrote white supremacy "will be strengthened, not weakened” by that movement. Her backers argued it was taken out of context, but she also spoke of Indigenous people as savages and said uneducated immigrants shouldn’t have the right to vote. Honoring her caused protests on campus, including one student going on a hunger strike in 1996. While all of this was going on, an ISU advisory committee for the naming of buildings recommended in late 1996 the change to the football stadium’s name. In February 1997, Trice became the sole namesake. Administrators objected to speculation that the renaming was a strategic maneuver [to counter Catt Hall protests] as opposed to their acquiescence to student requests or an abiding desire to honor Trice. ‘The name change recommendation was based on its own merits,’ protested university spokesman John Anderson. ‘It’s an idea that’s been around a long time.’2020Jaime Schultz, Moments of Impact: Injury, Racialized Memory, and Reconciliation in College Football But it had only been around for a long time because Iowa State’s leadership hadn’t acted. The school’s president Martin Jischke had been around since 1991. “If Jischke had responded earlier, in a more positive way to Jack Trice, he would have had a great win,” Emmerson said. “He would have had ammunition when it came around to Carrie Chapman Catt. He could have said ‘wait a minute, we named the stadium after Jack Trice; we’re not racist.’” For buttoned-up administrators, the unchallenged narrative of Trice’s life was free of anything likely to make overly sensitive white people too uneasy, and still they delayed for decades. For mobilized college students, his short story had a tragic hero and cause for genuine concern, so they fought for him. “I was really surprised actually, when it kept being an issue after it was named Cyclone Stadium/Jack Trice Field,” Alma Gaul, an editor of the student newspaper in the 1970s, told me. “I just figured that was the end of it. We’d got something here. We got the Jack Trice Field. And the fact that, in 1997, they reversed their decision and made it Jack Trice Stadium—even today when I read the sports section and I read ‘Jack Trice Stadium,’ I just shake my head and smile. I can’t believe it actually happened.” Jack Trice Stadium remains the only FBS stadium named after a Black man. Part of his legacy is this: More than a century after he died, activists across the country are fighting the same fight Iowa State’s students did. The naming of streets, buildings, and statues is about what we wish to glorify as a society. It is a front-facing display of our values. That weight demands constantly measuring those values. But change is never easy, particularly when racism is built so firmly into the foundation of the United States and its declared heroes. Trice is a hero, a man who broke a barrier, but everything that’s happened since he died has way more to do with us than him. Those who knew him describe him as shy and quiet. One teammate said, “Jack appreciated his status. Generally, he spoke only when spoken to,” and another said, “He kept his place.”2121Dorothy Schwieder, The Life and Legacy of Jack Trice He’s inoffensive and two-dimensional because we don’t know all that much about him. In many ways, Trice was an easy Black man for white people to rally around. For white audiences, a docile Black man is a palatable Black man. The Jack Trice of 1923 is forever preserved in that state. We’ll never know exactly what led to Trice’s death two days after the first real game of his college football career. When facts are scarce, all we have are versions of a legend. ___ Excerpted from The Sinful Seven: Sci-fi Western Legends of the NCAA, an ebook about how college sports came to look the way they do today, with non-fiction stories and fiction tales that <shh> tell their own truths about how the NCAA operates, by Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk, Alex Kirshner, and Tyson Whiting. You can preorder the ebook here for a minimum of 99 cents (or whatever you want to pay), with 20 percent of those profits going to Feeding America, the nationwide food bank network. It comes out August 1.
‘Haunted Literature Can Be a Powerful Medium for Looking at the Ignored’: An Interview with Laura van den Berg

The author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears on spectral encounters and exorcisms, America’s rejection of history, travel literature, and boxing.  

Laura van den Berg’s stories frequently toe the line of the uncanny—the landmarks are all recognizable, but something feels off, like the tension built up by the droll repetition of the daily grind is about to break into a nightmare beyond imagining. Though van den Berg now lives in Massachusetts, the hopelessly humid atmospheres of these stories seem more suited to the Florida climate where she was born and raised. Van den Berg’s last book was a surreal-literary remix of a pulp mystery, The Third Hotel, a meditation on grief, slasher movies, and marital landscapes. Her latest work, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a short story collection that bounces between Italy and Iceland, Mexico and Florida. A woman abruptly begins pretending to be her sister while travelling abroad. An artist becomes suspicious that her husband has been lying about his upbringing. A photographer notices something odd in the corner of photos she’s taken. Its weighted, packed-to-bursting prose invites inquisitive readers to explore the dark depths between its spines. Nour Abi-Nakhoul: After your success with The Third Hotel, you return to the short story collection. It’s been referred to as a homecoming of sorts. Did it feel this way to you? Laura van den Berg: Lots of writers move back and forth between the story and the novel, and some writers start with stories and then go on to exclusively write novels. I love the novel. It’s a very separate form than the story, and I love all the ways in which it is very different from a short story. But the short story is the first form of literature that I ever fell in love with. Reading short fiction made me want to be a reader, which made it possible for me to be a writer. For reasons both artistic and deeply personal, it's a form that's super close to my heart. I can't imagine an artistic practice without the short story having a place in it. A common trajectory is debuting with a collection of stories and then following up with a novel, but I published two collections before I published a novel. In that way, it can feel like going back home. Was it difficult to write a novel? Did you have this drive to turn to short stories instead? It was incredibly difficult to write my first novel and it took quite a bit of time, but I knew that it was going to be a novel if it was going to be anything. It felt like a dystopian novel with many moving parts in terms of plot, with more material than can be held by the scope of a short story. The issue was that I was approaching the novel as though it was a short story; I was working on it and revising it in the way that I would if it was a short story. It took me a while to really reimagine my process essentially with a novelistic scope instead of a short story scope.  One of my teachers said he felt that a short story was closer to poem than it was to a novel. At the time I really didn't understand what that meant, because I was thinking of it in terms of verse in contrast with prose. But when I attempted a novel, I understood it. There’s a deep compression inherent to the short story, and I think that's true even in long, capacious stories. A story needs to be uncorked a bit to be a novel, and it took me quite a while to figure out how to do that.  You’ve been very public lately in your affinity for boxing. The sport was, however, notably absent from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. I am working on a project now that involves boxing. For a long time, I would talk to friends who are writers about boxing and they’d advise me to write about it. But I wanted to have something completely separate from writing, I didn’t want it to be contaminated by turning it into an artistic project. But at this point I spend so much time in that world that it has inevitably leaked over into my writing. I started in the first place because I was seeing a therapist for an anxiety disorder, and the therapist told me that I needed a hobby. I ultimately ended up at a boxing gym with no background in the sport, and no athletic background at all. A few years ago, walking was a sport to me. I started from the ground up. For my first couple of group classes, everyone else was so much more advanced—they were doing all these cool exercises, and I was literally just walking forward, backward, left, and right for an hour. Had this happened at a different time I think I would’ve found it very frustrating and tedious, but it was a particular kind of tedious that made me think of revising a sentence over and over again. After the first couple of classes when I left the gym, I would feel calmer than I’d felt in years. Boxing helped me start sleeping again, and helped me get my anxiety under control. It’s a deeply challenging sport; you have to have patience and decisiveness and it humbles you. These things have helped me as a person and implicitly help my writing practice. I also hydrate now in a way that I didn’t used to.  Can you tell me about some forms of media that had bearing on the stories in this collection? I think of the collection as a gathering of ghost stories. In some stories that ghost is literal, like in "Slumberland," and in others the haunting is more abstract in nature. A lot of the contemporary practitioners of the ghost story and of haunted literature are near and dear to my heart. For me what is so compelling about haunted literature is that it can be a powerful medium for looking at the ignored, the repressed, the unspoken, the unseen and unacknowledged. I'm interested in how the movement of these kinds of stories can compel characters to look in directions that they are disinclined to look at on their own. I love Julio Cortazar’s short story “House Taken Over,” which is in many ways an archetypal haunted house story. I love Mariana Enriquez’s story “Adela’s House,” which is another haunted house story. In different ways, both stories deal with landscape and structure, history and hauntedness in beautiful and powerful ways. I admire Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch.” There are a couple of ghost stories in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours that I thought about quite a bit while working on some of stories. The way that hauntings can animate alternate lives, shadow lives, paths taken and not taken. Looking at the popularity of writers like Carmen Maria Machado, for example, people today seem very drawn towards the ghost story. Why do you think that is?  One reason why writers keep coming back to the ghost story is that, like the fairy tale, it is endlessly flexible. It can be reimagined and recontextualized again and again, which is why I think the form has such incredible endurance. Contemporarily, we’re at a moment where, for white America, the unwillingness to look, listen, learn, study, and engage, is having disastrous consequences. Historical truths and realities and how they shape the present are being denied. In that sense, I think that that this is a perfect time for the ghost story. As I was saying before, the form is very adept at looking at what the characters don’t want to look at. What about actual physical ghosts? Have you ever seen one? I don’t know if seen is the best word for this. Or, experienced? I've always had a healthy respect for the supernatural. I lived with my grandmother when I was a teenager, and she 100 percent believes in ghosts. One of the first things that she said when I moved in with her was, there’s a ghost in the house from long ago, if you see her come down to the kitchen in the middle of night and turn on the water, don’t worry. I never saw the ghost and just chalked it up to my grandmother being eccentric. So, the idea of supernatural happenings wasn't necessarily foreign to me, but it was not something that I had experienced. And then when I was working on my first novel around 2013, I spent a summer at a residency in the Florida Keys that was horribly, terribly haunted. The manifestation wasn't visual, it was more auditory, and I wasn’t the only person that was affected, several of the other residents were as well. We heard doors shaking, cabinets opening and closing, crying and screaming outside when there wasn’t anyone outside. We would wake up in the middle of the night and all our chargers and lamps would be unplugged. We would plug them back in, and the next time we woke up they would be unplugged again. We had an exorcism ceremony through the residency because the affected people were absolutely losing their shit, as you can imagine. The exorcism fixed the problem because we were unaffected for the rest of the residency.  What did the exorcism consist of? It’s a little hazy because at that point I had not slept in maybe 10 days, and this is July in the Key West so it was 102 degrees outside. The whole experience was fairly hallucinatory. In my memory we had agreed on something to communicate to the ghost, a ritualized saying that we would repeat again and again. There was a lot of lighting of candles in different places and making requests of the spirit while they were burning. We lined all the doors and windowpanes with salt. It was some sort of special salt that the exorcist brought with him—but maybe it was just sea salt, who knows. I felt sort of ridiculous when I was doing this but then we didn't hear a peep for the weeks that followed. That’s all so scary. It was terrifying. I have a healthy respect for the supernatural, but I want it to stay in its lane and I’ll stay in mine. It was genuinely very frightening and not something I would necessarily be keen to experience again. I have one other story, which is a little less sensational. After my father died about a year and a half ago, I arrived in Florida and was staying at my sister's house and one of her dogs, Champ, slept with me. I had a dream that my dad was speaking to me through Champ. I woke up at dawn and this dog, who usually sleeps like a log, was sitting upright beside me. And his mouth was opening and closing, and it looked as though he was talking. We just stared at each other like that for a little while, and then he laid back down. There can be such a desire to try and figure out what it was. Was it a supernatural thing? Was it grief? Was it exhaustion? But I think I’ve given up on trying to explain moments like that, and just allow them to the inexplicable things that they are. That's precisely the kind of moment that I'm drawn to writing into fiction, these experiences that can't be explained. Toni Morrison has this beautiful quote from an NPR interview she did, where she says, “If you’re really alert, you can see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top.”  There’s so much in that beyond that’s deeply mysterious to me, but I believe that it's there, and that it matters. I’m interested in allowing the presence of the beyond in and thinking about what it has the capacity to communicate to us that cannot be conveyed through more corporeal channels. These questions were of deep interest to me when I was working on this book.  Do you think it might be dangerous in a way, to remain open to the beyond like that? Dangerous how? Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. I think one's relationship to whatever dimensions that exist or don't exist outside of corporeal life is deeply personal. For me, I do think writing fiction requires a degree of emotional or psychological risk. If I'm not risking something, I feel like the story isn’t risking anything. And I do think stories need to be willing to take risks. This can manifest in all kinds of ways. I always want to be very thoughtful about the risks that I'm taking in fiction and not just risking for the sake of risk. That’s what boxing is for [laughs].  A lot of the stories in Wolf did take risks. “Hill of Hell” was an emotionally difficult story to write, and there was emotional risk there for me. I also hope that the spirit of that risk is felt and present in the story. A lot of it is waiting for the right time to write something. “Last Night” was the most autobiographical story in the collection. It's a story that I had tried to write many different ways and many different times. When I wrote the draft that’s in the collection, it was the first time that I tried really writing in an autofiction kind of style. But I was also just ready to write that particular story. Some of it was technical barriers, but it was also emotional readiness. I wasn't prepared to be that raw and vulnerable with that material. I had to wait for the moment when I did feel like I could go there. Questions of risk are questions of timing as well. When you're speaking of unknown terrains, I'm reminded of how your characters frequently find themselves as tourists in foreign countries. Why is this a setting you find yourself circling back to? I think that there are specific ways shifts in location can disorient the gaze. There’s a part of my experience with that exorcism that’s glazed into my memory more than anything else. If you can imagine the residency was set up like a compound that took up about half a city block. There were six of us there, and half of us were affected, which is to say we experienced the haunting, and the other half did not. I asked the exorcist, why did these people get off so easy? Why was it just us? And he said, with absolute authority, “you have the wedge.” His theory of hauntedness is that every place is haunted, there are ghosts all around us at any time. Inside each of us is a wedge, and some ghosts can fit into the wedge and others can’t. Which explains why five people could go into a quote unquote haunted house, and maybe only two would say they felt a chill.  I think that travel, and the very particular ways in which it can dislocate and disorient the self, can create new wedges that new types of things can get inside. I was really interested in that in the titular story, and the way that the protagonist taking on her sister’s identity causes her own sense of self and her own life to go completely haywire. I think that travel, because we are removed from our usual context, allows for things to happen that would not have happened at home. That can be very good for fiction. I was thinking about this with “Karolina”: on what terms could these two women meet each other again? They could have encountered each other at home, but there is a kind of charge and intimacy and privacy that can happen between these two women because they're in a hotel room. Because there is this temporariness. Everything is intensified, everything is heightened. Speaking more broadly about form, I was really influenced as a younger writer by abroad novels. I still really love great travel literature, and at the same time I think the history of the of the abroad novel is riddled with problems. Whiteness that’s unexamined, imperialistic urges and so on. It’s up to readers whether this project is successful or not, but one thing that I've been alert to is trying to find new shapes and imagine new possibilities for travel literature. Is this desire to place characters in alienating positions why they all seem so disconnected from each other? It seems very difficult for your characters to find any authentic social connections. They’re all very solitary, and for many of them we’re meeting at times where their lives have been horribly fractured by loss or secrecy. This has given way to a deeper alienation to those around them. A lot of these characters are in the liminal space after a really formative loss. The kind of loss where you walk into the moment one person, and walk out a different kind of person; and maybe you don't know what that means exactly, you just know that something somewhere inside you has fundamentally changed forever. Maybe these characters have walked out the other side of that door, but they don't yet know what that changed self means for them. When you're in that state of profound limbo, it's hard to make connections with the people around you. I was really interested in writing into these metamorphic, mysterious emotional landscapes. I wanted to circle back to something you were saying at the beginning of our conversation about America's rejection of history. This seems juxtaposed with the fact that for your characters memory is something that's always present on an endless loop.   These characters have pasts that are really bearing down hard on them, and because of that, memory is very activated. The word looped does feel apt. There's a whirlpool effect, and they're circling and circling and trying to not get sucked down into the center. But this individual memory is very different than national memory, than having a collective understanding of our true history as a country. There's a lot of people who are receptive to trying to figure out how to meet this moment, but still don’t understand how we got here. The answers are all there, it's all encoded in our history: a history that has been undealt with, unconfronted, and unrectified, in any kind of public institutional way as well as in the context of people's private lives. That was something I thought about in “Lizards,” where on the one hand what the husband is doing to his wife is really horrifying and unforgivable. But on the other, she is a character who is enraged by Kavanaugh's presence as a likely Supreme Court Justice yet is all too eager to blank out at the end of the day and to avoid the harder questions. What is she as an individual willing to change in her life? What is she willing to give up? What is she willing to do differently to prevent another Kavanaugh from being in such an immense position of power? The answer to that question is probably not that much. She’s a character whose relationship between her own life choices and the larger power structures that she's kind of starting to notice is really, truly unexamined. “Karolina” is uncanny in its prediction of how mainstream liberal feminism would treat Tara Reade. There’s a criticism in there of a selective politics, where there’s no real application of politics to one’s own life outside of a specific agenda. “Lizards” and “Karolina” are the two stories where that relationship was the most on my mind. The narrator in “Karolina,” for instance, would consider herself to be a feminist and a Democrat. She would be completely horrified by Kavanaugh and Trump. And yet the patriarchal violence in her own family, in terms of her relationship with her brother, has gone completely unexamined and unconfronted. Moreover, she has been complicit in the abuse of her sister-in-law. That’s something that so many people are wrestling with in their own families. The application can’t just be external: protesting, donating, making calls, writing emails. That work is vitally important, and we all need to do it. But the application must be internal as well. That comes down to the power dynamics within our own family structures. This character was never physically violent, but she helped to cultivate an environment where violence against her sister-in-law was possible or even permissible. I was thinking about personal relationships to power and how what goes unexamined can have consequences in powerful and terrible ways as we move through our lives in the greater world.  
‘As Writers, Do We Have a Responsibility to the Dead?’: An Interview with Sara O’Leary

The author of The Ghost in the House on acts of grace, territorial tendencies, and the silver lining in things being temporary.

