I understand why people balk at labels. But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication.
In grade four, our class was located in a portable about a hundred metres beyond the school’s back door. A small wooden porch flanked by two railings and a set of stairs lead up to the portable; it also provided a multi-level platform useful for playing WWF Wrestlemania. One other girl sometimes played with us, but mostly it was just me and a whole bunch of boys. The goal was to hurl ourselves at each other hard enough to pin—to push and jostle and launch off the porch onto an unsuspecting crowd of wrestlers. The boys weren’t my friends, but they let me play with them. (Sports is all about numbers.) I had long hair but it was unkempt, and we were in the era of ‘90s Jaromir Jagr—his glorious, curly mullet unfurling from his hockey helmet in much the same way my dark waves bunched at my shoulders. That year, I turned nine and was finally allowed to play hockey. The first time I knocked over a fellow girl—not on my team—I stopped skating and helped her back to her feet as my father hollered from the stands. Afterwards, my father and my coaches told me to “use my size,” the way it was useful on the porch behind the portable. That year, in school, we played a math game called Around the World, based on times tables, in which the goal was to circle the classroom, defeating your classmates one by one. That year, drunk on wrestling and hockey and math—a subject I understood to be best suited to real (read: male) nerds—I requested that my classmates call me “Andy.” They did not comply. I grew up in a time and place—a small town called Dundas, Ontario, b. 1984—when gender roles were binary. I grew up in a place where my favourite tomboy classmate later ridiculed my unshaven legs. I grew up in a place where, walking to work or the library, people yelled gendered, homophobic slurs out of their cars at me. I grew up with a mother I thoroughly confused and disappointed, just by virtue of being myself. It’s hard to say what kind of a person I’d be if these conditions had been different. Given these conditions, though, I took refuge in “tomboy.” * The word “tomboy” first emerged in the mid-16th century to describe rude, forward boys. A couple decades later, it began to apply to women—more specifically, bold and immodest, impudent and unchaste women. Soon after that, the term found the home we’re familiar with, referring to girls who behaved like “spirited or boisterous” boys. (Men got to keep “tom cat”—super creepy if you’ve ever googled “cat sex” after hearing alleyway yowling in the middle of the night.) By the time I hit elementary school, tomboy’s denotation had remained similar, but its connotation had shifted: wanting to be like a spirited and boisterous boy wasn’t such a bad thing. Second-wave feminism had crested, powersuits had come and gone, and we all understood that embodying certain aspects of masculinity provided a shortcut—albeit tenuous—to power in adulthood, and freedom in childhood. As Jack Halberstam writes in his 1998 book Female Masculinity, tomboyism tended, at that time, to be “associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedom and mobility enjoyed by boys.” Of course, there were boundaries: eschewing girls’ clothing altogether, or, say, asking your classmates to opt for a more masculine version of your name. “Tomboy,” as an adult term, is most often applied to straight women who are somewhat masculine or boyish, or maybe “androgynous”—most often applied by the mainstream to masculine people with model-like proportions, proportions that are clothing-flexible because they are narrow and boxy. The first sentence of Lizzie Garrett Mettler’s introduction to Tomboy Style: Beyond the Boundaries of Fashion, goes like so: “When I arrived on campus for my first day at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, I was thirteen and as plumb a tomboy as any.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Mettler describes breaking her collarbone playing field hockey, she writes that her new Brooks best friend, Kingsley Woolworth, “decorated [her] sling with Lilly Pulitzer fabric sourced from a pair of my mother's cigarette pants.” Mettler's tomboyhood fashion icons, featured in the full-colour book, are universally thin, generally white, and cover the usual gamut from Coco Chanel to Patti Smith, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and Diane Keaton, with more contemporary additions like Tilda Swinton and Janelle Monae. My favourite photo is probably the one of Eartha Kitt, in mid-swing, playing baseball. Most of the other photos and icons—not to take anything away from these women, who are all great women—don't include people like me. I don't and can't see myself in these rich icons: their small breasts, their bony shoulders, the ease with which a pair of trousers glides past their hips and thighs. Taken together, with Mettler's narrative, “tomboy” is a way of being a woman that fits quite neatly into what we expect of “woman”: a conventional BMI, tousled hair, a camera-friendly approach. Bodies with hips cocked, odalisque'd across the hood of a ‘50s car. Style from brands and stories that are very parochially New York, or what you'd call continental, European. Style that reaches out to rich woman who want to marry rich men to let them know that everything will be okay: here is a way forward that will still appeal to the men and women in your social niche. * Last year, I was eating lunch at a cafe in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Behind me, a mom and daughter spoke Polish and waited for their order. They were of a set: both blonde and blue-eyed, similar facial structure, similar feminine clothing styles, similar body types. When I was very young and could be forced into puffy-sleeved dresses, could be convinced or strong-armed into curls and tights, my mother foresaw a future where we were of a set. My hair wasn't blonde like hers, my eyes weren't blue, my ears stuck out farther from my head than they were supposed to, but none of these things were immutable. At eight or nine I began to grow. My body shot up and broadened. My legs lengthened, my belly got round, I became chubby, grew breasts. Next to my peers, who still looked like children, I felt monstrous. My mom urged the hairdresser to "soften" my face with feathered bangs. We fought about clothes. I wanted to dress like the boy from two doors down who wore low-riding shorts and untucked T-shirts; wearing my pants like that, my mom said, would draw attention to my belly. We bought aspirational-sized clothing. We put me on a diet. I starved and binged. I forgot to close my legs when I was made to wear a skirt. Instead of being of a set with my mom, I resented her as much as my inability to give her what she wanted from me. “Tomboy” provided me with my first out. Tomboy offered a way to pursue masculinity from what felt like a failed female body. I gave up mimicking girlhood, accepted a ruptured relationship with my mother, and slowly began to build a relationship with my body and my selfhood that wasn’t based in self-negation. The world I grew up in—the world we live in now—still places an inordinate amount of pressure on female bodies as consumable; opting out of femininity, even privately, freed me to see myself as a whole person, and it also freed me to interrogate the legitimacy of the boundaries I was breaching with my monstrosity. Tomboyhood offered me a kind of self-acceptance I never got to experience as a girl. But conventional gender-code breaking—allowed, within boundaries, for girls—ends, too often, with adulthood. As Jack Halberstam writes, “If adolescence for boys represents a rite of passage… for girls, adolescence is a lesson in restraint, punishment, and repression.” In popular culture (The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, for example), tomboyism is often folded into narratives about resisting adulthood; there’s a tacit understanding that with time, a tomboy will grow out of her (his, their) affinity for masculine presentation, masculine-coded pastimes, masculine-coded work. And so tomboy gets roped in, like everything else, to safety and convention—swanning into simple, elegant, usually white, womanhood. A conventionally attractive woman devouring a burger in a men’s magazine profile; an unadorned silk dress. My masculinity never turned men’s mag icon. I have never been an uncomplicated body in a silky dress; instead, I began to identify with the world of female masculinity best understood and embraced by queer theory; I pursued masculine-coded work, becoming a bike mechanic; I grew up and, though I dated men, came to identify as queer. For over a year, I have had a BuzzFeed video bookmarked on my computer: “What Is Female Masculinity?” I watch it about once a month. The video starts with identifications: “I don’t really identify with anything but if anything I guess it would be butch”; “MOC, which is, like, masculine of centre”; “Genderqueer butch mahoo”; two “gender-neutral”s; “LHB: Long-haired butch.” Everybody has similar but diverging things to say about masculinity, female masculinity, aesthetics, and the benefits and disadvantages of being masculine and female in a world that prizes many aspects of masculinity. Near the end, one of the participants says, “A lot of times, butch women are blessed with the burden of boobs. That’s a very funny cross to bear on top of everything else.” I have large breasts—boobs—and like many people who experience gender dysphoria, I do everything in my power to keep this detail from the general public (I own a compression vest, surreptitiously wear sports bras under collared shirts, curve my wide shoulders forward in an attempt to hide myself). Often, I’m proud of myself and I accept my body. But sometimes, I feel alone, quite alone. I can’t sum up the power of watching someone express my secret shame as a warmly funny in-joke. I understand why people balk at labels—why further subdivide the world? But I think of them—tomboy, butch, genderqueer, MOC—as functional and hopeful. That function is communication. If I can’t describe who I am in this world—I am who I am, whether or not I can describe it—then I can’t seek out others like me. * Early in 2015, a feminist mom, Meredith Hale, wrote “Don’t Call My Daughter a Tomboy” for the Huffington Post. Hale’s daughter comes home from school one day and announces that she feels like she is like a boy, and, in fact, a tomboy, because she likes sports. Hale writes, in part, that she had “been guilty of using the label ‘tomboy’”—but only before she “knew better.” Late last year, feminist Catherine Connors wrote a piece for Her Bad Mother (later reprinted by Bust) called “Don't Call Her a Tomboy.” Connors’s daughter, who dirtbikes, self-identifies as a tomboy. “I wouldn’t call you a tomboy, sweetie. I think that you’re you,” Connors tells her kid. “And you like a lot of different things, and they’re not just ‘boy things’ or ‘girl things,’ they’re things that you like.” Similarly, Hale wants her daughter to grow up embracing her femininity at the same time as she feels free to pursue whatever sports and pastimes draw her attention. Eventually, Connors comes to the conclusion that these ongoing conversations are not really about tomboys, after all—they are about feminism. That girls and boys can contain multitudes. That gender stereotypes must be challenged. That parents must contest the ways in which society—with its pink aisles and camo prints—boxes in boys and girls. Has our conception of gender changed so much that the in-between space that was so useful for me as a child—that is useful for me as an adult—is no longer necessary? After mulling over these pieces—and, more broadly, the differences between mainstream feminism and queer feminism—for more than a year, I wish there was room to embrace both tomboy and the fight to move beyond gender stereotyping. I wonder: how would I have felt if I received these messages from my mother? What if, instead, we outlined for kids like these that girls and boys can do and like and be who they want—but if they’re not a girl, or not a boy, that’s okay, too? I have done a lot of work to disentangle myself from misogyny—to embrace my own femininity, to move past the ways in which I had rejected femininity broadly because it had been foisted upon me. I can’t help but feel that mainstream feminism has not done the same amount of work to understand genderqueerness, to understand complex trans identities. Why, otherwise, would you call to kill a term that still holds some usefulness for me, and others like me? If the world has told us for much of our lives that we are not quite women, and, moreover, “girl” and “woman” never quite fit, is it our responsibility to forcibly expand girlhood and womanhood until it grudgingly accepts us? Can I not just be woman-adjacent in peace? Identity exists at the crux point of internal and external pressures—who we feel we are, and how others see us. Far from being discrete, one feeds into the other. I have no way of knowing how I’d feel if I hadn’t spent my youth feeling shamed into, and failing at, femininity. I wouldn’t be a feminine woman, but maybe I’d feel more comfortable stretching “woman” till it fit. As it stands, I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man; I’m not a tomboy anymore, either, though kernels of tomboyhood remain useful for me. From time to time, lifting a cargo bike into a repair stand, I tell myself to use my size; from time to time, I opt for a dress I can walk or bike in, because shoehorning a curvy body into masculine clothes takes work. In adolescence, tomboyhood offered a positive way to describe myself instead of repeating I’m not, I’m not, I’m not. It emphasized doing rather than being; it offered the option of finding power, and community, in monstrosity.
Remembering the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, who chronicled the second half of the twentieth century with her trademark brand of reporting, one year after her death.
In May of 1950, a thirty-one-year-old New Yorker staff writer named Lillian Ross became the talk of the town when the magazine published her sharply-observed, massively detailed profile of Ernest Hemingway. Around the same time, she began following the noted screenwriter and director John Huston as he was making his much-anticipated movie, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane's Civil War novel. Two years later, "No. 1512," Ross's remarkable anatomy of the Hollywood studio system and the fate of Huston's film, appeared as a four-part serial in The New Yorker and in book form, as Picture: A Story About Hollywood, a few months later (available again in April 2019 from NYRB Classics). Hailed at the time as one of the first examples of nonfiction written like fiction—it wasn’t, of course; fictional devices have been used by writers of nonfiction since at least the nineteenth century—Ross is on record as having consulted with New Yorker editor (and later her long-time lover) William Shawn early in her reporting, telling him: “I don’t know whether this sort of thing has ever been done before, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form.” By the time Ross died on September 20, 2017, at ninety-nine, her reputation among the foremost literary journalists was secure. But what’s often overlooked is that, with Picture, she pioneered the fly-on-the-wall, warts-and-all, inside-Hollywood form of journalism which later spawned a whole genre of books, such as John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (1969); Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate (1986); Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco (the 1991 book about Brian De Palma’s disastrous adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities); and James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom (2005). Memorably, Ross begins "No. 1512" with a phone call from Huston. "You know something?" he said, over the telephone. He has a theatrical way of inflecting his voice that can give a commonplace query a rich and melodramatic intensity. "They don’t want me to make this picture. And I want to make this picture." He made the most of every syllable, so that it seemed at that moment to lie under his patent and have some special urgency. "Come on over, kid, and I’ll tell you all about the hassle." Granted by Huston and the studio, MGM, the kind of carte blanche access that has virtually disappeared in today's spin-doctored culture, Ross, using her favorite 3 x 5-inch spiral Clairefontaine notebooks and micro-point Uni-Ball pens, recorded the making of the movie with stenographic precision, detailing all the compromises, the noble intentions, and self-absorbed foolishness of Hollywood, often in long chunks of what seem to be verbatim dialogue. It feels as though she’s present everywhere, a technique that’s similar to “participant observation,” a form of qualitative data collection used in sociology and anthropology. In the introduction to her 2015 anthology, Reporting Always, Ross simply called it “writing a piece as if it were a miniature movie.” She was there to witness the death of the studio system that defined the Golden Age of Hollywood, when big companies, like MGM, were facing competition from TV and anti-trust legislation that would soon end their dominance, to be replaced by an era of smaller studios and directors and actors who demanded greater control. Although Ross, with her micro-approach, only alludes to the macro forces at work. She always thought of herself as an observer, not an analyst. Born in 1918 in Syracuse, NY and raised in Brooklyn, she started writing for her school newspaper in the sixth grade. Her first story, about the library, began, “Fat books, thin books, new books, old books…” Reading it in print, she recalled, was an “unforgettable rapture.” Later, on a school trip to The New York Times, she was seduced by the sights, smells, and sounds. In the early ‘40s, she got a job on an experimental liberal newspaper called PM that featured splashy photographs and no advertising. When William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, tried to hire Ross’s editor at PM, the editor recommended he hire Ross. She distinguished herself from the beginning with vividly drawn stories about a bullfighter in Mexico, the Miss America pageant, a busload of midwestern teenagers visiting Manhattan for the first time, and diamond dealer Harry Winston. Once her reputation was firmly established by her profile of Hemingway, she turned her attention to Huston’s movie. Given the sanitized portraits of Hollywood up until this time—mainly puffy biographies of stars and cleaned-up histories of the big studios—what surprised readers was Ross’s depiction of how crude internal politics and battles between art and commerce were at the heart of moviemaking. Huston saw "The Red Badge of Courage" as an artistic endeavor, a story of the moral ambiguities of war (his next film, which he regarded as a quick-and-dirty money spinner, was The African Queen). Although backed by his producers, Huston wasn't aware that legendary MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer, who favored corny, big-budget entertainments, hated the idea of The Red Badge of Courage but was content to watch as his subordinates fell on their swords. Ross captures the action with a cinematic intensity and her trademark rendering of dialogue, as in a characteristically vivid scene in which Mayer is seen in his office ranting about modern movies: "Don't show the good, wholesome American mother in the home. Kind. Sweet. Sacrifices. Love." Mayer paused and by his expression demonstrated, in turn, maternal kindness, sweetness, sacrifice, and love, then glared at [producer Arthur] Freed and me. "No!" he cried. "Knock the mother on the jaw!" He gave himself an uppercut to the chin. "Throw the little old lady down the stairs!" He threw himself in the general direction of the American flag [behind his desk]. "Throw the mother's good, homemade soup in the mother's face!" He threw an imaginary bowl of soup in Freed's face. "Step on the mother! Kick her! That is art, they say. Art!" He raised and lowered his white eyebrows, wiggled his shoulders like a hula dancer, and moved his hand in a mysterious pattern in the air. "Art!" he repeated, and gave an angry growl. James Thurber once admiringly called Ross “the girl with the built-in tape recorder,” although Ross didn’t believe in using tape recorders. In her 2002 book, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: “To me, the machine distorts the truth… Tape-recorded interviews are not only misleading; they are unrealistic; they are lifeless… I make sure to write down key, identifying phrases and words that help me remember the rhythm and context of what I’m hearing. Then I’m able to reproduce long exchanges.” And in a 1961 interview in Newsweek, she said, “You try not to get in the way of the person you’re trying to show. If you’re trying to follow along with the person you’re interviewing, to respond to him instead of coming along with a lot of prepared questions, you just get him going. And don’t bother him.” In a review of Picture in The New York Times, producer and screenwriter Budd Schulberg summed up what many of the people associated with “The Red Badge of Courage” probably felt. “It is a book with many morals. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that, if you value your privacy, if you don’t want to be caught with your clichés down or your pretensions showing, Miss Ross is not the lady to ask into your home.” When Picture was published, reviewers made much of Ross's so-called purely factual, objective reporting, even though the author's hand is evident throughout the book. Noting that spending time with Huston felt like being in a Huston film, she wrote, "In appearance, in gestures, in manner of speech, in the selection of people and objects he surrounded himself with, and in the way he composed them into individual 'shots'...and then arranged the shots into dramatic sequence, he was simply the raw material of his own art." In her understated, yet no less deliberate, way, of course, Ross also shaped her material into an expression of her own experience. Her judgments, cloaked as observations, are often incisive, as in her description of a Hollywood executive lunching in a fashionable restaurant. "He was almost the only one in Chasen's who was not at that moment looking around at someone other than the person he was talking to." Unlike the so-called “new journalism” that was to come in the 1960s, when writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson put themselves front-and-centre in their stories, Ross held a view that today seems quaintly old-fashioned. In her introduction to Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, she wrote: "reporting is not about the reporter, even though he is always revealed in the writing. If one is the kind of person who needs attention from others—who prefers talking to listening, who wants to be the star of a situation or important to the situation, who essentially wants to show off—reporting is not a choice line of work." Shortly after Picture was published in late 1952, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote, “Miss Ross, though she makes no comments of her own, lets everyone babble with childlike trust and in such an uninhibited manner that without exception they appear a crowd of grotesques worthy of Nathanael West.” Midway through her research, Ross was attacked in the literary magazine Partisan Review by Hans Meyerhoff, a UCLA professor friendly with movie insiders. Among the charges was Ross's technique of asking questions "deceptive in their sophomoric simplicity" and her habit of seldom saying anything herself. A shoot-the-messenger observation at a time when journalism, like the movie industry, was in the early stages of a radical evolution. In an interview after Picture was published, Ross explained, "All I do is take a lot of notes. And I listen." A simple strategy that allows readers to see and hear what they would otherwise be excluded from, pioneered by the woman a New York Times reviewer described as "one of the most creative innocent bystanders of our time."
The author of Beirut Hellfire Society on writing about the Lebanese Civil War, collective memory, and the selfishness of Greek deities.
Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society (Knopf Canada) is a delirious percolation of grief and remembrance. The novel takes place in Beirut in 1978 —just as the Lebanese Civil War began to crescendo—where Pavlov inherits his father’s task to cremate the bodies of the unknown, the outliers, and the shunned. Pavlov’s undertaking of burial also serves as his induction to the eponymous secret society, which operates on the fringes of conflict while full of flashy, hedonistic characters. What you get is a story that is not only critical of nationalism and religious superiority, but one that is lush with fabulism and decay. Writing about war is a dance between respecting the integrity of collective memory and finding the freedom to revisit it in fiction. It’s a dance that’s all-too-familiar for Rawi Hage, a survivor of the Lebanese Civil War who came into recognition via his debut, De Niro’s Game, which chronicles the friendship between two men as they struggle to survive in the same turmoil-ridden landscape. The novel won him the International Dublin Literary Award. More than a decade later, with Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage circles back to writing about the civil war. Amanda Ghazale Aziz: What stirred a return to writing about the civil war? Why now? Rawi Hage: I was trying to write a book about death, about loss. I was thinking about situating it inside Sarajevo at one point because I was there a few years ago, but then I felt that Beirut is more familiar and the Lebanese Civil War would surely provide that amount of death, especially that excess of death. I found myself going back without any hesitation. Let’s consider the act of burial in this book; Pavlov’s newly acquired task to bury the outliers of society reminded me of the collective conscious affected by the missing and unclaimed bodies (Tel al-Za’atar, for instance). I have to say, writing about burial of the unclaimed and shunned seems like a partaking of the ritual itself. Well, I started this book as a personal mourning for friends and family and close people, and the Middle East in general, with the amount of cadavers these wars were and are producing in various regions. That access of a parade of cadavers. The book is a bit fantastical, it’s a bit unrealistic, but that was made on purpose. I think we’re ready, as Arabs, to move on with how we process these events, much like in Latin American literature and magic realism. The fabulism in Beirut Hellfire Society is a way of processing? Yes, and it’s also a way to contribute to a new form of Arabic literature. I think it’s due. I’m not the only one, and I think it’s time to move on from that nationalistic literature and head into that of the imaginary. I think we’re ready. Especially with the new generation. If anything, I’m writing for the new generation and hope that they would carry this on someday. I think, by seeing the new generation [of Arab writers] doing amazing things—they’re very combative in that sense—that I get my inspiration from them. I don’t get it from my generation. I hope I get to play a role of transition. You were formally trained and worked as a photographer before you ventured into writing. How does memory and documentation guide you as a writer? I think when you experience a certain trauma, the only way to see the narrative clear is through images. I think it’s a phenomena for people who went through wars, it’s a mechanism of coping with the trauma. Maybe I’m projecting, but maybe that’s my experience. When I recall the war, I recall it in images, not verbally or by text. That’s what really comes to me: fragmented images, much like photographs. Images in different sizes that can be interpreted or projected on or be used as a memory to recall events. At least that’s for me. I think the system of recollection, which are in the form of images to me, is much more current for people who experience collective trauma. Collective trauma and memory has me thinking of Etel Adnan’s question in Night: “Is memory produced by us or is it us?” When it comes to collective memory of wartime and location, though, what do writers owe to readers and the event itself? Do they owe it to collective memory or do they serve the story first? There are many functions, but I’m not sure with literature to what extent it contributes. It depends on the era, too. I think in terms of severe crisis, many literary writers try to become a spokesperson or try to record things as close to reality as possible. I know for the Lebanese Civil War, after it had ended, the government had tried to obstruct the memory as much as possible. It was a conscious decision to not talk about the war, or to excavate what happened. It was only done by artists, such as Akram Zaatari—there was a small group who were very conscious about immediately recording the war. What was interesting is they recorded in a fictitious way. If you look at their work, it’s very close to fiction, and that’s maybe because the narrative of the war was still contested. There is no official say, but certainly it’s still contested, though I think most of the artists were sympathetic to the left-leaning narrative of what happened, which I agree with. You know, it’s a very tricky balance. You don’t want to write with an agenda, as it affects the art, but you don’t want your art devoid of history. So it’s a very, very fine balance. When I had set to write De Niro’s Game, my intention was to write a book of literature and to contribute to the literary scene. Having said that, what concerned me the most was the trauma that I couldn’t escape. I think with this new book, I’m moving to somewhere different. There’s been enough recording of what has happened by other artists; the Arab world, they’re outspoken… There are six-hour arguments. Things are out in the open, the politeness is not there. I agree. I also think there is a burden for racialized writers to represent the whole community, to have the last word on a said event, which is impossible. That’s right. The responsibility, the burden, is much heavier for us. If we don’t exercise our collective imagination—and not just documentation —we’ll always be at a certain disadvantage. I think what literature could provide us with is showing other possibilities. What I fear most is homogeneity. Ancient Greek literature is heavily referenced in Beirut Hellfire Society, with Pavlov’s obsession with the Iliad in particular, what with the downfall of Troy serving as a mirror to that of Beirut. Were you reading any works of Ancient Greek literature during your time spent writing this novel? Yes, I’ve read the Iliad many times—it’s a book I’ve read again and again. I like it, I like the poetry, I like the story, but I also like the Greeks in general, though I do not want to idealize them. They were like any other empire: oppressive. What I like about the Greeks was the multiplicity of gods and goddesses, and how accessible the gods were, and that transformation between humans and gods. That accessibility. Gods were not unanimous, and the Greeks knew it, they were very conscious that they had constructed their own gods. I like that, I think that it’s much more sophisticated, especially with how open they were about the failures of their gods. The Greek deities were notorious for being as jealous and selfish as humans, if not more. So selfish, so openly manipulative that it’s hard to take them seriously! They’re so transparent that they’re a mirror to their own society. It’s almost naive. I don’t know why I like reading these works, but it certainly helped my writing. There’s a certain courage that I appreciate.
I can’t imagine where I’d be if they knew my version of what happened.
I’m the only man in the village who subscribes to The Hollywood Reporter. The latest clipping, which I paste in my scrapbook, is just a column inch, an ad for waterbeds on the reverse. Black Water director Edgar Van Buren is once again facing criticism, this time for his decision to host a lavish party for the jurors who acquitted him of manslaughter. Held at the director’s mid-century home above Coldwater Canyon, the party marked the one-year anniversary of the verdict, on May 15, 1988. All twelve jurors attended. The father and former manager of Doretta Howell, who intends to sue for wrongful death, has called the party “proof you can’t find one good man in Hollywood.” I recognize the byline. The writer had tried contacting me countless times throughout the trial, but I could not be reached for comment. Because I was non-creative personnel—below-the-line, as they say—and had no height from which to fall, I could avoid the most public disgrace. But behind tinted glass, the studios don’t forget. Without the help of the courts, they took everything from me, my whole life in America. And I can’t imagine where I’d be, if they knew my version of what happened. * After a morning of being thrown through a window, Dot Howell collapsed in the honeywagon, unable to proceed with her French. I remember handing her a Yoohoo and picking sugared glass from her hair. Edgar Van Buren insisted his actors perform the stunts themselves—no body doubles—and as I testified, she obeyed his every direction. Dot and I wouldn’t get our three hours that day. On the set of The Chasm, our lessons were just ten-minute fragments before she was hauled off again. The few times I cornered a producer—and once, disastrously, Van Buren—he wouldn’t take me seriously. I said Dot needed those hours, there on the shag rug of the honeywagon, chewing Skittles and microwaving in the desert heat. I said she needed to be a girl for three hours a day. I asked her, “Do you think he got the shot?” She shook her head, a shimmer of glass. All she could focus on was the model. A Medieval French castle surrounded by the sodden country of my native Normandy—it was our class project; we had a different one on every shoot. Now Dot cracked the lid on another tub of clay and slapped some on the hillside. I didn’t protest, but lately the clay had been piling higher and higher, while the castle went unfinished. It wasn’t encouraging that she pictured Normandy as a muddy wasteland. “Soon we’ll need to add the servants’ homes,” I said, in French. Dot massaged a lump into the landscape. Finally, she said, “I need to tell you something.” I kept picking at her hair. “Stop it,” she said, freezing my hand. Dot had never addressed me so formally. I sat very upright behind my desk and put my fingers together in a steeple, as if to show her that when you speak like an adult, everyone around you grows cold and severe. “Dad and I made an agreement,” she said. “When he gets here, he’s going to be my manager.” Betraying nothing, I said, “He was supposed to be here yesterday.” “I know that.” Dot’s first assistant pounded on the honeywagon door. It was time to go back through the window. “Do you think he’ll come today?” I asked. "Probably, yeah." “That’s not very professional.” Dot looked at her dirty hands, and suddenly lurched at me like a beautiful, filthy little vampire. I neither flinched nor smiled. * God hated The Chasm. If I believed in predestination, I’d observe how He arranged the production’s calamities to torment Edgar Van Buren. The director’s perfectionism was the stuff of renown—dozens, sometimes hundreds of imperceptibly different takes to achieve the one. That’s why, despite everything—despite the drinking, the verbal abuse, the reckless endangerment—everyone wanted to work with him. It was a chance to be a part of something everlasting. Yet on that project, everything conspired against him. Twice the set was ripped away by sandstorms that gathered on the radar, blood-red and too late to evade. That’s when Dot and I laid the foundation of the castle, the honeywagon rocking in gale-force winds. And we had further opportunities to work when the elder star, Xavier Braun, stepped on a rattler and was bitten three times, fast as automatic weaponry, and had to be air-lifted back to Los Angeles. The Chasm was Van Buren’s first horror film. Having asserted himself in almost every other genre—comedy, history, war—it was an aesthetic challenge he’d set himself. But what was it about? The script was impressionistic, constantly reappearing on different-coloured paper as it underwent another visionary mutation. I don’t think he really understood what horror meant—not yet. In the latest version—mustard yellow—a narrative spine had formed at last. A runaway orphan (Dot) hitchhikes into the desert, and comes upon a seemingly abandoned chapel, only to discover a man (Braun) living inside. The orphan mistakes him for a priest, but as it turns out, he’s an escaped convict, a child-murderer. The title, as I gleaned from the mustard-yellow version, referred to the psychic underworld into which the killer initiates the orphan. But everything else remained indistinct. The budget was ballooning. The studio was terrified. Van Buren’s indulgent, improvisational method was a Hollywood anachronism. He’d inked a famous contract in the late 1960s, wedding him to the studio in perpetuity, but guaranteeing certain artistic protections. At the time, it had seemed like a colossal mistake. But by the ‘80s, he was the last of his generation’s directors still to be provided unlimited budgets and vast creative leniency. As his fellow auteurs found themselves directing second units on third sequels, Van Buren remained untouchable. He took as long as he liked; the budget was just an abstract figure to him. At night, he’d start a bonfire and drink to semi-prophetic excess, sweat shining in the flames, and everyone waited to hear what he’d discovered and transform it into cinema. I didn’t care about Edgar Van Buren or his Chasm. I was there for Dot, Dot alone. I only dreaded the one calamity: that Ryder, her father, was coming to take over her career. And what would that mean for us? * It was dusk when Dot’s bike finally skidded to a stop outside the honeywagon. After a Yoohoo, to my amazement, she took up her math textbook and moved through the algebra with vigour, as if her mind were ravenous. In our classroom, all was orderly and French and still as a mirror. In fact, it was I who spoiled the environment. “Is there anything I can say to persuade you?” Not looking up, she said, “No, Pascal.” “He’s a day late. He doesn’t call. Is this the behaviour of a manager?” She placed the pencil by the page. “You don’t know him.” Something in her voice frightened me, a kind of echo from a place I didn’t understand. I corrected her pronunciation and poured some Skittles on her desk. She exaggerated the sticky gnashing of her teeth—that was better. And then I heard the crunch of tires, and we were outside, headlights sweeping over us. As the truck rolled to a stop, it nearly mangled Dot’s bike. Ryder slammed the door of the Ford F-series, which she’d bought for him. He was bald, but wore a red beard, dense as a forest observed from a jet, and his barbell biceps were unevenly patchy, the hairs like scratches. Already he looked northern and overheated. “Doretta!” He could barely support her when she leapt into his arms. “This is Pascal.” We shook hands. “You’re the teacher.” Dot cleaved to me and said, “Mon astre.” “What’s that.” I felt a warmth in my cheeks. “There’s no good translation,” I said. “I’ve told you about him.” “Sure,” he said, “I remember.” “And she’s told me about you,” I said. “Alright.” Ryder told her to look at the sky. Wasn’t it indigo? Wasn’t it beautiful? “It’s like that every night,” said Dot. “Is that your bike?” “Yeah.” “Good for you. Remember where I taught you to ride?” “Lake Erie.” Ryder glanced at me. “I found a little spot with a view of the valley,” he said. “Get in the truck. We’ll catch the last of the light.” The sky was fading fast, but Dot humoured him. He heaved the bike into the cargo bed, and in another moment, the truck veered away. I replaced the textbook on the shelf, and dropped her pencil in the oblong ceramic cup we’d fired together. Then I corrected her algebra—so many mistakes—and my day’s purpose was fulfilled. * Awake on the honeywagon’s narrow bed, I listened for that shy knock on the door. Then she’d come inside, as she’d done so many times, and wordlessly curl up on the carpet. I’d imagine her sucking her thumb as we fell into our dreams. No one ever appreciated what those children went through, not until something happened—and then everyone had an opinion. But they were a lot like a movie set, like the chapel they’d built for The Chasm: pristine from certain angles, behind which the trash collected and a producer was smoking. Eight years old, Dot had been given to me on a set at Nickelodeon. I mean that in earnest: her mother, Roxane, just a bruised little child herself, entrusted Dot to me. After a brief, impulsive marriage to Ryder, Roxane had fled to Los Angeles with some inarticulate ambition, but before she even had headshots, she was drinking for breakfast and coughing. The limelight isn’t morbid; it skipped over Roxane and fixed on her daughter—Doretta “Dot” Howell of the rosebud hair, the endless eyes. Doctors said they were actually growing too big for her head. With that monumental face, Dot appeared like an adult you’d once known, or had, at least, once seen on screen. Those are my fondest memories, still glowing. I recall Dot as an energetic blur. At Nickelodeon, we’d play hide-and-go-seek, and she’d give herself away with laughter. She’d do anything for Skittles; she’d imitate the sound of French. When the Enquirer started following Roxane around, just to catch her drunk in public, Dot began staying overnight. After Roxane’s death, I gave up my other children and wholly devoted myself to Dot. I banished the charlatans and money-lenders. I gave her an idea of God, telling her there was always a beautiful man watching her. And so, I was the one she asked about the bleeding; I was the one who told her what it meant. As for Ryder, on certain melancholy nights I’d hear about him. She had so few memories, she always returned to the one good summer on Lake Erie, stretching it out until it seemed like a marvellous history. When he took her on his back, she said, she didn’t fear the water. The way she spoke of Lake Erie, I sometimes felt she was still waiting for him to take her back and finish those lessons. Meanwhile Nickelodeon became Disney, and Disney became Fox. And then the Chasm script arrived, on fresh white paper. It was the first script she wouldn’t let me read until she’d finished. From the very beginning, she was doing this for an idea of herself. Now fifteen years old, it was time to choose: orient yourself toward Oscars, or be an unserious girl forever. The Chasm set was unlike any I’d ever been on. They weren’t creating this movie to be happy, or to make others happy. Lying awake that night in the honeywagon, I heard the crew’s drunken laughter, the hiss of someone pissing on the sand. And Dot didn’t come. I said a prayer for her, alone in the night. She was still so unknown to herself. * Van Buren suddenly took Xavier Braun and a small unit up into the mountain caves. They were gone for days, but Dot and I still didn’t get much done. Ryder would scoop her up after breakfast and shoot through the desert toward the cliffs or the Indian reserve. They’d fire off guns together, blowing up the Joshua trees, or skid around on ATVs with a recklessness I’d begun to see as common to them. By the time she got back, she was more depleted, more useless to me, than after the most violent Van Buren workdays. Yet nothing was so contemptible as what Ryder asked me as I filled my flask at the water station. “Pascal,” he said, “what exactly do you teach my daughter?” He’d accosted me outside the shade, the white sun hovering, a pitiless disc, above his head. I said, “A standard Californian curriculum.” “And more besides.” “Well, of course. The state mandates that studio teachers be certified welfare workers. I manage Dot’s well-being, whether it be getting her inoculated, or discussing the morals of the script, or just keeping her company—being there for her, you understand.” “I don’t want to offend you,” he said, “but Doretta seems, sometimes, a little stunted.” “Stunted.” “Basic things—things she should know—she doesn’t.” “And you’re to judge what she should know.” “The names of presidents, yes. The cause of the Civil War. All fifty states.” “American things.” “It isn’t only American,” Ryder said. “She’s slow with simple math. She knows nothing about tectonic plates, or how tornadoes form.” “I assure you, Mr. Howell, Dot’s developing perfectly well.” “Then why can’t she take the proficiency exam.” I’d been in Hollywood long enough to get guarded when a parent mentioned the exam. The fact that he even knew about it already betrayed him. If an underage actor could test out of high school, she became eligible to work longer hours, overtime, even through the night. A sick green glow always emanated from the heart of a Hollywood parent. “You’d better leave that up to me,” I said, and began to walk away. He put a hand to my chest. “All the same,” he said, “I’d like to sit in tomorrow afternoon.