The author of The Wife of Bath: A Biography offers an unexpected channel into the life of one of literature’s greatest fictional characters—Alison of Bath.
Are we losing our capacity for cinematic enchantment?
In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew.
I stood at the lip of the cliff watching the other kids bound off its edge. Behind me, Rig Nilsen started running from the tree line, like he did every time he leaped, convinced the running start let him gain a few extra feet in the air. He was a short, string-limbed kid with a waxy face. His older brother’s hand-me-downs were bunched on his body, flapping in the breeze as he ran—baggy clothes, he told us, helped prolong his time in the air. He jumped off the cliff. He let out a warbling howl as he fell but went silent when he slammed into the ground. I hunched down with the others and peered over the ledge. In the rocky grass, about fifty feet down, Rig Nilsen lay on his back surrounded by the kids who’d already leaped. “It’s just the legs!” he finally shouted. Both bent out at the knees, his shins perpendicular to his thighs. Everyone rushed to drum on his twisted knees as his legs eased back to normal. Rig pushed himself to a stand, clapping and bouncing to prove he was fine—like we ever had doubts. In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew. It took a few seconds for Rig to straighten to normal. Just as it had taken a few seconds, collectively maybe a minute, for the other children to heal from their injuries. Healing? Injuries? God, if I’d spoken like this on that spring afternoon, everyone would’ve thought I’d gone crazy. Billy Logan leaped off the cliff and twisted his arm in the landing. Susie Cannavale snapped her left thigh into an L. Ty Donahue struck her head on a rock, creating a gash as deep as a fist, but soon her skull fused back together and Ty was laughing, asking the other kids to describe the wound, jealous she hadn’t seen it herself. Then it was my turn. I often wonder what would’ve happened—to me, to Rig, to the entire town of Dolor—if I had refused. What if instead of leaping I stretched out in the grass and gazed at the sky, or walked back to the tree line, spent the afternoon hunting for berries? What if I had suggested we all go swimming? But I lived for these milliseconds of flight. I’d waited all winter—the rainiest in my thirteen years—for a day as brilliant and clear as today. At the edge, I sprang off my left foot, flapping my arms like I might lift into the sky, falling forever. But I landed. Everyone always landed. Except when my left foot hit the ground, a terrible sound cracked out of my body. A strange sensation—I knew it only as a sensation, not as pain, or as agony, fear—fired through my body. The other kids started laughing. They thought I was playing a trick, imitating some deranged monster by yowling and screaming. My left ankle bent in like a hook, the sole facing the opposite thigh. The cuff of my pants started to darken. Something slick and warm coated my skin. But we were miles from any lake. The ground was as dry as a dune. The kids swarmed around my discolored jeans. Rig Nilsen grabbed my ankle—we loved touching the misshapen limbs—and the sensation spread to my eyes. “Don’t!” I yelled, rolling side to side, grays, greens, and blues blurring together. “What’s wrong with Jackson?” “It’s taking too long.” “I need . . .” I shouted. What did I need? I needed the sensation to end. “Father . . . My mother. Take . . . Me to . . . home,” I spit out. “We should get someone,” Rig said. “Move out of the way!” someone screamed from the cliff. “We can’t!” Rig responded. “Jackson is . . . I don’t know.” “His leg’s not going back!” “Home,” I muttered. “Can you walk?” Rig asked. I assumed I could. Perhaps that was my problem: If I stood my leg would return to normal. But I collapsed when I tried. Chewed food spilled from my mouth. “What the hell is that!?” someone said. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “We need to carry him,” Rig said. I appreciated his know-it-allism, then, his need to be the smartest person in all situations, traits that had, before that moment, made Rig insufferable. Eight sets of arms slipped under my body and scooped me up to their waists. I was taller and heavier than most children my age, and their hands slipped and tensed underneath as they carried me from the cliff to the forest. Ferns on the floor of the forest brushed my back. I caught glimpses of canopy. I kept expecting the sensation to cease. Soon enough, my ankle would straighten and I would wriggle from everyone’s grasp, run back to the cliff, ready to leap. As we closed in on Serenity Lake, splashing and laughing grew louder, the idle chatter of people who’d never known pain. The kids let me down in the sand. Adult faces replaced the children’s faces. I recognized the adults, and was relieved to see them. In Dolor, everyone knew everyone else—if not by name then by face—but these faces were poor replacements for the only two faces I wanted: my mother’s and father’s. In crisis, I would learn, we long for love to alleviate pain, for the familiar to suppress the intrusion of hurt. I believed seeing my mother pull her hair into a bun before leaning over to kiss my forehead would oust what had invaded my body, that my father’s calm baritone voice could alone silence this awful sensation. “We’d all been jumping,” said Rig to the adults. “He didn’t do anything different. He landed and we waited for his leg to go back but it didn’t.” “It’s the oddest thing,” said an adult. “I see you put water on it,” another adult added. “Did that help?” “It’s not water,” said Rig. He hand was pink at the fingers. The first adult reached for my leg, ignoring Rig’s protests and mine. He squeezed the ankle. I screamed the loudest I’d ever screamed. The adult withdrew his hand. “This isn’t for me,” he said. “Not for me,” said another adult. “I don’t like the look of it,” said a third. “Maybe someone in town would know what to do,” the first adult suggested, trying to sound wise but clearly disturbed. He wanted only to do what he’d come to the lake to do: relax and swim with his family. The other adults wanted the same. They gravitated back to their chairs and their books and their snacks. “One . . . Two . . . Three.” I was lifted again by the children. On the edge of town, we passed the rundown shacks where the eldest community members resided, the old men and women who lived off small vegetable gardens rather than buying food from the Market. Only one person lived there now, Ginny Prentice, the oldest woman in Dolor. No one interacted with Ginny. She was months from Resignation and, we believed, she preferred to keep to herself, preparing for an eternity of unimaginable bliss in Fortune, the life we all received after this one. But that day she waited outside, leaning against her fence tapping the point of a picket. “Is he alright?” Ginny asked. There was no time to respond. We passed the school house, the market, the tennis courts where the balls thwacked against rackets. A football flew over my head. The sound of feet on grass became feet on concrete as we entered town square. They let me down on the steps of town hall. In front of me stood the statue of Henri Caton, the man who established Dolor more than a century earlier. He’d chosen this land for its beauty and safety—mountains surrounded the town. The outside world was shaded by constant suffering, while Dolorans—thanks to Henri Caton—had lives of love, leisure, and plenty, unthreatened by peril. Governor Brase, the trusted and unfazeable leader of Dolor, crouched above me. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he muttered. He bent closer, his glasses tipping down the bridge of his nose. “And if I touch it . . .” I didn’t stop him. As Governor, it was his right. His touch caused me to spit up more food. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “We need to get him—it might be contagious. Have you kids felt anything?” “Felt what?” Rig asked. “Hey you,” said the Governor to Ty Donahue. “Kick him.” He pointed at Rig. She kicked him hard in the thigh. “OW!” Rig said, confused. “It’s—what is—like a dull thing in my—” “Annabelle! Get me six pairs of gloves!” the Governor shouted at his assistant. He and five gloved kids hauled me up to a restroom on the top floor of town hall. They lay me down on a bed of yellow towels. “We need to quarantine you,” said the Governor. “It won’t be for long.” He beckoned the other kids out of the bathroom. The lock clicked into place. * My mind went messy with hyper-sensation. The pain waned and strengthened. The cool tile offered me solace. I rested my cheek against it, then flipped to rest the opposite cheek, to distract myself from the pain. Finally, I passed out, and was awoken by a rubbery hand on my forehead. My parents hunched above me. Puffy suits marshmallowed their bodies. They looked at me from behind bubbles of plastic. “Honey,” said my mother, as she stroked her gloved hand on my cheek. Her voice sounded abrasive through the mask. “How you holding up, sport?” bellowed my father. I flinched seeing them like this; the sensation spread. I shouted in agony. They held their hands to my shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay,” they said. “What happened to me?” “It was an accident,” my mother said. “When will it stop?” “Soon,” said my mother. She opened my mouth and placed two tablets inside. “These are from the Governor. Imported from beyond the mountains.” “Swallow them whole,” said my father. They tasted bitter but I swallowed. “You’re going to need a doctor,” said my father. “What’s that?” “It’s a . . . I don’t really know. They tell me it’s someone who fixes bodies.” “There aren’t any in Dolor,” said my mother. “I’m broken?” “It’s confusing for us, too, honey.” My parents leaned down to hug me, but barely. “Can you take off the suits?” “It’s for our own protection.” “And yours.” “We need to be one-hundred percent in order to help you.” They placed a pillow under my head, a blanket over my body. They slipped into the hall. * In Dolor, children played together in the streets, in the forest, at school, at the lake. Families went for long walks before dinner, commenting on the flowers and lizards and other creatures they encountered. Dinners were healthy and large and dragged deep into the night. Parents tucked their kids into bed, reading them the books that were read to them as children. In the morning, the sun provided its favorite rays. We deserved exceptional lives because we lived exceptional lives. But I had none of that now. There was only pain circling the edge of my body, waiting for the numbing tablets to quit. Screaming sounded in the hall. I wondered if it was the doctor. The door opened. Two people in marshmallow suits heaved Rig into the room. He skidded into the base of the sink but quickly stood, rubbing his back. He hobbled across the room, hugging the walls, to keep a safe distance between us. “What’s it like out there?” I asked. “Don’t talk to me,” he said. “I don’t want to get sick.” “My parents said a doctor was coming. They’re the ones who fix things.” “Doctors are just a myth to make people feel better.” Footsteps sounded in the hall. We silenced ourselves. I looked at Rig, made a face like, See? The door widened enough for a tray to slide into the room. It closed immediately. Rig raced for the door, but the lock had already clicked. There were two plates, two slices of pizza on each, and paper cups next to the plates: numbing tablets. I asked for my share but Rig told me I didn’t deserve it. “If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be stuck here,” he said. He stuffed half a slice in his mouth and struggled to chew. * On our third day together, Rig discovered a bar of soap under the sink. To pass the time, we tossed it back and forth. Once that became too easy, Rig wet the soap. We only ever caught it two or three times in a row, but the suspense gave us something to care about. * Five days passed with no sign of the doctor or our parents. Rig and I started to smell. He washed himself in the sink, rinsing his face and under his arms and—as I covered my eyes—his privates. Rig filled me a soup bowl with soapy water and I washed myself on the floor. The pain decreased. Or, I got used to the feeling. My ankle doubled in size and resembled an eggplant. Rig loved poking the squishy expanses of flesh. The fifth day became the sixth then the seventh. Our rapport splintered into something meaner and feral. “I need to get out of here,” Rig kept saying. “I can’t go anywhere.” “You’re not coming.” “You can’t leave me here” Rig had grown up in the same Dolor I had. We’d been taught to care for each other, to praise each other, to smile in the streets and to tell everyone how good we felt. This mindset had helped our community prosper. And it would help us prosper again. “That’s all junk,” Rig said. “No one’s helping us. No one’s praising us. I’d rather get resigned. Secure the bliss waiting for me in Fortune.” “What’s happening outside?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. “Who do you see?” Rig’s descriptions of people hanging out in town square had helped me endure our confinement. It had given me hope, because I believed I might one day be back among them. But for the first time since I’d been put here, the square was empty. Rig stared out the window. “I don’t even see any birds,” he said. He leaned to the right, to get a better angle, then to the left. “Nothing.” “It’s never empty.” “Come see.” He helped me into a stand. I leaned against him, hopping on my right foot. The streets were as empty as air. The statue of Henri Caton stood alone in the center of town. I pressed my ear to the glass, listening for children shouting or adults laughing, and what I heard was a wide sheet of silence. I slid down the wall to the floor. In the hallway, footsteps pounded faster than normal. A white suit flung open our door and tossed a large cardboard box inside. The door slammed shut. The box was packed with nonperishable foods, chips and cereals and dried milk and canned peas. Enough to last for a month. Rig panted ferociously. He kicked the door and hammered the handle with his fists. “I need something heavy,” he said, and I suggested the porcelain lid on the tank of the toilet. He lugged off the lid, dragging it to the entrance. It took every muscle in his body for him to lift it, but when the lid struck the handle, it snapped off with a shuddering ting. “You’re a hero!” I said. “Help me up.” He didn’t even look back. “Rig!” I shouted, until I could no longer hear his footsteps. I crawled to the sink and pulled myself to a stand, hopped out the door, where I could lean against the outside wall, hopping down the hall without putting weight on my ankle. I shouted “Hello” every few minutes, hoping someone might answer, might come to my aid. Downstairs, I collapsed into a leather rolling chair at the front desk and wheeled myself into the empty world. I only lived a few blocks away, in a small cabin not unlike every cabin in Dolor—wooden and pleasant, with a wraparound porch and rich green shutters, a flower garden tiered with tulips, a row of stones cutting a path across the yard. As I wheeled through the streets, eyes washed over me. Blinds flinched shut when I looked at the houses. It took nearly an hour to get home. I waited for my parents in the driveway, expecting them to rush to my aid. I called for them. Finally, I hopped to the porch and sat on the doormat, screaming for help. People in the surrounding houses watched my pleading unfold. I had assumed my parents were busy hunting for doctors, but no—they were hiding at home, ignoring me. My mother pulled the blinds in the closest window. “Honey,” she said through the glass. “You can’t be out here.” “Let me in,” I begged. My father appeared beside her. Red lines streaked their eyes. They seemed disturbed by my presence, or by what my presence suggested about them. “This is terrible for us.” “We really do wish we could help,” said my father. “You abandoned me,” I said. “We need to do what’s best for Dolor.” “We wouldn’t know how to live with it.” “Live with what?” I asked. “You’re so much stronger than us.” “And we need to protect ourselves.” “For the good of Dolor.” They started to cry. This gave me minor relief, knowing this wasn’t easy for them, but that comfort meant little beside their betrayal. “I’m healthy,” I told them. “You’re contagious,” said my father. “And we don’t have a cure.” They insisted they loved me. They insisted they felt for me. “We know what you’re going through,” they said, because they didn’t. People who’ve never known pain can never know empathy. Comfort had trapped them inside of themselves. They were caged by convenience and pleasure. They lowered the blinds. * In the morning, a man in a marshmallow suit delivered a box labeled TUESDAY. I was awoken by the package thudding the porch. “Help me!” I said. But he strolled away, confident I couldn’t catch up. He delivered similar boxes to every house in the neighborhood. I opened ours, picked out an apple and a bag of almonds. I hopped back to the chair. Once I rolled out of the driveway, my parents stepped outside for the box and, as if I were going to school, they politely waved goodbye. I wheeled into the center of town toward the lake, planning to return to the cliff. I thought if I jumped again it might fix everything. I didn’t care how long it would take to get there. I would crawl if I needed to. In the town square, the statue of Henri Caton had been toppled, and its extended arm, pointing—as the story went—in the direction of Dolor, was bent to a crooked V where it hit the ground. I touched the arm, and the metal pressed inward under my hand, the material cheap and pliable. There were scrape marks over the body and it smelled like an unflushed toilet. Beside the school, the tennis court nets had been shredded. A wavy metal sheet covered the face of the general store. I rolled closer, to see where the sheet had come from—normally, even at night, the general store windows were exposed, greetings cards and boxed cookies on display—and was surprised to see the metal had been lowered from above the windows, that it had likely been there the entire time. At Serenity Lake, the lounge chairs that once crowded the shore had been tossed in the water, stuck upright in the lakebottom, so they poked through the surface like fingers through the holes in a glove. As I rolled on, I felt people around me, the way you can feel someone is home even when they’re not speaking, but no one emerged from behind the school or the stores, no one shouted to me from the forest, or crept wetly out of the lake, waving to me. At the edge of town, though, close to the cliff, I heard an aged, gravelly voice calling my name. Ginny Prentice leaned against her fence. “You’re the hurt boy,” she said. Her face resembled an onion, round, with sprigs of hair on the top. I nodded. “About time it happened to someone.” “Are you a doctor?” I asked. She shook her head. “But I’ve known doctors. I can fix you.” She pushed me onto her property, rolling me up the walkway. “Don’t you need a suit?” I asked. “What’s the point?” Ginny said. “I’m a month from Resignation.” At her porch, she bent down and I draped my arm over her shoulder. Together we limped inside. She fed me porridge and raisins and let me sleep on her couch. I flinched awake a few times from rolling onto my ankle but slept largely uninterrupted, my best sleep in a week. In the morning, I bit on a towel as Ginny straightened my ankle. It hurt more than it had the first day. Afterward, she tied a T-shirt around the ankle and lumped ice over top. Weeks passed before I could put any weight on it. Over that time, Ginny talked about the utter boredom of life in Dolor compared to the rest of the world. She fled Dolor once, in her teens, but returned home after two days, frightened by what she discovered: a world of risk and excitement and grief. She regretted not staying longer. She lacked the courage, she said, to ever go back. She was a Doloran. Whether she liked it or not. And she’d spent her life awaiting Resignation. I didn’t like hearing her talk this way, didn’t like being reminded that very soon, on her sixtieth birthday, two officials would inject Ginny with a serum that would send her to Fortune, where population stability wasn’t an issue. “Are you excited?” I asked her one day, hoping to slip some joy into our morbid conversations. “Fortune is supposed to be even better than Dolor.” “It’s not any greater than here. Not any worse. It’s just an end. It’s called death—not Resignation. That’s a word you should know so you can accept it.” “I’ll be all alone.” “That other kid’ll probably show.” “No way I’m letting him in,” I said. “You’ll get lonely,” she said. And I knew she was right. The final week before Resignation, when I could hobble without the aid of a crutch, Ginny did what she could to teach me to survive on my own. She wrote out instructions for maintaining the garden, showed me how to fry an egg, how to sew a button onto a shirt and chopped an excessive amount of firewood for the winter—she said I was too young to learn to chop it myself. I was slow to pick up new skills. And the low hum of pain still in my ankle made any physical labor exhausting. Ginny pitied me. “You’re gonna die here,” she said, watching me mangle the tomatoes I plucked from the vine. “Then tell me how to survive,” I said. “They’re coming tomorrow,” she said. “You’re too young,” she said. “You’re gonna die here,” she said. “Stop telling me that,” I said. “It breaks my heart just thinking about it,” she said. “Now come, let’s eat some dinner.” That evening, the night before her sixtieth birthday, we feasted on a platter of Ginny’s favorite foods: waffles, French fries, salted cashews, ice cream sandwiches, and a rich brown drink that burned and scraped in my chest. After a while, the burning softened, and I was all giggles and burps. We played backgammon until my eyes glazed over in sleep. I woke up later than normal. My head was a pile of stones. The Resignation Officials always came first thing in the morning, before the sun even rose, and the sunlight pressing through the blinds made it obvious that I’d slept in too late to see Ginny again. I hobbled to the kitchen, then to her bedroom, but both rooms were empty. I am going to die here, I thought, the idea coming to me in Ginny’s pitying voice. There were some leftovers in the fridge and, though my stomach felt spiky, I tried to heat half of a waffle using a skillet on the stove. I burned it so badly a sooty cloud of smoke climbed out of the pan. Ginny’s voice returned to me. It seemed like a guarantee, now. I would die here. She had died here. Death—the word she taught me to use instead of Resignation. Death, a word that hovered in front of me. A word like a door I would enter. I hadn’t been awake for an hour and I already wished that Rig was here with me. I would’ve been fine to return to the bathroom if it meant I wasn’t alone. If my parents refused to see me, surely his had refused to see him. Ginny was right. He would find me. And I would welcome him in—I would beg him to live with me. Anything would be better than slowly starving to death on my own, if I didn’t burn down the house before he even arrived. I limped to the front door planning to forage some fruit for breakfast now that I’d ruined the waffle. When I opened the door, however, Ginny was standing before me holding a deep plastic bowl filled to the brim with blackberries. “They must’ve forgotten about me,” she said. “But they’ll be here tomorrow.” The next day, the officials didn’t arrive. They didn’t arrive the next day or the following week. It’s been a month, and every day we are waiting a little bit less, and a little bit less, and a little bit less.
