Hazlitt Magazine

City of the Mute

To visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.

'The Way One Sees Oneself is Shifting Every Day': An Interview with Natasha Stagg

The author of Sleeveless on 2010s New York, jealousy, and being out of touch. 

The Junket

I am now one of a small number of people to have actually seen The Four in the flesh. Well, not quite the flesh.

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‘A Wild and Contrary Act of Acceptance’: An Interview with Mary H.K. Choi

The author of Permanent Record on families of origin, emotional expense, and bodega cats. 

In her collection of essays Oh, Never Mind, Mary H.K. Choi summed up 2014 in three crucial lines: “The Internet has turned us all into pure energy. Doesn’t it feel rad? Send help.” Choi would know because she covers the internet (and more) on the internet (and in print) for publications like Wired, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Atlantic, and The Fader. In 2016, she embedded herself in a group of teens for Wired and probed them on their online behaviour. It’s what ultimately led her to write her debut novel, Emergency Contact, where the internet cultivates a safe space for a burgeoning relationship. Barista Sam is insecure about his own poverty while college freshman Penny is simply awkward. “It’s the intimacy that comes from when you are unencumbered by your mouth-breathing meatsuit of awkwardness,” explains Choi. “The fact that they can just give each other their best, which is just asking good questions and receiving each other and holding space for what the other person is saying and processing it—that is such an act of service and selflessness and I think that is a beautiful aspect of the intimacy we can find in certain digital spaces.” In 2019’s Permanent Record (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), social media is less of a conversational buffer and more of a self-harm tool. College dropout Pablo Neruda Rind gets swept up in pop star Leanna Smart’s life so he can avoid his own debt and stasis. It’s a role reversal with a twist: a realistic Notting Hill with younger people who Choi says “eventually go back to their corners and finish cooking.”   I sat down with Choi in a hotel lobby that featured a Beauty and the Beast library, but with vases instead of books. We sat there, contemplating the objets d’art, New York and the gritty in-betweens of success.  Sara Black McCulloch: In Emergency Contact and Permanent Record, you focus on the families that we’re born into and the ones we get to choose. In a lot of ways, your characters are coming to terms with their parents being human but also the fact that their parents can’t always give them what they need as adults. You don’t see that particular approach to family dynamics often, especially in YA. Is this something you’re seeing in your own life? Mary H.K. Choi: I think there are a couple of things. As the child of immigrants, there’s always a schism in terms of what you’re experiencing and what they have experienced. In my own life, we immigrated to Hong Kong when I was eleven months old. My parents were in their very early thirties, and there was this trapped-in-amber aspect to their childhood. When they left their mother country, they had this set reality that travelled with them and it didn’t age or evolve. Korea went from having the GDP of a small nation to now becoming a global power, and so there are a lot of things that have iteratively changed and become a lot more contemporary that my parents simply missed out on. Other than the fact that they have KaKaoTalk—the one texting app that all Koreans love—and the fact that now they can stream TV from Korea, they still have a lot of social mores that I think are trapped in amber and really speak to a bygone era. And so there’s been a lot of struggle with me living in a different civilization and growing up and them being trapped in this one thing. That particular gap can widen over the years. Prior to getting older, it was about me having to rebel and feeling as though the way that I wanted to be was something that they could never possibly understand. It was really important to me, with Emergency Contact, that Penny’s mom Celeste wasn’t what you would typically see as the matriarchal figure in a lot of Asian pop culture, which is the tiger moms with all these expectations. So I really wanted to start off with a relationship that was a lot more like Lorelai and Rory Gilmore or, if not, then Edina and Saffy Monsoon, where it’s a role reversal, where the kid is always worried about the mother’s welfare instead of the other way around. It was also very important for me that Celeste be somewhat assimilated into American culture and so it wasn’t the cultural gap so much as it was just expectations, which is something that anyone can relate to. With Pablo and his mother, I wanted to peel back the layers of what those expectations felt like—I mean that filial piety, fidelity and that first-born son expectation—and then just keep going with it. What we find in the second book is that a lot of those expectations come from fear. It’s a fear that is not only specific to East Asian or South Asian parents: you could ask any Haitian, Nigerian, Taiwanese, British parents—anyone! People want their kids to be successful and a lot of that lingua franca, that irrefutable co-sign, comes from name brand schools, vocations that pay very well and are universally respected. Is there a risk of being too prescriptive, though? As a person who is a little bit older writing for young people, I don’t want to be prescriptive in what I’m saying, but I do want to just allow for certain things to be the way they are without imbuing them with morality. For me, in my more recent years, it’s been about receiving my parents where they’re at and understanding that as grateful as we can be to our family of origin, it’s simply a repeated, cyclical trap of resentment to keep going to your family of origin for things that they don’t have. I’m in recovery and 12-step for different kinds of addiction and an eating disorder and there is this saying in meetings: “Don’t go to the hardware store for orange juice.” At a certain point, you know what your family of origin has a capacity for and to expect them to miraculously be different because you want them to be is just a recipe for prolonged and sustained heartbreak and suffering. The only thing you can actually exert control over is your framing around that, and changing your own expectations. And that’s okay. It’s not rejection and it doesn’t have to be. It’s this wild and contrary act of acceptance. I think that’s the only point that growth, mutual appreciation and understanding of each other’s humanity can actually come from.  It’s hard being a parent, too. Everyone has intergenerational trauma. It’s not something that’s wholly new to us as a generation just because we have all these social media outlets where we can complain or even have the language for it. My mother knew famine as a child during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It’s a very real thing: that fear comes from personal experience and actual testimony. I can’t fault her for that. If anything, it’s an invitation for me to experience compassion and to know that there’s so much about my parents that I won’t ever know. It goes both ways and I think that there’s so much reparenting that has to happen on both sides. Has that approach to compassion altered the way you now engage with other people? Totally. We’re all so broken! And it’s really beautiful. Anytime anyone has been particularly vindictive or contemptuous towards me, I recognize that what I’m witnessing is a tantrum and sure, the shrapnel is getting on me, but what I’m witnessing is someone else’s pain and that doesn’t mean I have to stick around for it or experience a co-dependency with their happiness, but it is not something I can then use as artillery either. It’s not something I even have to hold onto! It’s been a really beautiful reminder that whatever interaction I’m having with someone else, their rendition of it isn’t something I’m going to wholly understand and I have to be okay with that. Do you find that with career prospects, too? Or even with writing, which is not an easy thing to do. Oh my god, it’s so hard. Now that I’m a quote-unquote author (or scare quotes, rather), I talk to so many other writers and we’re constantly so shell-shocked that we’ve signed onto this vocation where we have homework for the rest of our lives. And there’s nothing more existentially harrowing than having to produce on a daily basis. Also, fiction is wild: So let me get this straight, you’re just sitting there, making shit up? What is that about? It’s so subjective and human—this compulsion to create art.  There’s also another facet—selling yourself as a writer—that’s weird, too. I’m thinking of that piece that was published recently, about the journalist being an influencer. How do you mitigate that role and the expectations that come with it? I think about this a lot because when I’m trying to straddle those two perspectives, I get in a lot of trouble. There is nothing more stultifying, in terms of being able to create, than that. Nothing hogties me more than writing while I’m editing while reading while receiving while thinking about the audience. I liken it very inelegantly to the fact that you just can’t poop and eat at the same time. Anytime I sit in my own audience and anytime I’m worried about how someone will receive this based on the merit of my previous work, that is when I cannot write anything with value. I can’t write and aim at the same time. If you’re aiming, you’re aiming for a lot of different targets—for any made-up version of a reviewer or an audience member that you’re imagining. I can’t think of anything more scattershot! I can only write for me, and I know that people say that so much and it sounds like such a stereotypical bromide but I can only move in one direction and so I may as well move in the direction that feels clear to me. Otherwise that’s a guessing game! It’s hard enough to listen to my own intuition versus sitting here, making up what I think other people’s expectations will be. There’s also this idea (or ideal) of objectivity in journalism, which often extends into writing. I think it’s a lofty goal, but it’s ultimately impossible. Is it that people just don’t want to acknowledge their own biases?  It’s so impossible! We should also surrender that completely. It’s so interesting because New Journalism, the long tail of it, went from writing in the first person, to interjecting your point of view, doing write-arounds and talking about people contextually and not just what they’re saying and wearing or—god forbid you only have forty minutes for a cover story—what they’re eating. It’s always going to be distorted by you having been there. And I think that if everybody just accepts that, it’s a good baseline. And then other people, having enough integrity, can just not make facts up. That would be great in this day and age! The thing about biases is that largely we don’t know that we have them and that’s not good or bad, it just is what it is. I think it’s compounded with this notion, too, of how we presume social media is straight from the horse’s mouth. I think that can be really confusing because everything is a performance and so everyone, on any day, for every mood and filter should be taken with a grain of salt. In Permanent Record, Pablo really gets caught in the “best life” aspects of Instagram. Yet, he completely overlooks the fact that he has this incredible lifeline: the people who are looking out for him. I mean, both his friends and his parents align in their observations about him. It’s funny because if you were to ask your best friend, “Do I isolate? Am I selfish? Am I grandiose?” Your friend would tell you, “Oh yeah, 100%.” But you have to ask them point blank. It takes a lot for those people to say that to you because it’s so obvious to them that it never occurs to them to tell you that you are these things. Anytime I feel hysterical about someone saying something to me—like if I get that jolt of contempt and I’m filled with moral outrage and righteous indignation—generally, I find that that stuff is accurate. We’re not a cipher! The people who know us, know us. That’s the you. It’s the difference between your recorded voice and the voice you hear. No one thinks their recorded voice sounds better! Like, you think you’re out here shining, and your friends are like “No, you’re doing this weird thing, a weird squirrely dance that you’re trying to hide.”  What was it like analyzing male friendships from that perspective? When I was in edits for this it was during #MeToo and Cosby and all I wanted was to write a tender, sweet and true-hearted boy. I wanted to write emo, loving demonstrative friends because that’s what I’ve actually seen in New York by dint of all of us being squished together with very finite resources. My male friends have the most beautiful, supportive and edifying conversations with each other. They really hold each other up and it’s fucking beautiful. I thought that was a particular dynamic that just didn’t get enough attention at all. I also think that in New York, you need to be surrounded by a group of people who will support you because you will need them. I’m a writer in New York. I have needed my friends. I have sometimes needed them financially. My colleagues, my friends, my cronies have supported me during very lean times. I survived 2008 and 2009 in media in New York. I will always be grateful to them for that because it takes a village and if I shine, then you shine. You take turns supporting each other. You take turns reparenting each other. And that’s just part of it. And being happy for someone in the way that you would sometimes hope your parents would be but can’t and so you have people celebrating you with deep, deep love and understanding of what it took to accomplish something. I mean, they put up with your ass in the lead up to this shit! So you bet they will celebrate you. It’s the in-betweens we often overlook. They get left out of those success narratives too. Permanent Record analyzes the Western ideals of success, ambition and straightforward career trajectories. Pablo keeps watching these Secret-like Youtube videos, and yet he can never connect to them. As he starts changing and accepting his own shortcomings, he finally encounters success narratives that resonate with him. Why was it important for you to include that in the book? The thing that the supercut doesn’t show you on Youtube, as the person makes their millions or gets their free ride to Columbia or whatever, is all the disgusting actual work that had to take place. When you’re starting out, your output is repulsive. Ira Glass has that great quote about how your output never matches your taste for a long time and that’s a really important thing to hear because Permanent Record comes from this notion, this data that follows you in terms of your successes and your failings: your FICA score and your credit and all this stuff. It’s also this notion of permanent record, which is the reality distortion of social media, where you feel so much pressure that you feel like you cannot afford to make mistakes. We love the story of the beauty blogger who made billions, or the one about the person disrupting hotels or the child disrupting the salad industry, or Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Now, it’s all about getting a Ted Talk before you’re out of middle school. The bloodsport has gotten so aggressive that it’s sort of laughable. That narrative—jinned by the 24-hour news cycle and the pyrotechnics that we need for every viral hit— really does a disservice to the countless majority of people who just grind. The other thing is that I wanted Pablo to have uncertainty around his own career but also acknowledge that there are a lot of people who are successful doing things that you won’t hear about on your local news channel. I think that there’s a lot of grace in that. And acknowledging that as a path that can lead to happiness is important.   Pablo’s dad, Bilal, talks about the notion of autotelism, the act of doing it and the satisfaction in doing it. It’s not about the accomplishment, it’s about the very slow and grueling work of just getting better at something over time. It always takes time. It’s fine to want and it’s fine to try, but the second you try it and it doesn’t work, please try working a lot!   Bilal also talks about how the root of all creativity is abundance: wanting what you already have.   How ephemeral is getting what you want? I’ve gotten so much in my life and it’s so amazing how quickly it turns to resentment or this voraciousness, that will never be sated, for the next thing. When your first book did very well, like New York Times Best Seller-well, did that make you nervous or even resentful of your own success? Oh, it completely fucked me up so hard. What happened with the first one was that I had written it and rewritten it and it sat in a drawer for eight months because my agent didn’t like it. A different agent reached out saying they were a big fan and asked if I would ever write a book. I told him I already did and he asked to read it. He read it and had notes, so I tackled the notes. And then he told me he could sell it and it went to auction and it did really well. But what happened with that is that because I had zero expectation that the book would ever sell, I had another job on camera for HBO’s VICE and I was just on a different wave during that time. Emergency Contact had sold, but before it came out, I had written a draft of Permanent Record. I told myself, if the book tanks, I’m never going to be able to write again and I have this idea for another book so I’ve got to write it now. While I was shielded for the first draft, I didn’t know that promoting a book would be all-consuming and just emotionally expensive. It didn’t make the NY Times best-seller list the first week out, it made the list on the second week, which very rarely happens, and then stayed there for a month. During that time, I was rewriting Permanent Record and that was the most...I mean if you want to talk about scattershot, I didn’t know what I was doing. There were so many edits where I just rewrote the whole thing and then could not accept changes because what I had written was just nonsense and I didn’t know what it was and I got further away from it. I was more out to sea and that was a really big lesson. I told myself it was just the sophomore thing, because I don’t know how to write a book. I’ve only done it once before, like, who the fuck am I to say that I can write a book? I won the lotto once.   It wasn’t until I got away from all that that I realized what I had done and how much my final actual draft resembled my first early draft. I realized how you could get burned out without producing anything. There were so many honest conversations about money, credit and debt and the insanity that is having an 18-year-old figure out the rest of their lives and place a huge bet on that decision (with an insane loan). I mean, we’re all so scared to talk about money and we avoid it altogether because my god, that pressure! And a loan of that size! I mean, you really do mortgage your entire future and it’s like you’re betting on a level of financial solvency by a certain age so that you can recoup on this initial investment and pay people back because, as the clock is ticking, all of these loans are metastasizing. And I really wanted to talk about that. It’s great if you get into Columbia, Duke, and NYU, but how are you going to pay for any of it? How do you enter the workforce in this day and age with that much volatility—with a house strapped to your back? Why don’t you own a house for how much you owe? And then graduate school: do you really want to pursue that or is it an issue of sunk cost where you need to do that extra thing because you haven’t questioned what you wanted to do, and now it’s a question of what you can do to get the money back doing what you’re doing? How will you ever know what you want in your quietest self? How will you ever find your due North if you’re completely saddled by this clock and this money?  It leaves you with little room to fuck up, no? You can’t afford to! And if you fuck up you better not tell anybody and you better hide it and again, even if people find out, you better play it off and tell everyone that you’ve got it figured out. And you best hope that watching the right Youtube video will help you figure it out because I don’t know how else you would. There is a great divide and there is so much otherizing and fetishizing that happens with each generation as technology changes at a rapid pace. It was, first, about otherizing Millennials—and it’s not the reductive aspect of it, it’s the difference that you’re creating. And with that comes a great breakdown in communication and apprenticeship. You have people who are in such a scarcity mentality about these people taking all the jobs, so they keep all their institutional knowledge to themselves, and the new people coming have no idea how to deal with that hostility, but they also don’t want to fuck up and so they don’t ask any questions. You now have so many people who have a very specific skill set, and that’s wonderful, but they don’t know how to do fundamental things like ask a question, make a mistake, remedy it and call attention to it in the right way. The result is that everyone is now like “Don’t trust Gen Y,” and Gen Y is saying that you can’t trust Gen X-ers. It’s this incredible communication breakdown that breaks my heart and as a person who is older talking to younger people, I just want everyone to hang on, and not go to AskJeeves to figure out how to write a cover letter! Ask someone and admit to that vulnerability and have that person help you out. I think a lot of that responsibility falls on our shoulders because we don’t make it easy to ask us things and that’s fucked up. It would just be so much better if everyone talked to each other. The food in Permanent Record, especially those snack combinations, really brings everyone together, and showcases their resourcefulness. It also facilitates some difficult conversations. How was it writing about that? It was really beautiful. I wrote a New York Times Magazine article about candy a while ago and it was really short and joyful but that was really triggering. And I realized I was definitely a sugar addict. It’s that recursive nature of disordered thinking. When I’m in that mode of thinking, it’s all I can think about and it was really interesting. I had enough awareness to be like “Holy shit, you’re catching a weird ass contact high.” With this, I knew that food was going to be a big part of it because of Pablo’s mixed race. It’s the one arena in which he doesn’t feel like an impostor, where he doesn’t feel tested, where he doesn’t feel like it’s a pop quiz he’s going to fail. Even if Pablo were at church or at a wedding or around his parents’ friends, he might feel uncomfortable, or might feel as though they’re about to give him a pop quiz about how much of his culture he can actually be familiar with. He doesn’t have that with food. It’s his love language, the way he shows up for people in his life and he doesn’t ever worry about the cultural authenticity of it. And I wanted him to have freedom in some arena. With my own personal history around it, it was a really beautiful thing where I could experience joy around food again and where food was appropriate in my life: you could be excited about it and be happy about it and feel abundance in it, but you don’t have to be drunk on it. And it doesn’t have to be the only thing that you think about. The way I knew I had an eating disorder, even though for years I thought I didn’t qualify as a bulimic anymore, was that someone told me that if you believe that being a different size will change everything about your life, you probably have an eating disorder. And that blew my mind because I thought I didn’t have an eating disorder but I was alternately paleo, or vegan or on some crazy regimen or not eating this or orthorexic or whatever, but thought it was a coastal elite thing or whatever. Now, I know that was really disordered. Now, you eat a meal and you forget about it—that’s what life is actually like. You have life in between meals. It’s not eating something and trying to figure out ways to game it or get rid of it for the next six hours. It was also really important, like an amends to myself or a healing practice, I think, to create a character in Leanna where she’s like ostentatiously famous, where her body is so renowned and admired and gawked at, and she doesn’t have an eating disorder. It makes me weepy to think about a young woman who is that scrutinized who chooses to feed her body and chooses to nourish it lovingly and have an appreciation for what her body is capable of doing. Just the idea of having a woman like that felt like such wild subversion and that was really beautiful for me as someone who is older to just write a love letter to a person like that. I think that that helped me do a lot of forgiveness around all this abuse and turmoil I put my body through and the dissociation and just how I left my body in different places in my life. Leanna, as a mega pop star, is the source of a lot of body anxiety and dysmorphia for other people, but she isn’t absorbed in it at all. Absolutely. She just doesn’t take that on. Leanna is fucking awesome in so many ways. She’s hugely flawed and she’s very young. Someone even told me that I vilify her and I really don’t. I don’t think there’s a single smart woman in this world who has even a modicum of ambition who wouldn’t understand exactly why she does the things that she does. This famous person is surrounded by this cacophony, this overwhelming din. It’s the age and the level of celebrity that we have to grapple with. This is a person, as far as you know and think, but the celebrity industrial complex is a great many other external forces and people. She is the head of her personal brand: she is the CEO, CFO, COO, but also there are people she is answerable to and that’s a real part of her life. But Leanna is also quite whitewashed as a pop star.   I really wanted to talk about that. I remember when I interviewed Rihanna for one of her first cover stories for Complex (when Good Girl Gone Bad came out). She had just cut her hair and people were figuring out that Rihanna was stylish. And she told me that she was really excited to have a little bit more autonomy in her career. I asked her what she meant by that and she said that she was singing in her actual accent. I think that there is this coming of age that happens twice when you are not of the majority. You have your coming of age just like in life: your Saturn Return or whatever. And then you have this coming of age where you realize that you have inherited this double consciousness, like what your contribution is as an artist of colour. I certainly had the same thing. And I’m so grateful that I started writing when I was older because I could work all that out and figure out where I was at with it and then produce from there.   With Leanna, she gets really excited when the industry changes enough that she’s finally in a position where she can have a Spanish-language release. That was something she felt she had to earn. I wanted that to be an issue, even for her and for how powerful she is: if she’s coming through that Disney entertainment factory (we’ll use that as an example), then what does that mean and how does that affect how people receive her? And then what she can claim for herself later? The centre of gravity for this book, and the source of food and cravings, is the bodega — it’s where everything begins and reconnects. Pablo’s job is a service job and it’s a low-valued job, and it requires a lot of expertise that’s often overlooked. Why was that crucial to you? I didn’t want this to be a dissertation on or contemplation of city living where we don’t know each other and the death of intimacy. It’s more like that New York thing where we’re all crammed in together and you end up gleaning the weirdest parts of each other. And I love the bodega because it’s the place I missed the most when I briefly lived in California for work. I just wanted a bodega! I didn’t want to get in my car to go to Target for Advil! I just wanted the two-pack to swallow dry on the train! But the bodega is a 24-hour way station for a lot of different types of addiction. There are witnesses to your personal crises.  All under those horrible lights! And those cameras! It’s just like Russian Doll! That’s the nexus. We’re all glitches in each other’s Matrices. And then there’s that fucking judgmental bodega cat. As much as we think that technology is creating a rift, there are still these little things we have to do that force us to interact with each other.   Reluctantly! That’s a really beautiful part of New York: you’re forced into those situations. Like mass transit: the fact that we have to mutually tolerate this broken railway system is just hilarious to me. It’s the source of so much drama and strife and the bodega is definitely another touchpoint where we just all have to put up with each other. We all have to get in that fucking line and god forbid you have to go in the morning and everyone before you is ordering an egg sandwich because you’re going to be there for 37 minutes. With your work, how do you reconcile something that you love bringing you closer to the thing you hate (overworking, capitalism, burnout)?   It’s really hard but it’s a scarcity mentality. It’s also something I can speak to from a place of great privilege. I have never been in a position where I had to spend an advance cheque on life. I’ve always had jobs in between the creative moments. I’ve always had a job, feathered the nest, and then did all speculative weird stuff. I keep the pragmatism with those jobs and I keep the high-risk stuff high risk. I also don’t worry about money insofar as I never do something for money because that’s always gotten me in trouble. I call it that Tahiti test: if this thing went away to Tahiti, is there a part of you that would have some regret? Or are you relieved? And if I’m relieved, then I’m not allowed to do it. If I’m regretful over some aspect of it, then I have to sit there and contemplate it. I never send things to Tahiti when it’s just money-based and if I don’t experience true relief. I’ve never done anything solely for money because it’s just too emotionally expensive that way. I’ll do stuff for money that I’m interested in or that I find entertaining or do it because I can’t believe that people can be paid to do it. Doing something expressly for money has only ever made me resentful, has taken three to four times longer than I think it will and has only ever brought me just butt-hurtness. It’s only ever tarnished the work that I do. I just don’t want to be embarrassed about anything that I make and that threshold is low—I mean, I survived being a writer. 
‘Real Children in Extreme Circumstances’: An Interview with Michael Crummey

The author of The Innocents on growing up, survival, and giving your characters dignity. 