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” “I’m her manager,” he said, “I have the right.” He’d kept me there just long enough for my nose and cheeks to burn. * Dot was dabbing pink paint on the little princess when he entered. She dropped her brush and Ryder sat, ridiculously huge, in one of her chairs. In French, I said, “Your father is going to spend the remaining time with us.” And Dot answered, in American English, “I know.” I clucked and reminded her to sustain the French, as we’d agreed. “But it isn’t fair. He won’t understand what we’re saying.” “As you wish,” and I looked to Ryder. “But you see, there was something being taught here, and now, no longer.” “Noted.” I didn’t dare give her Skittles. I handed her the math textbook, and told her to work on the algebra. At first she was confused, thinking she’d seen the problems before, but then she settled in. As I stared at Ryder, I gradually perceived that he was struggling with the conditions in the honeywagon. Everyone thinks they understand what it means to work on a movie. It was pushing a hundred; the walls were sweating. The toilet was close, unclean. Soon he was fidgeting. I’d applied cold cream to my face, and could sit there for hours, deriving austere pleasures from how Dot gripped the pencil, how she turned it idly in her fingers and nibbled the edge. I only broke my pose upon hearing the commotion outside. For days, the set had been held in a kind of scorched suspense, but now there were shouts and laughter, cars swooping through camp, refreshingly. Van Buren had returned from the mountains. Ryder seized upon my distraction to shoot a spitball at his child. “Hey!” I turned to see Dot clutching her ear, Ryder laughing like an ape. She balled up a page from her notebook and rang it off his dome. Now he was looking at her with appetite, and in one brute motion, he cleared the desk away and grabbed her at the waist. She let him pull her to the carpet, laughter breaking into hiccups. I moved the castle to safety and watched them roll around. Ryder caught my eye, and he must’ve read my satisfaction there. He disentangled from her and righted the chairs. He said, “I don’t know what came over me.” Dot was still heaving on the floor, hair strewn over her face. She blew it off her lips and said, “It’s fun here, isn’t it?” I said, “Isn’t it?” “Get back to work,” he ordered. “Start working, Doretta.” * Ryder befriended Van Buren. At night, I’d see them, crackling bronze figures by the bonfire. They’d pass the Jim Beam, and when it was empty, set the bottle out in the clear moonlight and blow it to smithereens. Van Buren had come back changed by the caves. He said The Chasm cohered for him there; he was throwing out most of what he had. In the day, producers waited anxiously outside the tent while Van Buren rewrote the script, ash dropping into his chest hair. They called the studio; they tried to explain what he was doing. At day’s end, he’d have the latest scene copied, and issue it like law. Drunk in that infernal light, he and Ryder unfolded Dot Howell’s future. If she got The Chasm right, there would be more projects, all the awards, unimaginable money. I could hear them howl together—“Yes, yes,” went her father, her manager—and more gunshots. * I found the pink pages on my desk. She’d left them for me. I took them out to the plastic chair beneath the parasol with a view of the hills. They were just piles of Martian-red rocks, as if a giant had ground up mountains in his fist. As the sun set behind a dusty film, the sky purpled and dimmed. At once, I saw why she’d left the new script, why she didn’t want to face me as I read it. The Chasm was darkening; it was becoming real horror. Before, the relation between Dot and Xavier was all innuendo, arresting suggestions between cuts, but Van Buren had made it explicit. So this was what you learned in caves; so this was genius—the molestation of a child on film. When the night had gathered around the camp, I went looking for him. There was no one by the bonfire, but I heard the pop, the breaking glass, and followed them out to where Van Buren and Ryder were shooting. The light of the moon was so pure, the men seemed to stand on stage, the sand flat and crossed by the shadows of the Joshua trees. Off to the side, three women sat on lawn chairs, smoking in fur coats, their legs bare and blue. They noticed me first, and their silence alerted the men. I stood with the pages, observed by Van Buren. Behind him, Ryder reloaded. I said, “You have a wicked heart.” Ryder hooted, plunking in the bullets. “What did you say?” and the director stepped forward, close enough that I could toss the script against his chest. He caught the wad, glanced over it, and threw it aside. “I said there’s a worm in your soul.” All the while he was coming toward me. “What do you know,” he said. “What could you possibly know.” “Ease up,” called Ryder. “It’s only the teacher.” “I know she won’t do the scene,” I said. “But she will.” “I won’t let her.” Van Buren shoved me with both hands, and stumbling back, I tripped on bramble and landed hard. He sent me back down as I tried to scramble up. I felt his drunk, elemental strength. I managed to say, “I’m not afraid of you.” “You’re a fool, Pascal.” Now he crouched down and slapped me, once. I briefly saw the women, and then my cheek was to the sand. I thought of snakes and scorpions. “You’re a fool.” The shots rang out in rapid succession—a woman yelped—and Van Buren stepped back. “Enough,” said Ryder. Dot’s father hoisted me to my feet, and brushed me off, motioning for Van Buren to stay where he was. “Why don’t you go to sleep, Pascal.” I was staring at Van Buren, his eyes full of moonlight. “She won’t do it,” I said, to myself. * I couldn’t find Dot in the morning, and everyone had a different answer. They sent me to makeup; they might’ve seen her with the first-assistant; she’d just biked by—see the tracks? Finally, I approached the chapel, where they were setting up the scene, and over a producer’s shoulder, I saw her. “Dot!” He cut my angle off. “You can’t keep me out. I’ll have this whole thing shut down. Dot!” I snagged her eye, and she said to let me through. The chapel smelled of fresh sawdust, but was staged to signal years of decay: a collapsed wall, the Virgin caked with grime, doves in the rafters prodded by the handler on a ladder. And Dot—her dress was bloodied and torn, blotched with black fingerprints and sticking with sweat. “You don’t have to do this scene.” “Pascal—” “I know we haven’t talked about it.” “We don’t have to.” “Can’t you see what they’re doing?” Van Buren was riding the camera like a dark horse, and Ryder stood nearby, reading the pink version. How could he let the scene play out in his mind? “Don’t let them do this, Dot.” She seemed confused by how I took her hand. Van Buren tapped her on the shoulder, and without even looking at me, said, “Let me explain this to you.” Actor and director angled away. I got as close as I could to the scene. It was just a squalid mattress by the altar. Dot sprawled as if drugged, eyelids thick and heavy as a toad’s. Her legs were bare, bruised. I’d never seen her thighs, and I remember wondering, absurdly, where she learned to have thighs like those. Van Buren called for action, and Xavier squatted down. He was strangely clean, grey hair wet, pulled back. The beads dangled from his neck like grapes. It wasn’t artifice—it was lust. It was real in his eyes, and on his fingers, and blazing through his lips. Van Buren thrust the camera forward. I heard them murmuring. Xavier pinned her by the wrists, and she writhed—not against his strength, but within it. He cupped her chin—her soft cheeks bunching, lips squeezed into a square—and leaned into a suctioning kiss. Her eyes closed voluptuously, horrifically. Then she put his hand to her breast and pulled him back onto the bed. Suddenly Dot sat up straight and shook her head. My heart thrilled. Van Buren yelled cut. The director wiped his mouth. Someone brought Xavier a cigarette, and the actors lounged there on their elbows. Van Buren crouched down to Dot and called for Ryder. The four of them had a quick conversation. Ryder came back to me through the crew. He said, “She can’t do the scene.” “I can see that.” “She’s asking you to leave.” Doves shuddered on the roofbeams. “What.” “She can’t do the scene in front of you. Will you go back to the classroom, and wait for her there?” I looked to Dot. She put her eyes everywhere else. From a distance, Van Buren was watching me. “Let me talk to her.” “You’re wasting everyone’s time, Pascal. Now she’s asked you nicely—go.” * I’ll never know if she came back to the honeywagon afterward. I’d taken the bottle to the hills. My sister sometimes sent me Calvados from home, though I almost never found occasion to drink. I’d been working through this bottle for a year, but that evening, I sucked it worshipfully, as if it were the very pith of Normandy. The desert stars came out, and my mind turned to Roxane. I wanted to pray to her, but the stars were cold, withdrawn. I knew I’d disappointed her. She’d urged me to take her daughter; shaking, she’d pressed the beads into my hand. It was a promise, soul to soul. And the old picture came, man and wife on a little plot of Normandy. He’s reading in the shade, apples dropping from the tree, the castle in the distance, tall. The children sprint past and she calls to them, still a child in her heart. But I found no direction there. The picture hovered in two dimensions. The Calvados tasted thin, even putrid at the edges. Instead a story Roxane once told, chasing Stoli with milk, invaded me. Ryder would have her smear lipstick on his erection, she said, as if his penis were a cheap whore, and then she’d suck it like a woman’s lips. And I thought of the women, naked under fur coats, and I thought of all the money Ryder had now, Dot’s money. I broke the bottle on the stone, and the liquor burst over my hand. I knew where he slept. The jagged edge of glass caught moonlight, and I felt like Roxane, way out on some private rampage, pursued by journalists. But I didn’t realize how drunk I was until I stood and moved unsteadily, rock by rock, down the hill, and then all I wanted was to be buried underground, asleep. * I grew formal over the coming days. I’d taught adults before. No Yoohoos, no Skittles—and where had the castle gone? Doretta knew I was angry—there were times I thought she sensed the rest—but didn’t attempt a reconciliation. It would’ve been the death of the woman she wanted to be, the icon looming over her, beckoning her out into the world. So it was already written. She failed at the new lessons I gave her. She had to stay late, do them over. She put on a show of not minding. She tried harder, but still wasn’t ready. Meanwhile The Chasm was collapsing—that’s something that never made the papers. The producers tried keeping rumour in check, but the studio’s anger was known; it had seeped into the cast and crew like guilt, everyone but Van Buren. He only responded with further provocations. But in private, as we’d learn during the trial, he was tormented, blocked. The Chasm had no climax. It needed something spectacular—a permanent image—and it was then that water, black and deep and strong as steel cables, began to rush across the desert sands of his imagination. * On the morning of the stunt, he had us up before dawn, and announced that we were going to the sea. It was all arranged; he’d sent the crew ahead. Now Doretta, Ryder, Van Buren and I piled into a truck, and headed west, dust blazing up behind the wheels. I remember Doretta was excited. This was why you worked with Edgar Van Buren—so you could reminisce, later, to The Hollywood Reporter, all about the time he had you up at dawn and took you to the sea because he’d seen the movie ending in a dream. In the truck he passed around the mint-green pages. Escaping the murderer, the orphan would plunge into the cove. Later, they’d shoot her underwater on a stage at the studio, feeling her way into a cave. But for the drop, the location was perfect, said Van Buren: a little cove of ink-black water. He said, “A shot of you falling—it could be immortal.” With the stunt, The Chasm would be whole, at last. “We shoot at sundown.” But his star was staring out the window, the stooped desert trees rushing past. In sunglasses, and with a kerchief tied around her head, she looked like a woman twenty years older, twenty years ago. “What’s the matter,” he said. “Don’t you like it?” Doretta’s head turned toward me, but she said, “I love it.” “The audience will know you’ve given them everything,” said the director. “The Academy despises doubles. They want to see you act every frame.” Only I knew what she was thinking, but I also knew she didn’t want me to speak for her, not anymore. In her shades, I could see myself, just a small man in the corner of the truck, indistinct, like the memory of someone you knew as a child. * After weeks in the desert, I relished the breeze that pulled off the sea. All day was spent setting up the stunt, the crew bobbing in lifejackets down in the cove. The water swirled around them, black and deep, like a pit. Doretta would drop from the cove’s rocky wall. No one ever asked if she could swim. I wandered away from the set, over to where the sheer cliffs plunged, and stared out to the hovering line of the horizon. Already the sun was lowering and flashing off the water. It wouldn’t be long before the stunt. I heard: “Pascal.” It was Ryder. He came to my side and peered into the wind. “Everything takes forever,” he said. “But I guess you’re used to it.” “Yes.” He laughed, “Don’t be so high-strung, Pascal. I come in peace. I know we got off to a bad start, but I’ve been thinking—I was wrong. I mistook her excitement for immaturity.” “Excitement.” “For me to be here. She was just being my girl, like before.” I wanted to say there never was before. “Shake hands?” he asked. I’ll never know for certain, but in that moment, I sensed he’d had me fired, that in the morning, I’d be recalled to Los Angeles. Over blinding water, Doretta Howell’s future stretched out to the vanishing point. We shook. Ryder stepped to the very edge, and looked straight down. The rocks pointed up like bayonets; the current ripped into the open sea. I remember my hands felt light, inspired, primed to push. But the spirit deflated. He’d prevail, anyway. The bulb inside her had finally split; a powerful stalk had broken through. I saw the mud she’d slung beside our castle. It piled up before my eyes, incompatible with life. There was a call: “Pascal!” I turned to see Doretta’s first-assistant, and Ryder and I came running to the makeup truck. We found Van Buren leaning over the chair where she shivered and gasped for breath. “What is it,” Ryder asked. “It just came over her.” “Give her space,” I said, and knelt. “Breathe easy. You’re safe.” She’d gone bright red, and hot tears issued from the corners of her eyes, though she wasn’t really crying. I took her hands; the wrists rapidly pulsed. “You’re safe.” “We were reviewing the stunt,” said Van Buren. “She’s never been this way before.” “What is it, Doretta,” asked Ryder. She was regaining composure, I thought, or a sense of audience. She said, “It’s nothing.” “Maybe the water,” the assistant offered. There was a brief silence while the men decided whether to take her seriously. “But she can swim,” said Van Buren. “Of course,” said Ryder. “I taught her myself—you remember, Doretta, on the lake.” She nodded. “I remember.” Later, no one would recall how they all looked to me, even her. But if I forget every other instant of my life, I’ll still remember how I said, “She can swim.” “Maybe it’s the drop,” said Van Buren. “But the water’s deepest right where you’re landing, and anyway it’s not as high as the window. Alright?” She touched the tears from her eyes, and pushed out a smile. “Alright.” Van Buren clapped. Ryder helped her up. “I’m sorry to be so childish.” The first-assistant cooed, “Not at all, darling, not at all.” Van Buren was out the door. “She’s fine,” he reported to the producer outside. “I’ll put you on my back,” her father joked. “Just get me to the set,” Doretta said. “Then I’ll do it on my own.” * I remember the light was perfect. From where Ryder and I stood, we could just see her pressed against the wall below, her famous rosebud hair precisely tangled. The cove whirled beneath her, swallowing. The camera lowered to the surface. I heard Van Buren’s call for silence, for action. “Go!” he shouted. “Go!” There was still something I could’ve done. Then Ryder started running, but it was a six-minute climb down to the water. The camera never stopped rolling. The footage was never made public. * My sister has set out coffee and Le Monde beneath the apple tree. The fruit is full of worms; a drought has killed her garden. This isn’t what I’d pictured, what I’d tried to make out of the girl once given to me. But I can see the castle, and the indifference of the stone—watching everything, anything—is like the love of God. In Le Monde, I find another clipping. I will paste it in the scrapbook. There are fewer all the time; soon they’ll vanish altogether. Translated into American English, it reads: A film by Edgar Van Buren, Black Water, premieres in Paris this week. Critics say the film subtly reworks the tragedy of child actor Doretta Howell, which derailed Van Buren’s last production and nearly cost him his freedom. Black Water has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, and has grossed over $40 million in the United States.
I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind.
The sky dances, but only for me. Lying on brittle sun burnt grass, I can stare up into that untouchable ocean and see it move. On the North Texas plains, where I grew up, nothing interrupts the sky; if I stand on a road that’s long enough, both horizons are visible just by looking right and left. That sky is giant, looming, and unbroken. As a child, I thought I could see the air, could visualize the wind. Ribbons flipped over, and lines squiggled and bunched and drifted left and right in front of me. The air became permanent inside my eyes, my brain registering something real, something alive. I asked my sister, my parents, my friends to look at the sky with me, to see the strange movement that mesmerized me on days when the sun was high and the air thick with heat that radiated back up from the ground. But a glance is not enough to see the sky. It takes focus, and boredom, and the ability to let your eyes glaze over and see nothing but a shining, shaking, panel of blue. I didn’t realize, when I drove a U-Haul packed with all of my belongings 1500 miles away from home to a new apartment and a new city on the East coast, that I was leaving the sky behind. All skies, I thought, were the same, until I moved and realized that can’t possibly be true. * In early photographs taken with long exposure times on clear days, the sky washes out, becomes a lightbox, stark, backlit. Looked at for long enough, it disappears. The sky is more void than substance, more air than material. It has almost no mass. The sky is not the crisp azul of morning. It is not the amber of sunset. It is never truly the blush of dawn. We say the sky is clear when it is vacant of clouds, but the sky itself is actually clear. Air molecules have no color, possess no character or influence. The sky exists only because we do. The molecules of the sky, those tiny bumper cars of atoms, scatter the light of the sun, forcing it into smaller and smaller waves. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and so we see it the most clearly, our eyes performing a conversion of the world in front of us. We replace a mile of gas particles with a sea of cerulean. We build a perimeter for our world. We make the sky only for ourselves. In every season, I know what the Texas sky looks like. Show me a photograph from the plains where I grew up and I can tell you the month. My brain reads the muted gray blue as January. The fluffy cotton candy clouds floating in a sea of Byzantine blue are May. A powder blue backdrop is October. Boyhood could only have been shot in the summer, probably July. No Country For Old Men must be May. Same for Dazed and Confused. The sky is more legible than a timestamp, more consistent than the follow of a shadow. The sky, in theory, is universal. It connects us all, hangs over us all, is something we all share. Except that my sky is special: my sky, the sky I crave and miss and dream about in my boring dreams. The sky I grew up with is the same one that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico up into Canada. It is the sky of the Great Plains. These are flyover states to some, middle America to others, Big Sky Country to everyone who lives there, whether they know it or not. In his 1834 travel journal-turned-guidebook, German settler Detlef Jordt described it as, “The clear, Italic sky, of which we can form no idea in our part of the world…” For visitors, the Texas plains inspire awe. “I am loving the plains more than ever it seems—and the SKY—Anita, you’ve never seen SKY—it is wonderful,” the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friend in 1916 during her four year stint in the Texas Panhandle. “It is absurd the way I love this country.” This obsession with the sky, the love of it, is embedded in the state’s pride. Like a long A in speech or cowboy boots, the sky deserves pride just for being there. The first two lines of the state’s favorite song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” are: “the stars at night are big and bright,” and “the prairie sky is wide and high.” Deeply ingrained in the state’s identity is access to this big, smooth, unchanging thing, this reminder that no matter how big our problems feel, or how bad the world gets, we are always small, always barely a blip under the dome of the heavens. “Like being close to the ocean,” Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright writes in his new book God Save Texas, “the sky [serves] as a natural point of focus for the contemplation of eternity.” You grow up a soothsayer under that sky. On a clear day, when no clouds dare to interrupt the sweep of that cornflower backdrop, it’s almost as if you can see the future. Look at the horizon and any affront, any storm or shade, can be recognized and prepared for. With these storms, the ones that come from the West, there is time: time to finish a game, or swim another lap in the pool, or go down the slide one last time before walking home. These are the storms with personality, that don't start with light rain, gentle sounds of approach, but with flashes of light, some snaking like varicose veins across the navy of approaching clouds, some bolting downward to earth. As a kid, we learned to count after the flash. One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, Four-Mississippi, Five. If the boom came at five counts, the sound of the crash sometimes loud enough to make the earth feel like it shook, the storm was a mile away. Any closer, and it was already too late. The weather is volatile that way, surprising. Its worst moods can produce hail the size of softballs and tornados that mow down entire homes in neat, seemingly calculated lines. But that is a weather system. The sky only gives rainbows. It is stable. The sky does not change, does not move, does not ever disappear. Drive straight enough at 90 miles per hour through West Texas and it tracks you. Lie down on the ground in your front yard, and it might just dance. It makes sense there, that heaven is above us. Of course it must be. The ground dries out and kills things that grow. The sky never does. The sky is so blue and so rich and so unreachable that it must be a holy place, a home for no one but deities. “I still feel sky-deprived when in the forested places. Many, many people born to the skies of the plains feel that way,” Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, once wrote. * The first step of cultural adjustment, according to social psychologists, is euphoria. My first summer in Washington, D.C., I chugged euphoria. I saw the fireworks over the Washington monument and read in the grass. I found a new grocery store, and a new favorite restaurant. And then, the temperatures dropped overnight and it snowed before Thanksgiving and the cute pea coat I had worn in Texas became about as useful as a down feather bikini. Even in this city of short buildings, the sky felt distant, a panel where a dome had been. Instead of feeling like a protector, it felt like a background. Even when clouds moved across it, it looked one-dimensional. It appeared briefly between buildings like a hole in the world, which was here on the ground, here in the deadlines and the errands and the freezing wind. Even when this city’s sky was blue, it felt restricted, limited. I stood on the two bridges near my house just to get a better glimpse, to try and see the curvature of the earth above me even though the world felt flatter than it ever had on the prairie. Winter came quickly and I floundered. A tidal wave of clinical depression tried to drown me, and I entered the second phase of adjustment: “culture shock.” The grocery store didn’t sell any real salsa, I realized. Days disappeared more quickly than I knew they could, the sun rising after I walked through the hazy morning light to the office and gone before I headed home. Maybe time moves slowly on the plains because you can see it, see the sun emerge from the other side of the world and drift lazily up and across and back down again: every moment of it visible from any part of the tortilla-flat land. Here on the coast, the gray winter clouds sat on top of the short buildings like a lead blanket. And the sky was gone. The muscles in my neck started to shorten when I moved. All day, I looked down: down at my phone; down at the sidewalk threatening to trip me; down at my hands while they flew over the keyboard anxiously; down at my dog while we walked. I could feel them shortening, before I knew that was what it was, could feel a tightness around my vocal cords that disappeared if I lifted my head a little to look straight, that pulled when I stretched my head upwards. I never realized what that blueness, a clear sky, seeing the sun does to my mood until I went home for Christmas that first winter. The sky greeted me, open and giant. “It is strange to see the plains again with nothing to break the view in any direction as far as we can see,” Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote to her husband in 1919. She had forgotten, during her years living in the Ozark Mountains, what it was like to disappear “under the sunset and starlight of the prairie.” Returning to that sky was like chopping off six inches of hair. I felt lighter, leaner, expectant. “Room to make a big mistake,” the Dixie Chicks called the land with that kind of sky, maybe because there’s less risk there, fewer people watching. Promise is all above you, in the sky, far away, glimmering, easy to understand. What is the opposite of claustrophobia? Of needing something so big and so much that it hurts to be returned to it? Is that just homesickness?
I thought I could escape my jail kid past in an idyllic southern city. But trouble found me, and not everyone I knew got out alive.