The author of The Wife of Bath: A Biography offers an unexpected channel into the life of one of literature’s greatest fictional characters—Alison of Bath.
The Wife of Bath (a.k.a. Alison of Bath) speaks with the knowledge of experience: travels throughout Europe, mercantile savvy, five marriages, domestic abuse, sex, and pleasure. Indeed, before launching into her Tale—a parable about what women desire—she delivers a Prologue rife with “truths” from her own “life.” Truths and life are in scare quotes here because Alison, of course, is a fictional character. But that fact hasn’t lessened how real she has felt to centuries of readers and reinterpreters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the iconic late fourteenth-century poem that portrays a heterogenous group of Canterbury-bound pilgrims. Alison calls our attention to who has long wielded the pen and shaped the record, and who has not: “By God, if women had but written stories / Like those clergy keep in oratories, / More had been written of man’s wickedness / Than all the sons of Adam could redress” [“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” trans. Nevill Coghill]. Alison is astute, wry, and candid. She also likes to enjoy herself. As Chaucer scholar Marion Turner writes in The Wife of Bath (Princeton University Press), a new biography of this titular taleteller, “[S]he gossips! She drinks! She tells her husband’s secrets! She looks for a new husband at her previous husband’s funeral!” Turner’s biography traces Alison from her fourteenth-century context to her appearances, both literal and referential, in works by William Shakespeare, Voltaire, James Joyce, Hilary Mantel, Patience Agbabi, Jean “Binta” Breeze, and Zadie Smith, among many others. “She lives for readers in a way that most characters do not,” Turner writes. We spoke about how and why Alison’s presence has endured, and our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Melissa Rodman: I’d love to start out by placing this book in conversation with your previous book, Chaucer: A European Life, which focused on Chaucer himself as the life to untangle in context. Now you’ve turned to the Wife of Bath, the character, and I’m wondering what led you to make that choice. Marion Turner: I really enjoyed writing and researching the biography of Chaucer, and it involved a lot of travel, a lot of working with different kinds of records. I did feel like I was able to get inside the imagination of the author and the audience in the fourteenth century, through thinking about what he saw, where he went, the structures he lived in. I thought, “I would really like to write about a woman,” and I really enjoyed writing literary biography, but I wanted to do something experimental as well. Of course, it’s hard to write about women from the distant past because we don’t have the same amount of evidence. And when we do have evidence, it’s often been written by men, or—even if it’s been written by women—it’s usually been filtered through men, through forms that have been designed by men, sometimes male ghostwriters, sometimes there’s a male editor, male scribes. I wondered if there were other ways of thinking about women in time that didn’t involve going to an actual, individual woman. What would it be like to try to think about how we can access different aspects of historical truth and the imagination, through someone who is not real, who is a character? Right now, people are still writing new versions of the Wife of Bath, which is crazy in a way—650 years on, she’s still inspiring so many texts. The intertextuality you’re talking about really emerges in reading The Wife of Bath, not just in medieval times but also in your incorporation of Virginia Woolf, for example. Woolf seems to be central to your project. I don’t know if that connection was something you thought about prior to the research stage? Woolf has always been really influential for me, even though I’ve never been an expert on modernism. One thing that’s very striking for me is that many of the things that Woolf was saying in the early twentieth century were things that the Wife of Bath was saying in the fourteenth century. There are two particularly important aspects here. First, Virginia Woolf writes at length in A Room of One’s Own about the fact that women haven’t had the chance to tell their own stories, and she tells this story of an imagined Shakespeare’s sister who would not have been able to get her voice heard. Now, Virginia Woolf is writing this in the early twentieth century, but in the late fourteenth century the Wife of Bath is saying, “All the books have been written by men. Who painted the lion? Men have told all the stories. They have said terrible things about women,” and, “If women had been able to write stories, they would have told of the wickedness of men.” The other thing, which I think is fundamental to what Virginia Woolf wrote, is the idea that women need a room of their own, which is shorthand for saying economic independence. A key part of my argument is that the Wife of Bath emerged at this particular historical moment because women did have a certain amount of economic freedom and independence. She has benefited from inheritance laws. She’s been able to be a working woman; she’s been able to inherit from her husbands; she’s been able to have a certain degree of economic power. And that reflects the historical reality of the late fourteenth century, although, of course, this is not an era of equality. But it wasn’t an era of total subjugation, oppression, either, and, in fact, after the Black Death, women were able to work more. Women also set up new households with their husbands. They weren’t staying, living, with their parents or their husbands’ parents. They weren’t childbearing, usually, at very young ages. This was a moment at which women did have some economic independence and, therefore, more sexual choices as well. Interestingly, it’s comparable to post–First World War, which of course is an important moment for Woolf. At a time of demographic crisis, when lots of people die, when terrible, terrible things happen, out of that can come social change. And in both of those appalling instances—the Black Death and the First World War—because so many working men died, it did give rise to opportunities for women. What’s so interesting is that Alison, a fictional character, emerges in a nonfictional way. I’m going to quote something you wrote that’s really intriguing: “The illusion of honesty that she cultivates through her assured performance is deeply appealing to many readers who feel they can see inside her head, and this becomes even more engaging when she voices things with which we can identify.” I’m wondering, in your reading of the Canterbury Tales, when did you first connect with Alison in this way? It also brings up this question of gender dynamics that you’re discussing. How can Chaucer, a man, create this woman who has spoken to both men and women across time? I first read the Wife of Bath when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I did find her extremely striking as a character. So many people say, “Oh, Chaucer. The Wife of Bath. Oh, she was my favourite. She was the one I remember.” Many people when they read her, first they get deceived by the illusion, so they think there is an authenticity to it, which changes once you understand some of the misogynist sources that lie behind her construction. Some of us might think, “Oh, good on her”; medieval readers are thinking, “Oh, women are so terrible.” So, there are all kinds of complex things going on with our preconceptions. The Wife of Bath is essentially the first character in English literature, and not just the first female character. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to experiment with the very concept of what a literary character can be. That doesn’t mean she is the same as characters in Victorian or modern novels; of course not. There are all kinds of stereotypical aspects. But, at the same time, this is a figure who speaks at length in her confessional Prologue about herself. She talks about her past. She has a sense of temporality. That’s crucial in character formation. She circles things in her mind; she returns to things. Traumatic incidents keep coming back when she talks about the domestic violence that was enacted against her. That keeps recurring in a way that really gives us the sense of a mind. And, of course, it’s an illusion. This isn’t a real person. Her voice is so idiosyncratic because, unlike her sources, she has this properly funny voice. She’s comic. She kind of laughs at herself. She’s self-deprecating. And she’s not the kind of cynical old bawd of the Romance of the Rose, which is one of the key sources. She has a moral sense. There are all these aspects of her, which are not just about being a woman but are about being a character. Chaucer uses this character; he does it a bit in other characters as well, but more in the Wife of Bath than in any of the other Canterbury pilgrims. It’s partly about character, which isn’t only about gender. But it’s absolutely fascinating that he chooses to experiment with a female character, because not only should literary characters not speak this way, neither should fourteenth-century women. Chaucer is able to give us the sense of someone who is thinking about issues, such as rape and domestic abuse, in ways that he couldn’t have experienced—but that a fourteenth-century woman might have. He moved in very mixed circles, and women were reading and listening to his texts. The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is to let all kinds of voices speak. As a writer, as a thinker, he was deeply invested in trying to make leaps not only of imagination but of perspective. What you see is determined by where you are standing. You mention briefly in The Wife of Bath some allegations against Chaucer in his own life, his own domestic violence potentially. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more about that. In some headlines earlier this year, that discussion also has reemerged. There was a legal document that said he was no longer liable for allegations of “raptus,” which can be translated as rape, against someone called Cecily Chaumpaigne. There was a phase of scholars who said, “Well, Chaucer couldn’t possibly have been a rapist. What an outrageous thing even to imagine.” And then there were other scholars who said, “We have to take this seriously. We have to wrestle with the idea that the author whom we love might have done this terrible thing and that he might have been able to write sympathetically about women and treat them badly in his own life.” And just a few weeks ago some scholars found some other documents, which have demonstrated that this was not about rape. That, in fact, Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were on the same side of a legal dispute, where she had left an employer to go work for Chaucer, and, by joining together, they were stopping the employer from suing her for leaving him or from suing Chaucer for taking her away from this other employer. It’s a great example because it shows how people think, “Can anything still happen in the world of medieval studies?” But documents are still being found. There’s still ambiguity, but we’ve got a bit more clarity now. Would you say that Cecily was in an economic relationship with Chaucer, or was there a romantic tinge? There’s no evidence of anything romantic, but the economics—as you identify—is so interesting. One of the things that fascinates me about the Wife of Bath is not only her individually but the literary and real worlds that she represents. For instance, when the Wife of Bath talks about her own household—maids and nurses, working women within her household. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really crucial that women are able to work, and service was a major way for them to gain economic independence. There are many societies in that era, and in other eras as well, where the kind of service work of the house is done by women who are not paid, by the daughters-in-law, sisters of the household who are not allowed to leave, who are not allowed to earn money, who stay within the household as unpaid service providers. The fact that Chaucer lives in a world of female domestic and other labour, it meant that women could leave their fathers’ homes. They could go and earn a salary. They could save up money, and then they could set up their own home. Now, of course, that’s not to say there was no exploitation. But it was better for women than living in slavery. Women did lots of different things, like the cloth trade and brewing and different kinds of textile work. The Wife of Bath herself talks about working in the cloth trade. We also hear about women who are parchment makers or who own ships, and there are women who own companies. Particularly widows. Their husband would die, and they would go on running the company, training apprentices. You can imagine these networks of women, who are sometimes crossing hierarchies, employers and employees. But sometimes they’re obviously supportive networks, where money is being left, where training is being gifted, and women are being gifted the economic independence. [In] the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, where she is talking about how she gets money from her husband, she loses all her personal power when she gives it up to her fifth husband, and she has to get it back. She has to get economic power before she can have any other kind of power. Cecily Chaumpaigne in some kind of service role shines a new spotlight on that part of Chaucer’s world. It also makes me think about the lion line that is instrumental to this book: “Who painted the lion, tell me who?” It’s such a beautiful line as written by Chaucer, and then your close reading of it in The Wife of Bath is so powerful. Can you walk me through how in Chaucer’s text you were drawn to that line and then what the close reading process entailed? The Wife of Bath’s Prologue has lots and lots of different sources, and many of those sources are from an antifeminist tradition, a tradition of texts which are about how dreadful women are. Some of them are biblical texts by people such as Saint Jerome or texts by poet Eustache Deschamps. In the “who painted the lion” moment, Chaucer moves outside of that antifeminist tradition and goes to a fable. Fables were a really crucial way in which people were taught at school. So, we’ve moved into a different kind of source, and that is striking in itself, in terms of thinking, “What is Chaucer doing here?” He’s allowing us to have a moment where the Wife of Bath keeps telling us, essentially, that she’s a creature made by texts, that there are only antifeminist texts, there are only misogynist texts. She’s been made out of them. How can she get out of them? The basic idea is there’s a picture of a man killing a lion, and a lion looking at it says, “Well, who painted that?” Obviously, this is a painting done by men to say, “We’re better than lions. Aren’t we great?” If the lion were able to do the painting, then it would be different. The lion is saying, “This isn’t fair. The artist is biased.” It’s back to perspective again; where you’re standing determines what you see and what you represent, or history is written by the victors. This is something that really speaks to all of us, to say, “Think about the bias in art. Think about the bias in everything that you read. Who wrote it?” This is the fundamental point not only in thinking about gender but in thinking today about fake news, social media. This could not be more relevant, I think, to our own era as well. She’s so prescient. I don’t know how that happens. Absolutely. There are so many things which are extraordinary, and I think that also speaks to why people have taken her up so much across time. Because you also think about the Tale that she tells, which is then this story of, “How do you construct an appropriate punishment for a rapist? Is the appropriate punishment simply to kill them?” And she says, “No. Let’s make them think about what they’ve done. Let’s make them think about female desire. Let’s make them try to get into the shoes of someone whose desires are not taken account of. Let’s try that.” And there are lots of issues and complexities with that story, but it’s a very modern perspective on punishment. Make the punishment fit the crime. Try and reform someone. And some people wouldn’t agree with that. But it’s very, very interesting to think about her foregrounding those debates. One of the things that also is so modern is this concept of interruption. As you write, “At the heart of the Canterbury Tales is the idea of interruption. We repeatedly hear an authoritative voice challenged by a kind of voice that isn’t usually given the opportunity to speak—in life or in literature.” How might Chaucer have found that kind of voice in a sea of prescriptive—repeated, regurgitated, everybody painting the lion in the same way—voices? It is important to note that he is doing something that is genuinely innovative in literature. Chaucer is a merchant’s son, so he’s not brought up in a courtly, aristocratic environment. He’s brought up in the city of London. He has a variety of different jobs that involve travelling. He’s a prisoner of war. He’s mixing with different kinds of communities and ethnicities. He lives in the heart of the trading world. But in terms of the texts that he’s reading, a really crucial source for him is Boccaccio’s Decameron, which does have lots of different voices telling stories. At the same time, they are all of the same social class. He gets models from literature, “Okay, we can have different voices coming in,” and the tale collection is such a rich genre for being able to voice different opinions and have different voices. But I think that one of the genuinely novel things that Chaucer does is he says, “Well, what happens if we make these people different classes? If I say, well, actually, I’m going to have a miller interrupt the telling of the stories and stop the monk from telling his Tale and say that he’s going to reply to the person of high level, the knight. What happens if I have the person who talks at length being this kind of mercantile woman?” I think he also is inspired by things like the development of new kinds of voices in Parliament, so the growing strength of the Commons in the English Parliament, the emergence of the speaker, someone who can speak for a group of others. He himself was an MP at one point. This is also the era of the Great Revolt of 1381, so politically he does have models for interruption, for low class voices being able to speak. In literary terms, he’s really trailblazing in that. I wonder if it would be interesting for me to say a little about the fact that this book goes up to 2021? Yes! It was actually after I started the work for this book that I heard about Zadie Smith’s play, The Wife of Willesden. I already knew there were modern Wives of Bath, but that play was being written while I was writing this book, and then I was lucky enough to be able to see an advanced copy and then to go and see the actual play in November 2021. The fact that one of the most celebrated writers today, Zadie Smith, is choosing to write a play about the Wife of Bath really makes my point: that this is still someone who is so relevant, so interesting to people. In Smith’s play, Alison becomes Alvita, and the Arthurian Britain of the Wife of Bath’s Tale becomes eighteenth-century Jamaica. It says to audiences today, “Look, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a relevant part of our history, but eighteenth-century Jamaica and the slave plantations, they are also a relevant part of our history.” And today, I think, there are some people who want to say, “Well, it’s one or the other,” who want to say, “No, we have to focus on Britishness, on this country. That the history of what was going on in the colonies, or on the slave plantations, that’s only relevant to a small demographic.” It’s [Smith’s play] saying, “No. This is the history of this country.” And it’s not about shutting other parts of history out but demonstrating the breadth of what is relevant to thinking about British identity in this case, and saying that we need to acknowledge colonial histories does not mean saying we’re no longer interested in Chaucer. Not at all. We’re interested in all these things. That’s also very interesting to me as someone who works in a university, where we think a lot about diversifying the curriculum, which I’m very committed to. It’s not about trying to limit but trying to expand in various ways. Something like The Wife of Willesden or Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales. Patience is a Nigerian British author who’s done this brilliant version of the Canterbury Tales, each in a different kind of modern poetic genre, but it started as the Wife of Bath. There’s something in the last chapter, too—in talking about the live aspect. Of course, one can read a play, but it’s also about seeing a play. Zadie Smith, I believe, includes herself in the final scene of The Wife of Willesden. It’s the “who painted the lion” question again, and Zadie Smith’s parallels to Chaucer, all those questions about authorship. There’s an author figure at various points in the play, and when you see it live, the actress playing the author figure looks kind of like Zadie Smith and is there with her MacBook, and it’s very cleverly done. I’m glad you also raise that issue of orality of the text, because across time the Wife of Bath has usually been put into oral forms: ballads, plays, performance poetry. I found it very interesting, then, to write the penultimate chapter, which is about what happens when she goes into the traditionally silent form of the novel. And very often, novelists then find ways still to make her voice very important because that voice is really crucial to understanding her. So much about this project is about life writing. I’m wondering if there are other lives you’re looking to write about next and where this process of life writing has guided your scholarship. It’s a really interesting area, isn’t it? Of what’s happening with life writing more generally at the moment. Hilary Mantel very sadly died after I had written this, but I was pleased that I had the little bit about her in it as a small homage. [The introduction to Turner’s The Wife of Bath begins with an epigraph from and close reading of a quotation from Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light: “It might have been my mother or it might have been the Wife of Bath.”] Traditionally, I would have said that historical fiction is a very different thing from life writing or biography, and, of course, that is broadly true. But someone such as Hilary Mantel, who was so extraordinarily talented and groundbreaking, really troubles that boundary by doing so much research into thinking about [Thomas Cromwell]. It is fiction, and she markets it as fiction, but there obviously is also truth to it. So, I think that kind of work is really challenging us to think about the place of different kinds of historical life writing, that there are times when using the imagination in the way that she does might give us access to a certain kind of historical truth. That is, of course, something that can be very misused. You have to have the kind of talent of Hilary Mantel to be able to make it work and to make clear that there is historical truth, and there are truths; there are things that happened, and there are things that didn’t happen. It’s important not to blur the boundary so much that we get away from that, of course. It’s so interesting with both Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel making the jump, as their careers progress, into playwriting. It gives you such a different way of thinking about subjectivity, doesn’t it? When you have that performance and when you are also as a writer handing over so much to the actors because their imagination, their interpretation, counts so much. I imagine that for a novelist, that then allows them a different kind of collaboration, which for some people would be a nightmare but for some people would be very energizing, and pleasing, to have that more collaborative mode of writing, which I think is absolutely what we see in Chaucer’s work and in the way it was treated by readers and writers who did feel they could intervene and do their own versions and write their own things on the text. Lots of times they do things that as a reader you think, “Oh, you know, they really got that wrong. They’re doing all kinds of terrible things.” But there’s also something very important about the fact that people respond creatively to these texts. These texts are not dead, even when people might think, “Oh, they’ve got it wrong.” But they’re reading it! They’re thinking! They’re doing things!
Are we losing our capacity for cinematic enchantment?