Sara O’Leary’s debut novel The Ghost in the House (Doubleday Canada) is a dark comedy about self-awareness, existential dilemmas, and life after death (especially the sort of life that has somehow kept going and wants you to bear witness to how everything has rearranged itself to cover up the gaps you left behind). Thirty-something Fay, the novel’s narrator, realizes that instead of her life being on the cusp of something bigger, it has abruptly ended without her permission. Her husband, Alec, has a new love, and teenaged Dee—who isn’t sure if she wants to belong to the living or the dead—is Fay’s key to communicating with the real world. Also a screenwriter, writer of short stories, and children’s book author, O’Leary’s dialogue delights in what our miscommunications say about ourselves. She uses short, shimmering sentences to play a who’s-really-been-left-behind riddle from chapter to chapter with the reader.  What follows is less a coming-of-age story and more a coming-to-terms-with that slyly upturns the traditional who’s-who of ghost stories. “Fay is 37 when she dies and assumes that she still has lots of choices left to make,” O’Leary says. The novel pokes and prods at the denial that often comes with grief, “reconciling yourself to…the fact that life continues even when you’re gone—a sort of It’s A Wonderful Death scenario.” Sara and I spoke in the lead-up to the book’s release, and unpacked the responsibility, desire and motivations behind processing life (and death, and grief) by writing ghost stories. Nathania Gilson: What sparked your desire to write a ghost story?  Sara O’Leary: I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, although I’ve lived in a number of haunted houses. The characters in The Ghost in the House are fully imagined but the house itself is the one I used to live in before leaving Vancouver, and I think of it like a lost love.  I’ve always really been interested in girl-meets-house stories. Manderley, the setting of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, was based on the house Menabilly that she discovered and brought back to life. Similarly, Lucy Boston bought a house called The Manor and used it as the setting for her Green Knowe books. Both are stories of hauntings and in both cases the house itself becomes a character in the story. I’m not particularly frightened of my own death but I do find it somehow shocking that a person can be in the world one moment and then gone. How can that be? A very dear friend died the year we both turned 36, and while I face constant reminders that I am growing older, she stays fixed in time and now seems impossibly young to me. All the things she was planning to do, all the places she was going to go, the children she wanted to have—all of that went with her. I think it’s fairly common after losing someone to have that dream where they are suddenly there with you, saying that no, no, it was a mistake, and that they never really died. Or sometimes it’s not as explicit as that—just a dream where you walk into your kitchen and there they are, sitting at the table. I suppose that’s what I wanted to explore—how something that’s finally one of the only certainties in life can feel so terribly unreal. And because of my innate sense of the absurd, it made sense to me to tell the story from the perspective of someone who had just died. It’s hard to talk about all this without making the book sound terribly dreary and woe-some, and I really hope it’s not. It’s a story about dying, yes, but I think also about growing up, and truly loving someone, accepting (as my mother used to tell me when I was a child) that life is not always fair. There’s a constant sense of negotiation and bargaining throughout the novel: the desire for more time; wanting to be heard and seen; escaping loneliness. Even sometimes, expressing or acting out on pettiness because of the shield that invisibility and not being “in” the world affords you. What drew you to exploring these feelings from a female character’s point of view? As someone who writes for children, agency is something that naturally interests me. These two streams of my writing crossed over when a book I was writing set in a dollhouse started showing up in the house in my novel. There is something genuinely unheimlich about dollhouses that seemed to fit this story, but they are also very connected to agency. Rumer Godden wrote, “It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by.” I think that Fay’s sense of powerlessness is paralleled by that of the thirteen-year-old girl suddenly inhabiting her house. Fay sympathises with Dee’s feeling that decisions are being made about her life, but not by her. They both feel that they cannot do but only be done by. It felt natural to tell this story from the female perspective. And I think Fay struggles—as many of us do—with the notion that we should be able to have it all. There’s that whole art monster question from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, whether it’s possible to be both mother and artist. This got me thinking about how sad it is to forgo one and never achieve the other. Fay is full of dreams and aspirations and plans for the things she always expected to have time to do, and I was interested in exploring how it would feel to see all that vanish before your eyes. What would you regret? There’s that Raymond Carver line: “And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?” Fay feels she has been cheated. All her bargaining and negotiation is in answer to that, but, ultimately, it’s a futile gesture. She’s had her life and all that’s left to her is a final act of grace.  Being embodied is a theme in this novel—specifically, being comfortable in the body you’re given and navigating the world with confidence. Fay seems to struggle with this. What work do you turn to when looking historically to how women’s sense of autonomy and confidence has been expressed?  When I still thought I might pursue an academic life, my main area of interest was writing by female modernists, and Djuna Barnes in particular. There’s a little nod to Nightwood in the first sentence of the novel. In fact, you’ve just reminded me that at one point I started a novel set in the 1920s about a girl from Unity, Saskatchewan who runs away to Paris after her father tells her she can’t stay out until midnight on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I’ll go back to that! I do love that period, and interestingly, it was a time when spiritualism was very prevalent. Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows looks at that in such an interesting way, and I think a similar mixture of doubt and belief found its way into The Ghost in the House. The Fountain Overflows is also a book about agency, which is certainly part of its appeal for me. I share the attitude of the main character, Rose: “She found childhood an embarrassing state. She did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people we often recognized as stupid and horrid, and we could not earn our own livings.” In my story, Dee and Fay both exhibit frustration with their lack of autonomy over their own lives, and as Fay says, “The only good thing about being thirteen is that unlike being dead, it doesn’t last.”  Navigating the world in a female body naturally presents its own set of challenges, but Fay has moved beyond her body, which is in itself a form of freedom. There are three poems I think of as the invisible epigraphs to the book: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,”  Stevie Smith’s “Away, Melancholy,” and Emily Dickinson’s “The Things that never can come back, are several.” The movement in these poems follows aspiration, loss, and ultimately acceptance, that I think (hope) is also the arc of the novel. It was interesting to me how introspective Fay is for a ghost. She’s wondering how she compares to other ghosts who may or may not be stuck haunting the houses they used to live in; wondering where she sits on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle. What role did humour play in upturning our idea of what a ghost story could be? For me, humour plays a role in everything! There’s always been something intrinsically comic about this story to me, although I think I lost several of my favourite jokes somewhere along the way. At one point I had Fay examining her inability to shake off her attachment to her house and possessions by musing: “If you can’t be Zen about things when you’re dead, then when can you?” Is Fay introspective for a ghost? She does spend a lot of time in the past, but I imagine ghosts have a lot of time on their hands—the original self-isolators.There’s also the question of whether Fay is really a ghost at the beginning of the novel, or is imagining she is. The burst of electrical activity in the brain at the time of death could explain that old truism of one’s life flashing before their eyes. For me, it’s more interesting that the brain’s desire for narrative might mean that those moments are spent constructing an alternate reality—in this case one where life goes on, but you don’t go with it.  I do think at the beginning of the novel Fay is guilty of a sort of solipsism that may be what held her back in life and that she initially views the new inhabitants of the house as projections of herself. She does have difficulty in reaching the acceptance stage of the grief cycle, but perhaps it is different when the one you are mourning is yourself.  The people who can see and talk to Fay while she’s a ghost are not always kind to her. How are ghost stories a way to explore resentment or unfinished business that might not have been possible otherwise? Are we kind to the dead, I wonder? Or do we often resent them—after all, they left us, didn’t they? Perhaps we would extend to a ghost the same selfish attitude we are often guilty of when encountering those who are bereaved or facing a terminal diagnosis. We’re all too often frightened of our own mortality and can be clumsy and churlish in the face of reminders. Ghost stories appeal to us because of that frisson of fear and unease, and the reflex to “other” Fay as a ghost seems natural because the living are territorial about things like houses and bodies. In Fay’s case, she’s a revenant who finds that there’s no longer room for her in the home she has left behind. Her husband has married a woman who in many ways seems like a perfected iteration of Fay, and with her she brings a child to take the place of the one that never was. The only way Fay can fully return is by displacing others, and so if the living beings in the house are sometimes unkind to her, then it is partly in the face of her refusal to accept the natural order of things. For novelists wanting to delve into these dark, difficult waters, how can they approach the challenge ahead of them? As writers, do we have a responsibility to the dead? If so, the responsibility of the fiction writer is necessarily different from that of the journalist who must concern themselves with facts, or that of the memoirist who is staking a claim against mortality. Of course, our own death is the one thing we cannot write about experientially (apart from those heaven tourism books that purport to describe life after death) and so it follows that books about death are much more likely to be witness accounts. When I think of books about death, I think of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, written about the loss of her entire immediate family in a tsunami. It is difficult to be so privy to someone else’s grief in the face of an almost unimaginable tragedy but I came away from the book feeling enriched by the enduring quality of the different forms of love. And one of the more moving pieces of writing I’ve read is Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue to her husband Paul’s When Breath Becomes Air in which she talks about facing death in our death-avoidant culture. It seems to me in each of these cases the impulse in writing about one’s loved ones must be to keep them alive just that little bit longer. So where does that leave writers of fiction? I don’t think it’s possible to answer that without considering the larger question of the function that fiction serves. C.S. Lewis wrote “We read to know that we are not alone” and I’ve always felt that to be true. That is also perhaps as good a reason as any to write—as I chose to do—about grief.
Bugsy

The videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out.