Never before had a late-afternoon knock on the front door meant trouble. Friends and transients alike walked freely through the Italianate homes of other students at the Savannah College of Art and Design. This was college in the south and lingering throughout Savannah were open doors, gentle hospitality, mint juleps, artillery punch, and the inclination that something extraordinary might happen, the desire that it would. Mike, Miles, John and Sean thought, at first, that the knock, on October 28, 2010, was a joke. Then the housemates saw that the two boys at their door demanding weed and cash were armed. They let the young men inside. On this Friday afternoon, the air liberated the city from a compressive heat. Empty beer cans rattled in the breeze. Lining the streets, live oaks ached. The elegance of the exterior of the house belied its insides as an active drug center: Seedlings and mature marijuana plants, sheets of LSD, containers of ingredients to make hallucinogenic and party drugs, a functioning drug lab and a device police later suspected was explosive. One of the armed men, not much older than Sean, led him to the back of the house. Sean was stripped of drugs, cash, and his cellphone. He did as he was told. He obliged in a way that seemed honorable, displaying compliance with the stoicism reserved for situations of unfathomable fear. Yes, he’d do it, but grudgingly. Yeah, take the stuff, but you’ll regret this. Everyone would. The armed men bolted. Outside, in a Honda CR-V around the corner, a driver sat waiting. The license plate county tag read FULTON. The home off Barnard was in Chatham. Fulton meant the gunmen were from Atlanta, roughly four hours north. Who were these boys? Why had they come all this way? How did they know about the home, about what it held inside? Sean—who could have been any number of people in the city, a young man with a medium athletic build and the casual nonchalance of an art school student—wanted to go after them. He wanted answers. Mike cautioned him. “They’re not going to shoot me in the middle of the street,” Sean said. He ran out of the house and trailed the robbers on foot. Mike, like any friend, followed. Miles went after them. John, on crutches with his leg in a cast, brought up the rear. Students didn’t attend classes on Fridays. Most slept in on the fifth day of a four-day study week. The holly streets were empty and absent of life. Sean and Mike caught up to the two men beside the Honda. The gun discharged four times. They were both struck. John was shot in the hip and arm. He fell alone while Sean and Mike fell together. Miles was unharmed. The dark grey Honda disappeared down West 35th. Later, Mike would remember holding Sean in his arms. He asked him if he knew who the men were. “And that’s when he started to fade.” * It was hard for me to imagine anything going wrong in a city like Savannah, a place of upholstered beauty and tender manners where people were kind even to their consonants. We were far from anyone and anything. Languid tidal creeks swept clear the troubled minds of travelers and residents and students alike. Everyone was aloof and dumbstruck with tranquility, a high you could never escape. Coastal winds, healthy gulps of air off the Lowcountry, filtered through walls of wheat grass and old brick and stucco and settled into delicate whistles of the many ceiling fans. Students observed strict geographic boundaries. Martin Luther King Blvd. to the west, East Broad Street to the east, Bay Street to the north, and the top of Forsyth Park, or Park Avenue, to the south. Per southern decorum, we never spoke of why. No matter, there was a general resistance against lessons learned. A thriving drinking culture, a disenchantment about secluded life, a restlessness of youth and a history of statutory disregard for authority was a bad mix for anyone coming to Savannah, looking for slow living from a past of anything but. And like anyone in college, we never imagined our privilege could end. Slowly, then suddenly, it did. In 2009, I moved to the south from New Jersey in an attempt to escape my spiral as a jail kid. It was the start of what you could call my life on the run. Instead of vandalizing cars, breaking into homes, fighting and boozing and selling drugs, I wanted to attend college, meet a sweet southern girl, graduate, get a respectable job, buy a house, start a family. The kid in shackles was someone I was certain I could replace. In New Jersey, the police referred to my friends and me as six-oh-ones: juvenile delinquents. We spent time in lockups across the country and in hardscrabble Trenton alternative schools and youth detention centers. After one release, I moved into a dingy, ramshackle two-bedroom apartment—littered with whiskey bottles, holes broken across the walls by angry fists and the ground littered with greenery in tight dime bags I helped sell on the third floor of a housing complex on the northern skirt of the city center. Other than a putrid, yellow- and red-stained mattress on the ground, from alternate nights of pissing myself blotto or fighting through bloodshed, my possessions, gathered over a full eighteen years, were crammed into the backseat of a Chevy Malibu. I lived with a trio of friends who made their money selling ounces. I sold small amounts when they were gone. It was easy. It was quick. It also made me feel essential to people who otherwise would have never needed me. I became part of something instead of languishing as part of nothing. Sitting there in the apartment, I’d play video games until the door bell rang and someone or a group of people would ask whether I was holding. I’d invite them inside and take their money and soon they would be gone. It was a harmless enterprise that supplied me with friendly interactions and free drugs. As a teenager, what could have been better? Eyes were on the apartment. I didn’t know that then, but I had an inkling. By the time agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided it—as most of us were certain they would, having noted the strange reappearance of men whose dress seemed clean and pressed and unfit for where they stood hunched in poorly lighted areas on the block, translucent wires hung from their ears—I had moved into my car and readied a structured flight path out of town. Between delivering pizzas and sandwiches, I scheduled and attended GED and SAT tests. I applied to an art school in Georgia, the Savannah College of Art and Design, also known as SCAD. By some divine miracle they accepted me. Bloodshot eyes and foggy mind be damned. From there the door to what I hoped was prosperity and calm had opened. I ditched the car and all my possessions and hopped a plane. On my way to Savannah I continued telling myself how lucky I was to have escaped from that apartment when I had. I believed I was far superior to those men I lived with and that I wasn’t destined for the fate many of them met: prison, poverty and ruin. It was a fake pronouncement on its face, because we can never be more than the people who surround us. Enamored as I arrived in Savannah, stepping out from the armory building on Bull Street used for student admissions, I called my mother. “Mom, you’ve got to see this place. It’s like a fairytale.” She was happy that I had made it there safe, made it there at all. Her son, the college boy. What a dream. It seemed that way, too. That idea of a new life was more attainable in a new place, a fallacy I now realize alcoholics tend to call the “Geographic Cure.” I believed I wasn’t an alcoholic, just a kid who removed himself from bad elements. I was a lost, tattooed, dark-haired city boy with baggy eyes, a hoodlum who did not sleep, drank too much, mismanaged his anger. But I thought I still had time to change. The devil found work for idle hands, my mother always said, so my first order of business after moving into the dorms was finding employment. I had no skills, but from my time delivering sandwiches and pizza I could navigate a city well. I remembered seeing a young man peddling down Bull Street. He wore a strange multicolor pinwheel hat and a periwinkle T-shirt. His khakis were shorn above the knees. His eyes, like mine, were dirty ice. He towed a pedicab. One day I followed him and found myself also donning a periwinkle T-shirt. Every day I staged out of a tin-sided warehouse with a blue corrugated roof on the far east side of the city. I paid a rental fee for the cab, took a laminated card, printed on which were landmarks frequented by tourists, and chimed the handlebar bell through the city streets. Peddling, clattering through downtown, I navigated a swampy heat, the air like an elixir. I biked to the spot where I stood on Bull Street, talking to my mother, and peered up at the large live oak outside the converted armory. I felt comfort, safety and assuredness in my decision to go south. I biked farther down Bull Street, away from the admissions building. Taking a sharp turn, the bicycle cart hopping up on two wheels. I dipped through one of the city’s squares, peddling faster. Twenty-two squares cordoned off Savannah, swabbing the streets with green oases. In each were fountains and monuments, erected to commemorate various wartime heroes or, in one case, the abolishment of slavery. Obelisks poked fun at the lively canopies overhead, sometimes tangled in moss. Birds flitted in rusted fountains in the shadows of steeples and rooftops, cornices and cupolas. The geometrical gardens were the brainchild of James Oglethorpe, who founded the city and settled on the layout before he’d arrived from England. It took its inspiration from a Roman military camp: five squares fell on Barnard Street, five on Bull Street, four on Abercorn Street, four on Habersham Street, three on Houston Street, and one on Montgomery. Two had fallen to a highway bypass. Along Jones Street I picked up a man and woman who had stepped from Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. They were tourists on some foodie kick and wanted me to peddle them to Clary’s, a diner at the far end of Jones Street. We pedicabbers called our service Tips for Trips. I knew of Clary’s, its walls lined with student artwork for sale. Small rickety tables held plates of homemade food and the sweetest desserts, like the Elvis: peanut butter and banana served between French toast, dusted with powered sugar. On our way, I tried giving my fare a righteous tour. But while I described gardens and squares, I imagined giving an alternative history. Since pulling into town I’d heard about how, as SCAD grew beyond the one armory-turned-admissions building on Bull Street, it pushed out many lifelong historic district residents as rents skyrocketed. New developments replaced decades-old housing. By the time I arrived in 2009, many poorer communities had been relegated to the fringes of the historic district. The housing projects were where the pedicab boundaries ended and another world began. * There are always dueling narratives. Like my own story, there is the one that people might tell you and the one I know myself to be true, the one with all the good intentions later misshapen by poor choices. For SCAD, the official version goes like this: In 1978, as the brainchild of Richard and Paula Rowan, SCAD brought life to what was no longer a glamorous port city but instead a place long since fallen into decay. Savannah had become a shell of a town, the entirety of the historic district composed of crumbling buildings, an incubator for transients. When the Rowans arrived from Atlanta, they took out a $200,000 loan and with it bought thirty-eight buildings: 19th century stuccos, an Art Deco diner, the redbrick armory on Bull Street. Once the couple renovated the armory and opened the school, seventy-one students flooded downtown in 1979: classes were in session. The Rowans bloated the local economy with tens of millions of dollars a year as the student population swelled to two thousand in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “They laid a golden egg,” a former staff writer for the Georgia Guardian, the administration’s newspaper, told me. From the very start the Rowans—he wore suits, she wore blazers and skirts—foresaw the school as something of a direct competitor with Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, a RISD of the south. The difference was that SCAD focused on a more marketable cadre of curriculums. They stressed pragmatism over artistic value, dollar signs over snobbish reproach, mass production over bespoke craftsmanship. Graphic design and computer animation, not completely eliding the fine arts, stressed the importance of living wages. Artists, and so the Rowans’ students, needed to eat. During this time the Rowans public appearances became sparse. The couple conjured a sultry admonishment from locals, critics and students for their unavailability and lack of transparency. Many felt the couple’s enterprise was expanding too fast, taking in too much money: outsiders and locals felt the Rowans had become power-hungry and were seen as making more money than was at the time normal for owners of a private nonprofit art college, especially one with limited reputation, and far fewer accreditations than its rivals.. Then, in the autumn of 1991, things started falling apart: an architecture professor died by a very public suicide. His body was discovered by a student, Julie Lansaw, outside the school building from which he jumped. Students sought answers about the circumstances surrounding their professor’s death, but were told to keep calm and quiet. Violence erupted. Students and faculty questioned the school’s quickening expansion and the paranoid atmosphere on campus. Lansaw went with other students to confront the administration about its secrecy, beginning their inquiry at their contributions to “student activity fees” that seemed unused. Students began asking why professors at this “new Bauhaus” were only contracted for one-year positions, never tenured. Students decided to form a governing body for themselves, and a student newspaper, the Georgia Guardian. Students wore T-shirts that read “Rowan Potato Ship” and “Dictatorship” and marched at rallies. Accounts of secretive student governance meetings were videotaped, but also publicly supported by local booksellers and the Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, who oversaw the congregation at Mickve Israel synagogue. The Rowans pointed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to student leaders like Lansaw. Two pipe bombs, which some speculated were linked to the uprising of students against the administration, exploded downtown. One sent shrapnel into the Wallaces’ home, another blew out six doors at the Civic Center. Anyone who talked to the press about the professor’s suicide saw SCAD security or administrators waiting at their doorstep. “They sued anyone,” a bookstore owner told me. More than six hundred students rallied again at the Civic Center after the bombing there. But eventually, the riots were settled and students resumed classes. A student body was formed, but it had no governing power. For students, it became a mouthpiece without an administrative ear to hear their wishes, but time lapsed and people graduated. Life seemed to move on. * When I arrived at SCAD in 2009, everything was sponged with magic. Part of the allure and beauty of the town and, by extension, the school, was inoculation. As students, we felt pacified and cloistered inside this holistic and artistic shelter. But I came to wonder whether it was possible, even advisable, to neglect your blighted past and the people you once knew in pursuit of a better future. Because they inform, histories also define. The school avoided any mention of the crime and violence attributed to the proximity of student housing to the city housing projects surrounding the Historic District. Students were often mugged, the victims of car thefts and home invasions. Before my time, stories shared like lore: a student refused to give a mugger her money and was shot and killed. Another graduate student was placing a call to his family in Taiwan when he was gunned down where he stood at the payphone. His murder was part of a suspected gang initiation. But the crime came and went with the news and soon afterward the young man was forgotten. In this way, the history of the city and the school was a patchwork of concealed tarnish. Clues unearthing the city’s use of beauty as its veil were scattered everywhere. The fertile, manicured lawns of Forsyth Park hid beneath them the catacombs of yellow fever and death. Hundred-year-old branches still groaned, having long since endured the city’s lynchings. A dog park was once the site of gentlemanly duels. For everything beautiful, a sin. To every home, a ghost. * The blacktops of Whitaker and Drayton streets sloped downward to meet with the redbrick and cobbled stone along Jones Street as I pedaled the tourists through the city. “You go to the art school?” the woman asked and, with her palm, fastened a floppy sun hat on her head. “Just started,” I said, sounding exactly like I’d come from New Jersey, having not mastered a southern cadence. “What are you studying?” the woman asked while I struggled. “Haven’t. Given. That. Any. Thought.” I heaved up an incline. For good measure toward a tip I added, “Ma’am.” “Well, what is it you like to do?” I was certain I would like for the ride to end. But since I failed to point out one of the oldest willows in Savannah, and failed to give a brief history of Clary’s, which was supposed to be the reason for tipping at all, I obliged. “I used to be into drugs. Well, I still am. Trying to clean up. Far as I know, though, you can’t turn that into a career.” “Musicians do drugs, honey,” the man whispered to his wife and adjusted the brim of his straw hat. “That’s right, you could be a musician.” “Can’t hold a tune; don’t got any beat.” “Well, you’re awfully handsome,” the woman said with glee. “Maybe there’s something you could do with that.” I unloaded the couple at Clary’s and thought about how escaping the past would be a neat trick. * Unknown to me then, my good intentions toward a new life fell away when I returned the pedicab for the year, started classes, and began spending more time with Kevin, my roommate, drinking and selling and smoking pot. Kevin—hooked nose, sun-scorched complexion, brown-eyed and angle-jawed and grungy—came to Savannah from Wilmington, North Carolina, to study film in his mid-20s. He was much older than the teenagers I expected to meet. But he was a second-year, a transfer. He’d spent the years prior working as an electrician for his father’s company, sometimes earning credits at a community college. He’d been arrested, once or twice, dealt with cops, every instance a simple mistake he annulled with a joke about police and pork. He was self-conscious about his age. “Just tell everyone I’m 25, or 23. Think they’d go for 23, an older guy?” Moving to Savannah for him seemed natural, far enough in mileage but with enough recognition to temper feelings of displacement. He arrived the same month I did. We started classes on the same day. We moved into the same dorm our very first morning in town. Our first conversation started over a twelve pack. We hadn’t stopped drinking since. Kevin’s curly brown surfer hair, the worn sandals, the floppy way he walked and used his hands and knees to depict the slightest curtails of a story about drinking with friends, his abundant merriment toward life and love, an acceptance of being and recklessness fostered in me the misguided first impression that he was an ideal role model, someone to tear me from my own troubled past. Kevin had already found an endless supply of friends. I wanted to be like him, grow into someone as revered by his peers, even though these people traipsed in and out of his life, always seemed to follow him but were never really there. I was always there. We unfroze the bags of stew provided by his mother and sat down to lengthy meals over which we discussed business strategies: how best to go about cooking a batch of edible pot brownies, how we might sell to kids on the park bisecting the city, whether or not we could trust our roommates to know we were keeping more and more product on campus. We dated girls who were friends, more or less intentionally, so if ever we needed to flip a bag or ounce, one of us could entertain the women while the other handled business. The cops were called to the dorm one night as Kevin put down his bong. A resident assistant had spotted the glass paraphernalia through an outside window. The police arrested Kevin, making no show of whisking him off in manacles in the back of a squad car, the lights passing over the van in which I sat selling off the last ounce of the stockade we kept in the dorm. Not long after, I arrived at the jailhouse with the bond. He was summarily banned from the dorms, never allowed into campus housing again We drove home, where he would collect his things and begin his search for new living arrangements, and shared a cigarette knowing that the only way the racket would be worth anything was to go bigger. At eighteen, my risk tolerance was at an all-time high. I knew we could keep getting popped for little weight, or move more weight and make the risk nearly negligible. Somewhere along this tangled route, Kevin met Sean and Mike. * We’d been dry for some while. What had begun with a single knock on the door, a single customer and friend every few days—people with whom Kevin and I were vaguely acquainted—had turned into a revolving door of characters we’d never met before and sometimes would never see again. When we were dry, as we had been now for three days, we started losing business. And losing the business meant risking our friendship. I wasn’t ready to lose either. This seemed the way of most friendships that I had in Savannah. I knew Kevin because he was my roommate and my business partner. He knew all of his friends through selling or buying drugs. It’s how Kevin came to know Mike and Sean. Our small network relied on drugs for more than beer money and a stash we could smoke on our own: it supplied us with felicity, a mutually shared relief against uncertainty. Kevin knew a guy who might be able to sell us the kind of weight we needed, George. I drove towards the bar to meet Kevin and George in my beater, an old white pickup truck with a manual transmission, broken mirrors and a bench seat with the foam exposed. It chugged and stalled only once, on the hill outside the dorms. I could have turned back then. Not old enough to enter the bar, I climbed a fence up onto the second-floor where people gathered on an outdoor patio. I grabbed an abandoned half-full glass of beer, drank some, and carried it downstairs. Kevin shadowed everyone at the bar, talking like a maniac, spilling beer. As I neared, I became self-conscious and felt eyes on me from every direction. I had to reassure myself that this was how everyone makes friends. Through Kevin I found belonging in places and situations where no one should belong. Kevin seemed comfortable in his skin, and introduced me to George as his business partner. George was almost twice my age, with dark hair and a head that was wide between the ears. They talked like old friends for some time as I nursed the stolen beer. I was held outside the conversation—this was something Kevin was more experienced with, the haggling and dealings. I was a wheel man, an action man, never sitting still and always glancing over my shoulder wondering, always wondering, always looking back. When they settled their tab, we decided to head back to the dorms. We left the bar and climbed into my truck, the three of us crammed across the bench seat with Kevin in the middle, operating the manual shifter between his thighs. I pointed the truck toward the dorms. Obscured by Kevin’s tall forehead and receding hairline, a pair of headlights turned onto the truck and began following. I nudged Kevin, signaling to drop the gear into second as I engaged the clutch. That’s when I noticed him press his hand against a backpack beneath the bench seat under George. I hadn’t seen them bring a bag into the truck. I turned onto Victory Drive. Kevin and George faced off for a few minutes, exchanging opposing arguments about different strains of pot like two surly barristers in a spectacle of marijuana madness. Kevin dropped the stick down into first gear and we cruised beneath a green light. I edged Kevin once more, into neutral, and dumped the clutch. We rolled to a stop under a red traffic light. The pair of headlights following us from the bar pulled behind close. I squinted in the mirror, leaning over Kevin. The red and blue lights atop the police cruiser filled the truck. The officer in the car behind us spoke into his intercom. “Pull over to the shoulder.” I grabbed the stick and dropped the truck into gear. We edged to the shoulder and I turned off the engine, placing my hands instinctively on the dashboard, as I had countless times before, fearful of what a nervous cop might do at night when approaching three animated men crammed inside a truck. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said. I said, “Great, fucking great.” “Well, boys. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” Kevin said. “I’ve an ounce on me,” George said again. He shook, unsure what to do with his hands. Rookie. “Shut up,” I said, “Just shut the fuck up. He’s coming on my side.” “Coming from the bars?” The officer was direct, looking around the car and at Kevin, George, then back to me. “License?” “Yeah, sure.” I reached for my wallet slowly. “Have I done something wrong, sir?” I handed the officer my license. “Registration, insurance?” “Yes,” I said. “In the glove box, can you—” I motioned toward George, who fumbled through the paperwork and handed me the slips of paper. “I thought the speed limit was thirty five, sir. This thing can’t go faster than fifty.” George and Kevin started talking, shifting with unease. I said, “Would you two shut the fuck up, please. Just stop talking, please. For fuck sake.” “I pulled you over for an obscured license plate.” “I just bought this thing. Maybe I can get out and clean—would you two shut up please, fuck—I’m sorry, I just went to get them at The Rail. They called me for a ride, now I’m stuck with this,” I motioned to the two now rigid men beside me. “We’re just heading to the dorms. We’re all students.” “SCAD?” “That’s right, yes, sir.” “Which dorm?” “Boundary Village,” I said, knowing this was a test; students were always granted mercy. I turned and glared at Kevin and George, who were muttering to one another. I hung my head over the steering wheel, frustrated. “It’s midterms and I stepped away from midterms for this shit and they—would you two shut the fuck up, Christ.” The officer said, “Alright. Just get them home.” He handed me the paperwork. “That’s my only intention. And as soon as possible.” “Have a good night.” The officer walked back to his car. “Holy shit dude,” Kevin said. He took a sip from the plastic to-go cup he’d filled with beer before leaving the bar, held between his thighs. “Ken motherfucking Rosen.” George said, “Jesus Christ, dude—” “Shut the fuck up, both of you. Just shut the fuck up.” I dropped the truck into gear and eased back into traffic. Kevin would later be arrested for possession of marijuana, and let off with nothing more than a citation, which we believed was the result of his being a student: we were coddled and secure. But one year later, our tangential friends and distant partners in crime Sean and Mike were an example of what could betide us. From what I gathered, Sean and Mike had a similar business model to ours, discreet but slipping up on occasion at parties when feeling generous, blathering more than is safe in a business whose success hinges itself on tenebrous relationships and discretion. At these parties, they had often crossed paths with Kevin. Only days after we had met, Kevin suggested we pool our resources with them to widen our base. I trusted Kevin, but I didn’t know Sean and Mike. It sounded best to me if we went it alone. When I read in the local paper about the way Mike pursued Sean despite the potentially grave consequence—how the bullets struck him and killed his friend, how John hobbled around the crime scene with his leg in a cast—I was stricken by doubt. My secure world shifted off-balance. And yet my classmates traipsed about town as though nothing and no one had been lost. It made me feel a grotesque yearning for the shepherded freedom by which I would attend class and do my school work and prepare for the next day’s assignments without fear or worry. I remember thinking it could have been Kevin outside the Italianate home with the beer cans strewn about the porch, dying in my arms, not knowing who the home invaders were, why they shot him, and whether his family might make it to his side before he left them forever. Or it could have been me. Would we have had the same commitment to each other? It seemed so simple, being somewhere good before it turned bad. It seemed equally impossible to know when to end a friendship, when to relinquish someone still breathing. It is a thought that first seems facetious and bloated—the way someone mourns a person they have not lost, an overstepping of empathy. But it was in this period, trying to feel some sort of sorrow towards these tertiary friends, that I learned that Kevin wished to die. Just two months after we’d met, Kevin and I were drifting apart. He was nearing his own fulcrum of insanity after his arrests. He found success outside the dorms by living with some friends, but was met by failure in his short film ventures. I was expelled from the dorms for dousing my roommate with cold water while he showered, filling his shampoo bottle with maple syrup. I took a bottle or two of whiskey each day and retreated into my work, a darkened apartment, and a cat who I swore would be my one and only companion. I began to realize that I had spent two too many months beside a man who cared very little about anyone beyond himself. Kevin went on selling, despite Sean’s death, and I retreated into my hole. I wasn’t there when Kevin drank all day and swallowed a bottle of Adderall and laughed as night swept over him. Later, he said he laughed because, somehow, he knew it would not work, especially after a first botched attempt, many years before. Call it a gut instinct, a higher power. Nothing could go his way, even suicide. It was such a shame it didn’t take, he said. He could not die and because of that he could not save himself. Curious similarities between the two attempts he would never see: each time someone else was there to save him. This time it was our friend Rob, who dialed 911. When the police and paramedics arrived, Kevin told the police he had not taken drugs, had just been drinking heavily all day, wanted to assess the limits of his friendship with Rob. After a psychological evaluation and returning to his sinking apartment—walls draped in terrycloth, ornate tapestries, scrawled with poetry—Kevin did the next best thing short of suicide. He went on living as though he were already dead. Fearing I’d lose him if I didn’t, I joined in. I caught a glimpse of myself in Kevin’s struggle. I believed that saving him would have been my own saving. I lacked the mettle, however, to save us both. And yet, improbable though it seemed, we lived when others died. Not learning from the hard road taken by Sean and Mike, we risked more by drinking more, by exposing ourselves to opportunities through which wary onlookers might see what we dealt. On drunken nights when Kevin or myself were not threatening to paint the walls with our brains or hang limp from the ceiling fan, we might find ourselves tearing through the park in an SUV loaded with pot and women and good old boys howling out the window, trying to keep the beer inside their plastic to-go cups. On those drunken tears we walked a fine edge together and in those years we were lucky. * In the wake of Sean’s death, administrators issued a statement about the availability of grief counselors. Nothing more. Everything outside of our own lives as students seemed outrageous, unimaginable. People focused on their own degrees, their own friends, and kept their heads down. Alex Cowart had fired the gun that killed Sean. Daniel Izzo drove the getaway car. A third man, John Andrew Adams, was in the car. I liked to imagine—wondering, always wondering—the boys felt devoted in their friendship. The trial dragged on for two weeks before a verdict was issued, then hauled through the sentencing phases and into the inevitable appeals that offered little reprieve. Cowart and Adams were sentenced on felony murder charges during the commission of a crime. Cowart received two life sentences running concurrently, plus 25 years; Adams received life plus five years. Izzo pleaded to a lesser murder charge and turned state’s witness. Mike and Miles and John, Sean’s surviving friends, were placed on probation and for all outward appearances, their lives went on. During his testimony, John, the housemate whose leg was in a cast, said, “I was very upset because I felt I didn’t do Sean as much good as I wanted to.” That is how I feel when I now think of Kevin and how life for him has found little variance beyond well-worn homes, stale drugs and cheep beer—long after we had all left Savannah. After Kevin and I went our separate ways, I got a glitzy job in another city. I quit drinking, never dealt again. Kevin traveled west to trim marijuana plants. But we met once more, even as I was cultivating new and more fulfilling, healthy relationships. Fearing that I had neglected my duties as his friend, I decided, against better judgment, to visit Kevin a few years after he graduated. I found myself on a plane heading west. In a white-walled den that I had rented for us in Los Angeles for a weekend, I fell asleep after my red-eye flight sometime before dinner. I dreamed. There I am, or the person I think I am, the one I tell myself I am, standing somewhere with Kevin, surrounded by a mad gaggle of people, everyone shouting with large mouths and pointing their fingers the way teachers threaten children with yardsticks. My mother, father, sister, boss and every editor I've ever had is looking on. There's someone with a gun or knife or cloth slowly moving toward me and I'm powerless to stop them. “Awww, look at the little boy, so tired.” I heard Kevin outside my dream and when I opened my eyes he was pointing and laughing. He looked like he always had, with the torn backpack filled with books and the long gaunt face of a man who never wanted to put down the bottle. When I saw him, I jumped and hugged and tackled him onto the bed, just like I knew I would because I'd always done this with him and he knew it, he was expecting it, too. I was predictable around him. We'd known each other too long and had become like brothers. He passed me a beer from the six-pack suffocating in a black plastic bag by his thigh. I took the frosty thing on the hot day because what choice did I have? I sat on the couch looking intermittently out at the speckled horizon, scared as ever—scared as I've always been, because then I remembered what it was that frightened me most, and that was what we’d do together that night. I asked him then about what went wrong in Savannah, or if we did OK, considering that we were alive and well and out of harm’s way. He believed we never would have taken anything as far as the other boys had. I asked him, What about that suicide attempt. He asked which time. I told him the first time, the very first time. He laughed, that same humbled and soothing laugh, and told me, “That time? That time doesn’t count.” A knock came at the door and I opened. Kevin had called her and she strode into the room wearing neon pants. It was nighttime now. She did not remove her clothes though I suppose that would have been the plan. Kevin walked over to the tall dresser, its doors of wood and clasps of aluminum shimming. We’d stowed some cash inside earlier, and Kevin counted it for the woman to see. She seemed pleased but said she needed something from downstairs and took the money with her. Kevin couldn’t get there in time to stop her. She walked down the hallway and he followed. Outside, a scuffle, a clamor, a struggle by a sedan. The woman had slipped into a car, and a man in the front seat was reaching for a gun when Kevin made the downstairs landing. He saw the handgun, stopped, and came upstairs panting. “They took the money.” “I know.” “They took all the fucking money, man.” Kevin sat down. “They could have shot you.” “Yeah, man,” Kevin said, “But they didn’t.” With a bottle of whiskey between us, we sloshed toward morning.
The author of Certain American States on living with titles, the narrative space of relationships, and why short stories are like sauce.
In Catherine Lacey’s short story collection Certain American States (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), characters with rich interior lives are captured in acute moments of existential ennui. They navigate surreptitious affairs and dissolving marriages, run away from their families and hometowns, and generally resist modes of social containment by bravely, brazenly, treading their own paths. Whether “dizzy with failure” or slightly unmoored, Lacey’s characters chart a wide range of emotions—which are often, compellingly, at odds with their external landscapes. In a story cut into twenty-four discrete sections—perhaps an effort to organize wild, expansive prose—the narrator divulges, “There’s a word for the scrambling of senses, but there’s no way to explain how I’m always reeling from unclear feelings and memories, no word that’s not an insult, anyway, or a diagnosis.” As demonstrated in her first two novels, The Answers and Nobody is Ever Missing, Lacey is skilled at creating worlds where intimacy and loneliness and alienation and abundance can coexist. We talked about un-sentimentalizing the process of writing, the Freudian concept of the “narcissism of small differences,” and intimate relationships as a potent narrative space. Anna Furman: I read Certain American States while also reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and found the two books to be—for lack of a better word—quite complementary. In both books, characters reconcile complicated interior landscapes with external situations/conditions/predicaments. I wonder which books about place or placelessness or lostness informed your writing? Catherine Lacey: A Field Guide to Getting Lost is definitely in there, but I actually didn’t read it till 2016. I think of Grace Paley a lot. I don't love everything she’s written, but I’ve always been drawn to the way a character can kind of just wander around a space in a Grace Paley story. And Lydia Davis too. I don't think I’m anything like Lydia Davis, but I really love Lydia Davis. I was thinking about writing a book of stories that are derivative of Lydia Davis. Sometimes I find myself complaining about something or launching some complaint at my partner and then I realize after, it’s a Lydia Davis story. I think it speaks to how embedded some of her characters are in my head. They become crucibles for me to express something that I might feel. I’m not so much influenced by autobiographical things but more by situation, like odd predicaments that one could get into. When I took care of my dog by myself for the first time, it was a very productive time. I wrote a lot out of it. It was only three days, but there was something about the fact of being alone, just me and this dog for three days, and not knowing anyone else in town, that changed me. I just read Motherhood and listened to a couple interviews with Sheila Heti. And I can’t stop thinking about an interview on the Longform podcast with the writer Elif Batuman. I was totally lit up by that interview. It really tore me a new one, in a good way. As I read this collection, my understanding of the title changed, from referring to certain, specific states in the U.S. to states of being. Did you have other working titles for the book? When did you arrive at Certain American States? In 2014, when I started thinking I had enough stories to finish up a collection, I called it “Small Differences.” I thought it was most exemplary of a new way I was working. It comes from this Freudian concept of the narcissism of small difference. But many of the stories changed and finally “Small Differences” didn't feel sufficient anymore. I had to make a decision on the cover right after the election. “Certain American States” is the oldest story in the collection. It felt like the right title because it has a four-pronged meaning and made me a little bit uncomfortable. I tend to move towards things that feel like too much to say or too embarrassing to say. Then I want to say it. I felt mixed about the title till recently, because I think the word America is pretty ugly. Just as a sound, I don’t particularly like it. And I find the majority of things it connotes to be pretty ugly. Eventually, you just resign yourself to the limits of a title. And at different points in the process of choosing one, you can feel completely convinced that one is great, and then two days later feel like it’s the worst title in the world. Maybe both of those things are true. And all titles are ultimately insufficient. That’s why the whole story is there. In “ur heck box” the narrator describes Midtown Manhattan as a place that looks exactly the way her head feels: “bleak and crowded.” What places look the way your head feels right now? I’m sitting in a public space right now, on a patio area attached to the apartment that I just moved into. It’s just a big slab of Astroturf. I feel like it’s some kind of a fake comfort in the midst of an urban landscape. There are parts of the country where you get four seasons in a day. I feel like, internally, I experience five seasons in a day. Or maybe ten seasons. I wrote “ur heck box” during a period of grief—and what’s striking to me about grief is how much pain you can feel for so long. You become LA weather, but not happy. It’s where nothing changes. In the story “Family Physics,” you write: “Since the World Trade Center, people had stopped whispering about the apocalypse and began to speak of it, plainly and loudly, whenever.” Did you write this story during the post-9/11 Bush years? Since Trump was elected and we’ve all been catapulted into this new political reality that feels apocalyptic to many of us. Did you tweak these stories to reflect that change? When Bush was elected, I was sixteen or seventeen. There was this feeling of defeat and darkness among my few liberal friends in Tennessee. I wrote “Family Physics” during the 2016 election, while I was working at a college in Montana. This felt like a crazy, exaggerated version of the 2000 election. When you’re a kid in high school versus an adult employed at a university, your perspective of what these things mean is completely different. I’ve been thinking about the kind of rage we feel across political boundaries, and yet how neutered that rage is. Nobody really does anything. There’s no real upheaval or shift of power. We just get this teeter totter of eight years of this, eight years of this, eight years of this. It made me think of the country as one big, horrible family going through these periods of time together, with different people feeling more or less like black sheep within that family. There’s different times when more marginal or outside perspectives might feel like they have a place within this country. And sometimes, brutally outcast. I wasn’t consciously sitting down and thinking: I know, it’ll be a family that is microcosmal of the country. It’s only on reflection that I can see that. How do you know when a story is finished? You know how, when you taste a sauce, you know: oh, it needs more of this or less of that? It’s done or it’s not done. It’s kind of like that. And the more sauces you make, the more you know what sort of texture and flavor profile you’re looking for, and how much salinity. It’s like a fingerprint that you don’t realize you’re developing. And you know when all the pieces are there, but you don’t necessarily know how to describe putting all the pieces together. You know how an old grandma might make the best tomato sauce, but when they try and explain the recipe to you, yours doesn’t come out like theirs? I think it’s a bit like that. In the first story, “Violations,” the characters don’t have names but are identified by their pronouns. Why did you decide to write them as she and he instead of as people with specific names? There’s this way that a relationship between a man and a woman, or between anybody and anybody, can be claustrophobic. Whether it’s she or he or me or you, it’s always you and the other. You feel like you have an entire world with this other person. A relationship is an interesting narrative space because it’s not always clear who is in control and who is really writing the narrative. It wasn’t important to me whether the characters had names. It’s hard for me to remember which things the man says and which things the woman says or even what the roles are because they’re switching back and forth so quickly. Their names become irrelevant. Characters are not actual human beings of course, so really it’s a matrix of ideas and feelings and postures and situations. Sometimes it makes sense for that matrix of thought to be held by a female person or a male person. Maybe part of it is that when you’re a younger writer, sometimes it’s better just to limit the variables that you’re having to juggle at one time. It’s easier to make the character have the same sort of biochemical reality and social experience that you have. I had a big break-up two years ago and the anger that you can feel over how the other person will necessarily have a different narrative about what happened during the break-up and why you broke up and why you got together and what happened all those years is so potent and so visceral. Once you’ve experienced that rage, you recognize it. There’s a line in “Violations” that goes: “He had wanted to make sure she wouldn’t write about him, but he knew he couldn’t ask her outright not to write about him, since he was sure such a question would set off a lecture about how he was not within his rights to…” Have friends or family members misinterpreted characters that you’ve written as representing them? There’s this interaction between any writer’s life and what they’re writing about. In the past, I’ve felt extremely nervous about what this or that person thinks of this or that character, if something shows up in my fiction that looks a lot like my life or that person. I’ve been worried about hurting someone’s feelings—or, in writing a story, sometimes I realize that I don’t care anymore. I have an ex-husband and he’s actually a really marvelous person in a lot of ways. I didn’t want him to come across the story without knowing that it was coming. I decided to send it to him ahead of time, and actually, he totally got it and wasn't angry. It made me realize that there’s a lot of wasted energy in being worried about what people are going to think about you because of your fiction. Or what they’re gonna think about what you might think of them, because of what you write in fiction. I didn’t write the story out of malice. I wasn't angry at him, directly, and I wasn't painting anybody out to be the wrong person. I think that if you’re in that place, writing about situations that relate very closely to your life narrative can be a fine thing to do. Also because you can write into spaces that you didn’t get to experience. There’s a lot of things in that story that certainly didn’t happen and the details are not representative of an autobiography. Sometimes you want to exaggerate certain things and tone down other things and see if you change the proportion of story that you experienced. By amplifying one aspect of it and turning down another, what does it look like then? You shuffle the characters around or try and imagine something from someone else’s perspective. I think it can be useful to understand that your perspective on your life is maybe not the most important aspect of it. Some friends of mine that recently got married said, “Ah yes, the final test of getting married, combining your books on the same bookshelf.” And I was like: “the final test of getting married is getting divorced and seeing if that’s a good person to get divorced from.” I wanted to ask you about silence as a device. You write that silence “could choke a person” and about characters that “exchanged the kind of nonspeech that people with nothing to say to each other end up saying to each other.” What does silence in these varying forms mean to you? The way I teach my writing workshops, usually, is a bit different from the traditional workshop method. In my workshop, the student that’s being workshopped has to sit in front of the class and take these questions from the rest of the students. I always encourage the person to sit there as long as they want before answering a question, to decide how they feel about it and let the answer come to them under the awkwardness and duress of a room of people waiting on something from you. It can be a bit of a pressure cooker when you’re silent with someone else. And then there’s the silence of just being a human being and having to walk around the world and spend all your time with yourself. I love multitasking and listening to music and absorbing a podcast and doing ten things at once. But when I remember to leave things at home and just walk my dog without my phone, aimlessly, I find myself writing stories in my head, and it’s so useful. Silence is an endangered species. It’s a very rich, sort of fecund area of human existence that’s not really taken advantage of enough. I read a conversation you had with Leslie Jamison in which you said: “There is really no way to demystify the creation process, though I do think it’s a good idea to un-sentimentalize it.” I think it’s a challenge for interviewers to ask craft-oriented questions that don’t romanticize the writing process. So, maybe, what are the most unglamorous or mechanical parts of your writing process? I wake up most mornings, five to six days a week, and go away. Don’t say anything. I find it’s really helpful not to speak to my partner or my dog or anybody. And just go, drink some coffee and write. Last year, I was living in Mississippi teaching at the university there for a one-year residency. I’ve been pretty transient the past couple years, living in different places every few months, so I’ve had to be more adaptable. I need to work in public, because every time I work at home, I do the laundry instead of working. Or clean something or procrastibake—bake something really elaborate, and then, it’s like 10 a.m., and I’m like, “what the fuck am I doing?” For several years, I had my place, a cafe in Brooklyn, and they just knew me. I felt really comfortable there. I knew where to sit, and what time to arrive so that it wasn’t crowded yet. I really believed that if I left that pattern, I just wasn’t going to write anything else. Now I’ve found that I can write at home. I can write in the afternoon. I can write other times of day. I just prefer working in the morning on a clean brain—before I’ve checked my email or worried about anything that probably needs some worrying. I think it doesn't matter that much, as long as it’s the morning and there’s coffee.
The author of If You Leave Me on the Korean War, listening to your family stories, and the cost of survival.
In Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me (William Morrow), sixteen-year-old refugee Haemi Lee finds herself caught between the affections of two men: Kyunghwan, her first love, and Jisoo, his wealthier cousin. She eventually marries Jisoo, sacrificing a life with Kyunghwan for what she believes will be the safety and security of her family—a choice that sows seeds of deep unhappiness not just for her, but for future generations. If You Leave Me is a powerful and timely story about the personal cost of survival—the cost to relationships; the cost to families; the cost for generations to come—as well as a vivid, beautifully rendered portrait of love, sacrifice, and tragedy in a country torn asunder by war. The book began as overlapping character-driven stories, and Kim gives all her main characters a voice: Haemi, Jisoo, and Kyunghwan take turns narrating throughout, along with Haemi’s brother Hyunki and, later, her daughter Solee. The agility with which these rich, distinctive voices interweave is one of many strengths in a book that never flags despite its heavy subject matter. Kim says she wanted to consider the effects of inherited trauma by telling the story of a spirited, complicated woman constrained by war and time and circumstance. For Kim, who grew up hearing stories about the Korean War from her family members, in particular her grandmother, the novel grew in part out of a desire to fill in gaps in her own understanding. “When I start writing, it’s nearly always because I am curious about something and want to learn more,” she says. “When writing this book, I wanted to know more about this war that is such a big part of my family’s history.” Nicole Chung: The Korean War and its realities are deep in the marrow of this book, and we follow the characters beyond it. Why did you want to write about this particular era of Korean history and its aftermath? Crystal Hana Kim: It’s so interesting that it’s a timely story right now, because when I began writing it—and even when it went out on submission to publishers—a story about the Korean War didn’t seem as timely. It’s such a big part of Korean identity, and it is still ongoing. But I didn’t realize how little people in this country knew about it; about America’s involvement; about North and South Korea and the fact that they have been two separate countries for less than 100 years. I was so surprised to find that many people here didn’t know all these facts when I talked to them about it. Both my parents are Korean. My mom, who is the only one in her family who lives in America, is one of five daughters; the rest of the family is in Korea and we visit them often. So the war is something I grew up hearing a lot of stories about—which I think has not been the experience for some Korean Americans I know. Many people are hesitant to talk about the war and the trauma they experienced. But my grandmother is a storyteller, and she told me a lot of her stories. The war is part of our history, and I knew a little about it, but I wanted to understand it more fully. And I understand best through writing. “Solee,” a version of one of the chapters in this novel, was published as a short story by The Southern Review and then selected as one of PEN America’s 2017 Best Debut Short Stories. I loved that story when I first read it, and ever since I have been so eager to read this book. Can you talk a little about the evolution of the book, from interconnected stories about this family to the final novel? Where did it really begin for you? When I was an undergrad, I was writing a lot of stories about teenagers and young girls. I came up with this character, Solee—she might have had a different name at the time, but I focused on her because I wanted a way to write about and explore mother/daughter dynamics. Then, when I started my MFA, I really thought I wanted to write a collection of interconnected short stories. The idea of writing a novel was so daunting to me, and I thought connected stories might be more feasible. Solee was one of the first characters I created, and by writing her I realized I was interested in the character of her mother. I wanted to figure out her story, so I wrote a chapter from her perspective, and that led me to other characters. I just kept following my own curiosity about these different people; I didn’t quite know who they were yet. I knew they lived in Korea, but wasn’t sure when. At the time I was also talking a lot with my grandmother, trying to think about larger themes and ideas, and I knew I loved hearing her stories. I decided to write about the Korean War in order to understand it more deeply. I’m so interested in exploring family and this idea of generational trauma. So I started with Haemi, the main character, writing her life and her journey beginning with her teenaged years as a refugee. By then I knew her very well as a character, and I knew what her perspective would be. I felt so deeply for Haemi, I would’ve read about her forever. She seemed so strong in the beginning, and even later, in the depths of her unhappiness, she never quite felt like a victim to me. It was difficult but also powerful to read about this strong woman who cannot have what she wants—or even necessarily feel sure of what she wants all the time—because her life is so much about survival. I’m so glad you didn’t think Haemi seemed like a victim. It was really important to me to write a strong female character. I grew up around strong Korean women. My mom is one of five sisters, all very strong in their own ways, though they all have very different temperaments. My grandmother has always been very strong—my grandparents divorced, which is unusual in Korea, and I grew up hearing my mom tell stories about how my grandmother had to work hard to provide for the family, because my grandfather wasn’t really providing any financial support. She was a single woman running a hotel, raising five children. One time when I was young, I asked her how come she wasn’t like all the other halmeonis I saw when I visited Korea, and she said, “It’s because I have to make money!” Can you talk more about Haemi, and some of the challenges of writing a strong character whose options are so limited because of the time and place she lives in? She’s so smart and determined—you want her to have so many more choices than she does. She has to flee with her mother and brother to a refugee camp. She tries to seize some happiness for herself, but doesn’t get to keep the man she loves. She gets backed into this very hard decision, trading love for what she thinks will be security for her family, and by then the choice feels inevitable. I really wanted this book to feel realistic. Haemi is a character with an impoverished background. She doesn’t have a high school education—that was common for a lot of people back then. She’s also a refugee, living in a country at war, so she is going to be very limited in her choices. So I wanted her to make choices and not be a victim, but also, as you say, she can’t help but be constrained in those choices. She needed to be a realistic person given the time period. That said, sometimes I felt it was important to push back against people’s perceptions of women in different time periods. Once I workshopped a chapter about Haemi, and one of the comments was: “I don’t know that a woman of this time would have these sexual desires.” And I just remember thinking, “What?” I wanted people to understand that women in these circumstances would have the same desires, the same wants, maybe some of the same ambivalence about becoming a mother that many women today experience. I wanted to make Haemi a woman who struggles with motherhood because the cost of survival was so high for her. And that is something her children will notice. Because they’re young, they can’t always articulate it, but they know that something is wrong. At the same time, they also have this kind of unreserved love for her. I thought it was so well done, the way you explored the far-reaching consequences of Haemi’s choice to marry Jisoo and how her resulting unhappiness—and that generational trauma you mentioned before—echoes through the lives of her children. Can you talk a little about that, and also how you wrote the relationship between Haemi and her daughter Solee? I really wanted to write about Haemi and her daughter, and spend time exploring that relationship, because I have always been interested in mother/daughter stories. To me, growing up, my mom always seemed like someone who was louder and more outspoken than a lot of the Korean women I saw when I visited Korea, and I was always very curious about that. My mother and I have a good relationship, but you know, the mother/daughter relationship can just be so complicated. It’s something I have thought and written about for so long. I want to be a mother one day; I grew up around all these strong women; I also have a younger sister—these relationships between women are fascinating to me. What sort of research did you have to do to write this book? Oh, it was so much more than I thought when I started writing! I was mostly following my writerly whims in grad school, and I didn’t realize how much research would be involved. But then I realized my workshopmates didn’t know much about the Korean war, and that would be true of many of my readers, so I needed to provide a lot more background information. And also I just wanted to read and understand more for myself. So I read a lot of historical and political texts about the Korean War. I interviewed my grandmother. I interviewed some of my dad’s siblings, who were alive during the war. I watched documentaries and movies. And I also looked at a lot of photographs, to get a sense of what everyday life was like for people at the time. I wanted to create a visual and sensory experience for the reader, especially because I knew it might be a foreign place for them. What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research? One thing that was surprising but shouldn’t have been was just how difficult it was to find accounts of women’s experiences during and after the war. That was hard and frustrating. I had to get creative with my research, because I was specifically interested in women’s lives during the war, and there was not much information. So I read a lot of sociological studies about women and war and trauma. And let’s see...one of the more interesting things I learned was that, in the years after the war, there were a lot of government campaigns to promote smaller families. They actually had a van go around and provide free IUDs to people. I’m so curious about what those were even like, and how effective they were. Sometimes I wonder if we’re finally seeing more Korean and Korean American stories because of South Korea’s increased cultural influence. In more cynical moments, I think our country is also fascinated by North Korean suffering. Did you feel any additional pressure writing a book set during and after the Korean War for a largely non-Korean audience? When I started writing this, I was really just driven by my interest and my own need to write it. I felt like it was something I had to do. I wasn’t thinking about any readers in particular. But later on, when I had a draft I was revising and I was starting to think beyond the characters, I did start to think about that kind of pressure. I had a conversation about the book with my parents and my uncle, and showed them all of these photos I had gathered over the years. My uncle made a comment like, “Make sure you represent us well and make Koreans proud, show us in a good light.” Wow, that’s so much. It is! I didn’t know how to articulate to them that that’s not my role as a writer. I’m not trying to represent all of Korea. I want to write these characters who have particular experiences. Though I think it’s wonderful if the American reader, or English-speaking reader, learns more about the Korean War or thinks more about what one woman’s experience during that time might have been. So what’s been your family’s reaction since you finished the novel? Have any of them read it. They are all so excited for me. My parents can read English, and they speak English, but it would be hard for them to read a whole novel in English. They’re not going to be able to read this book easily. So they’re hoping it’ll get translated into Korean, and I really hope it will, too. They joked that if it doesn’t, they’ll read one line a day, and it’ll take them the rest of their lives. My mom has been trying to read the essays I’ve written, like the recent one about my grandmother. I really loved that essay. In it, you wrote about the realization that you are more than your own self—your body, your bones, as you put it—you are also your family, and what they lived through. What are some things you learned about your family while talking with them for this book? And did any of their stories come into the novel, or just influence it in some surprising way? I learned a lot more about my grandmother when I interviewed her. Working on this novel also allowed me to hear more stories from my parents. My dad is kind of a silent guy ... but nowadays he talks more and shares more stories. When I started this book, I asked a lot of questions about his childhood, and he’d give such interesting tidbits. When he was little, the kids would go around chasing grasshoppers. They’d pluck their wings, and fry and eat them. They’d catch tadpoles and fish and eat those, too. It was because they were hungry, and it was protein, but as a child he didn’t think about that; he thought it was fun. He also told me about living near a woman whose child was half-white, and there was all this discrimination against them; that’s something I remembered, and wanted to include in my book. And my father vividly remembers the candy and cookies American soldiers would give out. So many of his memories rotated around food, because they didn’t have enough. His life is so different now. Before, I hadn’t consciously thought about just how different it is. Growing up, I didn’t think about my parents being that poor or hungry—I mean I knew, but I just couldn’t imagine it fully. Writing this book helped me to ask more questions about them, about my family, and I became closer to them because I listened to their stories. Have you started to hear from readers? Any reactions that have really meant a lot to you? I’ve heard from readers who’ve said I’m portraying a really complicated woman who they did not hate in the end, even though they didn’t always agree with her. And I’m happy to hear that—I really wanted to write about someone complicated, and have people care for her. I’m really excited to hear from Korean American readers. I didn’t grow up reading Korean American authors, and now I read every one I can find. I feel like it’s been kind of a banner year for Asian American women writers in particular. Is that something you’ve noticed, too? Yes, and I’m so excited! This is a big year for Asian women writers. I also didn’t grow up reading many Asian women writers, or Asian American writers in general, but I think it’s something I desperately wanted. I distinctly remember when I was in Kindergarten, I picked up this book about a Chinese adoptee just because it had a girl like me on the cover. I really wanted to read more books about Asian characters, more books by Asian writers. And maybe that’s represented in the years I spent in college writing these white or raceless characters because I didn’t want to write Asian characters—I just hadn’t read about many growing up, and so I thought that wasn’t literature. I’m so happy and proud about all the Asian American women writing today. It fills me with such joy. Do you think you’ll write more stories set in Korea, during this time period or a different one? I think so, yes. I started working on a novel, and it is half in America, present-day, and half in Korea in the ’80s. Earlier I mentioned being surprised by the amount of research that went into If You Leave Me, but I did enjoy that process, and how informed I felt creating the world of the book. So I think I will keep doing research and writing about Korea. I’m also eager to write about Korean Americans—who knows, it’s early and could still change, but with the second book, I’m trying to do both.
Talking to the creator of Prism Stalker about body horror, complicating stories of subjugation and colonialism, and finding inspiration in Sailor Moon.
Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker, a new series from Image Comics, begins inside a dream: Human forms abstracted by swirls of creamy pink and radioactive orange. This is how the young protagonist Vep remembers her home—a planet ruined by plague. Her people were rescued by a galactic power known as the Chorus, which recruits them into service with the empire. Vep ends up at a telepathic police academy, training to put down indigenous unrest. Struggling to master her native language, manipulated into complicity, Vep’s disquiet reveals itself during psychic combat; fellow students watch their bodies liquefy or crack apart, fighting through illusions. The moral corrosion of colonialism makes everything slippery. One of Vep’s teachers takes hold of an ancestral necklace, not without tenderness, and then tears it from her neck: “A distraction you can’t afford here.” Before creating her current project, Leong put in time contributing art to various other comics, including Dial H, an uncommonly strange DC monthly written by the Marxist-surrealist China Mieville. Prism Stalker is the first series she owns, in more than one sense; Leong scripts, pencils, and colours each issue herself. For all its overlapping textures, its membranes and trellises, she draws this world with loose ease. * Chris Randle: On your website you describe yourself as a "self-taught" cartoonist, so it felt irresistible to ask: what did you learn from? Sloane Leong: Reading books, reading comics, watching movies and stuff, just absorbing what I saw. I didn't have any formal training. I think I took an art class when I was in, like, third grade, where I learned how to finger-paint beach scenes, which was fun, but nothing beyond that [laughs]. You're from Hawaii...was that helpful in itself? The fact that you didn't grow up in some random suburbs? Yeah, I was born in southern California, so I went to school there for a little bit, then I lived in Hawaii, and that was when I was really starting to come into my own as an artist, painting and stuff. The art scene in Hawaii specifically on Maui was pretty much whale art and beach photography, and beyond that there was really nothing. I was absorbing other more interesting stuff on my own on the Internet, like roleplaying on forums and reading webcomics and fanfic on the internet. How did you first get into work-for-hire comics? The first thing that got published, I think I was 18, and I did a two-page comic for Slave Labor Graphics, for an anthology called Fat Chunk: Robot. I don't think they exist anymore. Did they fold? [laughs] And they published, like, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, right? Yup. Yeah. I didn't really grow up reading comics, I started reading them around 14, so I didn't really have any history or know who published what. But I used to draw for a website called EnterVoid, I don't know if you've heard of it. A lot of Canadian cartoonists were on there, like James Stokoe and Marley Zarcone. Basically you'd make an original character, you'd do a design sheet, and then you would pit your character against another person's character, and you'd have to draw a short comic with them fighting it out. You'd get graded on skill, creativity, and technique, and people would rate you from 1-10, and they'd also do long critiques. It was really brutal [laughs], because there were teens like me going up against 30-year-olds. It was intense but fun, and you could do something short like a five-page comic within two weeks, or they'd have tournaments, and you'd have to draw a 22-page comic within two weeks, with a month's worth of fights. That was formative for me as a cartoonist. Prism Stalker began as a novel, right? Yeah. It was a baby novel, and then I wanted to do a visual novel, like an RPG game, but it was too complicated because I didn't have any experience with gaming. And then after several years I felt confident enough to draw it, so I settled on doing a comic. Do you write detailed scripts for yourself, or just lay out each issue first as thumbnails? Mostly outlines. I'll compile an issue's worth of scenes and ideas, but they're usually only a couple of pages long. I don't write dialogue until I'm actually drawing—as I'm drawing it, I'll be thinking through dialogue and writing it down. To me the characters are super amorphous, and when I start drawing a scene I'll be like, "Actually they wouldn't say this, and they wouldn't act like this." Or the way I intuitively draw them acting out their emotions will alter how I think they should speak, what they're thinking. So I don't plan until I'm in the mix drawing it. I do have a loose overarching storyline, but I don't like going into too much detail, because it kills the momentum for me. It is funny that Prism Stalker started as a novel, because the story most reminds me of this species of psychosomatic '70s science fiction—I was thinking of writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler. Was that in the back of your mind? Oh, totally. I think the most apparent inspiration is Sailor Moon, magical girls shouting out moves, and I wanted to take that and—not dissect it, but elaborate on it, instead of just being like "this is my water attack." There's one move, I think in the fifth issue that I just drew, it's this frog alien and her move is forcing someone to experience what it's like to give birth to hatchlings from their back [laughs]. That's like her psychic move and it's very traumatizing if you're not a frog alien. I just try to take that idea of transmitting an experience and go really weird with it. That made me think of—Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for Alien and came up with the basic concept and everything, he had Crohn's disease, and I think he understandably had a lot of frustration and trauma surrounding that. So he was like, my idea for this horror story is, what if men got impregnated? Because that's what it feels like, yeah. Body horror is a big thing for me. I have chronic [gastrointestinal] disease, so every time I eat I get nauseous and sick, it's been happening since I was a tween. So I have this disgust and—not complete fear, but a dread-filled fascination with my body, because I'm not in control of it, and I've had cancer scares and stuff. Asthma. The body is so crazy, in how it can turn on itself. That's a big inspiration for the entire world [of Prism Stalker]. That is such a recurring theme with Delany and Butler as well, this fantasy of the mutable body. You did a minicomic about it, but there's multiple scenes in Prism Stalker—I was thinking of the one where Vep becomes this membrane of frantic lines. I love that part. And it doesn't feel clean or sterile like a lot of clichéd science fiction, the aesthetic is techno-organic. All these giant hives. People pressing into the flesh of a door to open it. And the palette is so tropical. Were you consciously trying to go against all those clichés? Yeah. And I feel like that's my perspective on a radical future, a biological synchronicity between us and our environment. Acknowledging it as something that's alive, although not necessarily conscious, which comes from my native Hawaiian background, having that relationship with the land you're on. So I wanted to do a sci-fi version that was a little more flashy and colorful. I just love how dynamic the human body is on a cellular level, how it can encode data into itself. I feel like a lot of bad science fiction is about overcoming or erasing nature, rather than reshaping it, so that was cool to see. Another thing that struck me was...this is a story about a refugee who's been displaced by a terrorist attack, and ends up working for a private military contractor, but it doesn't feel clumsily allegorical. How did you go about gesturing towards these political ideas, but in a way that's— —not too reductive? Yeah. That reveals the operations of colonialism by displacing it into a different context. I drew a lot from Hawaiian history and culture around the 1890s, when Sanford Dole and other businessmen came to Hawaii to start plantations for sugar and pineapples. There were all these immigrants coming in to work for them, and the natives were working for them, so there were hierarchies involved. The plantation owners would also play mind games, like, they started treating the Japanese really well, to make them feel above the others, above the Chinese workers, above the Hawaiians. It's very messy, you know? Obviously there's oppressive subjugation of the native peoples, of the immigrants, but there's also the colonized people enacting that violence against each other. And I wanted to explore that, so it wasn't such a clean, “here's the oppressor, and here's the victim.” In Prism Stalker's world there's the Chorus, which denotes that they're going for harmony. They feel that they have the right to subjugate people for their own good. When they rescue Vep's people from that terrorist attack on their home planet, it's not like they're forcing them to leave, they're saving them from this horrible disease that's spreading. But there's still trauma involved for them. There's this trope in shitty space-opera movies where the bad guys are so ridiculously evil-looking. And I can appreciate the camp of a villain slinking around his fabulously appointed lair, but that is not how these empires saw themselves in real life, they thought they were doing good. I loved how you capture the euphemisms they use: "It's important for your social health to move beyond your base traditions." All the teachers are different species and races and ethnicities as well, so a lot of them also had to give up their traditions in order to take on authoritative roles at this academy for the Chorus. They're sympathetic, but they want to succeed in this place where they've found themselves. I think of you as somebody who watches a lot of films, and studies—mm, that sounds bad, [pompously] "studies cinema." But you write about it really well. How has that informed your cartooning? Hmm...I feel like it's such a core part of how I learned storytelling, just because I don’t have any formal training besides reading books with titles like How to Draw Comics. I just kind of absorbed media willy-nilly. Movies specifically...I think color and atmosphere was a big thing for me. I don't know, because I feel like my compositions aren't especially cinematic, I don't rely on three-panel wide shots, you know? That doesn't really come into my mind, but the color and atmosphere and mood that movies can achieve, that is present in my mind when I'm coloring. A lot of comics that are colored, as opposed to black and white, it almost feels pointless. It's such a boring, realist use of color, compared to a movie like Black Narcissus, where it's so florid...is that what your approach is going for? It depends on the scene. Like, a lot of the fight scenes I end up going more abstract, especially because there's a lot of psychic abstraction happening in the scene. I'm always trying to find the simplest way to depict something. Not that it'll lack detail, but if I can get away with adding a wash of color to show depth, or wash a whole scene in a very limited palette to control pacing, I'll do that. I'm always trying to use color to make the story and mood clearer. And you even have soundtracks for Prism Stalker. I got the idea from my friend Porpentine, who does Twine games and fiction writing, and Riley collaborates with her a lot, does music for her games. I thought that might be cool, especially because Prism Stalker has a lot of...it's a very noisy world to me. Everything is goopy and membranous and echoing. There's large chambers, crowds of people. Do you have the whole thing planned out right now in your head? Like, do you know how long it's going to run for, what the arc of the story is... Yeah, I have a loose outline, and I pitched it as 25 issues. I thought that was a safe bet. I feel like a lot of Image comics fail when they do that, like, "I'm just going to go on until it's canceled." 25 issues, five trade paperbacks, that seems safe [laughs] ... I think it's also my history with short comics, like, I love doing short fiction and minicomics, one-shot stories, so having something that's ongoing, to me that just means I don't have a pointed theme in mind, and that I'm groping for something to knead it to. [Prism Stalker] is such a clear experience that I'm picking apart that I have an end in mind. Plus you're doing literally everything on this comic yourself, so I imagine you don't have much time to draw other stuff. I'm also working on a graphic novel, I don't recommend it [laughs]. What can you tell me about that book? It's called A Map to the Sun, it's halfway inked, it's about five girls that get forced together to join a basketball team. They're in 10th grade. It takes place in an ambiguous Los Angeles / San Diego-adjacent neighborhood, there's school drama, lots of basketball rivalries. I wanted it to be kind of like Slam Dunk, but there's a hard page count that I can't go past, like, 320 pages, so I can't do a 100-page-long basketball game [laughs]. I'm trying to condense that sort of complex, detailed drama of being a player in a game. Is it also jarring to go from this surreal science fiction to a realist— Yeah. I try to stay looser for A Map to the Sun, especially the backgrounds, it's more brush-y, because I just don't like drawing cars and houses that much, but that and Prism Stalker are both very kinetic, they have a lot to do with the characters' bodies and becoming skilled at a certain thing. I have to ask, because you're doing a book-length comic about L.A.: Have you seen Los Angeles Plays Itself? No, I haven't! It's this three-hour-long film essay about the depiction of Los Angeles in cinema, and the director quotes from dozens and dozens of other movies with narration over that...he talks about how, in classical Hollywood, they couldn't actually shoot movies in China or wherever, they almost never had the budget for that kind of thing, so they would just pretend that these fields outside the city were rice paddies. There's a section where he's showing an old crime thriller supposedly set in Chicago, and the guy is escaping through these hog pens, and the narrator deadpans: "But what about those palm trees?" I did say [A Map to the Sun] is set in Los Angeles, but because it's not "sexy" like L.A. is, I try not to necessarily reference that aspect. I'm mostly referencing, like, the hot, semi-tropical desert property there. I don't know, there's such a specific idyllic feeling, but it can also be really gritty and ugly.