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. Quentin Tarantino was fourteen when he first watched Rolling Thunder, tagging along with his mother and her boyfriend to a Friday night screening in Los Angeles. Years later, he’d show up whenever the movie was playing in a theatre in the city, regardless of the time of day or distance. In his recent book, Cinema Speculation, he claims that the film is “the best combination of character study and action film ever made.” A contemporary viewer, however, might be forgiven for being baffled by the enthusiasm, for even wondering what Tarantino saw in the movie at fourteen. It’s not just that we’ve seen multiple versions of the story of a returning war hero who goes on a murderous rampage after a family tragedy; more that, in an age where every other TV show is a crime procedural or a violent thriller, and every other movie about a celestial superhero battling apocalyptic nemeses, we’re too jaded to believe that action flicks can double up as character portraits. Later in the book, Tarantino praises the “feel-good catharsis” of Rocky’s screenplay. He claims that Sylvester Stallone was, among other things, a canny scriptwriter with an ear for comedy, and that the dialogue in an early film, The Lords of Flatbush, is replete with his trademark wisecracks. But there isn’t a funny moment in The Lords of Flatbush—I rented it last week on Amazon Prime. The entire movie is just about redeemed by sporadic closeups of Perry King’s zero-buccal-fat face. The story revolves around four young ruffians growing up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood where women end up marrying their high school boyfriends and men inevitably have a comb handy in their pockets. The characters are stuck in crises not too different from ours—Who do you love? Who do you marry? What are we supposed to do with our lives?—and yet their predicaments seem naïve to audiences hardened by decades of group-tested entertainment. Halfway through, Stallone features in a rooftop scene where Tarantino feels his performance is “Brandoesque.” King’s character, Chico, chastises Stallone for being happy with idle fantasies, for not wanting to step out of their borough and see the world. This being early fifties’ New York, Chico can’t help but be casually racist: “You can have all the imagination you want, but you’re never gonna see no c----s in Tokyo.” Stallone’s resemblance to Brando, however, is cosmetic: his character is named Stanley, much like the lead in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he is dressed in a sleeveless black vest in multiple scenes. When he goes off on Chico, he mumbles his lines too effusively, like someone acting in a college play. It could be that a millennial like me was born too late to grasp the import of a movie made fifty years ago. Or perhaps we’ve all collectively squandered our capacity for enchantment. Tarantino first watched Rocky on the big screen during opening week, and the audience apparently went berserk during the climactic knockout: "I’ve been to movies where something happened on screen and the audience cheered. But never—and I repeat—never—like they cheered when Rocky landed that blow in the first round that knocked Apollo Creed to the floor…Every blow Rocky took seemed to land on you." My first time watching the film was different. Not long after Rocky Balboa was released, a school friend decided that we needed to catch up on the previous five movies to better understand the latest installment of the franchise. And so, on a Saturday afternoon in Assam, a crew of peacocking teenagers were huddled around someone’s older brother’s desktop—back when we called computers “PCs”—passing around a joint and hallucinating over Stallone’s bloodstained face. The plan was no doubt to watch the films back to back, until we discovered that the torrent file for Rocky II (or was it Rocky III?) was overlaid by Russian voices. I remember us all erupting when Hulk Hogan came on. Cushions and mattresses were soon lumped on the host’s bedroom floor and the viewing area was transformed into a ring for spontaneous wrestling bouts. Our friend’s parents were away at work, which meant that we were free to raid the kitchen cabinets in search of alcohol. At some point more people, all of them boys, were invited, and someone came over with a box of pork dumplings from a vendor at the end of the street. Stuffed and stoned, I passed out on a couch while Rocky kept swearing in Russian in the other room. And yet it wasn’t as if we just thought of movies as ambient noise. I remember countless late nights when my sister and I would catch the last few minutes of a whodunit or comedy on TV and spend the next hour dreaming up outlandish backstories. What was supposed to be an empty hour before drifting to sleep became something to look forward to: I still don’t know if Dr. Evil from Austin Powers had indeed travelled from a different planet in the first half, as we imagined, or if Matthew McConaughey had spurned Kate Hudson in the opening scene of How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days. We were ardent about our tall tales, our pretend versions of these half-glimpsed movies, in a way that those who sat through the actual films from beginning to end couldn’t have been. Then there was the Harry Potter universe, with which my sister was obsessed at that age. Someone had gifted her a DVD box set of the first five films, and she used to watch them after school on loop. I, too, sometimes found myself affected by their charms. Reading Oliver Twist in eighth grade, I pictured little Daniel Radcliffe ambling around the streets of nineteenth-century London in a newsboy cap. Long John Silver, from Treasure Island, looked suspiciously like Alan Rickman when he popped up in dreams. Tarantino might yearn for the exuberance of crowds applauding the action hero in a theatre, but those of us who witnessed audiences cheering on the most mindless of Bollywood flicks—and later replicating the violence offscreen—will always struggle to see that sort of fandom as innocent. I feel envious about the flashes of insight that older generations claim to have routinely experienced at the movies. The Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy reportedly started writing his magnum opus, Samskara, after watching The Seventh Seal without subtitles as a graduate student in England. Recalling the memory later, he wrote, “Often creativity is aroused by imperfect understanding and even misunderstanding.” The closest I came to having an epiphany inside a packed theatre was during an IMAX screening of Avatar years ago, when the colours in every frame seemed like something out of a psychedelic trance, though I doubt I’ll feel the same way about the images in the new sequel. Decades after seeing The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie could credit the film as his “very first literary influence.” Who honestly expects Marvel Studios’ Eternals, or last year’s Hindu-nationalist cringefest RRR, to ever inspire anything imaginative?
Carmela remains Falco’s most enduring on-screen alter ego, the crystallization of her mysterious genius.
Since airing in February 1999, The Sopranos’s fifth episode, “College,” has been revered as a television landmark. It not only reinvigorated a moribund medium but affirmed it, once and for all, as nothing short of an art form, laying the foundation for an ongoing “golden age” in small screen storytelling. When people describe “College,” they tend to emphasize one half of its bifurcated story: During a trip to Maine to visit colleges with his daughter, James Gandolfini’s New Jersey mobster, Tony Soprano, spots a former mafioso turned informer. By episode’s end, Tony has garroted the man in retaliation. “College” announced several elements that quickly became trademarks of creator David Chase’s opus. There was its mobile camerawork and sidewinding story, a bold narrative detour centred around events that deepened the series’s fundamental themes and characterizations without directly propelling the larger plot of its inaugural season. Most memorably, there was the mesmerizing and fully realized tour de force of the late James Gandolfini, whose Herculean performance would mark the advent of a new criterion in episodic screen acting. These feats understandably take precedence in discussions about “College,” though there was another player in the episode whose key contributions helped canonize the HBO drama into a televisual touchstone. In a dual storyline, Carmela, Tony’s pampered yet guilt-ridden wife, finds herself home alone with her church’s handsome priest, whose spiritual guidance and kind companionship intensify into something more illicit over the course of a dark and stormy night. Over time, Carmela would evolve from her husband’s cosseted, emotionally neglected helpmate and staunch defender into one of his chief adversaries. Along the way, there would be chaste flirtations with this clergyman, then with a made man. There’d be some light bribery and intimidation, thousands of dollars stolen from Tony’s secret stash, a thwarted divorce, a stop-start real estate career, and plenty of marital anguish. But before all of that, there was “College.” By affording Carmela’s contrition and moment of (ultimately unconsummated) temptation the same amount of screen time as Tony’s act of vengeance, Chase and episode co-writer James Manos Jr. ensured viewers knew that the character’s multi-season arc would be just as crucial, engrossing, and psychologically intricate as her husband’s. On this front, Chase and his collaborators were aided in no small part by a little-known thirty-five-year-old actress who had come up on the fringes of New York’s independent film scene. Throughout eight years and eighty-six episodes, Edie Falco would simultaneously play and authenticate Carmela Soprano with a combination of skill, discipline, and nerve that have become the hallmark of this sublime actor. * Like many of the East Coast peers she would act with on The Sopranos, Falco experienced a slow, uncertain rise. Upon graduating from the acting conservatory at SUNY Purchase in 1986, she popped up in a series of indies during the early to mid-’90s, done by homegrown New York directors including Hal Hartley, Nick Gomez, and Abel Ferrara. In the lean years, in between parts, she waitressed, struggled with alcoholism, and found solace in Buddhism. In 1997, she starred as Marge Gunderson, immortalized by Frances McDormand in Fargo, for a television adaptation of the Coen brothers’ crime drama that was quickly scrapped after an initial pilot. That same year, as the ensemble of The Sopranos was being assembled with character actors both seasoned and untested, Falco was in the middle of her three-season tenure as a guard on HBO’s prison saga Oz. For Chase and his casting directors Sheila Jaffe and Georgianne Walken, Carmela Soprano proved the hardest role to cast, a complicit suburban housewife with a mindset just as roiling and agitated as her capo husband’s. In the days leading up to the pilot’s production, the role was still unfilled. Lorraine Bracco, who would go on to play Tony’s riveted and repulsed psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, turned down the part. She felt the character shared too much DNA with her performance as decadent mob wife Karen Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the closest thing to a forerunner to Chase’s series. After gradually building a reputation as a go-to embodier of unglamorous, hardscrabble women, Falco was far from an obvious fit for the primped and spoiled Carmela. “I would have cast me as Dr. Melfi, but, luckily, I was not in charge,” Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. She assumed the role would be snatched up by a more famous Italian-American actress—a Marisa Tomei or an Annabella Sciorra. (The latter would eventually and unforgettably guest star on the series as an unhinged, ill-fated mistress of Tony’s.) Yet something in Falco sparked with the familiarity of the part. As she told author Brett Martin in Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: “Maybe it’s because I’m part Italian, or grew up in Long Island, but I read the part and thought, ‘I know exactly who this woman is. I can feel her already.’” After reading just two scenes in her audition, Falco slipped out of her Oz police uniform and donned the silk blouses, French tips, and shield of gold jewellery that would make up Carmela Soprano’s signature style. Falco sports Carmela’s flashy exteriors with the complete credibility of a natural-born chameleon. But what first stands out about the character is not what she wears, but what she says. “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die,” Carmela tells Tony as he prepares for an MRI in the aftermath of his first of several panic attacks during the pilot. She’s confronting him with the full and unforgiving awareness of his ongoing adultery, the kept “goumadas” who will drive a wedge into their marriage during the show’s run. Falco spits this line out with all the venomous pique she can muster, her Jersey accent thick and strident. (It’s no wonder this barb was revisited in subsequent seasons.) Another performer might have only conveyed the anger of this exchange, but it’s what Falco does after the line that clues us into Carmela’s emotional complexity and steers the character away from the carping and castrating wife stereotype that has plagued many stories, mob-affiliated or otherwise. Seconds later, Falco’s face sinks with remorse, and as Tony slides into the MRI machine, Carmela offers him a conciliatory hand. Falco’s symbiotic chemistry with Gandolfini, a man she claims to have hardly known outside the fervency of their on-camera union, is immediate and indispensable here. * For many viewers at the time, The Sopranos was their introduction to Falco and Gandolfini, two obscure and atypical stars who had spent years batting around the industry, untied to any one image. For most viewers, Gandolfini and Falco will always and only be Tony and Carmela, so firm and deeply felt is their bond. “He was totally un-actor-y, and was incredibly self-deprecating, and he was a real soul mate in that regard,” Falco told The New Yorker about her late acting partner in 2021. “We did not spend a lot of time talking about the scripts. It was like when you see two kids playing in the sandbox, completely immersed in their imaginary world. That’s what it felt like acting opposite Jim.” In the pilot episode, Carmela informs Tony during a dinner date: “I’m getting my wine in position to throw in your damn face.” Minutes later, she lavishes him with giddy praise for starting therapy. Here, unmistakably, is a real, warts-and-all marriage; a perpetual battle between ardour and rancour, enacted so casually in Falco’s quicksilver moods and the way Gandolfini engages and evades her, assuming he knows all there is to know about this woman yet jittery that, one day soon, she may figure him out too. Such moments also cut to the core of Carmela’s contradictory identity and fundamental dilemma as a frustrated homemaker with repressed desires, a loyal wife who has suffered endless slights from an adulterous husband she cannot bring herself to leave, a devout and conscience-stricken Catholic who owes the spoils of her upwardly mobile lifestyle to blood money and an endless cycle of immorality, and a smart, self-assured woman who has sacrificed all of her potential for a humdrum home life spent in the service of unappreciative spouse and spoiled kids. “That a woman of your intelligence is content to ask so little from life and from herself… I don’t know,” Tony’s rebellious sister Janice tells Carmela in the season two episode “Commendatori,” in which Tony and his crew jet to Sicily on a business trip, leaving behind his resentful wife. Though Carmela laughs off Janice’s intervention, the private moment that follows, capturing the grin slipping from Falco’s face and the grimace of wounded discomfort that takes its place, signals that this lack of fulfillment has nagged Carmela far longer than she perhaps even realized. Early in the series, when Carmela fervently defends her position in this corrupt hierarchy, her body resists such allegiance, revealing the apprehension that goes unuttered. This reaction is classic Falco. She is an actor of redoubtable economy who can capture a feeling and distill it into a gesture or a single glance, her face the magnificent terrain upon which so much of the character’s transformation subtly plays out. Few actors have ever thrived in the solitude of an extreme close-up like Falco. So many shots of her, close-up or otherwise, show nothing more than Carmela in active and extended thought, the minute changes in her visage the only action unfolding on-screen. To watch the shifts, both micro and macro, in Falco’s magnified expressions is to understand the character’s internal changes on a gut level; the viewer detects Carmela’s mounting anxiety and private ache in Falco’s early physicalization of the character long before she finally utters them later in the series. Carmela’s clever, curse-laden rejoinders were always a delight, enhanced by the guttural punch of Falco’s tough-broad deliveries, each word wrapped in barbed wire. (Whether wailing with jagged cries or tartly calling Tony’s bluff, Falco’s voice is an expressive tool of clear and commanding eloquence, not to mention a unique and underrated pleasure.) But Falco tells another story beneath the language of her scenes, enabling Carmela’s surfaces to contain and convey the entirety of her private world. There is an innate power to these moments, rooted in an idea, expressed cinematically by Dorothy Arzner, Kinuyo Tanaka, George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Chantal Akerman in their time, that a woman’s conflicted inner life is a monumental subject and thus story enough for a dramatic work. Those who write about and worship the angst-ridden male antiheroes of the twenty-first century’s cable dramas have not always shared this view, loath to afford Tony Soprano’s, Don Draper’s, and Walter White’s wives the same curiosity and respect. In 2013, Breaking Bad actress Anna Gunn responded to the rabid misogyny that her character Skyler, the conflicted though ultimately conniving spouse of a drug kingpin, prompted from scores of internet trolls. In a New York Times op-ed, Gunn wondered, “Could it be that [these critics] can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, [her husband’s] equal?” Similarly, fans of mob dramas have often regarded wives who question and flout their husbands’ authority, who dare to behave as though they are their spouses’ equal, like mares in need of bridling; when I attended a 2017 anniversary screening of the first two Godfather films at Radio City Music Hall, a sizable contingent of the audience burst into hearty applause each time Michael Corleone closed the door on his inquiring, insubordinate wife Kay (Diane Keaton). Then again, Kay Corleone and Skyler White were secondary and primarily reactive characters enriched by gifted actresses. Carmela Soprano is the bridge connecting these women and the only one who fully transcends their shared archetype. Unlike her forebear and descendant, Carmela was never written as a stock character. But it was Falco, physically grounded and psychologically direct from the beginning, who cemented her existential significance. * The early seasons of The Sopranos establish a Jeanne Dielman–esque monotony to Carmela’s daily activities, framing her in familiar poses of gendered domesticity. How often have we witnessed Carmela seemingly trapped behind the kitchen island, brewing espresso and offering various breakfast foods to her taciturn husband and children? Or seated at the dining room table, straining to be a merry hostess over tense Sunday dinners? Or bursting into her children’s bedrooms, ready to chide them for their misbehaviour? Falco’s presence amid these chores—plus her equally routinized lunches and get-togethers with her cohort of fellow mob wives—puts one in mind of Judith Butler’s theories on gender performativity, which, as elaborated by the writer in a 1992 Artforum interview, “has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify.” From the outset, these norms are a source of contentment and consternation for Carmela, nudging her towards flickers and then full-fledged acts of defiance. Falco sows the seeds of Carmela’s rebellion in the home—evident in the grimaces that greet Tony as he lumbers into the kitchen after a night at the Bada Bing or the seething retorts that she seldom holds back during familial squabbles—without ever breaking the patterns of her housework and daily routines. In this, Carmela reminds us that performativity, according to Butler, “is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in,” a trap that Tony, through his refusal to let his wife work, has coerced Carmela into occupying. A performer less dynamic than Falco might have allowed Carmela’s very character to get lost in the shuffle of her day-to-day tedium. But Falco’s unrelenting intensity foregrounds Carmela’s frustration at every turn, her prickliness and self-assertiveness the defence mechanisms of a woman chafing at the dreariness of the demands placed on her as a stay-at-home wife and mother. At times, Falco’s performance assumes a certain heaviness, an air of desperation, that can make one wince, daring us to look away from Carmela’s states of lassitude, sullenness, and rage. It’s a rage just as titanic as Gandolfini’s yet one that manifests both in Falco’s compact frame and her pinched and puckered glare, its varying levels of severity constituting the grammar of the performance. This effect can be unnerving: think of Carmela badgering her friend Rosalie Aprile over dinner on their trip to Paris in season six, pushing her towards a killjoy conversation about her dead husband and slain son until she explodes. There is a vibrating, keyed-up quality to Carmela in these moments that derives from Falco’s conception of the character. This fearless, full-body approach grants Carmela a constant visibility, but it also makes Falco her character’s fiercest advocate, ensuring that the character will not recede into the decor like many a mob wife before—that attention will be paid her. What makes Falco’s approach fascinating is the elusiveness of its origins. Falco called on her internal knowledge of women like Carmela, those she clocked and scrutinized in the commuter belt of Long Island, to inhabit a character highly unlike herself. But awareness of Carmela’s type only skims the surface of Falco’s artistry. Her performances always appear to be lined with lived experience, as though her characters have built a home inside her; then again, Falco herself has admitted that she seldom dwells inside the psyches of the people she portrays for any longer than required. Whereas Gandolfini sustained a furtive, Method-like approach to Tony in order to reach his towering dramatic heights season after season, and suffered some of its real-life torments as a result, Falco maintains that she acts from a place of gut instinct, as opposed to one of uniform process or active intellection. “I was in such awe of what the writers could do that it would never occur to me to have ideas about my character’s arc,” Falco told The Guardian in 2018 about her tenure on The Sopranos, which she frequently confesses she has never actually watched beyond a handful of episodes. “I often didn’t understand how Carmela fit into the larger picture, but I believed that somebody did, and I also knew that wasn’t my job.” Falco is prone to playing down her own achievements in interviews like this; she would be the first to deny any sense of authorship in her acting. But her performance is so attuned and authoritative that she becomes our foremost guide into the character through the potency of her living, breathing, and thinking being. Take what might be considered a trivial exchange, set during a scene in season three’s “Amour Fou,” in which Carmela and her fellow mob wives discuss Hillary Clinton over lunch. At first, Carmela rebuffs Rosalie Aprile’s suggestion that they model themselves on their betrayed First Lady: “What, to be humiliated in public and then walk around smiling all the time?” she groans. “That is so false.” But as her fellow helpmates make the case for Clinton as a woman who managed to rise to power in the wake of her husband’s adultery—or, as another friend puts it, “took all that negative shit… and spun it into gold”—Carmela’s view changes dramatically; Falco’s gaze turns inward as she slowly, even grimly comes to the conclusion that Clinton “is a role model for all of us.” Falco builds a small but substantial arc for Carmela in the span of this just-under-two-minute scene, in which her distaste for Hillary’s ambition morphs into one of reluctant identification. This is a canny, critical portrayal of white neoliberal feminism in the service of a character with a complicated relationship to feminism, one who outright rejects such a label. (“Women are supposed to be partners nowadays,” Carmela gripes in season four before prevaricating: “I’m not a feminist, I’m not saying fifty-fifty, but Jesus.”) Neither Falco nor the writers explicate Carmela’s sudden change in opinion during that Hillary conversation, but the reasons are there in the scenes and seasons to follow: they’re present in Carmela’s see-sawing real estate career (introduced in that same episode), her tenacious and at times duplicitous pursuit of financial autonomy, and her eventual search for freedom from the sclerotic marriage that has inhibited her growth. In that single exchange, Falco quietly and shrewdly plants the seeds for many decisions Carmela will make henceforth. Falco may not have operated from a process as shrouded in lore as Gandolfini’s, but she was hardly immune to the strains of enacting the volatile spats in Tony and Carmela’s decaying marriage: “Occasionally I would get a sharp twinge at the back of my neck, because, especially if I’m tired, the emotional lines would bleed into each other and I’d have to kind of keep my bearings and remember, No, no, no, this is your job, and at home you have your life,” she told Vanity Fair. Falco’s physical difference from Carmela allowed her to wriggle free from her on-screen counterpart and keep a healthy distance from the show in her daily life, a privilege that the easily recognizable, six-foot-one Gandolfini was never afforded. In the years since The Sopranos, the actress’s relative anonymity, which is to say her lack of self-serving vanity, has helped her blend into numerous ensembles and slip in and out of roles with great, unassuming ease, from the dour, disenchanted Florida motelier of John Sayles’s ensemble drama Sunshine State to the pill-popping, hard-as-nails Nurse Jackie to the raving schizophrenic wife in the 2011 Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves to the Menendez brothers’ obsessive defence attorney Leslie Abramson on Law & Order True Crime. In 2021, Falco even played an ascendant Hillary Clinton on American Crime Story: Impeachment, meta-casting that blatantly draws on the legacy of Carmela Soprano—one brooding and betrayed wife reaching out to bolster another. Yet Carmela remains Falco’s most enduring on-screen alter ego, the crystallization of her mysterious genius. Her consummate command over the character doesn’t implore us to decipher or evaluate her choices in the moment but emits an air of “How did she do that?” wonder in the wake of our initial viewing. Gandolfini tends to get all the credit for leaning into the unsavoury components of his antiheroic protagonist, deservedly so, but Falco dug just as deeply into Carmela’s bedrock of contradictions and immoral behaviour, and with equal gusto. I shudder whenever I recall Carmela strong-arming her neighbour’s sister, a distinguished lawyer, into writing an unmerited college recommendation for her daughter, Meadow. That sense of second-hand mortification is increased tenfold during Carmela’s homophobic rant after Meadow’s college roommates bring up the queer implications of Billy Budd, so strongly has she identified Melville’s dashing sailor with Furio, a Neapolitan associate of Tony’s with whom Carmela pursues a fervent yet fruitless flirtation. But even when Carmela sinks to her most self-delusional and unsympathetic, Falco preserves her connection to the audience by using her emotional transparency to carefully accentuate the character’s intent. Carmela’s actions can be