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Molar City

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'This is Not a Book That is Enthusiastic About Humanity': An Interview with Carrie Jenkins

Talking to the author of Victoria Sees It about books as mirrors, institutional violence in the academy, and misanthropy.

The Children of Dzhankoy

A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up?

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‘This is Not a Book That is Enthusiastic About Humanity’: An Interview with Carrie Jenkins

Talking to the author of Victoria Sees It about books as mirrors, institutional violence in the academy, and misanthropy.

Deb sees the world as Victoria sees it. Then, one day, in the middle of the Cambridge academic term, Deb is gone—as though she never existed at all. Victoria Sees It (Strange Light) is the debut novel from Carrie Jenkins, whose previous and ongoing scholarly work (she is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia) wrestles with love, relationships, and the systems whose gravities shape and deform these bonds. Turning the lenses of this formidable apparatus to fiction, Jenkins now casts an experienced, jaundiced eye upon how harrowing a horror academia can be for any young person—particularly for a woman whom the institution’s exploitative logics have deemed is both sufficiently attractive, and sufficiently vulnerable, to fall within the field of its predations. The novel follows Victoria’s isolated childhood into her friendship (and perhaps tender first love) with fellow college student Deb—only to wrench that rare and delicate connection away, apparently without explanation. The lady vanishes, and our scholar-detective is left to sift a proliferating, senseless collection of clues—glittering baubles and sinister graffiti littering campus, ancient codices and useless secret societies for the idle rich, a helpful police-officer-turned-love-interest, lubriciously assiduous professors—that cannot seem to be made to cohere into any reasonable whole. It is an audacious, unsettling book, culminating in a series of dark twists that ratchet its initial intrigue towards a neo-gothic crescendo of madness and paranoia, as Victoria struggles to orient and assemble meaning while captive in a world whose categories and coordinates have been rendered deliberately unfair and malevolently confused. There is, Jenkins suggests, more than one way for women (especially poor, queer women) to be made to disappear. Anthony Oliveira: Thanks so much for chatting with me, and for this book. I think I am firstly curious about how you would you describe its project—how do you see it? Carrie Jenkins: Well, I think it's a psychological thriller, though it took me a while to arrive at that. [laughs] Thematically it’s concerned with isolation and mental health, and the gendered aspects of both of those things. It's concerned with academia and power. And it's trying to do all this in a way that's quite intimate and humanizing. I really wanted Victoria to be able to speak to us directly, and to as it were trap people in her head with her, so that we get a perspective on the things that she struggles with, including mental health. And other people's conceptions of that, and the isolation that results when those conceptions do not work. I wanted her to speak from her real experiences of those things, and humanize them. A lot of writing about mental health fails to give us the first-person perspective; we have a lot of third-personal, diagnostic, medicalized, language, which can be useful in certain contexts, but there is something that is really missed by the wayside, which is the humanity of living in a world where you and/or it don't quite line up with expectation. What, to your mind, were the seeds of this project? Or maybe another way: at one point, you say “Books are just mirrors.” What is this book mirroring? The first sentence, not the prologue, but the first sentence of the main book, “My mother stopped talking when I was born,” was there very early on, in the first pass of the first drafts. That was the origin, in my head, of Victoria's voice. A lot of what followed from there was just me figuring out why—what does that mean, what is that sentence tapping? This is one of my first attempts at writing fiction at all, and it began with that sentence and Victoria's voice. I wanted to consider this idea of cyclical progress, or lack of progress—things changing but still staying the same. I return endlessly to this theme of something shifting or changing—perhaps generationally, or over time, only to discover that it hasn't really shifted at all. And passing this broken cycle on to the next generation. The way that I ended up writing Victoria, the protagonist… her life is following my life around, to a large extent. So there are a lot of twisted mirrors of places and situations that I've been in or been familiar with, that she then goes into and now has to deal with. Fairly early on I started trying to lean into trusting my subconscious or semi-conscious processes to come up with something that was, in many cases, sort of reality-adjacent. And I ended up with this twisted, semi-digested, semi-conscious horror, this grotesque version of my reality or real situations, like a funhouse mirror. I feel like Victoria, in a number of ways, is a case of but for the grace of fate or whatever, go I—she is in really bad situations that I, very easily, could have ended up in. This book is full of the mirrors of my world and my reality as I've understood it, or as I understand it. The obvious proximity to your own life—the specificity of sight and smell, is very present and striking in the book, even without flipping the cover to compare Victoria’s journey to your own bio. Was that hard? Deciding how much of your life to let seep in, when the character’s biography is so close to your own? It is a weird experience because partly it made things so much easier to just let Victoria follow me around, but it is funny how the memory betrays you—my copy editor found many moments where, for example, a specific song wasn’t released that year, etc. Which was itself interesting, but it was always intentional that Victoria does a lot of the things that I have done, but is not me. From the first sentence, “my mother stopped talking when I was born,” that's not true of me. My mother didn't stop talking when I was born. It became about just letting these, these things, twist, twist themselves, and then land where they wanted to land. Victoria is me—and of course she isn't. This text is so much about institutional violence, and I wanted to ask specifically about the book’s interest and horror at the violence of academia. What is this book saying about the sort of insidious and ancient evil of the academy? That agelessness, specifically, seems to obtain when you talk about Cambridge especially—these august and enduring edifices… It is so strange—right, because that's where a lot of their power comes from—that sense that these forces have been there, for all intents and purposes, forever, without possibility of changing. This is one of those cyclical things, the book’s themes constantly feeling like, oh, this time academia has solved its problems, and now there is no more racism and sexism and colonialism. And of course, that's never what's actually happened; these cycles of apparent progress enter a retrograde phase, and those trapped in them wonder whether you're really going in a straight line, or just round and round in circles. I think everyone who has been in an academic department meeting knows that feeling: that it's just a dance, you just go around, around the steps. And there's very little sense of possibility of ever breaking out of that. I really had the sense, when I was 18 years old—very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and naively optimistic—I really did believe some of the we've sorted out some of the problems in academia now, and it’s going to be much better. We were supposed to be inheriting a much better academic institution, but… You have a scene in which a senior female scholar dismisses a very urgent concern from a student and then turns around and gives a lecture about how things are not as sexist as they used to be… Yeah, and there is probably some truth in that too, right, because she is probably in her mind comparing it to something much more explicit—literally being told you cannot be here, the kind of overt sexual harassment in front of everybody that is relatively rare now, thank goodness, although not completely eliminated. But you didn’t solve the problem, you didn't know to look below the surface and understand the swirling undercurrents of it, and how those go around in circles, even though it looks like the river is flowing. You didn’t consider how you can get caught up and sucked under. As much as the academy emerges as this crushing force in your book, the literary canon does too. There is a horror on the part of Victoria, who is constantly quoting and footnoting the canonical—usually male but not always male—writers and actually complains at various moments that she can't stop doing that. Right, and it's not entirely academic stuff, because there's also quite a bit of pop culture too, but yes, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes… it is a lot of figures, I think, of the hyper-rational. I don’t know—I’m just the author—but I feel like one of Victoria's obsessions, one of the things she struggles with, is understanding how to manage emotionally within her world. And so she uses “hyper-rational” thinking as a form of anesthetic, sometimes, and the canon provides for that very readily: it provides lots of logic puzzles, and problems that you can get completely lost in if you want to write without thinking too much about the actual world and its problems. So there can be this avoidance tactic. To a large extent, academia can do this, writ large, with the world's problems, but also individuals can do this with their own lives—you can send yourself down a rabbit hole of academic inquiry in order to avoid looking at something you really don't want to look at. I think Victoria does some of that, and I think that the canon of academic philosophy lends itself to her as a mode of doing that. A lot of her choices speak to that same inclination: to just wrap yourself up in the intellectual life. One of the figures you use throughout as the model of how that isn't going to work is Isaac Newton—there's the version of you that wants to pursue the rational and that wants to pursue the science, but who is compelled simultaneously compelled to pursue something that exceeds the rational, that reaches beyond it, and is in some ways destroyed by it too. Absolutely, yes—I’m absolutely personally obsessed with Isaac Newton. He does represent that kind of sanitizing in the rational, in the scientific, to the detriment of the attempt to find something that is actually better or beyond that. But also was at peace with that irreconcilability; he thought the search for these mystical, magical things was just part of understanding the universe, understanding creation. It was all one project for him. I’m fascinated by that. There are a whole bunch of Easter eggs in Victoria Sees It, and lots of them have to do with what look like complete sets that are actually missing a piece, or sequences that actually the repeat, but then get thrown off the cycle in some way. I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler or not… [laughs] I think you're the one who decides that… So Victoria goes searching for her missing friend, and she goes to four different locations which are symbolic of four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. And does not find what she's looking for in any of them, and this fifth element of the missing piece of the puzzle keeps haunting her. One of the things I'm wrestling with in the book, wrestling with rather than trying to say, but specifically wrestling with is that question of the fifth piece. Is it real? Is it something we could actually find? Is it something that we've written out of the history, because it wasn't tidy enough to be squared away with the other four? And if that is something we're doing because we're scared of what it would be if we saw it, if we found it, if we acknowledged it—and what kind of shape would the search for it take? These are the things that troubled me, and which found their way into various thematic structuring principles of the book that are not supposed to be highly visible in the final version. They're more like the process left behind, as a residue. When you mention edited texts and sanitized versions of biographies and missing pieces (as with, for example, Newton), my mind turns to your book’s queer themes. We see your protagonist react almost physically when the word “lesbian” drops, for example. I just wanted to ask how you think the queerness of the text hooks into that larger theme of the missing and unspoken, or how much you were thinking about that as like a major motif in the piece. As I say, I'm just the author, and I don't really claim authority on how important it is as a theme, but as I was writing it, it was really just how it is, this is what and how that character is. But I think it also helped to flag more of the toxicities, and the unspoken parts of what was going wrong. When the word “lesbian” comes out for Victoria, for example—the only time she's heard that word is kids being bullied at school. That was just a term you would call someone when you're putting them through a kind of social death. So she's never really had to come to grips with the possibility that that's a word that applies to her for real and it's not a slur. And that there's parts of her, her relationship with her friend before the friend goes missing, that are clearly suggestive of a bond that could be queer, but she hasn't been given tools for thinking about that as an option. And it really literally takes a woman coming up to her, and very explicitly saying, I'm asking you on a date now, for the penny to drop. And as I was working with the book I realized that it gave me useful material for revealing some more of the ways in which this stuff is pretty toxic—the gendered, sexist, misogynistic aspects of the character’s world come through much more explicitly. With the character’s queerness, it becomes almost about the silence around it. That's the clue, and the fact that she doesn’t talk about it, and that she can't even really hear the word lesbian without viscerally flinching. The institutional oppression is almost secondary in that case; it becomes a function of hetero-normative patriarchy writ large. When you look back on it is, was this a detective story? Was this a ghost story? It is so much about hauntings, but also so insistent on finding its way through to the rational. What, when you look at it, what was this book about? It is funny but honestly, the kind of book that I like to read is not very much like this one. But there is a kind of book where I don't exactly like to read it, but I do feel this immense sense of relief when I get to the end of a book and I feel like, oh, somebody else gets it as well. And so I hope it's one of those books where—and I don't think this will be a universal feeling—but where the right people, when they read it, and get to the end, will think, oh, someone else notices this stuff, oh, it's not just me, which is kind of like the relief I get from reading Kafka or something like that. I have to say, my experience with academia was not dissimilar to Victoria’s and perhaps yours, and there were many moments in reading in which I thought, oh my god, I have had these exact thoughts, I have seen this exact scene, I have witnessed and had this breakdown. I think that’s sort of everybody's autobiography that's been through that particular wringer, through this process of what I think is really fundamentally a pretty toxic institution. These are funhouse mirrors that you don't really have to twist very much to get to their horror story. But I think it also speaks to people who have not been in that situation: to shine a bit of a light on some of this stuff that happens in usually quite closed rooms, and behind closed doors. Some of the ways that academia is abusive and toxic tend to be pretty hidden, and I'm not sure how much awareness there is of the intricacies of how it functions. Your refrain throughout is why is no one noticing that this is happening—there is a way that these institutions, the operations of this whole universe of power mobilize to gaslight you, to leave you wondering: how is this happening to me and why am I being made to feel like the mad one. Yes, towards the end of the book these themes of madness erupt: how to deal with yet another imposition of the institution and environment and labels related to Victoria’s state of mental health, and none of the categories are healthy ones for her at all. I feel very bad for her because she does go through a particularly useless set of mental health professionals; it is possible to imagine very good ones who might actually have been able to help her, but she doesn't meet them and that is unfortunate, but it happens to people—happens to a lot of people. And so, all of the categories that she's offered just do violence to her; they don't support her, they don't help her to understand herself or anything else. And this only leads to further, and more lastingly permanent, isolation. The universe that Victoria has to live in is very unstable—for her, even basic elements of reality are not really very well-defined, and they seem to be liable to change at any minute. There is a moment where Victoria says “I am not a misanthrope.” Is this a misanthropic book—is that distinction important to you? Well, it's not… this is not the view of, like, someone who's a huge fan of humanity. Victoria has got this kind of detached thing going on—she says, and I think she means this, “I didn't have any friends in school, but it’s not like there was something there that I wanted or that I didn't have.” It sounds bad but she didn't actually want that. When she zooms out, she's able to appreciate some of humanity's achievements, but up close everything gets twisted and messed up once you get into the details of how life actually plays out. And I think there's a feeling throughout of constantly zooming in and out, missing the bigger picture or missing the details or not being able to reconcile the very large and the very small. To her, somewhere in between all of these bits, something is wrong, is missing, with humanity and the universe that it is creating for itself. “Misanthrope” isn’t quite right, but she ends up with this very detached perspective, which I think is probably closer to the book’s own worldview. This is not a book that is enthusiastic about humanity.
‘The Work That Hadn’t Been Done Was Bringing These Men to Life on the Page’: An Interview with Elon Green

The author of Last Call on writing difficult-to-read books, true crime, and finding queer community in ’90s piano bars. 