The dubious distinction, and literary legacy, of Leo Szilard, the physicist and writer “who did the most to create the atomic bomb, and the most to stop it.”
By all accounts, Leo Szilard loved being in the hospital. In 1960, he was sixty-two years old and dying of bladder cancer, or so it seemed at the time. Although he had liked his life, dying did have its privileges. In room 812 at Memorial, he could hold appointments from bed, like a child king; he had prompt meals, daily pampering; hourly respite from loneliness. And, though he had gone without a permanent address for nearly a decade, he now had a constant influx of visitors: the nurses who indulged his banter and let him take his own temperature; the doctors who tolerated the proffering of his medical opinions. Cancer, miraculously, had given Leo a social life. It had also, paradoxically, given him time. Propped up on his deathbed with his mind at leisure, Leo could cultivate new hobbies, like researching poison. “How terrible it is that you can’t walk into a drugstore and buy something to kill yourself without pain,” he lamented to his colleague, the physicist and Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe. Barbiturates were good, but cyanide was better, if you could curb the choking sensation. He began a patent for a so-called “suicide kit”: a hand pump that could diffuse a painless dilution of cyanide fumes, making dying as easy as breathing. Around that time—in the hours he wasn’t napping, or amusing nurses, or trying to covertly direct his own radiation treatment—he began writing a book. That book, a collection of eight addled, antic parables about nuclear war called The Voice of the Dolphins, would go on to be hailed by at least one of Leo’s contemporaries as a “science fiction classic.” The cyanide pump, on the other hand, was a morbid failure. So, in his way, was Leo. Leo is best remembered, when he’s remembered at all, for his contributions to a different kind of deadly device. In 1939, he sent a famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “In the course of the last four months,” he wrote, “it has become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.” The letter, cosigned by Leo’s old friend Einstein, was the beginning of the Manhattan Project. * Born in Budapest in 1898, Leo was a mere nerd long before he was ever a maker of bombs: quiet, inward, exceedingly mockable. He had protruding ears, a high forehead, and a collection of whimsical hats. His best (only?) friend was his kid brother, Bela, with whom he spent hours building radios and reading science fiction. As a boy, he discovered the “scientific romances” of H.G. Wells who, in a novel titled The World Set Free, likened atomic power to the discovery of fire, which could “[raise] man from brute.” Wells’s furious utopianism struck a chord with Leo. As a young man, he would go on to start the Hungarian Association for Socialist Students, which proved a gutsy move for a Jewish kid in a collapsing country. In the first of many historical ironies, he moved to Germany, where anti-Semitism seemed comparatively mild. Leo’s plan was to study engineering at the prestigious Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, but engineering proved boring—“the routine application of established knowledge,” in his appraisal. At Willhelm, he attended lectures by Nobel physicist Max Planck, who sparked his interest in theoretical physics, and befriended Albert Einstein by walking him home from school. But even with Einstein’s guidance, Leo struggled to secure a job in his chosen discipline: undoubtedly brilliant, he was also, in the words of his friend Eugene Wigner, “an ass in some respects,” bored by teaching and lab work, distracted by his own quixotic ideas. Tellingly, he put the word “job” in scare quotes. By the end of the decade, he was broke, and Berlin was in crisis. On January 30th, 1933, Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. A few months later, once Einstein secured him a last-ditch fellowship, Leo moved to London. It was in London, on a street corner in Imperial Park, that Leo had an epiphany, motivated, characteristically, by irritation. He had just read an editorial by Ernest Rutherford declaring the Wellsian dream of atomic power a theoretical impossibility. It occurred to Leo that a nuclear chain reaction could be precipitated by the neutrons, then a recent discovery, in a “critical mass” of uranium. Vindicated, Leo filed his first patent. Five years later, he fled Nazi-occupied Europe for the United States. In 1942, under the auspices of Roosevelt, Leo began work as Chief Physicist at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Lab, where the Manhattan Project was first conceived. He collaborated with Enrico Fermi to create Chicago-1, the world’s first nuclear reactor, partially devised from Leo’s 1934 patent. Unsurprisingly, Leo was a frustrating colleague from the very beginning—a “peculiar man,” in the words of Fermi, with too many ideas and too few social graces, who “seemed to enjoy startling people.” Chiefly, he enjoyed startling “brass hats,” or the bureaucrats and government officials with whom he would be in conflict for most of his adult life. As the Manhattan Project continued, the Met Lab came under the control of Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Army Corps of Engineers and Leo’s eventual nemesis in life and death. Groves was a career soldier with a puny mustache, a pugilistic face, and a hearty American distrust of intellectuals; Leo was a Hungarian with a heavy accent, a jocular contempt for military authority, and an ecstatic, evangelizing confidence in his own ideas. The two were instant enemies, bound by a beautifully counterpoised hatred. From the first, Leo bristled at the presence of military engineers, whom he believed capable of little more than “putting up bridges,” and resented Groves in particular as a philistine intrusion on the sacrosanct domain of science. He was also, to Groves’s consternation, immediately dismissive of security protocols, which he thought stymied collaboration among physicists. After Groves refused to support one of Leo’s initiatives—his plans for a bismuth-cooled reactor—Leo’s fraught relationship with the Army Corps deteriorated even further. “If you don’t get rid of these engineers,” he said to Arthur Compton, the Met Lab’s research director, “I’m going to quit.” Groves proposed another solution: that Leo be impounded as an “enemy alien” for the duration of the war. Rather than firing or imprisoning Leo, which would trigger a wave of resignations from his colleagues, Compton removed him from daily operations at Met Lab and assigned him a nominal advisory role. But if Leo had less of a say in the making of the bomb, he now had more time on his hands to consider its destiny. Leo had imagined that “liberating the atom,” as Wells described it in The World Set Free, would liberate the world from Nazis. But as the war continued, it became clear that the bomb would function more profoundly as a deterrent to the Soviet Union than as the death knell for the Third Reich. In 1945, Leo decided once again to draft a memo to President Roosevelt, titled “Atomic Bombs and the Postwar Position of the United States,” which cautioned that military use of the bomb could trigger “a preventative war with the Soviet Union.” Roosevelt died before Einstein, again volunteering as intermediary, could deliver it. Leo had entered the Manhattan Project under the auspices of Roosevelt and would leave it under the stewardship of Harry Truman and an administration of dogmatic Cold Warriors. In the spring 1945, Leo finagled his way into a clandestine meeting with Jimmy Byrnes, soon to be named Truman’s Secretary of State, to present him with a version of the memorandum he had intended for Roosevelt. Although the memo was signed by a number of Leo’s Manhattan Project colleagues, Byrnes refused to pass it on to Truman. While the war would soon be over, Byrnes explained to Leo, the use of the bomb on Japan would make Russia more “manageable.” Before the war had even concluded, the bomb had already been conscripted into the fight against Communism. As August 1945 approached, Leo made one last attempt to stop the bomb: Along with Arthur Compton, Edward Teller, Eugene Rabinowitch, and a number of other prominent scientists, Leo helped draft the secret petition that would come to be known as the Franck Report, cautioning Washington about the likelihood of a postwar arms race should the bomb be deployed on Japan. The petition marked the end of Leo’s career in nuclear physics. It was the last of his many attempts to spurn Groves and his ilk, for whom the military use of the bomb beckoned as a career capstone. To Groves, Leo wasn’t simply a rival, or a nuisance, or even just an “enemy alien,” he was a “true villain,” “an inveterate troublemaker,” and “not a great scientist.” Most of all, he was a Jew. “I’m not prejudiced,” Groves told a reporter in 1957. “I don’t like certain Jews. I don’t like certain characteristics of theirs, but I’m not prejudiced … Take Wigner and Fermi—they’re not Jewish—they’re quiet, shy, modest, just interested in learning.” Leo was keenly aware of the fact that his colleagues, too, had stymied his attempts to stop the bomb, most notably Oppenheimer himself, who told Leo repeatedly that scientists had no place in politics. Oppenheimer, Jewish though he was, had never stoked Groves’s racist ire the way that Leo had. “He can talk about anything,” Groves said admiringly, “except sports.” Regal in his despair on national television, it was Oppenheimer, not Leo, who emerged as the Manhattan Project’s high-profile penitent. He became, in the sobriquet of his biographer, the “American Prometheus,” while Leo—the Martian, the Jew, the frumpy, frantic foreigner—has been largely forgotten. During the war, Leo never described himself as socialist or, for that matter, as a Jew. Instead, in a famous quip, he described himself as a Martian. Alien or not, he had always been a moony annoyance, bidden by odd, insistent habits. He didn’t marry until 1951, when he was fifty-three years old, and courted his wife, Trude, by mail over a period of decades—aware, perhaps, that he charmed in prose but chafed in person. Mostly left to his own devices, he seldom bothered with anything so terrestrial as labwork, or laundry, or living in houses. He felt most at home in hotel rooms, roosting anywhere with room service. Leo lived precariously, portably, with everything he owned—clothes, books, papers, patents—slopped into suitcases. His first real permanent address in America was in La Jolla, where he retired and where, in 1964, he died. William Lanouette, in his biography of Leo, characterizes these habits as those of a late-in-life bachelor. But so, too, do they seem like the habits of a lifelong refugee—a European Jew exiled from Europe, and, eventually, as a physicist exiled from physics. After the revelations of the Franck Report, Groves blacklisted him, writing menacing notes to physics departments around the country cautioning against his employment. Leo never worked in nuclear science again. Instead, he wrote about it. With the imprimatur of a former Manhattan Project scientist, Leo found he could publish more or less whatever and wherever he wanted: in The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, The New Republic, Life. He had always been an easy, authoritative writer with a flair for argument and irony; now, instead of writing letters to the president, he wrote articles for the public, pleading the case for international arms control. Living on the periphery of America’s nuclear politics at the dawn of the atomic age, Leo found, to his chagrin, that he had hardly any influence but plenty of celebrity. Such was the dubious distinction of the man, in the words of Lanouette, “who did the most to create the bomb and the most to stop it. “ * When The Voice of the Dolphins was published, Leo hadn’t worked in physics in over a decade. The title story, composed after his cancer diagnosis, was his attempt to craft nuclear policy from his hospital bed. Over seventy pages long, “The Voice of the Dolphins” takes place in the near future, and follows a cabal of messianic dolphins who take over the Vatican. Possessed of a frighteningly superior intelligence, the dolphins also demonstrate a preternatural understanding of nuclear warheads. To everyone’s relief, they crave only peace. They start a radio show, on which they predict the U.S.-Soviet nuclear crisis of the 1980s. They also resolve it, through a series of byzantine policy proposals. Then, under mysterious circumstances, they die, evoking either a political assassination or the death of Christ. This is, for The Voice of the Dolphins, a happy ending. It’s easy to imagine the Leo of the 1960s dividing his days between writing fiction and envisioning his own funeral, grief-stricken under a fine rain of nuclear fallout. His book reads less like a classic of science fiction than an extended revenge fantasy—a Boschian portrait of what the world would look like without him. Every policy suggestion made by the dolphins had, as one reviewer noted, “been made at an earlier time by Leo Szilard himself,” in an article published in Life Magazine titled “How to Live with the Bomb—and Survive.” When Leo’s former colleagues responded to his article derisively—that is, the way they responded to all of his articles—he decided that, if they “couldn’t take it straight, they would get it as fiction.” He rewrote “How to Live with the Bomb,” point for point, as a short story, then added dolphins. But the charge of aggressive self-plagiarism doesn’t fully capture the book’s peculiar blend of hack shamelessness and high moral purpose. It’s a divided, demented little book, riven by dueling desires for penance and self-promotion—as confused, perhaps, as Leo himself, torn between curing his cancer and committing suicide. In his book, as in his life, it’s hard to tell whether he wanted to save the world or revel in its ruin. Leo was a man who could hardly tie his own shoes but could foresee the split atom while crossing the street; a man who could succeed in building a bomb but who failed to stop it. The Voice of the Dolphins is, perhaps, less a classic of science fiction than an aching inventory of its author’s failures. The title story, Leo wrote, “is not about the brilliance of dolphins, but about the stupidity of man.” In most of the stories, the surest sign of men’s stupidity is that all of them are dead. * Leo remained convinced, to the end of his life, that the nuclear threat wasn’t a scientific crisis but a political one—the singular result of war hawks like Byrnes and Groves who dismissed or demonized him. And as the Cold War mounted, Leo kept faith in his vision of a nuclear arsenal wrested from the hands of politicians, helmed instead by an enclave of scientific elites. But, for all his scientific optimism, there are hardly any heroic scientists in his fiction. There are hardly any humans, in fact, and the ones who survive wish they hadn’t. In “The Mark Gable Foundation,” a man wakes up from a cryogenic freezer to discover that the humans of the future all wear dentures. In the millennia he slept through, science hasn’t solved the problem of the bomb. But it has, reassuringly, solved the problem of teeth, extracting them for “hygienic purposes.” Far from saving the world, science in Leo’s fiction is toothless and inept, piloting humans into a future they never wanted. It’s space aliens, not scientists, who promise salvation in Leo’s fiction. Subverting the decade’s B-movie tropes, Leo’s aliens aren’t hostile invaders but melancholy intellectuals—cosmic outsiders who don’t want to blow up Earth but understand why it blew up in the first place. They’re not Communists, perhaps, but intergalactic fellow travelers; innocent of commerce, they appear to believe that the only thing crazier than nuclear war is capitalism itself. It’s the very unsubtlety of that symbolism that makes The Voice of the Dolphins such a ribald, risky marvel: Leo Szilard, enemy alien trailed by the FBI, wrote a widely-published book of fiction condemning the bomb and eulogizing Karl Marx. In “Notes on Exterminism,” published in the New Left Review in 1980, the critic EF Thompson declared that the arms race was too crazy to admit a class analysis; the bomb was a political concern that subsumed all others. But, in his life as in his fiction, Leo rejected the idea that the atomic thread overrode questions of class and power. He understood, ever since that failed meeting with Byrnes, how thoroughly the bomb was embedded in forms of economic domination. In the introduction to the 1992 edition of The Voice of the Dolphins, Barton J. Bernstein wrote that “My Trial as A War Criminal” marked Leo’s attempt, however conflicted, to echo Marx’s assertion that “history is written by the victors.” But, if there are no real war criminals in The Voice of the Dolphins, there are no winners, either. The book, ultimately, suggests that history—its weight, its wounds—is inherited by the losers. He understood that at stake in the bomb was more than one kind of extinction. Before the death of the species would come, inevitably, the extermination of difference. If his fiction offers any fragile grounds for hope, it is the image of the Martian—the socialist, the Jew, the bitter outsider—as the one who survives. * Leo recovered from his cancer diagnosis, either through the salubrious effects of imagining apocalypse or because he insisted on directing his own radiation therapy. He recovered in other ways, too: the success of The Voice of the Dolphins somehow allowed him to regain, for a brief time, his political credibility. People started opening his letters again, and sometimes they even answered. One of those people was Nikolai Kruschev, to whom Leo, with typical bravado, had sent an unsolicited manuscript of The Voice of the Dolphins’ title story. Kruschev was amused. For a time, they corresponded. That correspondence scored Leo a few successes. It was at Leo’s encouragement that the first hotline between the White House and the Kremlin was established. More characteristically, Leo also managed to secure more vacation days for the scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission. But he will always be a figure regarded more highly for his failures than his successes. His thwarted attempts to stop the bomb had largely effaced his role in building it. That quirk of fate—that he could become one of the most famous failures in nuclear politics, and beloved for it—wasn’t lost on him. Towards the end of his life, Leo reflected on his differences from Enrico Fermi, describing him, in a backhanded sort of way, “as a scientist pure and simple.” For Leo, that “position is unassailable because it is all of one piece….I doubt that [Fermi] ever understood that some people live in two worlds like I do. A world, and science is a part of this one, in which we have to predict what is going to happen, and another world in which [we] fight for what we want to happen. But how many people are able to understand that coexistence of these two separate worlds? I certainly would not understand it were it not for certain accidents in my education." If this “separate world” was one born out of futility, it’s also one he perceived most clearly in his fiction. Thomas Carlyle once described poetry as “failed prophecy,” and the same could be said of science fiction—the genre that H.G. Wells once lamented as a “self-destructive art.” To write fiction like Wells’s or Leo’s is to write fiction that is often debunked by the very future it foretells. This is, perhaps, a good thing. What’s bad for the survival of science fiction is probably good for the survival of the species. Like Wells before him, Leo wrote to capture a collective nightmare. And we hope of nightmares what we seldom hope of novels: to forget them, sooner rather than later. Might the same be said of scientists? Groves, certainly, thought not. In 1965, a year after Leo’s death, he wrote to the editors of the Encyclopedia Americana to complain about an entry on Leo Szilard. “It’s unnecessarily long,” he wrote, “and overstates his importance.”