untenable, but Falco compels us to understand the reservoirs of heartache from which they spring, the lack that spurs her to lash out. The earnestness of Falco’s playing during these contretemps, indelibly illustrated by the dogged conviction in Carmela’s bulging and endlessly reactive eyes, presents a thought-provoking ambiguity: Is Carmela even aware of her own hectoring and unscrupulous nature, or is she simply immune to restraint when it comes to matters pertaining to husband, home, and heart? Carmela’s calculating streak comes to an apotheosis in season five when, during a separation from Tony, she attempts a sexual relationship with the guidance counsellor of her son, A.J. When Carmela complains about A.J.’s failing grade on a paper, going so far as to withhold sex from her new bedmate, the counsellor gets it raised, only to later accuse Carmela of deploying her sexuality as a means of manipulation on her son’s behalf. She seems genuinely shocked by the allegation, as she so often is by any implication of personal fault. It is Falco, specifically, who closes up the space between the character’s wrongdoing and her understanding of these murky actions. Falco very rarely plays Carmela as cunning, much less self-aware, choosing instead to foreground her sincere hurt when confronted by allegations of her skilled deceit. Falco embodies ambiguity, trusting in the viewer to understand the psychological depth that is implied rather than tidily diagnosed, existing beneath a facade inclined to explode. Falco’s protean ability to swing back and forth from the placid to the volcanic and scale the full extent of her dramatic register is formidable, whether making a half-hearted suicide threat to Tony in calm yet weary tones or delivering an excoriating rant at her wicked mother-in-law’s wake, her high dudgeon threatening to cremate the woman all on its own. In “Second Opinion,” a showcase episode for Falco from the third season that marks a seminal point in Carmela’s storyline, so much of the character’s long-festering shame and indignation simmer below as Carmela pressures Tony to make an exorbitant donation to Columbia to ensure Meadow’s academic success there. Later in the episode, she is told in no uncertain terms by a no-bullshit therapist that she must leave her husband and surrender the comforts funded by his criminality if she is ever to lead an honourable life. The slack-jawed look on Falco’s face, punctuated by the fine-grained precision with which her pupils dilate ever so slightly from one shot to the next in her therapy session, attest to Carmela’s dawning comprehension that she stands no chance of redemption should she remain her husband’s enabler. Elsewhere in the episode, Falco makes demands and gets results without raising her voice a single octave and sheds tears without heaving histrionics, privileging the difficult truths of Carmela’s revelation over any actorly need to impress; here and across the more than eighty hours of television that surround it, there is not a self-indulgent instinct to be found in Falco’s entire characterization. “Second Opinion” ends, post–therapy session, with a minor victory (Carmela gets the donation), an inevitable concession (she resumes her wifely role as Tony offers to take her to dinner), and a near-tragic instance of repression that will have ramifications far into the series. These ramifications come to bear in the peak of Falco’s performance and possibly the series as a whole. In the season four finale, “Whitecaps,” Carmela discovers another of Tony’s affairs, this one far closer to home than she anticipated, and puts a fiery and abrupt end to their marriage. The greatest actors are able to honour the intentions of a script while simultaneously making their own meanings through the sheer force of their performance, and Falco’s work in this episode is one of the fullest realizations of such a possibility. As Carmela ambushes her husband and bats away his desperate recriminations, Falco is wide-eyed with rage, but also something like white-hot exhilaration. Laughing with grim disbelief one moment and then vigorously wiping away mascara-streaked tears the next, she gives paradoxical significance to the character in a searing confrontation that finds her finally able to unburden herself after years of Tony’s humiliations, wringing her body free of the despair it has long suppressed. In Falco’s hands, what we watch becomes not so much a breakup as an exorcism. Every time I revisit “Whitecaps,” I am confounded as if for the first time by the extremity of Falco’s incarnation; the image of a sweat-slicked Carmela’s huffing with ragged and near-ecstatic release after Tony pushes her against a wall to protect himself from her lunges is seared into my brain. Later in the episode, as Carmela tells Tony about her love for Furio and how close she came to violating their marriage, Falco’s cold, radiant expression, fighter’s stance, and cutting speech signal that Carmela relishes watching her husband squirm with jealousy. At long last, Carmela gets to play the torturer in her uneven marriage and if she seems to delectate in such exhibitionistic cruelty, it is only because melancholy has hardened her beyond recall. Through Falco’s playing, the unvarnished immediacy of live theatre interpenetrates the fine, up-close distinctions of on-camera acting. That these performances have assumed their rightful place in the canon of television acting is a testament to Falco and Gandolfini’s peerless work as well as a reminder that both performers brought new reputability to the small screen, authenticating it as a working actor’s oasis. In the years during The Sopranos and following its finale, television saw a sudden migration of mid-career actresses who had decisively decamped from the film industry in hopes of finding regular, more multidimensional work on the small screen. It makes sense that the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Glenn Close, Mary-Louise Parker, Robin Wright, and Viola Davis—and even Oscar-anointed megastars like Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet, and Reese Witherspoon—were lured to the medium by the prospect of tackling a sprawling and nuanced character arc, like that of Carmela Soprano, and an opportunity to exhibit their own range, as Falco did to the tune of three Emmys. When Anna Gunn auditioned to play Breaking Bad’s Skyler, the actress was promised by series creator Vince Gilligan that the initially underwritten character was going to be “Carmela Soprano but… in on the crime.” The life-of-crime narrative that Gunn’s Skyler ultimately adopts owes a massive debt to Chase and Falco’s construction of Carmela. Carmela never fired a gun or discovered where, exactly, the money came from, and yet the portrait of penitent immorality resonated with viewers eager to plumb the nitty-gritty, hypocritical contradictions of the character. Carmela’s story, the tale of a woman dissatisfied by her domestic station but ultimately unable to rise above it, always belonged more in the realm of that oft-misunderstood genre, the heartfelt melodrama, than the sordid crime thriller. Remove the silver chains and dangling crucifix from Carmela’s neck and her situation recalls the repressed and ravished heroines who populated Sirk’s Universal women’s films of the 1950s, tearjerkers whose stinging cultural critiques were leavened with voluptuous feeling from the women at their centres. This is perhaps most apparent in a pivotal season five scene taken right from the Sirkian handbook. In the episode “Unidentified Black Males,” Carmela watches from her bedroom window as Tony, from whom she is separated, floats uninvited in their pool. She is overcome with emotion, both at the news of Meadow’s surprise engagement but also for her dashed hopes of personal freedom and financial support from her husband, who has deadlocked divorce proceedings. As Falco’s tearful despondency takes hold, the viewer watches Carmela at long last realize what she is and always will be: a prisoner of choice in a cage of her own design, beholden to a man who knows she is far too craven to seek a solitary life less cushy than the one he has gifted her. Falco’s performance in this scene throws these criticisms into relief. But it also moves me with an immediacy that I can only attribute to Falco and the extent to which she has wormed Carmela under our skin. Falco exposes the flimsiness of Carmela’s pride—yet rather than punishing the character for her faults, she finds the necessary pathos in her failure to change. Like Tony, Carmela possesses the intellectual capacity to examine her flaws but too little of the bravery and backbone required to actually correct them. Tony’s brush with death in season six may have renewed Carmela’s dumb yet intransigent commitment to her husband, but the series concludes not with the solidification of their love, but a slow, less decisive drift apart as Carmela finds increased success in real estate ventures largely subsidized by Tony. Although Carmela’s ability to envision and pursue a life for herself outside of Tony’s world gradually diminished with each passing season, Falco’s own virtuosic abilities and commitment to honesty stayed true until the series’s ambiguous end. Sitting in a diner booth on the eve of Tony’s likely indictment, suffering more of A.J.’s whiny self-pity, Carmela looks as nettled and impatient as ever, perhaps all too eager to get back to her trade and leave her husband and kids to fend for themselves once and for all. Like the best acting, which is to say like the best art, Falco’s embodiment of Carmela raises questions and teases possibilities rather than arriving at easy moral conclusions. Though season three’s pitiless therapist offers her an easy out, there can never be any easy answers for a character like Carmela, whose life is one of constant negotiation between shame and rationalization. Is it any wonder that so many of Falco’s greatest scenes find the character in intense contemplation, reassessing how much neglect, contempt, and disappointment she can stomach for designer duds and a spacious house to fill with her loneliness? I think again of Falco’s eyes—that narrowed, heavy-lidded gaze that she lent to Carmela as a kind of armour, signalling a sangfroid easily set ablaze. Falco’s courageous and clear-sighted performance revolves around a single, shiver-inducing question posed to the self: Have I missed out on the chance of a better life? “You raised two gorgeous kids. You got a husband that loves you. You made us a beautiful home,” Tony tells Carmela in season five after her plan of building a spec home is briefly thwarted. “Doesn’t that count for something?” Every restless bone in Falco’s body, as exhibited across seven seasons, tells us that it never will.
The author of The Red Arrow on West Virginia, psychedelics, and a literary education through film.
William Brewer’s The Red Arrow (McClelland & Stewart) is a sweeping work of magical realism that follows a promising millennial artist and author whose recent successes are undercut by his severe depression and suicidal ideation. He refers to his condition as “the Mist.” It obscures all love, hope and joy, leaving him feeling like “an abscess on the smile of reality.” The Mist first appears during the narrator’s childhood in West Virginia, following the Great Monongahela River Chemical Spill of 1996. After the chemical spill infiltrates the water supply in his hometown of Morgantown, he recounts in harrowing details its impact on him, his family, school and community. However, after he receives an advance for an epic novel about West Virginia, he struggles to translate this first scene into literature. Soon the Mist takes over his apartment and when others speak to him the Mist spills out their mouths, tinting their words with hate and revulsion. He hasn’t written a word of the novel and he eventually finds himself with a sizeable debt to his publisher, a debt that also implicates his steadfast and loving wife, Annie. He believes he should kill himself but his love for Annie keeps him tethered to this world and desperately seeking treatment that proves more difficult to find than it should be. He strikes a deal with the publisher to ghostwrite the memoir of a famous physicist—a development that sets him on a powerful, psychedelic-infused journey of self-discovery that takes him from his prestigious university in California to a train rushing across Italy. If you’ve lived with mental illness then you understand what it is to exist with a barrier keeping you apart from others—be it a mist or, as I envision it, a heavy sheet so that you and the rest of the world can only experience each other as silhouettes. Mental health conditions rob people of themselves, possess their bodies and impose their disorder on others without discretion. You cannot write your way out of it, study your way out of it—it doesn’t care about your friends or family or goals for the future. Furthermore, as Brewer eloquently articulates, it doesn’t care about your novel, your publishing deals or financial obligations. Before I read The Red Arrow, I encountered Brewer through his haunting confessional poems that eventually populated his debut poetry collection, I Know Your Kind. The spoon on the cover, an allusion to the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, reminded me of my own past in Welland, Ontario, and my many friends who have disappeared into their addictions. In the aftermath of the War on Drugs, as Americans and Canadians alike fight to decriminalize controlled substances, Brewer’s work takes a nuanced look at the potential for such substances to be used as tools for both treatment and self-harm. A drug’s healing potential is both individual and circumstantial, regardless of what the drug actually is or the opinions held by various governing bodies and institutions. He draws parallels between a psychedelic-induced altered state of consciousness and the practice of reading or experiencing a scientific epiphany. The boundary between what is real and what is illusion is always blurred, even when stone sober, even in analytic practices in physics and mathematics. What is so profound about Brewer’s work is that even in the muddy centre of life’s heaviest hand, he never loses his sense of humour, optimism and hope. He believes in love but doesn’t skirt the complexity of personal tragedy with easy answers. Brewer’s work doesn’t shy away from the economic realities of mental health obstacles. May we all be so lucky to have a paid fellowship and an understanding friend with the propensity for unconditional love that is truly unconditional. Still, given this exceptional disposition, finding treatment, or a professional who is willing to take on a client with severe suicidal ideation, is nearly impossible. This experience, when juxtaposed against his West Virginia childhood, conveys the broad scope of barriers people of different class backgrounds face when in need of psychological care. From my desk in Niagara, surrounded by notes from my own unfinished novel and the fruit trees of my youth, I interviewed Brewer about the role of psychedelics in treatment, the role of physics in his process, all things literary and the importance of love and humour both in general and in creating art. Julie Mannell: The Red Arrow seems to suggest, at least in this particular story and in the trajectory of your characters, that both the act of reading and consuming psychedelics have the power to fuse memories—allowing one to internalize experiences that are not their own. Could you expand on that a little? William Brewer: Psychedelics and novels are technologies that elegantly show you how the central experience of consciousness—the limited story of your self—isn’t that sturdy. It’s actually quite fictional. Psychedelics, especially at larger doses, take away your ego. This is the force that tells you the story about yourself and creates that subject-object relationship to reality. When that’s gone—when you are gone—there’s only the experience of awareness. Suddenly the mind can go to a memory and witness it without your “self” at its center. This avails totally different perspectives on life. Sometimes this is a kind of omniscience; other times it’s about another person’s perspective, or many people’s perspectives, of a memory. These experiences generate realizations that can be very profound and lasting. I think fiction inhabits an equally psychedelic space. I often say that the novel is the most psychedelic art form. While reading a great novel, I can forget I exist and get transported to a room in Dublin and smell a kidney searing in a pan—I can actually smell it while I’m sitting on my couch in Oakland, having forgotten that that’s where I am—or I can watch a Midwestern family argue and somehow inhabit multiple characters’ perspectives at the same time, or I can follow a Frenchman’s mind as it loops and spirals through associative memory to the point that the rhythms of his mind override the rhythms of my own. In both cases, the experience of consciousness persists, but its central component does not; the results are often magical and sometimes transformative. What intrigues you about physics? Why did you choose a physicist as the central muse of the narrator and not, say, an ecologist, a geneticist, a dog whisperer? The Red Arrow is interested in consciousness, specifically how our sense of time, the self, and our subject-object relationship to reality causes us to become these narrative engines, and how sometimes those narratives go haywire and become mental illness. Psychedelics are powerful at treating mental illness because they pull those forces away and show that they’re never really there. The problem is that a lot of people—at least in America, anyway—have a cynical, puritanical relationship to non-normative states of consciousness. So, even if someone’s life is fundamentally changed for the better because of a drug trip, a lot of people will roll their eyes and say, “So what,” or, “That’s not wisdom, that’s just drug talk.” Even otherwise intelligent literary people have a very unintelligent relationship to this part of human life. Their perspectives are outdated, uneducated and based mostly in fear. They also reveal something about how they relate to nature: people have an easier time believing that mental illness is a kind of soul-curse that can’t really be cured, or can only be cured by a pharmaceutical whose mechanics can’t be explained and whose efficacy is notoriously awful, than they do believing that a fungus might have the capacity to heal us. I often wonder how these people reconcile taking penicillin… Anyway, if one part of The Red Arrow is dealing with something that can teach you great lessons and change your sense of the world and life, but most people are going to scoff at it, then physics provides a counterweight. I admire how physics stares straight into the big mysteries of being. Especially over the last century, physics has shown that what we take as reality isn’t real at all. It’s an illusion. Or it’s only real in the sense that our perceptions make it so. The science points to similar realizations as the fungi. It must be noted too that contemplative traditions from Asia have been pointing out this stuff for millennia. The point, though, is that there are multiple ways to get at these ideas and while some people might roll their eyes at one avenue, it’s much harder to roll their eyes at another. That both science and a mushroom can peek behind the curtain of experience and see very similar things—that’s exhilarating to me. That’s precisely the kind of stuff I want art to dance with. Your protagonist struggles with depression and suicidal ideation that ensnares him in a profound state of creative stasis. Do you believe that the ability to create and the creator’s mental health are always comorbid? Do you have any advice for artists currently going through something similar? No, I don’t think they’re always comorbid because I’ve been making art my whole life and I was terribly depressed for much of that time, yet I still managed to get work done. That said, creative blocks are likely a kind of rumination like depression or anxiety. You’re stuck in a loop pattern driven by fear. It’s the mind trying to abate failure and pain. Instead, I tell people to drill into the fear, the potential failures, the shortcomings. Make those the subject. Go straight into them and usually what happens is you pass through them. I’m also curious about the central relationship between the narrator and his partner Annie. I admired her patience and unwavering faith in him as he spirals into mental illness and simultaneously creates a disastrous financial predicament for which they’re both implicated. What would you say bonds them together? Love. That’s it. When you deeply love someone, you can look at them and see the difference between their true nature and a behaviour that’s an expression of suffering. That doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging, having to stand by and hope they’ll make it through. But when you love someone, the alternative is often unconscionable. As much as this novel is heartbreaking, it’s simultaneously extremely funny (to me at least): phrases like “it was almost rewarding: finally I was seeing people treat me as the disappointing virus I knew myself to be,” or the scene where the editor fails to press the hold button and lets out a sequence of expletives about the author. What’s funny to you? What makes you laugh? I’m very happy to hear that! Thank you. As for articulating what’s funny—I don’t think I can. Humour is mysterious. That’s why I’m drawn to it. You write about West Virginia, a home state you share with your narrator: “there is nothing there but undulating, ever-changing space.” How has growing up in West Virginia impacted your journey as an author? What do you think can be gained and lost through living outside of metropolitan spaces and the artistic establishments (literary or otherwise) within? West Virginia had a huge impact on me. Even in the early days of the internet, it felt very remote. Culture took a long time to get there, so you felt like your world lagged behind the rest of the country’s. There’s a disjunction in time. Cities, even with their historical buildings, are churning engines of the contemporary. Places like West Virginia, on the other hand, are experiences of “long time” colliding with the contemporary. A 250-million-year-old mountain can disappear practically overnight. And then all the toxic waste from that removal can fill in a valley and make it disappear too. This means you’re also witnessing large economic systems at work in ways you don’t in a city. You can see how corporations can do whatever they want to a people and a place. In a city, you can go to the wing of a museum and see a priceless object, whereas in West Virginia you’re living in the world that is being exploited to make the money that in part gets donated (for tax purposes) to build that wing. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum of what money can really do. One end is exploitative, the other is performatively generative. It’s also hard to overstate the influence of West Virginia’s landscape. It does things to the mind, good and bad. Cities are also a kind of landscape, but there are parts of West Virginia that are extremely wild and remote in ways few places still are. When you go to those places, your sense of how humans fit into the broader network of the planet changes. Another quote from your book, and I apologize for so aggressively quoting you at yourself: “There is no self-hatred like that of the working man who can’t work and there’s nothing more dangerous than a self-hating working man with an Internet connection.” As someone who grew up in rural Niagara, on the tail end of the Rust Belt, in an area dominated by a specifically American form of conservatism, the opioid crisis and anger over factory closures, this line struck a chord. We also see economic struggles play out as your protagonist is forced to pay off an immense debt. Can you speak a little of the role of financial incentives and obstacles, both personal and systemic, in the creation and completion of works of art? Like most people of my generation, I live with debt. It’s always on my mind and it seems to be on my characters’ minds too. Unsurprising, considering that the financial realities of my generation have been trash. That said, they’ve sort of always been trash for artists, which I think is unacceptable. Writing takes time and time is money. There’s obviously money around. Cash is king and this is no less true in the literary world, but it’s a grind for most. When talking to other writers about the intersection of writing, publishing and money, something that’s often articulated is this sadness about how publishing has, for the most part, gone from something that challenged the mainstream to something that chases it. This is bad news for books, since the mainstream is almost always flat and boring and exactly the thing that most people turn away from when they start reading seriously. No one seems particularly happy about this, but the tune stays the same. I’ve never been to West Virginia so a lot of my references come from the media: the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia and Senator Joe Manchin’s obstruction of Biden’s initiatives. I also think of J.D. Vance’s controversial depictions of Appalachia in Hillbilly Elegy and the subsequent debates/fallout. What do you think people misunderstand about the Rust Belt? What aspects haven’t been adequately explored and which tropes have been needlessly amplified in common portrayals? Also, what’s your hope for West Virginia? My hope for West Virginia is that what needs healing will heal. That even a fraction of the wealth that was taken from it be returned to it. That it gets what it’s owed. And I especially wish that Americans better understood West Virginia’s role in the nation’s history. Much of the energy and resources needed to make the empire most people got to enjoy living in came right out of West Virginia’s bedrock. Moreover, anyone with any sympathies toward liberal or leftist politics in America should understand just how critical West Virginia was in the fight for the better lives of working people. And I use “fight” literally. People died in combat for their rights as workers; many of them were immigrants with no money or resources, and yet they put their lives on the line. There has been so much talk about West Virginia since the rise of Trumpism, but few have taken time to stop and look at what sacrifices West Virginia made and then how those sacrifices were essentially forgotten or erased. The Red Arrow is rich with allusions to other books, both literary and otherwise. You’ve described Virginia Woolf and Don DeLillo as two of your biggest influences. I remember specifically thinking of DeLillo’s White Noise when reading your descriptions of the Mist as a representation of the narrator’s depression. What authors or works did you draw upon during your writing process? For The Red Arrow I drew on Geoff Dyer, Michael Herr, Carlo Rovelli, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, among others. Part of my task was to take what I was reading at the time and incorporate it directly into the novel as a way of openly tracking how books are products of other books, art comes out of art. I think people try to hide this, especially American men—they’ll allude to things to bolster the book’s intellectual worth, but they don’t acknowledge indebtedness and lineage. I was interested in showing how a novel is often one component in a much larger web. The book is an expression of its innate interconnectedness. I was first introduced to your work through your stunning poetry collection I Know Your Kind. You were primarily a painter for many years. I’m wondering about the role of confessional poetry and the visual arts in the conception and writing of The Red Arrow. Confessional poetry wasn’t much on the mind, but visual art and cinema were. High-quality film was one form of art that was readily accessible in West Virginia thanks to places like Blockbuster and I often say that film was my first literary education. That, in combination with my background in painting, spurs me to write stuff that I hope feels visually arresting and cinematic—in the sense that it’s moving—in the mind. What is your favourite colour and why? Green. I feel like its spectrum contains every tone, energy, and emotion. It holds the universe.