During the 1990s, the AIDS epidemic inflicted a harsh toll on New York. By ’97, more than 60,000 people in the city died of AIDS. As Elon Green writes in Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York (Celadon Books), “Death was a constant hum.”  Green’s debut recounts the lives of four men who were part of the queer community during this time. They were also uniquely connected by a different tragedy, each murdered by the same serial killer. “The Last Call Killer” was known for targeting queer men in some of the places where they felt most safe: the gay piano bars of Manhattan. Last Call chronicles these bars, which were essential to the formation of the gay community during a time of rampant anti-queer violence. Police were of no use in responding to these assaults, and the AIDS crisis was still largely misunderstood. When the bodies of gay men started showing up in trash cans, yet another fear was introduced into the everyday lives of gay people.  “From the beginning, I viewed Last Call as a work of history with crimes and investigations holding it together,” Green tells me over a recent phone call. While his book is difficult, it provides a careful record of an era that deserves to be documented. I spoke with the author at length about how he pieced this story together and why he felt it was so necessary to tell.  Andru Okun: Last Call examines a string of murders of queer men in New York City during the 1990s. You write that these killings were largely forgotten and that you became “obsessed with the lives of the victims.” What are some of the factors that contributed to this obsession? Elon Green: When you write about someone famous, it’s very easy. There’s a lot of existing material. I’ve interviewed Mavis Staples four or five times, and if I ever want to find out what she was doing in June of 1962, I can figure it out. Part of what was so exciting to me was that these guys were basically a blank slate and it would take a tremendous amount of work to reconstruct their lives, and doing so would be incredibly satisfying. Also, I think if you look at anyone’s life closely enough you can see something interesting. With these men in particular—one man was in finance, another was selling computers, another was a sex worker, another was a typesetter; you had men who were closeted, men who were out; one who was in the military, one who had AIDs—there was just this astonishing panorama of gay life in these four guys. That seemed like a real gift because that meant I had a lot to write about. The murders you cover stretch back nearly thirty years. I’d like to hear about the process of researching this book and tracking down sources. What I started with were chunks of the trial transcripts. At the beginning, I had to buy it piecemeal from the retired court stenographer. She charged me thousands of dollars for some of the transcript, and she remembered the case very well. Eventually, I became acquainted with the prosecutor in the case and he sent me everything. That transcript provided the bones for the narrative and I was able to put together an outline of events. As I was going along, I interviewed people that I found in the transcripts, whether they be family members, detectives, co-workers, people that found bodies—if they were involved in any kind of way, I wanted to talk to them. Then, of course, there was some newspaper coverage. I was just piecing the story together from whatever I could find. Once the book proposal sold, then I went everywhere. I was getting handwritten notes from detectives. I was trawling the LGBT Center archives. I had acquaintances of the murderer send me letters he had written from prison.  As far as the sources directly impacted by these murders, how have they responded to you writing this book? So far, very positively. As far as I can tell, none of them are being blindsided. I was very upfront with what I was writing; I’d sometimes send them chunks of the book and read it to them. I didn’t want them to be surprised by anything, and if an issue was going to be raised I wanted that to happen before publication. A couple of [the victim’s] family members have read it, and it wasn’t an easy thing to do but they got through it. The fact that they finished this book seems to me a pretty extraordinary thing, because I can’t imagine doing it myself. The book is probably hard enough to read if you don’t have a personal stake in the story. I do think some parts of this book are difficult to read, but not because of the way it’s written. If I did it right, the whole book should be difficult to read.  You detail a lot of painful history. Did you feel at all apprehensive about telling this story?  No, it felt so necessary to do it. To strip a story like this of its historical and political context would be malpractice. In answering the question, “Why doesn’t anybody know about this case?” you have to talk about what was going on in the city and the country at that time. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic; queer New Yorkers were being assaulted to such a degree that it was basically legal to do it—there were basically no legal repercussions—and there was an indifference to their lives. Writing about this felt like not only something I wanted to do but something I had to do. One of the reasons I spent so much time on the nightlife is because it had never been written about in any real kind of way. The bars and clubs of that era, if they were written about at all, it was only through the prism of AIDS. Because, to some degree, the events in this book center around the piano bars, I wanted to make it clear to the readers (and to myself) why people enjoyed going there and what their role was in the life of the city. I wanted people to be able to see these men having a good time.  The story of Michael Sakara, a beloved regular of one of New York’s piano bars, was particularly heartbreaking. You put a lot of time into understanding the lives of these murdered men. Can you talk about how you approached writing about them? They were already victims; that was their role in the coverage. They had been reduced to that victim status. To me, there is no point in writing something (especially a book) if you’re just going to regurgitate what’s already been done. The work that hadn’t been done was bringing these men to life on the page. The larger, loftier thing I had envisioned doing was to figure out why they ended up where they did, to understand what brought them to New York at that time. So true crime is not a genre I’m necessarily drawn to, I don’t exactly feed off of it… I don’t like it, either. To some degree, this book is a reaction to how I feel about the genre. Right. So as a journalist writing the story of these men’s lives, which tragically include these extremely violent crimes, how do you decide which details are necessary to tell your story? Yeah, that’s a good question. Very early on in the writing, I was erring on the side of putting in everything I could about the crimes and their aftermath. I just wanted to be thorough. I sent the first chapter to my friend [the writer] David Grann and he said to me, look, this is not a CSI episode. You don’t have to give the reader so much blood and guts. Along with that, I increasingly thought of the family members and friends of the victims. Whenever I was writing something, I’d ask myself if it needed to be in the book and how would they react when and if they read it. When it came to describing the conditions of the victim’s bodies, I decided I was only going to give the reader enough information so that they understand the damage that was done. I’m not going to elide any information that meaningfully changes the situation, but I’m not going to overdo it. I tried to be as minimalist as I could, and my understanding from the reaction to the book so far is that it’s still extremely gory. Yes. It is gory, but it seems like you were intentional about what to include, which seems like a difficult process. Very much so. I showed chapters to a pathologist to make sure every little description was accurate. I did not want anything gratuitous.   The era you’re primarily focused on was a difficult one for gay men. You mention that The New York Times avoided writing about gay life and AIDS for years. How do you think mainstream media’s treatment of queer communities impacted prevailing attitudes toward queer people during that time? Oh my god, it’s incalculable. There’s a reason nobody gave a shit about AIDS. Of course, the Times wasn’t the only paper that didn’t give a shit, but they were certainly the most high profile. People care about what they’re told to care about, and if The New York Times and 60 Minutes weren’t covering AIDS, that just wasn’t getting on people’s radar. And if people didn’t care about AIDS, they also didn’t care about all the things that rippled out from it, like the assaults and murders of queer people.  I was fascinated by your writing on the Anti-Violence Project. Would you talk about this group and the circumstances that lead to their formation? AVP kept coming up in the coverage. Their role was basically to prod the police and the media into taking these murders seriously. They were keeping their own sort of dossiers on each of the victims. The more I learned about them, the more I felt that they had to have their own chapter. They’ve been this miraculous organization for forty years, and they were on the front lines of keeping the city bureaucracy honest. The reason I wrote about AVP and the conditions that produced them is because, if I didn’t do that, then the reader would not know what the stakes were, what the conditions were for queer life in the city. The reader wouldn’t understand these murders didn’t get attention—even within the gay community—because they were not unusual. There were so many deaths and assaults that four over a span of three years is basically nothing. To be able to convey that, I had to tell the story of AVP and the story of what they were fighting against.  What you’re saying reminds me of your piece last year for The Appeal on the pernicious whiteness of true crime. There’s a line where you write, “True depravity is deadly repetition.”  People have asked me why these murders didn’t get more coverage. Increasingly, I think part of it is that there are tons of murders in any given year. In New York, the numbers have been drastically diminished since the ’90s, but you’re still not hearing about all of them or even most of them. I’m willing to bet most murders aren’t covered in the newspaper. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody if murders are not covered. Quite frankly, I’m grateful for the coverage that was there. Certainly, that these victims were perceived as gay was a large driver of the lack of coverage and the lack of interest in these cases, but it’s not entirely the problem. Tell me about the “gay panic” defense and what you think this legal tactic tells us about the criminal justice system. The “gay panic” defense basically meant that you could claim that someone of the same gender had come on to you and that you got spooked, so you assaulted or killed them. It was a legal rationalization and it was extremely common, going back to at least the ’50s. To me, it just said that the legal system was looking for a way to not care about anti-queer crime. Part of the evidence for that is that they were for so long ill-equipped to handle these cases. The Manhattan DA’s office under Robert Morgenthau had to bring people in from the outside, including the Anti-Violence Project, to teach them how to prosecute these cases.  Right. At one point you write about it as “a new kind of crime.”  I would argue that it essentially was, because even if something is technically on the books, if it’s not being treated as a crime then it’s not a crime, at least to the people who are being assaulted. If it’s not being treated as a crime, it may as well not be.  I appreciated that this book didn’t center the murderer, Richard Rogers. But when you learned about him, did you get any sense of why he may have committed these murders?  I talked to a behavioral profiler; he basically said that motive only means something in the case of a single murder. Once you’re a serial killer, you’re just doing it because you like it. People keep asking me, “Why did Richard Rogers do it?” but there doesn’t have to be some grand explanation other than that he wanted to. I’d be surprised if it was more complicated than that. Between that probability and the fact that he never took responsibility for these murders, I just didn’t give a shit about Richard Rogers. But you did want to interview him, right? I did, but it was mostly due diligence. I mostly wanted to talk to him to check some biographical details. The extent to my indifference to him was that in the original proposal in the book there wasn’t even a chapter about him, and I only wrote about him to fill in a narrative gap. On an emotional level, I cared about the victims, and I didn't care about him. I have tried to treat him with as much humanity as I’ve treated everybody else but, if I’m being honest, he doesn’t matter to me.
‘You Need a Lot of Stamina to Make Comics’: An Interview with Paul Pope

The cartoonist on analogue versus digital art, post-punk rock musician Rowland S. Howard, and his idea for a “Tao of comics.”