Since his 2001 debut novel River Thieves, Michael Crummey has woven together Newfoundland’s rich and often ignored history with fiction. His latest novel, The Innocents (Doubleday Canada), took years to begin and was written almost out of compulsion after a trip to an archival library. The novel follows two young siblings, Ada and Evered, following the death of their parents and baby sister. With very little contact with the outside world, the brother and sister survive the harshest conditions. Having only each other to rely on, the siblings form a bond that is tested as they grow into adolescence. The siblings endure unimaginable hardships, giving the reader a highly complex and rich coming of age narrative, one that Crummey was almost too afraid to explore. Through his writing, we see an empathetic portrait of what becomes of familial bonds when tested beyond their usual limits. Sarah Hagi: You’ve mentioned how this story came to be, through reading about a clergyman’s findings. Can you get into that a bit more?  Michael Crummey: I was at the provincial archives in St. John's. I spent a lot of time there for a bunch of different projects so I was there working on something else, I don't remember what it was and it was quite a while ago. Just in the process of poking through things, I just happened on this one paragraph. It was from way back, so possibly a newspaper. And I don't know if it was the clergyman himself writing it, or if it was somebody reporting what he'd been told by the clergy. But this clergyman was traveling around the island, which was not unusual because most places didn't have a church or a clergyman. In the course of traveling around the islands, he came upon an orphaned brother and sister who were living alone in an isolated cove. It became obvious to him very quickly that the sister was pregnant and he immediately assumed that the brother was the father. The brother ended up driving him off with a rifle. There was no more information about who the brother and sister were or how old they were. I immediately thought that would be a story, and I immediately rejected it. Like, I didn't want anything to do with it. Yeah, so I didn't take note of  the source material or anything, I just sort of, I read it, and I just kept going with whatever the business was. And I mostly forgot about it, I think, But, but not completely, obviously.  What was it that stuck with you? Every now and then I would think about those youngsters. And I think the thing that really hooked me was thinking about them in relation to my own childhood, and what it was like for me growing up. Just how unbelievably confusing it was trying to come to grips with those kinds of changes that were happening within me. Even though I grew up in a place where I had some resources and there were bits and pieces that I could try to cobble together into a picture that said something about what I was feeling, it was just appallingly confusing. And so thinking about these two children who had been left on their own completely, with no resources, with no one to turn to, and guessing that they wouldn't even really be able to have words to even try to describe what was happening, and then to end up in the situation that they ended up in, I guess I was kind of heartbroken for them. In a way I wanted to tell a story that did the opposite of what the clergyman did. I was hoping that by the end of it, that they would be left with some kind of dignity, but I didn't know how to go about that at all.  I imagine it was very difficult to write about.   I mean, one of the things I wanted to do was to provide them with a life that was more than that. I don’t want it to be the incest book. I decided what I had to do was try to put them into a life in which what happened between them, in that intimate way, was just one of the things that happened to them in the stream of things they had to deal with. Their entire family dies within the first ten pages of the book. When you’re writing these two characters and there’s so much left to the story until the end, how was it dealing with that grief they obviously felt and with them becoming adolescents? I mean, it's no wonder that I went so long not touching this book. I wrote that opening actually quite a while ago, maybe three and a half years ago. Then I just put it away—I thought, “I can't do it.” I didn't know if I had it in me to tell that story in a way that felt believable, and that wouldn’t just be a misery trek for readers. It wasn't until my editor Martha called me. I didn't really have anything except this [opening], it's about three thousand words. After she read it, she said, “I'd like to know more about those children.” So I kind of thought about it, as a story about childhood. I just tried to write them as real children in extreme circumstances. What was it like dealing with the survivalist aspects of the story?  That was part of me wanting them to be situated very clearly in the rhythms of the life that people would have had at the time. My father was born in 1930. But he started fishing with his father when he was nine, down on the Labrador Coast. He says he didn't take a full share of the crew until he was eleven. And I think that's part of the reason I picked the ages I did. They’re eleven and nine when the book opens, because I thought, okay, at that point, they actually would be able to survive. They've been working their entire lives, really, to that point they have probably reached a stage where it's not out of the realm of possibility that they would be able to make a go of it. All of the survival stuff was basically just putting them in the landscape and letting the landscape happen to them. Even though they’re so isolated, the story very clearly takes place in Newfoundland. I feel like it couldn't have happened anywhere else.   I've always said that the books that I've written have been an attempt to get Newfoundland down on paper, and to create a real sense for readers of what the place is like, and how people have lived there. With this book, I had a slightly different feeling, because I felt like the story of the brother and sister could have happened anywhere. I was just sort of happenstance that this particular story happened. But then the fact that they were in Newfoundland shaped almost the entire narrative, because the place itself was such a presence in the lives of people at the time. Just in terms of what you had to do to survive and how you could or couldn't live in that landscape. You mentioned feeling the need to write this story to do these kids justice, do you feel like you accomplished that? It was kind of like Martha pushed me off a ledge in a good way. I always doubt a book when I start it. But about halfway through the book, I started thinking, “I hope I don't die before I finish it.” I just had that sense that this was a story that I really wanted to see told and that I was telling it in a way that I felt good about. There was a real sense, when I was done, that it was pretty much what I hoped for. I’m happy to have it out in the world.
‘The Future is Very Opaque’: An Interview with Jia Tolentino

The author of Trick Mirror on the self as a lens on the system, scams, and the internet beat. 

Over the last several years, at the Hairpin, Jezebel, and now the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino has cemented herself as almost peerless in her ability to capture our current cultural zeitgeist in a world that sometimes moves so quickly it can be hard to define what the zeitgeist may be. With her book of original essays, Trick Mirror (Random House), Tolentino weaves together online culture with real life in a way that not only captures the present, but how the past and perceived future shape our understanding of the world as it continues to change.  Right on the heels of an extensive book tour and becoming a newly minted New York Times best selling author, I spoke to Tolentino about the delicate balance of writing about topics so of the moment and how we can feel less alone. Sarah Hagi: Your book has been doing incredibly well—it sold out everywhere. What’s that been like? Jia Tolentino: I really, really, really did not expect it to be successful in this way. The book is pretty dense. Parts of it are kind of academic and it's kind of hardline anti-capitalist to some degree, right? And I just didn't expect that people would be down. Like, it's really crazy. I only ever thought about finishing the book, all I wanted was to finish the book and be happy with it. You never know how something is going to do when it comes to writing. The thing that has made me feel truly validated in a deep way is this instinct that I didn’t really want to write a book with any obvious takeaways. That’s really the reason why I’m surprised it’s doing so well: I very deliberately wanted to try writing a book that didn't propose any solutions. It feels really good to realize the desire for that is really widespread. Talking about the book so much, it's helped me realize things that are underneath it that I didn't understand while writing it. One of the things I have been trying to think about is that all of the structural forces that govern our lives with the internet, and male power, and capitalism, they want us to be isolated individuals just running as fast as we can. They make us feel like we’re alone in these anxieties that we have and that we have to solve them by putting our heads down and working harder. A cold consolation is that one of the ways in which we are actually very connected and interdependent are all these fears and subtle dreads that wade through our lives. Like, “Oh yeah, we’re all feeling this all the time.” You weave in a lot of personal experience throughout the book. Was there anything you were surprised to learn about yourself and your understanding of the world while writing this?  I do write in the first person a lot, and I have this everyday narcissism and probably a lot more of it than the average person given I’m trying to make my career around this super individualistic, self centered thing. I don't feel, on an everyday basis, particularly interested in myself. But I am interested in the way that the self is literally your only lens for your experience of the world and of systems. I think I did learn some things about myself while writing because I never learn anything except through writing, and inevitably I figured out some stuff about myself. I think I've developed this much stronger sense of my interest in the self, really, insofar as it is the only way we experience the world. It’s like this thing that walks around and can gather evidence about the things you're actually interested in.  So much of what you write about in Trick Mirror is stuff that very online people know about, but someone who isn’t online as much can understand. Was that difficult to balance out?  I mean, embarrassingly, my beat is the internet, right? But increasingly, that's the only beat, right? I started realizing that the internet, no matter what you’re writing about, is a part of it. If you’re writing about ISIS, the internet’s a part of it. If you’re writing about climate change, globalization—the internet is woven into anything, like any other overarching structure, and it’s done that so quickly. I was definitely aware that, especially in the first chapter, these are unbearable things to talk about in real life. I pretty strongly try not to talk about the internet in real life, but I felt like an essay like that is a good use of the stuff that occupies a lot of my online attention but is so fucking boring to talk about in real life. I think that, in general in my life, I’m trying to see the internet for how we underestimate its importance, and also how we overestimate it at the same time, and constantly sort of adjusting my understanding of how important something is. But yeah, that was something that I consciously wanted to do with the book. It was hard, but the things I like writing about are the things that are hard to get right tonally. You go deep with bringing in the past and present together. Do you think about how a lot of it will read five or ten years from now? Oh, no, I never think about that! Already, my first job that was so important to me and probably shaped the way I write more than anything, I can’t find half of the shit I wrote there. Coming into writing with a sense of the fact that the industry was in such a crisis, it felt like it was a total fluke I was there until recently, like it was a total accident that could go away at any second. That’s really how I felt until close to when this book came out. I’m bad about thinking about the future in any specific terms. The idea that anyone would be reading my work five or ten years from now is not something I think about or hope for. I think, subconsciously, I'm probably trying to work in such a way that this will be a book about the present that will be readable in five years, like it won't seem so obviously dated, like a lot of work that concerns zeitgeisty stuff does. I guess it has occurred to me that a lot of pop culture essay collections are pretty fucking dated in a bad way when you read them, like, four years later, but I think it's hard to calculate. The future is very opaque. How does the future seem to you? I only think of the future because I'm like, “I haven't lived a life yet so there has to be more!” I have just this unshutoffable thing about myself, I’m trying to do so much shit that it’s so much harder to turn it off than it is to keep going. I can trust that my automatic instinct will just make me do all this shit. I think that’s one way that I work and live—I try to get the underlying drives and then not think about the rest at all, and just hope that takes care of it. I think that's one way in which I've been absolved of even the question of thinking about the future. It's just because, for whatever reason, I've been formed into this person that is so attracted to work and effort in a way that I don't think is really healthy. But it's like, I could just trust that machine will just keep running, I had to find it really hard to just turn it off.  One essay that really stuck out was “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” and how not all of these scams immediately stuck out as being scams or even similar to one another. How do you define scams? They’re all pretty normalized and valued. To be a banker, or to take out a loan for college, or be a girlboss or disruptor—these are all very highly valued scams. They are genuinely presented as a way to live. Before I wrote that chapter, I read a lot of books about the history of scamming in America that never really made it in. For example, every time there was a shift in the banking structure, there was a massive uptick in scams of various sorts. And a lot of them would be like this full on counterfeit money scams, a lot would be more complicated. They would sort of give rise to these cultural corollaries. So, it became clear to me that around times of transition, it becomes really easy to do. If you boil scamming down to the basic definition, which is the abuse of trust for profit, it's like, what doesn't that seem like? Social media in general has been the abuse of trust for profit, some of it has been inadvertent. Zuckerberg didn’t know he was going out to build this fake advertising business, he thought he was just making a face book. But we have been able to successfully do the real scam of social media, which is making a personal brand, a safety net. It's like making us put our lives online in case we need it financially because we don't have any other safety nets, really.
‘The Way One Sees Oneself is Shifting Every Day’: An Interview with Natasha Stagg

The author of Sleeveless on 2010s New York, jealousy, and being out of touch. 

In her book of critical essays on artists Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm writes, “There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, accommodating spirit, its fundamental irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds.” Opening a copy of Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless (Semiotext(e)) is like entering one of those footholds, be it the red glow of China Chalet at 3 a.m., a corporate warehouse party where everyone is beautiful and no one talks to each other, or a downtown coffee shop buzzing with nervous, striving energy where the person at the next table happens to be Coco Gordon Moore. Sleeveless covers the glittering void of 2010s New York, which Stagg chronicled first as a contributor for the underground art magazine DIS, then as a senior editor at fashion glossy V, and now from the aerial view of a copywriter shilling for the brands she used to cover. It’s an endless parade of free cocktails and vacuous conversations where Stagg serves as both participant and observer; a bit like Andy Warhol’s diaries if they were written by a millennial, populated by shiny happy people until an unflattering zoom reveals the rot festering inside. Stagg writes, “I love expensive things but I hate being around people who can afford them,” which may well serve as a metaphor for the entire book. Stagg’s New York is nearly fifty years past the decadent heyday chronicled in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives and fictional texts like Slaves of New York and Bright Lights, Big City. But instead of complaining about missing out on all the good times, Stagg ventures into the fraught territory of chronicling her own era, which is still ripe with the turmoil, angst, and ennui that make New York both unbearable and the greatest place in the world. Isabel Slone: It occurred to me while reading Sleeveless that you’ve managed to capture and preserve a specific era of New York in amber, specifically the intertwined fashion and literary scenes of the 2010s. Did you set out to write a quintessential New York book? Natasha Stagg: I had been trying to write another novel—I wrote a novel a few years ago—and was pretty stuck trying to write another one for a bunch of different reasons, then realized the whole world is too bizarre to write something fictional right now. Most of this work was not done in preparation for a book, but on assignment. The intention of editing all of these stories together was to capture a moment and to kind of challenge myself to not be afraid of doing that. I think a lot of writers are afraid of sounding dated when they just write about one particular time period. I guess I was just thinking, "If I’m not writing a novel, what do I have? What am I doing? Am I going to be able to write something ever again?" Then I try to motivate myself by looking at things I wrote for some other reason. I have all these folders on my computer and looking through them, I realized there was enough for two books and all I had to do was figure out how to make them feel cohesive. I ended up just sending a big folder of work to Chris Kraus, she’s my editor, and she was like, "Basically don’t change the format here, this is just chapters." When you were going through the folders on your computer, was there a reason for selecting the pieces you chose to single out and rework for the book? I started seeing a theme of articles that were questioning personal image, personal brands and the way one sees oneself in this era, which is shifting a lot every day. Whatever I wrote ten years ago, I would probably write differently now, but it’s interesting to see what I was imagining would happen in the future back then. Most of the articles I chose weren’t about a typical celebrity. They’re about a person that is in a very precarious place in terms of their status and visibility. That added to this longer narrative I had in my mind of what is going on with the way people view themselves in this age, whatever you want to call it, and all the changes that have occurred in the past 10 years in terms of media. The precariousness you mention also applies to the way the book is narrated; it often feels as if you’re this dual character, playing the role of participant and observer at the same time. I’m curious, how did you end up working in fashion in the first place? When I moved to New York, the first job I got was at Beacon’s Closet. To me, it was the best job ever, because I met so many interesting people. It’s this unique place that attracts really interesting people like stylists, fashion journalists, drag queens and all these other kinds of performers. Before I moved to New York, I was writing a column for DIS magazine, so I met a lot of people through them, and Beacon’s Closet, and just living here. Very quickly, within a year of living here, I got the job at V magazine. I worked with Patrik Sandberg who has become a very close friend of mine over the years. After that, I took all these other writing jobs and now I work for a few different brands through a design firm and do my own freelance stuff writing press copy and articles for magazines whenever I want to. In the book, you refer to fashion as “the most insecure of any art form,” and I’d like to discuss that statement specifically in regards to fashion writing. Often I’ll see someone on Twitter asking for a recommendation for "good fashion writing," as if it’s this excruciatingly rare thing that’s impossible to find. It almost seems like people choose to actively ignore all of the good fashion writing getting published in order to preserve the idea that its difficult to be a rigorous thinker on the subject of fashion. What do you think about that?  This happened to me yesterday. I was at a talk and somebody asked for a recommendation for good fashion writing, and the panel’s response was to seek out participants in call-out culture, like Diet Prada. You know, the kind of Instagram accounts responding to culture and saying, "This is what you should know about this collection that the critics won’t tell you because they’re getting paid and I’m not." I think there is really good critical fashion writing out there and what’s stopping people from finding it is they’re looking at fashion magazines for it. Those magazines can’t afford to be critical of their advertisers. What is unique about fashion is that there’s this exclusive component. With art writing, anybody can go to a gallery opening, you don’t have to be on the list. You do have to become a networker to get exclusives on artists, it’s the same with any type of journalism, but there isn’t this exalted status of fashion journalist where you get to show up and borrow clothes and be in this inner circle. It all looks very rich and exciting and they basically become a brand ambassador when they’re invited to be a critic at the same time. There is something unique about fashion criticism: it kills itself eventually. Anybody who is looking to become a good fashion journalist is easily brought into the fold, which means they can’t be a good fashion journalist because they’re too biased. One of the main themes in the book is jealousy: romantic, professional and otherwise. You write, “Jealousy is the most poisonous emotion and admiration is always laced with it.” What drives you to explore jealousy and get cozy with that sick feeling? I experience it a lot. People lie to themselves if they say they don’t. Most of the time, if they’re participating in social media, they’re participating in an endless trap of jealousy. That’s the reason why all these apps are so addictive, probably; this sick jealousy that we all have needs to feed itself. Then it drives us to project our own actions just to make sure everyone knows that we’re not jealous or doing something people could also be jealous of. Everyone is super jealous of everybody’s lives no matter who they are. It’s the way that jealousy has shaped the media I find interesting. I’ve always been obsessed with celebrities throughout my life, but then we all discovered that you could also be obsessed with a non-celebrity, and that is the idea behind influencers. Technically everybody is an influencer and therefore everybody can be influenced. That you can actually put numbers on the level of jealousy we experience daily is so interesting to me. Imagine living 100 years ago, when there were no numbers behind any of these emotions and now its quantifiable. Well, except that it’s not. All those numbers are phony in their own way. But I think the impulse to make everything into a chart and a graph is a fascinating one. Your novel Surveys is essentially written about an influencer before the term became ubiquitous. Now people are having conversations about whether or not the influencer bubble is going to burst. Do you have a perspective on that? My instinct tells me that it will burst. In its current form, the influencer marketing strategy will become defunct in some way. Like all advertising, people get wise to a certain strategy and then they don’t trust it, so advertisers need to find a new way to capture their attention or their trust. I don’t think that will ever end. There’s no way advertisers will stop being super creative in ways to manipulate their audience into thinking someone they know or admire uses a product. At least I notice that everything getting sent to my feed is more and more appropriate. I think, "Oh that is an interesting new brand, and it’s sustainable and I can buy it right now." The algorithm that produces the content is directly doing its job. I don’t see someone’s face and think, "Because she uses it, I should use it," but it’s the same kind of shit. Somebody has found out what I look at, suggested that if I look at that, then I should look at this. It’s not that different. I’m still being fed a lifestyle that should influence me. I really liked when you wrote, "I could always sway people in a conversation by using the phrase 'out of touch.’” Who do you think is out of touch right now? Sometimes I say that about myself, you know? "Well, don’t ask me, I’m out of touch." It’s just this perfect way of getting out of something. Most of the time when I say that in meetings it’s not even accurate, I just don’t want to keep talking about a certain person. It’s so bizarre to me. Remember a few years ago, when every single fashion brand wanted A$AP Rocky to be their mascot? In hindsight, that makes so much sense. They wanted to check a lot of boxes; he was very safe in a lot of ways but also dangerous in the right ways and interested in fashion, whatever. I feel like that person for right now is Billie Eilish. Oh totally. She checks so many boxes of what a quintessential person of today should look like and behave like. Whenever this happens, I get so sick of hearing their name, it makes me feel their time is almost up. So I have to say, "I think that’s kind of out of touch," or, "I think that’s kind of over." But nobody listens to me anyways. I’m not like some bigshot in any advertising meetings ever, I’m just kind of there.
City of the Mute

To visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.