There’s a one-sidedness to the second-generation relationship. The homeland looms large in our imagination but we don’t in theirs.
When the plane door opens on the tarmac in Malta the cabin fills with humid air, along with a wave of heat in summer, the first welcome to the island. With that air comes the smell, a not-unpleasant melange of Aleppo pine trees and other Mediterranean flora, a bit of smokiness, farmers’ manure, a wisp of the sea and the limestone that the island nation is built on and of. There’s more to the smell and it eludes exact description, but I know it when I smell it and it’s immediately familiar and comforting. Malta’s airport doesn’t have jet bridges so one exits the plane by stairs, like a head of state arriving on a foreign mission or the Beatles at JFK. For a few seconds there’s time to survey and savour the landscape, to breathe in more of that familiar smell, and to think, to feel, “I’m home.” Well, sort of. Diasporic second-generation homecomings are strange things. A friend of mine, a second-generation Sri Lankan born in Toronto, describes visiting her parent’s motherland as akin to hollering, “Hey everyone, I’m here!” on arrival and in response everyone looks over their shoulder and says, “Who cares.” We second-generation people (and later generations to fading degrees I imagine) have been told about the “old country” by the generations that emigrated from there, often an idea of place frozen in time the day they left while the actual place kept evolving and getting on with the business and busyness of life. Standing on the airplane stairs that knowledge starts to creep in, as does an uncertain feeling of belonging. With some exceptions beyond personal ones, there’s not an awful lot of thought given by the mother country to the far-flung diaspora, so there’s a one-sidedness to the relationship, where the homeland looms large in our imagination but we don’t in theirs. But a few years ago, upon returning to Malta, the customs agent looked at my Canadian passport and saw my very common Maltese name and asked if it was my first time visiting. When I said that I’ve been many times she stamped it and slid it back to me saying, “Welcome home.” A small comment but the first time I had ever experienced such an “official” acknowledgement, and the feeling was gleeful. My dad is always waiting to pick me up by the car outside the relatively small but busy terminal. I’ve visited him enough times that we now forgo the in-terminal arrival for this in order to save a few euros on parking. It’s good to have a dad who retired back to the Mediterranean island he was born on, as it provides a built-in excuse to visit a Mediterranean island often. After a long pause during the pandemic, it was also good to resume these visits this year and repeat some familiar routines. We drive across the island to his flat while I gape at the scenery in that dreamlike state the first few hours arriving somewhere faraway by plane creates. A pleasurable phantasmagoria, this place that is usually in my imagination is suddenly real. Inside his flat it’s the reverse of what Maltese homes in Canada are like, with their artifacts from “back home.” It contains similar items, but instead from his adopted home of forty years, Canada. Mementos, photos, furniture, and even some appliances that require electricity adaptors all made their way over the ocean in a shipping container. It isn’t uncommon for me to find him up when I arrive back at the flat at two or three in the morning after visiting friends, watching a Toronto Maple Leafs or Detroit Tigers game on his couch. The line between new and old and new countries is blurred. I spend the rest of the trip catching up with my friends and relatives in Malta but also exploring the island as a diasporic tourist. An interloper in the land that I’m partially from, that somehow made me who I am, I’ve taken to going for drives and long walks without a real plan in order to discover more of Malta, to understand it and map it out in my head. Malta is small but compact, so there’s a lot to explore. Knowing how the streets are laid out, what’s around the bend, where countryside trails lead to and the inside of more buildings slowly builds a sense of connection. Did my people walk here once? Maybe. I’ve taken my dad on some of these journeys but he’s not so interested. He's really of this place so there is no pressing desire to know it in order to know himself. He says I probably know the island better than he does now. There’s a cinematic black-and-white photo somebody took of my dad, his two sisters and parents, the same month and year the Beatles arrived at JFK, as they walked across the Maltese tarmac to the plane that would take them directly to Canada. Emigrating from Malta in suits, ties, and dresses, they all glanced back over their shoulders at the photographer as the picture was snapped from the viewing platform all old terminals seemed to have, as if they had called out one last farewell to the family. Forever glancing at the other place, back and forth, trying to recognize something familiar, saying goodbye and hello, and inventing home as a tourist.
It seems this year’s offerings from the Dark Ages want to raise a carnal, earthy prayer to the present age.
What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2022? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year’s series here. Imagine if, instead of going to work today—sitting in traffic, boarding a maskless crowded bus, or firing up Zoom—you climb out of your haybed, simmer sweet lambs’ milk and warm a hunk of yesterday’s bread. Your day goes by tickled by the grasses of the pasture, an eye on the sheep, then you hike up the mountain wrangling stragglers gingerly with your hazel crook. Everywhere you’re enchanted by birdsong, singing of the storm that passed under last night’s moon and the weather to come. Alas, this isn’t your lot; it’s the life of Jude, the village shepherd in Ottessa Moshfegh’s medieval novel, Lapvona. But serene, Jude’s existence is not. The village wetnurse Ina calls him a “child of pain,” “the greediest of all the babes” she once nursed. For Jude, godliness requires an onslaught of sadomasochistic observances, including zealous self-flagellation on Fridays to absolve the violence he inflicts on others Saturday through Thursday. His son Marek fears he whips himself “too passionately,” recalling the sight of Jude: “sweaty, grunting, moving the whip across one shoulder, then the other, wincing and breathing so hard that spit drooled from his mouth, and then he sucked it in and spat it out violently, as though it pleased him, as though the pain felt good.” The lash of medieval erotics stings everywhere in 2022, in films (Lena Dunham’s spin on Catherine Called Birdy, Robert Eggers’ The Northman), books (Lapvona and Katherine J. Chen’s Joan), fashion (chainmail and laced-up bodices at Eckhaus Latta), and the burgeoning genre of organcore from musicians like Kali Malone and Sarah Davachi. Medieval aesthetics titillate nowhere more than in TV and gaming (Disney’s remake of Willow, Amazon Prime’s new Lord of the Rings installment, House of the Dragon from HBO—all with videogame spinoffs). It seems this year’s offerings from the Dark Ages want to raise a carnal, earthy prayer to the present age of fluorescence with its constant scrolling and omnipresent surveillance. Its plea: if this is light, give us Darkness. And the twenty-first century has a right to despair as mass shootings, police violence, and plague continue to curse this crumbling, unrepentant empire on this dying earth. In this hour of need, the medieval invites escape, indulging fantasies of pleasure and pain. The light to Jude’s darkness, Lapvona village elder Grigor finds a more vanilla path to bliss. Fed up after a lifetime of servitude, famine, and so much death, his salvation is rooted in a “discovery of nature’s magic,” where the act itself of foraging wild herbs gives healing properties; an antiauthoritarian epiphany about the lord of the manor and his abuses; and a vision of God as the land itself, “the sun and moon and rain.” A time of light and shadow, dirt and gore, the medieval imaginary makes such ritual of earthly longing. * Sacramental invocation of the Middle Ages is nothing new. Disenchanted with their world, the Romantics venerated medieval times to condemn the ills of industrialization. The simple agrarian ways, attunement to nature, and hooded religiosity they saw in the feudal past illustrated a convenient antithesis to the excessive greed and poverty, brutal working conditions, and ugly dirty cities of their time. And for hundreds of years, to varied political ends, images of “pure” medieval European societies and their exalted spawn have been glorified to further nationalist and racist ideals—from Thomas Jefferson’s Anglo-Saxon virtues and the Victorian King Arthur craze to 4H-style “Fitter Families” eugenics contests and the forced sterilizations of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and disabled people across North America. Now we see Norse symbols at the Capitol insurrection. Whether towards romantic or fascist ends, this looking back always hinges as much on remembering (or inventing) the past as shaping futures. What new (or recycled) versions of the imagined Middle Ages came into view in 2022 and to what ends? Mostly we see a simple life, albeit brutal, apparently prior to the lasting harms of colonialism and free from the messy contingencies of the now. There’s nothing quaint in being married off, sold like livestock, or fighting off the Dark Lord of Mordor, but the sheep, unfettered landscapes, and truth in the stars nevertheless work their humble spell. In reality, medieval Europe wasn’t simpler, or so different from today. Worldwide trade, travel, and innovation proliferated; Jewish, Turkish, African, Arabic, Mongol, and Roma peoples—to name a few—lived amongst the Germanic clans portrayed in today’s mass-market medieval lore, not always peacefully; and a kaleidoscope of faiths existed, continually shifting forms. Combating white-washed, homogenous versions of the period has become of primary concern for medieval scholars, like Dorothy Kim, who see themselves as “ideological arms dealers.” By studying Black and Indigenous people and people of colour during the Middle Ages, not only in Europe but globally, scholars like Kim and the organization Medievalists of Color want to argue that an antiracist future entails a wider vision of the past, especially a time so fanatically aestheticized today. Some of the recent trysts with medieval times nod to that wider vision, with fiery women (in Matrix, Lauren Groff gives us a mighty abbess, Marie, who creates an empire against all chauvinistic odds, populated solely by women and reachable by a labyrinth that only the Mother Superior and her holy daughters can penetrate), queer people (nuns in Matrix enjoy the finest utopian perk, lesbian sex; in Catherine called Birdy we meet another young shepherd, Perkin, played by Michael Woolfitt, a tender budding gay), and people of colour populating the medieval world (Catherine Called Birdy also portrays Black characters in the English shire—for one, Lady Berenice Sidebottom, played by Mimî M. Khayisa, a young bride brought from Gascony to wed a coarse, shriveling English lord. Despite her position of supposed subservience as his wife, she tells him, “I go where I want and I say what I please!”). In Lapvona, the town comprises “dozens of families of different backgrounds” and gets repopulated after drought, famine, and plague by people from all cardinal directions; they mix and don’t think much of it. It’s only nobles like Trump-ish Lord Villiam who care about lineages. * Historical fiction sits on the other side of the speculative fiction coin, a ticket out of the present whether it’s heads or tails. Yet unlike works by Octavia Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin, when the medieval stories that inundate our culture—wherever they fall between the poles of historical fiction like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell series and fantasy extremes like Game of Thrones—attempt to remember the past and shape futures, they tend to edge closer to cosplay than counternarrative. Maybe an aesthetics so steeped in ahistorical whiteness dooms itself: a shiny time capsule with nothing inside. Try as the next novelist of filmmaker might, it’s difficult to imagine a medieval tale that smites the sins of our countries’ pasts, the yokes of consumer capitalism, and the binaries and constructs of the mind. As futuristic as it may seem to live in a time where people get robots to clean up after them and make millions in virtual real estate, many of us still fork over the fruits of our labour to the lords of the land and worship the same gods. Only time separates now from then and bygone mysticism beckons— astrology and tarot, silent retreats and organlike drones in the club. Searching for juicy communion doesn’t mean you find it; so for Moshfegh: “I feel stupid when I pray” reads the epigraph to Lapvona, quoting Demi Lovato. In a world so despairing, flickering screens like candles to the void, the medieval erotics of today vibrate with a hunger, however stupid, for technologies of the spirit, whether they’re to be found in the pleasures of the flesh, the outline of a god, or the bleating of a sheep.
On pregnancy and grief during pandemic lockdown.
