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Every Letter a Path

My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. 

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Every Letter a Path

My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. 

Should I introduce myself? Is that a nice way to begin? It would be good if it were simple like that. It would be good if I could say my name and not think of the dead. My life began in memoriam, my birth marked by formative loss. I am first-named for my grandmother, Sara: she died when my mother was sixteen. And I am middle-named for my uncle, Leslie: he died when my father was thirty-two. Two deaths. And in their wake, gaping craters. Black holes. A thick and endless abyss. Who does that make me? Was I born a conduit for my parents’ pain? Or am I a second chance?  I feel the weight of my name over my head like a hood—warm and comfortable but a little disorienting. I am constrained by the grief and by the love it represents. Ten letters so specific, I am unsure how to wear them. I am unsure where I fit in. I suppose that’s why I’m here. ~  In Neil Gaiman’s novella Coraline, the title character meets a cat, introduces herself, and asks its name. The cat replies that it does not have or need one: “Now you people have names,” it says to her. “That's because you don't know who you are.” ~ My name is someone’s past and my present and I’m not sure about the future. My name bends in the light and it gropes in the dark. My name is a blessing and it is a responsibility. In Judaism, it is common to name a baby for a deceased loved one (though never for someone living, the custom dictates, so that the angel of death does not take the wrong person). Often, it’s just a first initial that the dead and living share, but I inherited the exactness of my relatives’ names, every letter a stamp on my identity before I had begun to form it for myself. Every letter a path. “So much of what is transmitted between parents and families is not the obvious and the verbal and what’s said,” says Dr. Mavis Himes, clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and author of The Power of Names: Uncovering the Mystery of What We Are Called. “It’s also the silences.” ~ “There is a Quichua riddle: ‘El que me nombra, me rompe.’ Whatever names me, breaks me. The solution, of course, is ‘silence.’ But the truth is, anyone who knows your name can break you in two.” —Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House  ~  There is a letter, sent from my grandmother to one of her sisters, announcing my mother’s birth. “She has black hair and a round little face and a nose all over it,” Sara writes in long, looping scrawl that my mother says she’d recognize anywhere. “We’re just not sure of her name yet—it might be something like Trudy Beth—how does that sound?” ~ Will you do one thing for me, if you don’t mind? Will you stop reading, for a moment, and say my name out loud? Sara  Leslie Harowitz How does it sound? Does it sound strong or soft as it comes off your tongue? Does it sound curious and graceful and good? Does it sound like the name of a woman you’d like to learn the intimacies of? Does it sound like the name of a woman who understands who she is? These are things I want to know. ~ S-a-r-a. Translated from Hebrew to mean “noblewoman” or “princess.” The wife of Abraham in the Old Testament; the cornerstone matriarch of the Jewish people. Her name is more traditionally spelled S-a-r-a-h, and people often add the h to my name when they don’t know me well. A silent, seemingly harmless fifth letter, and yet it startles me every time. Don’t they know who I’m trying my best to live up to? L-e-s-l-i-e. Gaelic, meaning “holly garden,” for whatever that’s worth. I ask my father if he knows why his parents named his brother that. He isn’t sure, but mentions that Leslie’s middle name, Errol, was chosen for his mother’s love of the actor Errol Flynn. I give Flynn a quick Google to make sure I have the spelling right; it turns out his middle name is Leslie. Errol Leslie Thomson Flynn. One of his films is called Escape Me Never. ~  “After years of my pleading, my mother finally gave me her yellow gold ‘D’ ring that was passed down to her from her mother. Daisy, Dulcie, Dolores, and now Durga. The ring’s band is thinning so I don’t wear it often but when I do, I feel the clout of family. Few things yield such command. I’m from somewhere! And these women had something to do with it!” —Durga Chew-Bose, “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself”  ~  I understand that naming a baby is not an easy or quick thing. It’s not like picking the paint colour for the nursery, which can be covered with a new hue in a single cumbersome weekend. A name is permanent. A name goes on paperwork. A name is how a child first finds their place in the world. It cannot be hidden with a roller brush. It took social justice professor Minelle Mahtani and her husband two weeks after the birth of their son to choose his name. “I see now that passing on a specific part of my family legacy matters to me, not just a vague gesture to my heritage.” she writes in her essay, “What’s in a Name?” for This Magazine. They eventually decided that, bucking Western tradition, their son would be given the last name Mahtani, honouring the lineage of Minelle’s father.  