The wind blows south over Drancy. It blows south along the horseshoe of boxlike buildings, south through the dark cluster of trees they enclose. It blows south as it musses the hair and scarves of the residents of Drancy as they make their way to and from the towers in which they live, and it blows south until it strikes the strange structure that has been erected in the center of the ring: a repurposed cattle car, at the base of which is a plaque that reads, “The French Republic in hommage to the victims of racist and antisemitic persicutions and the crimes against humanity commited on the authority of the de facto ‘Government of the French State.’” [sic] Most of the Parisian friends I tell about my plans to visit Drancy have never heard of the place: hugging close to Charles de Gaulle Airport, some hour and a half outside of the centre-ville, it’s a suburb both geographically and psychically at Paris’s perimeter, out of sight and out of mind, a place where you wouldn't wind up without a very specific reason for going there. Though Paris’s subway system is so extensive that its maps resemble a plate of spaghetti, Drancy is not hooked up to it; to get to where I need to go—a modest housing development known as la Cité de la Muette—requires a commuter train journey followed by a mile of walking. Now home to low-income residents primarily from France’s former colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, the tower blocks that make up Drancy’s Cité de la Muette constitute France’s cheapest social housing, and some of its least desirable. But at its inception almost a century ago, the complex was intended to be a shining model of salubrious modern design, a haven to which Parisians tired of the cramped and crowded central city might retreat by choice, not by last resort. Between its origins as a starry architectural project and its current fate as a graying banlieu of which most city residents are scarcely aware lies one of the darkest phases of France’s history: that of its wholesale collaboration with the Nazi occupation, during which time Drancy would imprison between 67,000 and 74,000 Jews, many of whom would die either within the complex’s walls or upon their transportation to concentration camps in the east. As such, to visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions—in France and elsewhere—of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why. * En route to la Cité from the rail station, it strikes me that the urban planning of the surrounding area seems in many ways an apologia for the history it plasters over. There’s a Rue Charles Fourrier, a misspelt tribute to the eighteenth-century French thinker whose proto-socialist ideas about utopian communities would collectively be known as Fourierism (note the one r). Farther along, there’s another street named after Paul Lossing, a member of the French Resistance who was shot by the Nazis in 1943. There’s a Rue Dr. Albert Schweitzer and a Rue Nelson Mandela and a Rue Sacco et Vanzetti. Elsewhere in the district, the street names morph from homages to freedom-fighters, radicals, and humanitarians into simple prayers for social good: Rue de l’Harmonie, Rue de la Prospérité, Rue de la Liberté. Yet as I walk through the area it is impossible not to note—or perhaps, given that I am psychologically primed, to project—a certain aura of death. I see multiple funeral homes, multiple gravestone sellers with their wares parked out front like Toyota Camrys at a used car dealership. My route passes through a walled cemetery, packed with graves and deeply ugly especially in comparison with the stately central Parisian necropoles of Père Lachaise and Montmartre. Placed on several of the graves are plaques by the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots, in memory of the death of one of their members. It was a blistering day: I see few people about, hear few voices. There is no grass for the breeze to rustle. The name Cité de la Muette means the silent city, the city of the mute. Describing the slum he lived in during the late 1920s in Down and out in Paris and London, George Orwell recalled rooms so mite-infested that residents had resorted to burning sulfur as a bug repellant; the street itself, he wrote, was a “ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had been frozen in the act of collapse…and packed to the tiles with lodgers.” The opening of the book memorably sketches the nerve-jangling din that characterized everyday life in that place: “quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” If life in the city’s most overcrowded and unhealthy districts was marked first and foremost by incessant, calm-shattering noise, the Silent City stood apart as something new, modern, clean, and above all quiet. With its generously sized lodgings, quality ventilation, and signature peaceful atmosphere, the development contrasted sharply with much of the housing stock that would have been available to most Parisians at the time. This combined with its broad central green and large-windowed apartments that let in plentiful light created a sense of utopia, a serene oasis at the edge of the city. It seemed to point a way forward, to a future in which all could afford to live in the kind of serenity that had previously been the preserve of the wealthy. The large-scale development was composed of several buildings: an exclamation-mark suite of five fifteen-storey towers accompanied by long, low buildings, and then, at the end, a final building in the shape of a U. Constructed using exposed concrete and an iron armature, the buildings were avant-garde both in style and execution. What’s more, the fifteen-story highrises were Paris’s first skyscrapers: eager tourists bought up Drancy postcards and attended guided tours of the site. In 1939, seven years after construction had begun, Drancy’s design was showcased as part of Houses and Housing: Industrial Art, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that aimed to showcase the best of public housing around the world. At the MoMA show, Drancy was placed on par with contributions from the likes of Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Its designers, Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, envisioned copycat colonies springing up as more and more people were won over by the concept of the decentralized, green “garden city” approach to urbanism. That vision was never realized: on May 10, 1940, the Germans launched the invasion of France; by the beginning of June, they had begun an assault on Paris; and by June 24, the French government officially surrendered. Hitler inspected the broad Haussmannienne boulevards, walked the plaza over which arched the bowed base of the Eiffel Tower, visited Napoleon’s tomb, and left after only three hours. Arrests of Jews began that year. At this time the apartment blocks that had once been postcard fodder for eager visitors were in a sad state of half-construction. The economic difficulties of the Great Depression had put construction on ice: beginning in 1939, the as-yet-unfinished buildings were put to use by the French government to intern communists (the Communist Party having been officially outlawed that year). Following France’s surrender to the Germans, the Nazis originally converted the site into a prison camp for French and British POWs. But when the major roundups of French Jews began in Paris, Nazi officials decided to put the buildings to a different purpose. Other aspects of the location made it attractive to the Nazi administrators as well: the horseshoe-shaped block, designed to curb the flow of the wind, was easy to close off with barbed wire and the addition of a couple guard towers. Once that was done, the open central green—which the designers had once envisioned as a place of afternoon strolls and weekend relaxation—became instead a place where Jewish internees could be kept and easily monitored. Elements that had been intended as building blocks for utopian design were put to use for dystopian purposes with amazing ease and speed: the distance between the two poles, in the end, proved frighteningly small. Camp conditions quickly deteriorated—Drancy was at one point filled to ten times the buildings’ maximum capacity, and woefully inadequate nutrition combined with squalid conditions to produce rampant and deadly disease outbreaks. In a sardonic twist on the development’s earlier life as an ideal dwelling place, internees referred to the latrines (located in one building put up in the courtyard, as the apartments’ plumbing installation had never been completed) as the “chateau” (a reference, said one internee in a later interview, to the idea that wealthy prisoners had swallowed their diamonds rather than letting them be seized). In other moments, internees were forced to ape a paradise they did not know: of the five extant sets of photographs taken when the Drancy camp was in operation, four of them were staged propaganda shoots, either for French newspapers or to hoodwink the Red Cross. And in the meantime, except for these visits, the camp was sealed off; roundup after roundup of Jewish prisoners was forced to live in conditions that were increasingly squalid, and beginning in 1942, trainful after trainful were sent to the east. Those outside of Drancy said nothing at the disappearance of their neighbors; those inside it could not speak, or if they could, would not be heard. This was a silence of a different kind. * “I’m not at ease at Drancy,” says Jacques Saurel. “They hurt me, these buildings.” I’m listening to recordings of Drancy survivors at the Shoah Memorial of Drancy, a museum located just across the street from what used to be the outer walls of the camp. Marked by minimalist restraint of design, the building is easy to walk past even if you are looking for it. On its north façade, floor-to-ceiling windows turn their unblinking gaze at the site, a request for contemplation that is direct yet unspoken. The archive, library, and galleries that comprise the Shoah Memorial represents perhaps the deepest of the many attempts to commemorate the tragedy of Drancy: if the site itself is marked by a kind of silencing, its monuments constitute a visual argument of styles and opinions. The first was Shelomo Seligman’s 1976 modernist sculpture, whose title, The Gates of Hell, references Rodin’s famous work. The sculpture is composed of three parts, all rendered in pinkish stone: two bracket-like monoliths (upon which a dedicatory inscription has been carved) and a central sculpture of writhing and oddly suggestive masses. The red lettering, the rough-hewn style of the sculpture, the reach upwards—all of these are visual cues that on paper should sum to something. But in person they repel more than they provoke, producing neither an articulate statement nor a plain surface upon which to project one’s own. The train car standing not far off––which viewers approach by walking along a train track—is a more scrutable memorial, an obvious emblem of the fate that so many of Drancy’s internees eventually suffered. As well as these installations, however, there is the ever-present question of whether or not the entirety of the site should constitute a memorial to itself. In the years following the end of the war and the eventual liberation of Drancy, Paris faced a massive housing crisis. The former camp buildings that had until recently served as a temporary waystation between life and death were unceremoniously put into use as social housing. Drancy became a no-frills, no-luxury, no illusions home of last resort in which people were billetted because they had nowhere else to go. Drancy’s transformation into an undesirable housing block also mirrored a larger demographic shift in Paris’s urban geography whereby the periphery became the province of the poor—and increasingly the ethnic minority—mired in low-wage work that had left them unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of the central arrondissements. The Shoah Memorial’s archive of interviews with Drancy’s survivors reveal contradictory attitudes about what should be done with the site. Henri Gotainer, who was taken to Drancy in 1942 at the age of 11, said he had been back only once, for the inauguration of the train car memorial, though he has visited Auschwitz (where he was never interned) several times. For Gotainer, the need for people and place to move on is not only natural but essential to survival: “If I lived permanently in these memories,” he said, “It would be intolerable.” For others, however, the question is more complicated. Jacques Saurel, who was taken from Drancy to Bergen-Belsen, describes “coming out of [his] muteness” about the war after reading that a memorial for those who died at Bergen-Belsen would be erected at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Shortly thereafter, he says, something took hold of him: he got in his car and drove to Drancy. “It was history that accompanied me,” he said of the journey, which he had never thought of making before. But though Saurel has since returned, the place remains indelibly associated with the pain and suffering he witnessed there. Sometimes, Saurel says towards the end of his interview, he thinks it would be better after all to turn the whole place into a museum: “It’s a question I haven’t found the answer to.” Saurel’s uncertainty and discomfort point to one of the central tensions of Drancy: that even if one accepts that life must go on in places of tragedy, the degree to which normal life is contingent upon a certain degree of forgetting makes it seem somehow deeply wrong. Today, the majority of Drancy’s residents are Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa. The fact that many of these low-income residents lack the means to move elsewhere renders the question of whether or not they would prefer to live in a place with a less gruesome past something of a moot point. This particular lack of freedom points to the ways in which those who are marginalized today are forced to live with the ghosts of history, the places haunted by deaths at the hands of people whose ancestors now quietly choose to look away. Given Drancy’s current demographic makeup, the question of memorialization becomes a fraught one: razing the entire site or converting to whole area into an open-air museum would render homeless residents who had no part in the historic wrongs committed there. As Katherine Fleming writes in “What Remains? Sites of Deportation in Contemporary European Daily Life: The Case of Drancy,” Drancy plays host to some of the most difficult problems in modern French public discourse, including “questions relating to the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary France, on the one hand, and the place of (largely Muslim) immigrants, on the other. In many ways, these debates are two different historical instantiations of the same ‘problem,’ the ‘problem’ of the outsider. In Drancy, they collide.” These residents, too, have been silenced. This is the defining characteristic of Drancy, its ability to swallow all sound like freshly fallen snow. * Of Drancy’s many silences, perhaps the most pointed one is that of the question of French complicity. A Parisian Jewish friend of mine once posed the following question to me: how many Jews did the Germans deport from France? The answer: none—because the French were so willing to lend a helping hand and do it themselves. One of the reasons Alain Resnais’s seminal Holocaust documentary Night and Fog was banned in its director’s native country until almost a decade after it was made is that one of the shots of deportation trains being loaded with people shows a French gendarme on the station platform, overseeing what was effectively the administration of a mass death sentence. This was the rule for Drancy as well: though the site was planned by Nazi overseers, the entire camp was largely run—and its prisoners supplied—by French police and government bureaucrats who proved more than willing to collaborate. French officers conducted the round-ups; French officers stripped Jews of their possessions upon arrival; French officers profiteered from Drancy’s black market. But the 1976 tear-down of all but the Cité’s U-complex marked the irreparable destruction of physical evidence of the French guards who had been billetted in the adjoining tower blocks. The fight over the acknowledgment of French culpability cannot be understood without a full acknowledgment of France’s antisemitism, which is not a confined historical phenomenon but a living strain of thought that continues to draw blood in the present. It was not until 1995 that the French government (then headed by Jacques Chirac) admitted to culpability in the Holocaust, but more recent statements by politicians on the far right—most notably Marine Le Pen during her unsuccessful presidential bid in 2017—have rejected the idea that France was in any way to blame for the deaths of over 70,000 of its Jews. Such hand-washing statements come against a backdrop of increasing antisemitic violence across the country. In March of 2018, two assailants broke into Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll’s Paris apartment, stabbed her to death, and then set her body on fire, allegedly under the assumption that because she was Jewish she would have money to steal. Knoll’s funeral attracted thousands of mourner-protesters. Hers is only the latest in a string of murders motivated by antisemitism that have collectively contributed to what the president of the European Jewish Council has described as an “increasing sense of emergency.” As a site of confrontation with France’s collaborationist past, Drancy is not unique: many major French urban areas were affixed with “silent cities” of their own, internment and transportation camps created on their outskirts of which even locals today are largely ignorant. Near Toulouse, there is Saint-Sulpice-La-Point and Recebedou; near Pau, there is Gurs; near Aix-en-Provence, there is the Camp des Milles. But none of these are comparable to Drancy when it comes to the fact that at the latter the living of the present occupy the exact same space as the murdered of the past and lead lives whose normalcy depends, at least in part, upon the mental shelving of this fact. Drancy was not a purpose-built containment site for evil; it was a normal place in which horrific things occurred. This too is not unique: the most infamous of France’s wartime roundups took place at a bicycle track. Transport to camps was often undertaken using requisitioned public buses. There is no kind of space that cannot play host to the crimes of history, just as there is no human heart in which evil will not roost. Perhaps what is most disturbing about visiting the Cité de la Muette is the disjuncture between my knowledge of what happened there and how little of this I would be able to glean on my own had I stumbled upon this place ignorant of what it was. People commonly speak of “energies” or “auras” exuded by certain places, of a permanent eeriness or chill left by the ghastly events of the past, but in truth as I circumambulated the courtyard I could feel nothing of this kind. Views of the indoor entryways often revealed peeling paint or dirty stairwells, but the exterior walk was swept clean, the doors painted a cheery pink. There is a center for the elderly; there is a maternal health clinic; there is a wooded park, though no one is there. It is comforting to think of places of great evil as perceptibly, palpably marked out; the truth, that time is capable of rendering invisible even the most horrible of crimes to the naked eye, is far more frightening. Drancy is not, candidly, a beautiful place, but nor is it scarred by the kind of ugliness that its moral history would merit. Had I come to this place not knowing what it was—and were it not for the memorials there to teach me—I might even have found the place pleasant.
‘Doubt Can Be a Formidable Ally’: An Interview with Josephine Rowe

The author of Here Until August on the cruelty of language, fiction as a form of introspection, and writing as an act against ventriloquism.

Josephine Rowe’s latest short story collection Here Until August (Catapult) is full of people leaving, returning, and biding their time. Seven years in the making, many of these stories take place all over the world: from Australia to the Catskills to Newfoundland. There’s an interiority in the work; of secret passageways, bated breath, family history and inside jokes reserved for old friends. As a poet, Rowe demonstrates a dislike of wastage in her work: every word counts. Her debut novel—A Loving, Faithful Animal—is just under 200 pages, and explores intergenerational trauma through a group of siblings growing up in 1990s southeast Australia. Josephine and I spoke while she was on assignment in Western Australia as a journalist, before returning to Melbourne for the launch of Here Until August.  Nathania Gilson: As I read the stories from Here Until August, I was struck by the Australian-isms that sung out on some of the pages: “runners,” “pissing contest,” “reffos,” “bogans,” “hauled arse,” “lark." What is it about this kind of colloquial syntax that deserves its place in a story (even at the risk of losing or confusing readers outside of Australia)?  Josephine Rowe: I’ve never really understood that a writer might run the risk of alienating or losing readers—especially those who’ve elected to read a book by a foreign writer—by using an unfamiliar word.  Reading—however you’re coming to it—is a willful act of discovery. Of engaging. So, I’m not sure who that reader is, but I hope never to be stuck in a lift with them. It would be a dreary wait. That said, colloquialisms probably tell us something more pointed about people than standard language. For instance, the word “reffos” makes me cringe. In the story, it’s treated as a harmful and dehumanizing word—which it is. It trivializes the experience of dispossession; of unfathomable loss (of country, and more) while seeking to shrug off our national responsibility to extend asylum to those in need of it. Not everyone who uses that word—children, for example, as is the case in the story—does so in full consciousness of its cruelty. But what does it say about Australia as a country for that word to be so prevalent in the lexicon? So many of the characters in this new collection of stories are so attentive to language: they hear words as though they’ve “been kept in the wrappers they came in.” They compile mental lists of words that sound differently when spoken than they do  written down—“vital and gleaming.” In your own life, do you have any language-based rituals or systems that you use to collect words, sounds, sentences, or turns of phrase that catch your attention? How do you make the most of noticing things?  How to make the most of noticing things—this might be the perfect mission statement for much writing, and much of art. I just write things down on whatever’s to hand—notebook, envelope, wrist—then often forget about them just as quickly. But your question makes me suspect I’m being left out of some terrific methodology of cataloguing.  Certain things I’ve probably internalized without consciously recording. The speech patterns and idioms of friends, or the various ways that English breaks when spoken as a supplementary language. I remember studying your work at uni, and being shown evidence that published short stories need only be one sentence long, that more words didn’t necessarily mean better (or more interesting) narratives—especially from your early short stories and Tarcutta Wake. These stories were published not long after the introduction of Twitter, which was envisioned at the time as “like texting, but not.” I wonder what you set out to achieve—or rebel against?—at a time when short stories (or flash- or micro-fiction) may not necessarily have been in vogue, seen as profitable, or a thing to "aspire" to, as a writer?  Writing those earlier collections, social media wasn’t remotely on my mind (I was a latecomer to social media; also, the term “flash-fiction” always seemed like weird, time-poor branding to me).  I wasn’t rebelling, either, even though I was told often enough that I was doing something unpopular or unsaleable. But it was only ever publishers who told me that—“five-finger exercises,” one man dismissed them as. I was just writing in the mode that I felt fueled to write in, and that I’ve always loved to read in. We don’t have to reach very far for galvanizing examples of writers who are exceptional—and often at their best—in shorter forms: Yasunari Kawabata, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, Lucia Berlin, Sandra Cisneros, Michael Ondaatje (in his early novels). Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, Eliot Weinberger, Janet Frame—pretty much any fiction writer who is also a poet, as they are more likely have the patience and the reverence for distillation.  The stories in August being generally longer (if not necessarily better or more interesting!) might have something to do with them being further from autobiography (which I’ve delved into elsewhere) but also simply the luxury of time. I say “luxury” to mean something closer to a self-imposed effort towards patience. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or several years further into things. Thinking on it, perhaps there was a particular urgency early on—that the twenty-something-year-old writing those stories didn’t believe she’d make it to thirty. Post-thirty (and then some), I’ve at least a slightly longer view: I quite like the process of a story accruing over many months, or years. I think in many ways I’m working from the same instincts, with the same sensibilities—definitely from the same methodological disarray, and occasionally from the same sense of urgency—as I was with those shorter stories. But if we were to break it down to say, the attention that's gone into a sentence, then there’s probably no difference between my approach to a long story or short: the sentence would be holding the same amount of time (and ghost versions of itself). Several books into your writing career now, how do you motivate yourself to keep writing? I was speaking recently with my oldest friend, a cellist, about how much can be meaningfully addressed (not just expressed) through our respective artforms.  Whether there might still be time to become qualified in something more practicably beneficial to the environment or to others. Or, are these vocations that we both came to honestly, worked shitty jobs to support, with no real expectation of ever making a living by them (even a modest, no-car-no-kids living) what we are beholden to push forward with? To find a way of ensuring they’re relevant, in the service of the right things.  (For the record, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a perennial crisis about this, so long as you keep moving.) What keeps me writing is some blend of that innate compulsion, not quite articulable, and the desire to hitch it to something definitive. And—shorter, straighter—I write because it’s the best means I have of figuring things out. In the final short story at the end of Here Until August, a couple drives past a frozen pond. They want to walk out onto the ice just to see if it’ll hold their weight. Of the trust required to believe the ice will hold their weight, they remark, out of superstition: “It is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic.” There’s a sense of being dumbfounded by nature there, I think. Wanting to be impressed by the force of it, but not necessarily getting wrapped up in how things might actually come into being. Earlier this year, you wrote a weather report on global warming for The Believer.  In the piece, you name the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht who coined the term “solastalgia” which was widely adopted as a watchword to describe existential crises brought about by environmental crises. I’m wondering how you grapple with writing about home, homesickness, and a sense of place in the age of climate change and the looming realities that impact our physical sense of where we come from? While the stories in Here Until August do have human lives as their fulcrum, the non-human world—animal and elemental—is very present. And the characters in each story, even if they’re somewhat bulwarked by city life, are moved by these forces whether they’re conscious of it or not. But these stories were collected over seven years. And seven years ago, like most of the attention-paying world, I was less afraid (at least in regards to the climate).  So much has happened, or come to light, in the intervening years that locates us in the tipping point, not simply bracing for it. In The Believer essay I mention last summer’s news cycle—within the same report there’d be fires, floods, the mass death of fish in one of our most significant river systems. New colors appearing on the temperature map as record highs were consistently broken. If the stories here are reflective of the concerns I have about those looming realities, then great. But I don’t think they speak as loudly to them as I presume my next book will. At present, I’m probably more likely to confront these things directly in essay and non-fiction. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be a focal point in fictional narratives; absolutely, they should. Only that sometimes overtly assigning a character one’s own agenda can feel like a flimsy act of ventriloquism. After a point, the story resists. In non-fiction, that isn’t a problem. I don’t have to worry about whether it would be believable of X to think deeply and at considerable length about Y.  So much of your work reveals the thrill of being understood—and the devastation of being misunderstood. I’m thinking of in “Real Life,” the Yukon Jack girls, whose neighbours can never tell if they’re fucking or fighting. When the narrator in “Repairs” removes the “s” arm off her typewriter so she can’t spell her ex’s name. Instead, she types: “Bezt. Regardz. Cheerz. Xincerely. Thanx.” Short stories often come with intentional gaps or unfinished business—how does the form help you resolve or contain things that don’t necessarily work themselves out as you’d like to in real life?  It does help, but it might take a lifetime to get to the why. Maybe writing neither resolves nor contains these things, but rather opens to air, or helps to metabolize. My own clearest example of this were the realizations I came to in writing A Loving, Faithful Animal, my first novel, and a quintessential first novel in many regards (very close to the bone). But also, this is not the only reason I write. Are there narrative forms beyond the short story and novel that you have experimented with and found a new voice in, or that you’re interested in exploring? I’m not sure about a new voice—for better or worse I think I’m fixed to this one, at least authorially—though I do hope characters’ voices are distinct from this.  But I do write in other forms—and perhaps feel most myself in fragmentary, genre-eliding works. But where to house these? So, they don’t often make it as far in finding an audience, and that’s okay. Once something’s published it’s essentially set, and there’s something comforting about the prospect of works that might stay malleable and in-progress for an indefinite period of time, something you may never have to call finished. (And also, I should say that I appreciate very much the outward attention that an essay or profile requires, if we might include these as narrative forms. Being brought out, blinking, from the grainy introspection of fiction. I find it’s necessary.) What advice would you have for young writers who doubt themselves and the stories they want to tell?  Firstly, that doubt can be a formidable ally, indicative of many favorable and necessary attributes; that you take your work and the story you’re trying to tell seriously. Probably that you have a moral compass, believe in accountability, etc. Of course, doubt can be entirely inhibiting, so we have little choice but to make a friend of it.  I say this with the caveat that some doubt is well-founded, so we’re continually tasked with determining whether we hesitate because we are ill-equipped, or because we are simply afraid, and undervalue our voices. A friend sent me a Georgia O’Keefe quote a couple of weeks ago: “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I can’t claim the same, exactly (of never allowing fear to scupper my ambition or desire) but it’s a good stone to have in your pocket, remembering that the most courageous and dedicated people we know and admire are generally also scared witless, in one way or another.
Misunderstanding Magnus

A record of my failure to understand the world’s greatest living chess player. 