Paul Pope, the self-styled “comics destroyer,” has long understood that creation is an act of displacement—a “sum of destructions,” as Picasso famously put it. The annihilation of the empty page when overlaid with balanced grids and figures is an extension of this destructive impulse and, in Pope’s graphic design book Pulphope: The Art of Paul Pope, he expresses a desire to discard all “inflated and worn-out edicts which serve only to keep the medium of comics in stasis.” This pursuit of comics’ kinetic future has taken him far afield. In 1995, after self-publishing books such as Sin Titulo, The Ballad of Doctor Richardson, and the Martian science fiction gangster-epic THB, Pope accepted an invitation to work for Kodansha, Japan’s largest publishing company. Producing eighteen pages of art a week, a workload that most comic book artists strive to complete on a monthly basis, he returned to North America with a workhorse mentality towards comic strip production. Marrying the Japanese and European traditions of manga and bande dessinée with a uniquely American ethos, Pope released three graphic novels with DC Comics—Heavy Liquid, 100%, and the blockbuster Batman: Year 100, a dystopian thriller set a hundred years after the caped crusader’s inception in 1939. Pope’s one-man wave of artistic destruction even found entry points in the fashion and film worlds, where he designed two seasons of a capsule men’s line for DKNY, and worked for several years with Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment to develop a feature film adaptation of his young adult comic series Battling Boy. In addition to the conclusion of the Battling Boy series and a secret project that will be announced in late 2021, Pope has been mulling over something called a “Tao of comics”—a protreptic in the comic arts that, in addition to establishing the “rules” of the form, will lay out practices to sustain the cartoonist’s singular lifestyle. I spoke with Paul on the phone to discuss the protean nature of his work, the mentorship of younger artists, and his love of Australian post-punk musician Rowland S. Howard.  Jean Marc Ah-Sen: I like this idea of the “Tao of comics” you’ve been talking up lately, because it seems to go beyond the ambitions of drawing manuals or academic elaborations of the comic form. Am I right in thinking that the book you’re planning isn’t in the vein of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way or Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art? Paul Pope: This notion of the Tao, the way I see it, is an attitude towards living that is benevolent and open. That’s the way I feel when I read Lao Tzu. To become a cartoonist, I didn’t go to SVA or Pratt—I was trained in traditional painting and printmaking and art history. The teachers mostly didn’t think comics or even illustration were art. My early masters were the late Pheoris West and Charles Massey of Ohio State University, life drawing and printing professors respectively. I wanted to learn hands-on technique from them. I wasn’t interested in conceptual art. It mattered to me if I actually could draw anatomy and paint. I spent eight years doing figure drawing, painting with Pheoris, learning how to stretch canvases, lithography, and silkscreen with Charles, etc.—learning the technical details about the science of art. “Why do you change your ink out every six months?” “Why do you use this type of brush?” The Tao I want to write will describe not only tools that are good, but also how to live in a holistic way so you can maintain the lifestyle of an artist. As I’m getting older, I am more conscious of that, since you need a lot of stamina to make comics. There are all kinds of social reasons why people drop out of the arts, or pitfalls along the way that might be spider holes, rather than good career or lifestyle choices. Rather than tell people, “You should do this, you should do that,” the Tao is a poetic questionnaire. I know it sounds kind of grandiose to say I want to write a Tao of comics, but it’s more like “a way of comics,” not “the way of comics.” Especially as we move more toward a digitally-oriented society, I notice younger artists asking me questions about simple analogue tools like brushes and inks, that sort of thing. So I’d want to codify that in some sort of book. Are there certain core values that have informed your work over the years? A lot of my tastes are Modernist sensibilities and I consider myself a pop artist too. As far as core values go, I think we have to have room for storytellers and picture-makers without blinders on, but we’re in a kind of revolutionary phase in time. I think—let me start with this: critical thinking, skepticism. The tyranny of social media is we’re given things we’re supposed to believe in just because they’re written. It isn’t natural, it isn’t the way people have always thought or discovered things. We have one group shutting down another group, this group against that group, and vice-versa. It’s a turn-off because, as an artist, I’m interested in exploration of ideas, in free inquiry, and in a long-term call and response with other artists and, at large, with people out there. People I respected growing up were Milo Manara, Moebius, Guido Crepax, Hugo Pratt. You absorb their work and do something to respond to it. I want people to remain critical. Talk, debate, challenge ideas. If you don’t like something, formulate a response to it rather than just try to shut it down. That’s the discourse and, without it we don’t have society. That’s the temperature of the culture right now. If everybody cools down a little bit, it’ll be better. Do these ideas translate as you work across mediums? Can you incorporate the same principles when you’re doing non-comics work, like the print-making you do with Nakatomi, Inc. or when you designed the end credit sequences for Netflix’s Altered Carbon?  They’re all different rhetorics, but when it comes to animation, screen printing, illustration, they all have rules—fuzzy rules let’s say. So I think you want to learn the language first. As a visual artist, I think that the skill set you might bring to animation versus screen printing versus comic book storytelling—they’re all different yet related. It’s important to find the things that are specific to the subgenres or the submedias, and how they all kind of relate to the larger picture, which is visual storytelling or the graphic arts. With the likes of Stan Sakai, Colleen Doran, and Jeff Smith, you came out of the American independent comics/self-publishing scene in the early ’90s. Can you talk about breaking into comics by starting Horse Press as opposed to the more traditional route of sending samples to comic publishers and signing work-for-hire contracts? When I got into comics it was the early ’90s, and it was right after the top artists from Marvel and DC splintered into their own company and formed Image Comics. It was like, “Okay, you can be an artist outside of a corporation?” That was exciting. There were also self-publishing examples with books like Dave Sim’s Cerebus and Jeff Smith’s Bone. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was already huge. It doesn’t take a lot of money to start publishing, especially if you work in a printing shop like I did. I cut a lot of costs by doing my own pre-production work in-house. So I read a couple of books on how to self-publish and it was a business model that actually made sense. Considering I was in my early twenties—I mean my rent was 189 dollars a month and I lived on baguettes and hummus and coffee—it’s kind of strange I was able to do this. That’s how it started for me.   As an artist still using analogue materials of paper, pencils, ink, and brush, what do you make of the popularity of digital platforms for experiencing comics, and of comics being made digitally? Has the digital revolution levelled the playing field for creators, or created more challenges in publishing? I don’t think it’s levelled the playing field because we still have to have fundamental art skills. If you look at Western art examples, the eye will still see representation of a body. You can say this person has a certain style, but we still read this as a body or as space, which I consider to be formalistic ground rules of picture making. Most comics, whatever the style or subject, rely on figure/ground imagery. The thing I always think about, because of the career I’ve had and maybe because I started drawing before computers were useful for making pictures, is I prefer to make tangible, analogue drawings made out of archival tools on paper. They’re able to last beyond our lifetimes. The life of the art is longer than the life of the artist, usually. I’m always a little bit perplexed about making digital art for its own sake because there’s no document—there’s a digital document, but not an artifact. That’s why I was calling myself a Modern artist before because there’s a body of work that’s left behind. I wouldn’t want to have anything that was only digital, although I do work digitally all the time. In my case, it’s technical rather than creative. I mainly scan art I drew and send digital files to the publisher. I’ll start with a pencil and a blank piece of paper, and work that way. What’s your opinion on the mentorship of new artists? You developed friendships with comic luminaries Moebius and Frank Miller, who looked at your work at various stages in your career. Do you think that built into the conception of what an artist does is the understanding—I don’t want to use a loaded term like “responsibility”—that they engage with the next generation, and carry on a tradition of technical, maybe even philosophical instruction? Not necessarily. I think it depends on your personality, really. I know that I’m not the type of person that wants to be a teacher. The one time I did teach was at a month-long residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. I told the students, “You can come to me with questions, I’ll suggest exercises that we can do, but I’m not going to grade you.” Everybody walked away with a different lesson. I’m more interested in presenting questions and letting people find their own solutions. While I was studying with Pheoris, I also had an epistolary relationship with Alex Toth, and he would tell me things like, “No, you’re doing this wrong, it needs to be like this.” It was pedantic. I prefer to have a mélange of styles where you pick things up from manga, from comics, from literary essays, from art history, wherever—different things that come together because you’re not working in one rigid tradition. Eventually, your style percolates. As I got older, I got to know Bill Sienkiewicz. Even though we’re close in age, I consider him a master beyond my level. We’ve drawn together many times and I ask him questions as we’re working. It’s truly a dialectic. He will say, “Maybe this works, maybe that doesn’t work.” The openness of it is much more in my spirit. Your work has reflected a deep connection with music. You’ve done promotional artwork for bands like Heavy Trash, Thee Hypnotics, and Metallica, you illustrated the last piece of writing Dee Dee Ramone ever published for Spin magazine, and you were going to direct a music video for the Tea Party at one point. Are these projects a way of recharging before you go back into comics work, or a way of signalling your own personal tastes? I’ve had three or four chances to make music videos. I’m sure I could have hit a home run, but there’s never any money in it for the budget. The era of big music videos seems like it’s passed. Even small videos will lose you money. It’s like you show up at the batter’s cage and there’s no bat, to continue this clumsy metaphor. Earlier on, working with bands, it was about flagging my interests, but then you ask yourself how you can make something new. The thing I’ve discovered about the musicians I’ve met is that a lot of them draw. There’s this universal handshake that happens between musicians and whatever I am—a graphic artist or a cartoonist. A lot of them either went to an art school or read comics and science fiction. You meet in this neutral playing field. The strange thing about comics is there’s no sound—we always make sound effects, things that suggest sound and action, but it’s really just a piece of paper. And music has no visual element in itself—the recording is just sound. I think there’s always been a secret fraternity between graphic artists and musicians. I’ve been interested in carrying that forward. You were saying how Rowland S. Howard’s music, especially in Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls, is something you return to often for inspiration. What is it about Howard’s career and tragic end that resonates so strongly with you?  When I was a teenager, the Birthday Party was still together—Nick Cave’s band with Rowland S. Howard. There were hidden elements in Howard’s guitar playing that I had to discover later, everything from Gene Vincent, Dick Dale, to Les Paul—in short, the history of reverb. There’s this kind of Byronic thing that post-punks had that I liked where it was kind of romantic to be emaciated and wistful. Because he was Australian and his music had this reverb-heavy sound, it always made me think about space and the desert. The music was full of imagery to me, had this romantic, wide-space sound. I could see ways that it related to Sergio Leone and Moebius—“big picture” pictures, as it were. You took a trip to Egypt and the Middle East two years ago that galvanized your work and recalibrated what sort of relationship you thought was possible with your audience. Can you talk about the experience and what it did for your outlook? From what they told me, it was the first time an American had come to headline a comic convention in North Africa, specifically Egypt. They were so welcoming, which is interesting if you think about where we are in history—going as an American pop artist to meet other Egyptian pop artists. I don’t know if I’m going in the right direction with this thought, but they had a lot of questions about comics and bande dessinée. Many never really had a chance to meet people from the West who did this, so I was just available to talk, like an ambassador of comics or something. There’s a strong French comics tradition there too, which is cool. Lots of late-night discussions about craft and intention, stuff like that. The work there is definitely more politically active because of the time and the place. There’s tons of screen printing, anthologies, and flash art. Some artists were coming from Lebanon. I met a number of artists who had been arrested and put in jail because of their work. I think with the ubiquity of comics today, it’s easy to forget that there is and always has been a history of iconoclasm within the medium. Fletcher Hanks, Spain Rodriguez, Art Young, George Herriman, June Tarpé Mills… Especially here in North America, where we have laws protecting satire and parody, and there [in the Middle East] they don’t. It’s easy to even fall into a net where you didn’t intend to do something that was a parody of the government, but over there it will still land you in jail. It was pretty profound to see that firsthand. It really made you rethink the power of the pen, so to speak. It really felt like a cultural exchange. It changes the intention of making art when you realize it’s actually a political act. I’ve always thought there was a humanistic and political dimension to your writing, asking questions about where society is heading, usually in relation to technology, personal freedoms, and authoritarian government powers. Well, I infuse my work with things I find relevant as a science fiction writer—which is what I consider myself to be. I just happen to draw, rather than make prose. The thing with science fiction is that it’s predictive literature that’s concerned with where society is going, as opposed to “capital F” Fantasy, which seems to me to ask questions of balancing right and wrong, good versus evil, and where we are in the moment. I think the big questions right now would be about artificial intelligence, the relationship of digital technology with the government and media, longevity, and the questions of how we can preserve our lives beyond the human life scale, the ecology. Those are worth writing about because those are real things and they’re there. What do you think about the artist or writer who does not engage along these political lines? Is the apathetic or apolitical artist relevant to an audience increasingly engaging with these subjects? I kind of agree with the notion of ars gratia artis. Art for its own sake is fine. I don’t think the artist has any special responsibility to respond to anything in society. You can just make a pretty picture. And by “pretty,” I don’t mean to denigrate the value of an aesthetically pleasing piece of art. Some artists are very strident politically, but when it comes to aesthetics, I think an artist can just make their art. Nobody even needs to see it. That being said, I think, by its very nature, science fiction does respond to concerns about where we’re going as a people, and that’s a social issue. You almost got the chance to adapt A Clockwork Orange for the now-defunct Vertigo mature readers imprint of DC Comics, which would have paired you with comic and TV writer Grant Morrison. How were you going to approach a book with such loaded audience expectations? Did it incorporate the infamous last chapter that was omitted in Kubrick’s film where Alex DeLarge is legitimately rehabilitated and wants to start a family? I’d been wanting to work with Grant Morrison for a long time, and at one point they were attached to adapt it at Vertigo. I think they’re one of the great writers of our medium. We’d almost worked together a couple of times—I seem to remember there was talk about doing a third year of All-Star Superman with different artists. They don’t remember talking to me about it, but I remember discussing it. When A Clockwork Orange came to me, I said, “Why don’t we recast this as an American story and put it in Los Angeles or Detroit? I won’t draw it, but I’ll help find an artist from Los Angeles to do it, and rephrase everything so the dialogue isn’t going to be a Nadsat mish-mash of English and Russian—make it an up-to-the-minute LA hip hop thing where Alex is a kid from LA and speaks with that vernacular.” Editorial shied away from it. I didn’t want to do a literal adaptation, as much as play with the theme and update it. I love this dystopian story about an attempt to cynically rehabilitate a rebellious, troubled kid who eventually, tragically learns to love the system. I was against adding the final coda with grown-up Alex. But I don’t know if the original text is contemporary enough to make sense to young people now, so that was my suggestion for how it could have been done. But as for a literal adaptation, Kubrick’s film was already perfect, I think. Your art is very large—you draw on 19x24” artboards as opposed to the American standard of 11x17”. Your art rep has described your pieces as having real “wall power.” What are the advantages of working in these dimensions? Before I got into comics, I was studying what they used to call monumental painting. I was looking at Anselm Kiefer and Mark Rothko, Frank Auerbach, artists that would cover an entire wall. When I learned to draw, the action point was my shoulder and, later on, as I got more precise, it was my elbow. When I get into detailed stuff for comics, it’s my wrist and, beyond that, it’s the tips of my fingers on my drawing hand. When I started making comics professionally, I had to estimate what size I should work at and ask myself: how large is the actual drawing for print? Because I was already studying painting in college, I was thinking about making big wall-sized landscapes or images. It was comfortable to work large because I was already doing big paintings. I still draw standing up. It’s funny now because it’s changed the way people think about making comics pages. Most everybody working in comics now has read How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, and it’s full of unnecessary rules and standards that people over time have followed because Stan Lee said it is so. There’s no reason comic book original art needs to be 11x17”. Your linework has changed over the years, and still shows signs of further evolution. In the ’90s, you were working almost from an animator’s tool kit—channelling archetypes and expressive simplicity. Then your line got more detailed, complex—the rendering got to be more rugged. Were these changes intentional, or inevitable stages of progression as you mastered the craft of composition, design, etc.?  To bring it back to Howard and expressionism for a second, I want to make sure that the art has integrity and responds to the way I feel. Rowland’s music is full of cues which relate back to the artists he studied, yet he built on what he discovered and twisted it into something new. There are times when I feel the art should be more rugged, as you say, or expressive, more times when it should be meticulous. So depending on the project or drawing I’m working on, it might change. For Battling Boy, for example, I’m trying to channel Jack Kirby and classic comics and kids’ stories. To me, it feels like the story requires a style that’s a little more art brut. If I’m doing a commission of Lone Wolf and Cub, which feels like it should be a little more traditionally fine, I’ll make the linework in a classic Ukiyo-e-style. Original comic art sales are finally catching up with the fine art world, but you decided that you wanted to channel some of that revenue into philanthropic causes. What made you want to get involved with the NAACP during the pandemic? I’m fortunate to be in a place where I have a really good art rep, Felix Lu. Every year, his roster of artists has a think tank about where to contribute a portion of our art sales revenue. This last year, with everything that’s gone on with Black Lives Matter, we raised a lot of money for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and then also because of Felix’s personal history—having lost his wife—assistance for families surviving cancer rehabilitation through the Paltown Development Foundation’s Lu Family Fund. I never thought I’d be able to do that as a guy making comics. There’s this classic notion of how a person should be in society and, according to Aristotle, it was what he called arete—which is his concept of athlete, artist, and saint. In my own ways, I’ve achieved some of those things I guess, but I wouldn’t with a straight face call myself a saint. But to be able to help other people without asking anything in return is a good feeling, I’ll say that. You alternate between creator-owned, auteur-style projects, and big corporate properties whose decades-long essences you have to distill—I’m thinking of your stints on Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Inhumans, and, of course, Batman. Are you writing to different imagined audiences, or is it more about finding properties that you can reconcile with your sensibility and broader goals as an artist? Yeah, the latter of the two. I like what Clint Eastwood said: “One for me, one for them.” So when I work on something that we might call mainstream, whether it’s Spider-Man or Batman, I try to get a sense of what’s the demand. Then I’ll write within the boundaries of the genre limitations and try to hit the bullseye, but go way above the bullseye. That’s always been my attitude. And then when it’s time to write something small and personal—well, I wouldn’t go to Warner Bros. with the idea of a Tao of comics. They wouldn’t touch it. You released new editions of your breakout books Heavy Liquid and 100% with Image Comics—recoloured for a new decade and a new audience. What’s your attitude towards maintaining your backlist? I imagine it’s not just a question of simply keeping the titles in print. When DC Comics moved to Burbank to be closer to their parent company Warner Bros., they went through their backlist and dropped a staggering number of properties. In my case, DC comics returned the rights to my Vertigo books, and I was able to take them to Image Comics. I consider those works to be cyberpunk, dystopian, near-sci-fi things and I think they still have an audience. The books have all remained in print, they’re published overseas, and those books are able to carry over as a placeholder as I’m finishing my new stuff. I’ve been out of the public eye for a while, just working—stealth years—and I got trapped in the Hollywood maze for a little bit, so returning to the roots for me is getting back into comics again. You’ve got multiple books on the go right now. Total THB, colour and black-and-white collections of your unfinished Mars sci-fi epic, a Jungian dream book for Dargaud called Psychenaut, the second and final installment of the Battling Boy series, and a top-secret book so big that it may eclipse everything you’ve ever done before. Can you give an update on the statuses of the first three projects? THB can’t happen until Battling Boy Vol. 2 is finished, which is with the same publisher—First Second Books, a division of Macmillan. That’s in our contract. Those books are aimed at young adult audiences. Psychenaut has kind of been on hold for a while. It’s a book about dream analysis, dream therapy, so it’s very personal and revealing. I wanted to rethink how much I wanted to share. It’s almost finished. That’s something that’s going to happen for my French publisher Dargaud. I have a couple of new things in the works that I hope to surprise people with in the next couple of years though. Your most recent project was a reimagining of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows and Other Nightmares for Beehive Books’ Illuminated Editions series, which has a curatorial component because artists are invited to illustrate passages from a book in the public domain. What is it about Blackwood’s body of work that compelled you to engage with it? He was a precursor to H.P. Lovecraft. I like pastoral writing a lot. When an author can depict something that’s as static and seemingly tranquil as nature can be, and on top of that add an element of supernatural horror, it makes the work really interesting. The thing I love about The Willows is that most of the novel is just about two guys in a boat going down the Danube. Moving depictions of the water and trees, and this extra dose of phantasmagoria. There’s no monster that pops out from behind a tree or some zombie crawling out of the ground. The horror is all psychological. It’s a type of horror we don’t see a lot of today.  Lucasfilm wanted you to decamp to Skywalker Ranch and design spaceships for a sizable block of your life. What was the experience like? It was thrilling and weird. After I did Batman: Year 100, I went through this strange phase where I was in Hollywood a lot, meeting directors and studio heads, working on projects. This went on for a few years. I had done some artwork for one of the Star Wars: Visions books, so I was on George Lucas’s radar. I went up to the Ranch and did this presentation for the directors and crew, not knowing it was a job interview. It was still fairly early in the game with Battling Boy Vol. 1. They told me, “We have a LucasArts job to offer you, but we can’t tell you what it is unless you accept it.” It was shocking because I had to finish Battling Boy no matter what—I had contracts that I couldn’t drop. We were standing behind the Ranch and a deer walked out of the woods. It was such a surreal moment. This was in Marin County on a hill in the springtime. The deer looked me in the eye and then went on his way. It felt like the spirit of Battling Boy was telling me I have to keep on the path that I’m on. So I said no. I only found out later it would have been work on the animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this, but weren’t there rules about how you were to engage with Lucas? You can’t look him in the eye. Don’t touch him. Don’t call him George. Don’t ask anything Star Wars-related. This is kind of common for people on that level of celebrity. They prime you for those kinds of meetings. Comics began quite literally as a kind of gutter-medium, but it was only through years of advocacy, scholarship, and the establishment of the canonization of comic books—its touchstones that crossed over outside of the direct comics market—that this reputation was rehabilitated. What are your thoughts on a “comics canon,” and what would be included in it? I guess going from the beginning, I’d say Windsor McCay, Charles Schulz, Walt Kelley, Robert Crumb, Alison Bechdel, Frank Miller obviously, Hergé, Moebius, and then we could go into Japan and stuff like that. Make it country by country maybe, or tradition to tradition. I think, in a more general sense, as our culture’s becoming more visually literate, the value of comics as a visual storytelling medium is becoming more valuable. When I was a little kid, I remember unsuccessfully trying to convince my grandfather of the value of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck comics. But I don’t know if I should be the person to say what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. If we looked at the top 100 comics, what I can say is that it should be international at this point. This goes back to Harold Bloom and the Western canon, which is an idea that I believe in, to an extent—we have a bedrock of certain works which make the foundation of the canon, which are required reading, and that can change or adapt over time. But the further you get into the industry, you think more about making work, making money, bills, and less about what should or shouldn’t be considered a great comic. If I like it, it’s great.  Every few decades, some doomsayer muses on the death of comics… It always dies. It dies every couple of years because they kill it. They declare it dead, and it comes back. Are there measures the industry can take to maintain its durability against attentions being split between streaming services and video games? Is Hollywood’s compulsive strip-mining of comic book properties enough?  Some of my younger friends are more used to listening to music on Spotify or other streaming services, or selecting various random MP3s out of order. I’m not sure either is better, but I’m more used to listening to tracks in the order the artist intended. Album sides. There’s always going to be a schism between the delivery system and the message. I don’t quite know what the answer is. Art never dies really, expression never dies, and I think the kind of people that talk about the death of comics are critics. They’re doing it to get a response out of people, to stay relevant. It just seems stupid because it’s no less dead than speech is dead. It’s people speaking to each other in elaborate cuneiform. That’s all comics are.
‘I Was Always After the Better Story’: An Interview with Sandi Tan

The author of Lurkers on growing up in Singapore, thought experiments, and falling out of narrative.