I dropped out of college at twenty. I got so depressed the words blurred on the pages of the PDFs I was supposed to be reading, even when I printed them out. Books were out of the question: I’d read the same sentence over and over again and get through a thirty-page chapter in a week and a half. All food tasted grainy, mealy, grey. I stopped going to the dining hall and ordered pizza instead, which tasted the same as the food in the dining hall. I emailed professors saying I was sick and they responded kindly, offering to set up times to meet with me during their office hours. My philosophy professor said she’d meet me at a coffee shop over the weekend if that was more convenient for me. She added that “we all run into hard times, especially in college when we’re away from our support systems,” and that I should please let her know if I needed to be connected with a counselor at the student health center. I got too broke to keep ordering pizza so I didn’t eat much. I let the professor help me set up an appointment at the student health center, where I saw a therapist with a PhD named John Neely. John Neely asked about my childhood trauma and I told him I had none. He said to please be honest with him, everything I said would be kept confidential. Desperate to come up with something, I said that both my parents had had affairs. He asked if they were divorced and I didn’t want to disappoint him but I told him the truth anyway, that they were still together and that their marriage was maybe even stronger as a result. “All mental illness stems from childhood trauma,” he said. “You have to understand that.” He told me to come see him next week but I didn’t. For three days, I didn’t get out of bed except to pee and rummage in the kitchen for peanut butter. All the professors emailed me, and when I lifted open my laptop I saw a few emails from the same professor, the French one I had five times a week, with the words How are you doing? and then Where are you? and then This many unexcused absences is going to result in a failing grade. I looked up at the ceiling of my dorm room, which I shared with a girl named Abby who stuck little plastic diamonds around the contours of her eyeshadow. She didn’t talk to me much but she didn’t seem to mind me. On the ceiling was a crack that made me think of an artery traveling the length of a body. I followed the crack from where it began above my bed to where it ended above Abby’s bed. I thought of blood moving through a body. I thought of the fragility of bodies. A body crushed under a fallen tree. A body crumpling to the ground from a blood clot in the brain. All the ways a body could kill itself or be killed. I thought of freak accidents where someone’s artery gets opened and blood jets out. Blood draining from a body. I didn’t shower for two weeks. Abby started staying over at her boyfriend’s on the weekend, and then during the week. I watched Netflix on my parents’ account, shows I couldn’t remember watching minutes after finishing them. My mom called me and I didn’t pick up. My dad called me and I didn’t pick up. Eventually Abby told someone—I have no idea who—and a “wellness check” was performed. Campus security with walkie talkies and chunky belts. But by then the semester was over and I’d already failed all my classes. I was placed on academic probation. I lost my partial scholarship. I told my parents I didn’t want to go back and my mom told me that was OK and my dad said, “Why are you saying that’s OK? What are you teaching her?” And my mom said, “She’s clearly suffering.” And my dad said, “She’s already cost us a small fortune.” And then he looked at me and said, “If you drop out of college, you can’t come back home, do you understand? We’re not going to support you anymore.” My mom cried and begged him not to be so harsh with me. My dad shrugged and said, “Play it as it lays.” I wound up in Chicago, two hours north of college. Someone I kind of knew named Jules had an apartment in Uptown that she was sharing with four people. I had a “room” in the living room made out of bedsheets with a mattress on the floor. Jules had been two years ahead of me in college, graduating around the time I flunked out. I knew her from a production of Edward Albee’s Seascape the drama department had put on where she played one of the lizards. I had done some tech for the play but didn’t really like doing it and never did again. Jules wanted to get famous doing improv in Chicago and so did all her friends but all of them were nannies or dog walkers making googly-eyed gourds and Smash the Patriarchy needlepoints for Fiverr and Etsy and working as “teaching artists” in after-school theater programs. I got a job at Oly’s, an all-night burger-and-quesadillas-and-gyros place on Granville. I made $11 an hour. My mom texted me every day and my dad every week and I sent the shortest responses possible. At night when Jules and her friends were out or asleep, I made little welts in my arm with a pocket knife. I grew my nails out and scratched into my wrists, seeing how close I could get to a vein. It made sense that one day I would be all alone, my phone turned off and the door locked, and I would finally get close enough. I was a virgin. I had never even kissed anyone of any gender. One time in high school a guy tried to finger me in his car and I hit him in the head and ran home. He never said anything about it because he was the kind of guy who’d be embarrassed about being beat up by a girl. When she did talk to me—or rather, at me—Abby described how big her boyfriend’s dick was and how great it felt inside her. She had a nickname for his dick: Dwayne Johnson. She asked me how many dicks I’d sucked and I lied and said twenty-four. She looked worried and told me she could tell I was lying. She said that if I stopped dressing like the guys in Pineapple Express maybe I’d get some. She said, “I honestly think you might be too messed up to fuck. You need to get that fixed.” Jules had a boyfriend who lived in Pilsen, which took hours to get to by train, and she had threesomes all the time without him, sometimes with her friends, sometimes with other people she knew from improv classes. The living room was next to Jules’s bedroom, and I could hear her through her wall and my bedsheet. If the noise of the fucking made me feel bad, I took the pocketknife to my arm. Sometimes I took it to the tops of my thighs. One night I got off work early and Jules was in the apartment alone. All her friends were at the screening of an independent film. They all knew the director but Jules was in a fight with him so she’d stayed home. When I walked in and hung up my coat she was sitting on the couch looking at her phone wearing a tartan crop top and black jeans with a hole in the right knee. Her hair was up but a strand had fallen loose and hung next to the curve of her jawline. I hadn’t noticed her jawline before, but now I couldn’t stop looking at it. “Hey,” she said. “You busy tonight?” It was nice of her to pretend I was ever busy. “No, actually.” “Do you know what a speakeasy is?” “Like, in the ’20s?” She laughed, so I laughed too. “Yeah, I mean, that’s sort of the concept behind them. Except we don’t need them for alcohol anymore, obviously.” I nodded. “There’s this one in Albany Park. You can only get into it if you know someone who’s already in. And you can only bring one guest.” She looked at her phone and began texting, briefly absorbed in some drama. Then she looked back up. “Wanna be my guest?” The speakeasy was underneath a boring-looking liquor store on the block across from a bunch of Victorians. Jules knocked and waited to be assessed through the peephole. A guy who was maybe in his 40s opened the door, the kind of guy who would roll into my place of work around 3 a.m. after a Weezer show. Jules said “Kenny,” and then she said, “Don’t water the flowers,” and the guy nodded and stood aside. Inside was what looked like a garden apartment made into a performance space: there was a three-person band playing in one corner, high-quality photos of oiled bodies having sex in another. People were walking around drinking and talking. There was a couch and two easy chairs in the center where people sat and smoked, and on the coffee table were massive, purplish nuggets of weed. The walls had been painted with Day-Glo paints: flowers and dinosaurs and elves and hairy monsters. “Oh my god, machine elves,” Jules said, pausing at a scene of squinty-eyed elves piecing together a human body out of gears and electric wire. “Yeah,” I said. “Do you know what those are?” I shrugged and gave a half nod, trying not to lie while not revealing my ignorance. She smiled. “You see those when you do DMT,” she said. “God, I want to do DMT.” A guy in black glasses and a T-shirt which pictured what looked like a demon making out with a ’50s housewife came over to us. Jules hugged him and said, “Kenny!” “Who’s this?” Kenny pointed at me. “Oh, this is my roommate. She moved here a few months ago.” “Nice,” Kenny said. “You know, everything here’s free. Like, literally. Whatever you can get your hands on, you can take.” “Even the photos?” Jules asked. Kenny smiled and puffed out his chest. “Even the photos,” he said. “I took them, actually.” Then he grabbed Jules’s hand and pulled her close and whispered something in her ear. “Hey,” she said to me. “Kenny needs to show me something. Are you gonna be OK on your own for a minute?” I worried I wasn’t going to be, but I nodded anyway. “Cool,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” I watched Jules and Kenny disappear into the crowd. I decided to do what I had done at parties before, which was get a drink. It was harder to get into awkward situations when you were holding a drink. The surface area of the kitchen island was completely covered with liquor bottles, and people were taking and leaving them at a steady clip. A girl in a dress made of newspaper gave me a cup of what she told me was hot buttered rum. An inch of newspaper on her left boob had gotten wet and the ink was starting to run. I sipped the rum, unafraid of roofies because a girl had given it to me. It tasted thick and sweet. I stood against the wall and nodded back when people smiled at me in passing. I began to think then. I thought of drinking moonshine and going blind. I thought of drinking so much my organs would begin to shut down. I thought of getting my stomach pumped and choking on my own vomit. I drank faster. Then there was a woman leaning against the wall next to me. She looked older than everyone else there, and her face was thin but in a glamorous way, with creases from her chin to the corners of her mouth like Charlotte Gainsbourg. She wore a maroon velvet jacket and metal bracelets on her wrists that disappeared beneath her sleeves and reappeared as she ran her hand through the uncombed length of her hair or raised her mug to drink. Her legs were wiry and crossed at the ankles, and she wore leather shoes with massive buckles and low heels, the kind that belonged in the 19th century. I wanted to look at her for hours. “Do you like it here?” she asked. “Like, at this place?” She tilted her head to one side. “No, like in Chicago.” I became anxious that I’d already messed up the conversation. “Yeah,” I said. She smiled and I looked straight ahead. I could feel her gaze traveling from my feet to my face. “I’m Vanessa,” she said. I told her my name. “You ever see someone and like them instantly?” she asked. I wanted to say I had but I hadn’t and knew I probably never would. I stayed silent, downing the last of my drink. “Of all the people here,” she wagged her index finger across the length of the room, “I think you’re the most interesting.” I swallowed and then barked out a laugh and then got embarrassed and rubbed the rum from my lips with the back of my hand. “OK, well, that seems wrong.” Vanessa smiled. “Why’s that wrong?” “Because I’m a fuckup.” She laughed. “I’m going to get another drink,” I said. “You’re very beautiful,” she said. I felt my heart begin to race. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked. “Is this a trick?” She shrugged. “I’m not beautiful,” I said. My hair was boy-short, shaggy, my legs thin and my stomach thick enough that I had a small belly. I wore sneakers and skinny jeans that were too tight at my waist and, over my long-sleeved shirt, a hoodie for a mediocre metal band that Abby’s boyfriend had discarded in our room. “You are, but I’m not going to sit here arguing with you. I can’t convince you of anything. I’m just some idiot in a drug basement.” I didn’t know how to preserve my dignity. “I am too,” I said. She brought the mug back to her lips. “Sure, and you’re also beautiful.” I drained my drink. “I’m gonna go find my friend.” She grabbed the sleeve of my hoodie and pulled a flash drive out of her back pocket. It had what looked like her name and number taped on the side. “Take this home and tell me what you think. It’s my work. Or, at least, some of it. If you like it, give me a call.” I put it in my pocket. She looked down at my shoes, Timberlands my mom had gotten me for my 19th birthday. “Do you lace those up every time? Or slip them on?” I looked down with her. “I slip them on.” “Yeah,” she said, and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “I could tell.” Kenny and Jules had taken molly. They were making out in the Lyft and made me sit in front with the driver, who tried to talk to me about how he never went south of Roosevelt because “thugs live on the South Side.” When we got home, Kenny and Jules tore their clothes off in the hallway and he started fucking her against the wall, his pants at his ankles. I watched for a minute, my hand around the flash drive in my pocket. It was like a video of praying mantises I’d seen in the fifth grade, the female’s body bobbing a little up and down while the male stayed relatively still. Jules’s face screwed up when her eyes met mine. “What the fuck?” she said. “Stop looking, seriously.” I stopped looking and went into my room, where I could hear Jules moaning. Eventually they went into Jules’s room and the moaning got a little more muffled. It felt like the barometric pressure had suddenly dropped in my head. Involuntarily, I imagined Kenny stabbing Jules, Jules stabbing Kenny. I imagined stabbing myself, stabbing them both. Was it possible to accidentally stab someone? Was I someone with such awfulness inside of me that I was capable of accidentally stabbing someone? I used the pocketknife to make a little slice in my forearm. I took my pants off and made another one on my thigh. I felt sick and restless, like a swarm of bees was pressing to be released from under my skin. I got a knife from the block in the kitchen and brought it back to my room and set it next to me. The blood from my forearm and thigh was starting to drip. I didn’t do anything about it. My mom had texted me I love you sweets. I hope you’re having a good night. I turned my phone off. I opened my laptop. I had watched everything on Netflix. I had streamed every movie and show that wasn’t on Netflix. There was nothing left. There was no use for my laptop. Might as well infect it with the malware that was probably on Vanessa’s flash drive. The laptop would make screeching dying-robot sounds that, if blasted at full volume, would drown out the noise of the fucking. The flash drive was called OPUSES and there was one folder inside: TO WATCH. I clicked on it and the thumbnails of a bunch of files showed up with names like TheInquisition.mp4 and AnInquiry.mp4. I thought about Vanessa again, thin in her velvet jacket, and imagined her filming a beheading like ISIS. I pressed my thumb into the knife and drew a little blood. I felt disgusting, the kind of person who would end up grabbing people’s wallets on a train platform, begging on the corner for someone to buy them a pack of cigarettes from a bodega. I decided I would watch one video and then try to find a vein. I chose NotesFromUnderground.mp4. The screen read “Vanessa Redwire Productions” in Metropolis font. There was the thick staticky sound of a video without music. Then the title screen vanished and Vanessa was sitting on a folding chair in shorts and a tank top in a room full of soft white light. Behind her was some kind of metal frame, like a medieval torture rack but friendly-looking. Vanessa was beaming. She crossed and uncrossed her legs. “How are you feeling about this?” said a man’s voice behind the camera. It, like the rack, was friendly. “Amazing,” said Vanessa without hesitation. The man laughed good-naturedly. “I’m glad to hear that.” Vanessa adjusted the straps of her tank top. She was acting at least ten years younger than the woman I’d met at the speakeasy. “Can you tell me when this started?” “Well, as a kid I always wondered what it would be like to be tied up. And then as a teenager I wanted the room quiet and dark while I made myself come. And then in my twenties I bought a sex swing to use with my boyfriend but…” They both laughed. “I’m guessing that didn’t work out so well?” the man said. Vanessa grabbed the edges of her seat and rocked forward and back. “Obviously not.” Then there was a cut and Vanessa was in a full-body black suit made of what looked like Lycra. Something about her bare head made me feel like I was watching an explorer-queen, someone beautiful who didn’t care about her beauty when she was cutting through thickets in an uncharted wood. The Charlotte Gainsbourg creases at either side of her mouth were softer in the white light. A black-haired woman in a shiny latex dress and very high heels was standing next to her holding a leather hood with buckles on all sides and a hole for the mouth. Vanessa stood still as the latex woman put the hood over her head. The latex woman had a hard time getting it on, and Vanessa, the latex woman, and the man behind the camera all laughed. Once the hood was on, the latex woman began to buckle the buckles and ask repeatedly if the buckles were too tight or too loose. Vanessa directed her and the latex woman responded promptly to her direction, a look of worried compassion on her face. Then the hood was secure and Vanessa was giving a thumbs up to the camera. Another cut, and Vanessa had been tied to the rack and was completely suspended. She pretended to be struggling. She made moaning noises as she struggled. The latex woman had gone offscreen but now appeared onscreen again. She was holding a vibrator that looked like a massive microphone. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa liked being tied up and Vanessa nodded. She asked Vanessa if Vanessa wanted to come and Vanessa nodded again. The latex woman held the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled moans intensified. Then the latex woman took the vibrator away and said, “Not yet,” and Vanessa made a whining noise. The latex woman laughed. She turned the vibrator on again and traced Vanessa’s breasts over the Lycra. She traced the inside of Vanessa’s thigh. She teased her like this for a few minutes. Then she pressed the vibrator to Vanessa’s crotch and Vanessa’s muffled voice said, “Oh, oh, oh!” and I didn’t really notice what happened next because I was feeling better than I’d felt in a long time, something bright and colorful was flooding my brain, and there were stars on the ceiling, and my whole body was shaking. * * * I watched all twenty-four videos in the TO WATCH folder that night and then started watching them again and fell asleep on the fifth. I had seen porn before: on my parents’ computer as a kid, when TorontoDude87 sent me a picture of a woman licking an erect dick on AOL messenger; when my friend Trish had dared me to Google “hardcore porn” sophomore year of high school and we’d watched a video of a man thrusting into and choking a woman who wheezed, “Thank you daddy”; when Abby showed me her “dream,” which was a video of a woman on all fours with one guy’s dick in her mouth and another guy’s dick in her ass. I didn’t understand porn, and on the rare occasion that the subject of porn came up in my parents’ house, it was referred to as “degrading” and “obscene.” I decided not to watch it because, I told myself, I didn’t want to be involved in something that was degrading and obscene, but really it was because I didn’t like it. The women always acted scared and worshipped the men. There was always a close-up shot of the man coming on the woman’s stomach or her breasts or her face. Sometimes the women would come and scream and the men would put their hands over the women’s mouths and tell them to be quiet, especially if it was one of those storylines where the woman was cheating on her husband and he was in the next room. Trish told me she could make herself come without touching herself. All she had to do was think of her boyfriend naked and cross her legs together really tight. A lot of people’s boyfriends made them come multiple times in one session: the highest count I’d ever heard was thirty-one. At night while my parents watched PBS I lay in my bed wearing the oversized T-shirt I’d gotten from sleepaway camp and no underwear. I’d touch myself and think of Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum. When they first appeared in my mind, they were fully clothed. I tried to undress them but I couldn’t imagine them without clothes for some reason. Sometimes they had my dad’s upper body when he walked around shirtless in his towel after a shower (in which case I stopped touching myself immediately and pulled the shirt over my knees and cried), and sometimes they had the oversized biceps and thighs of bodybuilders. They were usually in mid-conversation with me when I imagined them, saying their lines from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Magic Mike XXL, and I felt rude for interrupting them. So I tried to imagine Trish’s boyfriend instead, his peach fuzz and hi-tops, but that was somehow worse than imagining my dad’s shirtless body. Then I tried imagining erect dicks, veiny and hairy, but whenever I tried that I’d start laughing because I’d be thinking of bratwurst or elephant’s trunks. By the time I left for college, I’d stopped trying altogether. Vanessa’s videos were different from anything I’d ever seen. The women had ideas and Vanessa let them act the ideas out. Rope, leather, buckles, straitjackets, Lycra, latex, gas masks, ball gags, rubber gloves, hoods, duct tape, vibrators, swings, saran wrap. And when the women came no one told them not to make noise. And other women made them come. And they talked to each other, told each other their ideas, said they were feeling great about their ideas. For a few days, I woke up, watched the videos, went to work for nine hours, came home, watched the videos. I felt sick and dizzy when I was away from the videos. I felt like I was falling in love. I barely saw Jules and her friends—I barely took the time to take my shoes off in the hallway before running to my room, closing the bedsheets around me, and watching the videos. Sometimes I would come up for air—get a glass of water, pee, change into pajamas from work clothes—and wonder what it meant that I liked the videos. Before I could draw any conclusions, I’d whisper You like the videos because you like the videos, and then I’d plunge back in again. I came constantly, involuntarily. I decided this was feminism, and that I was a feminist. I began reading feminist sites: there was one I liked in particular that talked about how women’s sexuality should be respected by men. Then I read an article on that site called “The Seeds of Sexual Violence Are Planted Early.” It told the story of a serial rapist and pedophile who remembered being five years old and fantasizing about the way Jabba the Hut put Princess Leia in shackles. “When you’re five and already thinking about shackles, where do you go from there?” the rapist asked. I stopped reading that site and all the rest of them. I thought about destroying the flash drive. I thought about telling Jules and asking if she could help me. But ultimately I made an incision in my left forearm and told myself to stop thinking about it. When I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I decided I owed it to myself to call Vanessa. I called on a Friday, my only day off, around 10 a.m. When she answered, her voice was foggy and tired. She had either just woken up or been up all night. I told her I was the girl from the speakeasy. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “How are you?” I told her I was fine. “Did you watch the videos?” I told her I had. “Very nice. Did you like them?” I was silent. I had no idea how I would begin to say the things I wanted to say. “Well,” she said dreamily. “I know you did, because you’re calling. I don’t give flash drives to a lot of people. If I did, people would think I was a pervert.” She laughed but the word destabilized me and I could feel myself beginning to sweat. “I’m guessing you want more of them,” she said. I could barely say yes, but I did. She gave me an address. I promised I’d be there next Friday. * * * The house was in Humboldt Park, a Chicago Greystone with a neon pink-and-green palm tree filling a corner of the lower left-hand window. Someone was smoking on the porch, a blond girl in a striped hoodie. She was frowning at her phone. When she turned so I could see her face, I recognized her from DontJudgeItUntilYouveTriedIt.mp4, in which a woman in a latex dress puts her feet up on the back of a woman in a full-body cast who is serving as her ottoman. In the video, the blond girl wore full makeup and her hair in ringlets. Now, she wore smudged mascara and strands of her hair stuck out from under her hood like straw. I was worried the blond girl would see me and think I looked suspicious, so I checked my phone, too. I had no new messages and no new notifications on any social media app. I scrolled through my own camera roll: covert pictures of other people’s dogs, a poorly lit picture of some plastic-wrapped food lump whose label read HAM AND RESINS, a picture I’d taken of my arm right after a fresh cut. The blood had swelled to the surface and begun to trickle out the edges, which was always something I liked to watch. I looked at it for too long and then, feeling as though I was about to be found out, put it away. “Hey!” the blond girl was shouting. Her voice was hoarse and deep, not at all how I’d expected it to sound. “Are you watching me?” I shook my head and halfway raised my arms as though I was about to be arrested. “I’m here to see Vanessa,” I said, quieter than I probably needed to. I crossed the street and stood in the front yard and pulled the flash drive out of my pocket, my hand shaking as I did. “She gave me this.” The blond girl looked at me skeptically. She extended her arm and I gave her the flash drive. She inspected it, rubbing her finger over Vanessa’s name and number. “Who are you?” she asked. I said my name. “That’s a horrible name,” she said. “I never heard of you.” “I’m sorry.” She smiled and then wheezed out a laugh. “Thanks for apologizing. Vanessa’s not here right now.” This sent an explosion of adrenaline through my stomach and chest. The buzzing under my skin picked back up in full force. “I’m Andie,” she said. “Spelled with an I-E.” “Nice to meet you.” “Yeah,” she said, and took another drag on her cigarette. “Do you want to sit inside and wait for her? She’ll be back in twenty.” The walls of the living room were crowded with photos of women tied to beds, gagged, wearing collars. They were all tamer than much of what I’d seen in the videos. The couch was large and stiff but obviously expensive, and I more balanced myself on it than sat on it. Where a TV would have been in front of me was a photo blown up to be larger than all the rest, of a woman in Lucite heels and a latex bodysuit with a circular cutout in the chest that showed her cleavage. She was standing facing away from the camera but turning back to wink at the photographer. In her right hand she held a riding crop. Andie went into the kitchen and left me sitting there, surrounded by the pictures of beautiful women. How could Vanessa possibly find me beautiful when she had so many pictures of women like this—well-proportioned, with perfect hair and teeth, capable of holding your gaze even in a photo? I began to feel self-conscious. I was here because I wanted more videos. I wanted them so badly that I was willing to be humiliated by these photos of beautiful women to get them. Vanessa came in through the front door wearing jeans over a leotard patterned with images of outer space. When she saw me, she ran to sit on the couch next to me and held my face in her hands. “Beautiful girl,” she said. “I’m so glad you came.” We went into the kitchen where Andie no longer was and Vanessa made me tea. For herself, she pulled a bottle of Miller High Life from the fridge. She slouched against the counter as she drank, squinting up at the ceiling. I looked up there with her and saw only drywall and light fixtures. “I’m so glad I found you,” she said. “I think I’m a fairly good judge of character, but I didn’t know quite how good until I took a gamble on you.” “I really liked the videos.” She nodded. “I know you did. I knew you would.” “They were like my favorite thing I’ve seen all year.” “My videos? Really? I think that’s one of the highest compliments I’ve ever been paid.” She rubbed the back of her long neck and looked at a point on my face just below my eyes. She was thinking, and it felt as if I was somehow helping her think. She raised her eyes to meet mine. “Have you ever had a boyfriend? A girlfriend?” I shook my head. She frowned. “Have you ever had sex?” I shook my head again, slower this time. “Been kissed?” “No.” She clucked. “My poor beauty.” She got out her phone and began texting. I looked away, as if texting were as private a thing as getting undressed. She put her phone back in her pocket and a woman appeared in the doorway between the kitchen and the next room. She was the most beautiful woman I’d seen in my life, and not because she was wearing silver gradient eyeshadow or a shiny latex halter and miniskirt. There was a softness about her, a fullness, a warmth—the way her thighs pressed together, the way her bangs fell within exactly a few centimeters of her eyebrows, the way she ran an index finger over the edge of her shining lower lip before smacking both lips together. She tilted her head and looked at me as though I were an interesting toadstool she’d found in the woods. “This is Stella,” Vanessa said. “She’s taking her fifteen. Right, Stella?” Stella smiled and nodded. “Davey treats me well.” “Yes,” Vanessa said, assessing me once again from the ground up. “We all love Davey.” Stella took a step closer to me, then another. Her face was inches from mine. I could feel her breath on my chin. “Hi,” she said, and grabbed my hand. My first instinct was to pull my hand from hers, but I didn’t want to disrespect her or Vanessa, so I squeezed her hand instead. She laughed. “You’re cute,” she said. And then suddenly Stella’s tongue was in my mouth. I felt panicked at first, suffocated, but as her lips folded over mine I started to shiver. I started to like it. I kissed back, wanting to be soft, too. I got her lip gloss on my own lips. I grabbed her other hand. “Very nice,” Vanessa said. I’d forgotten she was there. Then Stella was holding the back of my neck and I was leaning in deeper to the kiss. Heat flushed my cheeks, my hands, my chest. There was a tightness in my crotch, the kind I’d felt while watching the videos. Then Stella’s hand was on my chest. She pulled her lips away from mine to kiss my neck, my collarbone. She pulled down my shirt collar and kissed the tops of my breasts. I felt dizzy. I felt warm. I grabbed her by the waist. “Well done, beautiful girl!” Vanessa said. I should have been bothered that Vanessa was still there, but I liked it. I wanted to be watched. I wanted someone to bear witness to Stella and me. To what we must have looked like locked in that kiss. I had nothing to compare it to, but Stella must have had one of the softest mouths in the world. She pulled her lips away from my chest and said, “Is this your first time?” I told her yes and she grabbed me by the waist and pushed me onto the counter. Then she was unbuttoning my jeans and pulling them down to my shoes and pulling down my underwear and I didn’t even think about the cuts on my thighs because I was holding onto the knobs on the cabinets and her tongue was inside me, and Vanessa was saying with a little laugh, “I’m going to leave you two to your business.” * * * The new flash drive of videos was somehow better than the last one. I watched them every moment I was awake and not working. I thought about Stella, too. The way she had electrified me and then come up from between my legs and put her forehead against mine and said, “You’re wearing my lip gloss all over now. It’s peach.” And we’d laughed and I’d put my pants back on and she’d poured me a glass of water and we’d talked about Illinois winters and growing up with dogs and then she’d told me that I was welcome at Vanessa’s house anytime. I composed texts to her in my head. Do you like getting your arms wrapped up? Do you like the way Vanessa laughs? Do you like me? I typically worked the night shift at Oly’s, and the guys working with me were both in their mid-30s and had been there for years: Miguel and Dustin. Miguel, solidly built and bearded in a Cubs snapback, led and Dustin followed. If Miguel wanted to talk about girls, Dustin talked about girls. If he wanted to talk about baseball, Dustin talked about baseball. I usually stayed quiet. Sometimes they called me Lil Sis and made jokes about me burning my hand off in the deep fryer. I laughed along even though they weren’t funny. The night after I got the second flash drive was slow, and Miguel was asking Dustin if he’d seen a subreddit called r/weirdshit. “Yeah,” Dustin said, clearly a lie. Miguel snorted. “Yeah man there was this fucking pervert on there. He fucked his dog, apparently.” “No shit.” My head pulsed. “Yeah he like, was so in love with his dog that he fucked her and she got pregnant.” Dustin paused, the limits of his understanding tested. “I think that’s impossible?” “Well, yeah, but he like put dog semen in his dick. So like the puppies aren’t his but he did the fucking.” I put some cheese curds in the deep fryer. They hissed and bubbled. “That’s fucked up.” Miguel nodded an exaggerated nod. “I mean yeah. There are people who do all kinds of sick shit out there.” Dustin considered this. He put a pasty, floury tortilla—the only kind we had in stock—on the stovetop and sprinkled some cheese on it. “I saw this one movie where this woman wanted to get fucked by a mechanical dick.” Miguel laughed, childishly high-pitched. “Yeah, man. A movie.” “No, for real! It was like a movie in theaters. Like a mainstream movie. She wanted to replace her husband with this, like, machine. And then in the middle of the night her husband leaves because he’s been cucked by this machine-thing and this other guy breaks in and like blindfolds her and tapes her mouth shut.” I retrieved the cheese curds and let them cool on the counter. I tried to think of Stella. Miguel wasn’t saying anything. “So like,” Dustin persisted, “this guy uses the mechanical dick to fuck her but she can’t say yes because she’s blindfolded and gagged so he’s just raping her, and then he basically makes the thing go so hard it kills her.” “Sounds like a bullshit movie.” “I swear I saw it in theaters.” “Yo, Lil Sis,” Miguel said, and tossed me a loaf of frozen garlic bread. I caught it close to my stomach like a football. “You OK with this? We being too weird for you?” “I’m fine,” I said. “Because we can stop. We can stop talking about this fucked-up pervert shit.” I involuntarily thought of Stella’s tongue while looking at Miguel and my face flushed. “Aww shit you’re blushing! Listen, we don’t have to talk about this. But, OK, this is the last thing I’ll say. You need to be careful.” “Yeah,” Dustin said. “These streets are dangerous.” “Like, seriously. This girl who lives a block down from me on Argyle got raped two days ago. By some random dude she didn’t even know.” He lowered his voice. “And they found a child pornographer in Uptown.” “Fuck!” Dustin spat. “Dude, fucking be quiet. We’re gonna have customers in like six seconds and you’re gonna be up in here yelling FUCK like some idiot.” Dustin shook his head. “This dude was doing shit to infants. We’re talking like some kind of Hannibal Lecter sicko. He was tying kids up.” I swallowed and put the brick of garlic bread in the oven. “So I just want you to be safe, OK?” Miguel’s voice came from behind me. “Just carry your pepper spray or your brass knuckles or whatever. There are too many messed up people walking around this city.” When I got home, I didn’t go straight to my room. I sat on the couch and sent my mom a picture of a new pair of shoes I’d gotten. Doing my duty as a daughter. She wrote right back: Wow! Looking good! Getting such an earnest text from her made the skin on my hands prickle with anxiety. Jules wandered into the living room with a bowl of ramen and asked me if I wanted to watch some old Sailor Moon episodes with her. We sat on her bed and I tried to focus on the screen, on Sailor Moon’s ribbony hair and pink mouth, but I kept feeling sick. Maybe I was a bad person. I should stop being a bad person. Maybe all the things I did and said were wrong. I imagined Jules taking a sledgehammer to my head, my skull breaking apart in pieces, frothy spumes of blood. I told her I was getting tired and went back to my room. I made a cut I had to really focus on this time, testing to see how deep I could go without opening a vein. I never cut when there was a risk other people could see my silhouette against the bedsheets, but I wanted to get this one in really quickly, because I was going to be sick if I didn’t. The blood came up fast and thick. I panicked. It was dripping on my sheets, the floor. I tried putting a towel over it, then a pillow. Five minutes in and it looked like someone had been killed in my bed. Crying, I ran to the kitchen and twisted a rubber band around my arm above the cut. I pressed a wad of paper towels against my forearm and looked out the window. In the building across from ours, a greying man in a green sweater was drying dishes. I was pathetic. I was so fucking pathetic. The sound of Sailor Moon paused in the next room and Jules was in the doorway, looking at me, her mouth open. “Oh my god. Do you need any help?” she asked. I shook my head, still crying. “What happened?” I didn’t know what to say. There was no way to explain it. Blood dripped on the floor. “I did it.” Jules’s eyes widened. “Seriously?” I nodded. “OK,” she said, backing away, her fingers curled at her sides. “Feel better.” I couldn’t go to the ER. Bad things would happen if I went to the ER, because they’d see the other cuts. I got out my phone and called Vanessa. “Beautiful girl,” she said, sounding half-awake again. By then I was crying so much I could barely speak. “I had an accident,” I managed. “I’m bleeding a lot.” Her voice sharpened. “What happened?” I made a mewling noise. “Where are you?” I gave her the address. “I’ll be right over.” I was waiting on the front steps, my arm swaddled in paper towels, when Vanessa pulled up. She got out of her car, saw me, and then went back and came out again with the kind of rubber tie phlebotomists tie around your forearm to make your veins pop. She tied my arm off and sat next to me while we both watched the bleeding stop. Then she wrapped me in what felt like yards of gauze and told me to get in the car with her. We sat parked in front of my building, both of us staring ahead. Snow began to fall around us, smudging my view of the streetlights. “You have a lot of scars on your arm,” Vanessa said. “Show me your other.” I rolled up my sleeve. She ran her fingers over the bumps. “I saw some on your thighs too. The other day.” She sighed. “We can’t have this, beautiful girl.” I began to cry again. “I know,” I said. “What makes you do this?” I shook my head. “I don’t know.” She put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. I cried into her chest, which was moist and warm and smelled like rosewater. “I’m going to be seeing a whole lot more of you, I think,” she said. * * * What happened next happened fast. I went to Vanessa’s that night and met Davey, who was thin in a button-down and tight jeans and thick glasses. As we shook hands and he said, “Pleasure to meet you,” I recognized his voice from the videos: the man behind the camera. When I told him my name, he shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, “please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s an awful name. It doesn’t suit you at all.” He turned to Vanessa. “Do you see her hair right now?” Vanessa collected a few loose strands and tucked them behind my ear. “Yes,” she said. “Short and slicked back like that, doesn’t it kind of look like Warren Beatty?” Vanessa burst into an awkward caw, but quieted quickly when she looked at me. “I mean, it kind of does.” “You’re probably too young to remember any Warren Beatty movies, hon,” Davey said to me, “but right now you kind of look like Bugsy. I was so into Bugsy when I was a kid.” Vanessa clapped her hands. “Oh my god, Bugsy!” Davey held my chin and gently swiveled my head back and forth. “You look like a gritty gangster lesbian. Like a dykey Al Capone.” “I love it,” Vanessa said. “Can we call you Bugsy?” “Sure,” I said.  