One of my issues is that I don’t have Jesus, so I don’t know what to do. There is no one personal exemplar whose behavior I can imitate in moments of doubt. I have to try and figure out how to live, in real time, and what I should be living for—what I should hope to achieve with my limited energies in this briefly available life. This is a huge problem. A bigger problem than it might first appear, since human beings are, fundamentally, imitative creatures—we’re just slightly differentiated copies of each other. While it’s true that we’re individually quirky, our quirks are built upon a massive superstructure of beliefs and values we’ve taken from other people. Nobody arrives at their principles through self-directed philosophical reasoning from zero. We just steal stuff and make slight adjustments to it. We try our best to be acceptable people by fashioning ourselves out of scraps of human material we find lying around. And this is true whether we’re talking about how to pick a romantic partner, decorate our apartment, or almost anything else. This is mostly a good thing. It just makes sense to copy the wisdom of authority figures, most of the time, since, let’s face it, you and I are not so smart. We can’t figure everything out, and even if we could, it would take too much time. Our environment is more option-rich than ever—even choosing a beer can require processing a tremendous amount of information. Given that we’re going to die, we shouldn’t spend all of our time figuring out what to do while we’re alive. And this is especially true in times of crisis or even minor difficulty. When shit is hitting the fan, it’s probably best to imitate a competent person whose behavior we’re familiar with, rather than try to invent some half-baked solution while the situation is degrading around us. But, if you don’t have Jesus or another central figure, which competent people do you emulate? It’s probably a big mish-mash with no one person in charge. That’s how it is with me. For example, these days, I’m interested in imitating Tyler Cowen, Octavia Butler, a barista at my local café (he just seems so grounded), my fiancée and my in-laws. I’m always looking for another person whose characteristics I can graft onto my own.  Sometimes, this effort fails. It has failed most spectacularly in the case of Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion of Chess. He’s a man of frankly annoying brilliance. At thirteen years old, he achieved a drawn game against the former greatest player of all time, Garry Kasparov, slayer of IBM’s Deep Blue. And, since 2013, when he took the world title at the age of 22, he’s never come close to losing it. I have tried to study his life in an effort to siphon off some of whatever powers his intellectual dominance. I have learned nothing. This is a shame, since I spent years trying to become a great chess player, and his guidance would have helped. However, after much detailed examination of his life and work, he remains inscrutable, and I remain a hapless screwup on the chessboard. This is a record of my failure to understand Magnus Carlsen. *** Chess players generally do a terrifying amount of mental work. Being at the highest level requires a lot of cognitive load on the board, and off the board. But there is one player who manages to do quite well without studying much at all—obviously, it’s Magnus Carlsen. He’s infamous for preparing far less than other players. He likes lying in a hammock and playing soccer. He says he’s just less fixated on the game than other people are. “It’s easy to get obsessed with chess,” he says. “That’s what happened with [Bobby] Fischer and Paul Morphy [the game’s first great player]. I don’t have that same obsession.”  So, why does this work? Potentially, it might be good because it creates levity. Since he takes things less seriously, he’s less concerned, so his thoughts are clearer when he’s at the board. Also, Magnus has created a style around his lack of scholarly appetite. He tends to steer games towards positions that require less preparation—generally, you have to prepare for positions that are complicated and offer many chances for failure, since these are harder to work out in real time and the penalties for failing to understand them are more dramatic. Magnus avoids these situations as much as he can. The lesson here, maybe, is that if we want to succeed in our endeavours, we should organize our lives such that our activities require less planning and preparation, and then aim to minimize our stress as much as we can, such that we can execute our carefully chosen tasks calmly. But, okay, on the other hand, maybe that’s just silly, empty conjecture. With respect to chess specifically, maybe Magnus just gets away with being lazy because he has raw talent. For a few weeks of my chess career, I tried to study less and be more relaxed, in imitation of Magnus, and my chess suffered horribly for it. And, as for not-chess, the question of whether you’re working hard enough seems so utterly context-dependent that having a general dictum about it is worthless.  This is complicated by the fact that, lately, Magnus is working harder, and performing better. He’s now preparing for games more, and he’s gone from being slightly more effective than anyone else in the world to being dominant on a preposterous scale. So, what do we do? Should we work hard to excel, or just engage in carefully planned non-effort? Who the fuck knows? Not me. *** Magnus is working harder. But that’s not the end of the story. The work he’s doing is really peculiar. Magnus is doing a lot of computer preparation, something he forsook in the past—but he’s preparing lines of play that the computer thinks are not that great. This is a hilarious development that actually makes a fair amount of sense. Magnus is making a correct observation about the nature of computer evaluation, which is that it’s not 100% relevant to human play. See, when a computer says a position isn’t good for the white pieces, it’s opining that it, the computer, could win the upper hand with the black pieces. Which is cool and all, but Magnus isn’t playing computers. He’s playing the most computer-like humans in the world, but they’re still likely to make mistakes, and therefore probably can’t find the computer-perfect line of play that makes Magnus’s position slightly dubious. Thus, he’s seemingly assumed that if he likes the creative possibilities in a position—the kind of long-term plans available, or just the aesthetic feeling of it—he can outplay his opponent, even if he’s technically at a slight disadvantage. And he’s right.  Again, compelling. Again, suggestive of a fun and profound-seeming takeaway that could probably be massaged into a best-selling self-help book: that often, the optimal strategy will actually look like a mistake, based on the assumptions of the old strategy. Accordingly, if we want to come up with a genius new way of doing things, we should look first to things that seem unlikely or silly. Like George Costanza, we should at least consider doing the total opposite of what we’re currently doing. But, wait: what? Didn’t I claim, at the outset of this essay, that we should imitate others? Should we imitate highly successful people who do not imitate other highly successful people? Under what circumstances? It seems like our guidelines have generated an interesting internal contradiction. Magnus is doing things that seem a little crazy to the uninformed, but are not, in fact, that strange to someone who has his highly specific knowledge. Good for him! Not good for those who want to imitate his success. *** Magnus has this weird dead-eyed look on his face a lot of the time. It’s the kind of seemingly vacant gaze we associate with stereotypical depictions of stupidity or advanced neurological illness, not something we’d expect of the greatest chess player of all time. He and I have been in physical proximity once. He was stalking down a hallway in the Netherlands, after a difficult game at a tournament I was reporting on, and his eyeballs moved not a bit. As he brushed past me, his stare was settled on a point just in front of his face, and he followed that point down the hall, as if his head were tethered to the hand of an invisible puppeteer.  I have wondered what it looks like in there, in that point. In that mental space he carries around, that he enters while the world spins about him, and exits just before delivering a winning move. I’d like to ask him how his private mental playroom is furnished. But I suspect that whatever he’d have to tell me would only baffle me further.  As much as we all have to look for exemplars, we also have to be aware that sometimes this won’t work. To assume otherwise is to assume that there’s nothing irreducible about a person. That the gestalt that makes a given person extraordinary is composed of elements that can be neatly carved at the joints. That, effectively, I could be taught to act as you do. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But perhaps failed imitation is actually going a step further. To be able to say to someone, after hours of studying their every characteristic, the following: I’ve tried, but I cannot reproduce you.
‘Owning the Taint of Artistry’: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The author of Make It Scream, Make It Burn on being skeptical of skepticism and championing the ordinary. 

Five years ago, Leslie Jamison published her collection The Empathy Exams and became the patron essayist of feelings and pain—a writer who wrestled with the wounds and bruises that haunt others and who grappled with her own. Jamison redefined empathy and peeled back the layers of why we disdain melodrama and the performance of pain. Her new collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn (Little, Brown And Company) explores different kinds of aches: obsession, longing, and desire for the things that lie outside of our grasp.  Make It Scream, Make It Burn takes the reader through three states across its three sections—Longing, Looking, Dwelling—delivering us from being haunted by what we don’t have to showing up for what we do. These are essays about how our yearning to be understood might manifest in an obsession with a blue whale whose song soars into a wildly high frequency; about how a belief in reincarnation can “promise an extraordinary root structure beneath the ordinary soil of our days”; about a photographer who has documented the same Mexican family for 25 years, dogged by a desire for connection and completion that is impossible to fulfill. They’re also about Jamison’s own reckonings with her desires: realizing that she had “developed an attachment to the state of yearning itself” and learning how find “the pleasures of dwelling, which are harder and thicker than the pleasures of conjuring” in marriage and step-parenting and pregnancy. As in The Empathy Exams and her critical memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison is restless in these essays, circling and questioning until she lands on deeper understanding, and then refusing to rest there. I first met Jamison in 2015, when I was a student in the Columbia University MFA program and she was teaching a master class on confession and shame. Now, she is the director of the nonfiction concentration. We met in her office on the first day of the semester to talk about how this collection took shape over seven years of writing and living, about representational asymptotes and being skeptical of skepticism, and about championing the ordinary. Kristen Martin: How did you come to put all of these essays together? Some of them you originally wrote before The Empathy Exams came out. How did you come, over time, to start to see connective tissue between these different things that you were writing about, and also to revisit them, reshape them, rewrite them to create this book?  Leslie Jamison: As with The Empathy Exams, there was an organic process. If I try to break it down, it’s like a three-stage process. There’s an initial wave of writing in a lot of different directions that don’t necessarily feel connected, where I’m just following fascinations or following assignments that speak to me on some profound level or following a personal impulse toward pieces I want to write. Everything from wanting to write about the Museum of Broken Relationships, that could also be an occasion to meditate on breakups and how we hold ended relationships inside of us, to pieces that came to me from editors but somehow struck some primal chord from the beginning, like the loneliest whale in the world or kids with past-life memories. But just sort of feeling less like somebody with an aerial, conceptual map, but more like a dog tracking a series of scents. And then the second stage is that I start to sense the contours of the thematic concerns that connect those essays. In the case of this collection, this idea the really is articulated probably best in the epigraph [from Marilynne Robinson], that idea of “When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”—how we’re defined by things we can’t have or know or touch. And that to me is what brings together obsession, longing, and haunting as three thematic anchors, and certainly what brings together different things in this collection. How are we made by the things we can’t have or don’t have? It feels important to come to those contours part of the way through the process of writing and following these ideas, rather than trying to impose them top-down from the start. And then the third stage is once I have a lot of raw material and have some sense of the thematic inquiries that are connecting the pieces is thinking about how to create a collection that feels coherent, and that takes the form of structure and order—what order do I put these essays in? Which ones belong? Which ones don’t? In this case, thinking about the three sections as a way to guide the reader through the pieces. And then also revision within the pieces as a way to help them speak to each other more fully. This was everything from creating the arc of the collection, both in a conceptual sense of going from longing to having in some crude way, but also more of a method arc that goes from more reported or journalistic pieces, to more critical pieces, to more personal. But also, inside of any given essay, seeing that, say, the essays on Civil War photography and James Agee and Annie Appel are all referencing the same Sontag quote about how people “want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry”—how to make that not an unintentional repetition, but like, there’s this idea that these essays are all working through and we’re returning to it each time and hopefully understanding it a little bit better each time or in a different way each time. As far as the things you wrote fresh for this collection, were those things that you wrote after you had started to figure out a structure and then you were filling in beats in the arc? One was definitely the Second Life piece—which I wrote on commission, and the idea to write about Second Life was brought to me by my editor at the Atlantic. But the second she said it to me, I knew that I wanted to do it, not just because I was sort of obsessed with this idea of who is on Second Life, and it was more appealing to me because it was this weird sort of joke of a place that was obsolete—that was way more compelling to me than writing about Instagram. But also, part of why I immediately knew that I wanted to write about it was because I saw it immediately as the third part of this triptych, where I had written the piece about the whale, and written the piece about past-life memories, and this felt like the completion of this trilogy that I hadn’t even known existed, that had to do with people intrigued by alternate versions of themselves. Whether that’s the digital avatar, a whale, or a past life. The last essay in the collection, “The Quickening,” I at a certain point was very explicitly writing as the last essay in the collection—which was also true for “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” that I knew that would be the last essay in The Empathy Exams. I think of “The Quickening” as not like a sequel to “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” but thinking about the idea of female identity as both shaped and shamed by too much fixation on wounds and what it means to hold in mind this other female archetype of the maker, or the mother. And to reckon directly with the parts of myself that wanted to grow up, out of being the wound-dweller and into being the mother figure, but to actually, as I’m always collapsing binaries, to collapse that binary too, and say of course I’m both at once. But I see it as an ending piece that’s also in conversation with that last ending piece. In the first draft of the collection, there was an essay all about my eating disorder that was formally experimental, a kind of collage text of all the different times that I had tried to write about my eating disorder over a period of like fifteen years, and then a separate essay about my pregnancy. At a certain point, my editor and a couple of readers were pushing me on why I wanted the essay about the eating disorder to be there. And I kept saying, “I really like the way it’s in conversation with the essay about pregnancy.” And I heard myself say that enough times and I was like, if that’s why I’m invested in it, then I need to actually put them into conversation, and then that totally opened the door, and it was like, oh right, this is actually the form that this material needs to take, and at that point it really started to come together as this alternating, braided piece. By structurally braiding them, I was forced to reckon with how I was understanding these two personae—the shameful persona of the eating disorder narrator, and the more virtuous persona of the pregnant narrator, and I just wanted to come at that head-on rather than just having them both speaking to each other from across the space of different essays. Something that’s interesting about the structure of this book versus that book is that in this book you start with looking at things outside of yourself—I mean, you’re in every essay, but your focus is more documenting other people’s longings and obsessions in the first two parts of the book, and then turning the eye back on to yourself in the last section. In The Empathy Exams, we start with you and then move away. Why did it feel important to invert that arc here?   One answer to that has to do with the desire to create something new with every book, and to make the shape or the sculpture or the experience of each book feel distinct. And so, in that sense, I wanted to create a different kind of experience for the reader than the one I had already created. Of course it was going to be a different experience because the essays are about different things, and ranging over different terrains subject-wise and emotionally and even geographically. But whereas in The Empathy Exams I had been interested in how a narrator who began the collection by articulating these deeply personal experiences—what you get from following that narrator out into the world but carrying with you this knowledge of some of the emotional baggage that narrator was carrying with her. I was just as interested in the inverse of that experience in this collection, which is to say you see someone moving through the world, as we’re always doing—you move through the world on any given day and you see a bunch of strangers and don’t know all the baggage they’re carrying with them, but know that it’s there. That sense of getting to see that narrator—which again, as you say, I’m present in all of the essays—but to see this journalistic voice then peel away these layers as the collection continues to expose or articulate or ruminate on some of the personal experiences that are driving or motivating these interests in longing or obsession or being made by what we can’t touch. That’s an interesting arc to go on, to see how somebody’s interest in others is often fueled or inevitably dogged and shaped by what it is that they’re reckoning with in their own lives. It became exciting for me to think about how the structure of the collection could enact what we know to be true of the strangers we see on the street in an abstract sense, but we aren’t usually going through that process of seeing somebody move through the world and then seeing this exposed, X-ray version of what it is they’re carrying inside themselves. But it might be possible over the course of a collection to enact that X-ray. I feel like one of the threads in the book is about the impossibility of fully documenting someone else’s story and this asymptote we come up against in being able to reproduce what has happened in anything on the page. At one point, you write, “making art about other people always means seeing them as you see them, rather than mirroring the way they would elect to be seen.” So, it’s not only this failure of language, but this failure of being able to know someone or fully empathize with them. When you were writing the essays about other people, and even with the essays about yourself, how were you reckoning with reaching that asymptote? I guess one of the ways that I reckon with asymptotes is by confessing that they’re there, and it feels like documenting other people’s confrontations with the limits of representation and what’s frustrating about that is more interesting than the kind of more claustrophobic gesture of simply commenting on the incompleteness of my own representation of anything. You can feel like this very cloistered hall of mirrors if you’re doing a thing and then commenting on your own attempt to do the thing. It felt like it just let some oxygen into the collection to actually look at these other people’s attempts to do the thing rather than just self-reflexively lamenting my own incomplete attempt to do the thing. And certainly, I think, in a way, that’s why my essay on [the photographer] Annie Appel does feel like the culmination of that second section to me, just because her story feels like such a stark embodiment of the inevitability of completeness when it comes to representation, and the ways that that sense of incompleteness is both a frustration and an engine. It can feel like a flaw or liability but it’s also this very dynamic motivating force. And so the figure of this woman who with very little institutional support or funding had become obsessed with this single ordinary family and for 25 years just kept photographing them—there was just something so moving to me about that, and it just held so many of the tensions that I was interested in in art and art that was somehow documenting other people’s lives. Like the tension between finding extraordinary truths in very ordinary lives, the tension between never achieving complete representation but achieving something maybe more honest in recognizing that completion, and just being willing to do it anyway. Being able to say look, this representation is flawed. It’s not the whole story. But rather than simply give up in the face of that, we keep trying to put something out there. And the Borges parable that shows up in the essay about Annie also feels like a useful encapsulation of that—that for a map to show everything about the world, it would have to be as large as the world, and so that there is something useful that happens in that inevitable reduction too, that it makes it possible to see or to experience. And even in the fact that by documenting this family, she’s also changing them. She’s involved in their lives—she’s not trying to pretend that her fingerprints aren’t on the photos. Yeah, she’s owning the taint of artistry. Some of the most both compositionally and aesthetically but also emotionally interesting photographs of hers are the ones where she’s in there too. I love that photograph of her with Maria and Jaime at their kitchen table, where you see her camera is on the table, so you’re seeing that evidence of her role as a documenter. But you also see the fact that these are just three people who have spent a lot of time together, and have both the intimacy of that exposure but also the wariness of that exposure, and that all of those dimensions of their relationship are sitting there side by side in that picture feels to me as one iteration of her willingness to own her place in that drama.  And then in the Civil War photography essay, responding to the portrait of the soldiers, not necessarily the battlefield photos of the soldiers. So, this constructed thing doesn’t necessarily have to be a failure because we see that it’s constructed. Something is getting communicated even if it’s clearly a representation and not a full reproduction. Yeah! And in the same way sort of responding to the Alexander Gardner photograph of the rebel sharpshooter where the soldier’s dead body had been posthumously arranged, and responding to and trying to make sense of people’s indignation when they found out that it had been constructed in that way and that that made it inauthentic. But having a very different response that this doesn’t make it inauthentic—it’s another kind of authenticity, to  think about what sort of desire was at play when a photographer wanted to arrange the body in this way. There’s truth in that desire to tell a certain kind of story about war that’s even more interesting to me than the truth of how the body happened to fall. A constant between The Empathy Exams and The Recovering and this book has been this skepticism of skepticism. In The Empathy Exams, you’re defending saccharine; in The Recovering, you’re defending the platitudes of AA meetings; and then here, there are moments where you’re grappling with wanting to believe in the people who believe that their children are reincarnated. When did you start to doubt doubt as a writerly pose, and how has that doubt of doubt developed and changed for you in your writing career? [My] job talk [at Columbia in 2015] was the first time that I formally adopted that pose. I mean, obviously as you point out, it had been this throughline stance that I was invested in in my work—coming to the defense of something that seemed uncool or untenuous or unrigorous, to like sentimentality or to like clichés or to believe people who believed in reincarnation. All these forms of naiveté, I think temperamentally I’ve been drawn to defending them, and maybe that just comes from a desire to defend the underdog. Some of that was at play with Annie too, that there’s something so deeply earnest about her self-presentation as an artist that I think that same part of me was also like, I want to jump to this person’s defense or this cliché’s defense or this sentimental text’s defense. But that job talk was really the first time that I tried to put a real thematic name to that throughline that had been showing up in my work for a while. And I’m sure it felt satisfying to me to make that stance explicit at an Ivy League job talk, to be like, there’s a certain kind of skepticism that seems too cool for school and what’s that about? I have literally never thought about this in relation to that—but I do think there are some childhood dynamics that are probably at play in terms of why that role feels like a natural one to me. I grew up in a household where I was the youngest person in my family by nine years, and my older brothers both had very rigorous, quantitative minds. They’re both economists, as is my father, and so all three of them were very smart, very critical, and very good at poking holes in arguments, and ruthlessly logical and pretty skeptical of a lot of things. And so I think it was sort of an available role in the ecosystem and probably had something to do with  gender too, to be the youngest and a girl and almost being the one who did something other than poke holes in things. I think that I could be the enthusiast in the room and that role hadn’t been cast yet, so I showed up and tried to fill it. So probably some of the deep grooves are borne of that kind of family dynamic. And then I think there is probably some emotional or social motivation behind it too, that I grew up in L.A. and was not one of the cool girls, and so I sort of developed this affective affinity for the underdog. Lots of people have an affinity for the underdog—it’s more fun to have an affinity for the underdog than for the overdog, it’s a tried-and-true mode of relation. But I think for me there was a little bit of this sense of wanting to defend things that are uncool, that had come from that teenage self too. So when I resist Didion, I’m resisting her dismissal and I’m resisting her skepticism, but I think I’m also a little bit still resisting the cool girls in high school. Because, you know, she’s kind of a cool girl. With her packing list! And her size 2 dresses and her bottle of whiskey and…I’m sure some of my relation to drinking was wanting to finally be one of the cool kids, and some of my relation to sobriety is wanting to sort of rehabilitate or defend the not-cool kid who’s not packing a bottle of whiskey on their reporting trip, that is packing a Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi instead.  I think that something that’s a little different in this book is turning back around on the doubting doubt again. Like to say, who am I to say that nothing is alien to me, and do I really want to believe these people who believe their child is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot? Yeah, I think you’re exactly right! To some extent, it’s another form of ongoingness, which so many of the essays are interested in. I think one of the forms of ongoingness that I am compelled by is the continual turning of the screw in terms of an idea. So, you don’t rest on doubt, you don’t rest on the dismissal of doubt, you are constantly turning it another notch, or toggling between two signs of a tension rather than landing on either one. I think so much of my work sort of insists on oscillating back and forth between competing forces rather than settling on one, and I think skepticism and the resistance to skepticism is another one of those tensions. I want to ask about the last section, Dwelling, where you kind of have an arc of your own. You begin with “Rehearsals” about being a wedding guest, and yearning, and “The Long Trick,” about the death of your grandfather, who was “the original absent man”—which is again, wanting what we can’t have, or don’t have—and then there’s this series of essays toward the end about showing up for daily life and finding spark in the ordinary. How did you come to put that arc together? I’m also curious if writing about finding spark in the ordinary has changed the way you see your daily life.  First of all, it’s really gratifying to hear you articulate that arc, because it meant a lot to me to try to make an entire book but particularly make that final section in a way that didn’t just feel like some kind of crude, “all right, we’ll just put the reported pieces here and the critical pieces here, and then we’ll just put the personal pieces at the end.” That it really was so much more about creating that journey from outward to inward, but really also letting my ideas evolve, and within that third section, having a journey from longing to inhabiting. I think that to some extent, it was a version of this logic that we’ve already been talking about—writing toward the things that I felt passionate about, not just in the external world, but in my own life, and then stepping back and noticing that, both because of what I had lived, but because of how the things I was living were shaping my attention, that there was this arc that emerged. And, there were certain things that I thought I first I was doing for craft reasons that I realized were serving that emotional arc. For example, “Rehearsals,” that essay about being a wedding guest, initially I had decided that I wanted to put it in—and actually, it was a late addition to the book, not because it was written late but, because I hadn’t initially been thinking about it as part of the collection. But I realized I was really attached to some of the writing in it, in that way that you feel you hit a sort of electricity in your prose sometimes. I felt like there was something there that I felt proud of. And also I liked the idea of an essay that had a different texture to it than some of the other essays—it’s shorter, it’s more lyric, it feels more like a burst of energy than a long-form piece, and I liked the idea of having some variation in the pieces. So, at first, I was thinking about it almost in a tonal or aesthetic way. But then I realized, oh, of course, content-wise it also makes sense to have this essay about being a wedding guest before I’m writing about my own wedding and becoming a mom! It’s almost like I tricked myself into a narrative arc in that sense. I think once I was looking at all the essays that felt like they were a part of this section, then these interesting conversations between them started to emerge. Like in “Rehearsals” I write about how we think about weddings as beginnings, but they’re also endings, and in the Museum of Broken Hearts, I’m essentially writing about the inverse of that, which is to say we think of the end of relationships as endings, but they’re also beginnings in a way of the afterlife of memory. To me, that’s what a collection is all about, is the way that these essays acquire this layer of meaning by virtue of both being present, even if you’re not always spelling it out. I guess what I really wanted to do in that final section is have that narrative arc where you are getting the sort of satisfactions that I think are real as a reader of watching a narrator move through space-time and move through the events of her life, but it wasn’t just that narrative journey—that there are also these ideas that are getting shaped. And in terms of whether that attention to the ordinary has changed my relationship to living the ordinary—yeah, I think they’re in a real feedback loop. I would like to believe that finding ways of writing about ordinariness is constantly returning me to my daily life with some sense of, this isn’t just trudging or drudgery, that every moment of this life is a site for meaning. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes take a break and Instagram on our phones—it doesn’t always have to be the deep communion—but that we’re alive to that possibility in any given moment.  I just read August 9–Fog by Kathryn Scanlan, and it’s really like an erasure poem essentially. She found the diary at an estate auction somewhere in the Midwest of a woman who lived on a farm, and it was just her recording her ordinary, daily life, but Kathryn Scanlan sort of whittled it down into these very sharp fragments that are still ordinary life, but just like distilled and juxtaposed. It will be like “Niagara Falls jigsaw puzzle turned out very pretty / very hard,” that will be the whole page of text. You’re moving through the seasons and you’re moving through cycles of life and death, and there are these larger life events lurking in the margins that show up, but it’s a book that kind of trains you or invites you to see how luminous the ordinary really is. Anyway, I just read that last week, and I had that feeling of having one’s life philosophy better distilled and articulated outside oneself. So, I think I’m always on the lookout for the ways other people are finding ways to represent the ordinary as well. And I think in a way—this is one of the chips on my shoulder when it comes to nonfiction—I think we’ve accepted for so long that ordinary life is viable material for fiction, and that fiction can make extraordinary things about ordinary life, but in nonfiction it feels a little bit harder for us to accept that. I think there’s more pressure in nonfiction for there to be something extraordinary about the narrative itself. And so, it’s almost like we need to claim that same space in nonfiction for the ordinary as art.
Magic Eraser Juice

Driving an ambulance in an opioid-torn city in the age of Narcan.