I’ll use the same word to describe Sandi Tan’s titles that she uses to describe LA: slippery. When Sandi says Shirkers, it could mean two things: the technicolour road movie she made with her friends as teenagers in ’90s Singapore, which was then stolen, or the subsequent award-winning documentary she made about the experience. Following up this documentary is Tan’s newest novel with the phonetically twinned title Lurkers (Soho Press). To shirk is to avoid—a slinky shoulder movement, a getting out of something. Lurking implies mystery, roaming around a fixed point—the opposite of getting out of something. When asked, Tan says the projects aren’t meant to be tied by their names, but the shared motif is indicative of her approach to storytelling. Both lurking and shirking are verbs that forfeit attention—Tan is interested in feeling slightly on the outside, wondering where the main action is. Lurkers shifts kaleidoscopically between the residents of Santa Claus Lane, a street which, because of how often the suburbs of LA appear in our media, elicits a twinge of déja vu. This narrative rotation allows the reader to see all characters from all vantage points—like peering out of an open window onto the street, blessed with total omniscience. The last words of the novel’s epigraph are, “Running to the extremes.” The novel, perhaps a demonstration of this phrase, follows Rose and Mira, teenage sisters who dodge grief, plot ways to convince their mother not to move their family to Korea, and navigate a lusty coming of age. Down the street from them is Raymond, an aging supernatural pulp novelist, holed up in his fantasy of gothic romance with plenty of whiskey. Then there is lone ranger Mary Sue, her adopted daughter Kate, and a smattering of surrounding neighbours occasionally getting in on the tangle. The residents of Santa Claus Lane exist on the outskirts of each other's lives, lurking in the background. Each of them running to their own extremes is what brings them in contact with one another. I spoke with Sandi about genre flicks, the collective cultural consciousness transposed onto certain neighbourhoods, and the novel as a great teenage excuse. Emma Olivia Cohen: There’s an anecdote I’ve heard you tell about growing up in Singapore. You’d see the posters for new movies months in advance of being able to actually see the movie. Usually when you finally did see the movie, you’d be disappointed, because in the interim you’d been projecting an idea of what the film would be like using the material from the poster. And what you’d subconsciously created would be more weird, stunning, interesting than the movie itself.  Sandi Tan: Yeah, doing this would give a talismanic effect to the movies. Growing up in Singapore, I was so far away from the centre of things that I actually had a lot of space to dream. No one was policing my creative thoughts because they were policing everything else; you have a lot of freedom to imagine your way into things. Some of the most subversive and interesting minds I know are people who grew up in Singapore and were unsupervised as teenagers, keeping up our grades so no one would bug us. The internet takes away a lot of that magical dreaming, because there’s no waiting time. You never have to imagine what things are going to be like. I was forced to imagine things a lot more, and it became a muscle I applied to everything else. Does that dreaming muscle come in handy for writing? Yes. I would have thought experiments all the time. I imagine everyone does—a drawer full of unfinished thought experiments. Imagining my way into various characters as a writer is the same muscle, you’ve identified it correctly. It might be unfair, though, my being disappointed in the movies, because I’d be watching them on pirated VHS tapes I’d go through great trouble to procure from Malaysia. Mostly what was available were horror movies, or movies with a lot of sex and gore. That’s what was popular—those Cannibal Holocaust movies were huge in Malaysia. But sometimes you’d get something like Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch, which had no way of getting a proper release in Singapore. The pirated VHSes would have been filmed at the opening weekend in LA or something, and you’d see silhouettes of heads of people getting to their seats, you’d hear their laughter. This was the eighties when the worst movies were being made in Hollywood, but they became very magical to me because they were so unattainable. They had a strange distant power. So these very mediocre movies about teenage hijinks in some imaginary America became slightly totemic for me. There are whispers of different genres in Lurkers. There’s the supernatural poltergeist, the spectre of helicopters surveying the neighbourhood for crime, a mystery motif with a reappearing anonymous girl in the window. Do you find these invocations of genre interesting for opening up different possibilities of storytelling? I started writing this book a long time ago now, when I was moving into a suburban neighbourhood in North Pasadena, adjacent to Altadena, an unincorporated part of LA. The houses and the streets were so familiar to me—I’d seen them many many times before. Not in my dreams, but on TV and in the movies. People shot a lot of TV and movies in the suburbs of LA in the ’70s and ’80s, and even later too, standing in for the suburbs that could be “Anywhere USA.” So when I moved into that neighbourhood it was like all the genres, TV shows, movies started bubbling up. I could see various kinds of stories playing out from those pasts that the neighbourhood had experienced in a fictional form on the screen. The stories that make up the book began organically because I could see the landscape as the palimpsest of all kinds of stories that had already been told.  It’s like a collective cultural consciousness mapped on to the physical neighbourhoods. I was trying to identify, when I began reading, who the main voice of the book was going to be. But it really oscillates completely between so many vantage points which all have their own narrative arc. It has that familiar feeling of walking down a street and wondering about all the lives contained in the houses, but then also the satisfaction of letting us fulfill that fantasy. A Vertigo vibe. I was looking around at people in the neighbourhood I live and feeling like a lurker myself, feeling like I wanted to know them. And the easiest way to do that for me is to imagine my way into their heads. It forced me to become acquainted with an unlovable neighbourhood. These suburbs aren’t immediately likeable and knowable. There’s something very slippery about LA. It’s built with fantasy in mind, both in its various architectural styles—the different fantasies of different developers—and because the people who move here are all fantasists hoping to escape something. This constant going towards something makes it confusing, interesting, hard to pin down. It’s interesting what you say about going to LA to find a fantasy, because a lot of the characters in Lurkers feel confined in one way or another by their circumstance as well. Does that feeling of confinement contribute to an imagination, or a lack of imagination? Everybody in LA hides in their homes. Maybe because there’s more space or people are moving in and out so quickly. People think that people in LA don’t buy or read books, but I’ve heard that they’re some of the biggest book buyers in the US because they have space to put them. Everybody consumes their media and dreams in their own private fiefdom. There’s less of a chance of running into your friend in the street. So a lot of people tend to look inwards. At one point the character Mary Sue is talking about the concept of the nuclear family, and she describes it as a process of trial and error. She says though her own family had the opportunity to succeed, they failed at the experiment. I was thinking it could be said maybe all of the families in this book fail at the experiment of the nuclear family. Does this failing open up room for new ideas around family and connection? This is something I do feel and believe, perhaps due to my own funny family circumstances. The strongest family bonds I’ve felt or witnessed were often with people who chose their families, or adopted their kids, or were substitute parents, foster parents, aunts and uncles standing in. I like playing with the feeling of choice versus what you were born into. It applies to the choosing of neighbourhoods, or migrating to different places. Human beings have much more propensity for choice and have more control over their lives than they might feel they have. The characters in my book are constantly searching for not just family but also home, and it’s often not where they thought it was going to be. I like the idea of being surprised by life and embracing it, and not just feeling shortchanged by your unhappy family situation. You’re adapting the novel The Idiot by Elif Batuman into a film. One of the major themes in The Idiot is this idea of falling out of narrative, and I feel like a lot of the characters in Lurkers have this ghost life or parallel life that lives alongside them. Kate almost died in a plane crash as a child on her way from Vietnam to America to be adopted, Rose and Mira the teenage sisters are threatened by their mother that they might be moving to Korea at any moment, Raymond lives largely in a fantasy life—I wonder if these two ideas correlate to you, falling out of narrative, and then having this parallel potential life you could have had? I like the idea of falling out of narrative. For the longest time I was trying to figure out my life, and making the film Shirkers and making sense of it with a narrative really freed me. I feel like I didn’t get to finish my growing up, didn’t stop being a teenager until I completed the film, way too many years later. And it’s valuable, making sense of your life. I didn’t think of the characters in Lurkers as being that way, as narrativizing their own lives, but I think when they do, maybe they’ll feel free or something. Or more fulfilled. We all have these things coming back from the past, things we did or didn't do, and you have to choose which path you want to take. I felt as a teenager when I was making Shirkers that I wanted to choose the path that would make a better story. I knew I had the choice of doing something that was tame and boring, or something that was interesting potentially. And I was always after the better story, and that was the thing that kept me sane as a kid with relatives or mentor figures who were less than kind. If I could joke about it and make a story about it, that’s the way I could tame it. There are two teenage pairs in the novel, Kate and Bluto, and Rose and Arik. You write, “being teenagers provided the perfect alibi for their extreme disaffection.” What about teenagehood as a container or excuse is interesting to you? Being a teenager is an alibi for everything. You can do anything and blame it on your being a teenager. It’s just the best. And I think that’s why people try to hang on to it as long as possible. It’s because teenagers can get away with everything—you can blame stupidity on being a teenager, and if you say something bright or charming or smart then you’re precocious. Too many people find that too special a time, and in many ways every single character in the book is an overgrown or misplaced teenager—even Mary-Sue, whose coming-of-age, she feels, arrives in her sixties. I loved the character Raymond. He’s an aging supernatural pulp novelist. He has this imagined fantasy life, which then he writes into books, and the books bring him the money which allows him to have the aesthetic luxe backdrop to the life he wants. But the life he actually wants, which is this dark gothic romance and adventure, doesn't come with the background. He’s essentially set dressing for the life he wants. And then it’s sad, because it doesn't come. I think this is something that’s relevant culturally; we’re all becoming more aware of how to set dress for the life that we want. I know people who are like that exactly, who think they want those exciting things but are actually quite scared really, and want to be living in comfort and are very happy with things around them. There is a famous author I knew that certain details of Raymond’s material life come from—like that the walls of his library are filled with his own books in various languages. And that his entire home is extremely well art directed, like an edifice to himself, slightly tomb-like. But also perfectly art directed in a classic Hollywood-’40s-film-noir way. Like that famous author, I imagine that somebody like Raymond is afraid of the actual world out there, and that’s more frightening than anything he could write about. I’ve heard you talk about the formal structure of movies like Mauvais Sang, where the plot concept allows playful or bizarre sequences to exist within the film because they don’t have to move the plot forward. Are there any sequences or ideas in Lurkers that you wanted to include that were playful and fun, but not necessarily serving something grandiose? Yeah, I think I have all these silly bits. That’s the nice thing about writing a novel—you can throw in a lot of things you think are just fun to write about. Whether it’s the swamps of Florida or the numerous churches that line the freeways in LA. Kate’s experience in Vietnam, the dying city centre of Des Moines, Iowa. Impressionistic sketches of different landscapes. I wanted to collect all kinds of places I’ve been to and noticed things about, and imagine them into the pasts of the various characters and see how they would form them. It makes life less lonesome, you know? Writing novels is my cowardly way of being an extended teenager, because it gives me an excuse for trying to make sense of everything that’s haunted, confused and delighted me. I am more like Raymond than most might think.
‘It’s A Very Violent Feeling’: An Interview with Megan Nolan

The author of Acts of Desperation on labels flattening experience, toxic relationships, and writing through pain. 

In December 2020, Megan Nolan’s “The Joys of Frivolous Sex” went viral. An op-ed in The New York Times, the piece ignited a fierce debate in the comments section on the value of physical intimacy with strangers during the pandemic, not to mention a firestorm of tweets both derogatory and defensive. “Living as a purposefully single and promiscuous person was one way to know others, one way to find joy in the world, and it’s gone for now,” Nolan wrote. “Single people have lost something important, and should be allowed to bemoan it.”  Though she doesn’t read the comments on her pieces, Nolan did engage with the tweets at first, until, finally, she gave her Twitter password to a friend for Christmas. Once the frenzy quieted down, Nolan tried to understand the response. “I think people maybe have the perception that I pitched The New York Times saying, ‘Here’s the worst thing about COVID.’ Whereas, in fact, they asked me specifically to write about sex,” she said. “So it wasn’t as though I was saying, ‘Here’s the primary issue in the whole scenario.’ I think that’s what people were angry about, is that they perceived me to be elevating this problem above the other problems.” Strangely, in describing her op-ed fiasco, Nolan articulates the unsettling paradox at the heart of her debut novel Acts of Desperation (Little, Brown and Company), which centers on the uneven, toxic relationship between a young, twenty-something narrator and Ciaran, an older Irish-Danish art critic. When they start dating, Ciaran is still embroiled in a stormy on-off relationship with the waiflike Freja; he makes it clear that he’s only with the narrator as consolation until he returns to his true love. From the get-go, it’s obvious that things will go south, but it’s the banality of Ciaran’s abuse that makes Acts of Desperation so painful to read. Though, on the surface, this project tackles a toxic relationship, it’s ultimately about a young woman’s inability to feel comfortable in her skin; in place of any professional or personal ambitions tied to her self-worth, she channels every drop of intensity into winning this unwinnable man’s affection.  For those of us who haven’t experienced this type of relationship firsthand, the novel is illuminating. Oscar Wilde said, “everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power,” and I’d argue that every story is about desire except stories about desire, which are about power dynamics. In this case, the most compelling power dynamic exists between the narrator and herself.  Kate Dwyer: The title of the book is Acts of Desperation. What do you think this character is desperate for?  Megan Nolan: For the first half, she’s desperate to win this guy’s love and to try and corrode his resistance to her. More broadly than that, just not wanting to be in your body. I’ve never found a solution for what to do when you feel like you can’t stand to be in your life or your body or your space in the present moment. It’s a very violent feeling, and I think people try and remedy it with self-destructive methods. The narrator erroneously believes that a romantic relationship will get her to a place where she feels calm and at home in herself.  The book is not a mirror of my own thoughts, but it’s definitely based on thoughts and feelings that I had in my earlier twenties. I lost a lot of the ambition I had as a kid and a teenager, so it seemed very natural to turn to relationships instead, because even if you’re doing pretty badly in your life, you can probably find a relationship if you really, really want one. Even if it’s a terrible one with someone you’re not really compatible with. The narrator does have that moment where she acknowledges how unconventional her situation is: “She knows the relationship is strange and uneven and not reciprocal, and that it would confuse and upset people who loved her, but she didn’t believe it to be any of those things.”  The book is obviously an exaggerated version of prioritizing a relationship to the detriment of everything else. The—and I know this isn’t a word—un-relatability was kind of the point of it. It’s so strange that an adult woman who has a pretty normal life and the ability to do most things if she tries hard doesn’t even seem to want to look at those things, and only wants to look at love and sex.  Do you think she internalized any cultural dynamics that made her believe that this relationship would validate her as a person?  Underlying everything else, there’s this crippling lack of self-worth underpinning all of her life. That’s not something you can easily explain. There’s so many women who have violent levels of self-hatred, and there’s no explanation for it; it’s not as though their parents told them they were stupid or ugly. It’s quite inexplicable.  Labels irritate me. When I was having a hard time in my earlier 20s, I was always put off when people would describe me as “depressed” or, when I drank too much, “alcoholic.” When I had this series of shitty relationships, people would use the word “abusive” about things that the man had done, sometimes without my having used that word. I’m not saying that none of the behavior described in the book is abusive, but sometimes I felt like those words were really a flattening of things I had experienced.  There are a lot of parallels to Knausgård. Would you say that he was an influence?  In 2016, I got a small arts grant, so I decided to go somewhere cheap for a couple of months to get some real writing time in. I sublet an apartment in Athens, Greece, and got the first big chunk of the book done then. I only had four or five books with me, so I ended up reading this Knausgård book over and over again. On the first day I started writing, I was sitting out on my balcony reading A Death in The Family. The level of detail he allows himself to put into those books seemed very freeing to me. I was a bit nervous my book would be boring and then Knausgård's books made me feel it was okay to write all the potentially boring minutiae of those things. It was definitely a big influence in terms of permission.  What was it like for you, as you were working on this project? Was it mentally taxing?  After those first couple of months in Athens, it was just all in my spare time for the next three years. I was freelancing and doing various odd jobs and temping or whatever. What I would do is work a lot in my money jobs, then save up enough to take a month off, and go cat-sit for a friend in the countryside and work on it quite intensively. I had to be really alone to do it. But that meant it was really agonizing because, obviously, it is so personal. And painful. And there were a couple of times where it really took it out of me, and I had to sort of step away for a couple of months one time. At the end of it, not that I’ve followed through with this, but I did think, “Oh my God, I would love to write a happy book next. Because this is just too hard.” Reading back on it, I don’t find it painful anymore, but I was openly crying a lot of the time that I wrote it, you know? It was very intense. There’s this mimesis happening on the page, where the reading experience mimics the experience of the character.  That was actually super important to me; it’s funny that you say that. When I read A Death in The Family during that first period, I realized that it’s not this removed observation; you’re really living it as you read it. I’ve always liked the idea that as a novelist, you’re creating an experience. It’s not just a set of things I’ve thought, that you as the reader will now read at a remove. 
‘I Find It Strange That Bodies Can Have Eras’: An Interview with andrea bennett

The author of Like a Boy but Not a Boy on overalls, gender binaries, and Kim Kardashian. 