“So it is if the heart has devoted itself to love, there is not a single inch of emptiness. Gladness gleams all the way to the grave.” From “Honey Locust” by Mary Oliver I find out I’m pregnant in late January 2020. I’ve never heard of Covid but I’m heavy with dread. I don’t suffer from traditional morning sickness—it’s some other kind of illness that sinks into my body and brain. I’m revolted by the strangest things: decaffeinated Earl Grey tea, the sight of this one blue dress in my closet, other pregnant people. Within a few weeks, I start thinking of the embryo as an invader, taking from me a life I’m not sure I want to give up. I’m afraid this child will rearrange my brain, and exist, incessantly, on the edges of my every thought and experience. Soon I will unfold the world for them instead of myself. I try explaining this to a friend one day and apologize because I don’t think I’m making any sense. No, she says, I get it. Motherhood is a kind of suicide. Motherhood is also love; I can see that. But I’m scared of the cost. Walking to work one morning in the lightest of flurries, tiny snowflakes drift down from thin clouds, catching sunlight in a way that weeks earlier would have brought me joy. I weep quietly to myself for blocks. I can tell the darkness at the heart of these feelings isn’t part of me, but I can’t rid myself of it. My husband, Matt, and I share the news with our families the week before the world shuts down and it feels like I’m watching their excitement from underwater, the emotion distorted. * My father was born before the end of the Second World War and grew up next door to the house his mother grew up in. (And I grew up next door to that one.) He’s a cherubic baby in black-and-white pictures—chubby and joyful. But even as a kid he was industrious, serious about work: he hoed turnips in the fall and learned to drive a horse and plow when he was eight. When his parents wouldn’t buy him a pony, he trained one of their calves to pull a cart instead. Fun always had something to do with horses. When they were little, he and a friend would sneak away to a neighbour’s pasture, even though his friend’s mother forbade it, to watch stallions playing in the field. Such an innocent act of defiance. I imagine him lounging there on the grass, watching the horses run around and dreaming of the life he’d one day lead. In his early-1960s high school years, he looked more like the lead in a 1950s cowboy movie than a hippie teen—forever out of his time. He ran the neighbour’s riding stables (a business he’d buy at the age of 18), guiding wannabe horsemen and women on rides through the field and forest around his home. After he and my mom met when she was in Grade 10, he in Grade 11, she started stopping by the stables, learning to ride and getting his attention. She’d tease him and he’d playfully slap her horse with the end of his rein, pretending he was trying to get it to run off with her. In a picture taken before they were married, they sit side by side on horseback at the stables, looking so young and happy. * The provincial borders in Atlantic Canada close in mid-March. We’re cut off in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from my family in New Brunswick for what we expect will only be a couple of weeks. But the weeks turn into months and the tiny ball of cells inside me grows. At my first prenatal visit in April, the nurse asks if I want to hear the baby’s heartbeat. I lie down on the little hospital bed while she slides the Doppler over my skin. There it is: a quick and distorted whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Proof of life. You can record this for your husband, she says. Covid restrictions meant he wasn’t allowed to come. I grab my phone and hit Record in the voice memo app, and she waits a few beats before she shouts, Congratulations, Daddy! The darkness doesn’t fall away all at once in that moment but dissipates day by day until I’m left instead with a buzzing in my bones. We buy a stroller and a car seat; prepare for new life. I track the fetus’s metamorphosis via an app on my phone, and the more baby-like the creepy graphics start to look, the more urgency I feel. I start calling my parents every day. Dad sends me texts signed with the racehorse emoji—his signature for a few years now. Sometimes, while Dad is sleeping, Mom sends me secret messages she deletes later so he won’t see them. He was very weak today. He’s sleeping longer in the afternoons. Don’t talk too long when you call; he’s having a hard time breathing today. I spend my days working my day job in our home office and my evenings talking to scientists about hope and the probable extinction of an endangered whale species for a book proposal I’ll later shelve. Restrictions start to lift in May, but the borders between Canada’s Atlantic provinces stay closed. I feel caged, like I could rip my skin off. The thought of my father dying while we’re separated, while I’m pregnant, before he can meet my baby sends me into a panic. How obvious time’s conveyer belt is becoming and how powerless I am to stop it. * My parents dated for four years before they truly started their life together. My mom was expecting a marriage proposal for her birthday one year, but she got a new pair of rubber boots instead. Dad wasn’t thinking about the quick passing of time yet. Lucky for him my mom knew what she wanted—what he needed. They were married on a snowless day in March in the first service ever held in the brand-new United Church in Gunningsville, New Brunswick. The grass was green, Dad often reminded us, and they left the parking lot by horse and wagon, covered in confetti. We have an album full of pictures: Mom, smiling in her bright long-sleeve white dress and red hair. Dad, staid, with his hands on the reins. In his early thirties, Dad quit his customer service job at Goodyear Tire to start farming full-time. He’d spent too many days looking out the window, he said, wishing he were somewhere else. He told me this as a lesson one day: it’s never too late to take stock and change course. Don’t waste your precious life being someone you’re not. Another picture: men standing on the skeleton of a new barn, before anyone milked a cow in it. Dad is there, filled with so much ambition, but oblivious to the future he’s building. By this point, he was a father of three. In seven years, I’d arrive, completely unexpected, one year after Dad’s father died, and just months after his mother passed. One day when he was clearing the land behind the barn for pasture and hay, he looked back and realized he could see all the way home. The forest that had been there since long before his own birth was now gone. How exciting and mournful it must have been to be in a place at once so familiar and strange. * The borders finally open in July. I’m seven months pregnant, bobbing in the Northumberland Strait, being pushed and pulled between the ocean and the shore. My knees on the sand and my arms stretched out across the water. My family’s cottage is at the top of the hill, where I know my father’s keeping an eye on the sea from his recliner at the window, wishing he could leave that perch and breathe the thick summer air without struggle. The baby flutters and spins inside me and I put my hand to my belly and feel him floating too. When we’d first arrived, earlier this week, my nieces had been a giddy flock of small hands on my belly, hoping to catch a kick. My father was delighted at their excitement, saying, they’re so comfortable with you. Later, he grabs me by the arm and pats the horseshoe tattoo he’d forgotten I had on my right forearm. I don’t like the tattoo, he says, scrunching up his face in the way he does when he feels affection or joy, but I love the arm it’s on. How much like salvation familial touch feels after separation, when my body grew and split, isolated from so many people I loved. I live here sometimes, across a temporal border, just to see him again and feel like the person I was when he was here: Daughter. Dependent. Naive. I sneak away to that feeling of being held aloft between one life and the next, hyper-aware of the ocean current and the tide. My father, alive. My life, expectant—at the precipice, but still unchanged. * A few years before I was born, my dad, in his mid-thirties then, and my grandfather decided to clean out an old grain tank full of feed. They worked for hours inside it, unmasked, inhaling clouds of mould spores. Both of them got sick, but my father never recovered. It could have been something in his genetic makeup that made him more susceptible to mould, or maybe it was chance, but a persistent hacking settled into his chest. He would fight for breath the rest of his life. Doctors called it farmer’s lung, which is essentially an overzealous and permanent allergic reaction to dust and mould that causes inflammation. They said he didn’t have a lot of time—a decade maybe. They told him to take it easy, to please make a living doing anything other than working in the dust and damp of his farm. His compromise was to take a job plowing snow at the airport each winter so that he’d spend less time in the closed-up barns. But he never stopped farming. Farmer’s lung became chronic inflammatory lung disease—commonly known as COPD—and emphysema (both typically smokers’ diseases), and still he ignored them. We chided him: Stay out of the hay. Don’t walk so far. Get off that horse. Let me do that for you. He scoffed. No one would tell him how to live. Even as a little kid, I was acutely aware of how precarious his health was. He had a basket full of medication, took puffers and tested his oxygen levels in the evening. I’m not sure I thought about him dying back then, but I was terrified of the loss. He got sicker every year that passed, but something unbelievable happened inside his chest too: his unflagging heart grew stronger, compensating for what his lungs couldn’t do. Decades later, doctors would look at him, confounded. When he should have been confined to a wheelchair, he was in the back field making hay. One winter day in 2017, I stumbled upon this passage in “When Things Go Missing”—Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker essay about her own father’s death—and cried. She could have been writing about Dad: “More to the point, against considerable odds, he just kept on being alive. Intellectually, I knew that no one could manage such a serious disease burden forever. Yet the sheer number of times my father had courted death and then recovered had, perversely, made him seem indomitable.” * All summer we drive back and forth between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The baby moves so much I find it hard to sleep. Limbs and head press out from all the corners of my stomach with such force, like he’s trying to push his way out through my skin. During the day, I mostly love the activity. It reminds me there’s life inside there, and it’s wild. I think the transition to motherhood is already happening, but truthfully, I’m just brewing: both anxious and at peace—adrift. On one of the hottest days of the summer, Matt and I decide to hike one of my favourite trails in a nearby national park in New Brunswick and I feel lighter than I have in weeks. My heart races with each hill, so I slow down to breathe. I soak my feet in the river, clear and cold; feel the smooth stones, slippery, and sweat baked on my skin. Matt takes a picture of me looking back at him smiling, my hair half wet from dunking it. I stare at that picture of myself now and wonder who that person is. Two fragments—Chelsea/mother—still not stitched into any kind of whole. For supper I eat a fried fish sandwich the size of my face and I’m still not full. Later, I’m watching the news with my dad before he goes to bed when the baby starts to move. It’s hard for Dad to stay up. He used to be so good at hiding pain, but it’s plain now. He pulls himself up from his recliner, and as he shuffles over to his walker, he stops in front of me on the couch and places his hand on my stomach. But the baby’s not moving, and I’m so worried about Dad standing there in front of me for too long with no support. I want him to wait and feel it, and yet I’m so scared he’ll fall. But then: a tiny flutter, and Dad says he feels it, but I’m not sure. At the baby shower my parents’ neighbours throw, a sudden wind rips the retractable awning off the back of their bungalow while we eat sandwich triangles inside. After supper Matt packs up the car with toys and baby blankets and clothes and I stand outside wondering what we’re going to do with it all. My mom asks me if I hugged my father. You won’t want to look back and regret it, she says. I criticize her for being dramatic, but I’m really so afraid. Dad hugs me tighter than you’d think a man who’s mostly bones could squeeze. I love you, he says. I love you, I say back. * Dad talked about turning windrows of hay with the reverence of an artist. Now watch the wind twist between them. The tractor bouncing up the back field to get the cows and Dad’s hands on the skinny black steering wheel worn smooth. We belonged to the dirt under the tractor’s spinning wheels. My father and home, synonymous; as much a part of me as my skin or my lungs or my heart. I see the sun rising over an alfalfa field on our way to the county fair. Just look at that, Dad would say every year, moving his hand through the air in the truck like a wave, mimicking the grass moving in the breeze, like he was part grass too. I hear Dad telling me how to clean a stall, shaking his head at the way I’d always back the wheelbarrow in and spill manure all over the floor. On May evenings we’d look for brook trout, the light stretching out over new grass and the air not quite warm. He’d do too much—he always did too much—and lose his breath, but he’d smile. And the peepers would be singing when we got home. Staring out over back hay fields one night outside the horse barn he said, hardly thinking about it: The best thing in life is to plant something and watch it grow. * The baby’s birth in October is a blur. Afterward, I have the world’s worst headache mixed with both vertigo and tinnitus thanks to the side effects from a botched epidural. Restrictions mean no one can visit us in the hospital and I barely make it through a long string of FaceTime calls. We name him Ewan. At some point a nurse comes in and pricks Ewan’s heel with a tiny needle before squeezing drops of blood onto what looks like a sheet of blank paper. During birth, Ewan had breathed in a bit of mucus and his little wheezes and coughs keep Matt and I up all night. I become so desperate for even 10 minutes of sleep at one point that I ignore every warning about SIDS and stomach sleeping, and tuck Ewan into my hospital gown, his chest against mine. It’s the only position that allows him to breathe normally, and it’s so reassuring to feel his little body on mine. For the first few weeks after we get home, I hate when it gets dark. I feel so lonely without family here to guide me through these first hard weeks. I become acutely aware that I am responsible for the life of the tiny human living in my house and I feel wholly unequipped. I crave sleep, to be alone, realizing I’ll never be truly alone again. How foreign mothering felt in those early days, like a new appendage I didn't yet know how to use. When I can’t take it anymore, we plan a trip to see my family. Covid cases are climbing again but the borders are open. And Ewan and I are both doing well more than two weeks after his birth. I’m in the drugstore getting vitamin D, which the nurses at the hospital had recommended for Ewan’s newborn immune system, when my phone rings. Is this Ewan’s mother? It’s a counsellor from the hospital. The heel prick in the hospital had been for a standard test called newborn screening, and Ewan’s test showed he had too few T-cells. He’d been flagged for a rare genetic disorder: SCID, or severe combined immunodeficiency. Treatment for the disorder requires a stem cell transplant. It’s likely just a lab error, the woman says, but can you bring him in to do the test again? In the meantime, we should think about keeping him away from people—just in case. I ask her about seeing my family. She says it’s up to us. They take more blood the next day and we drive to New Brunswick. My parents, my three siblings, their partners and kids all wear masks. Ewan lies squeaking in his little rocker in the middle of my parents’ living room like a miniature deity everyone coos over but no one can touch. Dad smiles at him, calls him handsome. I cry over his diaper rash that’s become an open sore and Dad tells me Mom knows all the old tricks before she hands me a shaker full of cornstarch, made out of an old parmesan cheese container. The cornstarch never works, but I keep that shaker on the diaper caddy for more than a year. My father was there when Mom gave it to me. It’s proof that he was part of Ewan’s life. * We get another call. I’m in the shower, still in New Brunswick, when Matt raps on the bathroom door, and I can barely hear him. There’s something wrong, he says. We have to go back. I cry in my sister’s arms and my mother helps us pack. This time, no one stops me and reminds me to hug my father. Over the next few weeks, they take vial after vial of blood from Ewan’s arms with tiny butterfly needles made just for babies, and we have to hold him down, screaming. They save some of it for DNA testing, but the rest will be flown to a lab in Cincinnati for something called a mitogen test to see how his white blood cells respond to infection. We talk to a genetic counsellor. My sister-in-law in Calgary asks her doctor about donating bone marrow. Matt reads too much about genetic disorders that cause T-cell deficiency in infants. He becomes so obsessed and terrified he can’t think about anything else. He can’t work. He can’t eat. I can’t console him. And we’re alone again, isolating so Ewan doesn’t catch a cold and die. A couple of days before we expect some answers, Ewan’s immunologist calls with bad news. The hospital lab mistakenly froze Ewan’s blood sample, which was supposed to be fresh. When it got to Cincinnati, they threw it out. More tiny needles and screams, and then we’re waiting again. That week, Dad falls while trying to get to his walker. * Ewan is nuzzled up close to me in bed, where I’d tucked him in after he woke up whimpering before the sun came up. Around 9 a.m. the Do Not Disturb setting on my phone turns off and the buzzing wakes me. It’s my sister. She’s been trying to get a hold of me. She’s not angry, but it feels urgent. For a few seconds the gravity doesn’t register. I’d been dreading this call for so long that I thought I’d be able to sense when it was coming. Dad went to sleep yesterday. He’s not going to wake up. Words are stupid staccato sounds. Nothing can translate that dark shock. My sister explains that they didn’t tell me the day before because they knew I wouldn’t be able to come. But we need to go. I decide unilaterally that we’re taking the chance. Matt says he’s calling Ewan’s immunologist to let her know. In the baby’s room, I start throwing diapers and sleepers into a plastic hamper. Is it possible to feel manic and numb at the same time? The phone rings again and Matt picks up this time. Did he come in with the baby? Did I sense it this time, before he told me? So gently he says, Chelsea, he just passed. Heartbreak is physical. Bodies thrash, try to alter time. The house is full. Friends and family sit at the kitchen table keeping vigil. My mother walks me into the living room where they’d set up a hospital bed months earlier, where my dad’s body now lies. There are his hands, his hairline, his wedding ring. It feels absurd that he was once a baby too, even though the passing of time and the dying of cells is one of the truest things of this world. We hold his hand before they take him away, tell him we love him. Later, nursing Ewan upstairs at my mom’s, I wonder what the point of all this love is. We’re born to die, and all the magic in between is just biology tricking us into repeating the same futile cycle. Matt and I walk with Ewan to the brook, through the back field Dad cleared so long ago. I can’t talk to Dad or touch him, so there’s a compulsion to be where I can feel him. An ache, a pull, a tether to where, if there is an afterlife, I know he would be. Life becomes thin and delicate to me, like tissue paper—the way it actually is and we go around pretending it’s not. * We postpone Dad’s funeral by a week so Matt, Ewan and I can drive back to Halifax to continue isolating while waiting for the results of the second mitogen test attempt. But the immunologist calls us with bad news again: a plane was delayed, and Ewan’s fresh blood spoiled on the tarmac of some middle-American airport. She’s so upset that she convinces the children’s hospital lab in Halifax to do the test there, using her own blood as a control. She promises to do her best to get us the results before the funeral. More tiny needles and screams. I brush up against the frayed edges of what I can handle. Friday arrives and still no results. We go back to New Brunswick anyway, try to be cautious. Matt stays at my mom’s house with Ewan and misses the funeral. New Covid regulations mean we can only have 25 people in the church, but a crowd shows up at the cemetery afterward, standing at the periphery to show their love while we lower Dad’s urn into the ground. The rest of the weekend, Matt swings between catatonic and explosive—manic with fear. He gives in to his worst obsessive tendencies and takes up all the sadness in the room. I can’t reach him. I can’t grieve. I resent him. We say hateful things to each other. It’s the very end of the day when the doctor calls. It’s good news. The mitogen test indicated that even though Ewan’s T-cell count is low, his immune system works just fine. He has moderate T-cell lymphopenia, and the doctor is optimistic it will normalize over time. You can treat him like any other child, she says. An enormous weight falls off of my body. I can’t stop smiling, and for the first time in weeks I feel a catch in my throat from joy instead of sadness. We rush downstairs to tell my mother and all three of us wrap our arms around each other. At Christmas everyone in my family finally gets to hold Ewan. He fills a hole in the room, distracts us from heartache. But at dinner, I still turn, instinctively, to the empty seat at the head of the table. Love feels like a trick. * The borders close again in January and five months go by. I find some relief in the daily routine of keeping Ewan alive. Mixed up in my exhaustion and sadness is exhilaration. Because this is when it really happens, when I become a mother. Time becomes fuzzy and unfixed, but Ewan grows at such a predictable rate. He smiles and he rolls, and then he starts trying to crawl. Every day is punctuated by these tiny joys. Though with each milestone I’m reminded that my father will never see any of this. He’ll be a ghost to Ewan, just as my grandparents are to me. We’re walking through a park in our neighbourhood when Ewan is woken up in his stroller by a crow cawing in the trees. He opens his eyes and looks around, then falls back asleep. One year earlier, he was a secret tiny tangle of cells. Now this world is his home. He belongs here just as the crow does, even though he doesn’t know what a crow is. “Attention is the beginning of devotion,” Mary Oliver wrote, but it could have been my father. I’m only starting to understand, now that Ewan’s here, what he was trying to tell me. This is our inheritance. * Green on green on green and my feet in the wet grass behind my mother’s house. Ewan in his car pyjamas and the taste of dew in the air. He grabs my legs to stand up, holding on with one hand. When we first arrived in June to spend the summer, I sat Ewan down in front of the hay towering above him and took a picture. He couldn’t even crawl. Now it’s nearly fall and the hay is cut. In September my whole family walks up the back field again to a little alcove in the trees by the brook. We gather in a circle around a small hole in the ground. My brother and brother-in-law pass out plastic cups of Canadian Club and Coke—Dad’s drink—before Mom says a few words. Afterward, she empties a small container of ashes into the hole and we each take a turn covering them with dirt. Before the hole is filled in, Mom sets a horse chestnut seedling on top of the earth and the ashes. The tree’s origin is the big horse chestnut in my parents’ yard. Ewan travels from one set of arms to another and another, then ends up crawling around the grass while we all compact the loose dirt around the tree with our feet. I think back to the doubts I had about love and the cycle of life right after Dad died, almost a year ago, and none of those questions really matter to me now. I don’t care if it’s a biological trick or not. This life holds so much joy. We love for the sake of it, for the same reason we make art or eat. It isn’t a choice. There is love or there is darkness. * In my Grade 9 English class we were given an assignment to write a poem based on a photo. I chose one of myself as a child: I was maybe four or five years old, standing in a field, wearing a red T-shirt with Holstein cows on it, mass of curly hair wild in the breeze. I can’t find the poem now, but I know one line read, “my dad, the sun.” I’d been remembering both my father being there and the brightness of the sun that day, but when Dad read it, he thought I’d been calling him the sun. Time circles and folds around me. Dad was just here, is here, could be here again. I miss you. I miss you. I miss you, I repeat to my father like a mantra. I love you. I love you. I love you, I whisper to Ewan before he falls asleep. I want to feel life’s mark on me as much as I want to breathe. I want to linger on the details: The sting of salt in a hangnail. The papery feel of my dad’s skin. Ewan’s tiny breath in my ear. I collect these things and call them a life because I have nothing else. I claw my fingers into the earth and try to crawl in.
People arrive at the ER every day looking for my help, and the uncomfortable truth is that I’m often so overwhelmed that I struggle to connect with them.