The rest of the house was dark, so as we walked through it Davey kept running ahead of us to flip on lights. Here were the wooden stocks in which the girl in the sensory deprivation hood had been locked. The rack from which Vanessa had been suspended. The table to which the girl in the full-body Lycra suit had been strapped and tickled. There was tons of equipment: high-quality cameras, boom microphones, and the kinds of lights I’d seen in pictures of movie sets. We stopped upstairs, in a completely bare room with nothing but white sheets attached to the wall. “We still have to light and stock this one,” Davey said, hands in his back pockets. “Vanessa tells me you’ve been liking our videos.” “I have.” “Well, I knew she would,” Vanessa said. “I know a freak when I see one.” I wanted to ask her what “freak” meant in this context, but I was feeling so good after feeling so bad that I didn’t want to ruin it. “So, I’m the producer,” Davey said. “But really the girls and Vanessa are the directors. And actors.” “Davey’s an aromantic asexual queer,” Vanessa explained, moving to put her arm around him. “He feels neutral-to-negative about sex and he doesn’t get off on anything we do. But he does like filmmaking.” Davey smiled and shook his head at the floor in an enough-about-me way. “Have you seen our page? It’s called Our Hands Are Tied.” Vanessa tsked him. “Why would I make her go to our page? There’s a paywall. She’s a kid working a minimum-wage job.” “Maybe when you get a raise you can become a monthly subscriber.” Vanessa shook her head and slid her fingers through my hair. “Bugsy’s not going to lose money to us. She’s going to make money from us.” I stayed there that night, on an inflatable mattress in what I’d come to think of as The Bare Room. The next morning, Vanessa woke me up with black tea and a croissant. She told me they were shooting four scenes that day and asked me if I could be the boom operator because they were always getting one of the girls to do it and it would be good to have them all free. I said yes, trying not to make it seem like it was the one thing I wanted most in the world. I wore headphones in which I could hear the amplified sounds of the girls moaning, putting on latex mittens, wrapping each other up in chains. I stood by Davey while he sat behind the camera, stepping closer to or farther from the scene as he wished. After that, I thought I’d never feel the buzzing under my skin again. Vanessa cut me a check for $120 at the end of the day and told me she was paying me $15 an hour. I went home that night and could barely sleep from excitement. I went back the next day to be the boom operator, and the next. My supervisor at Oly’s called to ask what was wrong with me. When I called back, it was to tell him I was quitting. I saw Stella again. She lived in the house, along with Andie and three other girls: Dolce, Lea, and Missy. I memorized their names and how they looked wrapped up in straitjackets, taped to poles, suspended from racks. I learned what fetish objects were—girls who were immobilized and deprived of sight and sound and forced to orgasm repeatedly—and what orgasm belts were and what it meant to top and to bottom. Andie, who had grown up the daughter of mechanics, looked babydollish during shoots with red cheeks and full lips and preferred to be enclosed in cages with her head taped up so only her nose, lips, and ponytail stuck out. Dolce was the smallest of the group, a former nurse, and liked to be suspended in the air, blindfolded, tickled, and fingered. Lea had been a runner in college and loved anything that tested the limits of her physical endurance: she would be taped to wooden crosses or hung upside down, or forced to stand for hours with her legs apart as she was edged by a vibrator in an orgasm belt. Missy had escaped a Mormon family in Utah and loved to wear the kind of leather hoods with metal-ringed mouth holes that allowed dildos to be slid down her throat and showed the full edges of her lips as she sucked on them. And Stella did everything: scenes where she was hog-tied, scenes where she was a helpless gagged fetish object, scenes where her legs were spread apart with clamps and one of the other girls fingered her. After we filmed a scene and Davey let us take a fifteen, Stella and I would go into the upstairs bathroom and make out. Sometimes she’d have rope burns on her arms or imprints on her forehead from tape or a gas mask, and that would make it hotter. I slept on the inflatable mattress more often than I slept in my apartment, and I’d arranged the few belongings I had around my new bed. I went to sleep looking at the soft white walls around me and thinking of the sky, or of outer space. I always woke up feeling better rested than I had since before going to college. One morning Davey was standing above me, pushing his glasses up his nose and saying, “Bugsy, if you’re gonna sleep here every night, you might as well stop paying rent at the other place.” When I told Jules I was moving out, she told me that wouldn’t be possible, because I was covering one fifth of the rent and there was no one to replace me. “I didn’t sign a contract,” I said. We were standing on the front steps and Vanessa was in her car next to the curb, smoking and watching us. Jules crossed her arms. “You signed, like, an emotional contract. You moved in with me at the beginning of the year and promised you’d still be here when we renewed the lease.” I looked at Vanessa and then back at Jules. Jules was wearing a too-thin jean jacket and her eyeshadow was smudged above her right eye. Her shirt read The Fantasticks All-Stars 2015, the iron-on letters cracking. “I’m breaking that promise,” I said. “Fuck you!” she spat. “You can’t just break promises like that! I tried to make you my friend!” I stood back, watching her. She was small and furious in the cold. “God, you psycho bitch. This is because you cut your arm open, isn’t it?” “Fuck you too, Jules,” I said. I felt as good as I did making out with Stella, but in a different way. Slowly, Stella told me about herself. She was six years older than me. She had lived in Chicago most of her life. Her father was a county judge who drank and beat her mother. He’d recently ruled in favor of a cop who’d shot a black teenager from Altgeld Gardens eighteen times, continuing to fire bullets into his back long after the teenager was lying face-down on the pavement. Stella hadn’t spoken to her father in ten years. Her mother, who had wanted only to be a well-treated and well-kept woman, had done sex work—that was how she and her father had met—and had died of brain cancer when Stella was fourteen, long before Stella had known she’d wanted to go into the business herself. But she’d always known she wanted to do something that would make people stop what they were doing and watch her. She wanted to be on people’s minds even when they weren’t looking at her. She’d read in a magazine that scientists had discovered that people could have whole clusters of neurons dedicated to recognizing a single celebrity. “You could go inside someone’s head,” she told me, “and point to the cluster of Lady Gaga cells, or the cluster of Rihanna cells.” She wanted people’s brains to have a cluster of cells for her. She decided that changing her name from Abigail Hermann to Stella Hardwycke would be a good start. The thing about Stella, though, was she didn’t want to be famous. At least not Lady Gaga or Rihanna-famous. She wanted to be known and worshipped by people she didn’t know, but she didn’t want to be what she called “sugarpop,” which meant that the barrier to loving her would be so low that virtually anyone walking around in Target or in line at the McDondald’s drive-thru could come to know about her and love her. She wanted her people to have to find her. She graduated high school in Oak Park and went to New York for a few years, doing scenes in straight porn for $1,000 each and escorting on the weekends. In the scenes, which were elaborate, she was dressed in tartan skirts and given a girl to act with, the producer’s twentysomething girlfriend who had no industry experience and whom the producer constantly referred to as “pure.” Stella and the pure girlfriend would pretend to be gossipy teenagers texting on the girlfriend’s bed when Rico or Shane or Johnny would appear in the doorway and summon Stella to him by saying, “I don’t think you’re a very good influence on my daughter.” Ignoring the girlfriend’s protestations, Rico or Shane or Johnny would take Stella into his room, rip off her skirt and tights, and spank her. Oftentimes there’d be a close-up shot of Stella’s squealing face next to a bedside picture of the spanker and his wife and daughter. Then Rico or Shane or Johnny would pin Stella to the bed and fuck her from behind, saying, “I don’t want you in my house, you filthy little slut!” There were several variations on that scene, some of which involved the wife watching and insulting Stella, too. The scene work came regularly for a year but then started to wane when the producer’s eye wandered to different girls. Stella was not deluxe enough an escort to be able to afford her Brooklyn studio without the scene work. She moved back to Chicago and got a job with the civvies as a server at a steakhouse in River North. On weekends, she saw shows at a place in Humboldt Park called The Empty Bottle. It was there during a noise show that she met Davey, who happened to like the same band. He gave her his card in case she ever wanted work. I told her I’d met Vanessa at a speakeasy and Stella laughed. “I swear those weirdos always do their talent scouting in the grodiest places. Who do they think they’ll find?” I snuggled up closer to her. “Well, they found us,” I said, and she kissed the top of my head. Before I spent my first night in her bed, Stella told me we weren’t going to be exclusive. She didn’t believe in monogamy. She’d tried it too many times and it had been stupid every time. I told her I didn’t believe in it, either, even though I’d never done it. I was embarrassed when her room started to smell so much like me, but she didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes after we’d had sex for hours she would hold my forearms in her hands and rub her thumbs against the scars. Sometimes she was quiet when she did this and other times she said “shit,” and other times she said, “I’ve been depressed, too, but it’s never been like this.” Sometimes we strayed from the strap-on and going down on each other and did different things, the kinds of things I’d seen her get to do in Vanessa’s videos. She wrapped me up in tape. She tied my arms behind my back in a binder. Once she tied me to the bed and made me wear a leather hood that blocked out all light and let her lips hover above mine, breathing her Listerine-and-Mountain Dew-and-cigarettes breath into my mouth, and then denied me kiss after kiss. She ground up against me while I was tied down and screamed and spasmed and then I felt a pressure welling in me, an incredible pressure, and saw flashes of light behind my closed eyes and felt my legs begin to twitch and then in my brain every single Stella Hardwycke cell lit up, all cells were Stella Hardwycke cells, all cells were exploding. She took the hood off but left me flush and tied up and kissed me on the cheek. She asked me why I was so cute. I didn’t tell her I was in love. On weekends, I played Catan with Lea, Missy, and Dolce. I ran errands for Davey, to Ace Hardware for a special type of screw whose name I would have forgotten had I not written it in my phone, or to Target to get Lysol or a broom for a scene in which Vanessa was going to buzz Missy’s head. In the credits for each video I was listed as “Bugsy….Gaffer, Key Grip, and Best Boi.” It was some film joke Davey was very pleased with that I didn’t get, but I never asked about it. Sometimes Stella and I went on long walks through the park, or to Garfield Conservatory to look at plants. She told me about monocots and dicots and how bivoltine bees were her favorite pollinators. She said in another, less interesting life she would have been a botanist. Sometimes we went to Wicker Park to get tacos at Picante Taqueria and talk about how the earth was created and why we’re all here and what emotions are made of. She called me Little One, which bothered me, but I didn’t stop her. When my parents texted, I told them how much better I was feeling working my job and living with Jules and that I might even consider going back to school. My dad made it clear I’d be paying for it this time. I told him sure, that was fine. We were set up for a scene in which Vanessa was going to seal Lea in a vacbed and take a vibrator to her clit. I was in my bulky headphones wearing my toolbelt and holding the boom when Vanessa came up behind me and hugged me around the waist. I jumped and set the boom down as carefully as I could. “You scared me,” I said. She laughed in my ear. “I’m always scaring you, Bugsy. I’m scary, you’re jumpy.” Then she let go of me. “Do you want to do this scene and I’ll hold the boom?” “Like, do your part in the scene?” She nodded. “I’m—” “Say yes,” Vanessa said. “You know you’re beautiful.” “I have a potbelly,” I said. She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. It’s better that way, actually.” “Are the subscribers going to want to see a potbelly?” “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Our subscribers will.” It should have taken longer to convince me but it didn’t. I got into the latex, which stretched and wrinkled in places it maybe wasn’t supposed to, and sat on my knees with a big smile on my face as Lea breathed audibly through her tube. Davey asked me if I was excited and I told him I was and bounced on my knees a little. I did the scene, giggling the way Vanessa and the other girls did while they were domming, watching Lea writhe. Occasionally I pinched her areolas, hard beneath the black latex, and she squealed and shifted and Davey said, “Good, good!” When I had made Lea come a few times, Davey stopped rolling and everyone clapped for me. Vanessa de-pressurized the vacbed and Lea slid out and wrapped her ropey arms around me and told me she’d never had better. Vanessa proposed we all go to Picante Taqueria and then go dancing to celebrate my debut. I wore three-quarter length sleeves without even thinking about it. I sat next to Stella and we all laughed when she dripped sour cream down her chest. In the club I danced with Lea, Dolce, Missy, Andie, Vanessa, even Davey. Stella and I snuck into the bathroom and did bumps of coke and my head felt clear and my ideas were coming fast: We should recruit in coffee shops and boba places, where the hot queers go to mope. We should film a scene where Lea’s hog-tied and suspended from the ceiling and there’s a dildo in her mouth and Stella slides it in and out and denies her any pleasure. We should lower the subscription rate so more people working at Whole Foods or Petco and making zines could have the money to see our content—more subscribers over time would recoup any losses from lowering the rate. We should make Davey dress as Elton John for Halloween and we could all go in drag as his lovers, except Vanessa could stay female and go as his beard. Stella kissed me and told me to stop talking. She wanted to have sex with me in the bathroom stall. She locked the door and pressed me to the wall and shoved her tongue in my mouth. I had never felt happier in my life. Then Cody showed up. He was just at dinner one night, in jeans and a pink hoodie that read MY MANTRA in a blocky mauve font. He had a sprinkling of acne at the base of his chin. I could see very clearly at least one whitehead that hadn’t been popped. He wore a double-undercut with his hair slicked back on top, which reminded me of Hitler youth. He kept complimenting the food, which no one had made: we were eating Chinese takeout. He sat in between Stella and me. When he made a joke—an unfunny joke—about trying to pop and lock as a white fourteen-year-old, Stella laughed and laid her head on his shoulder. The old buzzing started under my skin again. Vanessa told us that Cody was doing some kind of web development at Venmo and wanted a part-time gig on the side. He was going to redesign our website and boost our social media presence. He was going to fiddle with the SEO so we would be the first or second hit when someone googled terms like “forced orgasm” or “multiple forced orgasms” or “lesbian BDSM.” Vanessa titled her head and smiled and said Cody had big ideas for us and was going to make magic happen. Cody deflected her praise with his brittle-looking hands and said he was no magician, he was just a nerd who believed in sex positivity. That night, Cody slept in Stella’s room and I slept on my neglected air mattress. I hated the sound he made when he came: a strangled, breathy noise that would have been good as a soprano but was disgusting as a baritone. I hated the little murmurings they did in between rounds. I hated seeing him walk out into the hallway in his pink hoodie and polka dot boxers and look my way, staring long as if he could see me in the dark, as if I was a dormant threat that could spring to life at any minute. I hated when he showed up the next day and the next. I hated the way Stella checked her phone, waiting for his texts. I hated how Stella and I could only have sex during our fifteens, or in the mornings, and how distracted she was, how fast she made it. I hated his jokes, the way his ugly haircut grew out, the way one night he taught Vanessa how to Lindy Hop, saying he’d learned it in college because he was such a huge nerd and beer made him break out in hives so he’d found other ways to pass the time. And I hated the way everyone applauded them as they Lindy Hopped and Davey said, “I didn’t realize teaching a girl to Lindy Hop was the new spitting game.” I asked Vanessa if maybe it was distracting having Cody around, citing the fact that Missy, Lea, Andie, and Dolce never invited the people they were sleeping with to dinner or to shoots. For the first time since I’d met her, Vanessa seemed annoyed with me. “Unlike those people, Cody’s working for us.” I told her I knew that, but maybe it would be better if Cody got some perspective on the whole thing. He was too close to it. “Bugsy,” Vanessa said. She was chopping carrots, and she quickened her pace. “Stella likes to mix work and play. You of all people should know this. Do you think maybe you’re a bit jealous?” I said I could never be jealous of Cody. “Why not?” I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe you’re too close to it, Bugsy. Maybe you need some perspective.” I wanted to be better than Cody but I had no way to be. I couldn’t do anything funny unless people were already convinced I was funny, couldn’t be charming unless people already thought I was. I worked extra diligently on set, setting up key lights and fill lights before Davey could ask me to, helping the girls apply their hair and eyelash extensions, buying organic makeup remover for Dolce, who was convinced that carcinogens were seeping into her skin at all times. We filmed what Vanessa called a Solo Series, where the girls were just alone onscreen being tortured by someone holding a magic wand offscreen. Sometimes I was holding the magic wand, but most often it was Vanessa. In one video, Stella was cuffed to a suspension bar with a full latex bodysuit and I was supposed to wear black—not even latex, just clothes—with my back to the camera and rub the magic wand against her clit. The goal, according to Vanessa, was to give the impression that the girls were getting off on the efforts of a nameless, faceless torturer who could very well be the viewer. As the camera began rolling and I kneeled in front of Stella and turned the vibrator up to its highest setting, I could’ve sworn she stiffened. I jammed it against her clit and she moaned and flinched. Davey told me to go easy so I turned it off altogether and waited a few seconds while Stella whined and twisted back and forth. Then I set the vibrator to its lowest setting and traced semicircles around her upper thighs, listening to her muffled gasps. I thought of Cody. His skinny legs. His stupid jokes. I thought of her in bed with Cody, his dick inside her, her arms wrapped around his back. I thought of him breathing into her hair. I switched the vibrator up to high again and circled her labia, teasing her clit. She moaned, deeper and less self-conscious than she usually did onscreen. She had moaned like that before, but it had been for me only. I felt a pressure behind my eyes and blinked out a few tears. I made her come once, then again, then again. I thought involuntarily of the Garfield Conservatory and then of how raw her clit must be and made her come a fourth time, a fifth. Davey told me I’d done a great job. That evening, she texted me to meet her on the front porch. When I came out to see her sitting alone with a blanket over her lap, her face pale and scrubbed of makeup, I was excited. I thought maybe she’d dumped Cody and I’d be the first person to learn about it. I thought maybe we’d kiss. “Hey,” she said as I sat down next to her. “You were savage on set today.” “Thanks.” “You’re just savage all around, aren’t you?” I shrugged. She tilted her head and looked at me like my mom used to when she was worried I was coming down with a cold. “How are you doing?” “Yeah, I dunno, I’m fine,” I said. “Making money. Living the dream.” “Are you taking any time for yourself?” “I guess so, yeah.” “Can you take my advice? As someone who cares about you a lot? I think you need to tell Vanessa and Davey that you need a few days off. I’m worried you’re not sleeping enough.” There were pins jabbing the lining of my stomach. “I’m fine,” I said. “OK. I’m just worried.” We both looked ahead at the house across the street. I counted the cars as they went by. Six until she talked again. “It’s getting serious with Cody,” she said, not looking at me. “I think I’m going to try and be exclusive with him.” My brain began to swell. It felt like I’d just been given a diagnosis of stage four cancer. I clenched and unclenched my fists. “I thought you hated monogamy.” “I know, I know.” She looked me in the eyes again, putting a hand on mine. “I feel like everyone says that until they’ve found the right person.” “It’s kind of traditional, don’t you think?” She laughed. “Little One, things change when you get into your late twenties. You start to want stability. You get it, right? He’s smart, he’s got a nice job, he’s cute. He makes me feel good about myself.” I nodded. “And seriously, you need to sleep with more people besides me! There’s a whole world out there.” She nudged my shoulder. I was rigid. “You gotta get that bang count up.” “OK.” “You get what I’m saying? No hard feelings, right?” I shook my head. I felt like I was underwater. “No hard feelings.” That night, the house was silent. My room was no longer The Bare Room: Vanessa and Davey had gotten me a cheap full bed and some plastic shelves from IKEA and hung a few old movie posters on the walls. My favorite was Who Framed Roger Rabbit because I loved the way Jessica Rabbit looked in her sparkling dress and blue eyeshadow with the sultry curtain of hair over her right eye. I lay in bed looking at Jessica Rabbit, feeling the buzzing under my skin and imagining for the first time in a long time the ceiling collapsing in on me, a single point of drywall becoming knife-sharp and stabbing me in the chest. It would be better to be stabbed than crushed, I thought, because a stabbing would preserve my body and Stella would have to see it when they all heard my screams and came running. She would have to think about how my dead fingers had once been inside of her and my dead lips had once kissed her all over. And the next day Cody would try to comfort her but what would he know about death? Some rich tech dude who cares about a website’s SEO? If we were living in purgatory and the only way out was suicide, Cody would be the last to catch on. The sun could collide with the Earth and he’d be sitting at his ergonomic desk playing League of Legends. I felt as if all my energy was being directed to maintaining my corporeal form. There was nothing left inside of me, no guts, no brains, no emotions that Stella and I had once speculated were “half chemical, half spiritual.” There was a void, and that void was hurting me physically, as if I’d ripped a tendon in half but all over. Lying on my back hurt and so did sitting up and so did lying on my side. My head and feet were so heavy that it became difficult to change positions. My eyes throbbed. My wrists throbbed. I lurched from my bed, making my blocky feet step painfully one in front of the other. At one point in the hallway I had to lean against a wall to catch my breath. The stairs took a long time. I had to sit down repeatedly, but eventually I got to the kitchen and then the laundry room, where Vanessa kept the first aid cabinet. I shook my hands, thinking I’d be better able to use them if they were “looser,” whatever that meant, and opened the cabinet. There was a bottle of sixty capsules of aspirin. I opened it up and saw that not all sixty were left, but there were certainly enough. I took the bottle and staggered into the kitchen and then swung open the fridge, where Missy was keeping a bottle of Smirnoff. I opened the Smirnoff and, gulp by gulp, swallowed a quarter of it and the entire bottle of aspirin. Then I slid to the floor and blinked. Next, Davey was looking into my eyes and there were bright lights behind him. I couldn’t talk because my throat felt torn apart and full of something thick. My stomach was cold; I was cold. I discovered I could breathe out words, so I asked him why he was here. “Why I’m here?” he asked, and he sounded angry. “Because it’s the hospital, Bugsy. Why would I not be in the hospital if you are?” Vanessa was next to him, crying, asking me why I’d done what I’d done. I could see Missy next to her, texting, looking up at me and then down at her phone. She said something about Dolce and Lea taking the next train they could from Hyde Park, where they had apparently been at a party, and Andie getting someone to take her shift at Strange’s—it wasn’t a big deal because most of the patrons had cleared out for the night and no money was hitting the floor—so she would be arriving wherever we were as soon as she possibly could. Then Stella and Cody were at the foot of my bed, and Stella’s face was round and wet, and she was grabbing my ankles and saying “Jesus, Bugsy,” and Cody was holding her around the shoulders. I had to stay in the hospital for a week. I sat in groups with other people in hospital gowns who wanted to talk about their cheating spouses or their theories about the president’s methods of mind control or their hatred of the other people in hospital gowns. I ate roast beef slathered in gravy that looked like frosting. I got up at 6 a.m. so a nurse who called me by my old name could take my vitals. When I told her my name was Bugsy she told me that’s not what it said in my file. I took 200 mg of Zoloft every morning out of a paper cup. When I was released, I was told to keep taking the Zoloft or else I’d end up back in the hospital. When I got back home, Vanessa told me I wouldn’t be working on shoots for a few weeks but she would be paying me anyway. My mom was anxious that I hadn’t called or texted in a week, so I spent hours on the porch telling her made-up details about my life: how I was applying to office jobs, how I was looking into taking a few classes at DePaul, how I had just been taking a “tech cleanse” for a week and I was sorry I hadn’t warned her about it beforehand. I avoided seeing Stella as much as I could, only spending time in the house at night or when I knew she wouldn’t be home. I ignored her texts. I spent time in coffee shops reading books I had been assigned but hadn’t read in college: Sula and Written on the Body and the selected works of Guy de Maupassant. I got myself cheap dinners at McDonald’s or Taco Bell and ate under bright lights, reading the news on my phone. Sometimes I looked at social media and saw pictures of Jules—she hadn’t blocked me for some reason—at parties or music festivals or improv shows, her face painted with Day-Glo paint, flowers in her hair, a cigarette between her lips. The Zoloft made me feel cocooned. I could think about the videos I’d watched or help shoot, or about Stella naked, and I still wouldn’t want sex. My potbelly got bigger. I spent enough time at the Taco Bell that I began to recognize the regulars. There was a couple, a man and a woman, who came in almost every night I was there, sat a couple booths away from me, and argued. The woman sat with her back to me, so I saw only her shoulders in her red, fake leather jacket and her green hair, roots growing out at the top. The man wore plugs in his earlobes and black-frame glasses and had a full beard. I listened as the woman said, “I just think we should try,” and he said to her, “No, babe. I’m sorry, but it’s fucked up. It’s against my personal morals.” One night I moved booths to be closer to them and they didn’t notice me. “Seriously,” the woman said, “it can’t be so weird if other people are doing it.” “Rule 34,” the man said sternly. “What’s rule 34?” He rolled his eyes. “If it exists, there’s porn of it.” The woman’s shoulders slumped. “I just think it would be cool if we could use some toys.” He raised an eyebrow. “Toys?” “Yeah.” “What kind of toys?” “I don’t know.” “So my dick’s not enough for you?” “No, babe! No, I’m not saying that.” “Lesbians use toys,” he said. “We’re not lesbians.” “I’m just saying I saw this video. Just hear me out.” He opened his hands, encouraging her to go on. “There was this girl and she was, um, tied to like a wooden cross. And someone came in with a riding crop and was like, slapping her on the breasts.” He gave an exaggerated nod. “Right. That’s porn. Not what we do.” Then they started talking about how hard a time the man was having at work, how he had all these ideas but his boss wasn’t listening to him. A thought entered my head: Andie was supposedly twenty-two, but she could’ve been seventeen. What if she was lying about her age? What if she was younger than me? What if we were technically making child porn? I lay in my bed that night thinking about it, running through my head every single time I’d seen Andie and what she’d been wearing and how she’d been standing and what I’d thought about it. I asked myself several times whether I’d been attracted to Andie and the answer was yes, I had, I had definitely found Andie hot. If Andie was seventeen or sixteen and I found her hot, then I was attracted to a child who couldn’t give her consent. What if she was fifteen? She had sometimes looked fifteen in certain lighting. At 3:30 a.m., I knocked on Andie’s door. When she didn’t answer, I knocked again. I heard a whine of complaint and footsteps and then she opened the door, blinking herself awake. “Bugsy, I went to bed like half an hour ago,” she croaked. “What do you want?” “Are you twenty-two?” I asked. Her eyes were suddenly wide, which sent ice down my spine. “Of course I am.” “Why are your eyes wide?” “Because I can’t believe you’re asking me this at 3:30 in the morning.” “But it looks like you’re surprised. Or guilty.” “Fucking A. Go to bed.” She tried to shut the door but I held it open. “Show me your driver’s license.” “Are we really doing this?” “If you’re under eighteen, we’re making child porn.” “You’re younger than me. Maybe you’re the reason we’re making child porn.” “I never said we were making child porn. I said if—” “Jesus Christ!” She stumbled back into her room and emerged carrying her purse, which she fished around in until she’d found her wallet. She opened it to show me her ID. “See there? Born December 27, 1997. Are you happy?” It occurred to me that it was a fake ID. “Is it a fake ID?” Her face soured. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then she closed the door in my face. I laid in my bed but I couldn’t sleep. Why would Andie try to deceive me like this? Deceive us? When it was light outside, I tried to wake Vanessa up. It was entirely possible that she was unknowingly making child porn, but I still cared about her. What did that say about me, that I cared about a child pornographer? I pounded on her door and listened. No noise. I pounded again. She was probably out. I texted her We need to talk. I waited a few seconds, then a minute, then five. No response. Davey wasn’t home, either. I didn’t try to text him, though. It felt more heinous to talk to a male child pornographer than a female one. I spent all day at the Taco Bell, waiting for the couple. When they didn’t show up, I went to Myopic Books, where one of the workers, obviously genderqueer, started following me. They wore granny glasses and a chunky black-and-white sweater and had a round, red face. I disliked them instantly. Luckily, I was able to move quickly to avoid them. And as I moved, I was reading: a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a poem from The End of the Alphabet, six pages from a book about an angry accountant who’s lost in another dimension. I felt myself becoming stronger, smarter, increasingly prepared to fight a life-defining battle. “You’ll have to put those back,” the worker said. I told them I would and then didn’t. They watched me run out of the store. The fact that they cared about the arrangement of books in a store was sad to me, and I felt bad for them. I didn’t sleep the next night, or the next. Colors were brighter. Cars seemed to be moving faster. I started a group chat with Vanessa and Davey, telling them I knew about Andie’s lies and just wanted to take measures for everyone’s protection. They sat me down at the kitchen table and asked me why I was making false accusations. I told them I was trying to be protective of the empire they’d built. Davey asked what empire. I told him to take what I was saying seriously, that Cody had made us bigger than we ever were before and if Davey didn’t understand that then I was just going to have to take matters into my own hands. “What matters?” Davey laughed. “Have you been blowing rails of someone’s coke?” Vanessa looked worried. “Bugsy, honey, I know it hasn’t been an easy month for you—” “It’s been a fine month for me,” I said. “You’re either with me or against me.” I didn’t sleep the next night either. I avoided Andie, which meant I was avoiding both her and Stella, which was difficult to do when I was living in the same house as them. I homed in on the Taco Bell, which was open 24 hours. Finally the man and the woman were back, the man in a black hoodie and the woman in her same fake leather coat. They finally sat down so the woman was facing me, and I noticed she was beautiful: round-eyed, with black lipliner and thick red lips, a slim nose, a mole on her right cheek. I took her beauty as a sign. They weren’t talking, just eating their Supremes. I sat down in the booth next to the woman. “Sorry if this is awkward,” I said. “But you were talking about porn a few nights ago.” “What the fuck?” the man said. The woman laughed. “I remember you,” she said. “You’re the girl who’s like always here.” I nodded. “I happen to be in the industry and I’m trying to solve the problem and clear up everyone’s names.” “Get the fuck away from us,” the man said. “No, no, no,” I said. “I mean, I realize that child pornography is an FBI risk and I want to make sure we’re not creating the potential for a major sting, as all our names are attached to everything we make. I need you to know that we are normal, well-intentioned, hard-working people who do normal, well-intentioned, hard-working things.” The woman frowned. The man said, “Are you a child pornographer?” A few people looked over at us. I ducked my head. “Can we speak in private?” I asked. “If you don’t leave this table, sicko, I’m going to call the police on you,” he said. I left. I felt the woman’s eyes on me. I felt she might be falling in love with me as I had fallen in love with Stella. It occurred to me that maybe the FBI was monitoring my bedroom because of what I’d said and done in the past few days, that my laptop was being keystroked and that the authorities had already found all of the videos Vanessa had given me. I stayed out all night, wandering around Humboldt and Wicker, giving what little change I had to homeless people, blessing them back when they said God bless you. I was the most afraid I’d ever been, since I was a felon, but also the happiest I’d ever been, since I didn’t need to sleep anymore, since I was smarter than everyone, since I could solve perhaps the greatest problem that was hanging like a specter over the industry: that everyone thought we were child sex traffickers, when really we were not. I could outsmart the FBI. I was going to outsmart the FBI. After five nights of not sleeping, I began to notice giant security cameras attached to buildings on every corner. These cameras seemed to have the ability to see that I was a freak, that I liked “unnatural” sex. If I didn’t have missionary sex with a man in twenty-four hours, I was going to be arrested. It would of course be better to be arrested for being a freak than for being a child pornographer but to be arrested at all was a bad thing. I had accumulated tons of missed calls and texts from everyone during my night out. I ignored them all and called Vanessa. “I need a car,” I said. “I need your car.” “Bugsy! Where are you? What’s wrong?” “Don’t ask. Please, for your own safety.” “Tell me where you are. I’m coming to get you.” “No!” I shouted so loudly that people on the street were looking at me, and I realized that maybe they were spies, too. That maybe it wasn’t just the cameras. “Just, please, no. My phone’s being tapped. My laptop’s being keystroked.” “What are you talking about?” “What we’re doing is illegal on accident and I need to get out of town. We should all get out of town.” Vanessa started to say something else but I hung up. She was useless. I would take the bus to the Metra and then I would take the Metra to a different part of the state. I was riding the bus downtown, avoiding calls from Vanessa for her own protection, searching how to stop my phone from being tapped on my phone that was being tapped, when Stella got on the bus. She was more beautiful than I had ever remembered her being. There was actual light coming off her body. I had never believed in god, but she looked like god. I realized she was god. She was god living under the same roof as me, pretending to be a human woman. I’d had sex with god. “Don’t let any of them tell you what you want is wrong,” god-Stella said. “But what I want is wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong.” She shook her head. “Don’t be scared.” I stood, edging closer to her. The closer I came, the farther away she appeared to be. “Stella,” I said. She raised her glowing head. “Yes?” “I love you,” I said. “I’ve been in love with you for a long time.” The bus screeched and I jolted forward and god-Stella walked through the wall of the bus and I stood at the bus’s pressurized doors, waiting to be let out, waiting to follow her, and I yelled at the driver, “Open these doors, shithead! You’re keeping me from the fucking love of my life!” And then I was in an ambulance. * * * It was the Zoloft’s fault, apparently. They gave me a different pill they told me was an antipsychotic and they changed my diagnosis. More nightgowns, more frosting-gravy, more boring groups. Vanessa and Davey came to visit me every day. The girls were all working during visiting hours, which were typically at night. After a week, my parents showed up. My dad had grown a beard and couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with me. My mom hugged me, but her hug was tense and resistant. “We got a phone call,” she said, sitting down across from me. “We came here as soon as we could, sweetie.” My dad screwed up his face. “Are you doing drugs?” I told him I wasn’t. “Then what’s going on?” I told him I didn’t know. “Sweetie,” my mom said, “We got a phone call from a woman named Vanessa Redwire. We looked her up.” My dad’s eyebrows arched. A look came across my mom’s face that resembled the looks lawyers in TV shows give to clients who they know aren’t telling the whole truth. “Are these the people you’re associating with?” I looked down at the table. My dad grunted. “You’re my only child,” he said. “And you’ve flunked out of college and started hanging out with pornographers. How do you think that makes me feel?” My mom put her hand on his. “We just don’t want this for you. These people are dangerous, and what they do for a living is morally wrong. We want you to come live at home until you get back on your feet.” My dad withdrew his hand from hers. “I never agreed to that.” “Kevin,” she hissed. “If the options are live with us or make pornography, then what do you think we should choose?” “Make pornography,” I said, raising my eyes to meet hers. “No,” my mom said. “Sweetie—” A nurse came in to announce that visiting hours were over. My parents tried to linger, but she told them they needed to leave. “You’re making the wrong choice,” my dad said. “Think of your future,” my mom said. I told the nurse to take them off my visitors list. I ignored their calls and texts when I got out, responding only to say I’d made my choice. I don’t consider you my daughter anymore, my dad wrote. My mom fell silent. Every day I took three pills in the morning and two at night. I went to yoga classes with Vanessa. I ate a spoonful of peanut butter and drank a glass of milk before going to bed so I wouldn’t wake up hungry. My sleep was important. Seeing a psychiatrist was important. Davey found me someone I could talk to, a counselor who worked in West Lakeview. The counselor was named Randy: he was thin and knobby-jointed with a lilting voice and an eyebrow piercing and told me within the first ten minutes of meeting me that he specialized in LGBTQ issues. I talked to him about college, and the buzzing under my skin, and the pocketknife, and how the videos changed my life, and how I’d fallen in love with Stella. After a few months, I started doing shoots again. The girls threw a party to welcome me back. Stella baked a cake for me. Cody, who was apparently a hobbyist cake decorator, wrote our long national nightmare is over in green frosting on top. He had done something to the SEO to make us the first result for “girl-on-girl bondage,” the third result for “forced orgasm,” and the second result for “forced multiple orgasms.” Subscribers were coming in by the hundreds: at the end of three months, we’d netted a little over 2,000. My hourly rate went up to $20, then $30. On Sundays, Vanessa and Davey would do something called Girl of the Week, where they’d film a live scene with one of the girls for the “elite club” subscribers. They usually let me sleep in during Girl of the Week, deputizing whoever wasn’t in the scene to do the gaffer work. Once I woke up early to find Stella sitting on my bed in the same latex bodysuit and Lucite heels the woman in the giant picture in the living room was wearing. The one difference was Stella’s bodysuit had a hood, with cutouts for her eyes and mouth. “You look good,” I said. She laughed. “I know. It’s a classic look.” “Are you Girl of the Week?” She nodded. “They’re setting up now.” She gave me her hand and I took it, sitting up. “I feel like I haven’t been able to talk to you in a long time,” she said. “Like, really talk to you.” I shrugged. “I haven’t really talked to anyone.” She put a latex finger under my chin, her eyes blinking in their cutouts. “You know I love you, Bugsy.” My heart swelled. “Yeah.” “And I know you love me too.” I nodded. “But you understand why maybe you’ve got to live a little more life before you’ve decided I’m the one you need to be with, yeah? Like, I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I nodded again. She took her finger from my chin and held my hands in both of hers. “I talked to Cody, though. A girl gets tired of monogamy all the damn time.” “What do you mean?” She kissed me, the same way she’d kissed me in the kitchen when we’d first met. Then she pulled away, her lipstick smudged. “He wants me to be happy. And he thinks you’re pretty cute, for what it’s worth. Would you do it with a man?” I laughed and looked at my hands. “No pressure, of course. He’s getting used to everything, too.” I rubbed my fingers over the imprint of her kiss. “Don’t forget about me when you and your wife get rich and famous, OK?” “I won’t.” “Promise?” “I definitely won’t.” “Get some rest, Bugsy.” Then she went downstairs, her heels clunking, and I heard Davey’s muffled voice cracking a joke, giving her directions. I lay back down and listened through my pillow: Stella saying, Hi everyone, I’m Stella Hardwycke and I’m your Girl of the Week! And then buzzing, cooing, moaning. Sounds I’d heard so often they’d become background noise, as much a part of my daily life as a spinning ceiling fan or falling rain. I rubbed Stella’s greasy lipstick off my cheek. Then I closed my eyes and breathed deeper and deeper until I fell asleep.
Paper Faces on Parade

Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.

It has been three months since the murder. At the insistence of a shadowy tutor, the neglected ingénue Christine Daaé has been catapulted to stardom. Toggling between her and their (exhausted and exhausting) resident diva La Carlotta, the Opera Populaire has seen a period of quiet, comfortable success: a bustling box office and contented patrons, tepidly applauding familiar, easy repertory French farces such as Il Muto—works that feature but do not challenge their new star or the city’s bourgeois sensibilities. Three months of relief and of delight—no more ghosts, and no more notes.And then the Phantom returns.Crashing their New Year’s Eve masquerade in exquisitely bad taste, the Phantom delivers the manuscript for his new project: a feverish, frenzied adaptation of the story of a damned lothario, Don Juan Triumphant. The score, the hostage company discovers, is a cacophony of discordant, unpleasant wails and jangles; the enclosed sketches for its set design are a lugubrious nightmare; its projected “hero” is a sex pest who is finally swallowed by the Hell he has certainly earned in an end that no audience will ever mourn. Amid the Phantom’s tyrannical and absurdly sedulous demands (beefing with the orchestra’s struggling third trombone, body-shaming the chubby male lead), the cast reacts in horror. Ugly, unsingable, barely music or theatre at all, the tasteless Don Juan will certainly be laughed off the stage. In a sequence added to the 2006 film adaptation by director Joel Schumacher, Miranda Richardson’s Madame Giry—the dance instructor who once saved the young Phantom and is, bizarrely, the only character in a film set in Paris who speaks with a French accent—breaks down in a hallway as our stalwart romantic lead Raoul (played by a staggeringly handsome Patrick Wilson) comforts her. She weeps for the young boy she saved: “He is a genius! An architect, a designer, a composer, a magician! A genius!” “Yes, Madame Giry,” dim, sweet Raoul says soothingly, “but clearly genius has turned to madness.” * I turned thirteen in the summer of 1997—deeply closeted and, headed in the fall to an all-boys Catholic private school far from the suburbs, about to become more closeted still. The key to surviving in the closet is plausible deniability. You frequently do not really need to pass; you just need to provide adequate cover, and signal a sufficient threshold of shame. The Nineties superhero comics that littered my bedroom—rife with rippling male physiques, full of gooey alien symbiotes menacing a half-naked Peter Parker, Superman’s clothes-shredding pietas, and the queer idylls of Charles Xavier’s welcoming school for the different—always had the optics of simple, normal, four-colour escapism, and so they survived a household that insisted by dizzying turns on suffocating religious devotion and paralyzing macho gruffness. It was under these conditions that on my birthday—a teenager at last—my best friend and I went to the Cinema 8 in Pickering, Ontario, to see Batman & Robin. From the opening shots, it was very clear something had gone horribly wrong; as the montage smash-cut from close-ups of male crotch to buttocks and back again, I felt, with a horrible sinking feeling, as plausible deniability seeped away like so much alien goo. I returned home that night with a feeling I’d never felt in a movie theatre and whose meaning I struggled to coordinate: I felt ashamed. I slunk into the basement, using the dial-up modem on our ancient Hewlett-Packard (which I mostly used to play endless hours of multiplayer DOOM 2) to log onto AintitCoolNews. My cheeks still hot with confusion, I found the review I’d been scrupulously avoiding because of spoilers. I read Harry Knowles say this: “First, let me say that Joel Schumacher should be shot and killed. I will pay a handsome bounty to the man (or woman) who delivers me the head of this Anti Christ.”Over the next months, the film and its director rapidly became a punchline. In an episode of Batman the Animated Series, a lisping, mincing teen wrapped in a feather boa under a sign that says “Shoemaker” squeals with delight when he hears some other kids talking about Batman: “I love Batman! All those muscles, the tight rubber armor, and that flashy car—I heard it can drive up walls!” The other teens roll their eyes: “Yeah, sure, Joel.” Knowles meanwhile spearheaded a blitzkrieg of frothing bad press for the film, himself penning 52 separate negative reviews riddled with his characteristic homophobia and misogyny (the paparazzi dubbed star Alicia Silverstone, whom they felt had been insufficiently sexualized in the role, “Fatgirl”), and it bombed egregiously with critics and fans alike, tanking not just the franchise but badly damaging the studio as a whole. I may have felt ashamed, but the film hadn’t. And I learned a little more about what being unashamed can cost. * A fluffy, tufted gorilla suit makes its way clumsily through a crowd of oafish glitterati. It seems to be just part of the party’s awful, kitschy tiki-pastiche décor, but once the lumbering ape reaches the dais, with a sinuous, sensuous slink on the soundtrack, the beast begins to gyrate, and the crowd turns to stare. One glove slips off, then another, exposing elegant, manicured hands, and at last the fursuit falls away to reveal not just a woman, but the woman, blowing a kiss that leaves the striptease’s audience—onscreen and off—under her spell.It is the showstopping cabaret number in Blonde Venus, the 1932 Cary Grant vehicle that introduced German émigré and bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich to American audiences. But it is also, shot for shot, the introduction of Batman & Robin’s villainous Poison Ivy—played by Uma Thurman, who oscillates wildly between a broad, aloof Mae West drawl and a mousy, twitchy academic, without ever clarifying which is the real and which the drag (Ivy twice disguises herself by pulling on a “wig” of Thurman’s own hair, while in the front seat her enormous goon Bane discreetly dons a chauffeur hat over his bio-mechanical luchador mask). In her Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag credits one of the term’s earliest definitions to Isherwood’s The World in the Evening: “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”; in its Blonde Venus burlesque, then, and in the animated series’ cruel mockery of its director, Batman & Robin takes camp almost to its absolute taxonomic source. But Isherwood also there warns that camp cannot exist without a profound appreciation and close reading of its target: “You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. […] You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (like Batman Forever, the film that preceded it) is a film in delirious love with its subject, and that subject is the goofy, gay beauty of the modern myth of the superhero. Overt in its desires and its delights, the film stares with incredible, lingering longing at Chris O’Donnell’s bedewed lips, submerges the cold, aloof Bruce Wayne beneath the warm, kind smirk of George Clooney (a Batman who smiles!), and—most unforgiveable of all—it put nipples on the bat-suit. I will tell you the secret of why Batman’s nipples so enrage its critics: because the charade is over. The swells and dips of the lovingly sculpted male torso can be explained, and therefore explained away: these muscles are the site of masculine power; they speak, surely, of strength, of solidity and unremitting training. It is no accident that every femme fatale in Batman’s cinematic rogues gallery fans her hands across these rubberized zones, seeking the chink in the armor. But the male nipple has no such function, no exculpatory capacity for war; the nipple is the site of weakness, of sensitivity—and of pleasure. Plausible deniability is gone. Put a nipple on the batsuit, and you admit to having fun.Unproductive fun, perverse fun, queer fun—the Schumacher Batman films are, in Jonathan Goldberg’s analysis of a parallel vein in queer texts by Shakespeare and Marlowe, sodomitical, wholly uninterested in the patina of virtuous grimaces or generative reconstitutions of order (grim and grimy and gritty—the superhero equivalent of making love missionary-style through a bedsheet) and instead reveling in the spectacular and preposterous (a term that literally means “putting the ass first,” which is indeed both a Renaissance euphemism for gay sex and also literally how the films’ glorious butt-shots kick off their action). It is not just this celebration of the beauty of the male form that marks Schumacher’s auteurism, but a wild, debauched excess of style and narratives that foreground the displaced, lost other. From Jim Carrey’s Riddler’s obsessive, yearning lust for Bruce Wayne to Chris O’Donnell’s martial arts laundry skills to a neon-noir Gotham City peopled by Day-Glo supermodel pompadour gangs, the films are wall-to-wall pageantry and faggotry, and they do not apologize for it. Instead, they create a sensitively observed and minutely detailed love-letter to the wry surrealist goofiness of the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward series that had saved the property from obscurity and catapulted Batman so immovably into pop celebrity, and itself made by a rogues gallery of Sixties counter-cultural icons. Indeed, Carrey’s zany hyperkinetics—clad in gorgeous crystal-studded leotards and with dazzlingly acrobatic cane-work—pay meticulous homage to Frank Gorshin’s own Riddler, whose giggling fiendishness nearly earned him an Emmy. “Remember,” Schumacher was fond of saying to the actors on set, “you’re in a cartoon!”This style is not without its critics. Even on-set, Carrey struggled to connect with cackling co-villain Tommy Lee Jones; pleading to be liked, Carrey says he cornered Jones, who told him openly he detested the man—then, needled for more to go on, looked Carrey dead in the eye and rasped: “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”* Schumacher’s broader oeuvre, even in films with budgets in the hundreds of millions, is consistently obsessed with the outsider, the misfit, the buffoon. His early endeavours include cult classic musical Sparkle (the prototype for Dreamgirls), followed by Car Wash—a film now infamous for queer icon Lindy, who responds to being called a “sorry-looking faggot” with an imperious “who’re you calling ‘sorry-looking’?” and rejoinders “I am more man than you’ll ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get.” In 1978, Schumacher penned the screenplay that took the quintessential American myth—The Wizard of Oz—and transformed into a critique of the American effacement of Black culture and labour: The Wiz. There, even the thoughtlessness of L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow becomes a fable of systemic oppression, as the crows make the painfully sensitive dummy sing a song of their own devising about his own misfit uselessness that keeps him helpless upon his perch; when he doffs his hat to Dorothy, his head is not empty, but to her horror has been filled up by those who would keep him docile with “garbage.” The critics that revile Schumacher ignore that he was perfectly capable of making tight, hardboiled films—the impossibly taut Phonebooth, the dismaying hopelessness of Falling Down—and instead just as often would, like Bartleby, prefer not to. The Lost Boys may be a shrewd glance at the AIDS crisis and at the rootlessness and poverty of so many young queer lives, but the film is also a roaringly energetic comedy that delights in chaos and cute moody boys and loud, rowdy found family. “Take off that earring; it doesn’t suit you at all,” the mean-spirited young brother hisses at the breathtakingly beautiful male lead Jason Patric (whose vampiric style now trends to the androgynous and whose resemblance to Jim Morrison is emphasized by a matching dissolve), then adds with a sneer: “Have you been watching too much Dynasty?” By film’s end, however, the two have made peace and forged an acceptance of Michael’s outré new alternative lifestyle: “You’re my brother, even if you are a vampire.” The malevolent father figure (played by Edward Hermann with the same avuncular dweebishness he brought to Gilmore Girls), however, who tries to reinstantiate the stability of heteronormative family, is quite thoroughly and satisfyingly exploded. As an artist, Schumacher recognized there is something important, transformative, and transcendent about joy as resistance; he had as instinct what every poor NYC club kid knows: the revolution, when it comes, must be opulent. He extended this interest in underdogs to fostering underseen talent, launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s best-known faces, shepherding the Brat Pack, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Colin Farrell, Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, and many others into the public eye, frequently sacrificing established bankability to mint a new star. Pop singer Seal credits Schumacher with turning “Kiss from a Rose” from relative obscurity to karaoke staple, while Jim Carrey, whose buffoonery Schumacher had sanctioned not just in Forever but in Number 23, said that Schumacher “saw deeper things in me than most and he lived a wonderfully creative and heroic life. I am grateful to have had him as a friend.” Remembering working with him on Phantom of the Opera (in which she plays the past-her-prime diva), Minnie Driver meanwhile recalled this week that “once, on set, an actress was complaining about me within earshot [about] how I was dreadfully over the top (I was).” Driver said that Schumacher “barely looked up from his New York Times” and replied: “Oh honey, no one ever paid to see under the top.” * The climaxes of Don Juan Triumphant and Phantom of the Opera itself dovetail in a final number—“The Point of No Return,” in which the Phantom replaces the murdered lead actor Piangi as Don Juan (himself disguised, in the tissue of the play, as his own servant, Passerino, to effect a last cruel “seduction” before his damnation). The company knew if his opera was staged, he was certain to attend, and have laid traps for him—everywhere except onstage. Now they watch, helpless from the wings, as he stalks opposite the ingénue who consumes him, intent to abduct her at last. The moment is badly, almost fatally, under-imagined in stage productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, with the Phantom in a black shroud, completely illegible, and the stage half-heartedly dressed with a dinner table to facilitate a cheap disappearance trick at the end: a pretty melody, wasted.In the film, however, Schumacher transforms it into a shocking, bizarre set-piece: the stage, ablaze with a hideously avant-garde depiction of the hell-mouth that has come to swallow Don Juan to his damnation. Surrounded by expressionist cut-outs of flame and jarring tilted-angle smash-cuts to sweaty flamenco dancers moving with jerky arrhythmia, the Phantom (here restyled as a beautiful baroque toreador) and Christine now climb up parallel winding staircases to Hell, as the score palpates and whirls with bleats and trumpeting and the theatre’s patrons recoil in visible confusion and disgust.The coup de grace is the Phantom, whose disguise is no disguise at all: Gerard Butler’s own face, in a mere domino mask, only revealed in close-up at the last second of his unmasking to be part of an elaborate hair-and-makeup prosthesis to conceal his othering disfigurement. His disguise ripped away—Passerino is not Don Juan is not Piangi is not the Phantom is not even the handsome “real” of Gerard Butler—he slices through a cord, plunging down the onstage shaft of Hell with his prize as, from above the crowd, the chandelier falls to crush the paper-fire set and consume the Opera Populaire and its screaming, tacky arriviste audience in gouts of burning wreckage. This week we lost Joel Schumacher. He was a denizen of the NYC queer underground, a department store window-dresser, a fashion designer, a screenwriter, and finally one of cinema’s most iconic and reviled directors. He was eighty years old.He left the audience disgusted, and the theatre aflame.
‘You Can Sing an Alternate Reality’: An Interview with Sasha Geffen

Talking to the author of Glitter Up the Dark about Savage Garden as entry-point to fandom, missing shitty clubs in the midst of a pandemic, and Britney Spears’s communist reblogs.