There is one particular alley in my city which is policed by a local little person on a scooter named Leticia. She sports a stylish short haircut, heavy makeup, and a shoulder bag with a large handmade pin which reads "I have narcan." She has to reach up above her head to the handlebars of her scooter, and she can dart the thing through traffic with breathtaking agility. I've seen her screaming at a guy to put his dirty needles in a sharps container instead of leaving them out on the sidewalk. Last time we ran into her she asked if we had any gloves. We went into our ambulance and gave her our last box. We figured she'd probably have more field saves than us by the end of the night anyway. An opiate overdose kills you by first lulling you to sleep and then slowly suppressing your respiratory drive. You breathe ten times a minute, then eight, then four. You turn blue. Your breathing stops, your brain begins to die, and eventually your heart stops pumping. It looks like a pretty good way to go—until some over-caffeinated paramedic like me stabs you with Narcan and ruins everything. Narcan (generic name: naloxone) is a competitive opioid receptor antagonist, which means that the Narcan floods into you bloodstream and bonks all the heroin off its receptors. This ends both the overdose and the high. So, with a cartoon-zombie exaggeration, quite literally back from the dead, the patient sits up, gasps, cries, sometimes vomits, and almost always looks around with wide, sweaty, who-the-fuck-are-you confusion.   "Good morning!" we say, way too casual. "Welcome back." ***  It's pretty common in my city to have a dose of Narcan drawn up and rubber banded onto the rearview mirror of the ambulance. We keep the rest of our gear all the way in the back of the rig and we run so many overdoses that it's just easier to have the Narcan ready to go. We're lazy that way, I guess.  You remember Epi-pens? You probably knew a kid in your elementary school who had to keep one in his backpack in case he was attacked by a peanut. They make those for Narcan now, and they give them out at clinics and the needle exchange. It's a little plastic device which contains a single dose, quick-release Narcan shot and can be given with little or no training. They're all over the street.  "We gave him Narcan already!" a homeless man shouts as we pull up. "I gave him two of the thingies, the ones they gave us!"  Police carry them, social workers, other drug users. Often a patient will get far more than the recommended dose before we arrive, and we will step carefully through a pile of used heroin needles and Narcan packaging on our way to the patient. I've Narcan'd the same guy twice in a shift. Some days everyone is just dying and coming back left and right like junkie whack-a-mole.   *** Fentanyl is quick, beautiful, and cheap, and it kills you.  What does it mean to drive around with an antidote? It's a strange feeling, knowing that there's an oops button on an overdose. We don't always get there in time. If you're by yourself, or if you took a particularly strong blend, or if your friends suck at calling 911, sometimes you die all the way. But a lot of the time, you die most of the way, and then we pop you full of magic eraser juice, and you come stumbling back from the edge.   There's a range of reactions on waking up. Some patients are upset, some surprised, some nonchalant. "Oh, I've OD'd a bunch of times."  One patient walks away as soon as we get to the hospital. We pull the gurney out of the back of the ambulance and he casually undoes his seatbelts and gets up. We ask where he's going and he tells us he's going to walk back down the hill and buy another hit. I ask if there's anything I can do to change his mind and he laughs and says no, but maybe you can try again next time. We bring back a woman wearing matching mittens and a hat who is confused, then starts to cry. She's been using meth every day but has been clean from heroin for 20 years. I arch an eyebrow. She sobs, then screams, then grabs my arm.  "How did this happen? Who did this? I have to know what happened." She repeats herself, panicked, still high on the meth she was probably shooting before she took the dirty dose by mistake. "Where was I? Who did this? How did this happen? I could have died! I could have died?" We try to calm her, but she's so far gone into her own circles that it's difficult to get through. We wake up plenty of overdoses who claim they're clean, but she's so up front about the meth use that I start to believe her story. Once she slows down a little we determine that she shot up what she thought was her usual meth dose and woke up to a team of paramedics pressing a mask to her face and hauling her off the ground into a gurney.   She was going to dose her friend next, the man who called us, and when she realizes that if he had gone first he might have died she starts sobbing again. "It could have been you! If it wasn't me it would have been you! Oh my god, how did this happen?" We found her lying in a puddle behind a gas station, with a pile of so many scattered needles that we had to pull a sideways one out of her thigh. Here you are, Miss Mittens, at two in the morning, lying in a heroin-riddled alleyway, in a heroin-torn city, in the heroin-soaked night, you've lost half your friends to ODs, and you're tying off your arm and pumping your vein full of some sketchy meth that you bought from who knows where, and you're, what, suprised that things went badly? We could lecture her, or be mean about it. On the other hand, fuck it, you know? It was an honest mistake. She's not taking it out on us, she's just plain scared. I unpackage a disposable blanket and wrap it around her. "I'm so sorry this happened to you. We're going to take really good care of you. Just focus on your breathing, okay? We've got you now." ***  We wake up a guy in his thirties who says, "Shit... Did I OD?" Yeah, man, we gave you Narcan. Welcome back. He sighs, leans his head back, and looks defeated. "I was clean for seven years." He shakes his head. We close the charting computer and talk for a while. He tells us how he got clean, put his life back together, even worked in a drug counseling clinic to help other addicts get off the street. He's a young white guy with a beard, flannel shirt, and torn jeans. He's wearing a T-shirt from a band I like under the flannel. He tells us he hates the failure but he's been slipping lately. His voice is soft but he holds nothing back. A brush with death always brings closeness with it, but to be brought back from a death which was caused by your own greatest personal vice—to have lost your greatest struggle, and then look up from the depths into the eyes of your witnesses, there's nothing left to hide.  "Is there anything, you think, that anyone could do for you? A program, a counselor, a friend? Is there anything that we could do? You seem like someone who could fight this. What would work, do you think, for you?" He stares at his hands for what seems like a long time.   "No," he says finally. "I don't think there's anything that would help. It's a hell of an addiction."  *** They say heroin is amazing. It's a cheat code. That it's better than any other feeling that you've ever had up until that moment. Everything you've ever tried for, every challenge you've failed or risen to, every struggle and every injury, it all just falls into place. It was all worth it, every minute, every gasp, to bring you here to this moment. It's meditation, it's orgasm.  I'm not a heroin user, but I know what it feels like to search for something and think you've found it. I know that aching, dark emptiness of an addict, and the feeling that one more step, one more grasp, and it's just within reach; that thing you've been hunting for, the thing which has kept you up at night. It's right there, right beyond your fingertips, just stretch a little farther, escape a little more. I can't begin to know the pain of a true opiate addiction, but I have no judgments for those in the struggle. A lot of people blame the Sackler family for the current American opioid crisis that has swallowed cities like mine; immigrant pharmacists turned CEOs turned opiate drug kingpins, the Sacklers created Oxycontin. Released in 1997, Oxy was stronger, purer, and more addictive than any prescription pain pills that came before it. Its "time-release" formulation made for easy crushing, snorting, and shooting. The soul of the poppy flower wove its way from opium in Turkish smoking dens, morphine for Civil War soldiers, laudanum for menstrual women, the heroin of jazz musicians, and found its home in orange pill bottles across every strata of the American experience. Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers, marketed the drug so heavily that they were eventually convicted of felony "misbranding." They said it was non-addictive, abuse-proof. (So did the first doctor to inject morphine with a syringe, incidentally; he said the addiction had been caused by eating the drug, but injection was safe.) Purdue bought and sold doctors to over-prescribe the medicine across America, bringing in billions of dollars in profits. Rich and poor, black and white, Purdue Pharma bought lunches and dinners and weekends on yachts for the doctors who prescribed the most pills to the most humans. Reps were given bonuses for getting doctors to prescribe more pills and higher doses.  Long before the Sacklers, before time-release capsules and hydromorphone isomers, the British went to war with China over opium. Europeans wanted Chinese tea and silk and couldn't find enough silver to pay for it all, so traders flooded China with opium from India instead. The addiction spread quickly, the need grew, and soon Southern China began to writhe and cripple under the poppy flower's curse. The Qing dynasty tried to outlaw the drug and stop the influx. The British drug suppliers, with profits burning in their eyes, sent war ships into Chinese ports to blast their way to their opium riches. Two separate wars followed this plotline, only twenty years apart.  Historians still debate the long-term effects of it all, but a thin sticky tar-colored thread runs itself across an ocean and two hundred years. There was a dusky evening, once, in Southern China, say 1842. Gold would be found in California in seven years' time. Maybe it was late spring, maybe the crickets hummed as the nights began to warm for the season. Maybe a shorebird cried out, a wave slapped a wooden dock, a rope sagged heavy with moss against a boat. A man leaned on the rotting wall of a shop front and sucked opium through a pipe. The smoke burned his lungs and filled his head with warm clouds as war raged around him. His life melted, his worries faded, the creases in his worn face relaxed and lay open to the last of the evening light. The money he would pay for this feeling, the unlimited resources that could be torn from his hands to fulfill this need. Men in parliaments would curse and tear up trade agreements, fire would be set to ships, borders re-drawn, before he would give up that dope. There's a diagram to be outlined, somehow, between that tired Chinese pipe and the needle in the sidewalk under my boot. That man, if he could pick himself off the storefront wall, walk a few steps, peer his head through the filmy curtains of time, what would he say to my sidewalk junkies on the downtown streets? My twisted, bleeding twenty-five-year-olds, sleeping on cardboard, scratching at infected sores, poking needles in their battered arms. Would he nod, half-asleep in the fog? Would he pass the pipe? So I'm driving around the city at one in the morning, seeing street folks wrapped in blankets dancing to a boom box, milk crates full of crack pipes and diapers, scarred arm veins waving up at the city lights, sleeping bags pushed against the forced air heat vents of a sewer grate, and I'm listening to the radio, to politicians and talking heads discussing what to "do" about it, how to "fix" it, with policies and regulations and focus groups, addiction, trauma, law and order, enabling, decriminalization, buzzword after buzzword coming down like rain. And I can't stop reading about the Opium Wars, how humankind found out just how beautiful and deadly this shit was, just how far humans would stretch their misery to fulfill the need for smack. I've had a lot of non-medical folk ask me about fentanyl lately. What's it like? It's awful, isn't it? They should do something about it, and right away! Well, sure, I guess. Who's they?  I love that you're sitting at a mahogany table on the thirty-fourth floor trying to double-click a solution out on your laptop, I love the effort, I really do, but I'm watching Leticia the scooter mayor wearing the gloves we gave her dig through her purse and the ghost behind her plunge the needle into his vein and lean his head back and exhale, just close his eyes and breathe the syrup into his blood and give a little shiver and his whole world gets soft and you're up in your apartment and I know you can hear the sirens but we look like ants from where you are.
The Swimming Pool Library

This summer, I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.

"To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition."- John Cheever, "The Swimmer" "As you know, we've been swimming, and we've developed a taste for it." - Lisa Simpson, "Bart of Darkness" Arrogantly, I have always believed that I am more myself in water than on land. It's just the way that water, like any true celebrity, makes one feel known and held, so long as there is air in our lungs. When I quit my full-time job in July, I decided to resituate myself by swimming in as many outdoor public pools as I could physically take. The city of Toronto hosts a constellation of fifty-eight outdoor pools—fifty-seven currently swimmable—so I didn't lack for water, and being newly unemployed, for time. This wasn't about discovering the biggest or best in the city. Rather, I was inclined to find a path in them, so that I could feel as if I were, dear lord, going somewhere. As in John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer," I assigned myself the task of swimming home, moving through the neighborhoods and communities that, side by side, would bring me back to myself.  "The Swimmer": a jovial middle-aged Westchester resident named Ned "Neddy" Merrill, gin-drunk in his friend's backyard, announces his intention to swim home by way of the fifteen private (and one public) pools that punctuate the properties between himself and his Bullet Park mansion. This setting is powerfully Cheeveresque, to the extent that Mad Men—which shook down many of Cheever's stories for tone and content—located the Drapers' Ossining residence on Bullet Park Road, a fictional street named for Cheever's 1969 novel, Bullet Park. In "The Swimmer," Ned's impetus seems mostly romantic; a way of leaving the party in style, reassembling the built waterscape into something natural. "He seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county." There's no good reason for Ned to do this, other than the fact that he wants to, and believes he can.  As a swimmer, I have no particular gifts. I have a serviceable stroke and an absurd kick. I love to dive and somersault and generally roughhouse. My identity as a swimmer is as much defined by the pools, lakes, and swimmin' holes I've swum as the ones I've encountered in art, film, and literature. Mostly, I just enjoy being in the water; the leisure, the coolness, and the distance from anything resembling work. The almost ekphrastic pleasure of reading about something set in or near a pool provides its own bone-dry satisfaction.  "The Swimmer" was published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker, 55 years before I decided that I too would swim home. On my laptop, I examine a map of the city's pools, tracing a line between the ones that form a jagged nautilus spiral towards my apartment. I am compelled to do it the way billionaires seek Everest and, presumably, further billions. I will swim across the city, because I want to, and believe I can. Day I—Three pools (Riverdale Park East, Kiwanis, Monarch Park), 32 km cycled  I cycle to Riverdale, and then East York, passing a football field dotted with hundreds of motionless seagulls. I admire the mid-rise apartment complexes and their vainglorious names: Terraces, Towers, and Arms. They seem beautiful and banal and untouched in the way that I don't associate with Toronto, a city of cranes and Crane Girls. Nested in a leafy little enclave is Monarch Park, my third pool of the day after large and liminal Riverdale Park East and sunny, sweet Kiwanis. I fold my clothes into a mustard yellow locker that bears the warning AMANDA'S don't touch OR ELSE, with the rebuttal, OR ELSE WHAT BITCH, scratched in below.  The Monarch Park pool boasts an intriguing macaroni shape with a robin's egg blue slide nestled into its bend, a generous concrete deck, and lots of comfortable seating. I position myself in a purple plastic Muskoka chair behind the deep end lifeguard. A set of adult twins scream unintelligibly, pelting a tiny Nerf football at each other. There are a good deal of adults and small children—fairly consistent at every pool I visit. But Monarch Park has different social patterns, with the kids all playing together, and parents pulling their chairs together in a circle to gossip and flirt. The soft, divided idyll reminds me of Tom Perrotta's novel Little Children, about an extramarital affair between two lost adults that is, in part, cultivated at the town pool. "As badly as Sarah sometimes wanted to just grab Todd by the face and kiss him, to crawl onto his towel and blast away the pretense that they were just a couple of pals killing time together, she wanted just as badly to hold on to the innocent public life they'd made for themselves out in the sunshine with the other parents and children." [[{"fid":"6705696","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"High Park Splash Pad/Monarch Park Outdoor Pool Lockers","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] The adults watch as their respective children play at the far end of the pool, one of them with a shark fin strapped to her back. The "innocent public life" that Perrotta articulates is a rare form of peace that thrives at the public pool. "If they had an affair, all this would have to head underground, into a sadder and darker and more complicated place. So she accepted the trade: the melancholy handshake at four o'clock in exchange for this little patch of grass, some sunscreen and conversation, one more happy day at the pool," writes Perrotta. In the water, I flip around aimlessly like a happy seal, warming my face in the late afternoon light as the laughter of adults, and more distantly, children, floats over me.  Pools, like people, can be both subject and object. We swim in them, soak them into our hair and let them dissolve our swimsuits with the same chemicals that protect us from spontaneous algae blooms. But we also love to just look at them. Three years after Cheever wrote "The Swimmer," David Hockney painted A Bigger Splash, which pins the moment after a dive against a still pastel background, the splash itself the only kinetic presence. The painting is nebulously referenced in Luca Guadagnino's 2015 feature film of the same name, a sensual thriller that features—as does his earlier feature, 2009's I Am Love—a pool-related death. In both the painting and the film, the person who authored the splash never transcends it. What remains is water. Pools are naturally erotic, like the language we use to describe them—aquamarine, sapphire, azure, and cerulean—all the horny words for a blue you can't quite hold onto. They are also natural sites of tension (drowning, social exclusion, sunburn). They are places where we reveal our bodies to each other in public anonymously, above and below water. Pools were the first public spaces where it was socially acceptable to be somewhat undressed, and cinema, like the Esther Williams aquamusicals of the 1940s, normalized the female body in a tight maillot, bullet tits and all. On film, pools grant directors permission to linger on bodies outside of the bedroom, private with a public conceit. Bunny painting her toenails in The Big Lebowski, Elle Woods's aerial view Harvard Law School video application, all the pool party scenes in Boogie Nights, Sebastian flashing his peach emoji butt at Annette in Cruel Intentions, Clueless's opening montage where Cher Horowitz asks, "Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?" But none of this happens at the public pool. In Perrotta's Little Children, sex is carefully avoided to maintain the purity of the space.  Sex is one of the fantasies of the private pool, to be bought and enjoyed in one's own backyard. Public pools are where the possibility of sex originates, which is its own thrill.  Day II—Two pools (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools, Greenwood Park), 25.1 km cycled Never have I seen such density of children in my life. They're everywhere, campers with the city's various programs wearing backpacks as big as they are. They come streaming in shortly after my friend Tess and I lay out our towels (she forgot one, so in a compromise, spread out her shorts and T-shirt, in the shape of a flattened body). The Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools in the Beaches is a fascinating structure, a big concrete stadium cantilevered aboveground to avoid the pre-existing utilities that digging would've interfered with. The effect is a wide view of Woodbine Beach, volleyball players, bathers, and the lake, with a thick haze hovering over the water. Through the puddle-filled and somewhat decrepit change room, then upstairs, we're met with an impressive sight: a 50-metre Olympic, perpendicular to which is a smaller, shallow pool where campers, children, and their parents play together, even a few babies. At the far end is a diving pool with two springboards, plus a five- and ten-metre diving tower. Tess and I dare each other to jump from the five-metre platform, which was much much much scarier than I thought it would be at deck level. Around us, zealous teenagers bellow commands and scoldings through plastic cones. We are all, it seems, making huge mistakes. It is worth noting that the aforementioned characters—Little Children's Sarah, Elle Woods, Bunny Lebowski, Annette Hargrove, and Cher Horowitz—are all white, and as I moved from Riverdale Park East (which, incidentally, has a huge slide), to Kiwanis, to Monarch Park, to the Beaches, I was aware of the fact that these movies aren't indicative of the diversity of contemporary public pools. At Kiwanis, I was delighted to see a row of bikini babes lying in the sun, punctuated by two women in burkinis doing the same.   In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse writes that "a social transformation occurred at municipal swimming pools after the mid-century. Black Americans challenged segregation by repeatedly seeking admission to whites-only pools and by filing lawsuits against their cities." On the first leg of my pool tour, I saw the city at its most diverse—age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and body type. As Wiltse points out, the public pool was (and is) a place where class was visually erased, swimming attire being more-or-less universalizing. Swimming became socially acceptable within the middle and upper classes as more resorts and athletic clubs dug pools that were suitably genteel (the invitation-only New York Athletic Club built an extravagant affair of marble and tile, with a row of chandeliers). This was followed by the private pool boom of the 1950s, motivated—much like the white flight to suburbs like Cheever's Westchester—by the integration of public spaces. Public pools, like so many things, have been shaped by white supremacy. Is it any wonder that in all these movies, private pools are almost uniformly white spaces, whereas public pools, like the one in Cheever's story, were viewed as vulgar and chaotic. [[{"fid":"6705701","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":" The Bathing Suit/Christie Pits Splash Pad","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] In a recent New York Times piece, "Women Crash the Pool Party," Amanda Hess writes about how swimming pools became a symbol of opulence and exclusivity partly through their role in segregation. "The glittering image of white luxury rested on barring black swimmers; if a person of color set foot in a whites-only 'public' pool during Jim Crow, it would be drained." Interviewed in The Guardian in 2015, Wiltse remarked that from racist preconceptions about "black people carrying communicable diseases," these kinds of extreme and alienating policies were primarily enforced because of "white anxieties about black men interacting with white women in an intimate public space." These measures were particularly damning for children, and the legacy of this municipally sanctioned marginalization is still felt today. "Black people in the United States drown at five times the rate of white people," writes University of Toronto academic Jacqueline L. Scott in her article "Swimming while Black," and one of the most pervasive stereotypes to this day is that black people simply don't like to swim. In fact, they have historically been robbed of safe and inclusive opportunities to do it. North American public pools had to do with skin right from the start. They were first created as a cheap and accessible method by which the poor—who had no running water in their homes—could bathe, and therefore not bring their diseases to bear on citizens who had private baths in their homes. In 1888, public baths were declared a "profitable sanitary investment," founded on a dubious understanding of how diseases were spread, and a desire to keep the working-class immigrants and people of color in their own, usually badly neglected, neighborhoods. But they didn't stay that way.  As Wilste writes, pools were originally segregated along class and gender lines. Sex and poverty were the most pressing threats, so people of all ethnicities swam in the same pools, if not precisely together. The late 18th century saw a boom in swimming culture, with boys and men swimming naked in rivers and lakes, in full view of polite society. Cities like Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York had swiftly ballooning populations, and municipal infrastructure wasn't prepared for the cultural and material needs of the working classes. They experimented with indoor public pools for bathing, as well as river baths, ingenious covered shelters that perched in the water, protecting swimmers from being dragged away in strong river currents, and passersby from the impropriety of public nudity.  In 2019, Toronto's public pools are uniquely equipped for the needs of different swimmers. Fourteen public pools schedule Female Swim programs to reflect different religious and cultural requirements. Likewise, they also offer Open and Inclusive (LGBTQ2) Swim, "incorporating all gender expressions and body types," and Adapted Swim programs for those with special needs and/or disabilities. The inclusive work of Toronto's public pools practice seclusion rather than segregation. By creating a safely demarcated margin within a public space, those who were previously left out are now able to participate on their own terms, a right that someone like me has always taken for granted.  Water doesn't discriminate: it wants to kill us all equally. Not so long ago, white people decided who could get in and who couldn't, and in many American cities, the result of that remains. We all deserve to learn to swim; to be told by a patient adult that floating is as natural as breathing. Who would I be without these things? And where? Surely not jumping from a five-metre diving tower. I watch a group of children, seven or eight years old, take their turns on the platform. Each one is palpably terrified, clinging to the rail. Down below, they cheer, brightly calling, "You can do it, Sophia!" One child mutters what might be a prayer, or self-hype, at the edge of the platform before flinging herself off. Pools teach us to be brave in short bursts, a lesson that carries on land.  Day III—Two pools (Sunnyside Gus Ryder Outdoor Pool, High Park), 14 km cycled Sunnyside Gus Ryder is one of the oldest pools in the city, featuring a stucco pavilion with an incontestable Mamma Mia! vibe. Like the Beaches pool, it is flanked by the lake, murky and foul-smelling today. From 1922 to 1955, Sunnyside was a resort, complete with amusement park, pleasure boats, and beauty contests, before being demolished to make space for the Gardiner Expressway. The pool and pavilion remain, and the Gardiner's sharp division makes Sunnyside feel both remote and hectic.  In "The Swimmer," Ned's experience of the public pool is a very recognizable form of hell. "The sounds here were louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded enclosure he was confronted with regimentation. 'ALL SWIMMERS MUST TAKE A SHOWER BEFORE USING THE POOL. ALL SWIMMERS MUST USE THE FOOTBATH. ALL SWIMMERS MUST WEAR THEIR IDENTIFICATION DISCS.'" Sunnyside has more rules than any pool I've attended thus far. A refreshingly apologetic teenager forbids me from bringing my bag poolside, and so I carry my stuff out to the deck, all of it getting soaked as I pass through the mandatory showers. Sunnyside pool lacks the typical sharp corners and is instead rounded off like gift soap. It is ringed by a vented plastic gutter which a) swallows the choppy waves made by the swimmers and b) permits the deeply tanned, Speedo-wearing seniors to perch happily on it, their legs dangling into the water. There are no chairs on the narrow deck, just a concrete ridge that lines the pool and backs against a chain link fence. I put down my towel and am immediately swarmed by flies. In her book Swimming Studies, the writer and artist Leanne Shapton tells the quiet story of her early life as a near-Olympian swimmer, and the way that swimming follows her into adulthood, from training with swim clubs, to cold ponds, to hotel pools. "As I swim, my mind wanders," she writes. "Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts." She writes later of scaling the chain link fence to go night swimming in the Sunnyside Gus Ryder Pool "with two friends named Jason." My mind, too, has been drifting down a lazy river of faintly related thoughts and memories. Inspired by Shapton, all the bathing suits I've owned; the golden age of Speedo (1996); the wow now very sulfuric smell wafting over from the lake; transmission of E. coli.  [[{"fid":"6705711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Monarch Park Pool Slide/Kiwanis Outdoor Pool Deck","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Mostly, I think of the pools. I have spent more time in them this week than I have in my whole adult life. I've peed in public bathrooms wet with puddles that never dry. I've seen purple, yellow, green, and blue slides, each of them controlled by a taciturn youth. I've seen huge, and I mean Ben Affleck huge, back tattoos. I've witnessed a lifeguarding mascot in a large brown dog costume wave as his pants fell down without his noticing. I've doubled over with laughter as four or five adults frantically ran to pull the dog's pants up, struggling to tuck his tail through a hole in the back of his sweats. I've swum in rectangular pools and oblong pools and pools with diving boards and pools with no deep ends. I've swum laps in the slow lane and the medium lane, I've dropped from a five-metre diving platform, after which two teen boys in soaking wet T-shirts asked me if that hurt, because I was "pretty angled." I've eaten melted peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, most of them flavoured with sunscreen. I've taken off my bathing suit at the end of the day and seen a photogram of it left on my body. Everything I own reeks of pool, and I feel as if I've entered a happy, nudity-filled, sunburned civilization that exists while everyone else is at work.  At Sunnyside, I alternate between reading and lapping the warm droplets of water at the bottom of my Kleen Kanteen. Ned "took a shower, washed his feet in a cloudy and bitter solution, and made his way to the edge of the water. It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. A pair of lifeguards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular intervals and abused the swimmers through a public address system."  At 4 p.m., a stern teenager announces that the pool will be closing, so please, get out. It is, quite frankly, a relief. As I flee, I realize I didn't actually get in the pool. I've been frankly surprised by the sheer quantity of nice kids in these pools, but Cheever did get one thing right: the lifeguards and their whistles, towers, and megaphones. It's humbling to be yelled at so regularly by teens in aviators, but this is my life now. Day IV—Three pools (Stanley Park South, Alexandra Park, Giovanni Caboto Outdoor Pool), 16.4 km cycled Alexandra Park is the only outdoor pool not in service this summer due to extensive repairs (although the tiny Stanley Park South pool was also closed today on account of a "fouling"). Currently hidden by covered chain link fences, Alexandra Park was oddly exposed so far as pools go, adjacent to the busy Toronto Western Hospital, a McDonald's, and Tim Hortons. It's a chaotic intersection, with streetcar tracks going in both directions, treacherous for cyclists. As a location, it's anomalous compared to the pools I've been to, all of them plotted in protected swatches of green or sand as they mostly seem to be. I peer in through a gap in one of the barriers. The grey concrete pitches towards a deep end where a bunch of workers in orange vests and safety hats discuss, one assumes, the pool. Seeing a pool drained of water is like catching it naked, the bottom no longer banded with squiggles of light. "The breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream," observes Ned upon finding an empty pool at the Welchers'. The film of version of "The Swimmer" depicts this scene much differently than the story, with Ned (played by a perfectly maniacal Burt Lancaster) tending to the needs of a lonely little boy who is afraid of the water. The two of them climb down into the empty tank of the pool, and Ned leads him in a pantomime of swimming across the bottom. They argue about whether it counts as swimming, although it's obvious that both of them want to believe it is. As Ned makes his way to the next pool, he hears the boy bouncing on the diving board and runs back, grabbing him in a hug, believing that the boy was about to dive into the empty pool. [[{"fid":"6705716","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Woodbine Beach (Donald D. Summerville Olympic Pools) ","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] In Samantha Hunt's novel Mr. Splitfoot, Ruth and Nat, two foster kids recently sprung from their cultish home, develop a séance scam where they play at being mediums, connecting the bereaved to their loved ones. Ruth, who believes that only she is the fraud, realizes that Nat is also faking it when he quotes a scene from the The Swimmer, which they'd recently seen on television. "Nat chuckles as if in response to an unheard dirty joke. His head swivels, lifting his left ear to the sky, then his right. His eyes are white. 'What's the matter? I thought you were going to dive. You thought I was going to dive? There's no water in the pool.'" Nat quotes Lancaster as Ned, parlaying a fragment of a movie based on a story into something he thinks these people will want to hear.  Empty pools become dugout stages for performance, and dangerous as they are, they also present an opportunity to amend history. In "Women Crash the Pool Party," Hess writes that Beyoncé challenged the history of racism and segregation of pools in her "Formation" video. "Spliced with shots of a flooding New Orleans, a crew of black synchronized 'swimmers' creates its own waves at the bottom of an empty pool."  Day V—One pool, one splash pad (Alex Duff Memorial Pool, Christie Pits), 2 km walked Each time I read "The Swimmer," I'm delighted by the childishness of the premise, the hero's journey skewed through the driving intent of the fanatic, the delusional, the drunk. I love the mean Waspy voices whose dialogue penetrates Ned's cocksure inner narrative. But what I savour, cruel bitch that I am, is the chastening conclusion—Ned exhausted and thrust face-first into some version of reality. Most of the story I spend hating him, but at the end, I feel compassion for him, his pain, his need to keep swimming if only to prove that he's not drowning. "The Swimmer" is the bender, the hangover, and the agonizing humility of sobriety, something that Cheever—a writer whose own alcoholism was a defining part of his literary aesthetic—would've known intimately.  My mother was an alcoholic for as long as I knew her—a negligible 16 years. My understanding of drinking came when she was hospitalized during a particularly potent case of alcohol poisoning. I grew up hating the smell of alcohol, the way my high school friends swayed and slurred at house parties after mixing Schnapps and wine and whisky and before puking in the laundry room. But I was also sensitive to being perceived as a narc and worked hard to appear cool with it. Eventually, I did become cool with it. In my thirties, a few drinks quickly crowded out the day's stress. "Mommy needs a wine," I'd declare upon entering my vacant apartment each evening, only now realizing the implications. I began feeling inexplicably very sick and was instructed to cut out alcohol and Tylenol. "But my treats!" I replied, to Dr. Yu's scant laughter. Nearly two years after my last drink, I still remember the feeling of warm deflation, yielding to the undertow of my own body. As Ned swims from one pool to the next, he fuels himself with gin, wasted as much by the booze as by his own physical efforts. I think of the bottles of Bombay Sapphire I occasionally bought, blue as any pool.  It's been raining for the past few days, but today it is sunny and mild. I walk to the Alex Duff Memorial Pool—ten minutes from my house and the most crowded pool yet. I put my towel down in the shade and make my way over to the zero-depth ramp, slowly pushing into the icy water. It's sunny, but windy out, and even when I dip my head and shoulders, I feel the cold of the water penetrating my bones. "He was cold and he was tired," Cheever wrote of Ned, emerging from one of his pools, still so far from home. A child gently touches my shoulder and then floats away, murmuring, "Sorry." I had intended on swimming a few laps at every pool I attended, but here, I simply can't. I am too cold and too tired and my throat and nose sting from all the chlorine. I am sick of the sun, the sharp snap of voices, the damp towels, and broken water fountains. I leave quickly, pulling my shorts and tee shirt on over my wet suit. Walking through Christie Pits, I wade into the sun-soaked splash pad, absolutely bumping with infants. The spray hits the water, dimpling the surface hypnotically. I appear to be the only adult actually in the water, but I'm too drowsy to be embarrassed. I trudge home and take an excessively soapy shower. I pull on dry clothes, pulsing with sunburn. I am home. In the muted but terrifying final scene of "The Swimmer," a distinctly beaten-down Ned staggers up to his house, attempting to open the front door. He blames "the stupid cook or the stupid maid" before remembering that there is no cook or maid anymore. "He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty."  As all of us do, I dream frequently about my family home, sold long ago. After one of these dreams, I wake up confused and ungrateful for the apartment that uncomplainingly houses me. It is not, I believe, the right home. But every evening when I returned from the pools, it did feel that way, when I have so often and inexplicably felt like Ned Merrill, powerless to return to the seat of his vitality. That feeling is already fading, and I believe it had more to do with being at home in my body and in the city than in the actual place where I delivered myself at the end of the day.  On September 2, all of Toronto's outdoor pools will close for the season, signaling the end of summer. But there is a long winter ahead, and a quasi-subterranean stream of indoor pools that might, I suspect, continue to carry me home.
Accident Waiting to Happen