What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2022? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year’s series here. Not long ago, I arrived at the hospital for another night shift in the emergency room. I knew right away it was going to be a bad night. The entire department felt like a wasp’s nest, a flurry of activity in every direction: patients lay on stretchers lining the corridor; others sat in chairs, vomiting into plastic bags; one patient, who had already been there for eight hours, was on his back on the floor moaning loudly, hands covering his face. At the work station nearby, nurses were being hounded by frustrated patients. One of the nurses sat down next to me, shaking her head and looking utterly defeated. “I don’t even know,” she said with a blank stare. “Honestly, I just can’t.” There was suffering all around us. We were trying to keep our heads above water. Short-staffed, no space, and the patients just kept coming. * Anyone with even a vague sense of the Canadian news cycle knows that our emergency departments are in crisis. It’s been one of the top stories of the year, making headlines across the country and the world again and again. We hear the story by the numbers: wait times are longer than ever, there aren’t enough beds for the patients that need them, and nursing attrition rates are historically high. They give us a bird’s-eye view, a systems-level narrative about what’s happening. But beyond the statistics and click-worthy headlines, there’s an uncomfortable reality underpinning it all: surrounded by suffering and without any way to help many of the people they’re being asked to treat, frontline health-care workers are being forced to probe the very limits of their own empathy, and the psychological hardship this is causing them is the fulcrum upon which our health-care system is so precariously tipping. Humans are hardwired to help one another. We develop empathy at a very early age—we even have specialized networks in our brains composed of “mirror neurons” that help us relate to the experiences of others: we wince when we see someone else get hurt, we cringe when we watch someone embarrass themselves, we cry when we see something sad happen even if we’re not directly involved. My daughter isn’t even two years old, but I can already see her beginning to gauge the emotional temperature of the room, tuning into the feelings of the people around her and mirroring what they bring to the table. It seems almost miraculous. But the human capacity for empathy has its limits. There’s a point at which our empathic brains become overwhelmed, frozen, temporarily incapable of providing a caring response to suffering. It happens in war zones and during famines. It happened in Italy and the United States during the first wave of COVID-19. And it’s currently happening in the Canadian health-care system. People arrive at the ER every day looking for my help, and the uncomfortable truth is that I’m often so overwhelmed that I struggle to find ways to connect with a lot of them. Sometimes it’s a patient who isn’t having a true emergency and I feel they don’t need to be there; sometimes it’s a patient who is being rude or even violent and I don't want to have to deal with them. But sometimes, sadly, it’s just a perfectly reasonable patient who I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to feel anything for in that moment. I can still do my job, but it feels distinctly unnatural to not care when everything inside you tells you that you probably should. So many of us in health care struggle with this. In our more vulnerable moments we commiserate about it, but too often we struggle in isolation. The firsthand experience of losing your grip on empathy feels a lot like losing a part of your humanity. * As a society, we kind of fetishize empathy. Countless self-help podcasts and best-selling books discuss empathy as though it’s a proxy for how good of a person you are. If you can just cultivate empathy you’ll be a better friend, a more attentive lover, and a more understanding parent. From literature to religion to pop culture, we’ve been hearing about the merits of empathy for our entire lives. But under the most trying circumstances, losing one’s empathy is also very human. We all have our limits. There are certain conditions in which humans simply aren’t meant to function. We need to acknowledge this if we’re going to find ways to re-connect. Losing the ability to be empathetic can leave us with a sense of hopelessness and—perhaps worst of all—shame, as though what’s befallen us is somehow our fault when in reality it’s an unavoidable and very human eventuality given the circumstances. In the ER I can see it on my colleagues’ faces, hear it in their voices, and read it in their postures. I see it in myself, too. It’s rampant, and it’s happening right now. Buzzwords like “burnout” don’t help. They feel vacuous, even flippant. At this point they’re so overused they no longer add anything to the dialogue. We need radically new ways of talking about what it’s like to feel transiently incapable of caring, or we risk pushing more and more amazing, compassionate, skilled, brilliant people away from the health care profession. We’ve already lost so many good people, and if we can’t find a way to make those who are left feel supported during these periods of disconnection, then we’re going to lose a lot more. Of course I hope our politicians and other stakeholders find a way to work through the logistics of improving our health-care system. But right now my greater hope is that we will find ways to talk about what it’s like to find yourself in a place devoid of empathy, to normalize this experience for those caught in the crosshairs, to humanize what they’re going through and find ways to invite them back into the fold. If we can acknowledge humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances, if we can cultivate empathy for those who have lost touch with it, perhaps we can expand the very borders of empathy itself.
On two movies about teenagers.
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. There is a moment in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) that seems straight out of a CNN prime-time debate, although the scene unfolds inside a high school classroom in New York. Some years after 9/11, a group of measled-looking white teenagers gang up on a classmate, Angie, whose “mother’s family is from Syria,” the moment she starts articulating what her offshore relatives feel about George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. The leader of the bullies is Lisa, the protagonist of the film played by Anna Paquin. Like many adult Americans circumscribed by their social experience, Lisa fails to see that those who disagree with her aren’t always deceitful or intellectually deficient. “Why are you defending someone who murdered three thousand people?” she thunders at Angie. “I’m not,” Angie protests, but you can tell from the look on Lisa’s face that she doesn’t recognize the difference. Another classmate points out that all Angie did was express what a few people in her extended family think, and that the subsequent fracas to shut her down felt somewhat like censorship. “It is censorship,” the timid class instructor chimes in. “It’s not censorship,” Lisa replies. “Our class is not the government.” Contrary to the reams of self-help tomes sold on the premise that we continue to evolve emotionally all our lives, Margaret presents the scarier possibility that our personalities might well have congealed years ago, when we were queuing up with our bags every weekday outside a school parking lot. What has changed since is our bodies, not our minds. Lisa copes with the aftermath of watching a woman die on the street by first lashing out at her single mother and her own friends, then crusading to blame someone for the accident. Would someone a decade or two older have behaved any different? The cops and her mother ask her to be mindful of her power as an eyewitness, to understand that her testimony would decide the fate of the accused bus driver (played by Mark Ruffalo) who has mouths to feed. But Lisa perceives this as adults just empathizing with their own. She’d rather focus on the fact that the dead woman once had a daughter, also named Lisa. How could that be a mere coincidence? The longish screen time allows Lonergan to trace the ripple effects of Lisa’s unravelling: by the time she shows up unannounced at her math teacher’s bachelor pad and later tries to scare him in public by lying about having an abortion, you realize that she can only be mindful of the power she wields by fully testing its limits. At one point, Lisa’s father, who has married again and lives in California, offers to introduce her to a few “strapping young” seventeen-year-old boys when she visits him next. “I don’t really go for the California type,” Lisa replies. But it’s more that she doesn’t trust her flaky father to keep his word, and she probably wouldn’t be visiting him for a while anyway. In California, she wouldn’t be the centre of the story. In Licorice Pizza (2021), Alana, in her mid-twenties, does go for the California type. And what’s worse, the boys she ends up with are invariably a decade younger—not even seventeen. Gary Valentine, a veteran child actor at fifteen, can only wait for his chance as Alana dates his teen nemesis, helps him start a business selling waterbeds, and refuses to admit her feelings for him. In one of the film’s more baffling sequences, Gary introduces Alana to a casting agent, who tells her to consider doing nude scenes. Later, Gary complains that Alana seems comfortable with the idea of undressing for the camera, but she has never stripped in his presence. “Do you really want to see my boobs?” Alana asks, and goes on to indulge him. It could be that couplings of this sort were commonplace in Hollywood fifty years ago, but the film suffers from a discernible lack of motive. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, seems to think it’s enough to have Alana wonder once if “it’s weird that [she] hang[s] out with Gary and his friends all the time.” The adult men she bumps into are all caricatures: there is the photographer who slaps her ass, an aging actor predictably obsessed with his fame, and a politician who uses her as a cover for his secret boyfriend. But why would those experiences persuade Alana to settle for Gary? Alana’s life seems stuck in a perpetual adolescence. She still lives with her parents and two sisters in Encino, drifting half-seriously between jobs. Gary, on the other hand, is already building a life away from the silver screen. Once the demand for waterbeds fizzles out, he opens a pinball parlour in Westwood. And yet, one wonders about the deeper impetus to figure out a side hustle at fifteen. Both Margaret and Licorice Pizza unfold through the eyes of juvenile protagonists, and both seem to grapple with the extent to which teens can be portrayed as adults. Lonergan’s vision is more expansive. The screenplay manages to sidestep the accusations that Lisa intermittently hurls at other characters, accusations that sound true but somewhat distort the situation. Her mother, an actress, doesn’t just care about her “dumb play”; her classmate Angie wasn’t “defending someone who murdered three thousand people.” Moments after the icky encounter with her math teacher, Lisa promises not to tell anyone what happened. “I totally initiated the whole thing,” she declares. Another distortion. In Licorice Pizza, Anderson establishes the age gap between the lead characters in the opening scene, but proceeds to ignore it for the rest of the movie. The viewer is supposed to interpret their relationship any way they want, much like another character, Jerry, a white man who inexplicably slips into a fake Japanese accent while speaking in English to his wife, Mioko. In an interview, Anderson has said that he was careful not to cross any lines while filming: “There isn’t a provocative bone in the film’s body.” And indeed, the film is best described as a frictionless romance, watchable mostly for the performances. Then again, perhaps a movie made by a grown-up about teenagers can never quite capture the forlorn chasm between being an adult and becoming one. What remains out of grasp is the not knowing, the wondrous ignorance about the ways of the world.
The author of If I Survive You on the gift of humour, the impact of the housing crisis, and family legacy.
Caribbean immigrant literature has a long and rich history. We think almost immediately of work by Claude McKay, Edgar Mittleholzer, Jamaica Kincaid, Paule Marshall, Dionne Brand, Austin Clarke and Samuel Selvon, to offer a paltry list of writers. If, like me, you grew up in Canada, you’ve probably mostly read Anglo-Caribbean writers. Because whole experiences rooted and rendered in the French, Dutch, and Spanish Caribbean have not been widely translated into English, we’ve been left with a narrow, monolingual view of what it means to leave your island for a “big” country. As a result of these differences in language, history, and distance, it seems we never get the full Caribbean picture. Our understanding of narratives that emanate from the region is, in many ways, as fragmented as the archipelago’s geography. For the most part, we make do with our half-histories and layers of cultural complexity. We try our best to understand who we are, even though we don’t have all the pieces. As writer Antonio Michael Downing puts it, as Caribbean people, we tell stories about “being shattered over and over and reassembling [ourselves] over continents and calamities.” The same can be said of author Jonathan Escoffery’s debut short story collection, If I Survive You (McClelland & Stewart), whose characters grapple with reassembling their lives through the calamities of race, immigration, interpersonal strife, and economic survival within a Jamaican family trying to make it in Miami, Florida. The “you” in the title represents several possibilities—the United States, family, even former selves. All are sources of conflict; all embody the problems of modern life. Told mostly through the eyes of twenty-something Trelawny across eight interlocking stories, the stories follow his experiences with precarious work, homelessness, family struggles, and the constant fight to fit into and survive his environment. The stories are largely about history’s reverberations. It is Trelawny’s parents’ decision to leave a troubled Jamaica in the 1970s that sets in motion his challenge to define his racial and cultural identity as a US-born Black man navigating a country buckling under the weight of the Great Recession. Escoffery’s characters not only have to deal with external forces of racism and economic turmoil, but they must also come to terms with the filial divisions and growing feelings of distrust that exacerbate their troubles. In the story “In Flux,” Trelawny searches for a racial identity only to be told by his mother, Sanya, that he should tell people he’s “a little of this and a little of that.” In “Under the Ackee Tree,” we learn of the decisions his father, Topper, makes concerning women in Jamaican that have disastrous consequences for his family. And in the eponymous story “If I Survive You,” the sibling rivalry between Trelawny and his brother, Delano, reaches a peak that threatens mutual harm. In all this tumult, Escoffery’s stories never become navel-gazing tales of woe; they never feel fueled by self-pity. Instead, they are narratives infused with a biting humour that draws the reader into a complex tapestry of human folly and perseverance. As in earlier Caribbean fiction, the characters in If I Survive You laugh at their circumstances. Their jokes become paths to sanity, their laughs are balm against self-destroying bitterness. I spoke with Jonathan Escoffery about how his stories navigate notions of being in exile, race and identity, Jamaican-ness, and humour. Neil Price: The main character in these stories, Trelawny, is born in the US to Jamaican parents. They leave the island in the ’70s, when there were all kinds of challenges: political violence, debt, CIA intervention, and so on. As the stories unfold, we get the sense this is a family in exile. Is this an accurate description or are they immigrants in a more traditional, economic sense? Jonathan Escoffery: I think exile is a good word because this family has not left for the more common narrative of upward mobility that might be associated with Jamaicans, to be specific. And there’s certainly, at least for a time, with Topper and others, the belief that there is no going back. I think Sanya comes to feel differently for a short time herself. I wanted to touch on historical reasons, at least briefly, for why a family like Trelawny’s would end up in the US in the first place, and write against the idea that there wasn't US involvement in sending them there. Or write against the idea that it was, you know, their own poverty that sent them out of the country. And there’s also the kind of exile for the next generation, for a character like Trelawny who’s a minoritized being in the United States, but at the same time, doesn’t quite belong to Jamaica. And so, he’s a person without a land. He has these jobs that deny his own race, in a sense. He has to pick up a job that would otherwise exclude him or lean into these other ideas of what Blackness is supposed to be, and show up for the job that is actually looking to exploit his Blackness. He’d love to go back to Jamaica and sink back into what was lost when his parents left, but there really is no going back for him. He stands out as very American in Jamaica. We’re accustomed to stories of West Indian migrants heading to the US and quickly becoming industrious, being quick to set up shops and other businesses. These narratives go back to the early ‘’20s. I’m thinking of Marcus Garvey and that legacy of West Indian mobility. But your stories set up and probe these historical tensions. You seem to be refreshing or re-examining these tensions with the migrant story in a much more contemporary context. Were you interested in writing against some of the tropes that come out of our assumptions about the West Indian migrant story? I wanted to put Jamaicans on the map in terms of stories coming out of South Florida and Miami because I just don’t think there are any. No, not at all. None that come to mind. Right? We are down there, but we are somehow unseen at the same time. I get messages from Caribbean and Jamaican people who say, “I’ve never seen myself on the page.” I wanted to write us into historical record and write us into existence in the form of media, I suppose. But with Jamaicans there is this weird thing where we want our culture to survive in the US, but we’re always talking to each other and saying, “Oh, you’re not Jamaican," or, “What do you know about Jamaica?” I wanted to be very honest about those kind of problems within our own community. In a sense I’m asking, “Do you want us to survive or not?” If you keep pushing people out, [Jamaican culture] is going to end. It’s not likely to be carried forward by the next generation. Where does a Trelawny find himself? He is taking his parents’ culture as a sign that is giving him messages from the larger culture. If you go to college, you get a ticket to find a solid middle class life. But he doesn’t find it. And I thought, you know, on [the] one hand, I think it makes sense that it would be the hardest thing for him to find during the recession. I also had that experience. I happened to finish college during the recession. I was working throughout college because I was a non-traditional student. I was seeing just how difficult it was to get any kind of job. One day, you could kind of get these entry level jobs that would have paid you a salary that would allow you to live with dignity and allow you to feed yourself and have a roof over your head. And then the next day it seems like there just were so few of those jobs and the jobs that were paying you much less were still telling you to be grateful. And then there’s what Trelawny has chosen, much like I chose, to get an English degree. There’s always that lingering question of, “Well, what can you do with this degree?” I think English degrees teach you to think critically, and I think we see Trelawny thinking critically on the page. Is it benefiting him materially? It’s a lot of my own anxieties playing out on the page. I’ve never moved back to Miami after I left. It is just a very difficult landscape, as I see it, for utilizing such a degree. The first story takes up identity head on. The question that opens the story “In Flux” is, “What are you?” This story takes the reader into the internalized world of racism, shadeism, and colourism. Were you deliberately trying to shed light on how these isms get internalized? Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to show that it’s not always such a simple thing in terms of how we identify ourselves. A lot of people identify as being Latino and that is their race. And I agree with that, like a lot of people do. But then how do we complicate that when you have white Cubans in Miami who identify as white more than they do Latino? And then what do you do with Black Cubans or other Afro Latinos? And then you include Jamaicans where you have these very light-skinned Jamaicans, dark-skinned Jamaicans; you have white Jamaicans; you have Chinese Jamaicans. Can Jamaicans be a race? Or there’s this thing where Black Jamaicans will move to the US, and they’ll say, “I'm just Jamaican,” and you have all of those different nuances. Some will say, “Well, we’re different culturally.” And that's true enough. But what does culture have to do with race, and how do we define the culture then? Is it Jamaican accents? Is it the percentage of oxtail and ackee and saltfish that you eat per week? It is all very complex. I wanted to put all of that on the page. If you follow a character like Trelawny and follow his experiences, you see how it plays out. You see how his just saying, “I'm Jamaican,” or just saying, “I'm Black,” or just hanging out with people who look more like him—you see how it’s just all very complicated when people who look like him don’t identify the same way he does. You use second person quite a bit in these stories. I wonder whether it is intended to complicate this notion of the subject “you,” or whether it is meant to draw the reader into a narrative that feels more immediate with respect to Trelawny and the other characters. I think it does have the effect of drawing readers in, but that wasn’t my primary concern. In full transparency, when I started writing “In Flux”—which was the first story I wrote in the collection that is told in the second person—I was writing it as an essay. I was doing this kind of exploration of just how strange it was to be confronted by that question, “What are you?” and the different ways I’ve had to interpret that question and the different ways people seem to have meant it. I was living in Minneapolis, in the Midwest, which is very different culturally from a place like Miami. And I think that kind of very distinct experience of being away from Miami led me to think about the whole experience being in flux. I wanted this character to be poring over the details of his life. With “you,” I envision a kind of older Trelawny talking to himself about [his] experiences up to that point. What drives him to be interested in taking this DNA test by the end of the story? It’s this kind of complex thing of his mother refusing to say, ”Hey, you’re Black,” or herself not understanding that the family would be perceived as Black in the United States. But [she is] still saying, “You're a little of this and you’re a little of that. You’ve got grandparents from this country, this European country.” And Trelawny [is] moving away from that in a sense and thinking, “Let me embrace Blackness,” which again goes back to that question: what is race? Is race the music I listen to? The clothes I wear? He internalizes all those questions, and he decides to take this test. In a sense, it’s not like his mom was lying about the diversity of his racial or ethnic background, but it’s still an insufficient answer. I just wanted him to be having that conversation with himself and it allows him room to critique both places that are constantly taking him apart but also critique how he’s chosen to respond to those voices, at times kind of ridiculously. Speaking of ridiculous, these stories are decidedly humorous at times. It was refreshing to pick up a funny collection of stories, to be honest. They’re not always funny—there are moments that are deeply poignant and disturbing—but humour runs right through the stories. I was immediately reminded of Samuel Selvon’s “Lonely Londoners.” I wondered if the humour was by design, or if it came out of the “ridiculousness,” to use your word, of the complexity and the inability to really grapple with all of these threads for characters like Trelawny and Delano. There’s so much going on. There’s the family struggle. There’s the struggle of identity and finding one’s place. There’s the economic struggle of finding livable wages. How did you fashion the humorous elements of these stories? The very first story I wrote that explored these characters did not make its way into the book. But it just kind of poured out of me, and there wasn’t really much strategy involved. But after I shared it with my reader-writer friends, I considered it to be a very humorous story. I wanted to keep that alive in the book. I ended up going to grad school to do my MFA. And I think [in grad school] there’s this self-imposed pressure that I needed to start writing these serious stories. And I remember one of my advisors, Charles Baxter, wrote me a note and said, “You know, I liked what you got going on here. But don’t forget that you seem to have the ability to write humour. Don't forget that that is a wonderful gift, if you can continue doing that.” And I loved that I had a kind of permission to continue to do that. I also didn’t want to overthink it, because I remember at a certain point, even prior to that, I was thinking, “Well, now it has to be a book, like a humorous book.” And the more I thought about that, the less humorous it was. I realized that the humour did not detract, it only added. I think it came out naturally, but at the same time, as you said, I was putting these absurd moments in, these certain ways we treat race and identity at times. Yes, for example, there is that funny scene where the professor wants Trelawny to put more Blackness into his research paper. Exactly. It’s like, “stay in your box,” but where your box happens to be graded is mediocre. They want you to accept this mediocrity or subpar performance because that’s their idea of you as a Black person. And then there’s ways in which Trelawny feels powerless in his poverty at times. And I think he is responding with humour because that’s his outlet. That’s what got me thinking of Selvon’s work, because the stories are these outlets for situations that are quite dire. But we end up laughing at them. And in some way that laughter gets us through. And it felt like that pulse was running through your stories, which was lovely to experience. Right. I wonder if we could talk about the character Sanya for a minute and the fact that her home is foreclosed. We often think of home ownership as being central to our West Indian sense of accomplishment in capitalism. I’m thinking of Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas as one general reference. And yet Sanya packs it up, and the narrator shares that in many respects she feels safer back in Jamaica despite its problems. Is her packing it up and returning to Jamaica a comment on the impossibility of the US, and that sometimes the only thing one can do is to turn our back on it and give up? The short answer is yes. I wanted to explore Topper’s attitude about never being able to return to Jamaica in contrast to Sanya, who never got used to the weight of being a marginalized person in the US. I also wanted to show the impact of the housing crisis because my mother did lose her house, so that’s something that’s hit me personally. From a narrative standpoint, I wanted Trelawny to return to Miami but not have that same safety net, in a sense. If Sanya doesn’t leave Miami, then Trelawny will always have that safety net. To set those dynamics up I had to have Sanya leave. And then she does go back to Jamaica, and she does say she felt free there by the privilege of relative racelessness. And any time I’ve visited Jamaica in my adult life, I’ve felt that privilege of relative racelessness. I felt able to breath freer, and those have been very short bursts in my life. That’s also because I have a mind where I’m always picking apart my own lived experiences. And of course, by the end of the book she [Sanya] says, “Well, time to leave Jamaica because I’m just not one of my people anymore.” She’s still ever-searching; there’s still an idea of “you can’t go home”. That idea of home gets romanticized, doesn’t it? You think you can return to this thing that stood still while you were gone but it’s changed in your absence. Exactly. In a key moment in one of the stories, Trelawny gets into an argument with his father, Topper, who he feels is putting him down and ridiculing his lack of Jamaican-ness. Trelawny goes outside and begins to chop down the ackee tree which his brother, Delano, had gifted their father. I wondered about the symbolism and the idea of the transplanted tree. We’re accustomed to the ackee tree in Jamaica, but here it is symbolizing Topper’s emotional and psychological connection to Jamaica. And it’s his son—a son that he’s got this complicated relationship with—who attacks this symbol. How did you arrive at that scene? For me, the tree symbolized that carrying forward of the family legacy, that legacy including the Jamaican culture that the family brings over. I think it’s one of those things where I wanted to make sure of the historical record in a sense. For me it’s such a fascinating fruit. The ways in which it opens; the way in which it can be poisonous if you don’t know what you’re doing with it, [like] if you force the ackee pod open and try to cook it after that point. I wanted to explore the dangers of not understanding your own culture. Even though Topper had resentment for Trelawny and for his perceived American-ness and his perceived disinterest in his Jamaican heritage, it’s partly the moment where Trelawny is trying to claim his Jamaican-ness. And one would think Topper would be all for it, except Trelawny is criticizing his father’s decision—a very difficult decision—to pack up and leave his country of birth. And that is a painful thing to Topper. Whether or not it was the right move, I don’t think anyone could say. He has the belief that it was the right move. But Trelawny feels like all that he has suffered as somebody who’s not seen as legible—everyone saying what he isn’t—Trelawny sees these as things that he’s lost out on. To me, his trying to chop down [the] tree is him giving up on the idea that he’s going to be the ideal Jamaican son. He’s going to show that he does understand the significance of the tree by trying to do the one thing that would hurt his father the most in response to being called defective. In another story, “Under the Ackee Tree,” you write in the first-person using Jamaican patois. Did you have any trepidations? Not every writer does that well. Tell me about that decision to use patois in letting the reader hear Topper’s voice and its function in relation to the other stories. Originally, I wanted to have a falling out with Topper and Trelawny. I was trying to play it out in my head, but I thought for a time that this was also going to be Trelawny’s story. And what I realized is that this conversation around whether they should have ever moved from Jamaica in the first place—I felt like it was important that we see what was going on in Jamaica and what was going in Topper and Sanya’s lives in the 1970s for them to make that decision. I realized that it was going to be one of the parent’s stories. And the greatest tension is between Topper and Trelawny, [so] I wanted to make it his [Topper’s] story. I didn’t want to vilify him in this book, even though some of his decisions are questionable or maybe just bad. But I see it as being more complicated than just good or bad. I wanted to give him an opportunity to tell his own story in a sense. And once I made that decision, I had to consider, how would he retell his own story to himself? And for me to put that in what’s thought of as a standardized English—it didn’t make a lot of sense. Why would he have to be interpreting himself with language that isn’t his? Why wouldn’t he use his own language? And then there’s just—for me—any time I’ve been asked as a reader to do a little bit more work to engage with a piece of writing, for me those are the stories that I am most attached to. Often, those are the stories where, when they end, I look up, and I say, “Wow, I forgot I’m not in the story.” So, I thought, yes, let me write it this way. I didn’t feel like I had anything to lose, honestly. And that was the story that got me in the Paris Review and my writing career took off from that point. And thankfully, it paid off. It certainly did. It’s my favourite story in the collection, so I’m glad you made that choice. [Both laugh].