Whether we like it or not, our names do define us. On a superficial and stereotypical level, they tell people who we are—or at least, who they think we are. Name signalling is when a person’s moniker signifies their religion, race, or socioeconomic status; our names can also affect our ability to find a job or a romantic partner, thanks to what is referred to as name bias. There is even research suggesting that over time, our names can affect our physical appearances. A 2006 University of Michigan study found that a person’s satisfaction with their first name directly related to their sense of self-worth. “The link between first name and identity appears consistent,” co-authors Jean M. Twenge and Melvin Manis write. “What you think of your name has something to do with what you think of yourself.” I don’t mean to suggest that I dislike my name. Not at all. I love the simplicity and evenness of Sara. I love that Leslie is wispy and genderless. I love these names individually, but I love them especially when they’re together. Because that’s how they feel most like they’re mine. ~ Nomen est omen / name is destiny ~  I know that my name comes from sweetness and from tenderness. Still, in the quiet, these legends hover. I know I am lucky to have my name, but worthy of it I’m not so sure. Himes asks me a question that sticks: “What has been your relationship with your name?” What has been my relationship with my name? Maybe a better question is: what has been my relationship with my grandmother and with my uncle? Can I get to know them now? The mere fact that I am named for their memories means it’s too late. But I’m trying to find them in the stories. I’m trying to understand. So, I suppose, my relationship with my name makes me sad. Because my name means my parents’ grief. Call me Cheryl instead. Call me Michael. I don’t care. Call me anything else if it means Sara and Leslie didn’t die so soon. If it means I had the chance to meet them. If it means I can know the sounds of their voices and what it was like to make them laugh and how they walked into a room. If it means saving my mother and father from that pain. I’d do it. I’d give my name away for that.  ~ Sara Shirley Sheckter. Born in 1918 in Vegreville, Alberta, the fourth oldest of a now-unheard-of ten kids. Named in honour of her paternal grandmother, Sora. A devoted daughter who grew up working in her father’s bakery. Good with her hands. Meticulous. Sara had short but thick black hair, delicate lips, a warm smile that revealed a set of false teeth (the flour from the bakery, she claimed, rotted her real ones). When I look at photographs of her in her later years, I am ashamed to say I don’t recognize her. But when I look at images of her in her youth, I see traces of my mother. Same eyes, same nose. I wonder if they are my eyes and my nose, too. For most of my mother’s life growing up in St. Catherines, Ontario, Sara was sick. She contracted a virus in her heart muscle that caused the organ to fibrillate, which in turn led to cardiac arrests; her children lived in fear that one wrong move would trigger a fatal attack. Every day, my mother would rush home from school and yell for Sara. Was she still there? Was she still flesh and soul and bone? Sara was an avid and skilled sewer, often making my mother’s outfits—outfits for her Barbies, even. Frilly, detailed numbers with lace and sequins. She also sewed aprons for a local community organization and for my mom’s dance recitals; Sara loved to dance and put her two daughters in classes from when they were small. My own mother forced me to take dance lessons when I was little; I hated it at first, but after a few attempts, the aversion grew into adoration. Now I understand why it mattered to her so much. Sara collected stamps. Many weekends, she’d tote my mother—only seven or eight years old—to the Welland Canal in the Niagara Region and ask disembarking sailors if they had any stamps from faraway places that they’d be willing to part with. She would offer to take them to Niagara Falls in return. “I would be sitting,” my mother recalls, “in the backseat with a sailor.”  Sara baked. She’d make cheese rolls, sugar nothings, even delicate icing roses placed gingerly on top of cakes. My aunt Karen, a few years older than my mother, was usually tasked with standing at the stove and stirring the custard for Sara’s lemon meringue pie; despite her best tries, Karen burnt it every time. She can’t eat the dessert to this day. Sara also loved to be social and to entertain. “She was a one-woman welcome committee,” Karen says. As she got sicker, it became harder for her to live the life she wanted. It made her demand more of her family—to excel at the things she could not. Sara died of a heart attack at age fifty-two. At the time, my mother was visiting Karen, who was working at a Gulf Island summer camp. My dad happened to be working there that year, as well. He went to Sara’s shiva—the Jewish period of mourning after a funeral—out of support for his colleague. It wasn’t until years later that he met my mom; still, it comforts me to know that they were together that day. I cannot tell yet if Sara and I are alike in any significant ways. I don’t have a fondness for baking; I was never good at crafts. Perhaps our personalities do not converge. But in my name, on paper, I become her.  “If I see Sara without an h, I go, ‘That’s my mother’s name,’” my own mother says. “The spelling of your name always does that. Every time.” ~ Leslie Errol Harowitz. Born in 1942 in Vancouver, B.C. One of four kids. A romantic, a prankster; he would go to the ends of the earth for a joke. No punchline was too far-fetched. No party was too elaborate.  He had kind, squinty eyes; a round face; large, nerdy glasses that would probably be considered cool now; a happy, crooked smile. Looking at his picture, I see a hint of mischief that reminds me of my father.  Leslie was a klutz, not much of a sportsman, but great with words (just don’t try to decipher his printing). He liked to construct silly contraptions—one famously called Bite Da Mama was engineered with wind-up toy dentures to annoy his mother by nipping her in the arm—and had nicknames for everybody; my father’s was Baby Bowie. Leslie teased relentlessly, but as is the case with so many jesters, the more he ridiculed you, the more he liked you. Leslie was generous, in particular with his time. When he was a law student at the University of British Columbia, he took it upon himself to help my father—ten years his junior—improve his writing skills. “I’d have weekly assignments. He would give me a topic and I’d have to write two or three pages,” my father recalls. “And then he would edit it and mark it up, and we would sit down and discuss it. I’d take it back and have to do a second draft and then maybe a third draft, and then we’d move on to another assignment.” My dad’s grade eight English teacher went from being on his case about poor performance to reading his assignments aloud for the class. I’m warmed by this. The love of words that I share with my father: it came from Leslie. Leslie was fiercely loyal, led by his principles, and fancied himself a handyman—though the stories say otherwise. One day, when they were both adults living in their own homes in Vancouver, my father got a call from his brother. “You have to come over right away,” Leslie said calmly. “I’ve had a bit of an accident.” My father whipped over to his house to find Leslie with a board of wood nailed to his thumb. He had been taking down the family’s sukkah—a temporary hut built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot—pulling apart wooden beams this way and that, and one of them, it seemed, bent but didn’t fully disconnect from the structure; when it swung back into place, its nail went right through his finger. Leslie opened his own law firm with two colleagues, but no matter how well they did, he never felt comfortable in his success. And according to his widow, my aunt Sharon, he was never really in love with his work: “He always said, ‘Nobody in law likes law.’” Leslie’s taste for elaborate schemes never faded, though, nor did his impressive ability to run late for absolutely everything. He had a yellow Chevy convertible that he loved, but as my father puts it, “it didn’t always love him back.” When he was feeling uncomfortable, his right eyebrow twitched.  Leslie was also a hypochondriac, and it made him fearful that he’d die young, leaving his wife and three daughters behind. He was forty-three when a heart attack killed him, caused by a condition savagely referred to as the widow-maker. Leslie would have loved me, my father says. I suppose it’s not hard to believe; we were family. But what would he think of my writing? And how would he feel knowing I carry part of his identity in mine? Would he think I’m doing a good job? I ask my father why I was given Leslie’s name. “I guess,” he says, “because he was just a hole in our life.” ~ There is another letter, this one written by one of Sara’s sisters to her kids, documenting various family milestones. In it, she mentions the birth of a cousin named Faigie—another prominent moniker in the family. “She will perpetuate the name of her two grandmothers,” she writes. “Life is eternal.” ~ I come back to the question: what has been my relationship with my name? It is one of honour and healing. I hold it tight, even when it hurts. “You lighten the burden of your past, but you can’t eliminate it,” Himes tells me. “You can’t erase your name.” I don’t want to erase it. I want to know it. I want to trace the lines of its curves, over and over again. ~ When I sit down with Sharon to ask her about Leslie, I ask her: who was I named after? Do I live up to their memories? Do I live up to my own name? Her face is a mixture of pleasure and surprise. “Your middle name is Leslie?” she asks. Surely she knew, but somewhere along the way, among the everyday muck, amidst the heartbreak and the joy and the mishugas, she forgot. “Yes,” I say. Yes.  “Sara. Leslie. Harowitz,” she announces, and hearing her say it makes me want to cry. Each syllable like a warm tear down my cheek; their streaks are invisible but I feel them just the same. “That’s me,” I say. At least, a version of me. A version of me I’m interested in becoming. A version of me who lives softly in the margins but also brightly in the open. A version of me who is proud of her name, even if she doesn’t fully understand its legacy yet. A version of me who carries her ancestors in blood and in documentation and maybe that’s enough. ~ Will you do one last thing for me? Will you say my name out loud again?  Sara Leslie  Harowitz How does it sound? I’m getting closer to answering that on my own. To feeling like this narrative is really mine.  ~ I think I should introduce myself. I think that is a nice way to end.