Despite knowing andrea bennett for years, I didn’t realize how perfectly many of our anxieties overlapped until I read their latest book, Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp Press). The memoir addresses, with frankness and humour, topics that I, and probably many of you, find at least somewhat uncomfortable to think about: our social class, our faith, our bodies, our mental health, and our mortality. And yet, there is also plenty of joy throughout as bennett navigates their gender, becomes a parent, and finds beauty in what often feels like a burning world. Once, when we were both living in Quebec, bennett and I took a summer weekend road trip with their spouse and a mutual friend. We stopped at Chutes-de-la-Chaudière, a set of waterfalls just outside of Quebec City, to stretch our legs. Strung across the gorge in front of the falls is a narrow, 23-metre-high suspension bridge. As we approached it, the others strode easily across, but bennett and I hesitated. Neither of us had to explain to the other what was deeply unappealing about having nothing but an elbow-high fence and some cables separating us from plummeting into the Ottawa River. By the time the other half of our party was making their way across the bridge, we realized we’d have to join them. I can’t remember what bennett and I talked about as we crossed, but I do remember that, although my cortisol was spiking, the mist from the water, the sun on my skin, the sound of the falls were all so enjoyable that I calmed down enough to feel as though all four of us would likely make it across alive. Reading Like a Boy but Not a Boy feels something like crossing that bridge. I recently caught up with bennett over video call to speak about the book, queer parenting, the quest for immortality, and, for some reason, Kim Kardashian. Ziya Jones: So, tell me, what was it like to release an essay collection in a period when everything is [gesturing frantically] like this? andrea bennett: I’ve been lucky so far. Arsenal, my publisher, has been really supportive. I couldn't ask for more in a year like this. It kind of sucks to launch a book in a pandemic year. But everything sucks in a pandemic year. There are some nice things about online meetings. You can kind of just Zoom in from anywhere. But as a reader, I miss the kind of feedback you get from being in a room. The body language from readers, the vibe of the room. I don’t know how to explain it, exactly, but it exists. Rooms have vibes!  There's definitely something about, like, showing up to a venue after work. And you see a bunch of creaky chairs, or it smells kind of like beer, or if you’re like me then you get there late and there aren't enough seats so you sort of shuffle regretfully to the back of the room and find something to lean on. God, I miss leaning uncomfortably in public. Yeah, and actually, some literary festivals are slightly fancier than my normal life. So, I would be lying to you if I said that I hadn't been looking forward to being flown places to stay in hotels and eat free cheese. There is an aspect of my personality that is very luxury-oriented. So, I am bummed about missing that. But it’s okay. You know that GIF of Kim Kardashian where she’s crying over losing her earring in the ocean and her sister's like, “There's people who are dying?” It's a little bit like that. Have you done any readings in sweatpants yet? I’ve mostly been wearing overalls. They’re sort of like a suit of armour. The same way some people wear makeup to help get them into the right headspace, I strap into my overalls. Honestly, I would like to put forward overalls as the official clothing of the non-binary. Non-binary can mean a lot of things, but I think about 90 per cent of us have a fairly large attachment to overalls. I think that’s a fair assessment. Speaking of existing outside the binary, do you want to talk a bit about the title of the book? So, I'm like a boy, but not a boy. It was originally the title of an essay of mine that first appeared in Swelling with Pride, an anthology that Sara Graefe put together for Caitlin Press. The stories centre around queer conception and adoption and things of that nature. The title comes from walking in Montreal one afternoon while I was pregnant—and I think probably wearing overalls. A woman looked at me and said, in French, to the person she was walking with, “You think they’re boys but then they’re not boys.” It was this derisive aside. I don’t know if it was a kind of rude power move in that she thought I couldn’t understand French. But anyways, that rude lady gave me the title for the book basically.  It also describes fairly well my early conceptions of my own gender. Once people started talking more about non-binary genders when I was a little bit older, then things clicked into place and I found a nice home for myself there. But, growing up, I did kind of just feel like a boy, but not quite making it over that line. I can definitely relate to that early childhood experience. And then you spend the next two decades or so swinging back and forth between binaries until you’re like, “Wait . . .” “Ohhhhh, I don’t have to stick to one!” Totally. A lot of the more universal themes in your memoir feel very timely right now, like death and mortality and the anxiety that comes along with living in a body that will eventually have to contend with both those things. Does it feel surreal to be releasing this into the world at a time where suddenly everyone is thinking about these concepts more than usual? As someone who is obsessed with fearing death, it’s been an . . . overwhelming year. Perhaps that fear of mortality has also come to the surface for people who don’t usually experience it daily. The funniest or at least most ironic thing is that the book ends on this note of optimism. It’s like, I’ve gone through some shit but I’m in a place where I feel more stable and I feel grateful for where I am. But I don't know what to do with all of the anxiety that I have that propelled me here. In the closing essay I essentially ask, “How do I relax and enjoy my life now that I’m not in survival mode?” Now everyone is in survival mode and we’re basically sacrificing people so capitalism can keep churning. We have so few places to collectively direct our anger other than when, like, Kim Kardashian rents a private island or something. So, yes, it’s weird to have this particular text arrive during a pandemic year, when life is more unsettled than usual for every single person. I included a number of interstitial essays about other people throughout the memoir, and the same is true for them. A few of the subjects felt they’d reached a point of stability with their partners, with their lives. And, unrelated to COVID-19, some of their situations have since changed as well.  I guess that’s just a built-in risk of writing non-fiction. We don’t normally get a change as dramatic as a global pandemic, but life always continues after we wrap up the narrative arc. Narratively, essays do need a beginning, middle, and end. As a writer and editor, I understand that. You have to give the reader a sense of conclusion. But that’s difficult with essays, especially if you are—like I did—using them as a space of exploration. It’s hard to feel settled about things. I rarely feel settled about things! There’s this popular koan that I see pop up every once in a while that basically says, “The finality of life is what gives it its flavour.” But I don’t think that way at all! I’ve talked about experiencing anxiety but I also often feel depressed. And yet, I would still choose to keep waking up again and again. I guess there’s some hope in that? It’s interesting that you say that now, at a cultural moment where embracing finality has become part of the zeitgeist. At least online, there’s this semi-ironic move towards framing death as the ultimate out from a world that keeps spiraling into increasingly dire territory. Every fifth meme is like, “lmao I want to die.” Contrastingly, one of your essays concludes with you saying about yourself and your loved ones, “Even if I could quiet the part of my brain that imagines worst-case scenarios . . . I would still, impossibly, want us all to live forever.” Why do you feel that way? I mean, it’s probably kind of selfish. Like, “Here’s my ark, climb aboard! You’re stuck here now!” I think it's partially that I'm afraid of dying. I don't want things to end. I don't want my consciousness to evaporate. That could be like an ego thing, although Freud also talks about the death drive. It could also just be that I like being here, even though it sucks sometimes. And I would like to keep being here. The thought of my life being extinguished, or the thought of someone else's life being extinguished, is just too much for me. Every time I read about how human beings contend with death and dying, none of it rings true for me. I’d love to live several lifetimes. I just feel like the world is an inexhaustible well of cool stuff—there’s always something to appreciate. Yet, life moves through matter and my life breath is taking up a certain amount of matter. So, I don’t get to live forever. But I want to! You write candidly not just about yourself, but about other people in your life. I remember you saying at one point that you felt some anxiety about how other people would react to being portrayed in your work. You come from a journalism background. As journalists reporting on strangers, we have this veneer of “objectivity” to fall back on. Plus, we won’t necessarily cross paths with sources after our stories are published. But when we’re writing about people we know, it gets messier. How do you navigate that? Something that I had written about my mom years earlier pushed our already strained relationship to the point of estrangement. But I’m quite close with the paternal side of the family. There are moments in the book where I'm navigating gender-related stuff with them, concepts that, to them, were pretty new. My dad and I explicitly talked about the essays in advance and he gave me the green light to write about the complexities of that early navigation, even when they were tricky or difficult.  It's hard when you have loving relationships with people that have complexities, because you don't want to hurt those people by writing about the times they behaved less than perfectly. But in loving relationships there’s still conflict; there’s still misunderstanding. With queer people there are also often cultural differences between you and your family of origin. You come out again and again; you explain the same concepts again and again. It’s going to be frustrating sometimes. I think it’s important to share that. And I think my family is okay with what I wrote? I hope so? Maybe not . . . but if they aren’t, we can talk about it!! You recently formally changed your pronouns (welcome!). Did the process of writing and releasing the book have any impact on your own relationship to your gender? Yes, in the sense that I gave myself permission to claim non-binary identity. Which will seem so silly to some people and will make so much sense for other people. In my first book, Canoodlers, I was still figuring myself out gender-wise. I was testing things but had no clue what I was doing. By the time I wrote this book I knew what I wanted, but I just had a lot of fear around it. If you read the comments section of any piece about trans people, there's so much hate [and] vitriol. Growing up, I presented as more masculine of centre and I got called all sorts of homophobic slurs, had stuff thrown at me. So that fear was really real. As a society we have this idea of coming out requiring a certain amount of certainty. But I would encourage people to just . . . give it a try! I hope that we open up more space for exploration, in particular for youth. For some people, you come out once and, you know, dust off your hands and that's that. For other people, it’s a process of becoming over the course of their lives. Their gender is fluid and allows more space for exploration. I think the option of space would alleviate a lot of the stress for some of us who are more neurotic.  Like, I had this anxiety that other trans people wouldn’t see me as “trans enough.” I know now that was more of an internalized fear. The vast majority of trans people are welcoming. They understand that your interior feeling of gender can be different than your exterior expression. For the longest time, we've seen non-binary identity represented by androgynous, assigned-female-at-birth bodies. But, of course, there are assigned-male-at-birth non-binary people who may or may not present feminine. And there are some of us who are bestowed Kim Kardashian-type bodies and don’t want them. Okay, this is the third time you bring up Kim Kardashian in this interview . . . Oh no. Why . . . What’s with you and Kim? I mean, God only knows. I do find her, and the relationship our culture has with her, sort of fascinating. Her body is a body she has crafted, and it’s one onto which we culturally project a lot of baggage. The baggage of desire and desirability, but also this thing of her body being just at the edge of what is desirable or acceptable. If and when she gains weight (while pregnant, for example), that desirability tips into being “monstrous.” And all of that is complicated by her racial position—a white woman repackaging beauty trends or bodily traits that have historically been associated with women of colour, mostly Black women. Taking those things and repackaging them and then all of a sudden, they’re broadly culturally appealing and she makes gazillions of dollars. Mostly, I find it strange that bodies can have eras. You write a lot about bodies in this book. Your own body, other people’s, the concept of embodiment. How do you approach writing about something that’s a site of discomfort? I like when people write about things that they feel uncertain about or unsettled about or uncomfortable about. So, I pushed myself to do that. Also, like, I live here. So, I have to make my peace with it. And I have to discern what I should work on feeling comfortable with as is and what would be productive to change.  I was also writing through the experience of pregnancy as a non-binary person because I think it’s good to have a plurality of experiences out there. Some people who are trans or non-binary and get pregnant will find it a dysphoric experience, others will not. I found the experience fascinating. It was weird to see how people interacted with my pregnant body. The actual experience of basically being a vessel for another human was also really weird. I don’t know if some 28-year-old will pick up my book and read about this and be like, “Oh, this helps.” But I hope it’s helpful to someone. You mentioned that the book features a number of interstitial essays about other people. What made you decide to include them in a book about your own life? In a way I wanted the collection to be a slice of older queer millennial life. To just document a particular type of coming of age. Plus, I love interviewing people and having permission to ask people nosy questions about their lives. When I was thinking about my own coming-of-age story, I was thinking about what it meant to have this desire to leave a small town, to escape so I could be myself. And I think that that's a fairly common narrative when we think about queer coming-of-age and small-town type stories. I was also wondering to what extent that narrative was true or untrue for others. Structurally, it’s a little bit weird, but it felt right to me. And as a poet, I give myself a lot of license to just fuck around and do whatever I want structurally as long as it holds together. The essays came about as a blend of journalistic impulse and poetic license. Money and class also run as a through line. Are you the kind of person who is comfortable talking about money? I probably talk about money too much. It was such an obsession of the early parts of my life because I started living on my own at 17, without any parental support, and I was so poor at first and it sucked. These days I think about money in terms of, like, labour and organizing more than I think about it in terms of financial markets and stuff, which, honestly, I feel should be abolished.  As workers, we need to be able to discuss money more freely so that we can have a better understanding of what we’re worth and what we’re owed. All that to say: if any writers, especially freelancers, want to talk about rates and salaries and advances, I’m happy to discuss these things in DMs.  But please no one ask me for financial advice. I have no idea what a mutual fund is.
‘It’s Powerful to Let People Love You with a Name that You Chose for Yourself’: An Interview with Zeyn Joukhadar

The author of The Thirty Names of Night on navigating coming out, the wisdom of survival, and the possibility of infinite genders.

When I first start reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s latest novel, The Thirty Names of Night (Atria Books), I’m in the process of choosing my own name. One year or so into gender transition, the need to shed my given name is evident. I spend the summer combing lists on websites meant for expectant parents, searching for something to call myself that doesn’t make me feel like a fraud. By the time I reach Joukhadar in Italy over Skype to discuss his novel, I have chosen the very name that appears at the top of this interview. It means “light.” It’s aspirational.  Joukhadar’s protagonist is also searching for a new name. In The Thirty Names of Night, a young Syrian American man struggles to come to terms with his own transness as he cares for his ailing grandmother. All the while, he grapples with the grief he still feels over the sudden death of his mother five years prior. In order to imagine the life he wants, he must first understand the lives his ancestors lived. When he accidentally discovers the journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, he begins to unravel the histories of queer and trans members of his community that few realized existed. The Thirty Names of Night is saturated: in colour, in sound, in history, in emotion. Joukhadar captures the lives of several generations of Syrian diaspora, layering their stories on top of another—a palimpsest.  “I wanted to tell a story that was fundamentally about many things at once,” Joukhadar says. “It was just as much about being trans as it was being the child of an immigrant, about being Muslim, about being Arab American. I want those things to be inextricable from each other.”      Ziya Jones: I recently read an essay of yours where you mentioned that, when you first started writing the book, you wrote your protagonist as a cisgender, straight woman. What made you decide to switch directions?  Zeyn Joukhadar: When I was working on my first draft, writing a trans character wasn’t something I felt I could do. There was a sense of fear because I was still figuring out how I felt about my own gender. It wasn’t until I was working on my third and fourth drafts that I started to come out myself.   There was a funny moment in a writer’s workshop where another participant said, “There’s a lot of stuff in the text about gender but I’m not sure that it’s being fully unpacked.” I felt really seen. I started to think, if people are picking up on that subtext, I might as well write what I want to write more explicitly. As I played with gender as a theme in the text, I was navigating my own coming out. A lot of the work I had to do on the text was also internal work I had to do on myself.  That’s a lot of pressure! What was it like to write about someone who is coming out at the same time you’re trying to come out yourself?  In a way it was freeing, because even though the protagonist isn’t me, and the things he goes through bear little resemblance to my actual life, I was able to relate to him, to the yearning for liberation he felt. I wouldn’t have chosen for it to happen like this—I would have preferred to figure out my own stuff and then get back to the text when I was feeling more clarity. But so often that’s not how it works as writers. I really appreciated that the protagonist remains nameless until he names himself. Kind of the trans dream. Why did you decide not to include his deadname?  As I was working through my drafts, I felt a sense of pressure to reveal or to hint at the protagonist’s deadname. I knew that cis readers were bound to be curious about it. But that kind of information isn’t useful for trans readers. That kind of reveal is really cis-centric. I wanted Nadir to be a character who had the agency to disclose, or not disclose, information about his life pre-transition. So much of this novel is about who gets to tell an individual’s stories and what information about our lives becomes public. We mourn the lack of history we have on our queer and trans ancestors. But at the same time, one of the only forms of power they had over the way they were perceived was the ability to keep certain parts of their lives private. Similarly, I wanted my character to be able to use erasure as a tool of his own liberation. He had the ability to disclose the information he wanted to disclose, and to keep the rest private.  While erasing the protagonist’s deadname gives him agency, revealing his chosen name has a similar effect. What’s the power of a name?  Seeing your name for the first time after you’ve changed it is a rush. It’s also scary. When I put in the paperwork for my name change, I felt terrified. I had always thought of names as a gift that someone has to give you. Our parents give us names and, for me, there was a sense of guilt almost about changing that, as though I were giving the gift back. That prompted me to question why my parents had given me that specific name in the first place.  I began to think of names as more of a wish a parent might have for their kid. In my case, I think it was a wish for assimilation and for an easier life for me than my father had had. But I had a different set of wishes for my life. I ended up choosing a name that reflected my grandmother’s and that helped me to take pride and power in my name. It still felt like a gift, just a different kind. I recently changed my name and chose a gender-neutral name that you can pronounce in Arabic. My given name wasn’t an Arabic one. Talking to my mother, who is Lebanese-Canadian, about choosing an Arabic name prompted some really interesting conversations that I had complicated feelings about.  It’s so complicated. And it’s a process, I think. My attitude towards my name changes as I have more experiences with it. It gains associations and it gains nuance. That’s been one of the most fun parts about changing my name. Your name becomes something that you get to take on adventures with you, if you will. During this whole pandemic mess my partner and I [had] a civil union here in Italy, where we have been living. Hearing the name that I chose for myself, my real name, in that ceremony and having my partner speak it . . . it was a feeling that I really can’t describe. A feeling of deep pride and being seen that I never had with my old name. It’s powerful to let people love you with a name that you chose for yourself. It’s a way of letting people know how to love you better. I don’t think I understood that until after I had already changed mine, but I think it’s really beautiful. You tweeted about feeling frustrated that reviewers who ostensibly read your entire book still managed to misgender the characters in their writing about the text. Fiction allegedly makes us more empathetic and understanding. Do you see any limits to the genre as a form of education?  Increasingly I get the sense that the people who want to listen will listen, and those that don’t want to won’t. You can tell the most nuanced and complex story, but people will only really hear you if they’re ready. I did feel it was important, though, to write for the people who would understand. Throughout the book I tried to set aside all the ways of framing transness that cater to cis people. I wanted to write as though I were talking to another trans person. I think the end result was that sometimes cis readers won’t always understand what I’m talking about, especially in some of the ways I write about the body. I talk about desire and discomfort and dysphoria. I’m okay with that. That was a risk that I was willing to take in order to tell the story I wanted to tell.  That’s also why I refused to make coming out the central trauma of the book. So often queer trans people of colour are expected to put our life experiences as racialized people to the side when we’re talking about being queer, [or] trans. Sexuality and gender are supposed to become the sole focal points of our identity. But, I mean, that’s impossible.   Speaking as someone who is queer and trans and Arab, I think there’s a related expectation that coming out is somehow guaranteed to be traumatic by nature of our background. Of course, transphobia and homophobia exist in Arab communities but they’re certainly not inherent to Arab culture. How can we hold our own communities to account without undermining them? Those kinds of questions are always in the back of my mind, whether I want them to be there or not. I do consider how the stories I’m telling might potentially be used against me or against people that I care about. Are readers going to respond to this with Islamophobia or with racism, not understanding the full context of the story I’m telling? It’s really difficult to escape. But, at some point, as a writer, I have to accept that, while I need to do my due diligence and think through what I’m writing, I can’t control how people will internalize the story.  I loved that the book resisted the narrative of shame. It’s a stereotype that Arab families are shaped and compelled by fear. But it’s one lots of us can darkly laugh at because it does reflect our lived experience. Nadir, though, gets to come out to his mom, and even his teta, without being shamed for who he is. I personally found it healing to see some of my anxieties reflected in a narrative where the outcome was a happy one.  I knew that I could have written a narrative where Nadir faced more rejection, and it would have been equally valid. But in some ways, that would have been the “expected” story. I’ve seen lots of representations of LGBTQ+ Arabs and Muslims and other people of colour experiencing rejection from their families of origin or from the world at large and struggling with that. I’ve experienced some of that myself, but I’ve also had my Muslim family members be supportive of me. Not to say other representations of support don’t exist elsewhere, but I saw creating another one as a gift. For myself, and for the reader by extension. I thought, why don’t I take this opportunity to also highlight the fact that sometimes coming out actually goes really well and people can be really awesome? You never know who your allies are going to be, and sometimes people will surprise you in the most wonderful ways.  A lot of queer narratives are built around the idea of breaking from our roots and starting new, freer lives as the “real us,” whatever that means. As your novel unfolds, though, the characters grow more and more closely connected with their pasts. How can connecting to our pasts be healing?  For one thing, I think it helps us to feel less alone. For Arab folks and other people of colour, there’s generational trauma in a lot of our families and our communities, but that also means we’re surrounded by elders who have survived a lot. They carry wisdom that comes from their survival, and sometimes we forget to emphasize that too. Knowing that there are other people who have gone through what you are living can, in and of itself, be really healing. The past can be healing, but it can also be haunting. In the book, this plays out as a literal haunting: visits from a ghost. What are you haunted by?  One way to answer this is to say that when I think about the ghost in the book, I think about all of the people that I will never get to know. I’m haunted by separations. Separation from my ancestors through death. Separation from my loved ones because of COVID-19. Separated by severed contact, whether by my choice or someone else’s. Even when a person isn’t physically with you, sometimes you can feel their presence. Some of those hauntings are consensual hauntings, like when you want to keep someone’s memory alive. But if you want to have good memories, you also have to remember some things that trouble you. To have a relationship to the past, you have to have a relationship to the joyful parts as well as the difficult parts.   I had no idea that New York had a Little Syria before I picked up this novel. What kind of research did you do in order to write about the neighbourhood’s history? I was born in Manhattan and grew up in New York and I had no idea that Little Syria existed either. After I had moved away, I learned it had been there this whole time, and I became obsessed. I was like, “Why wasn’t this part of the history of New York that I was taught?!” I started travelling to NYC to visit the neighbourhood over and over. That was before I started writing the book, and those trips became a big inspiration for the novel. I knew the story of Little Syria was one I wanted to tell.  At the time I was visiting a lot, there was a really awesome history exhibit about the neighbourhood. It was made up of all these maps and pictures and music. One of the recordings was of a group of people singing “America The Beautiful” in loosely translated Arabic. That recording gets mentioned in the book. The first time I heard it was like, wow, what kinds of experiences did these residents have trying to hold on to their roots while also contending with the pressure so many immigrants face to assimilate? Despite being surrounded by so many other queer and trans characters, Nadir struggles to recognize and name his own transness in the book. Do you think we’ve found the adequate language to talk about transness?  That’s a good question . . . I wonder if we can ever really find adequate language to describe such a wide range of human experiences. I think within the book I was trying to find a way to talk about the fact that, at least in my experience, people’s experiences of transness are so unique. When you’re exploring your gender identity, you find yourself asking, “Am I trans the way this other person is trans?” And often you don’t know! Maybe there are infinite genders or gender expressions. In the book, I was looking to capture some of the things I had personally felt. I hadn’t seen my exact feelings reflected before, which obviously makes sense. We could have thousands of trans narratives, and they would probably all be at least somewhat different.  Not only are they infinite, they’re ever changing. I wish I had the language to talk about how questioning and exploring gender doesn’t end in some static place.  I wish that too! I can’t help you with that one. I wish that too. 
Dear Syd