“Not here, not this school.” Until it is.
By the time I heard the shots, it was over. Of course, I didn’t know that when I heard them: the distinct pop-pop that isn’t fireworks, isn’t a car backfiring, isn’t anything else you’d hope it to be. My hand instinctively flew to cover my swollen belly, as though my slender fingers could protect what was inside. For a moment, I just stood there, hand on belly, listening with an animal alertness as the students in my 10th grade English class kept talking, seemingly too engaged with their group activity to have heard the sound. Outside the classroom, I heard distant shouts, then silence. My mind did a thousand small mathematics in that moment: Was the sound really what I thought it was? Was it coming from inside or outside the school campus? Should I leap into active-shooter mode, or wait for a PA announcement? Was this really it? The moment every teacher, student, and parent in the United States has worried about, pictured in their minds, and then tried to rationalize away? “Not here, not this school.” Until it is. Maybe now, at Esteban Torres High School in East Los Angeles on a dim November morning in 2019, it was our turn. My co-teacher Kareem* and I exchanged covert, worried glances that confirmed each other’s suspicions. Then briskly, wordlessly, our bodies clicked into action. I lowered and closed the blinds while Kareem locked the classroom door and covered its window in paper—what we’d been trained to do in all of our many drills and actual lockdowns. Calm, collected, in control, I told myself as I moved. Classroom secured, Kareem and I briefly debated the best course of action without naming what might be happening. “Should we…” get the kids down under their desks? “Maybe wait? I don’t want to…” overreact and traumatize them unnecessarily. “There wasn’t a—” drill “—planned, was there?” I shook my head. “Ms.,” Miguel called out buoyantly, waving his worksheet in the air. “Come tell Alex his evidence is trash.” Calm, collected, in control, I repeated as I walked over to Miguel’s group. “So, Alex says he fell down the stairs, right?” Miguel said, pointing to the body depicted in the murder-mystery image the students were debating over. “But like, why would he be laying like that? Wouldn’t he be face-down?” I pinched my brow, trying to focus on what he was saying while also listening for sounds outside the classroom. “Nah, man,” Alex interjected. “He coulda twisted hisself when he was falling.” That’s when the PA cut on. “Attention staff and students, we are going into a lockdown. Teachers, lock all doors and clear any students from the hallways.” Shit. Miguel and Alex let out a whoop, excited for the sudden interruption in class work. Concern flashed through several other faces, spines stiffening in tension as they glanced around the room, looking for clues. But the majority of the students didn’t react at all, so accustomed to the many lockdowns we’d experienced last school year when a neighbouring gang house frequently had spats with the police. The school community was no stranger to gun violence, but school shootings, I’d always rationalized, were something that largely happened in privileged, suburban, white schools—all things Esteban Torres High School wasn’t. During our lockdowns, the danger was always outside of school grounds, more of an “abundance of caution” thing in case the situation escalated. As such, we never had students shelter under their desks, both the school and district leadership appreciating the harmful psychological impacts such procedures can cause. Usually, we just locked the classroom doors, covered all the windows, and carried on as usual. This time, though, I interrupted the students’ chatter. I strained to keep my voice even as I said, “Let’s go ahead and get under our desks. Folks in the back rows, come up closer to the front, away from the windows.” Alarm shot through the classroom. “Wait, Ms., is this real?” Calm, collected, in control. “I don’t know,” I said in my steady, I’m-in-charge voice, surprised at how natural it came out sounding. “But let’s do it, just in case.” Several students ducked quickly under their desks while others hesitated. The more lethargic ones grumbled, smacking their teeth. “It’s dirty down there.” “Come on, Ms.” “Just get down,” I said, letting my voice get sharp with authority, careful not to allow the genuine fear I felt to come through. When I scanned the room and saw no heads above the eyeline of the desks, I crouched down below my own desk. It wasn’t easy; at six months pregnant, floors had suddenly become a very long way down. Everyone settled into place. I did more calculations: We were on the first floor, which was the most accessible to a shooter, but also meant we had two exits, students were able to crawl out of the windows if need be. The classroom abutted the school fence—if the shooter were in the hallway, would it be best to let students climb through the window and scale the chain-link to safety? How well could the classroom door block— “Pop-pop!” Miguel called out. Alex snickered while a chorus of girls told him to “Knock it off” and “Cállate.” “Gentlemen,” I said with enough bite that I didn’t have to say anything else. I knew it was his immature way of dealing with the tension of the moment. Every fall in our dystopia unit, after reading Parable of The Sower, I had the students write their own dystopias. This year, like ones prior, there’d been dozens of school shooting dystopias—including Miguel’s. It always served to remind me that, despite their jokes and numbed normalization, my students carried a deep anxiety about this particularly American phenomenon. I closed my eyes and briefly, internally, let myself step out of the role of teacher and feel the moment as a human. My heart thudded. Panic moved through my veins and tingled across my skin. Cramped down on the floor, my back started to pang. I stared down at the hard, scuffed linoleum—mopped once a year and only swept when I wrangled a service student—and felt my vulnerability deep into my bones. I was slow. I couldn’t run fast, or crouch well, couldn’t crawl through the window if I needed to. I couldn’t defend these kids if I needed to. Not that you can do much against a bullet, but I still felt the impulse, the same way I kept my hand firmly over my belly. As if I could really do anything to protect my students or this most precious cargo, exposed and bursting out right at the centre of me. I rubbed my belly slowly. It’s okay, baby, I thought. We’re going to get through this. “Ms.,” Xochi whispered. “Can I use my phone?” I looked up. Usually I enforced a strict no-phone policy in my classes and for a moment, I hesitated at letting that boundary dissolve. Then I looked out at my students’ worried faces, some of which were already illuminated by the glow of their phones, and thought, For Christ’s sake. “Yes, of course. Text who you need to.” I pulled out my own phone and started typing a message to my boyfriend. We’re in a lockdown, don’t know what’s going on. I didn’t want to sound alarmist, didn’t want to tell him I’d heard shots. Before I could hit send, a new message from the staff texting app appeared on a banner at the top of my screen. I clicked. Police-related shooting on campus. No students injured. Scene is secure. Do not let students out of classrooms. I blinked at the message. It sparked more questions than answers—who did the police shoot and why?—but for those first moments, my mind clung to the one solid fact: we were safe. I felt a wash of relief move through me, panic leaving my fingertips. The moment was short lived, though, Kareem and I again snapping into teacher mode. “Alright, everything’s okay,” he started saying. “We can come out.” We crawled stiffly, slowly out from under the desks, all of us dazed from internal places of fear and prayer. “What’s going on, Ms.?” Gabriella asked me. Still not sure of how much to reveal, I began, “I don’t know for certain. But the message I just got said that everything is secure and no students were—” “Daaaaaamn!” Miguel called out, leaping up. “That fool got shot!” I looked over to see him gawking at his phone, tapping other students’ shoulders excitedly as he showed them his screen. A murmur went through the room as more students looked down at their phones. Kareem walked over to Miguel, glancing at his screen. He let out a long sigh that I translated to mean oh shit. “Okay, come on, put it away.” It was no use. Gasps and exclamations moved through the room as students stared intently at their screens. “There’s a picture on Snapchat,” Kareem whispered to me. “Of the body. Looks like it was taken from the Performing Arts building.” “For fuck’s sake,” I heard myself say, the f-word slipping through my teacher demeanor. Of course there’d be a picture on social media before us teachers knew what was actually going on. Over the next twenty minutes, the story emerged through text messages and screenshots and social media posts. Students who’d been outside for PE said they saw a guy hop the fence and run across the field, shouting as he waved a knife. Or a machete. No, a sword. An LA County sheriff officer trailed behind the man. A student who’d been in passing period, or maybe just ditching, had been sitting in the covered lunch area when he saw the man run by, hollering as he swung the sword around. Then there was a shout to, “Get down, get down!” followed by a pop-pop. And the man dropped, fast as that. The image sparked something, the blurry, second-hand details rubbing up against a burial site inside me. As the story of the shooting came into focus, flashes of another story burst through my mind: a bullet hole in the TV; a bony, haunted mugshot of my brother-in-law; my sister’s voice on the phone, “Jimmy got into a shoot-out with the police.” I blinked the thoughts away. “Okay, everyone,” I said, feeling the tension in the room and in myself. “Let’s settle down.” Neither I nor the students were in a place to learn or process or do anything constructive other than just survive this moment, all of us physically safe but psychologically shaken, and confined to this single classroom. There was no point in trying to finish the lesson—a murder mystery, at that!—but I needed to do something calming that would also allow me a moment to not be fully in charge. So, I dimmed the lights, logged into my Netflix account, and put on The Office. Kareem watched over the kids, and I took a seat in the back of the room. As the familiar jingle of the opening song chimed in, comforting and safe, I pulled out my phone and texted my boyfriend. There was a shooting at my school, I wrote. Police here, everyone safe. JIC you heard on the news, didn’t want you to worry. Heart emoji. I sent the same text to my parents, minus the emoji, then reread the message several times. How quickly I was already moving towards minimizing the incident, the loss of life, the intensity of those ten minutes after I’d heard the shots. I rubbed my belly and stared out the window, my mind drifting to the image of the man’s body that I’d glimpsed on my students’ phones. When my brother-in-law, Jimmy, had exchanged gunfire with police officers during a methamphetamine-fueled psychotic episode four years ago, only luck and white privilege had allowed him to walk out of the situation alive. He was now serving 44 years in a penitentiary upstate. Like the man who’d just died on my school campus, my brother-in-law had acted in an insane way, with the potential to hurt and kill. How easily his fate could have been the same as this man’s, now lying face-down on the pavement, strangers ogling over photos on social media. I thought of his family—his mother, sister, perhaps a son or daughter—who were right now getting the call. I felt my eyes pinch with tears as I breathed in long, slow breaths, stroked my baby bump and thought, It’s okay, baby. It’s okay. I glanced up to see Miguel hunched over his phone with Alex, looking at another photo. He was laughing. “Miguel,” I heard myself say. “I want to talk to you.” I used my no-isn’t-an-option tone, and I could tell Miguel heard it, too. He rose slowly and shuffled back to my corner, standing awkwardly as he avoided eye contact. “Yeah, Ms.?” he asked, sensing he was in trouble. “Sit down, please.” He did, and when we met eyes, I let out a long sigh, letting it dissolve the line between teacher me and me. “Listen, Miguel, what’s going on is super intense, and I know we all have our own ways of dealing with it. But this guy who died—” I gestured to his phone, which he quickly slid into his pocket. “He was someone’s family, you know? Like, someone’s getting that call right now. And I know what he did was crazy and dangerous, but he was still a person. So just, have some respect, okay?” Miguel hung his head, looking less like a hot-shot tough guy and more like a kid. “Okay, Ms.” I’d like to end the story there, on a redemptive note in a teachable moment. But in the reality of a campus shooting, the day crept painfully on. The school was now an active crime scene, and the Sheriff’s Department, impervious to the needs of the thousand-plus students, teachers, and staff on campus, ordered everyone to continue to shelter in place. For two hours, no one was allowed to leave their classrooms. Though I was accustomed to holding my pee throughout the school day, my pregnant bladder began to ache. I was just beginning to resign myself to having to use the dreaded pee bucket, provided to every K–12 classroom in case of situations just like this one (maybe I’d ask the female students to form a little wall around me so I didn’t have to expose my bare ass to a roomful of teenage boys…), when admin got the okay to escort people to use the restroom, one-by-one. Around 11 am, the kids got hungry and restless. Ours is a low-income school where the majority of students rely on free lunch, it wasn’t like many students had bag lunches waiting in their backpacks. So, I broke into my stash of leftover Halloween candy, and we played a series of classroom games: Four Corners, Heads Up 7-Up, Rock-Paper-Scissors. Finally, around 1 pm, the school sent a sad lunch of sugary yogurt and waxy apple slices. Shortly after, the Sheriff’s Department allowed us to dismiss students into the care of the line of anxious, waiting parents that snaked around the block. Since we were legally responsible for students until the end of the school day, though, we couldn’t release students whose parents were working or otherwise unable to come to campus. Those kids had to stay until school was dismissed at 3:30, a full seven hours after they’d entered the classroom for first period. Eventually, most just put their heads down and slept. When the room was finally empty, I was exhausted, light-headed from the lack of real food and drained from attempts at keeping the kids calm and entertained. I was tense from the stress, from managing student needs, and the depths of vulnerability I’d felt in my pregnant body. All I wanted to do was go home, heat up leftovers, curl up in my boyfriend’s arms, and cry. But I couldn’t. Because I’m a teacher, and our first priority is never self-care but rather the care of our students. Ten minutes after dismissal, an emergency staff meeting was called to clarify facts and develop a plan to help students process. I wanted to cry. I wanted to process, to rest, to sort through the complex and conflicting feelings in my mind and my swollen, tender body. I did not want to guide other people through their processing. I cared for my students and wanted to support them as they dealt with the trauma of the day, but how could I do that, when I, myself, felt so unstable? When would I finally get the chance to drop my teacher persona and just be a human—pee and eat and cry and feel? I wanted nothing more than to call in sick the next day. But I couldn’t do that either. My students needed stability, to see adults they knew and trusted. And I was going on maternity leave soon. Since, as a teacher, I would receive no state disability or FMLA compensation, I was reliant entirely on my sick days to make it through my leave. I couldn’t afford to take the day off. So, I showed up the next day. As we do as teachers—exhausted and imperfect, but there. I led my students through an awkward, scripted discussion about the day’s event, and they shifted in their seats, and I didn’t at all feel like the calming, in-control adult I needed to be in that moment. I felt messy and inadequate. But I was there, showing up for my students in whatever diminished capacity I could. We were safe and alive, which is more than you can say for the man who died, or for the kids who died in a school shooting the very next day in nearby Santa Clarita. Or for the students and teachers who’ve lost their lives in some of the 352 school shootings since Columbine, or for those who will, because this keeps happening and keeps happening and keeps happening. We were safe and alive, which no one, despite what we tell ourselves, can take for granted in this country. *All names have been changed.