‘I Would Not Ever Give Anyone the Raw Experience’: An Interview with Donika Kelly

Talking to the author of The Renunciations about structuring a book of poetry, living with myths, and caring for yourself and others when writing about trauma. 

The Renunciations (Graywolf Press), poet and Iowa Writer’s Workshop professor Donika Kelly’s sophomore collection, opens with an explosion. In a nod to astrology, even the poem’s title, House of Air, Hours of Fire, evokes a blinding brightness that reduces to ash. And reading this collection is in many ways a flammable experience: the language simply glows, even when it appears as erasure or empty brackets. The content circles childhood sexual abuse, divorce, and glimmers of hope and home, the possibility of rootedness. Along with fire, other elements come into play: water, earth, air. Sediment that gets disrupted, shoots of new growth, foundations maybe, slowly, being built. Kelly’s almost otherworldly gift for composing words into something alive was clear in her 2016 debut, Bestiary; The Renunciations too embodies the animal, which is also the human. In “Hymn,” she writes: “...the closer I am/to my animal self the more human I am/the more I let myself break/like a wave. Ocean/in my arm. Stone in my arm./Iron and wood and brass in my arm.” And in one of the several poems titled “Dear–,”: “I hold my breath. My body hollows,/grows teeth: gathers bone, gathers root and nerve.” The visceral nature of this collection carries the reader to heights of poetic euphoria while simultaneously refusing to look away from pain. “I am neither land nor timber,” she writes, “nor are you/ocean or celestial body. Rather,/we are the small animals we’ve always been.” I spoke to Kelly on Zoom about myths and mythology, artifice, hope, and what it means to be a non-believer. Sarah Neilson: The epigraph of this book is from Anne Carson: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” What is the myth you've lived past, if you have one? Are there any myths that are meaningful in your life? And how do they serve you or not serve you? Donika Kelly: The core myth that I would say I've lived past… Well, there are two. The one where my dad sort of occupies the center of the family. And a big part of [living past] that was teaching gender studies—just realizing I could put myself at the center of my life. A man doesn't have to be at the center of my life. And the other myth, which comes out of that, has to do with the formation of romantic relationships as I saw modeled in my family of origin: My parents are definitely a stay-together-forever, it-doesn't-matter-how-bad-it-is, this-is-better-than-anything-else model. That's not a great model. It was not a great model when I was a kid, I recognized that. But that was a hard one to let go—that being married, being partnered, meant that that person was also at the center and that I wasn't at the center of my own life. So those myths, if that's a way of thinking about them, those myths served to keep my attention on other people and what other people needed. And I think this book demonstrates the process of, how do I move those folks from the center? How do I move those ideas from the center? And how do I get closer to the center of my own life? I'm hoping that I'm not living with too many myths right now. Carl Phillips has this craft essay on the uses of myth and fable. And he says that—I'm paraphrasing, so, grain of salt—but the way I remember it is that a myth helps us explain something we don't understand. And I think I've come to understand some things now. I don't need the myth anymore. The first poem in the collection, House of Air, Hours of Fire, is such a powerful gut-punch of a poem. What made you decide to open the book that way? That poem is the clearest overture that I've written. It captures the two strands of the book: the removal of the father from the center of the speaker's life, and then the ending of the marriage. The title refers to the fact that my dad is an Aquarius, which is an air sign. My ex is a Leo, and I'm a Sagittarius [fire signs]. I don't necessarily believe in astrology, but it created one small lens for understanding, a kind of elemental interaction. The Aquarius is the water bearer, and so I started with that—what does my dad have to bear? What does this father have to bear? And then what does the speaker, the daughter, what does she have to bear? The poem also brings in a lot of the themes around landscape and time that feels like it foreshadows what's to come in the book, and it was one that I wrote towards the end of writing the poems that would go into the book. In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said: “...it’s not just like, ‘Here’s this trauma without the artifice.’ The artifice is nice. The artifice is like a little pillow around the trauma, and a reminder that I’m okay and my speaker is okay, and hopefully the reader feels safer in that space.” I think sometimes the word “artifice” has a negative connotation. Can you expand on the idea of finding safety and comfort in artifice? Artifice doesn't have a negative connotation to me, and I don't know how it could, since I'm a poet; so much of the genre relies on artifice. Like, Oh, here are some stanzas. Here's a rhyme. Which would not occur naturally, right? Here's a soundscape that's holding the poem together in some way. The artifice for me is actually really comforting. It's one of the things that I love about poetry—that there are ways to present material and process emotional material to make it available, or translate it for readers. That being said, the artifice for me as the writer is a way of processing the feeling, the thought, the act. The experience, the events. It suggests a measure of distance or control in relation to the material. As a person who has written about sexual violence and trauma, I often am read as “raw.” But I would not ever give anyone the raw experience. That would feel irresponsible to me. But I think what that means is it creates a feeling inside the reader of encountering something that is intense. There's a measure of intensity. And it was important for me to feel that I was exercising some control over the experience, over the work—that there was a reason that I was bringing myself to that event and remembering it, and a reason I'm asking the reader to come along with me to remember. For me, the artifice is the suggestion that there is a structure here, that design and thought has gone into this, that I've made something for someone. How do you take care of yourself when you're writing about trauma? I have some very basic strategies. So, when I decided… it didn't really feel like a decision, but when I felt compelled to write about childhood sexual abuse and the abuse that I experienced, I knew that I was going to need some help. I've been in therapy since I was 17 or 18, almost consistently. Therapy is a big tool that I use to help manage and navigate some of that traumatic stuff. So when I'm writing, if it feels too hard, I can take that to therapy and work out what's hard, what feels scary, why I feel compelled to write about this. So there's that aspect of it; therapy is super helpful. But when I'm actually writing and I've decided this is what I'm doing, writing about this traumatic stuff, I can get really anxious and scared. Part of my strategy is to remind myself that I'm safe, which has been true. For the last 10 years or so I’ve felt really safe. The other thing that I do is remind myself I can stop at any time, that I don't have to do it. No one's asking for the poems. It's not like someone's like, "We need your poems about trauma." It's not for anyone, and I think that has been really important to recognize—that the work that I'm doing, and writing the poems, is first for me. So if I am not being served by the process, I can stop. I've gotten pretty good at just checking in and attending to all the little parts that can get worked up. I am so drawn to your use of empty brackets and erasure, conveying this sense of missing, or stolen, or hidden information. Can you talk about the role of these tools in the book, what they mean to you? This is the reduction in erasure. Each section is headed by a redacted letter, and those letters are drawn from real letters that I wrote in a therapeutic practice, like writing a letter to somebody that you don’t send but you can say whatever you want in it. I did that, and it was helpful when I did it. But it was to someone; even though I wasn't ever going to share it, it was to that person. I got the idea in a workshop with Gabby Calvocoressi. They asked us to do either erasure or redaction as part of an exercise, and I was like, "Oh, I have these letters." I was drawn to those letters because I believe I thought—not consciously, not in the foreground of my brain, but somewhere deep—I thought, "I wrote something to myself in here. It wasn't really to this person. This is for me." And so the redactions in terms of what they do for me, and what they did for me in the process of writing them, it was a way of trying to find these messages to myself. This goes back to what we were talking about with artifice. They are a reminder to the reader that the reader does not have access to everything, even though the collection is very forthcoming, very plain-spoken, I think. I hope. It feels intimate, but there are things that people don't know and won't know who do not share that experience. The brackets do something similar, the sort of erased parts and withholding. But what they do for me is that I've taken out some things that I don't ever want to say. I don't want to have to complete the sentence. I don't want to have to save the thing that I'm recounting, that I'm remembering. Thinking about other strategies for taking care of