Like most of us during lockdown, my life has slowed and grown much smaller. So I am answering all of these special letters.

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‘Experiencing Joy is Revolutionary’: An Interview with Randa Jarrar

The author of Love is an Ex-Country on freedom of speech, road trips, and claiming space. 

Randa Jarrar says what’s on her mind. In 2018, after the death of Barbara Bush, she made national headlines after sharing a tweet that opposed the veneration of the former first lady. Jarrar found herself in the midst of a free-speech controversy. Her safety and her family’s safety were put at risk by the doxxing of her home address and personal phone number. She received death threats from white nationalists. Even her employment at Fresno State became threatened. Although the experience was painful, it stands as an example of Jarrar’s strength to boldly speak the truth. Born to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, Jarrar’s identity has always played a significant role in her work. In her first novel, A Map of Home, a coming-of-age story set in Kuwait, Egypt, and Texas during the 1990 Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Jarrar captures the struggles her own family faced. Her second book, a collection of short stories called Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, explores the lives of Muslim communities. With Love Is An Ex-Country (Catapult), Jarrar returns with a road-trip memoir. In 2016, largely inspired by the Egyptian dancer and actress Tahia Carioca, Jarrar journeyed across the United States. She began in California, where she currently resides, and ended at her parents’ home in Connecticut. Her memoir is not a typical, linear travelogue. She meanders, not only narrating the road trip itself, but the moments in her life that brought her there. I spoke to Jarrar about the importance of Tahia Carioca’s story, reclaiming joy, and the meaning of place.  Sabrina Papas: The road trip you took was inspired by the Egyptian dancer and actress Tahia Carioca. Can you tell me about what drew you to her story? Randa Jarrar: I just really love iconic women who flout whatever ideas people have about what they should be doing with their lives. I’ve always been fascinated with artistic women in Egypt and Palestine—which is where my parents are from—and the fact that they were doing whatever they wanted in the ’40s when most people in the Global South were not doing whatever they wanted, at all. The way that they used their art to kind of drop out of what their societies expected of them—that to me is really fascinating. And so, for Tahia Carioca to decide to become a belly dancer, be really good at it, and then be promiscuous or very sex-positive, embracing her desires—she was a woman who really just embraced her desires, and went for having lovers when she wanted to. And she ended up marrying them, obviously. The idea of her crossing America twice, back and forth, in the ’40s, was fascinating to me. [This was] right after World War II, with some guy she met in a Cairo bar when she was dancing. I could relate to it, but I also just felt like I could learn from her and the way she moved, literally and figuratively, in the world. I had never heard of her before and I looked her up and watched some videos, there’s something about watching her move—it’s so beautiful and captivating.  It is. I wanted the book to be about bodies and about the ways that bodies are able to move and celebrate and be celebrated. I’d known of her since I was a kid. There were all these amazing black and white Egyptian movies on TV growing up, and she was always the most fascinating because she just had a weird name and danced in this way that made me feel things. And I was a queer child and I didn’t really know what those things were. That’s really what drew me to the story. I was already drawn to her from a young age. When Carioca died in 1999, The New York Times published an article in which they wrote that she was “often called the Marilyn Monroe of the Arab world.” What are your thoughts on the reductive need to define a white counterpart for a person of colour, rather than allowing them to be their own person? That’s awful. I think it’s just the way that the Global North tries to translate, for a Global North readership, the experiences of people of colour. To me, that’s not an accurate translation though. Marilyn Monroe was an okay dancer. Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t even be exciting to me as a porn star. [I’m] imagining how amazing porn stars are versus Marilyn Monroe. People call her curvy but she’s just very plain, in my opinion, compared to Tahia Carioca and women of colour in general. It’s just their way to translate and they don’t realize that they’re insulting. Or maybe they do, but it doesn’t matter cause the harm is already done. She’s so much hotter than Marilyn Monroe. She also survived. She lived until she was an elderly woman and kept working. So there was a strength there that Marilyn Monroe lacked. You undertook your road trip in 2016. In Love Is An Ex-Country you write, “I wanted to commune with the land I lived on, to see America during that deeply troubled and troubling election year. To look at the place that might elect a person like Trump.” By the end of your journey, did you find any comfort in forming your own connection with the land? I don’t know if I felt a comfort. In the past, I’ve always tried to find replicas of the places where my ancestors are from. I think crossing the country made me realize that this area, Turtle Island, it’s not a replica—it’s its own magical, unique place that doesn’t belong to us, that belongs to the Indigenous people of the land. It really made me feel more aware of myself as a settler, asking myself questions like, “Are diasporic people capable of settling?” “Are people who have been pushed out capable of settling?” It made me question more the ways that I was reducing this country to a replica when it was its own majestic place that had also been made into replicas by Westerners who came and colonized and settled it. In a way, it took the mask off and made me really aware of what this place is and how much of it is abandoned. There’s so much I was driving through where there was nothing. It didn’t seem like there was a lot going on. In those spaces, I felt like I could really see what it could have been if it hadn’t been damaged and settled on. I feel like that’s what I mostly learned on that trip. And it’s very vast. It’s definitely a lie to say that America is this one unified place—it’s not. It’s so many smaller communities and places. There’s a chapter in your book about the backlash you received when, following Barbara Bush’s death in 2018, you shared a tweet calling her a racist. The tweet brought on a lot of online abuse from the alt-right, and even threatened your tenured position at Fresno State. Since then, have you felt a need to limit what you say on the internet? I think what you’re referring to is chilling my speech. It didn’t make me watch what I say more on the internet; it made me more aware of security concerns. I think a lot of people who get doxxed, a lot of them [aren’t] aware that so much of their information is out there. The fact that they could find my family members, my phone number, my house address—I realized that I had a responsibility to the people that I loved. If I did want to say whatever I wanted, I needed to think ahead of time to protect them. Now that I’ve taken those steps, I can continue to say whatever the fuck I want.  I think we’ve also seen a shift in the last couple of years. There’s so much being said on Twitter so openly. That’s really helped. People like me, I think we serve as catalysts to get the culture moving forward, and then we get attacked. But it’s just to move the culture forward in becoming more comfortable telling the truth and labelling things what they actually are. People, since then, have talked so much shit about people who have died. Sometimes when you’re before your time, or ahead of your time, you suffer for it. I’m happily just saying whatever I want still. Despite the response you received, you write that you felt that you had still won. Alt-right publications were repeating what you had written over and over again. They may not have agreed with you, but they were inadvertently aiding you in getting out your opinion. Are there certain concessions that you have to make in order to be heard? I wonder if I think about it as a concession. It wasn’t just [the] alt-right, it was just generally the news repeating. Those magazines were trying to attack me as a person, but they were still repeating my message. I think that if you’re a woman in the world—if you’re a fat woman, a woman of colour, even someone like me who’s very light skinned and has that privilege, if you’re openly and proudly Muslim, or some other kind of marginalized identity, and a combination of identities—it’s not really concessions. But you have to be aware that you will be attacked on those kinds of superficial/identity markers because you’re not supposed to be talking. You’re not even supposed to exist, actually, let alone talk or speak. I think all of us are, or have to, be aware [that] that’s one of the consequences.  What’s really interesting to me about freedom of speech or the freedom to say what you want, a lot of people will say, “There’s consequences to freedom of speech.” To me, the number one consequence to freedom of speech is [that] the person receiving the speech is uncomfortable—that’s actually the real consequence. People like to say, “Well, the consequence is that you’re gonna get punished for saying it like it is.” No, actually, the consequence is you’re gonna get uncomfortable from hearing someone say something. So [it’s] just realizing and shifting those conversations and those ideas of how speech works and what its “consequences” actually are. They tend to be unfair, as I’ve just said, when you’re a marginalized person.  There are many moments of joy in your book. I think there’s often a sense of guilt, especially in our current moment, when we allow ourselves to really feel joy. How do you reconcile the anger you feel with letting these moments of joy into your life?  For those of us who have dealt with all of this bullshit for so many years, experiencing joy is revolutionary. I’m not the first person who has said this. There’s a lot of pleasure activism out there—the idea that claiming joy in a world that doesn’t want you to be joyful is radical. Claiming rest is radical. My anger is something that can also exist alongside joy. I think for Americans, and people in the Global North, anger is a feeling to be contained, to be displayed in a way that’s non-violent or peaceful. So, often policed. I think it’s really important that we are in a time now when we are saying, “No, fuck the police, fuck all the police.” You can be angry and experience joy.  For me, the guilt that I experienced sometimes during that trip, I realize, is not useful. Feeling guilty for being light skinned is not useful. Fighting hard for a university that I work at to hire women of colour is useful. The action is actually what needs to happen. Joy, anger, all of these are active emotions and active feelings. I just allow it all to just exist and celebrate it, grief, all of that. In stories of abuse, there’s often a narrative of blame. Usually, it’s wrongly placed on the victim or survivor. You write about the complexities of your relationship with your father. In his old age, you were able to see him as a different person and forgive him. How can we reframe discussions of abuse to avoid placing blame at the forefront?  It can get really tricky, because my own experience as a victim doesn’t have to be a universal one. I think that victims of abuse [each] have their own right to whatever their narrative will be. I’m really interested in ways that restorative justice is being practiced now and the ways that people of colour are looking at ways, outside of police, to get close to that sense of justice. So, I think if someone wants to place blame at the forefront, that’s their right.  Not everyone needs to forgive the person that abused them. I just happen to be lucky enough. My father is literally in pain every day. The first 20 years of my life, I was in pain every day. So, in a lot of ways, I feel like there is justice there. I think, ultimately, he’s also very lucky that I was willing to take those steps to meet him after what happened. I think the fact that he can no longer harm me is also what allowed that to happen. There are so many different variables involved. I think that blame is just a necessary part of the equation. Like you said, it tends to be subverted and falls on the victim, when it’s usually the fault of patriarchy, white supremacy, and the police—all of those together. So really, maybe [we should be] shifting the blame away from individuals and onto a social structure that enables that abuse, that protects violent people, that protects abusers, and leaves victims to their own devices. I agree. It’s so much more than just the individual in so many cases. It’s difficult to write a person off as “evil,” to villainize people when it’s often a systemic and structural issue.  We know that people are capable of treating people with forgiveness and kindness. Look at the way that murdering white supremacists are forgiven in the press immediately. They’re like, “Oh, this person was mentally ill.”—I’m mentally ill, but I would never harm people—instead of thinking, “Oh, this is a mental illness thing or this is an individual thing,” which only affords those kinds of forgivenesses for, in general, white men or in some cases white mothers like Casey Anthony. Instead of that, focusing on the ways that we can move forward with real justice. In Chicago you found the apartment building where your parents lived when they first moved to the United States. You also made an attempt to enter Israel in order to see your former childhood home of Palestine. Can you speak about the need to seek out places from your past? I like to think of time as non-linear. I was just telling a friend that, as a child, I often had this feeling that a benevolent force was looking at me. Not monitoring me, but making sure I was okay. As a young Muslim, I kind of interpreted that as God. God is looking at me; God is making sure I’m okay. Now that I’m older, I’m realizing that there are so many different layers to it. The thing that I was feeling was actually my adult self, looking at my younger self and witnessing what she was going through and coming to get her, basically to say, “Hey, you’re not gonna be stuck in this terrible situation forever.” For me, looking at those older places, seeing the old dorm room where I think I got pregnant with my child, going to the apartment I lived in before the invasion of Kuwait—all of those times, I felt like I was going back to hold my younger self’s hand and say, “Hey, we don’t have to go through this anymore. Let’s go.” And to also honour that those places are real, and those places are still around. I think that’s something that comes from being a Palestinian. So many Palestinians are denied the right to return. So, for me, it’s giving myself the right to return, wherever it was where I lived, since all of those places in my mind and my heart are Palestine. Even if it’s not inside Palestine, those were the places that I, as a Palestinian, suffered or grew or loved or whatever it is. So, to me, that’s the importance of revisiting. It is also a radical act of self-love and healing. Do you feel that the tangible existence of the places from your past affirms your existence as well, that they make your past selves feel more real? Do parts of us disappear when we can no longer reach these places? I was reading yesterday about how many places in San Francisco have been demolished. I had watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and I was thinking about Black communities in San Francisco. With the ethnic cleansing, so much of it is connected to literally razing the place and getting rid of it. I do, I really do think that parts of us [disappear]. I feel like it’s a violation. When parts of your past are bulldozed, or razed, or destroyed, there’s a way that those places aren’t being honoured. What are the places that get to be seen as historical places of importance and receive that kind of reverence? Just the fact that there are fucked up statues everywhere to commemorate people and places where so much pain happened—that exists. But a project where thousands of people grew up no longer exists and can no longer be visited—that’s violence. It’s an act of erasure. It’s a way to bury. Egypt is a constant building. Everyone always lived around the Nile, so whenever you visit and you go to those places, you’re standing on places that people have lived on for at least 5000 years. That’s what it’s like to live on a land that’s constantly not erasing; it’s adding constant additions, which is so beautiful to me, rather than subtraction, erasure. It’s so hard to just carry things inside you, and not be able to go visit, and not be able to commemorate who you were, who your ancestors were, people who are no longer with us. It was your father who wanted you to be a novelist. You write that he told you “to write a novel about the history of my family and our struggles.” By presenting your personal history and struggles, do you feel that you’ve achieved this in your own way? Definitely. My first book [A Map of Home] was fiction. It was a novel about our family. It was a fictionalized version of both my Egyptian and Palestinian selves. So I felt very healed; I felt that I had really accomplished something by writing that first book.  With this memoir, what I’m doing is claiming space instead of feeling like I have to represent so much or do all this stuff for my people. I just took a chance and said, “I just want to commemorate myself and my own body and eradicate any shame I might have around all the different parts of who I am.” That was really important for me with this book. I’ve told everyone in my family not to read it. My line is: “My pussy is in it too much.” Like, “There’s too many pussy appearances, I don’t think it’s for you.” The book is not for everyone and I’m really aware of that, and I’m really into that. I don’t think it has to be.
‘Power Isn’t Necessarily a Blunt-Force Instrument’: An Interview with Te-Ping Chen

Talking to the author of Land of Big Numbers about blurring the boundaries between realism and fabulism, living in perpetual awareness of the state, and traveling in China as time travel.