“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability,” the New York Times critic Jack Gould fumed in 1956. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway.” In their new book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the slyer critic Sasha Geffen notes that he could’ve just called Elvis a male bimbo. Geffen scours a century of music for these glinting crystals, from 1920s blues singers to early synth experiments, Beatlemania to grunge, with Prince as a genre unto himself. Even the most harmonic among them carried notes of dissonance, rupturing the carefully gendered voice. Geffen invokes canonical artists with wan mischief—“Titless, he struts like he’s got his tits out for all to see,” they write of Iggy Pop—and keeps finding curious historical details, like how Klaus Nomi settled on his abstracted outfit because a full costume would’ve been too expensive. They also hit on the ways capitalism tries to recuperate each moment of subversion: “If it can’t get rid of them, patriarchy tends to devour its threats.” But that process never moves in only one direction, and Glitter Up the Dark lovingly describes the affinities drawn together by the act of listening. “Inside a song,” Geffen writes, “every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat.” Chris Randle: After the prologue where you talk about early modern American music, like, the blues, Harlem Renaissance people, why did you decide to start the book with the Beatles, and specifically their first pop covers? Were you looking to invert the canon? Sasha Geffen: I don't know if it's an inversion, necessarily, but I wanted to point to a moment that I saw as the beginning of pop culture and fandom as I think it still is now. This gathering of attention around a band on a mass scale, with heavy consumerism involved too. And I thought the Beatles were a pretty reliable starting point when it comes to pop as a mass cultural phenomenon, because even though pop is 50, 60, 70 years old, depending on when you want to mark it, that's the first time that someone makes dolls out of a band that I could find. Action figures, wigs, merch. And it also seemed to be a sea change in the way that fans oriented themselves around bands, taking bands as these objects that generated identity. So it wasn't that I see the Beatles as the beginning of pop music, because they're not, but they did seem to mark a shift that made a good starting point for this discussion. Yeah, my sense is that, at least before World War Two, stardom didn't work in quite the same way. Like, more often the songs would become famous and the stars would be Artie Shaw, or whoever. Right, it feels like the song was more the defining unit of liking pop music. And the Beatles came along in a decade where the teenager had just been established as a post-war phenomenon, where there was all this money concentrated in the hands of young white people, and a lot of capitalists were eager to draw it away from them by any means possible [laughs]. And Elvis kind of started with that too, but I think the Beatles really raised the stakes to another level, the level of urgency around Beatles fandom was unparalleled at the time. Even just, like, the hair. I actually love how much attention you lavish on that [laughs]. It's more interesting than the music, I think. Just the way they looked is so fascinating, it's so specific. There's an old Hannah Black tweet that went, "Gender is 50% hair." It's true. It's the first thing that people notice when they see you. Do you remember a moment earlier in your own life when you saw a music video, or heard a song on the radio, and sensed everything turning liquid in that way? Yeah, I can tell you my Savage Garden origin story! That was my first experience with fandom, and it's really dorky. When I was maybe nine or ten years old, I was really into being online, and went to all these different goofy fandom things, games, virtual pets. That whole '90s culture of having your own colorful home page: "Here's this GIF of a cartoon cat that I adopted from someone else's website." And one of the sites I went to had this auto-playing MIDI rendition of the Savage Garden song "Truly Madly Deeply." I would hear it every single day, and I didn't know what it was, and it was just a melody without lyrics so you couldn't look it up. Then I was on a plane, listening to the looping airplane radio, and that song came on, and I was like, holy shit, it's the song from the cat website that I visit all the time. There was a pre-recorded announcer who identified the band as Savage Garden, so I went home—I think one of their newer songs was playing on the radio too, from the second album. So I convinced my parents to buy me both albums, and I had this ritual of putting in the first self-titled record, the little orange CD, into my mom's computer right before I would go online, and go into my chat rooms pretending to be this gender-morphing fantasy creature. I think that voice triggered something in me for sure, because Darren Hayes's voice is so effeminate and so androgynous, so interestingly coarse. It's very high, and he uses his falsetto, but it also feels kind of crimped and faltering at points. There's a lot of failure hard-coded into it. In retrospect I could see that speaking to my own bodily situation, of being about to go through puberty not really knowing what I was in for, and excited to become a sexual being but also obviously not doing it the right way, according to the feedback I got from my peers [laughs]. Being told that my relationship to myself was weird or wrong or gross, all that fun baby gay shit where you don't know what's happening yet, but everyone's like, "You're disgusting." And you're like, "I'm just here trying to be a person, I don't know what's happening." So that band was like a sanctuary for me at 11 or 12, I was obsessed to the point where it was my schtick. When you're in middle school and no one knows what to do with you, they just assign you a schtick. I had a VHS and a DVD of their music videos, and I just watched them obsessively. The "I Want You" music video, I think I write about it in the book, because that was a big one for me. He's got that gross chin-length stringy hair, looks really young and androgynous, he's in this cool cyberpunk environment. I actually got my hair cut like that, or tried to, it didn't really work because I've got Jewish hair. I had printed out this black-and-white photo of Darren Hayes at his most androgynous, and I brought it to the person who cut my hair at the time like, turn me into this please. That's kind of the root of my whole desire to see the gender in music, I guess, because they were both so intricately bound up for me from a young age. Was there anything that turned up from research that really surprised you? I love the detail about Wendy Carlos, that she had to do her first publicity appearances in male drag. Yeah! That was a fun one. I guess I didn't know a lot about Alice Cooper, especially his early work and early appearances, how he was spouting lines that sound very much like Tumblr-queer jargon now. "Everybody has a little male and female in them, it's a biological fact." Which sounds like an infographic you'd see among social justice communities, but he was saying it to be provocative, because in the early '70s you couldn't just do media interviews and say that shit without making some people upset. And of course his whole getup was designed to be freakish, it wasn't like Alice Cooper was wearing makeup to be pretty, it was to look garish. What also surprised me, kind of from that same era, is how you see the young proto-punks like the Stooges being really into the Beatles, because they're so frightening to their surroundings. Like being into Nazi imagery and being into Beatles imagery were equally provocative. It's mind-boggling to me, because the Beatles seem so tame and anodyne now, it's like dad culture. But people would get catcalled, you'd get called "Beatle" on the street if you had long hair with the venom of a slur. That shifted my preconceptions around these eras I was studying. I feel like you don't always know the norms of a particular musical era, even if you know the music pretty well, so reading a bunch of contemporary interviews was really interesting, because you could see the shock happening in real time [laughs]. Seeing very square, very straight music journalists getting up in arms over what Lou Reed or Alice Cooper were doing was funny and revealing. You spend a lot of this book writing about the ambiguity of voices. Why do you think they're so malleable in that way? I think just the fact that they're the one musical sound that comes directly from the body, and that the body by necessity has to be malleable and flexible. Humans are very adaptable, and at least in hearing communities we communicate primarily through voice—communication isn't just done through actual words, it's intonation, accents, all kinds of subtle variations in the way voice is used. I think that extends to music, maybe it's even intensified in music, because music is this heightened dream-space. When you're singing it's not the same as speaking, it's this gauzy detachment from linear reality, where the song is looping in perpetuity, if that makes sense. Especially since recording began, individual vocal takes are frozen in time forever, kind of in their own reality. So I see voice as an opportunity to try out ways of being, ways of expression, that don't necessarily have to be rooted in the material conditions of your life. You can sing an alternate reality, an alternate mode of relations, and it doesn't mean you have to be that person that you're playing. It's almost embodied and disembodied at the same time. Like, an impression of the singer with no visual. Totally. Yeah. And in many cases an impression of a singer who's no longer alive, who no longer has a body to which that voice corresponds, but this ghostly after-impression of their voice still lives on. I think that makes it ripe for a lot of tension and conflict, and that's where I see a lot of these themes of gender-weirdness coming out. Early on you mention those wax-cylinder recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and it made me think of—do you know this book called Making Sex, by Thomas Laqueur? I think you've mentioned it to me before, it's on my list of things I should be reading but haven't yet, because I'm a very bad procrastinator and a slow reader. I've gotten better, but I get disillusioned. Sadie Dupuis [guitarist/vocalist of Speedy Ortiz] just posted her April books pile, and it was like eight books, and I'm like, shut the fuck up [laughs]. I've been inching my way through Faulkner and Alice Walker right now, these classics that were on my bookshelf, but I've been doing it every day, which is progress. It's funny, because Making Sex is a book from the early '90s by this middle-aged cis professor that doesn't explicitly mention trans people at all ever, but it's about the endlessly changing and contradictory "scientific" definitions of sex. Starting with the Aristotelian one, where he was like, "Women are cold and wet, which corresponds with the elements of..." Right, women are like 3D printers for the male form. Laqueur writes that all of these definitions of sex contain claims about gender. There's a part on the Renaissance where he discusses various cases of intersex people, what became of them, the formal decision on their identity from the local duke or whomever. He says that, generally, "as long as sign matched status, all was well." And in so much popular music sign does not match status. It reminded me of that great essay you did about robotic voices—I actually have this giant quote from it pasted into my phone: "When grafted onto robots, alpha masculinity becomes distended and uncanny; Robocop and the Terminator supplant organic masculinity with a hilariously overwrought form of butch. Others present a beta masculinity ripe with pathos: the tragically named Alpha from Power Rangers, whose neuroses constantly short-circuit him, or Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data..." I guess I'm wondering, how do you feel those cinematic robots relate to synth-pop and vocoders? I think you see a lot of overlap in Laurie Anderson, who I write about in the book, who created a caricature of masculinity using vocoders and pitch-shifters, which was deployed to a subtle comedic effect. It's a character that she uses a lot throughout the early '80s to poke fun at the idea of competent masculinity, masculinity as the harbinger of the future and as the natural subject of America. The comic effect of roboticizing masculinity definitely appears there, like, how powerful can masculinity be if it's so easily mimicked by something that's not a man? And that's true for failing robots like Data, it's true for someone like Laurie Anderson, and I think more recently you see Dorian Electra working in a similar vein, where they're doing office drag and singing through vocoder about being a "career boy." Performing all these stereotypical male roles ... The idea that masculinity is kind of inherently comic, because it's so stilted and brittle, comes into play there. And robots are a good excuse to magnify that, because they're so easy to break, and ill-fitting in the role of human in a similar way that men are. It's interesting that Daft Punk, the other artists who had a Billboard hit while dressed as robots, have always been smoothly asexual in their persona. But not the camp C-3PO thing, or even that Data type, more like the Terminator if it were just making house jams ... In the Prince chapter, you talk about him in these Sapphic terms, echoing Wendy & Lisa's own description of him as a "fancy lesbian." I was thinking about the inverse, divas with a homoerotic affect, like Madonna. I couldn't find a way to slot Madonna in. There were moments, but I couldn't make them cohere into an argument, whereas Prince, the chapter could've been longer ... He was so specific with such widespread appeal. I don't know any other pop star who managed to be that consistently strange and opaque and elusive and still so massively popular. So insistent on his own displacement from his surroundings, in terms of gender, the way he produced his music, and his relationships with the rest of the band. He's my favourite musician, and I find "If I Was Your Girlfriend" so moving in the way that it takes this fantasy of perfect mastery—Prince writing and performing and producing every element of every song, shifting between genders effortlessly—and crushes it down into the narrow intimacies of heterosexuality. Yeah, and I feel like there's this longing for a feminized mastery within the lyrics, right? This caretaking that he doesn't necessarily have access to in his male form, as a man who loves women. There's this whole realm of mastery that he's sealed off from, and the best he can do is use his mastery of music to simulate it, or try to find a way in to pantomime it. In the chapters on dance music, you write a lot about these distended experiences of time: The improvised circuit of DJ and dancers, the stopped clock at the Loft. It feels very appropriate now that we're living in this endless suspended present. What do you think distinguishes the two? Why is one of them euphoric and the other nightmarish? There's a point to the former, right? Being in a place where there's a lot of sensory input, you're hearing music that's really loud, you're surrounded by other people, maybe your end goal is just to dance, or maybe it's to get high and peak at some point during the night, or to have sex or whatever. Even though the moment is extended, there's direction within it, there's narrative. And that narrative doesn't necessarily conform to clock time, it's on its own timeline, but it does have peaks and valleys, it does begin and eventually end. Whereas what we're doing now, there's no end to it, it seems so yawning and empty. And obviously we can't be around other people, so all the sensory overload and the sensuality of the dance floor is drained out of the picture. It's interesting how it's even drained out of musical experiences that are happening. I totally get that musicians have to do something to survive when they can't tour, because for so many musicians that's their only source of income, so playing Zoom shows makes sense, but I feel like it's such a different experience from an actual concert. Where you feel the vibrations from the speakers in your body, and you're near other people reacting at the same time. The lack of any sensory shift makes the moment impoverished, I think. It's so weird, I had that thought of, wow, this really shows how time is conditional. The fact that March took 400 years and April didn't really ... happen? It doesn't seem like April happened, there was no demarcation there. There's no narrative to it because everything is just bad all the time and slowly getting worse ... I thought that I would be fine through this, I kind of dug in my heels like, whatever, I'm in my house anyways so it doesn't really matter that I have to stay inside my house. But the psychological effect of everyone I know being stuck and suffering for it... The idea that something bad is happening and there's nothing you can do about it except stay home is hard to swallow. All of that makes this hellish. But it's a good example, or at least an effective example [laughs], of how time is conditional. I wish I could be on a dance floor. Ever since I moved to Denver I haven't been to as many shows or dance nights as I once went to in Chicago, because I knew the environment, knew the layout of the city a little bit better. Here there's a lot of—I don't want to bad-talk Denver, but there's a lot of EDM and jam bands, just not as much of an abundance of stuff I like. But I didn't really miss it before all this, I was like, alright, that's fine, I'll get my few shows out, that scratches the itch as I'm getting older. And now I need to be in a shitty club with sticky floors and concrete walls, where I can't hear anything but feedback, with a bunch of drunk people [laughs]. That's something I miss that I didn't think I would miss. Your book made me return to that Octo Octa album from last year [Resonant Body], where she gestures towards '90s rave anthems without just pastiching them or lapsing into melancholy. It feels like this intense solidarity. Totally. She goes through those gestures with such a light touch, it feels like there's room for forward motion. Right, it feels purposeful. And I feel like that's the challenge in a larger sense too, how to care for and remember all the people who are sick and dying. It's strange to try to be present without being present right now. It's also troubling how conveniently dependent we are on internet technologies to communicate now and care for each other in whatever ways we can, like, with the refusal to bail out the postal service. Any non-corporate communication we have is being starved. One of your recurring themes is how the gender expression of marginalized people gets eyed up and repackaged by capitalism. Have you read that Elijah Wald book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll? No, I haven't. The title is very inflammatory [laughs], there's only, like, one chapter about the Beatles. It's more a secret history of American pop music, touching on some fantastically unfashionable artists like Pat Boone or Paul Whiteman, because people were listening to them. And one of his recurring themes is the way that music-making gets shaped by recording technology. He argues that a big influence behind the rise of the album in the '60s was—I'm not really an audiophile, I forget exactly what changed to allow for longer LPs, but something did. Before music was a recorded commodity, people would take songs and adapt them and put their own twist on them—it's a very human impulse, I think, to do that. But when the music industry comes along that becomes part of capitalism's repertoire. How do you feel that's all been accelerated and complicated by digital technology? I'm thinking of Arca sequencing her album to confound streaming services. That whole phenomenon just has accelerated, right? As soon as something's published online it can be devoured. A somewhat recent example is Rihanna's Saturday Night Live performance [in 2012], where she or her creative design team borrowed elements from seapunk, which was this small semi-comedic vaporwave offshoot out of Chicago led by a trans girl and a cis girl, just making lots of '90s-nostalgic synth music. Lots of Ecco the Dolphin visuals. Lots of digital replications of paradises, beaches and oceans and palm trees, that made it into this Rihanna performance. Very quickly things from the fringes were scooped up and repackaged around a mainstream pop star. I think maybe what you're seeing is a new generation of artists kind of accepting that as inevitable? Making work so quickly that the swagger-jackers can't keep up. You see a lot of trans artists in particular putting out a ton of stuff, like Black Dresses and Ada Rook and that whole network, releasing three or four albums a year sometimes. Pouring out music at the rate that they're making it, and not necessarily working through a label or thinking so much about marketing. It's interesting because that's almost the speed at which the Beatles were releasing albums, back when an album didn't have to have these high levels of production, you could have four cover songs and it wasn't a big deal. You only have to write four to six songs, and then you record it all over two days. Before the album became this art object, when it was just a convenient package for songs by popular artists, you saw things happening a lot faster. Now that the internet is what it is, and has messed with many people's ability to make a living making music, you see that same rate for different reasons. I think most of the albums that I'm talking about are considered as full-length narratives, it's more about not needing a label to mediate between you and your listeners. I love how you keep returning to that search for unlikely affinities. It's the "Crush With Eyeliner" thing, two people swerving towards each other while conspicuously failing at gender. Where are you finding those affinities these days? In music? Anywhere! It's the last question, it could be anything. That photo of Daniel Radcliffe walking all the dogs [laughs]. Oh boy. Honestly, the insane, powerful singing that my body used to do when I saw pictures of abject males has quieted a little bit since I got top surgery, so I don't explode in longing when I see a picture of Daniel Radcliffe looking at his phone while tied to 17 dogs quite the way I used to. I used to go to Twenty One Pilots a lot for that, because there's a lot of homoerotic play between the two of them. My fandom for them is like the adult version of my Savage Garden fandom ... any kind of beta-male affinity. You mentioned R.E.M., and I'm actually researching for a potential book about Michael Stipe, a false hagiography or critical biography, because I feel like he's going to write his own at some point, I can't do that for him. That seems illegal. But I want to write something about his place in culture from the position of a fan. I feel like I'm also getting it in Britney Spears's communist reblogs. The idea that this person who was the one symbol of Y2K consumerism, everything wrong with the way capitalism has infiltrated music, is now like, "I was never a willing participant in my own exploitation." Her working against her own interpretation has been really productive, not in the erotic sense that you were asking about, but in the sense that she was held up as this image of perfection and now she's actively embracing her own failure ... I get a lot of vibrations just from seeing other trans people on the internet, seeing what we're all doing with ourselves in this weird time. The fact that people are looser with what they post, maybe, not necessarily in a lewd sense, just more casual. I wish I had a better answer to your question than Twenty One Pilots [laughs]. No, I love that answer! It's one point where I feel like I have no agreement from the rest of music-critic Twitter, that this is a good band. But I also just festooned them with my transmasculine hopes and dreams, and now I can't get rid of them. They're a comfort band for sure. I used to watch a lot of their music videos compulsively, in the same way that I would with Savage Garden. "What if I had that body? Wouldn't that be cool?" What if I could look and move like that in this weird, failed rock stardom? Because that is a band that's all about pushing against the bombast of their alt-rock predecessors ... Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon, those post-Arcade-Fire what if we ran away from this world together male survivalist fantasies of the post-apocalypse. And then Twenty One Pilots were like, what if we were dweebs in the post-apocalypse instead? What if we were just nervous, insecure, vaguely homoerotic bros in this world those alpha males are ruling? I had never actually looked up a photo of Twenty One Pilots before. All their publicity shots look like they just got signed to an esports team. Yeah, Tyler just stoops! He's got the muscles and the big black tattoos but he just looks like a sad little boy. It's such a contrast, and so relevant to my own interior experience of being a person. So, if Elvis was a male bimbo, does that mean Savage Garden are catboys? Yeah, they can be catboys! I like that. I was active on Savage Garden message boards and fanfic communities when I was, like, 12, and I feel like that was probably something that got written at some point. Darren Hayes got turned into a cat and fucking loves it.
Perverts Like Us

There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.