myself and writing about trauma, that particular technique is perhaps one of the more protective ones. I don't ever have to say that thing out loud, and so I'm taking care of myself. My speaker doesn't have to say it out loud, so it's also a kindness to the speaker. I feel like it's an act of tenderness of care. It's like, "We don't have to say that." It's not necessary to say everything; we can say what feels possible to say right now. I’m curious about the structure of the collection and your thoughts about where you were positioning the different poems, and the different emotional tones of the poems, in relation to each other in the book. I feel so pleased with the structure, and in some ways the process of it coming [together] in terms of it existing in its final form. When I initially put the manuscript together, the sections alternated in the ways that they do now: the sections about the end of the marriage alternate with the sections about the father—the sections about the end of the marriage are moving forward in time, is how I think of it. It's like we're coming to the end. It's like a series of oh-no’s; I have to figure out how to be by myself. I think the first section is about, who is this person? Of course they're scared. I know that there's a way to flatten out abusers, people who are abusive, [by making them monsters]. And that's not interesting. So I thought I might do a little bit of internal investigation about how I understood my dad's life and his existence before he was my dad, like as a whole human being. But I don't know that much about him; as it turns out, I know very little. So putting the poems together in that first section is really like trying to understand something about the father as a person who had experiences. Then it sort of moves forward into the abuse. It felt important to me to not start with the father or begin with the abuse. That actually felt really important to me. But it felt like I needed to articulate my own progression towards being able to talk about and acknowledge what happened. And that's replicated in the book. Jeff Shotts, my editor, was like, "Can we have some page breaks, some section breaks?" And I was like, "No. Absolutely not." He was like, "Numbered sections." I was like, "Unthinkable. I couldn't possibly." But I listened to Jeff. I might not always agree with his direct suggestions, but I do trust his instincts. I think he really was asking for room to give the reader some kind of respite, like some little pitstops through the experiences. There's room to breathe in the book and the way that it exists now. Before it was like a waterfall, and now I think there are these steps between them that feel careful and caring, too. This is important to me, to the speaker. The speaker doesn't have to rush through all of that, and also the reader doesn't have to rush through all of it. We came back to air. Yes. I'm really interested in the way that you explore the tension between science and faith. It’s not a binary tension, but there’s a line from In the Chapel of St. Mary’s that reads, “I try to find comfort in the inevitability/of science, when what I lack is faith.” In Sanctuary, you write, “I call this the difficulty of the nonbeliever,/of waking, every morning, without a god.” Can you talk about exploring that faith and prayer aspect, and the word “non-believer” in your work? Greek mythology relies on gods in a particular kind of way. They're very fallible. I stopped believing, or maybe I never really believed in God, when I was in my twenties. And that was really disorienting because it felt wrong. But the Greek mythology still made sense, and part of what I was trying to work through in this book was like, "Why am I still relying on Greek mythology when I don't believe in anything?" I don't have a prayer practice. I don't have meditative practices. The primary practice in my life is writing and writing poetry. But I don't necessarily believe that I am right. There are so many things that I don't understand. I think that in some ways, the book is working through that. What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to trust that things will be okay? What does that mean to move through the world without a sense of something larger at the wheel? And where I've come to is, strangely, I believe in time. I believe in the experiences that I've had. I believe in trusting my instincts based on my experiences. I believe in relating to people based on the experiences that we have had together. That has been the thing that has made the most sense. And the writing of poems takes a certain kind of time. That time feels long and stretchy, even though it tends not to be on-the-clock long. There's just something about time that feels really comforting. So my sort of new interest, my new direction, I am thinking about time, also geologic time. Because it's so big, and we're so little. At the