In Berlin, I watched us queer women watching each other. But nobody seemed to lead anyone inside. Could cruising ever be a part of lesbian culture the way it is for gay men?
When I moved to Berlin I saw queer women everywhere. Women with crewcuts and sturdy knuckles and their collars turned up; women with long dark hair and clean faces who crooked their mouths at me on the subway; women swimming naked in Brandenburg’s lakes, circling one another. They passed me on the street at night, they leant up against the same railing at U-Bahn stations. Recognition slipped sideways from a friendly you’re not alone into the swampy, heady world of queer desire. Germans tend to stare, but translated into the underground of the German lesbian world this meant that complete strangers would catch my gaze and hold it for an entire train journey. Once I stumbled out, almost breathless, dizzy from the way a woman had been watching me, while my straight friend chattered on beside me, oblivious to the entire exchange. It’s odd to be a lesbian in public and feel the frisson of heat rather than danger. There was something about the way we were all looking at each other that couldn’t be easily explained. It wasn’t until I was idly rereading an old Alan Hollinghurst novel that I realised the difference. We weren’t just noticing each other. We were out there to be looked at. We were cruising. * Cruising—the act of going out in public to look for sexual partners, usually for brief or anonymous encounters—has a long history and runs as a bright, dangerous thread through gay literature. Its purposes are manifold, seeking not only sex but partnership, community, and identity. In Gay New York, George Chauncey, writing about the early gay scene in the city from 1890 to 1940, explains that well-known cruising areas offered the chance to find sexual partners and socialise with other gay men. In contending with “the threat of vigilante anti-gay violence as well as with the police… gay men devised a variety of tactics that allowed them to move freely about the city, to appropriate for themselves spaces that were not marked as gay, and to construct a gay city in the midst of, yet invisible to, the dominant city.” Cruising is both community-building and world-building. In an interview with The Guardian, author Garth Greenwell argued that modern cruising still offers vital connections and support: “Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up.” And Greenwell, writing for BuzzFeed, scoffed at the idea that the age of Grindr has made cruising obsolete. If so, he says, “it’s difficult to explain the persistence of analog cruising, or the fact that often enough offline and digital cruising happen side by side”. Cruising and literature are inherently linked: cruising is, after all, a form of reading, with its own codes and languages. Unsurprising, then, that so much of gay literature is interested in the politics and romances of cruising. Greenwell’s debut novel opens in a public bathroom defined by its cruising potential by the narrator; there is, he tells us, “only one reason for men to be standing there.” Cruising in What Belongs To You is a tender act, where love and loneliness couple in the “hidden gay world” contained within Sofia’s streets. This hidden gay world is so all-consuming in Alan Hollinghurst’s debut novel The Swimming Pool Library that it becomes hard to remember there is another heterosexual world existing around it—let alone a world containing women, who appear only briefly, usually presented off-screen with faint disgust. (“It was not nice,” one male character remarks, “to think of female fingernails doodling over his smooth man’s body.”) The novel’s narrator, William Beckwith, spends the novel seeking and having sex in public, with almost no effort: “[M]y pick-ups were virtually instantaneous: the man I fancied took in my body, my cock, my blue eyes at a glance. Misunderstandings were almost unknown. Any uncertainty in a boy I wanted was usually overcome by the simple insistence of my look.” For Will, it is “strangers who by their very strangeness quickened my pulse and made me feel I was alive.” The novel revels in public sex, in cruising, in the erotic possibilities offered by this simple insistence of Will’s demanding gaze. Berlin, of course, has long been home to cruising both real and fictional. Christopher Isherwood, poet laureate of gay Berlin, reports frankly that “Berlin meant boys.” Writing forty years later in Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney begins his tale of American expatriate Jed in 1980s West Berlin with an explicit Isherwood callback: “Fifty years after [Isherwood’s] adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” Jed is not particularly interested in cruising, but he is still alive to the possibilities it offers, whether “cruising in the Tiergarten. Show me the way to the next pretty boy” or dryly recognising the potential that passes him by; “the boys not giving me a second look,” his inability to “get any of the loitering Turkish boys to respond.” When I first noticed the way in which women were looking at me in Berlin I went back to these books and thrilled again, with Greenwell, at the potential for “the park’s other life, secret and ludic”—where park could read city, train, walk home. But clearly, these books were lacking the very thing that had driven me to them: there were no women. * The world of queer women’s literature is vast and varied, and this year I embarked on a brief, desperate catalogue of lesbian fiction in search of women cruising. I read a limited but comprehensive sample: classics of the genre, more recent releases, some of the pulp fiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I came up with a bare collection of disparate threads, not enough to fill even one Hollinghurst chapter. Audre Lorde refers to cruising throughout her memoir Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, but she means picking women up in gay bars, not quite the same as a public search, let alone public sex. Rita Mae Brown, in the groundbreaking Rubyfruit Jungle, never mentions it; neither does Eileen Myles. The characters in Torrey Peters’s self-published trilogy may run into each other in a dystopian future, but the dangers for trans women on the streets are, of course, even more pronounced, and they don’t cruise. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando offers a form of non-explicit cruising when the title character, at that point a woman crossdressing as a man, meets another young woman while walking at night. Orlando sweeps “her hat off to her in the manner of a gallant paying his addresses to a lady of fashion in a public place”; the two meet eyes; and the other woman “rose; she accepted his arm.” The woman, it’s revealed, is a prostitute called Nell, and in Nell’s bedroom Orlando reveals her own womanhood, whereupon Nell bursts into laughter. There is still an implicit sense of eroticism, but it is deliberately hidden "for it cannot be denied that when women get together—but hist—they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is—but hist again—is that not a man’s step on the stair?" Woolf keeps her doors firmly closed. And though behind the door it is probable that Nell and Orlando are having sex, the scene doesn’t quite work as one of lesbian cruising triumph, not least because there is no moment of mutual queer recognition on the street; Orlando does not reveal her gender until they are safely behind closed doors. In Sarah Waters’s Victorian romp Tipping The Velvet, protagonist Nan comes to cruising by accident. When wandering on London’s streets she is “stared at and called after—and twice or thrice seized and stroked and pinched—by men… I was a solitary girl... in a city where girls walked only to be gazed at.” The solution, Nan discovers in an echo of Orlando, is to dress like a boy—but in another twist, crossdressing Nan is still “gazed at,” now by gay men. Despite being gay herself, Nan engages in sex work with men while disguised as a boy, drawn by a sense of power rather than any sexual fulfillment. But she is still not truly seen, in that crucial visual realm where cruising operates best: “My one regret was that, though I was daily giving such marvelous performances, they had no audience.” Nan finds her audience in a carriage that follows her home, manned by a woman who requests her services. Nan protests, aware that her boy-guise will fall apart when working with a woman, then confesses: I took a breath, and leaned into the dark interior of the coach. "Madam," I hissed, "I ain’t a boy at all. I’m—" I hesitated. The end of the cigarette disappeared: she had thrown it out of the window. I heard her give one impatient sigh—and all at once I understood. "You little fool," she said. "Get in." The moment of desire is electric. Though the strange woman is dangerous and the relationship will quickly turn abusive, the act of being seen, recognised, and solicited as yourself is an overwhelming one for Nan: a moment of lesbian cruising, against all Victorian London’s odds. * Berlin is a good city for queer women; it is a good city for most queer people. Before the rise of Nazism, the Weimar Republic was shockingly welcoming to gay men and women, particularly in the thriving neighbourhood of Schöneberg—where Christopher Isherwood lived, but also where singers and actresses like Claire Waldoff, Marlene Dietrich, and other queer women performed and prowled. The lesbian community in Berlin grew up alongside the gay community; there was even, in 1928, a guide to lesbian bars called Berlins lesbische Frauen. After World War II, Berlin began to slowly recover from the fascist persecution of gay people. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1969; the world’s first Gay Museum was opened in 1985. Berlin began to be known once more as a safe(r) space for queer people. And Berlin has a rare determination to preserve queer women and lesbian culture, rather than allowing it to be subsumed under the larger umbrella of gay male culture. There are bars in Berlin that are still exclusively meant for queer women; there are hundreds of private-public spaces designed for us, from parties to community organisations to sex clubs. Sometimes it feels like a city built for dykes, and through my first months here I watched us watching each other, whether topless on the lake shores in August or bundled under coats in the deep cold of January. But still, nobody seemed to lead anyone aside, and no queer women I asked had any experience of cruising, either. My friend N told me about Stadtbad Neukölln, a sauna which, they said, on a Monday night was full of gay women checking each other out, Berlin’s best lesbian cruising ground. A sauna was indoors but undeniably public, and Stadtbad Neukölln was not a designated gay setting; my heart leapt. Then N blinked and added, “But as far as I know, no one actually does anything. Me and my mates have been going for years, but no one ever has sex there or nearby. Maybe you get a number, if you’re lucky.” Another friend of ours said that lesbians don’t cruise because they want more of an emotional and thoughtful connection with someone before they have sex, but I found this dangerous territory in its implications and, at any rate, unlikely. “Yeah,” N agreed, laughing. “You’ve clearly never been to a darkroom.” “There’s got to be some reason,” I said. I wanted a revelation or discovery: I wanted something new. “It can’t be just that dykes don’t go out and cruise properly because…” “Because we’ll be raped and murdered,” N said, matter-of-fact. “Yeah,” I said. It is this threat of violence that makes the ugly, obvious truth plain. Queer women probably don’t cruise because it is simply too unsafe for us to do so. It’s why Woolf is so careful to close her doors; it’s why Lorde sticks to lesbian bars, spaces created for and by queer women. Queer women’s sexuality is such a threat to patriarchal, heterosexual control that for many centuries its existence was completely denied, or deliberately hidden. The oppression levered against queer women is one of violent control: keeping us trapped, denying our existence, struggling to remake us. And even now, to be a woman in public is to be harassed—catcalled or followed home, leered at or abused. The threat of violence is inseparable from the idea of lesbian cruising. Of course, gay men too, and particularly men of colour, face public violence and control. Cruising is never safe. The books that explore gay cruising dwell, as men do in real life, on the dangers inherent in the act. Hollinghurst’s novels are fraught with violence both within (the HIV risk plays a major role in The Line of Beauty) and without (the “exhilaration” of sex with strangers, Will tells us, “is sharpened by the courted risk of rejection, misunderstanding, abuse”). Greenwell’s narrator is strung with tension, as is his love affair, the prospect of homophobic violence never far-off; Pinckney’s novel, too, is saturated with danger, dwelling on the racist surveillance and threat Jed faces as a black man in public spaces. Out of the theoretical space of literature, cruising is even more fraught, and homophobic violence is an everyday reality. But cities were never built for women, let alone queer women, much as I want to claim Berlin. The streets of our cities have always been men’s domain: often segregated, always controlled, but still made for and by men. Men, then, have more of an ability to forge out the invisible, private gay spaces that, while always at threat, can nevertheless exist. But women moving even as freely on streets as we do now is relatively new by the long standards of history—we haven’t picked up the habit of it yet. Women’s bodies are too immediately at risk to think about trying to create those safe, hidden public spaces. We’re busy hurrying home. * In 1993, academic James Creech published Closet Writing/Gay Reading, which explores what Creech calls “textual cruising,” or “the wink”: signals for a reader that there is gay subtext to be found. He uses a minor character, Lieutenant Weincheck from Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, as an example. The Lieutenant lives alone in a bachelor apartment with twelve potted plants, an Angora cat, and plays the violin—“a sound,” McCullers tells us, “that made the young officers passing along the corridor scratch their heads and wink at each other.” “The wink of the other officers as they pass Weincheck’s door,” Creech explains, “is the same wink that the text directs at its readers.” In this way, authors writing in historical periods during which being accused of gay content was highly dangerous, career-destroying if not life-destroying, authors like Herman Melville and Henry James, could still communicate with their gay readers without worrying about heterosexual disapproval. Straight readers would not even notice the wink that the text offers. “It is much like cruising,” Creech writes. “If the object of interest does not recognize that he is an object of interest, then he is, in fact, uninteresting. He is not the object which the sign is hailing.” Women in public are never completely safe; queer women are doubly unsafe; queer women having sex in public run great and terrible risks. But there is still something vicious and triumphant in what we can wrest out of the streets when we try. Something about Berlin makes us bolder, and our real lives are translated back into text, where the gay wink has to function, like Woolf’s closed door, as a signal for what could be and for the truth of lesbian desire that exists, hidden by necessity or by force. A look that burns like a touch. Hist again for the man’s step on the stair, and don’t break your gaze.
I figured an ideal period of mourning for my father would have been free of disturbances of my own creation. So much for that.
Summers are for baring skin, so it’s hard to feel attractive when rolled gauze becomes part of your sartorial repertoire, concealing your left arm. That’s what a second-degree burn does to you. Last July, I sustained burns from trying to make coffee, a kitchen task I failed at so spectacularly that it forced me to perform daily rituals of self-mummification. Every morning and every night for seven weeks, stretching into September, I rubbed myself with ointment and wore rolled gauze that swallowed the bottom half of my left arm, stretching from my elbow to my palm. The dressing masked utterly grotesque terrain, covered with blisters as bubbly as the vocal sacs on a tree frog. I was somehow able to dodge getting my first kitchen burn until the age of twenty-five, and the timing couldn’t have been more on-the-nose: It happened about a month after my dad died, just weeks after I exited my cocoon of grief in that cramped apartment in New Jersey where my mother lived. I returned to New York in a bid to re-assimilate into life as I knew it before my father’s final hospital stay. The city’s surrounding stimuli felt abrasive; I could barely get through conversations without wanting to cry. I figured an ideal mourning period would have been free of disturbances of my own creation. So much for that. * I grew up accustomed to making coffee in two ways: from a standard Black & Decker coffee machine my father got from Sears that spat your drink out with little interference on your part, or by mixing two teaspoons of Folgers Instant Classic Roast into a boiling pot with an equal ratio of whole milk and water, a concept my mother taught to me that I understand some may find heretical. My roommate introduced me to another method that I hadn’t dared to try until one Saturday morning when she was gone. I figured I could brave it on my own because I’d watched her do it before, the way someone may believe they can make a flag cake with the same easy finesse as Ina Garten just because they saw her do it on Barefoot Contessa. I sat a red, rubbery brewing cone unsteadily on the rim of a mason jar near the edge of my countertop. I soaked coffee grounds with hot water over the filter, when the cone tipped over onto the ground. The water and coffee guts scalded my left arm. I screamed. I ran my arm under lukewarm water and noticed some of it had become pinched, like Saran Wrap on the edges of Tupperware; I observed my skin’s surface turn blue, as if a crust of Elmer’s glue had formed on top of it. When I made the stupid decision to pick at it, the layer tore open. My arm had become a visual monstrosity. Keeping my arm submerged in water became too painful after a few minutes, so I began shouting Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! and looking for Band-Aids, thinking that would be enough. (I understand that, in recounting this, the episode sounds quite comical; I admit that it truly turned me into the most shrill version of myself.) After an hour, the discomfort didn’t subside, so I went to an Urgent Care facility two blocks away. A doctor smeared my arm with cream, dressed my wound, wrote me a prescription for burn ointment, and gave me a Ziploc bag of complimentary gauze and medical tape. He assured me I’d be fine, that the scarring would be minimal in a few weeks’ time so long as I followed his instructions diligently. When I tried to explain my burn on the phone to my mother later that day, we both wondered how I allowed this to happen to myself. There was the obvious reason that my hand-eye coordination already sucked. I am tremulous by disposition, easily rattled, which made me particularly susceptible to this kind of accident. Still, she asked if my father’s death subtly influenced this, if his loss made simple tasks Sisyphean, resulting in a more sly form of ataxia entirely. I wondered the same thing. Everything in my life seemed out of order. This death had left me shaken in ways I couldn’t always be conscious of. Just as I began to believe I could make it through the night without seeing him in a dream, chaos returned, as if the pain of his loss became concentrated on my skin. Every morning after began the same way, adding about ten minutes onto my routine. After getting out of the shower, I’d administer antibiotic ointment that looked like cream cheese to my arm in generous amounts, strangle it with rolled gauze, and secure it with medical tape. I repeated this again once I returned home from work, by the time my wounds absorbed the day’s layer of cream that sat on top of it, gently flushing it with water before wrapping it again. I documented my arm’s progress in photographs that I sent to my mother. She seemed to be the only person willing to indulge my self-pity. I bored my friends with complaints about how much my burn hurt. They perceived my enthusiasm for talking about my burn as a rather unreasonable preoccupation. Through hearing reactions that ranged from faintly sympathetic to politely uninterested, I gleaned that, for most people, a kitchen burn can be a humbling reminder of your body’s limits, or it can rattle you gently, temporarily destabilizing you before you move on with your life. It’s an utterly common ordeal, a minor inconvenience. Not for me. I was determined to make a federal case out of it. * Following my return to the city after my father's death, I’d get drinks with friends and tell them the story of his final weeks. I coached myself into telling the narrative’s many particulars by rote, careful not to omit details I felt would be crucial to engendering their sympathy, like the fact that there wasn’t room for me in the ambulance from his hospital in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the hospice center in Saddle River, New Jersey, where he died. But after a few tortured walkthroughs, I grew rather exhausted with summarizing my few weeks of hell. I found it impossible to articulate the size of my grief to people who were strangers to the experience. Talking about my burn was far easier. That narrative supplanted the one I’d grown so used to telling people about my father’s march towards death. In my burn, as a matter of convenience, I discovered a tale of progress, complete with the anticipation of a resolution. The burn had initially reduced my arm to the color of raw salmon flesh, but I told friends how that site was gradually beginning to match its surroundings. Unmentioned, but always lurking as subtext through these tales of my ugly skin, was the reality of my father’s death, a story whose conclusion was fixed, inflexible. When my friends rolled their eyes at yet another breathtakingly dull story about the kitchen burn’s improvement, I struggled to respond that all I really wanted to talk about was father’s death, as if the burn became, by proxy, a physical manifestation of my grief. My bandages had a nasty habit of coming undone at inopportune moments, either on the subway or in line for lunch. But I imagined that one day, perhaps sooner than the doctor had predicted, I’d be able to take that gauze off for good. My burn was a twisted blessing. In bandaging it each morning and night, I was working magic, repairing a scab I could heal. As the weeks went on, something began to feel therapeutic about being my own nurse, forcing me to become hyper-cognizant of my own mortality. I wanted so badly to know it was possible for something that had died, or at least flirted with death, to become alive again. At night, I terrified myself with the scenario’s alternative outcomes: What if the water had grazed my face, making the disfigurement more permanent and lasting? This didn’t happen—it was a close call, but my arm was somehow salvageable. I was working towards survival, and survival was a solution that felt achievable. So I observed the means to that end with discipline. Going through the private ceremony of unwrapping my bandage and putting ointment on it every day, twice a day, was my way of restoring order to my life. I was caring for my arm until I could recognize it as a part of myself. * By the beginning of September, my first morning without a bandage, I started to miss my routine of caring for it in the same way I missed taking the subway to the hospital uptown after work where my dad stayed. Life reverted to being normal, and I hated it. Grief hasn’t left me; the scarring from my burns have mostly faded. The skin where my burns once sat now barely blushes, tanning gently like any other patch on my body. I’ve spoken to other people in my age bracket who’ve lost a parent, a list I can count on one hand, and asked them what they’ve done to soothe their pain. How did you care for yourself? I’ve wondered aloud to people. Did you take up knitting? The answer often involves some form of creative production that doubles as therapy. Many told me they began to focus more intently on gardening. Others funneled their emotional distress into redecorating their apartments, taking up a project that results in production, to restore a sense of control. My post-grief hobby took the form of rubbing my scaly, burn-bruised arm and covering it with sterile gauze from the drugstore down the street. I couldn’t bring my father back, and you could say he was a vital limb. If I couldn’t have my father, at least I’d have my left arm.