There was a time when I had orgasms that had nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies. I had them by accident. I remember having them in gym class all the time. We had to prepare for some Canadian Fitness Exam. We had to take it very seriously. As a child, you are supposed to accept what adults put in front of you and denote as important. There is an element of nonsense in the life of any child. That was why Nonsense Literature is so appealing to children. In any case, we were told this was important and that we would be receiving an iron-on badge when our scores were submitted. I really wanted a gold badge to iron onto my grey hoodie. I was hanging from the chin up bars against the wall. My body hit the wall as I rocked and it brought me to a climax. I would hang there, oblivious to the time passing. My arms would have held me up even if I were 500 pounds. All of my body became focused on a singular feeling. I climbed up a rope and similarly achieved an orgasm. I had no idea what it was.  * I befriended a girl named J. Her mother had three children with different fathers. They were each devastatingly beautiful. This meant her mother had beautiful genes. It was a lot of work to produce three beautiful children. After it she went to bed for the rest of her life. She sometimes left the bed to put on lipstick and go sit at the Jupiter Café. Her beautiful children roamed the neighborhood. Going mad, the way that unsupervised beautiful people do.  We were delighted to find out we had both discovered our bodies had this wonderful feature. J loved to share with me the different ways she had discovered to masturbate. She told me about how she masturbated in the bathtub, scrunched up under the faucet. She had made love to every electrical appliance in the house, from the hair dryer to a vacuum cleaner. She made love to appliances in public too. She really had no shame. She didn’t have a washing machine in her house. She went to the laundromat. She wrapped her arms around a washing machine and held it as tightly as she could. We went to the swimming pool. She stood in front of the tube that new water poured through, her head tilted back in ecstasy. She had big eyes. And lips. When she closed her eyes, she looked as though she were in a permanent state of bliss.   * I met a girl with long stringy, dirty, blonde hair. I liked kids who didn’t wash their hair regularly. It meant (to me anyways) that they were wild and had parents who were more permissive. She lived in a building right next to the swimming pool. She wore her bathing suit everywhere that summer. Another friend said we shouldn’t speak to her, as she was possibly amphibian.  I put my bathing suit on to go and see her. I knocked on her door and, sure enough, she answered in her bathing suit. She tied a blindfold around my eyes and decided to tell me the definition of certain words that had to do with sex that I was unaware of. * A girl in my class came up and invited me over to her house. She had a peculiar style. She had bangs and two ponytails she wore oddly high on her head. I didn’t want to go because she always wore plaid and I had an aversion to it at the time. I don’t know how to say no to any girl’s invitation. But she told me her grandfather had moved into the duplex apartment underneath her. And rummaging through his unpacked things she had come across an entire box of dirty magazines. We sat in the narrow back staircase of her house. It was covered in yellow carpeting and we felt so snug sitting on the stairs. Our bums were crushed together and our running shoe clad feet were piled on top of one another. We turned the pages, looking at all the naked women and men in extreme postures. It was a rare find this box. It would most likely be seized at any moment. There was no time to be erotically stimulated. All we could do was consume the information the photographs contained before they were confiscated. Her grandfather had a right to look at all these naked female bodies, but we, as girls, did not.  What I liked most about that day was that we were together, looking at the magazines together. We had triumphed over the adults. We were doing things they could never imagine us doing. It was our collective secret that we were obsessed with sex. Our sexuality was kept secret from us, while it was exhibited, examined and exploited by men. *  The secrecy of it all made me feel guilty and troubled, of course. I thought I might be headed to a life of perdition. Until I befriended the most intelligent girl in my grade, named P. She had a thick black pony tail and baby hairs on her forehead. She had a collared shirt that she buttoned at the wrist and up to her neck. Her ability to concentrate was phenomenal. She was hardworking and conscientious. She was never late with her assignments. She was always taking notes as though the teacher had just given her winning lottery numbers. She was from Uruguay. She had an overweight sister who couldn’t get anything right. She was always daydreaming and fainting in gym class. They made a wonderful pair. She invited me over one day. She suggested we become best friends. She had examined the prospects in the class. She decided we had the most in common. Which meant we had the closest grade point average. We both were reading above our level. We both read in very different ways. There are as many different ways to read as there are people. P. brought me down to her basement. She had a tape recorder. She said she used her tape recorder to tell short stories. These seemed elaborate. But it was really to be expected of her organized personality. She asked if I would like to hear a story she had recorded. I said certainly. She played it. It was a very filthy story about her and a boy in her class. When it was done she looked at me and asked, “How did you like it? Did you think it was well written?” There is a creative storytelling aspect to sex. When the fantasies came, they were in the form of stories. When I was writing my novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I wanted to capture a childlike attitude to sexuality, perversity and pornography that I once had.  *  This was a form of intimacy we did not share with boys. They were already intimidated by the sexuality and bizarre amorous assertion of girls in the class. Girls would pursue them around the schoolyard trying desperately to kiss them. They would receive anonymous love letters and marriage propositions. I was more interested in the sexuality of girls and their physical presence back them myself. The girl who sat behind me one day reached forward and took my hair in her hands and began to braid it. It felt so good, as though each strand of my hair was coming out of my scalp and falling out around me. * I had a boyfriend when I was a teenager who had a job cleaning up a public library after hours. Whenever he would find a book in the remaindered section that he thought I might like, he would bring it home to me. He didn’t really know anything about books so his choices were always based on the covers. He brought me a book called The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. I had heard of her before and was delighted. I loved the photograph on the front. It was of a girl in a cloche hat on a chair holding up her dress and revealing her skirt and slip so that one of her stockinged legs was exposed to the viewer. I saw clearly on the cover beneath the title that the word Erotica was written. He had either missed it or did not know the meaning of the word. He saw I had the book in my shoulder bag a few days later. “How is that book?” he asked. “It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s so dirty. People are having sex on every second page. You can’t sit down in this book without someone crawling on their knees to give you a blow job.”  He insisted I hand the book back to him. He was furious that I had been reading porn. He demanded to know if I had masturbated while reading this book. I was taken aback. I mean, obviously. Was there something wrong with that?  Why in the world did he feel threatened by a book? Especially since these were characters who had nothing to do with us. They were so pathetic. They lived in small attic apartments in Paris. They didn’t have refrigerators. They were always cold and couldn’t pay the rent. They dipped a stale baguette into a glass of wine and they were still hungry afterwards. They pushed the mice away from their plate with a fork. These people were no longer alive. What did it matter if they were turning me on from beyond the grave? It was surely a victimless crime. It seemed a pity because in giving back the book, I was giving him back any trust I had with him. * I gave up the boy but not reading porn. It seemed too fundamental a difference anyhow. * I hoped to grow up and meet someone as perverted as me. I wondered what this wonderful pervert would look like. Would he wear nothing but mismatched socks as he read paperback novels on the windowsill? He would be like nobody I knew. In part because nobody I knew loved me. That was what his perverted heart would be capable of doing. He would be capable of loving me. He would stand on coffee tables and say intelligent things. He would be broke because he would be much too cool to have a job. Ah! The life of artists. That would be a way I would get to be a pervert and be proud of it. I went to the library to find another copy of The Delta of Venus. I was young and filthy and it didn’t occur to me there might be something a little dingy about checking a dirty book out of the library. *  I loved novelists who wrote about sex. Who included the perversity and filthiness of the whole thing. And the lovely awkwardness of it. The early twentieth century, any writer who lived in Paris was engaging in a miraculous sex life. It was so philosophical and political. They were trying to be free through having sex with as many people as possible. And why not? It was a noble pursuit.  If you are a fallen woman, then you wouldn’t be able to be married. You would be outside conventional society. The women in Victorian novels decided they would kill themselves. But in the 1930s they went to Paris to join other groups of the fallen. And write and live to excess and discuss philosophy. And to write down their pensées which would change the way people thought about women and war. They would murder God. At which point it meant nothing to be fallen. I liked the 1930s as a time period, aesthetically. And I had been planning to write about it since I was very young. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the main characters, Rose, becomes involved in 1930s black and white pornography. I began researching it. One fascinating collection of pornographic photographs of prostitutes was taken by a man who called himself Monsieur X. They are beautiful and somehow speak, to a modern viewer, as portraits of innocence rather than wantonness. Unlike in modern pornographic photographs, the subjects seem like ordinary women who you can imagine having inner lives and interests that do not revolve around sex. Two girls sit reading a newspaper. Their legs are spread. They have no underwear on, but they are wearing stockings and pretty high heels. They look like they are two girls reading comics after a slumber party. They prefer not to look at the camera, as they are shy. Another pair of girls squat in an unnatural position to reveal their privates. They have the awkwardness of non-athletic girls in gym class. One has a run in her stockings. There is, of course, the messiness of pubic hair. One girl, alone in her photo, leaning on a chair partially undressed and smoking a cigarette, looks at the camera. She has a tinge of Henry Miller’s wife, June’s, pride about her. She doesn’t care that she is in a pornographic photo, she is still better and more accomplished than you.  In a 1928 film called Le pompier des Folies-bergère, a fireman goes to see the naked dancing girls of Folies-bèrgere. When he comes out, the revue has made him lose his mind. He imagines every woman he sees naked, including a subway worker played by Josephine Baker. Every man he sees turns into a naked woman, including his fellow firemen, a priest, and a bus driver. He tiptoes around the city blowing kisses to everyone. These films seem like Charlie Chaplin movies until everyone takes their clothes off.  There were films that were shown in Mutoscope peepshow machines. These were also called “What-the-Butler-Saw” machines, because they gave the viewer the perspective of looking at a scene through the peephole. You put a coin in and put your eyes against the goggles and saw a film created by a circular rotation of cards. It’s the same effect as when I was in high school and we all used to draw flip books on the sides of our dictionaries. Then we would pass them around. Little stick men would shoot each other in the head or a stick figure with a penis would have sex with a stick figure with breasts.  In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the character Pierrot sees Rose star in a movie in one of these machines and thinks it is the most beautiful, lovely film he has ever seen. Neither of them is ashamed of it and they love each other more because of their sexual pasts and experimentations and exploitations. Rose and Pierrot have a gender fluid relationship and they are best friends. They have been searching for one another since they were separated as children. There is something that remains childlike about their love and attraction for one another, causing them to be innocents. They share their sexual awakenings and desire with the same curiosity and wonder that I did with other girls. Even though society says girls are not as horny and perverted as boys, they truly, truly are. And when two people share the secrets of their perversions with one another, they become free of the false mores that society puts in place to clip our imaginative wings, not only in sex, but in all walks of life.
‘There Are Pernicious Trends and Ideologies That I See Enduring’: An Interview with Rachel Vorona Cote

The author of Too Much on who gets to be excessive, whether Victorian protagonists would get along, and the privilege of seeing yourself in literature. 

Has there ever been a better time to read Victorian novels? Their volume, their sheer scope, and their often-serialized origins all make for stories meant to be engrossing and enjoyed over a long period. Take your time; you have nowhere else to be. Rachel Vorona Cote knows her Victorians. With multiple degrees in literature, she applies her scholarly expertise to her modern obsessions in Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today (Grand Central Publishing). She traces a path from the Catherine Earnshaws and Dorothea Brookes of centuries past to contemporary characters, authors, and public figures, with a healthy dose of memoir tied in. The lessons that these books can teach us, Cote argues, are evergreen. The women who were maligned in the works of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot for being too emotional, too unstable, too sexual, can serve as a conduit for how we understand how women are maligned still today. Cote and I spoke on the phone in early March, the day her book had been launched, as she was embarking on a multi-city tour that would, one week later, be postponed indefinitely.   Anna Fitzpatrick: Too Much is obviously rooted in the Victorian era, but you bring your subjects into the present, and cover a lot of literature over the twentieth century. Why did you decide to start with the Victorians? Rachel Vorona Cote: There's a logistical reason, and then there's a conceptual one. The logistical side of it is that my academic training is in Victorian studies. The nineteenth century was a period in which there was that sort of really intense institutional scrutiny and stigmatizing of women and women's emotional expression that veered towards the extremes. Sigmund Freud, he was a later Victorian. He came in at the tail end. You had a lot of white male doctors who were "treating" women who had maybe been sexually abused, or maybe had anxiety, really all sorts of afflictions, signs of distress. Rather than listening to them, rather than actually putting any importance on their testimony, their sense of what it meant to live in their own bodies, rather than listening to that, the catchall was hysteria. These women were hysterical because their wombs were running all over their bodies, whatever sort of nonsense medicine they were leaning into at the time. That was something that was quite prevalent. It kind of makes sense, because the Victorian period was really a bananas time in terms of the way people were navigating issues of gender, issues of sexuality. The Victorians were really quite obsessed with sex even when they tried to pretend they were really moralistic about it. Women were then, as now, they were kind of seen as illegible in a lot of ways. And frightening. Especially as you got to the turn of the century and women started saying, "We want to work outside the home, we want to earn money, maybe we don't want to get married.” It dredged up a lot of anxiety. What drew you specifically to the literature? It's an interesting question because I've been reading it for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom started reading a lot of nineteenth century literature. She hadn't been a big reader when she was growing up, and then she started, I think she just wanted to fill in a bunch of gaps. She started reading Jane Austen, and she read the Brontes. I started reading these works alongside her. We'd watch film adaptations, like the BBC Pride and Prejudice, that was constant viewing in our household. In some ways it grew out of my relationship with my mom. I've always really appreciated the intensity. That sounds cliché, to say that considering the book I've written, but I think there was something very resonant for me in books that— [cuts out] Are you there? [a minute passes] Are you there? You cut out for a second. I think I accidentally started making a call. I do that all the time. When your cheek dials? Ha. So, the Victorians. They're extremely dramatic. Right. And I can see how that would be really, really aggravating for people. When people tell me they really don't like Victorian literature, or they're put off by it, I completely understand that. It's very specific, even though different writers are doing their own thing. There is a sort of emotional urgency that runs throughout. I appreciate that. I especially appreciate that in the women who emerge in the text, especially in the books written by women, women like George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte. Women who were, to be clear, very problematic in a lot of ways but who were very frustrated with their milieu and who were responding to it in certain ways, ways that we would understand. In the book, it seems that the things you love about this era and the things that really frustrate you are often very close together. I'm thinking of the chapter you have on Lucy Maud Montgomery, where you talk about how you didn't like Anne of Green Gables at first but you were very into Emily of New Moon. You wonder if Emily would have even liked Anne. I wonder how you felt about how so many of these women who are too much in their own ways, how they would interact with each other? There are a couple of shows right now where I think a bunch of characters from different nineteenth century novels are sort of thrown together. There's Penny Dreadful, which I haven't watched because I can be kind of a weenie about violence and I heard it's gory, and then there's one I heard about that's based in Dickens, but I love the idea of putting all these different women together. A lot of them would probably hate each other. If you put Cathy Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights in a room with Jane Eyre, she'd probably punch Jane in the face. If she even gave her that much time. They would probably spar for a while, and then Catherine would get a little violent. I think that it's really important to think about what sorts of characteristics or dispositions we regard as excessive, it's important to think about the sort of language that we use, and what causes us to regard certain people, certain practices, certain behaviours in this way, and to think about excessiveness as negative. The fact is, being excessive isn't necessarily positive. It can be true that a character like Catherine Earnshaw might be struggling under very patriarchal strictures. It can also be true that she's an asshole. She's not an especially kind or compassionate person, and she doesn't really think about other people. That's the most mild critique of her. She's a very compelling character, but I don't think anyone would make the mistake of calling her nice. I think when you've got all of these strong personalities, it's not the case that they would mesh. It might be, because of who these people are and what they're willing to give of themselves, or it could be because it is very, very easy to internalize misogyny. If you're feeling anxious or you feel some solicitousness about aspects of yourself that you think maybe are off-putting, I know that this is something that I've fallen into where I might be inclined to critique that in somebody else and probably I'm doing that because it's something that I'm anxious about. You talk about these Victorian constraints with fictional characters and real women in tandem with each other. How do these constraints apply themselves differently in reality? Whenever we're talking about real people, stakes are inevitably going to be different. I can appreciate characters in Victorian novels who might be kind of jerks. Maybe take the good with the bad. But I'm not going to give myself that sort of pass, just because I always want to do better. I think when we're actually having a talk about real women and real women thinking about the way that we navigate our excesses or what we are told are excesses and how we navigate that conversation, we can absolutely talk about this with literature too, but I think it's just more urgent that we have to think about the ethics of it, too. I want for us to be able to extend more empathy towards each other, and I think that's definitely a guiding motivation for me in writing the book. I also think it's facile to say that being excessive is good, or “do whatever you want, you can't say anything to me because you're just stigmatizing me.” It's much more nuanced than that. I think we have to think about, okay, what do we need to unlearn, what has made it difficult for us to live in the world, what sort of stigmas and ideologies have really shored up our subjugation, and the subjugation of people much more marginalized. Then there's also the question of, where's the boundary between that, and also thinking about how we have to navigate the world with other people. How do we honour ourselves and try to untangle ourselves from a whole lot of really nasty patriarchal and capitalist bullshit, for lack of a better term. How do we do that while holding ourselves accountable? Remembering that everybody is going to be living in the world in their own way. It's important to bear that in mind and remember that too, always. We can't think about ourselves as if we're inside of a vacuum. We're part of a web. I can't quote it directly, although maybe that makes me less of a nerd, but I really love the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. There's a really wonderful line or two, it comes in the section that's narrated by Briony, but the basic premise is everyone in the world is as real as you are. The thrust of that being that everybody's inner life, we're all walking around with all of these loud voices and all these competing emotions, and it can be very easy to forget that everybody is doing that too. Of course, there's the fact that it can be comforting and humbling, in its way, to remember that and to remember that other people are definitely not thinking about you, but also that most people are just grappling with themselves and trying to get through the day as best they can. I've always loved the way that that novel demands a sort of recognition of the fact that everyone has a really, really vivid interiority. If I were to try to suss out a moral code, that would be part of mine. You identify as a woman who is Too Much, and you relate to a lot of Victorian heroines that way. Do you think it's possible for a woman to not be considered too much based on how you lay it out in the book? First of all, it's very easy for me to find heroines to identify with, especially Victorian heroines. They're all white and cisgender, and so am I. I had a lot of access growing up. There is privilege in the amount of resonance I found in literature. I think that the notion of one being excessive, I think it is lobbed at a lot of people who aren't performing normativity in a way that social norms insist that we do. That said, I think that some people are capable of performing normativity according to hegemonic ideals. Some are more capable of doing that than others. Sometimes maybe it comes down to disposition. I think oftentimes it does come down to privilege. That's where I have to check myself, because yes, I absolutely felt very often in my life as if I'm spilling all over the place. I'm very emotional, and I have to navigate some mental illness and that can feel unwieldy, and there's this and that, but I nonetheless have a lot of privilege. There's a lot about me that in fact would not be considered too much. That would not be considered fundamentally excessive. I'm able bodied, I'm white, again I'm cisgender, I'm queer but I'm married to a man, so I have privilege there. I think this is such a good question because it really emphasizes the extent to which, and I don't know if this is maybe the way you intended it, but it does emphasize the extent to which— [silence]  Are you there? Are you still there? I don't know why my chin keeps doing that. I keep accidentally hitting mute. My chin is going all over the place. You cut out about a minute ago. Let me try to back track. What I was saying is, I think what is making me contend with and remember that however difficult it may be for me—or how difficult it may feel for me—to live in the world, to contend with the different sorts of expectations that still seem to prevail in terms of femininity, it is very much the case that it is going to be so much more difficult for so many other people. In America, people are just wholesale treated almost as excessive or extraneous if say, they need government support. If they're women of colour who need food stamps. That, according to the monsters running our government, well, that's too much. It's a continuum. That continuum is absolutely inextricable from white privilege and privileges of gender and orientation. That's been a really critical thing for me to keep in mind. I don't ever want to get drunk on the sense of my own subjugation. There are really pernicious trends and ideologies that I see as enduring, and it's distressing that there are so many continuities from the nineteenth century, but my book would be written a very different way by someone who was living a very different life from me.
Leaving the House

Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. 