They had only been married a year and she knew with absolute certainty that his mother would blame her for this.

The lessons are held in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. The room has artwork lining the walls, slashed with rustling sheets of plastic, high sloping ceilings; church ceilings with room to spare. A group of five stands in a room too big for it. There has been a mistake. When the instructor tells them to move, they reveal themselves to be incompetent dancers and incapable of grace. The instructor stops them often. His frustration mounts. The mistakes become more frequent, one woman slips and falls hard. When she gets up they have decided to try something new. * It was like coming out of a drowse, or the haze after a long, hot bath where the water seems like sleep made liquid. When she opened her eyes, everything was composed of abstract shapes. A white something occupied the entirety of her vision and crowded out a black something to the far-left corner. It moved gently from white to grey to black, in a rhythm in time with her own breathing, and back to white again. She blinked, puzzled. She remembered that they were driving to a conference that Sy had been invited to, a well-known philosophy conference where everyone bragged about their book deals, but this thing was pressing down on her, down the entire length of her body and as she regained consciousness she became concerned, vaguely at first, and then insistently, about the fact that she had no idea where she was or what she was looking at. Her stomach was beginning to twist, pulling at her skin with goosebumps like needles as she struggled to move. Visions of people locked in basements, frantic moths fluttering silently with their wings on fire ran through her head and she felt her heartbeat increase to a steady note which ended in a dull pain in her left breast. At an emergency help seminar that she had once attended, after two hours of playing with dummies, the emergency workers had packed everything away and informed the class that if you could wiggle your toes after an accident then you were probably fine. A flight of midges had come from somewhere to coat her face and neck in a rough film. Like communication received from a rusty satellite blinking forlornly from thousands of miles away in space, she felt eight toes struggle against the insides of her shoes. Relief. Who in this day and age had any use for little fingers, especially toe pinkies? And who knew, this might even end up improving her balance. Moving on. Left hand, no pain but not free. Right hand, contained movement. She had decided to invent her own technical language for this; until she knew what the matter was she was content to treat it all like a game. She moved her right hand gingerly and touched the expanse of white in front of her. It collapsed and then ballooned back again. She pushed it off her face and saw the most absurd sight she had ever seen. It surpassed anything that had ever happened to her, and for a moment, she was relieved at the thought of being in possession of such an exceptional conversation starter. “Have you ever been in a car accident?” Never a dull party again. Although of doubtful veracity, their neighbour told everyone he met a prize story from when his wife was giving birth. She was screaming on the bed and at a crucial juncture in events he had bent down to detach a piece of gum stuck to the sole of his shoe. He looked up only to glimpse a placenta flying right at him. If his story was true, she felt a deep sympathy and a spiritual connection to him in that moment of first clapping eyes on a tissue whirling through the air and slapping him in the face. There were knobbly pieces of glass everywhere. From what she could see, which was very little, much of the tree had collapsed onto their car. Slabs of bark were jutting in through the windshield and a fine powder of crushed wood was scattered everywhere inside the car, like a trigger-happy carpenter’s workshop. “You think it only happens to other people and then you find a tree sticking through the front of your car. I mean, how hard is it to see a tree coming at you?” It must be the seatbelt which was pinning her to her seat. “Thank God for seatbelts! Still condemn the structural misogyny, though.” Things of this kind were what people her age were expected to say and she always said it too glibly, without enough force. The car felt angled somewhere disconcertingly far from one-eighty. She turned her head. Sy still had one hand on the steering wheel. While she did not know how to drive she had often dreamt of her sun-bleached arm hanging out of the window and her hair wiry and brittle, driving somewhere with red haloed grass slitting the air outside, through fields that were bumpy and scraggly and un-manicured. “Sy,” She called loudly. “‘Wakey wakey.’ I said to him, and he was so cross to be woken up.” Please. She reached out and touched his arm gently, then inched the tips of her fingers to his neck where she was sure she felt a pulse. Slow songs in the car would be too sad for him. Piano was sad, silence was sad. They had only been married a year and she knew with absolute certainty that his mother would blame her for this. The screen of her phone had detached and was lying smashed near Sy’s foot. Her left hand was trapped between the side of the seat and the door, where something had come loose during the collision. She tried to shimmy the seat away from the door and put a foot against it when she felt the car move and stopped, clutching her chest where her heart had suddenly let off a great electric beat of indignation. “Coming home late and your mum says half laughing, half angry, you scared me!” She realised she was shouting out her cocktail conversation and now began to move more gingerly, her performance of old and prudent. The seat did not budge. She tried reaching under it for the lever to move it. Her hand found it, and she was horribly aware now of the precariousness of the floor beneath her feet. She had never been prepared for something like this, perhaps if her father had been a survivalist, if Sy had been a survivalist, they never would have been in this mess. If she had been a survivalist by association she would likely have already leapt out of the car and chopped the tree down to clear way. The handle gave way and twisted without more fuss, (“Nobody had to get down on their knees!” laughter, another hit quip) it at least had remained unscathed in the crash. The seat obliged an inch and she pulled her hand out and examined it. It seemed fine, a little creased, and perhaps a tad splotchier than she would have liked. There were ugly bands of red across the knuckles. She felt entitled to a break now and her sense of her own utter uselessness increased. Sat like a spectator not knowing what to do with her hands, back to the days when she had got it into her head to take dance lessons. A tin-flat, prickly time runny with loneliness. The lessons were in a room in an old church rented out to a down-on-his-luck dancer, not exactly overworked but uninterested. All movement in the lessons was sombre. Woman on Street Bending to Pet a Dog, Stretching Hand Out to Pick Apples, Fake-Laughing at Party, everyday motions were elevated to choreography. Sometimes, secretly, she arched her shoulders and pushed them up, down, side to side to recreate a tangle from somewhere deep inside her. Once, she slipped and fell hard. When she got up Mr. Vance was having them try something new. She turned to the person next to her, a bald man wearing a Def Leppard T-shirt, and linked the base of her wrists to his so that their hands opened across each other like wings. His wrist was broad and firm and she could feel the cords of muscle working steadily. The dance teacher told them to keep moving around this fulcrum and follow their partner’s wrist, to never lose contact. Although the car was no more than a few feet high, every time she glanced outside she felt the urge to be sick. The clearing was not much bigger than a squash court and smelled like garlic and salt. Everything had flown off-kilter and she was like a rock jutting out through this new sea-world of twisted green, bark in front of her like hacked off rope and leaves spread over the ground below, which, until now, had been an inalienable constant to her feet. Now it was a snare shot of bone snapping on impact. The door was so heavy that it felt dangerously temperamental, like a missile biding its time. It swung when she pushed it open and fell against one of the upright parts of the tree with a clap. She crept to the edge, bent like an arthritic diver, whimpering and babbling nonsense, it was just air, just gas and then a solid slab of ground. Billions of little particles crammed together with all air pushed out like concrete floating on a vat of lava. The floor of the floor is lava, and that was what she was expected to jump on? Are they mad? Sy’s mouth was open like a ventriloquist’s dummy. “Who’s mad?” “Everyone! The universe!” “The universe?” “Has anyone ever told me I’m good at this? That’s what they tell you: this kind of thing never really happens. Who’s to blame? Everyone who said, ‘calm down, everything will be all right,’ that’s who. If they had told me this would happen, I would not have spent most of my life making sure my granola was soft enough to eat at breakfast.” The car was stifling, there was a strange acrid smell rising from the plastic, what if it’s on fire? She was being very loud, which bears get scared by yelling and which ones get attracted to it?   The air rushes past, whistling in and out of her ears and gathering in tears at the corner of her naked eyes and her heart stops beating, she falls through the air between heartbeats like an interrupted breath, going underwater waiting to come (once more) come up again.   She was hugging the ground and repeating the words “wow” and “oh my God” to herself. The undercarriage of the car was torn up badly near the front and accordions of pipes hung down ludicrously. With its network of snaking lines and wires, it most resembled a map of the routes the car traversed. She loved to get first prizes in competitions when she was younger. The car was only three feet off the ground, she realised as she stood there. She could easily reach in and undo Sy’s seatbelt. “This is why we take initiative, Jana!” Sy’s face had fallen over to rest on his chest and a glob of saliva was spilling from the corner of his mouth onto his linen top. He seemed to say, “remember me?” with a petulant aggression that irritated her. The man still had to be rescued. “Banging on about it.” What should she do? Sy had long, slim legs which looked good in tight jeans and which were tailor-made to run around with golden retrievers in sunny fields, but they did not lend themselves well to being pulled out of a car by a woman half his size. The back of the car was on the ground and she clambered onto the backseat and squeezed her shoulders through the gap between the two front seats to examine the situation. He could be napping on the side of a road. The trees were hemming them in, the back of her neck was prickly with dust and the golden green heat which seemed to come from the leaves. Before all this, when she used to sit in the back of the car there was always air rushing through the windows, smelling like clean sheets on a line. New and silver and sleek, like a pen. There were emergency blankets under the seat, one ragged and one fancy. Sliding back out with the blankets rolled up under her arm, she walked over to Sy’s side and stood on her toes to open the door. The car had twisted while crashing, she saw, and Sy’s side was lodged higher up the side of the tree than her own. She wedged the door open with a stick and came face to face with Sy’s suspiciously hair-free ankles. The skin was as smooth as the skin on his forehead when it rubbed against hers and he whispered her name into her cheek like a bite. She touched the gravely curved bone above the line of his shoe. This was terrible, she realised. Instead of learning from the survivalists she had put her faith in the entertainment industry. She knotted the top of the blanket to the knobbly underside of the car, which had several suitable pipes apparently for exactly this purpose, and slowly stretched the blanket taut to the ground. She nudged a starred rock lying nearby to weigh the blanket down, and then found a heavier rock to put behind the smaller one to keep it in place. “Slide of life, slice of life.” It was unreasonable that it had to be functional, too. She climbed into the car again and wrapped Sy’s head in the other blanket and then attempted to turn him to face the door. He merely slumped over like a grotesque crash test dummy, his legs hanging over the edge. She hooked a hand through the steering wheel and drew him close with her other arm across his neck, put her face against the sloping shoulder, closed her eyes for a moment and then felt discomfited because he had used the hotel shaving cream and did not smell like himself. She climbed out of the car, ran back to his side and grabbed his legs to pull them down; his arms moved upwards like pantomime wings, and when she tugged again he bobbed with a sigh like a ballerina. Then the breath broke and his head scraped the side of the doorway as he slid sideways onto the blanket. It held for a moment, straining grimly, then collapsed as a dog began barking in the distance, the bark like a heavy, wracking cough that swallowed up the air from under Sy’s body. Her ribs contracted in shock. If she thought that this might jolt Sy awake she was wrong. She bent over him. Still breathing. A drop of blood fell on his face and flowed in a steady line into his beard. “What?” It led to his face like a determined pioneer. His eyes were still open, still seeing under the eyelids and she could feel them boring needle-like both inwards and outwards. She was afraid to touch her face. A dull ache was building up in her sinuses. All she could see was the impossibly dark red wake in the dip of his nose. One’s face was only a fragile network of tunnels. He was such a handsome man. Before him she had not appreciated the importance of that slippery something which is Cool. With Sy and his friends, she was expected to stuff it into her mouth and gag on it while their palms pushed it towards her relentlessly. She was expected to contort her face and her shoulders and mince herself up and she knew why, because it was dangerous here to be human and whole and her smooth pallor would mark her out as more alien than the twisted fawn she created for them ever could. Like a ragged hunchback she stored all the Cool they exuded in her hump. She felt so old with them, so out of date, even though Sy was the one who was older and she had naively assumed that that would make an even keel. Perhaps he had only taken up with her for her entertainment value. Let’s trot the old girl out for the folks. We need a bandmember to tap the beat out, three makes a crowd. It’s the kind of music he would listen to, as well, pompous army brass bands. And it was all fine, to criticise them would be to criticise herself, because she, Jana, had chosen. They needed her to help them suck the air out of a room because they were better. Hold the grown-ups up, freelancer, code for unemployed. It was more than enough reason to gently manoeuvre him away from them. She had a throbbing headache now which pressed down over her eyes. Behind the car, tire tracks over the ground stretched backwards up a knoll. The ground was lacerated with the imprint of the tires, which was so vivid as to be alive. Now and then as she followed the tracks she could even smell burning rubber. On top of the knoll was a thick line of trees beyond which she could see the long backs of power lines. She climbed up to the road and the emptiness was like the muffling of sound after the slap of diving into water. It was doable, she could drag Sy up here. The leaves on the side of the little hill behind the road were slippery, and while climbing down she tripped and the sky spun, soapsuds in a churn of trees, before she tasted dirt upon crashing into a mulch of orange. Sy, the first time. Hand like a fern on the wooden frame of the door. Flash beneath the orange. Brushed the leaves aside and there was a thick mat like alien skin, so intensely blue that she thought she was going mad, surely this was unnatural. A carpet of electric blue Larkspur had been growing in silence, and a thick layer of leaves had collected over it so that the whole impromptu structure had now cracked like an egg, spilling blue all over her. “Felt,” “seemed.” How odd that all sense of proportion should vanish here. If she had left him in the car this could all go away and be blamed on someone else. Now it was her, her fingerprints were all over the scene. Worse, who knew what would happen when he woke up and discovered that for one brief shining moment she had abandoned herself to occupy both their bodies like some God. She bit down on her knuckle punishingly. Delusions of grandeur. Why now? It tolls for thee, stop it. “Ha ha ha.” Louder. “HA!” Better? “Yes.” The trees moved with her in a ring, branches like demure hands holding up skirts. The sky was turning as she walked to the car, their poor car prone like a dumb pet after running into a saucepan for some cheap laughs, birds chirping in circles over the concussed man outside. Come walking through here, Sy, and look back at me as you walk to the road. It occurred to her that his jeans were too tight. Well. The blankets weren’t so torn up that they couldn’t be used as a sled. A more pressing issue was how to drag him—by the feet or the arms? It would be easier to hold his feet, they were much more grippable. There was also the promise of slight amusement when she thought of his head bumping along in her wake. “Is she telling you about the part where she dragged me over all over the forest? I told her when I woke up that she should have bashed my brains out with a rock instead of this wish-wash. Non-verbal assertiveness, don’t make me laugh.” Why not her instead of him? And he would never speak like that, or would he? No, no, it was so easy, her understanding of him was already being replaced by her complacency with his silent body. Her hands were moist and raw from the dirt and there were pinpricks of blood under her skin. A mutinous feeling was welling up in her; the heat was thick and sticky, as insistent as a dripping, half bitten plum so that she felt paralysed. It was worse than being trapped in the car. Sy was used to receiving things, not her, and now that she was fine with it, she had to act until he could stroll in and be the golden boy once more. More so, because now he would be the endearingly bandaged golden boy, something she knew he had been hoping for ever since his water skiing accident fifteen years ago which he had milked for sympathy for a mindboggling two years after the event. “I said to myself, anything would be better than this mute idiot body lying like a portal to a world without him.” Maybe that would turn out to be true when he woke up. There were dragonflies here. Their bodies littered the ground and their crunch was the one in the sliding frame of her study window, where bodies of tiny insects had collected and hardened into an ill-packed mass. Her spine always felt tight in her chair with her back to the door and Sy’s hands were lodged there now, pulling at her so that her breath built up and escaped from the back of her head in a shimmer. Her torso was forced parallel to the ground and as tense as a hand curled in the process of forming a fist. A lick of her hair smudged the corner of her vision. “Does - my - bottom - look - too - big - in - this?” Each breath was ripped from the air and grew rough edged as it went in. The muscles in her arms no longer moved in smooth consultation with the rest of her body, they were becoming knotted and bunched with splinters and buds springing at odd intervals, an errant tree branch coiling stubbornly upon itself. A spot between her shoulders, the one you need another person to reach, prickled uncomfortably from the line of sweat that was crawling down her back. Her body moved forward as if through treacle, and the fluffs of pollen that skimmed the air in front of her—she could see glints of white even high up near the darker tops of the trees—only made everything feel more viscous. It was peaceful, even fitting, and she could spend her whole— “What are you doing to that man?” A thin boy with over-large eyes bulging from his head. She had over-exerted herself. She was hallucinating. “Oh. Hello.” “Is that your car? What happened to it?” “Er, yes. Are you lost?” “Did you run over that squirrel?” Oh God. “I didn’t know there was a squirrel there.” “You shouldn’t be driving where-where there aren’t any roads. There’s a road right up there. How did you get off?” The questions were a relief. Coming from this boy they did not seem like preparation for taking offence. He stood there scratching the strap of his satchel, clutching a jam jar with some dirt in it. The trees above him separated weightily in the wind and then came together with a low crash. “Do you live near here?” The boy pointed a toe conversationally. “On a farm. My daddy has two of those big combinavesters and nobody else has two. They all just have one.” “Combine harvesters?” “Combinavesters.” Show off. She did not want to share. It had been her very own solemn mission and now, Sy was something to be ashamed of and the exaggeration of having crashed into a tree was newly painful. There was also the worrisome urge to impress this boy in some way and make him so attached to her that he would cry when she left. “What’s your name?” “Licken.” “What? Like the chicken?” “Which chicken?” Farm humour. “All right, never mind, tell me, does my face look all right?” He looked at her and made a show of squinting, closed one eye and then the other and slowly narrowed them until barely open. Then he shrugged. “I don’t know what you looked like before.” Pleased with himself. She felt incredulous, what was this, intro to philosophy? It was all a big joke that she was not in on, she thought as she glanced down at Sy, feeling uncomfortably sure that he was not really unconscious but surreptitiously feeding the boy lines. This was the kind of thing he would come up with on the first day of class. Licken. That whenever she turned around to drag him, whenever she did the work like always, he opened his eyes and waggled his eyebrows to laughter from an invisible audience. “Help me drag him to the road.” Licken stood uncertainly. “Who is he?” “He’s my husband.” “Okay. What do you want me to do, then?” She looked around. There wasn’t anything for him to do. “There isn’t anything for you to do, so you can go home if you want.” He did not go home. He followed her, becoming more and more excited, asking her why she was doing this, playacting, yelling when Sy hit something or when the blanket snagged and breathing very hard. He threw down his satchel frequently. By the time they reached the road he was beginning to frighten her. She arranged Sy by the side and crouched down. Licken was whining about the heat and how she had tricked him into coming here. Down the road, an engine shifted gears and they both turned their heads to stare. A large lorry was coming their way. She stood up and waved her hands. There were people cheering and singing in the back of the lorry, someone playing a flute. The music stirred the branches and the leaves and the grass and each blade twitched as if part of the same slumbering instrument. “Hey!” Licken was jumping with her, they were both yelling. They were nearly level when everyone in the lorry waved back at her. A man wearing nothing but a cape held his arms out as if to embrace the whole world as they passed them without stopping. “We are hurt!” She screamed in full throat. “We are hurt, stop!” She heard someone laugh and toot a novelty horn before the sounds of the lorry faded. A plate of pain stretched from her throat to the front of her forehead when she breathed. Sy would wake up. He would wake up. She would know then. She slowly sat back down. Licken had dragged out a copybook from his bag and was brandishing a pencil that was too large for him. He had crossed his legs to make a bony desk and was scribbling away. She leaned over and saw that he was practicing the alphabet in careful three-line intervals. Savage, corrosive triumph rose up in her as she took the pencil from him and drew a perfect “g.” After a few minutes, his hand stole over hers as he watched her carve the same few letters into the paper. Her neat printing slowly turned into a jagged, demented scrawl as they sat waiting and the page ran out.
Searching for Duke