In her deft debut short story collection Land of Big Numbers (Mariner), Te-Ping Chen conveys a variety of tensions: between an individual and her community, a community and the state, an individual and the state; between siblings with different pathways in life, children and their parents, the fantasy of social and economic mobility and its harsher reality. Chen, who spent years living in Beijing, China, most recently as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, captures these tensions through the particulars of character and setting in stories that mostly take place in mainland China, with a few set in the United States. Many of the stories are realistic (in one, a woman mourns the death of her husband by trying to get to know his family, where he came from; in another, a pair of twins find their lives diverging as they use online communities in vastly different ways), with a few taking a more surreal or fabulist turn (another story is about a new fruit whose flavor calls forth evocative memories and experiences, tailored to each individual who consumes it), but each is fully imagined, its images precise: a woman is described as having “very ordinary hands, […] a little plump, like sugar cookies”; a young man imagines himself learning a new language, “opening up his mouth like a baby bird learning how to sing.” Writers smarter than I have written and spoken about the fallacy of stories being universal, and Chen’s certainly are not: they speak to particular places and cultures, class relations, and generational divides. Yet at the same time, they illuminate and trouble the relationship between state violence, community responsibility, and individual morality in ways that are relevant to people in so many nations. To some extent, people everywhere are always relating to the state or nation they live in. In reading these stories, however, I was reminded how many Western nations, and the US in particular, use the narrative of pure individualism as a way to obscure or leave unacknowledged the ties between the individual and the state. Chen’s stories often allude to state violence that is, in some way, always taking place out of the corner of a story’s eye. This doesn’t negate all the specific, individual, day-to-day realms in which the individual characters exist—it’s part of them. In “Hotline Girl,” for instance, there is a sudden, surprising reference to an unmarked government van carrying arrested protesters; in “New Fruit,” a farm is rumored to have been taken over by the government; and in “Field Notes on a Marriage,” a lone, haunting house in the middle of a landfill conveys a quiet, stubborn resistance. Over email, I spoke to Te-Ping Chen about language, storytelling, community, place, and the nuggets of truth behind some of the more fantastical elements of her pieces.  Ilana Masad: I’m always fascinated by stories that manage to convey in English a life that takes place in another language, in this case Mandarin. I imagine that even if you didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin you would have had to speak it at least proficiently if not fully fluently for your work as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. What is it like, writing in English about lives that are lived in another language? Te-Ping Chen: Growing up, we spoke English at home. I did attend bilingual Mandarin-English school when I was young, and then attended Saturday school for years, which I loathed, and eventually gave up on. But I started studying the language in college again, and then really learned it properly after living in the country, first in 2006 for a semester as an undergraduate, and then in successive stints, including as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal. By the time I wrote the book, I’d spent years already working in the language and translating interviews and such for the newspaper, and so it was a fairly comfortable muscle. I did end up keeping certain Chinese words in the text here and there, in places where it felt like the sound of the word was important—that it would lose something if it were completely lost—or in places where it felt too artificial or stilted to translate. There were also lines here or there where I’d tried to translate dialogue or a term but it didn’t sound as natural in English, and needed finessing, and editors were helpful in pointing those places out. Some of the stories in Land of Big Numbers include details that to some readers might blur the boundary between realism and fabulism. For instance, I learned from your publicity material that funeral strippers were one of those stranger-than-fiction details you just had to include, but couldn’t find any info on the government Fitbit-like lanyards in “Hotline Girl.” How did you balance what seemed surreal to you about China with the fabulist or magical-realist elements in these stories? Did your editors ask you to clarify things for a non-Chinese audience? It’s curious—as you note, some of the details that are taken from real life are the ones that sound the most made up! But yes, funeral strippers are a real phenomenon, as are noodle-slicing robots. The premise of that story [in which both these elements appear], “Flying Machine,” and its central character—a farmer who tries building his own airplane—also takes its inspiration from actual headlines. Over the years that I was living in China, I kept reading so many iterations of that story popping up in local media, about these incredible farmer inventors in the countryside—usually short, unsatisfying dispatches. I was always so curious about what lay behind those stories, so wound up trying to write one. “Hotline Girl,” [on the other hand, is] a dystopian story of an alternate China, but one that does contain elements that would be deeply familiar to many residents, including themes like surveillance. The "government fitbit" lanyards are made up, though I did have something specific from my own life in mind when writing that detail, namely these badges we had to wear when attending the convening of the National People’s Congress and CPPCC in Beijing, the government’s main political gathering, which occurs every spring. When you walked through security gates, sensors would automatically scan the badge around your neck, and a large nearby screen would flash your name and photo and identify who you were, whether you were a government official or a local or foreign reporter or what have you, and those images were all color-coded by your status, and I was picturing those when writing. In the end, I didn’t encounter many moments where editors asked me to make things more explicable to a non-Chinese audience. The only one I can think of is a small word choice at the end of “Hotline Girl,” when the reader catches a glimpse of protesters who’ve been rounded up in an unmarked government van. Originally I’d described those protesters more obliquely, because it felt so obvious to me, who they were and how they were being dealt with—in the years I was in Beijing, it was a common enough phenomenon. To be honest, I didn’t think much about audience or what they did or didn’t know, because I was really writing these stories for myself—and I was so consumed with those questions in my day job as a journalist, it was liberating to get to write without some of those questions percolating in my head. One of the themes that ties these stories together is the balance of individual and community life. How consciously did you bring in the way that individuals interact with community and vice versa, and how did you balance them? As humans, we’re always watching other people and aware of others watching us. Our attempts to try and make identity for ourselves are so inextricably bound up in community, and so it didn’t really feel possible to divorce the two. And in many stories in Land of Big Numbers, that’s where the tension arises. Community can be a source of comfort, and we see that in stories like “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which a group of subway commuters get trapped underground for months and end up forming this resilient sort of society among themselves. But that sense of solidarity can also be oppressive, enmeshing and entrapping people and—as we see in that same story—making it harder for the group to escape. Additionally, these stories all include—either subtly or overtly—the ways that individuals and communities are in a constant conversation with the state. Why did it feel important or true to you to write about state violence in some way? And were you at all thinking about parallels elsewhere as you were writing? In China, you always have an awareness of the state, even if it’s not in the foreground. You know it’s there, invisibly setting the terms of what’s permissible and what is not—in overt ways, like propaganda banners, but in many more subtle ways too. For those who get in its way, the consequences can be state force and state brutality, but for most people, that isn’t the lived experience, and any such implied threat hovers very much at the edge of the picture. I was trying to capture some of that feeling in these stories, when the day-to-day life can feel so bright, jazzy, and empowered in all kinds of consumerist ways, but with that sense of menace also in the background, and the knowledge that if you step out of line, all this could be snatched away from you and your loved ones. I wanted that discordance to be present, but at the margins—something that if anything, most characters view matter-of-factly and take very much for granted. I wasn’t thinking explicitly of the U.S. during most of the writing process, but many readers have said they do see resonances, and of course, China is far from the only place marked by that kind of state violence, which at once is so far-reaching in its effects and yet also can be difficult for most people to see. From a craft perspective, how did you balance the state’s presence in the margins with the weight of what each story was about? It really depended on the material. In “Lulu,” for example, the title character is grappling very directly with the state, but in others, as in “Flying Machine,” it’s more of a footnote in the character’s broader personal journey. As a journalist who spent many years consuming Chinese state media, I also had fun gently satirizing such outlets, including in stories like “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which you see state broadcasters working so hard to celebrate these trapped commuters and create this ersatz sense of heroism, which ultimately transforms the group’s understanding of themselves. Power isn’t necessarily a blunt-force instrument, and I was trying to evoke that in these stories, too. “On the Street Where You Live” is such a wonderfully uncomfortable story. Narrated from an American jail or prison, it also deals in a particular aspect of consumerism—the narrator designed a hit ride for theme parks. It struck me that this story gets at very parallel aspects of what you mentioned above—consumerism and violence existing side by side. There are other themes to the story as well of course (unrequited love, masculinity and its potential for violence), but I wondered if this story was a kind of inversion of the dynamic in other stories, in that here it’s an individual enacting violence rather than the state? Oh, that’s so interesting! It wasn’t a deliberate one, but I love this observation, and there absolutely is a mingling of both consumerism and violence in this story. When I was writing the main character, I was thinking most specifically of his identity as someone who’s cosmopolitan and rootless, who tries to decode the world around him in such flawed, distorted ways. And how he—like all of us!—so desperately craves connection and is seeking it through these consumerist forms, but not finding it. In some ways I see it as a story about idealism and its dangers, too, and how the ways we put things on pedestals can ultimately betray us. Class divides play a big role in many of the stories, as do generational divides. In “Land of Big Numbers,” the title story, both of these come to bear, as the main character, Zhu Feng, is of the generation born a few years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, while his parents lived through them when they were probably around his age or a little older. In addition to this knowledge gap, there is also a class gap between Zhu Feng and his childhood best friend whose father became rich. Zhu Feng looks down on “the shabbiness of his parents’ lives, their shuffling steps, the curtailed hopes that seemed to express nothing more than a desire to chide bao, chuan de nuan—to be full in the belly, to be warmly clothed,” which made me think about how much that is, really, to be full in the belly and warmly clothed, and whether that too was a generational factor for this young man who also might not have had the specter of famine in his direct past. Yes! On the one level, they’re such simple desires. And yet also hard-fought and hard-won for his parents’ generation, not something to be taken for granted. A friend of mine used to say that traveling in China was the closest you could get in some ways to time travel. You’d start in a city like Beijing or Shanghai—cities that in many ways feel like they’re constantly teetering on the precipice of the future—but could get on a train and in a matter of hours end up in a third-tier city that looked like it was stuck in the 1980s, or travel farther still and arrive in a village that looked like it hadn’t changed for half a century. So much of the experience of living in China was that sense of having so many experiences and histories and aspirations all pressed up in close proximity to each other, and sometimes—as in the case of the title story—in just one family. There are knowledge gaps, too, but I think of those in many ways as gaps in experience. For example, the father in that story is very much aware of the power of the stock market and the new wealth around him that his son covets, but he tends to perceive the risks more than his son, in part because of the gaps in their experience. Finally, I wanted to ask about the final story in the collection, “Gubeikou Spirit,” which you mentioned above. It’s a story that feels hugely allegorical and speaks to systems of imprisonment (both literal and metaphorical), to the strength of community on the one hand and to loss of individuality among groupthink on the other, to the desire to do good and help others but also stay safe and comfortable. These are themes that run through many of the stories, really. What about this tension—especially between a person’s need to do good or make change on the one hand, and their instinct and desire to stay safe—speaks to you? Is there a personal struggle for you between these things? It’s something I’ve wrestled with myself, as I think so many of us do; this question of where your allegiances should lie, to family or to society, risk or security, and as we see in “Lulu,” what does it mean to be a good person, and what’s enough and what is ever enough. As humans, we’re really good at tricking ourselves into thinking we’re doing the right thing, to absolve ourselves of any wrongdoings, either personal or those that surround us. And as in “Gubeikou Spirit,” it’s easy to become comfortable, and to tell yourself a story, and become convinced of the righteousness and inevitability of your position. Living in China, it’s very hard to avoid being confronted by these questions, but they’re ones I’ve thought about for a long time, and think many of us struggle with, no matter your position or country.
‘How Much Suffering is Acceptable?’: An Interview with Melissa Broder

The author of Milk Fed on eating disorders, stand up comedy, and masturbating while your block is on fire. 

A few years ago, I heard author and Twitter celebrity Melissa Broder talk about what would become her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner) on a podcast. She said she was writing a book about an LA anorexic who meets a zaftig woman at her local yogurt shop and develops a crush despite, or because of, the zaftig encouraging her to eat. Melissa had spoken about this phenomenon before: her lust for the zaftig female figure despite her own need to be rail thin. It resonated, resonates. I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia and tend to be attracted to curvier women. I didn't really realize what was happening until Broder articulated it in her essay collection, So Sad Today. She wrote that given her own dysmorphic rigidity, there is something very sexy in a woman who lets herself eat. It's erotic. In Milk Fed she wrote a whole novel about it, and I ate it up like Domino's cheesy bread. Milk Fed’s protagonist, Rachel, is a comic who works at a talent management agency to pay the bills. She performs standup weekly, but most of her energy goes into calorie counting. It’s a life I understand well. When you're chronically underfed, food overtakes all of your mental energy. You don't have the bandwidth to think about other, heavier things, like what you want to do with your life, the fact that you're going to die, or whether or not you're a lesbian. Before meeting Miriam, the yogurt-shop zaftig, Rachel fantasizes about an older woman in her office. In the fantasies, the woman alternates between being a mother figure and a romantic one. Ultimately, Rachel wants the love of a woman who lets her be fully herself instead of encouraging her to shrink. She wants to be nurtured and, well, milk fed. Anna Dorn: You originally published poetry, then personal essays with So Sad Today and your Vice column, and now it seems you’re on a novel kick with The Pisces and Milk Fed. Can you talk a little bit about your recent trend towards novel-writing? Melissa Broder: It happened super organically. Poetry I used to write on the subway. I enjoy writing in places where I’m not supposed to be writing. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I started dictating in my car. I couldn’t type and drive; like on the 405, I wasn’t writing poems. So my language became more conversational. And that’s how the essays for So Sad Today were born. It just morphed by itself. The landscape and the physical living informed the writing. Do you have a good sense of when your writing is working? Yes, over time. As loose as I like my first drafts of prose to be, I go back and hone every line the way I do with a poem. And multiple times. It’s such an endeavor. Most lines get rewritten. And I’ve never worked so hard on anything as I’ve worked on Milk Fed. I think it was Nabokov who was like, “torture your sentences or torture your reader.” I’ve found that for myself to be true. It’s gotta be polished like a diamond. That makes sense because your work is very easy to read and I know that’s not easy to do. Right, because you have to work on the delivery system. In my first draft I’m delivering it to myself and to God or whatever. I’m just trying to be a channel. Then it becomes more about rhythm. I listen for the music the way I do with a poem and I’ll know when it’s not on. I’ll know when something’s not there because every time I read it, it sticks out. Over time, when nothing sticks out to me anymore, that’s when I know it’s as done as it can be. I read Milk Fed in two days and I never do that. Normally I just read because I feel like I should be reading and it’s a drag. But this was fun. I’m so glad it was a pleasurable experience. I feel like Milk Fed is the novelization of this passage from So Sad Today: It’s funny, because I hold myself to a completely different standard than I do others. Like, I really love a zaftig female body. The women I am most sexually attracted to are considered obese by today’s (and yesterday’s) standards. I don’t watch a lot of porn, but a typical search term for me is “fat lesbians.” That is a beautiful fantasy. To be accepted and embraced and adored as your biggest self, the most you. That, to me, is freedom. The ultimate letting go. It’s sexy as fuck. It really turns me on. And it’s a freedom I cannot allow myself, for whatever reason. In terms of my own body, I feel safest at a place of very thin. Yes. Rachel could say that. What made you decide to novelize this phenomenon? The story of Miriam and Rachel is a story I’ve always wanted to tell, through a Jewish lens. When I was 19 or 20, I wrote this horrifically bad short story about a woman who has an eating disorder who falls in love with a woman who is incredibly voluptuous. It’s probably the reason I wrote poetry for the next ten years. But that story, the interplay of hunger and sexual appetite, and how what we fear for ourselves is often what we’re attracted to in others, has been something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. And I guess it just bubbled up a couple of years ago. I LOL’d when Rachel is reminiscing about an ex-boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it.” This resonated. When you’re anorexic, food takes up all of your mental energy. You become passive as hell. You also aren’t very in touch with your desire. What is it about Miriam that plucks Rachel from her anorexic haze? Miriam stems from this horrible character I wrote when I was 20—Gaia. I named her Gaia, like Earth Mother. It was really bad. But Miriam is the embodiment of the fantasy of that freedom of food and also a feeling of warmth and acceptance and embrace. Miriam is free in a way that Rachel is not free. Rachel thinks Miriam is totally free. But, of course, no one is totally free. So Rachel comes to realize, she’s only free in the way that I’m not free. There are other ways she is limited too. She’s human! I have to ask you about the sex scenes. They’re HOT. And abject enough to avoid being corny. How did you do that? I write to turn myself on first and foremost. And then I do a lot of editing. Can you talk a little bit about how Rachel’s mommy issues play into her relationship with Miriam? It’s hard for Rachel to give herself permission to feel pleasure. It’s through our early relationships that we figure out: am I worthy of pleasure? I think Rachel is looking to be mommied and she’s looking for mommies in the world. And she has sexualized that. Rachel’s fantasy is to be loved unconditionally and for someone to say: you must have pleasure! So she can be like: I am the innocent one! She wants a woman to delight in her having pleasure the way a mother would on a maternal level. But for Rachel, it’s sexual because all these things are sort of mixed up. Sexual pleasure is another thing she can’t let go and experience. At first, Miriam has somewhat of a mommy role because she’s feeding Rachel and encouraging her to have pleasure. And that’s very scary and hot for Rachel. While Rachel’s fantasy mom is very nurturing, like, “you’re doing amazing sweetie,” her actual mother is sort of the opposite in terms of enforcing Rachel’s internal negative self-talk. I would say her mom installed the buttons. It was also Rachel’s interpretation of her mother’s message. But now Rachel’s like, at what age do I stop blaming my mother and see this is actually mine now? At one point in Milk Fed Rachel reflects on an earlier, more serious version of her anorexia: “But I was freezing all the time. I lived in the bathtub. A downy fur grew on my body. My period stopped. At night I dreamt of wild buffets. My hip bones chafed against my bed. At school there were whispers.” In the period the book takes place, Rachel is healthier. She’s functioning enough to have a job and she bleeds every month, but most of her thoughts are dedicated to calorie-counting. I feel like a lot of anorexics take this path from dangerously thin to physically healthy but still obsessive. Can you talk a little bit about Rachel’s version of high-functioning anorexia? Rachel, I would say, has gone from having an eating disorder to being a disordered eater. She’s like, I know I’m not normal, I’ve got these rituals, but how well do I need to be? It’s the big question of recovery. With the self-care industrial complex—and the Gooping and the healing—there’s this idea that there’s this place we arrive at, like we reach some state of enlightenment or wholeness. But even when we reach the best place we’ve been with food, that can always backslide. It’s like a working relationship because we have to eat to stay alive. And like all relationships, it changes. The question with Rachel is, what does it mean to be well? Her nutritionist is happy, she gets her period, people are off her back, but she still has this whole secret life defined by food. And maybe it is up to every person to decide for themselves; what is our breaking point? How much suffering is too much suffering and how much suffering is acceptable? Recovery isn’t about becoming a saint. And it’s not a straight line, nor is it a destination. Rachel is a standup comedian. Your Twitter is very funny. I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about doing comedy, and what it was like to inhabit this comedian protagonist? I had to rewrite the comedy parts so many times because they kept being the least funny parts of the book. They were just shit. And I was like, why did I even do this? Occasionally I’ll have a dream where I’m doing comedy or a poetry reading and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to say—like there’s a paper but I can’t see it or I’ve lost my ability to read—and I just start making shit up. And it typically goes better with comedy. What about in your waking life? I have no desire to stand on a stage. I mean, I’m a ham; I like making people laugh. But I don’t know if I need to be physically embodied. I can be funny. But do I need to stand on a stage to do it? Absolutely not. Better to be heard but not seen. I’m a writer. I wanna be alone! There’s a joke about how people on the East Coast always know about California weather before we do. That resonated. My mom is always like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “Why?” And she’s like, “The earthquake!” And I’m like, “I had no idea.” A hundred percent. There was a huge fire right by my street a few years ago. My husband was out and I heard these sirens and I just figured they were going to something else. So I’m like watching porn and masturbating, like I finally have the house to myself. And I finish, which is no short undertaking, and I have these texts from my husband like, “YO what’s going on up there.” I go outside and all of my neighbors have evacuated. I feel like I’m always the last to know. Maybe I err a little too much on the side of not paying attention. Like, if fire trucks and sirens are going by your house for a while, maybe put down the Hitachi. Do you tend not to pick up on what’s happening in front of your face? I’m very internally focused. I think as writers this can happen. Some writers are very good observers of the world. But I’ve always sort of been out to lunch. Like there’s this whole other world going on and it’s inside. So it’s hard to stay focused on the outside. It’s like living in two worlds. And that’s always been the case. Like when I was in elementary school, all my report cards were like, “Where are you? Earth to Melissa!” It’s not something I chose. I didn’t choose the two-world life. I read that you already sold the TV rights to this book. Do you imagine your work on the screen when you’re writing a novel? Never. Nev-er. I more see it as a way to get health insurance. When we were talking about casting for The Pisces they asked, “Who do you see as Lucy?” and I was like, “My middle school librarian.” My assumption is that you’re happy about having to do a Zoom book tour versus an actual book tour?   Totally chill with that. I don’t love travelling. I don’t really have the “wanderlust.”  I much prefer the Zoom events to being in a bookstore. More people show up to online stuff and people can just turn off their camera. It’s a win-win for everyone. They don’t have to listen to anyone read literature, and I don’t have to be alone. Perfect! Do you like going to readings? I thought I did but then when my marriage became monogamous again I sort of lost interest. There’s no potential for sex and I’m sober, so I gotta really like the art.  
Melancholy Letters