We were supposed to leave the house at 3 p.m. to walk to the mall but Catherine was slouched on a desk chair, totally absorbed with her phone. Not even a trip to the mall could get her attention. Her father, my friend, Moon, put on his tough-father voice, but she could tell that he was just putting on his tough-father voice so he was soundly ignored. I was watching the whole scene play out. I felt like I was behind a two-way mirror, observing a live demo of parenting. Daughter vs. Father: An Epic Battle to Leave the House. Moon got behind her and rolled the chair toward the door. She resisted by making herself heavy. Then he went away for a while. Moon and Catherine were vacationing with me for a week. Catherine’s mother couldn’t synch up her vacation time so she was back in Korea, working. When Moon returned to the room he was pinching Catherine’s shoes between his fingers. I thought he was going to issue another order. Instead he crouched down in front of Catherine. He held her foot between his knees, opened the flap of the shoe, put her feet in, adjusted the tongue, tightened the laces. Then he did the same with the other foot. I’ve seen my brother kneel and pull on his daughter’s sneakers as she held on to his shoulder for balance. She was a toddler at the time. Catherine is almost a teenager, the age of the ideal TaylorSwiftDuaLipaBTS fan. Yet here was my friend—a forty-five-year-old man, a man with whom I’ve been friends since our twenties, pre-marriage, pre-children—genuflecting before a girl on her phone. Whither went the person I knew who played videogames and drank until his neck went red? From whence did this other self emerge? Wherefore was this new man so tender? * When Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a helicopter crash, #girldad trended on Twitter. An effusion of tweets, images, and video poured out of fathers and daughters. It was an atypically bright moment on Twitter. Fathers cradled newborns, fistpumped during birth-announcement parties (which is a thing, apparently). Some posted images of ultrasounds. I didn’t mention that Catherine is my goddaughter. In fact, Moon let me name her Catherine. I have a niece and a nephew and other godchildren but no children of my own so hashtags like girldad make me weirdly moody. I feel like I’m living in the unit below a happy family. Sometimes when I hear the happy-family footsteps above me, I turn up the volume of my TV to drown them out. And other times I stop whatever I’m doing and let the little echo of their life reach me.  A daughter wobbles her bike down the street while her father holds the camera. #girldad A father takes a selfie while teaching his nervous daughter to drive. #girldad A father and a daughter tan side by side in the backyard. #girldad A daughter paints her father’s nails. #girldad A father with a goatee and eyeshadow poses fiercely next to his daughter. #girldad A daughter and a father hold the arms of her trophy. #girldad * Catherine might have giggled at the initial sensation of her father putting on her shoes but almost immediately she was oblivious again, lost in her phone. I’m not sure how much thought Catherine has given to her father’s life, whether she asks about the semiconductors at work or the quality of his hotel in Tel Aviv. Does she want to know what he was listening to in summer 2007? That was the summer his company sent him to Boston. I’d crash at his hotel during the week and he’d spend the weekends at my condo. During the long evenings, we drove around New England with our windows down, listening to the radio and looking for promising lakes to go fishing. Two songs were in heavy rotation: Gnarls Barkley’s pulsing hit “Crazy” and John Mayer’s pouty hit “Daughters.” Catherine was under six months old at the time. Yet her father and I were in my Honda, already singing about the moment when he would kneel before her and put on her glass sneaker: Fathers be good to your daughters. * When strangers ask about my book, I sometimes joke: It’s called Reproduction; I literally wrote the book on reproduction. No one has quipped back, Bit premature, no? Given your childlessness. Truth is, whether we have them or not, men of child-siring age think a lot about children. The desire for children is not solely the domain of women. A daughter benchpresses while her father spots her. #girldad A daughter on a boat holds up her catch by the mouth. #girldad A father embraces his daughter in her retro prom dress. #girldad A daughter feeds her father from her bottle. #girldad * Another time we were trying to leave the house while Catherine was deep into a graphic novel on the couch. Let’s go, Moon said. She made a sound without opening her mouth. She stretched out in the body-forgetful way of almost teenagers, totally passed out into the plot. Catherine! She sat up, turned a page, and flopped over in the other direction. She was in reading bliss, so near the end of her book. This time I intervened. Just let her finish, I said. I sat next to her and started reading my own book. She always does this, Moon said. But he was secretly pleased to see such a strong resemblance between his daughter and her godfather. I’m not sure how long we were like this, Catherine and me, reading on the couch together. Moon must have taken out the trash. I lost track of him until I heard the front door open and his coat rustling in the foyer. Still? he said. Two more minutes, I said. Catherine finished reading her book just as I finished reading an essay. We happened to sigh at the same time. Her father looked up from his phone when he heard us. How was it? I asked her. She nodded big loopy nods. So good, she said. Then Moon held open her coat and she sprung up and pushed her arms into the sleeves as if stepping into herself and we went wherever we were going. * A father and his two daughters bounce into the living room to perform a cheer routine. #girldad A husky father practises an upbeat dance routine alongside his limber daughter. #girldad The same father attempts to plié at a portable barre beside his daughter. #girldad I have a photo—but I did not post it—of a father putting on his daughter’s shoes. #girldad. * A few weeks later, when they were back in Korea, spending a lot of enforced social-distancing family time together, Moon sent me a photo of Catherine, unsmiling, with her hair braided into a dozen long plaits, holding up a gang sign, and looking very goth and gangsta. She had now officially stepped into her teen years and overnight had reinvented herself from a saccharine K-pop star to Billie Eilish. Who braided her hair? Probably Catherine herself or Catherine’s mom. Maybe a friend. But I’d like to imagine Moon doing it. It’s possible. I’ve seen my brother braid his daughter’s hair. She sat between his knees with a toy while he worked through her hair with a comb and some detangler. Sometimes I think I can identify men who have daughters. There’s usually a little dimple of evidence that marks them whatever the context. Such men listen carefully to younger female colleagues; they wiggle during a pop song; they touch the leaves of a plant; they wear their birthday gift even if it doesn’t match their style; they back away from chit chat with obnoxious men; they might not be able to tie elaborate knots but they can recognize a French braid. These men were not Neanderthals before fatherhood, but I reckon they weren’t always so mindful. So while I can’t credit fatherhood for socializing or civilizing them, it does seem to have refined them. Now that Catherine is officially thirteen, Moon’s worry seems to be, Is she going to leave the house like that? And, in a few years, inevitably, it will be: Is she going to leave the house? At some point, daughters drive down the street, car loaded up, while their fathers stand in the driveway waving, becoming smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror when they look back, if they look back at all. * At the security checkpoint in an airport, as her parents were returning to India, my friend tucked her sari between her legs, bent, and touched the feet of her parents. She didn’t explain to me what she was doing. Wikipedia says the gesture is called charanasparsha. I myself, as a grown man, have knelt before my mother to buckle the tiny ankle strap of her suede heels. I remember the prong had to go into the fourth punch hole for both tightness and comfort. Wikipedia calls the gesture I’m-zipped-into-this-dress-and-I-don’t-want-to-put-my-glasses-on. In a few decades, when Moon is absorbed in reading Semiconductors Digest and Catherine calls him from the front door to go to his doctor’s appointment, will she walk to his recliner with his shoes in her hand?
‘A Conversation That Happens Across Space and Time’: An Interview with Kawai Strong Washburn

The author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors on mythmaking, magical realism, and the hero complex. 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors (McClelland & Stewart), the debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn, was the first book I’ve read. At least, that’s what it felt like. After two months in lockdown, unable to focus on little beyond refreshing the news, I began his book—first out of obligation (I had to read it for work, after all), which quickly turned into deep engrossment. Sharks is a surreal family drama that functions as its own best argument for the necessity of art. At the centre are the Floreses, a family of five that weave their own narratives within the larger mythologies of their native Hawai'i. The novel opens in 1995 Honaka’a when Nainoa, the youngest Flores son, falls off the side of a cruise ship, only to be rescued and returned to his mother by a passing school of sharks. This moment throws the family into a media spotlight, rescuing them temporarily from their financial troubles, and marking Nainoa as special, touched by the gods. He carries this burden of specialness with him as he enters adulthood. Washburn alternates narrators between chapters, letting Nainoa’s story unfold alongside his siblings: the brilliant Kaui, who despite her exceptional test scores still feels like she’s lacking as she follows in her brother’s shadow, and Dean, a talented basketball player who hopes his own burgeoning college athletic career will be the thing that ultimately pulls his family up through class stratification. The siblings leave Hawai’i to make their way on the mainland, trying to become the people they feel they’re supposed to be while never truly able to leave their homeland behind. Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island of Hawai'i. We had plans to speak in person, before his tour, like almost all events, had to be cancelled. Instead, I reached him by phone earlier this spring in Minneapolis where he lives with his family. Anna Fitzpatrick: It's a weird time to be launching a book, especially one that deals with illness and community and social inequality so head-on. What has that been like? Kawai Strong Washburn: I think for me more than anything it keeps what really matters in perspective. On one hand I appreciate people who have still been engaging with art and have seen that as a way to have some relief and release and to enjoy the sort of things that remind us of what makes life great. Art can be this lovely experience. Even though we're in the middle of an incredibly challenging time, that doesn't mean that art is completely irrelevant. It's nice to have people reading the book and enjoying art for art's sake.   On the other hand, it's nice to be reminded that there are things, which I try to keep in perspective anyway, that the world has a lot of incredibly important challenges in front of it, and those things can render what feels like a normal daily life obsolete in a moment. It's tough to have a book come out at a time when people are scared and anxious and threatened in terms of their health and everyone's locked down, so talking about a book feels kind of strange and beside the point, but for me it's like, that's okay. The world has bigger problems right now. So, to the extent that this book coming out is overshadowed or bypassed because of this pandemic or what it's doing to this world, not only is it beyond my control but I totally understand why that would be the case. I keep both those things in mind at the same time.  The people I've been talking to have either been doubling down and reading as an escape, or they just cannot focus at all on anything. What has your relationship to art been like? I think the thing that has been really stretched for my wife and I is that we have two children that are really young. Our older daughter is six and our younger daughter is two. We're both fortunate enough that we still have our jobs and we can work remotely, so as a result we're both still working mostly full-time, but we're also having to take care of our two children at home and trying to keep our schooling going for our six-year-old and trying to find ways to engage and nourish our two-year-old. Trying to balance all those roles leaves very little personal time to do things like read. I still find time and space to do that, even if it's as simple as a poem a day or things like that. I'm trying to get some nice time to enjoy poetry, or when I do have a spare little bit of time in the evening, I really enjoy it for that brief period of time. I don't think it's affected my ability to focus on reading, I just have less time to do it than I'd like. You would have been travelling right now if this wasn't going on, right? I think I would actually be in Sydney right now. I was going to be part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It's hard to remember. I've sort of jettisoned that whole alternative future. It's been ejected from my mind. I would have been in either Australia or Hawai'i right now for about the next week or so.   As someone who writes about books, I always have that instinct to put them in a category, even with the knowledge that genre and labels can only go so far. Your book has been dubbed magical realism. How do you feel about that? I love books that are labelled as magical realism, and I think in general I'm cautious about labels that are applied to books. I take those as a general, as someone that tends to categorize a book that may or may not be easily categorized. I don't really mind the book being put into any category of this or that, unless it would be in some way insulting, and I don't think that's the case with magical realism. The novel does what magical realist books often do, which is it takes events that could be otherwise considered fantastical or "magical" and tries to have those things be rendered in a world that feels like an otherwise "real" world. The world itself seems like it applies the normal rules of physics, and it's a place that we all recognize as being the current times, and, yes, there are these magical or supernatural or unexplainable events that are occurring in that space. I think that at some level the book is trying to do that. I'm trying to write the portions that have to do with supernatural or magical elements [in a way that] that leaves a little bit of interpretation there for the reader, I'm hoping. You can see these things happening, and the question becomes, is this a supernatural event, is it somebody having a hallucination, are they interpreting things in a very specific way? Since this is through a rotating first-person perspective, and each person has their own interpretation of events that are happening to them, it gives the reader some room to interpret those things however they wish. Including that, as well as using language that renders those moments not as fantastically as they might otherwise have been, hopefully preserves that fun play between something that is maybe real and not real. During the passages that have such ambiguities, do you have your own master narrative in mind? I certainly have my own interpretation of what I think of the story, but I think leaving that room... once a piece of art leaves your hands as an artist, then there's no way you can control the interpretation that other people will have. Art in general, it's a conversation that happens across space and time. Like any conversation, all the parties involved are participants and the extent to which they do or don't engage with each other, it colours the way in which they have that conversation. Knowing that once the book goes out into the world, people are going to have their own interpretations of it that I may or may not agree with, that's just how art works. I wanted to write this book knowing that that would be the case, and I have my own interpretation of it, but I could write it in a way that doesn't force the reader to come to some specific conclusion because I want them to have that conclusion, then it makes the reading experience hopefully that much richer for readers that are engaged with it. So yeah, I have my interpretations of what's there, and I certainly have my belief of what the story describes, but other people might have different things. It's up to the reader. I don't know what they see at the end of the book, and what they think has happened or hasn't happened, but that's no more or less correct necessarily than my interpretation.  You're writing a book that fits into a larger tradition of storytelling and mythology. I was reading about Hawai'ian mythology and how it pertains to sharks—something I knew nothing about going into your book—and I was wondering how large these stories loomed in your mind, both growing up and while you were writing the novel. Large in both cases. One of the things that I loved growing up in the islands, and one of the things that I think makes the culture of Hawai'i so rich and powerful, is the number of legends and myths that deify the natural world in a way that both upholds the interconnectedness of all things, of humans and the natural world, as well as rendering those things with the sort of awe and power they deserve. Growing up in the islands, yeah, there were legends all around and just interpretations of ongoing natural events through the lens of mythology and legend. When there's volcanic activity, people talking about that activity as a manifestation of Pele, who's the goddess of fire and volcano, that's the islands. Growing up there, that was the way I experienced the islands. Having that mythology as part of the daily life. And part of a larger confluence of different traditions, because the islands are full of immigrants from different countries and different ethnic backgrounds. The traditions and mythologies of those ethnic groups and those immigrants are mixed in with the myths and traditions of the islands, and that makes for an incredibly rich and powerful and just wonderful experience as a child. Just exchanging ghost stories with your friends, and getting exposure to all these different cultural traditions. When I was writing, that was one of the centre-pieces of the work, trying to bring that feeling to life. To express that, but also to use it as a vehicle to talk about what I had experienced in the United States in terms of the larger cultural... you could call it a disconnect, or friction. It's also one that has to do with the value of the greater United States in terms of how the natural world is often perceived, and how you can have a capitalist American perspective on the natural world as an expendable resource. Growing up in a place like the islands, I never felt my relationship with the natural world was defined on those terms. It was defined very definitely. That's one of the themes of the novel. As an expression, of the facet of the disconnect between people from other traditions and the central American myths and traditions that exist. That was how I wanted to take the things I experienced as a child and express them in this book as part of those larger thematic elements.   That theme comes through with the three children characters in the novel, and their struggle to feel connected to their roles within the natural world and the mythologies they inherit, while also trying to forge these individual identities on the mainland. Speaking to that, what does it mean to be a saviour? In my view, and I think it comes through in the book as well, that is an incomplete idea. It speaks to individualism often, and for most people the concept of a saviour is something that speaks to a certain amount of individualism and exceptional individualism, in that there is one person whose abilities and fortune and characteristics of that specific individual are so much greater than anyone else, or even the collective. That is going to be the person to make an important or significant change in the world. When you look at some of the most significant changes that have happened, even just within the United States let alone the world, it's really more often the result of communities and people reaching out to each other and forging strong bonds. Having built those communities and making the expression of those communities lead to change, that's really where you see a lot of the most significant change happening in the world. And yet after the fact, people will often prescribe the change as having occurred as the result of a single individual. There's always this narrative that emerges when there's a change happening in the world, to try and simplify it. When you can simplify it by attaching the larger narrative to one specific individual, that obscures the larger collective work happening in the background. The idea of a saviour in my mind is that sort of incomplete story, where you try and take what's typically something that's of a larger collective experience, and try to ascribe it to a specific individual. This is such a different context, but I was thinking about it while reading your book. So many of these frontline workers, healthcare workers, service workers, there's this rhetoric that they're heroes. We're calling them saviours to absolve the collective responsibility of, no, we have to take care of our people. Not just call them heroes, but give them support and protection to do their jobs safely instead of being like, "Alright, bye, go save us." Exactly. I think that's one of the biggest challenges, in my opinion, with an economic or socioeconomic system like capitalism: the way in which it obfuscates things. You eat food that you get from a grocery store or restaurant, and there's so much that's hidden in terms of all the different people that have contributed to that food arriving on your plate. It's the same thing with clothing, with all the goods and things that are part of the material comfort of a late modern capitalist society, so much of that is hidden. You don't see the socioeconomic or environmental cost. You just have this final product that all of the stuff along the way, people and animals and natural resources, have been exploited for that thing to arrive at your doorstep. All those things are hidden. I think something like the COVID-19 Pandemic, it does what you're describing. It exposes the underlying interconnected nature of everybody's lives. The vast majority of people are living their lives in connection with other people whether they want to recognize that or not. Something like this exposes this very quickly, where there are things being provided to me at other people's risk and expense, and I cannot ignore that now. That comes back to the same idea of saviours, just the individualist narrative more generally, which is one of the things this book is looking at. The narrative of the family carries for a portion of the novel has a lot to do with trying to figure out whether this individual narrative, the story of our family, is it really all about just this one miraculous individual, or is it something larger than that? It really interrogates how isolating it can feel to be seen as a saviour. It's most clear with Nainoa, but also with Dean in the last act, trying to provide for his family in his own isolated way.   Nainoa as a character was a struggle because I wanted the characters to all be complex, to have their faults and failures, and not to have any character be entirely good or entirely bad but to make characters that were complex. Have the same sort of internal contradictions that we all have. In the case of Nainoa, the thing that was a struggle was trying to find a way to have him have some level of privilege and arrogance. He receives this level of attention and prestige as a very young child. More often than not, at that age when you receive that level of attention and prestige, it's really hard not to come away with some level of arrogance, or feel like you're deserving of the things you're receiving in cases where you're not quite as great as everybody is saying you are. Trying to render him with some level of arrogance but also trying to recognize the burden that comes along with that, the same as it would be for any young person that's placed in a position of elevated attention and prestige, to balance those two things. In earlier drafts, a few people had read it and were like, "I kind of don't like him." I think that was because I biased a little bit too much towards arrogance and privilege. I tried to find a way to balance that, bring out a little bit of a balance as well. Anybody who's in a situation where they're part of a family in which economic hardship is central, when you have a family that's struggling, and you have something that can potentially provide economically, that's an incredible burden to have. To be somebody that other people are depending on and have an expectation to deliver something better than what you have currently. That's a burden. I think anybody who comes from families where that's the case, where they're somebody that's achieved above and beyond the family's current station in life, and the expectation that will help carry the family farther, that's hard.   That burden of potential is something all the kids experience to an extent; being told you're destined for greatness, either academic or athletic or being a saviour with healing powers.   There's a narrative the children have of themselves. I think the novel also examines the idea of a self-narrative versus an external narrative, and how those two things can be conflicting as well, and how you can have an idea of who you are and the story you tell yourself about who you are, and it can be very different than the story that other people are telling. Other people can be trying to define you a certain way. There can be resentment, and conflict, and delusion in all of those things. The novel tries to look at the ways in which each of the children in particular, the siblings, are struggling to define themselves on their own terms, but those terms are also in reaction to that initial miraculous event that set things in motion. I think anybody who's been in a family, who's just part of a family dynamic, right, everybody has an idea of who they are and the story they tell themselves within the context of the family, and it's usually a different story than what all the families have about you or have about each other. That was one of the things that was part of the story as well. I'm really interested in the way you used dialect, especially the Pidgin that Dean speaks. I think there are so many misconceptions about slang that doesn't follow dominant grammar rules, that there is no grammar to them, but you really captured the consistency of that language. Is that something you researched? Certainly, growing up, that was the default language where I was from. I grew up in a rural part of Hawai'i, that's what everybody was speaking. Everyone was swinging some different level of Pidgin. You can have it dialed up or dialed down, you can have people operating at different levels. It can get thicker depending on who's talking to who and in what situation and things like that, which is lovely and wonderful. I love that about language, the way Pidgin is an adapted form of English that also incorporates slang and language from a variety of different countries, cultures, ethnicities, in the sense that you can have like, Japanese words or Filipino words or Portuguese words, that are part of Pidgin along with words from Olelo Hawai'i, the native language of Hawai'i. You can have all those things mixed together, along with all these interesting grammatical constructions. I wanted to represent that in the novel, but also one of the things that might be controversial, that some people might think is a failure on my part or a blind spot is the fact that, the way that it's rendered on the page breaks with how you might traditionally render it. If you look at a lot of literature from the islands that is written with Pidgin, it will have very different spelling and punctuation than what I have with my rendering of it in this novel. That was intentional on my part, because as a reader, I read visually in a way that if there's too much punctuation and the words are spelled too phonically, it can really trip me up. If you take a bunch of words that I'm used to reading one way and the spelling is completely different, and there's punctuation, and the grammar has been constructed in a different way, it can be hard to settle into it and read through it. I think it's something about the way my eyes process the marks on the page. So, when I wrote this, I was writing this with myself as a reader primarily, because I didn't have a bunch of people I was working with on the book or that were reading along with me. When I wrote it, I was taking that into account. I wanted to take the language and render it as truthfully as possible in terms of the rhythm and the sound, while also not over punctuating or chopping up the spellings in a way that made it really hard for me, visually, to read it. I think there are probably some people who think that that is not an accurate depiction of language, which I can understand, but my work on that was very thoughtful and came from a place to incorporate my preferences as a reader along with the idea of the fluidity of the language. I also think you can have a variety of ways of rendering Pidgin on the page, and none of those is correct or incorrect. They're just different renderings. It's one of the things that makes it such a wonderful language. I can understand a protectiveness people may have, especially in what gets depicted and what gets left out in dominant narratives about Hawai'i. To me it speaks to the need for having more stories, more narratives, more voices coming out. I think it also behooves the readers who are interacting with the art to recognize that it's impossible to pin the universal on any specific story. You can't take the representation of a place or a people as something that can be universally depicted. It's impossible. I think the thing that happens, with underrepresented stories or places, people are like, "Oh, this must be speaking to the entire truth of this place, or this community, or this people." It's no more the case for something from Hawai'i than it is the case for something from Australia or Nigeria or like, Montana. There are just a plethora of stories and experiences that people from those places have had, with a diversity of experiences and opinions as a result. The life that somebody has growing up in Honokaʻa is going to be different than the life somebody has growing up in Kalihi or Nānākuli or Honolulu or Wailuku. These are all different cities and towns in Hawai'i, by the way. The idea that this story which is set in Honokaʻa and other parts of the islands is somehow going to be universally representative of Hawai'i, it's impossible. As people recognize more and more stories need to be told from different places and perspectives that are underrepresented, we also need to realize those stories themselves can never be the perfect representation. They are just a singular, subjective representation.