After years of whispers in her Polish community, Anna finally learned the truth about her father. And then she decided to go to Sri Lanka to find him.

Anna Kopec always knew she was different. Until she turned eight, she thought it was because she was adopted. "Even just sitting at the dining table. I looked around, and I didn't look like them. I didn't look like my family," she says. That's not entirely true. There is a resemblance between Anna today, at age twenty-seven, and her mother Maria; she has the same aquiline nose, dimpled chin, and dark brown hair. But her dark complexion, skin the colour of caramel and eyes like pools of amber, stand out in the framed photos that line the walls and mantel pieces of her Polish family's home. Back in the '90s, when she was growing up in Edmonton, there were whispers in her tightly-knit Polish community. Heads turned when Anna attended Sunday mass; she could feel the eyes boring into her back as she sat attentively during the service. But the whispers and close attention didn't get to her until, at around age five or six, she started Polish dance classes. Even though Anna was dressed in the same colourful outfits as the other kids, a red skirt and white shirt worn with a black vest and white lace apron, decorated with multicoloured floral embroidery, she stood out. The students called her chocolate—which didn't bother her at first, it echoed a nickname from her grandfather. But, for the two years that Anna attended the classes, she would often end up sitting by herself in a corner, reading a book. The Polish woman running the program occasionally got her own son to dance with Anna. When Maria found out that her daughter was being ostracized, she was furious. She yelled at the dance teacher and said Anna wouldn't be coming back. "That's when I realized something was going on." Every now and again, Anna would ask her mother why she was brown, why she was darker than everyone else in the family. Her mother would say she would tell her soon or change the subject. When Anna's sister Barbara was in grade four or five, she asked their mother the same question. Why did Anna look different? "She had told my sister that because I was born premature, I was put in an incubator," says Anna, shaking her head. Barbara repeated this explanation to her friends at school, and Barbara's friends went back home and told their mothers, who told them that's not how it works. Kids can be cruel, and Barbara became the laughingstock in the schoolyard. One day, after a shopping trip to buy Anna a figure-skating dress for an upcoming performance, her mother took her to McDonald's. Anna was excited to get a Happy Meal because her mother didn't usually buy fast food. "I can still remember the skating outfit was hanging off the back of a chair," says Anna. "I was eating Chicken McNuggets." That's when Maria told her that Woody, the man Anna had grown up calling Tata, was not her biological father. Her real father came from Sri Lanka. His name was Duke.  When they got home, Maria gave Anna a picture of Duke. Anna felt a sense of relief. Her mother was still her mother, and she didn't feel any different towards her Tata. Her siblings Barbara and Lukasz were still her sister and brother. A few days after her mother told her about Duke, Anna wrote the following entry in her journal, in alternating purple and blue glitter gel pens: It wasn't until years later, when Anna was entering her teenage years, that she started to ask probing questions. Who was Duke? Where in Sri Lanka did he come from? Was she like him? Maria didn't seem to understand why Anna needed to find out more about her Sri Lankan side when she already had a family that loved her. The rest of Anna's family was sympathetic to her search but couldn't help. When she was sixteen, during an annual trip to see her extended family living in Germany and Poland, Anna decided to try to find out more information about her biological father herself. It was a spur of the moment decision, which she hadn't discussed with her family in Canada. Her parents had divorced, and Anna was living with Maria. While Maria didn't seem to understand Anna's quest, Woody encouraged her to find her own answers. She enlisted one of her German cousins in her search, and managed to find a date of birth and date of death for a man named Duke Santhira. Woody's mother showed her a few more photos, but that was all Anna could find out. A few years later, in October 2013, a chance conversation with one of her university professors put her in touch with Sri Lankan Canadian academic Amarnath Amarasingam. He was travelling to Sri Lanka in January. He asked Anna if she wanted to come along.   "I didn't even have to think about it," says Anna. Immediately she wrote back: Yes.   Ten days before Christmas 2013, Anna and her now-husband Gurvinder Gill travelled to Sri Lanka. This is all they had to go on: A name, likely assumed. Duke Santhira. Duke's birthday and the date of his death. A few pictures. Poland: When Woody Met Maria Wlodzimierz Kopec first saw Maria Czweryn on a bus in Warsaw, Poland. It was the early 1980s. She was eighteen, and he was twenty-three. At the time, Poland was still under the rule of a communist government that played by the Russian rulebook. Wlodzimierz saw Maria on the bus on his way to work at Mazowieckie Centrum Rehabilitacji Stocer, a hospital in Konstancin-Jeziorna. It was a long bus ride from his home in Warsaw. He was working as a nurse's assistant there. Maria's bus stop, on her way to a horticulture school, was a couple of stops before his. "Caught by her beauty," he says, he asked if he could walk her to school just as she was about to step off the bus.   Wlodzimierz, who started going by Woody after his move to Canada, sits in the dining room of his Edmonton home. He's wearing a white shirt and jeans, his blue eyes piercing through a pair of Hugo Boss glasses. He speaks in short, Polish-accented bursts. When he stops speaking to collect his thoughts or search for the right word in English, he stares out into the distance, looking through the glass sliding doors that open into a small backyard blanketed in snow. As it happened, Maria lived very close to Woody; he passed by her apartment every day. They dated for a year, and then Maria wanted to get married.  Woody had lived an idyllic childhood. He came from a middle-class family. His father had served in the army, and when he was a child, both his parents worked at Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych, a famous automobile manufacturer. The family lived in a hotel for factory workers, sharing one room separated by curtains to create a bedroom, kitchen and living room. Just before he started school, the family moved into a new apartment in Warsaw.   After finishing school, he went straight to work at a newly opened factory for retreading old tires. He got the job after meeting the director of the factory through his father. After a stint working at the hospital instead of military service, an assignment that was the result of his poor vision, he returned to the tire retreading factory. "It was a new plant in Poland, with Italian equipment. [The boss said] there might be a chance to go to Italy for a course," says Woody. "Getting a passport was impossible. Only party people had them. Regular people stayed in Poland and worked where they were told to." Maria's father had been a middle-ranking officer in the Polish army. When Maria was seven, he died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. Maria's mother moved with her four daughters to Warsaw in 1972, where the army gave them an apartment. "We weren't poor-poor, but we didn't have much money," says Maria. She's moving around her kitchen in Edmonton, putting together a meal of pork tenderloin and vegetables, while constantly apologizing for not being able to make a proper dinner. Maria lives a short drive away from Woody. Compared to Woody's minimalist home, with neutral beige walls punctuated with family photos, Maria's home is warm and cozy, with a large Christmas tree standing tall in the living room. Dressed in a chic blouse and pants, her eyes sparkling with flecks of glittery gold eyeshadow, Maria is charming to a fault, constantly offering a glass of wine or a cup of tea.  "My mother had major depression, and she was bringing up four daughters. I was practically raised by myself … My sister Anna had left for Germany when I was in high school. I didn't have the greatest relationship with my mother." Outside their family home, an apartment in an historic part of Warsaw that was rebuilt piece-by-piece after being obliterated in WWII, tanks were rolling down the streets following the announcement of martial law in 1981. "You had to be home by 8 p.m. There was rationing of meat and sugar."  While she aspired to become a psychologist, Maria took a practical look at her options, and told Woody she wanted to get married. And so they did, in 1983. Life was not easy after marriage. They had to contend with the challenges of living in a communist society. "Corruption was enormous," says Woody. "It was the main reason to leave." Barbara was born in 1984, and Lukasz in 1986. The family was living in a simple cottage in a small district in Piaseczno County. Woody was doing shift work at the tire factory, also making some money under the table, and he and Maria were fighting. "Main reason for Maria was that I drink too much." He did drink a lot, he admits. It was easy to buy vodka, and much harder to refuse his friends who wanted to drink after work. Besides, he wanted to stay away from Maria's screaming. Maria remembers being stuck at home with two little kids and washing and boiling an endless load of diapers. "I got twenty diapers, you know how? Each gynecologist gave you ten diapers for a baby. Cloth diapers, not the modern ones like now. So, I went to two different gynecologists," she says. "I was twenty-two years old, with no running water, no heat … We didn't have milk for the kids. Only vodka for the men to drink and get angry."  Maria's three sisters were already in Germany. Woody went to Germany in 1988 and started to work in the black market  doing industrial renovations-drywall, taping, cleaning work spaces and delivering materials. "What I made in one hour in Germany was worth more than a month's work in Poland," says Woody. His idea had been to stay in Germany for a few months at a time to work in the black market and spend the rest of the time in Poland. Life was tough while Woody was in Germany, says Maria. "I used to wake at 5 a.m. and take a stroller that was made in Czechoslovakia and walk five, six kilometres to the nearest market. It was a big used stroller, so no bus would take me. I would get eggs and the best meat," she says. "But sometimes there was no food. I had to go around and barter for milk. So, one day I put on my nylons and lipstick, and one of my sister's friends came and took me to the German embassy. There were people sleeping on the streets for three months to get a visa. But somehow, when I went, the person opened the gate and I walked out with a visa. We went with my sister's friend in a car to Germany. Woody was not impressed when I showed up there." Maria arrived with Barbara and Lukasz in Germany in September 1989. "Maria wanted to apply for asylum in Germany. I thought it was a stupid idea, but all the sisters persuaded me," Woody says. Germany: When Maria Met Duke In 1989, communism fell in Poland, and getting asylum in Germany was tough. Maria, Woody, and the children were facing deportation. Maria had heard Canada was taking in refugees from Germany and had written 180 letters to Canadian and American sponsors. A sponsor in Edmonton agreed to take them in, extending their temporary refugee status in Germany. While they waited for the papers to get processed, the family was sent to live in a small town called Rüthen, where many other refugees were also sent to live. They were given accommodation in the upper portion of a two-storey home in a lower-income housing complex, a place that the family came to call the refugee hotel. Although they were given an allowance to meet their living expenses, Woody continued to work under the table. Every week, he travelled to Cologne, a two-hour trip one way taking a bus and train, to save up money for the airplane tickets they would need to travel to Canada. "That's when Maria met Duke, Anna's father," says Woody. Duke worked in a pizzeria in Dortmund. When he wasn't working, he'd visit a friend living next door to Maria. In Rüthen, Maria walked everywhere. To the market, to take the kids to preschool. "With my luck, it was always raining. One day, this red car stops, this red Ford, as I'm walking. It's Duke. And he says, 'Don't be afraid.' I got in and he took us to the daycare. I left the kids and went grocery shopping with him. Then I invited him over for tea." Woody knew Maria was lonely in Rüthen. "She was complaining I was out of town, staying with friends. I was drinking," says Woody. He told her, "I know it's hard for you. But listen, we decided we are waiting to go to Canada. I have to suffer, you have to suffer." Meanwhile, Maria says, Duke took her and the children to McDonald's and the zoo. They started becoming very close. He told her some stories about life back in Sri Lanka, how his father had the first car in Jaffna. But he didn't talk about why he had left or the civil war that had started in 1983. Instead, she found out through his friends that he had been tortured. "He had scars on his body," she says. "He had the biggest smile. He didn't laugh loudly, but his smile was beautiful. He sang in Tamil, he was always whistling. And he got these beautiful letters from his mother, the [writing] was like artwork." They fell in love. "He was a really gentle man, a gentle soul. And I had lots of suffering inside me. We had our little talks, but people who go through things, we don't talk about that stuff. It's not what you want to remember."  When Maria found out she was pregnant with Duke's baby, she was shocked. Her first instinct was to go for an abortion. She even visited a doctor with her sister Elzbieta but couldn't go through with it in the end. She told Woody about the pregnancy. "I was devastated," says Woody. A deeply Catholic man, he decided this was God's will. He told Maria, it's "something not for you or me to decide. I know I wasn't maybe very good to you. Maybe I have made my mistakes. Maybe that's the price I have to pay for it. And I forgive you everything. Let's start life together. It's new life in front of us, new country." Coming to Canada Anna was born on December 29, 1991. The Kopec family left for Edmonton in May 1992. "It snowed the day we landed in Edmonton. It was a huge snowstorm, there was a big dump of snow," says Anna. "My mother used to joke that she should have known to go back right then."  Like many new immigrants to Canada, they struggled at first. They started out living in the same house as their sponsor, Piotr, who had a younger brother, Jacek. Woody started helping Piotr paint and do renovations, eventually found a job in landscaping and gradually started picking up piecemeal work in construction. Maria worked three jobs, sending the kids to visit their grandparents, aunts, and cousins in Europe regularly. She learned English by reading Danielle Steel novels, and cleaned townhouses to help with the family expenses while Anna napped in a stroller. Eventually, she became a nurse.   For four years, Woody and Maria stuck it out despite their differences. They were immigrants in a new country, and it made more sense to live together. Moreover, given his faith, Woody did not want to get divorced. But in 1996, they decided to go their separate ways. They got a divorce in December 1998. The transition to Canada wasn't without bumps for Barbara, Anna's older sister, either. She has fond memories of growing up in Poland. Barbara looks straight ahead as she talks, as if watching a movie about her own life, trying to rewind and pause. Sitting in the expansive kitchen of her large suburban Edmonton home, light filtering in the large windows, Barbara pushes her bottle-blonde hair behind her ears and pulls on the sleeves of her sweater. She's lithe, petite, a no-nonsense version of Renée Zellweger.  In the beginning, life in Canada was an adventure—a new school with new friends, new experiences like making snowmen outside the house, Jacek dressing up as Santa Claus for Christmas. But Barbara started to notice the strained relationship between her parents. On a road trip one summer, Barbara remembers telling her brother Lukasz that she thought Jacek was in love with their mother. Barbara struggled with the tense atmosphere at home, disappearing into the basement to hide her tears.   "When I visited my dad, I would take cutlery or cans of food because he left with nothing," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. "That was my Grade 4." Meanwhile, Barbara was also dealing with the constant chatter in Edmonton's tightly knit Polish community about Anna not being her real sister. "I hated going to church, hated going to religious class because it was all Polish. I hated going to the Polish Saturday School because a teacher pulled me aside one time and asked me, 'Why is your sister brown?'" Her animosity towards the Polish community and the Polish church deepened further. When she was hanging out with her non-Polish friends, there were no questions. Her resentment was so deep that she didn't even want to go for her Communion, dressed up in a hand-me-down outfit, her hair in a formal 'do. The classes leading up to the religious ceremony had been unpleasant, with kids whispering loud enough for her to hear them question whether Anna was adopted, and whether Woody was her real father. Barbara remembers being about thirteen when her mother Maria showed her a picture of Duke. All the resentment she had felt about dealing with the rumours at school and in the Polish community turned towards Maria. She says she told her mother that Anna needed to know the truth. Barbara had pulled away from Anna. It was partly the age difference between them, and partly the bullying she faced because of Anna's parentage. So, when Maria decided to tell Anna, Barbara wanted no part in that conversation. "I feel like I ignored her until she was about fifteen, sixteen," says Barbara, overcome with emotion. She walks away for a few minutes, composes herself before taking her seat again. It wasn't until Anna was a young adult herself, and Barbara was getting engaged, that they truly bonded. Even so, a few years later, when Anna started to look for her father in earnest, Barbara couldn't help her. "I could not remember anything." Anna's Story The dreams started when Anna was about twelve years old. At first, they were simple. She saw herself going for a walk with Duke, who was always in a green shirt, the same shirt he was wearing in the photograph that Maria had given her when she was eight years old. This was around the same time that Anna had started to ask more questions about why Duke hadn't come looking for her. Maria told her that Duke had been sick with some sort of blood disease, and he'd died because he'd stopped taking his medications, collapsing in the pizzeria where he worked.  By the time she was fourteen, the dreams had turned into nightmares. Anna dreamt she was holding a bottle of pills, Duke's medicine; sometimes he was sitting by her bed, sometimes on the floor and sometimes kneeling over the toilet, asking her for them. But for some reason, Anna couldn't give him the pills. "I would wake up sweating and crying. I was terrified," says Anna. Barbara had been right about Jacek and Maria—the two married when Anna was around twelve. "He'd been in our lives since day one in Canada. He was always there," says Anna. Jacek became like a father-figure. When Anna started having her nightmares, she first confided in Jacek. "He said, you need to talk to your mom."  Despite Anna pestering her for details, Maria didn't tell her much about Duke beyond the fact that he was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. When she asked Maria why Duke didn't visit her before he died, Maria explained that Duke had kept in touch for a while, but he couldn't get a visa to Canada. She remembers her mom telling her that he asked for Anna to visit, but by the time their family got their Canadian citizenship, allowing them to travel, Duke was dead. But the stories also kept changing. Anna remembers that Maria told her that Duke and Maria had stopped talking. In one version, she told Anna that Duke had managed to get as far as the United States border, but that he was sent back. "The story was never really the same," says Anna. "Sometimes she would give me little stories. That he loved spicy food. Or that the civil war had been really hard on him. Or one day we were sitting on the couch painting our nails, she had a nail file in her hand, and she said, 'I don't know what to say. He laughed a lot.' I randomly started thinking that maybe he's alive, she doesn't want me to see him. The rebellious teenager in me started thinking, maybe I will find him." When she was fifteen, Anna wrote to Dr. Phil and Oprah, hoping one of them would help her with her quest. She didn't hear back from anyone and decided to take matters into her own hands. Anna had been travelling solo to Germany and Poland to visit her extended family since she was nine. By the time she was sixteen, her relationship with her mother had started to deteriorate. Anna decided to go back to Europe with a mission to find out more information about Duke from her other family members. She didn't tell anyone about her plans until she landed in Germany, and contacted an older cousin, Michael, her godfather. Michael lived near Dortmund, the city where Duke had lived. After Michael agreed to help her, Anna told her aunts about her plan. They didn't have much information about Duke. Her grandparents didn't have much to add either, even though Anna knew about Woody's father's animosity towards Maria and her infidelity. But her grandmother was understanding about Maria's situation. Her own marriage to Anna's grandfather had been more for convenience than love. She showed Anna photos she had of Duke and shared her memories with Anna. "She told me, 'I could tell they were in love. I could tell something was there, that it wasn't just [a fling] to her."  Anna visited a hospital where she had stayed as a baby and the housing project where Duke and her mother met. She and Michael went to Dortmund's registry offices, to look for Duke's birth and death records. At first, the officials weren't prepared to give Anna the information, because she wasn't legally on his records. Anna was crying out of frustration and said her piece to a woman in the death office. Anna isn't sure what she said, or how she said it, but something struck a chord with the woman. After they left, the official started looking through stacks of paper files. When, at first, she couldn't find a record, Anna's hopes lifted for a moment; maybe there was a chance that Duke was alive. But Anna got a call later that night; the woman had stayed back at the office, searching for hours. The official gave her a date of death, April 24, 1995, and a cause: a brain aneurysm. Duke had no grave. His ashes had been scattered.   Anna was distraught, and called Maria in Edmonton, hysterical. But Maria didn't understand. "Well, you knew he was dead," she said. When Anna returned from Germany to Edmonton, she went to a cemetery with Jacek and Woody to set up a little plaque for Duke. Her relationship with Maria continued to break down. Going to Sri Lanka When Anna was in her third year at the University of Alberta, one of her professors introduced her to Amarnath Amarasingam, a Sri Lankan Canadian academic who has studied the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and its politics. Amarnath was working on a project on post-war reconstruction in Sri Lanka. The professor suggested that Amarnath may be of some help to Anna in her search to know more about Duke. Anna sent Amarnath an email on October 27, 2013. It was a Sunday afternoon. "My story is a little complicated, but I will do my best to tell it in a swift and quick manner as to not take up too much of your time," Anna wrote. She provided a brief summary of her story, including her father's name, which she acknowledged might be an alias: Duke Santhira Sathusigaman Pillai. When Amarnath received the email, the first thing that struck him was how little information there was. "All she really had was this name Duke, and the fact that he came from Jaffna. That's like me saying I need to find a guy called Duke in Toronto. Actually, scratch that. It was like, I want to find a guy called Duke in Ontario." Anna had attached two pictures of her father, as well as a picture of herself and a tiger pendant that Duke had given Maria. It was like a puzzle. The name wasn't a common Sri Lankan Tamil name. Then there was the tiger pendant, suggesting an affiliation with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, a militant organization that sought a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. It added complications to asking questions about Duke and his family. Nevertheless, Amarnath could understand Anna's desperate attempt to look for her father. Amarnath asked family and activist connections back in Sri Lanka if they could help by tapping into their community network. However, there wasn't enough information to go on. A few weeks passed, and it became apparent to Amarnath that any meaningful search would need to happen on the ground in Sri Lanka. "Especially with that pendant. Usually people don't want to have anything to do with any Tiger-related stuff … We knew nothing about his connection. It could have been nothing. Or he could have been some high-level guy. We didn't know why he fled to Germany," says Amarnath. "People are usually more willing to talk face to face."  