I’ve spent most of my life reading literature that made me laugh. But something has changed.

“If there was nothing, there was everything to be made.” Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says  I was ten years old, living an unremarkable life, in an unremarkable rented townhouse, in an unremarkable part of Toronto, when my mother, in her own way, showed me how reading could save my life.  One day, a small package arrived encased in cardboard. It looked serious. It had an aura about it. I knew not to trouble it—besides, it wasn’t addressed to me. My mother said nothing about the package for several days. It remained on our kitchen table, stolid and puzzling, radiating mystery like a moon rock. Eventually, I was given permission to open the parcel as my mother and sister looked on. Inside was a burgundy-bound hardcover book with inlaid gold font on the cover: World Book Encyclopedia. “If you read enough books like this, you’ll be somebody one day,” my mother said. I looked at it, sliding a probing finger along its spine as she continued: “Don’t you want to be somebody?”  I immediately ran up to my room and hunkered down with the book. I flipped through a dizzying array of articles, mesmerized by photos and random facts, delighting over biographical entries. This went on for some time. Mother must have purchased the encyclopedias on a pay-as-you-go plan. The books seemed to come whenever they pleased. The “A” volume might arrive in January; “E” and “D” came in April. “B” arrived, inexplicably, in late summer. So my reading, even at the very beginning, was always sporadic, always eclectic. In those encyclopedias, I found a much-needed lifeline from the sadness and isolation that had silenced my home. My mother and sister were depressed and mostly alone in the world. I didn’t know why this was; I didn’t know the origins of their maladies. But I knew our lives weren’t like others; I knew we were somehow marked by difference. Because of their struggles—and by extension, my own—we lived on a veritable island. Few people entered our home, and, with the exception of going to school, church and work, we seldom ventured out.  While visitors were scarce, books found a way in. With time, I moved beyond my fascination with the encyclopedias, only to find myself completely enthralled with Bible stories and then comics. With my meager allowance, I started to buy my own books. I collected all the Choose Your Own Adventure, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume books I could lay my hands on. I developed an early love of reading newspapers and Reader’s Digest, even if I didn’t always understand everything I read. As a child, I didn’t know of any Black writers; I could not have conceived of them back then. But as I moved into my teen years, I discovered popular books by Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley, and later, a much-loved volume of African myths and folktales. In time, a whole universe of Black writing started to emerge. In our cloistered existence, this early reading cast a revealing glow upon my own life, so that when I witnessed my mother struggle to come up with rent, or if there was no food in the fridge, or if the silence of our home became too much to bear, I would remember how the people I read about had endured their own struggles and ordeals with grace and fortitude and, most crucially, with a sense of humour. Recently, I discovered what Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: "Sometimes this literature of just-before-the-battle is dominated by humour and allegory; but often too it is symptomatic of a period of distress and difficulty, where death is experienced and disgust too. We spew ourselves up, but already underneath laughter can be heard.” As a child, searching for a way into something that might resemble happiness or normalcy through reading, I loved to listen for this laughter. II I didn’t come from a family—immediate or extended—of readers. They were always too burdened and consumed with eking out livings and raising children to be readers in pursuit of anything that might be called pleasure.  My cousin Eddie, who was almost my mother’s age, was the only exception. He was the only semi-serious reader I knew growing up.  Eddie was unique. The lone wolf in the family, he had been swept up in the Black Arts movement in the ’60s after arriving in Canada. He was known, I’ve been told, to wear the occasional dashiki and to speak openly and brashly of white people being untrustworthy. He was forever writing a book—a grand novel—even though no book ever materialized.  Eddie was opinionated in that way readers often are, and he had a habit, whenever he saw me, of telling me what I should be reading. “Books are weapons,” he would tell me with a whimsical smile. “Never be without one.” It was Eddie who gave me a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, the story of a man whose ambitions to be a writer and homeowner in pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago were frustrated by family entanglements and deep-rooted expectations within his Indo-Caribbean culture. It was the first book of fiction I read that felt close to my own Caribbean heritage. I understood its setting and themes intuitively. I knew, intimately, the daunting chasm that lay between Biswas’s desires and his material circumstances. I devoured the book. Even though the Indo-Caribbean experience was not mine, I knew it belonged to a broader, transplanted Caribbean experience that had nurtured me growing up. I knew well that sense of striving against poverty, that desperate need to overcome the cramping smallness of family life while clinging to some form of dignity. My mother had demonstrated this kind of holding on in so many ways. Of course, I knew nothing of Naipaul’s bigotry at the time. That knowledge came much later. But what endures about his novel is its comic power. Infused with a biting and unique brand of humour Trinidadians refer to as picong (from the French, piquant), the book was the first in a long line of works that illuminated for me how humour can help us to persist and strive against significant odds. It was the first book to show me that life’s challenges could be laughed at, could be made light of through storytelling, even when life was bitterly unfair and cruel. Through humour, I eventually came to realize, we display our understanding of what it means to be human. I wouldn’t have been able to define or use a big word like tragicomedy back then, but I knew it in the way one knows a thing without having words to describe it. As I moved through that early reading, I felt like I was being let in on a secret, a feeling I can now recognize as something deeply subversive. I knew that the stories mocked a rigged world, an existence I’d always felt in my gut was gerrymandered. I knew that these stories used humour—sometimes straightforward, sometimes dark—as code among those who had shared in struggle and disappointment. I knew that the use of jokes and playfulness were not merely comic relief but were meant to uplift and encourage, were meant to provoke movement in our thinking about our circumstances and ourselves, even when everything surrounding our lives seemed immovable.   George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin had a similar impact on me. The story of “G”, a young man coming of age in a small village in Barbados, could easily stand in for what I have learned about my mother’s childhood. The narrative sings with delightful humour, even when relating stories of disastrous floods, of illness, and of entrenched poverty. Play and buoyancy are at the core of Lamming’s coming-of-age tale; there is a spirit of “getting over” by way of tenderness, through smiling or smirking knowingly in the face of colonial oppression. The novel’s magic lies in the way it shows the sheer stupidity of British colonial life: the manner in which it exposes its bizarre norms and racist plantation logics, and the ways in which it examines how conformity to imperialism stunts and narrows one’s life.  Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners—where the experiences of West Indian emigrants arriving in England during the 1950s are characterized beautifully through devastating satire—are some other examples of what I loved to read: literary expression through humour. These writers became the shibboleths of my university experience, where, now in the company of other Black students who also viewed books as refuge, my reading became more political. In my twenties, beyond the isolating silence of my mother’s home, reading took on a different purpose. At a friend’s small apartment, just off campus, a group of us would converge to discuss books, art, and the politics of the day. Laughter masked our worries about unpaid tuition and already damaged credit scores. Essays were due, but the reading and book swapping and learning we indulged in together somehow seemed more important. Amid the tumult of our dubious prospects, we relied on our books as anchors of joy. We turned constantly to humour like castaways looking for shore. I found similar books at the public library. I sustained myself there for hours on snacks and water until lights were flickered for closing time. There I discovered the work of Derek Walcott, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, and closer to home, Dionne Brand, Lillian Allen, Dany Laferrière, M. Nourbese Philip, Cecil Foster, among others. I came into a startling and liberating understanding of “post-colonial” literature. I learned that my Blackness was not only Caribbean or Canadian, but diasporic as well.  Reading became an addiction, attending my lectures and seminars, a distraction. The university never felt safe for Black students, but we found community in the undercommons. Harold Bloom once wrote that reading is a “selfish rather than social” practice. This was the exact opposite of our experience. For us, reading was entirely social. We had no money. We struggled—sometimes with family and partners, sometimes to buy books or food, sometimes within our own minds. We were in the university, utterly unconvinced of our welcome. But our books and the raucous and supportive circles of love and laughter they helped to create were our salve, our salvation. III Because my mother was from Barbados, the late Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke reserved a hallowed place within that formative reading. The brilliant and unbearably funny Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack may have been one of the first autobiographical books I read, followed closely by The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  In Clarke’s novel, The Meeting Point, I encountered the protagonist Bernice Leach, a domestic worker who runs up against the many racial and cultural pitfalls that Black people faced in 1950s Canada. She may as well have been my Aunt Lu, who also suffered bad treatment at the hands of a Jewish housewife under the notorious Domestic Scheme. My aunt was reluctant to talk about her experiences, but I had Clarke’s novel to fill in the gaps. Clarke was particularly special because he sparked in me (and others who aspired to write) the notion that such an ambition was possible, if not entirely plausible, for Black people in Canada. He was of an older generation, yes, but he was one of us, and we claimed him proudly. There was something about his unlikely achievement in becoming a leading man of letters that made the vocation of writing both worthy and admirable. And, more importantly to me, his early stories were terribly funny. In Clarke’s early work, particularly the short stories, his characters understood how badly the cards had been stacked, how utterly uninviting and inhospitable their so-called new homes could be. But they possessed an indomitable spirit, a “wink-wink” fortitude that was delightful to discover. But this literature has changed. At some point, the humour stopped and the laughs dried up. I recall reading Clarke’s Giller Prize-winning novel, The Polished Hoe, published in 2002, and realizing—not without a deep sense of loss—that a decidedly somber shift had taken place in Black Canadian writing. When I read contemporary Black Canadian literature, it feels like there are no obvious equivalents to that marvelous, comedic bent that was so central to its formation. Certainly, Black Canadian writers—some whose heritage is once or twice removed from the Caribbean or Africa or other parts of the world—have produced a number of well-regarded books across multiple genres over the last few decades. And the melancholic themes they have taken up no doubt provide an important window onto the ongoing struggle for Black freedom. But in reading more recent works—both fiction and non-fiction—there are moments when I struggle to connect such themes to the humorous, vibrant, and playful literary tradition that preceded them. Thinking now of how that previous reading sustained me, and reflecting on how it provided a much-needed respite from worry and depression, I go in search of a comedic romp or a satirical yarn or a tragicomic tale, but there are none to be had—only notes of despair that seem to have become the default tone of our literary production. These recent works aim to take up the seriousness of our times. That much is clear. Sentences, poetic lines, and paragraphs are weighted down with this seriousness. Theoretical concepts like afro-pessimism, critical race theory, post-modernism, queer theory, and other big ideas from the university underlie their narratives, undergird their plots. The work openly demands that we take it seriously—maybe a little too seriously. IV As a writer myself, I often wonder about what other writers ponder.  What do emerging Black writers in Canada think about? Do they focus on being taken seriously by literary agents, editors, publishers, and, later on, their readers? Does this commitment to seriousness influence and sometimes restrict their imaginative labour? Does it form a kind of literary lodestar? Do they think of tradition, of where their work is situated? Are they aware of what has come before? Does that even matter?  I don’t know. The truth is these are really questions more suited to the critic than the writer. The writer pulls on personal experience and knowledge to produce something of value. That is all. Why it is that comedy has largely disappeared from Black Canadian writing is a socio-cultural question that exceeds the writer’s purview. Writers do their best to craft narratives derived from specific frames of reference. Ultimately, it is the role of the critic to situate and assess the quality of the work, to think about relation. And that has always been part of the challenge with Black writing in Canada. Beyond those who work within university departments, there are few Black literary critics capable of assessing the value of such writing. There is no critical mass of popular Black critics who might show how such writing is connected to works that have come before, how recurring themes of struggle and survival have been nurtured across a varied landscape of literary modes and textures, including comedic ones. I suspect the mostly humourless tonal strain found in Black Canadian writing today is the result of a kind of cultural amnesia, an inability to remember, and therefore respond to, a rich and complex literary tradition. It is also, if I may say so, evidence of an overreliance on academia—and its particular language and intellectual concerns—to do the heavy-lifting of supporting and promoting Black writers within a Canadian literary landscape that continues to marginalize Black artistic labour. And, certainly, the proclivities and tastes of white editors, agents, and publishers have played a significant role in putting out books that centre Black suffering over humour and joy.  But perhaps my decline in reading, my dimming of delight, warrants no alarm at all. Perhaps the comedic power of that early writing has worked itself out, and perhaps it may return at some later point. Perhaps the turn to darker, more weighted narratives in Black Canadian literature answers a crucial call. Maybe such books mine new themes, ones more relevant to our urgent times. And maybe my notion of the joyous function of literature, in the way I thought of it in that wonderful formative reading, has finally come to an end. And maybe that’s perfectly fine.