He had been planning a trip to Sri Lanka to conduct field research and interviews with former LTTE fighters who had undergone rehabilitation. A friend, Kumaran Nadesan, a Sri Lankan Tamil Canadian who works as a senior business consultant with the government of Ontario, was going to join him. Kumaran was looking to do some ground work in establishing a not-for-profit that provides assistance in sustainable development in the north and east of Sri Lanka. On October 31, 2013, Amarnath sent his flight plans to Anna. Anna's email and subsequent phone conversations with Amarnath had shown her how little she actually knew about Duke or her Sri Lankan heritage. While Anna had read up briefly on the civil war that affected the country for twenty-six years, she wasn't aware of its complexities. Every time she corresponded with Amarnath, he was full of questions: which town in Jaffna was Duke from? Are you sure you've spelled his name right? However, the minute Anna read Amarnath's email about his upcoming trip to Sri Lanka in January 2014, she knew she was going to tag along. The only person who knew about her plan at that point was her now-husband, Gurvinder. The flights to Sri Lanka during peak season were expensive. At the time, Anna had no money and Gurvinder was working, so he fronted the $3,000 for the airfare for the both of them. "We booked the tickets without talking to my family," says Anna. "I was totally not thinking rationally." Anna finally told her family a few weeks before she and Gurvinder were supposed to leave. Her sister was skeptical but supportive, Woody was excited, and Maria was shocked. As the date for their departure crept closer, Anna got more and more excited herself, but it wasn't until shortly before the flight to Sri Lanka that the anticipation really hit her. An avid journaler, Anna kept a record of her visit in a black-and-gold embossed notebook. It's titled Sri Lanka: Dec. 15, 2013-Jan. 11, 2014. A Journey to find myself. The first entry reads: As they stepped out of the airport into the humidity of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, and started the drive towards their hotel in Mount Lavinia, Anna was struck by the lush landscape, where the palm trees grew in clusters. But as the highway gave way to an urban environment, she started to truly get a sense of the chaos of a large Sri Lankan city. The buildings looked older, dotted with large, brightly coloured billboards, the traffic was a mess, with a car honk signaling, "Oh hey, I'm gonna do this, okay?" Their hotel room had a view of the waves of the Indian Ocean slamming into the shore. After a quick shower, Anna went for a walk on the beach with Gurvinder. They came across a snake charmer with a cobra and a monkey, crude boats and shanties. Anna started thinking about the poverty she was witnessing in the midst of the beautiful surroundings. "I think back and wonder what he lived in, what his family, if alive, lives in now," she wrote. The entry for the day ends with: "I feel like it hasn't hit me yet, except in some particular moments. But I am ready to embrace me, my other half. Daddy I feel you, please be my tour guide." Discovering Sri Lanka Navigating this new place was a daunting task, and one that Anna wouldn't have had to figure out if Duke had been there to guide her. Every time she noticed the local men, she thought she was seeing Duke. It would be almost two weeks until Amarnath and Kumaran joined them. Anna and Gurvinder spent that time taking in some of the spectacular sightseeing spots in Sri Lanka. They explored Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals, the rock fortress Sigiriya, the Dambulla cave temple and the city of Kandy, which houses a sacred Buddhist relic in one of its temples. "One of our tour guides, he was Tamil. I asked him how it was for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I got a kind of a crash course," Anna says. "I liked it that way, physically being there … But then there were times when I disconnected from Sri Lanka." While the landscape was breathtaking, their mornings started with delicious local food and fruits, and evenings ended with one spectacular sunset after another, the devastation of the decades long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE fighters was apparent behind the facade of the tourist attractions. Anna had long had an interest in political science. She had studied various conflicts in Africa and travelled to Kenya after high school after saving up money from working a few retail jobs. On the flight to Sri Lanka, she skimmed through Amarnath's PhD dissertation to augment her Google searches on Sri Lanka's painful past. She was "aware of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide" from an academic perspective but didn't know much about how the country was moving forward in its reconciliation process. When she first saw large billboards of then-Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa dotting the landscape, he seemed like a "wannabe Putin." It wasn't until Anna and Gurvinder accompanied Amarnath and Kumaran to the northern parts of the country that had seen the worst of the conflict that she could appreciate the devastation. For the moment, however, it was too much to take in. Instead, Anna concentrated her mind on the task at hand—finding any information about Duke. A Motley Crew The vacation part of their trip was over. The day before New Year's Eve, Anna and Gurvinder met Kumaran and his friends at a restaurant in Colombo. Kumaran and Gurvinder instantly hit it off, joking around like old friends. Over crab and fish curry, which Kumaran insisted they eat the traditional way—with their hands, which was a novel experience for Anna—he and his friends heard Anna's story. "It just sounded like such an amazing adventure," says Kumaran. "And I was impressed that Anna had decided to go on this journey." Over the next couple of days, as they met more of Kumaran's friends, Anna would tell and retell her story. She was taken aback by how touched people seemed, and how everyone wanted to help her in some way. They would try to fish out more information or ask her questions about things she may not have considered in her search.   For people who heard the story, it was kind of a contained problem, says Amarnath. "It's not like we were trying to fix world hunger or something. We just needed to find this person called Duke. Plus, Anna came off as quite charming and innocent. People wanted to do something and help."  For Anna, the help she was getting from relative strangers was completely at odds with her mother's apparent lack of interest. As each day passed, she was feeling more and more aware of how little information she had to go on.   Amarnath arrived in Colombo on New Year's Day. Amarnath, Kumaran, Anna, and Gurvinder walked around the city. While Kumaran and Gurvinder joshed around, and Amarnath maintained his circumspect air, Anna's frustrations continued to build.  The next day, the frustration she'd been dealing with the day before had manifested itself as a throbbing headache. A sense of helplessness and self-pity gave way to anger. She and Gurvinder stayed in the hotel, stepping out only to grab a bite of pizza. Anna finished reading Secret Daughter, a book by Canadian author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, about a young woman who was adopted out of India as a baby by an American woman, and who travels back to India to search for her roots. The not-so-happy ending reminded Anna that her own search may not end the way she hoped it would. It helped her come to terms with her own situation. The quartet left Colombo for Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka's northern province, on January 4. It was a Saturday, and sitting at the airport, Anna was anxious, trying to keep her expectations low. The drive of about 400 kilometres from Colombo was covered in a little over an hour by a small propeller plane. From the sky, Anna could see green trees and bright red dirt. But the bus ride from the airport to their hotel showed a different landscape, in stark contrast to Colombo. The buildings in Jaffna were older and looked poorer, many houses missing half of their structures. While the protracted civil war affected much of Sri Lanka, it was nowhere more apparent than in the northern region. The LTTE's stronghold, it bore the brunt of a sustained offensive by the Sri Lankan government.   At the time, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was still in power. It had been five years since the brutal end to the civil war, but not much had been done to heal the deep wounds of the long battle and its grizzly finish. Facing heavy criticism from Britain and the United Nations calling for an investigation into human rights violations in order to properly launch efforts at reconciliation, the government continued to deny allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army, refusing entry to the UN team tasked with the investigation. Meanwhile, rebuilding homes, returning land, and dealing with displaced people weren't given as much importance as repairing physical infrastructure such as roads and electricity networks. A military presence continued in the north, and many former LTTE rebels as well as civilians spoke about living under a constant sense of surveillance. Anna was slowly becoming aware of some of these realities. In Jaffna, the group had been mulling over the idea of taking out a newspaper advertisement, looking for more information on Duke. A journalist working for one of the Tamil papers cautioned the group against publishing Anna's story, suggesting instead that they look at the government birth registry. Working on the assumption that Duke might have been Catholic—because his did not sound like a Hindu Tamil name—the group visited a Catholic priest Amarnath knew, Father Vasanthan. Father Vasanthan suggested that if Duke was indeed Catholic, there would be a record of his sacraments. However, with records dating back to the 1700s spread out over thirty parishes, they needed to narrow down the search. Time was running out; within a week, Anna was supposed to leave Sri Lanka. On Sunday morning, Anna attended mass. Father Vasanthan and another priest were running the sermon, about the biblical Magi, or the Three Wise Men, and their journey to find Christ. She wrote that "the priest said how it is a journey we all take to find ourselves. Directly speaking I am on that journey. Finding out more about him means finding out more about myself." After praying at the church, Anna and Gurvinder walked with Kumaran to a temple. They stood in front of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god said to be the remover of obstacles. Anna closed her eyes, and asked for help. On Monday, with five days left in their planned stay, the group, along with Father Vasanthan, went to the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat to speak with a civil servant. Nothing. The rickshaw driver they had hired called two of his friends who lived in Germany in the '90s but came up empty. The priest asked one of his friends who also lived in Germany, but it turned out to be another dead end. With every no she heard, Anna's heart sank further. Based on some Facebook research conducted by Amarnath's reporter friend, the group visited the Catholic church in a nearby village and looked through the baptism records there. They found an entry for a man named Duke, but it wasn't Anna's father. Annoyed, Anna stepped out of the church to call her mother, who was again unable to give her any more answers. Anna lashed out and hung up. Anna's calls to Maria were frustrating for everyone, says Amarnath. "We felt she had more information that she was not telling us. That became difficult to get beyond. So, I told Anna to stop calling her. I figured either she doesn't know, or she won't tell you," he says. Gurvinder was cracking jokes and trying to make Anna laugh, but sometimes ended up exasperating her further. They were like an old married couple, says Amarnath. Meanwhile, wanting to get on with networking for his own project, Kumaran would have to leave the group for meetings. And he wondered, even if they manage to locate Duke's family, how they would react to Anna. As a last resort, the group went with Father Vasanthan to the offices of Uthayan, one of the largest Tamil newspapers in Jaffna. The visit to the newspaper's office once again brought home how brutal the Sri Lankan civil war had been. "There were posters everywhere with pictures of dead journalists and other dead workers who were murdered by the army or the LTTE," wrote Anna. "There were bullet holes, some with casings, still in the wall. It was insane." They took out an advertisement with two of Duke's photos, giving Father Vasanthan's contact information in order to dissuade chances of spurious claims. They met the newspaper's founder E. Saravanapavan and Anna told her story once more. Saravanapavan forwarded Duke's picture to someone he knew in Germany. After the visit to Uthayan, the group broke for lunch. Amarnath told Anna that he would post Duke's photo to online news sites in Toronto, while Father Vasanthan would pass the photos around in other parishes. A Breakthrough The advertisement was black and white, printed on the side of the seventeenth page. Anna saw people waiting at roadside stalls and standing outside their homes reading the newspaper. She hoped someone would recognize the photo and call. In a small town called Puthukkudiyiruppu, the group visited another Catholic priest who talked about the many challenges faced by the people of his community, ranging from issues of child abuse to prostitution. At another town called Putumattalan, they saw remnants of a blown-up school that was used as a makeshift hospital towards the end of the war. All that remained standing were parts of cement walls. There were still medical supplies strewn about the rubble. A new school was being rebuilt on the same spot, and the group met a few of the students. On the way from Putumattalan to Amarnath's home in Mullaitivu, they stopped by a hospital. Although the area had been a designated safe zone, doctors claimed the building was bombed during the final stages of the war by the Sri Lankan army. The claim was denied by the Sri Lankan government.   On the way back to the van, Father Vasanthan got a call. The woman was calling from Germany. She identified herself as the sister of the woman in one of the pictures of Duke. Father Vasanthan put the call on speakerphone, with Amarnath and Kumaran huddled around. Anna looked on, bewildered, unable to understand the conversation going on in Tamil. When Anna tried to ask questions, the others shushed her. The woman in Germany remembered Duke as one of her husband's friends, but her husband now had dementia.   Suddenly, Father Vasanthan said a name: Manipay! He was repeating what he was hearing on the phone, making sure he got the name right. It was the name of the town that Duke came from. The group couldn't believe their luck.   Manipay Manipay is a smaller town in Jaffna, about a twenty-minute drive from the downtown core. The group started their search with the local Catholic church. The priest there didn't know anyone by the name of Sathusigamani Pillai, and the name didn't turn up in the baptism records either. But the priest called the caretaker of the church, who recognized the last name as that of a man he used to work with at a cement factory, who was now dead. The priest told them to visit an old woman in the village, who knew all the families in the '80s. It was a long shot, but the group decided to take a chance. When they arrived at the woman's house, she wasn't there. About to turn around to leave, they noticed an elderly woman walking towards them. She invited them in. When Kumaran explained why they were there, speaking to her in Tamil, and told her Duke's last name, the woman smiled. Kumaran says they knew the woman knew something. "You could just tell, the way she had smiled. I was sure she knew exactly which family we were talking about. But we couldn't do anything. She said she didn't know and asked us to leave, so we left." At that point, Anna told herself it was over. But the rest of the group persisted. The tuk tuk driver took them to a Hindu priest he knew. The priest's mother told the group to try the village doctor's house since he knew everyone. Anna stopped herself from rolling her eyes, and the group made their way to the doctor's house. As they stopped to ask for directions, Amarnath noticed an old man slowly cycling down the road. He told Kumaran to ask the old man if knew the family name. It turned out that he did know the family, and where they had lived. For Anna, the old man, Mahendran, was like an angel on a bicycle. Amarnath says that's how villages work. "You want information, you find the old people."  Mahendran led the group to a big house with a bright blue gate. The ladies who owned the house didn't have any information but Mahendran took them to another house a few doors down. The couple living there knew the Sathusigamani Pillai family quite well, even their son, Duke.  They pointed them in the direction of the house of a relative who lived a few blocks away, and the group rushed there. The houses in the neighbourhood had brightly coloured boundary walls, sloping, tiled roofs, barred windows and an entrance decorated with potted plants. The group found themselves knocking at an elaborate gate. A woman in a sleeveless dress appeared before them, her hair down, a puzzled look on her face. The woman's name was Sitha. She invited the group in and told them what she remembered about Duke. The living room was filled with wooden cabinets and display cases, a family photo hanging on the wall. They sat around a coffee table, Amar and Kumaran talking to Sitha in rapid Tamil as Anna smiled. Duke was one of eight children; he was naughty but studied well. Given Sri Lankan Tamil cultural traditions, Sitha could have been engaged to marry Duke. And she told them about one of Duke's sisters, Sarojini, who didn't live too far from her house. Duke's mother also lived somewhere in Jaffna District. As she left Sitha's to find her aunt's house, Anna couldn't help crying. Anna thanked Mahendran, who also had tears in his eyes, and wouldn't accept any money. At Sarojini's home, introductions were a little more abrupt. Initially, Sarojini and her husband were perplexed to be introduced to Duke's daughter, as they knew he had not married. Anna's uncle said he'd seen the ad in Uthayan but was confused because it had mentioned a daughter searching for relatives. Again, Anna couldn't understand most of the conversation in Tamil, and Amarnath and Kumaran translated. Although the aunt and uncle welcomed them, and answered their questions, they looked guarded. Anna found out that one of Duke's brothers had died. Sarojini's husband told her that he used to take Duke to the movies, that he was a patient young man, but also got into some trouble. He also told the group that Duke had been sympathetic to the LTTE and had been interrogated and beaten by the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 to disarm the militant outfit, the IPKF found itself embroiled in the conflict, and has been accused of human rights violations in the course of its operations. When Anna asked if they had any pictures of Duke, they showed her one where Duke looked bigger but was wearing the same green shirt that he wore in the picture that Anna had. She also saw a painted portrait of her grandfather. The couple wasn't in contact with Anna's grandmother, they added, and suggested that she might disown Anna given that Duke was not married. Throughout the meeting, Anna felt as if she was causing some trouble by being there. Still, her aunt hugged her several times, with tears in her eyes. The group grabbed lunch before setting out to find Duke's mother. Answers Duke's mother Gunalakshmi lived in Valvettithurai. Sarojini hadn't given them many details or an address. The group asked around, stopping passersby on the roads, but they weren't getting anywhere. They asked at a convenience store, but no luck. Then they noticed an old woman sitting outside her house. At first, they asked the old woman if she knew where Gunalakshmi lived. The woman said no. However, based on a photo that the aunt had given them, Kumaran and Gurvinder were convinced that the old woman was Gunalakshmi herself and started accusing her of lying. Meanwhile, another woman approached them. She had heard about their search for Gunalakshmi and offered to take them to Gunalakshmi's house. They took a winding path, through a house and long backyards. When they reached the house, an older woman came out. They asked if she was Gunalakshmi, Duke's mother. The woman started crying and said yes. The group went inside and arranged some chairs in a circle. Kumaran asked the woman if she knew that Duke had children. Gunalakshmi told the group that Duke had told her he had met a white woman. Kumaran pointed to Anna and told Gunalakshmi that she was Duke's daughter. When Anna took out Duke's picture, Gunalakshmi got up to get out her glasses. She burst into tears. For the next two and half hours, Gunalakshmi talked to them about Duke.   Gunalakshmi told Anna that Duke was named after one of his father's European friends. That he was handsome and got into a lot of trouble, loved school and wanted to be an engineer. He was the baby of the family. He had been affiliated with the LTTE for three months and was shot by the IPKF. Fearing for her son, she had faced off with one of the main leaders of the LTTE, Colonel Kittu. He was known for his fierce loyalty to the cause, and his ruthlessness. He told Gunalakshmi that Duke couldn't escape his association with the LTTE, that he would get killed either by the LTTE or one of their enemies. Gunalakshmi told Colonel Kittu that if she could not save her son, she would shoot him herself. Gunalakshmi had Duke shipped off to Colombo, and then to Germany. Every six months, she'd travel to Colombo to place a call to him. Then one day, her older son stopped her from travelling to Colombo. News had come from Germany of Duke's death. Anna's grandmother turned out to be a feisty woman, who had decided to live by herself to avoid squabbling family members. During the group's visit, she was cracking jokes, questioning Kumaran's marital status and attributing Amarnath's shaved head to his kids. She asked Anna if she had a lover; when Anna pointed to Gurvinder, she told them that they'd better be married when they came to visit her next. It was turning into evening, and the group had to head back to Jaffna. Anna and Gurvinder had to fly to Colombo the next day, and then leave for Canada. Anna and her grandmother hugged several times, as if unwilling to let each other go. Anna felt Duke in Gunalakshmi's arms. She told Gunalakshmi that she would learn Tamil, and promised to write and send photos, and come back to visit. The group had a celebratory dinner at a restaurant back in Jaffna. The driver remarked that what had unfolded that day only happens in movies.   Last Days in Sri Lanka The night before Anna and Gurvinder's flight out of Jaffna to Colombo, Anna barely slept. She kept waking up with a start, not believing what had happened. Their last day in Jaffna was a beautifully sunny one. As Anna and Gurvinder said their goodbyes to Amarnath and Kumaran, Anna struggled to express herself. After the flight that took them over the lagoons and coast of Sri Lanka, Anna and Gurvinder made their way to a friend's home in Piliyandala. That's when Anna called Maria. Their conversation was awkward and distant. Anna remembers answering Maria's questions about Duke and his family dispassionately. Maria doesn't remember asking any questions at all. Anna still could not believe that her mother didn't have more information that could have helped in her search.  Anna and Gurvinder spent their last day in Sri Lanka walking the beach at Galle Face. After a quick trip to shop for souvenirs, they were headed to the airport. During the drive, Anna felt a sense of peace. She was leaving with answers she had only dreamed of having. Afterthoughts Sitting in his living room, Woody says it was a miracle that Anna managed to find her grandmother in Sri Lanka. After living for so many years with so many questions—about Duke, why he had ended up in Germany, why he died—Anna had found some answers. She had strangers helping her through some of her darkest moments.   He uses the word miracle again, this time to describe Anna herself. "Anna is like the glue for the family. She's the fire extinguisher because sometimes our family is almost like a bomb," he says. He pauses for a few minutes and looks outside the glass doors of his living room. His eyes are glistening when he turns back, and he asks, with a catch in his voice, "Do you think I'm a hero?" His question about his decision to acknowledge Anna as his own child is rhetorical. "No. I'm not. I don't think I did anything special. I wouldn't have been able to look myself in the mirror." "Our life is like karma—whatever you do comes back to you, or sometimes even harder. Everyone makes mistakes." Maria maintains that she didn't know much about Duke's history other than what she had already told Anna. Maria and Anna are on better terms now; Anna's marriage to Gurvinder in the summer of 2018 brought the family together for the wedding celebrations. But Duke remains an unresolved issue between them. And Maria felt disappointed by Anna's estrangement. When Anna went to Sri Lanka, Maria says she was scared for her daughter. She was unsure whether Duke's family would accept Anna. But Maria says, "I believe in the power of the dead. I was sure Duke would look after her." There's no question in Anna's mind that she needed to look for Duke in order to find herself. When she tells the story, there's always a reaction of disbelief, as if something magical happened. There's some truth to that, Anna says. "Yes, it was a magical experience. But it was also very difficult. In a way, I didn't have that fairytale ending. If someone were to read this story as inspiration for whatever their search may be, I would say that you may have questions, and all you can do is try to find the answers."