end of the book, with The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings., you so beautifully reclaim the land use imagery you started with, and turn it into building something rather than taking something. Can you talk about the process of arriving at that last poem? Was it actually the last poem you wrote for the book? I just thought that last poem feels appropriately hopeful, which is to say not very but a little bit. Like something could potentially happen that is positive. I wrote that poem, again, in a workshop with Gabby. Same workshop. It was a very productive time in Provincetown. And I wrote that before I wrote [the opening poem] House of Air, Hours of Fire, like a full year before. The thing I like about the last poem—aside from its tempered hopefulness which I do really like—it's very tempered, and that's reassuring to me. The speaker in that poem is trying to figure out what the future could look like and hasn't started to make anything. But it's like trying to imagine what the future could look like. Like to stand in a mud field and call it a pasture. I don't really know what a pasture is, and the speaker doesn't either. But it's like, "Okay, so I could make something here. Maybe a life." It feels in contrast with the beginning where that speaker's feature seemed more foreclosed. Here at the end, it does feel like a bit of an opening. And I've often struggled to think about the future. So I count The moon rose over the bay. I had a lot of feelings. as little gestures of hopefulness and possibility.
‘Part of Being Young is How Much You Notice’: An Interview with Scarlett Thomas

The author of Oligarchy on teenaged girls, hierarchies within hierarchies, and the great confidence tricks of capitalism. 

In The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s narrator Giovanna reflects on her adolescence: “I spent the days studying myself . . . as if I were a piece of good-quality material damaged by a clumsy worker. I was I—whatever I I was—and had to concern myself with that face, that body, those thoughts.” Giovanna’s seemingly boundless obsession with, and revulsion at, her own body (and the perceived disgust of others) seems excessive only until you inhabit the mind of a teenage girl. And then, all at once, it makes perfect sense. There is an absolute, infallible logic of heightened self-consciousness into which Ferrante writes, as does Scarlett Thomas. The British novelist’s newest book Oligarchy (Counterpoint Press) begins with Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, joining a private, all-girls English boarding school. Here, Tash (the “more English” variant of her name) finds herself in a rarefied world of money, angst, and the all-consuming desire to be thin. Tucked away in a turret, the most remote of the school’s dorms, it’s as if Tash and her friends (including Tiffanie, who “is too lazy, too French, and frankly too fucking cool to learn English pronunciation”) were “put here for a deliberate reason, to make them feel different from everyone else: to make them go bad.” Haunted by the ghost of Princess Augusta, whose portraits line the school’s gothic hallways, the “bad apples” (later, just “apples”) are consumed by what teenage girls are often singularly devoured by: themselves. Thomas’s novel is an account of the interior lives of adolescent girls; a text haunted by all of us who have walked those strange corridors before. Oligarchy is also every boarding school story you’ve ever read gone wrong; or rather, gone true. Thomas writes: “On Sunday night the girls break out of the attic dorms and it’s like an Enid Blyton book except it isn’t because in what Enid Blyton book do girls escape at midnight to weigh themselves on kitchen scales that they then break?”  Blyton’s Claudine at St Clare’s, who limited herself to tiny portions of cake, certainly couldn’t have conceived of it. But Ferrante’s Giovanna probably could have. And Tiffanie? Well, it was Tiffanie who broke the scales.    Richa Kaul Padte: You write of teenagers: “They raise their eyebrows and lower them again and experiment with the sort of make-up that male teachers can never detect but female ones always can. Not because they plan to lie . . . [but because] at fifteen you have to practice everything you do.” I’m always so grateful to have left that awkward age behind, but at various points Oligarchy made me go: “Wait, do I still . . . do that?” Do you ever still feel the extreme self-consciousness of being a teenage girl, or did you write it purely from memory (or research!)? Scarlett Thomas: Oh my God—totally! Most recently, it’s been about Zoom calls; first experimenting with all the normal filters, and then adding lighting and plants in the background. I now do my makeup with Zoom open, and as a result I think I look okay on screen but kinda weird IRL. Recently I had to have a meeting on Microsoft Teams, and I spent about half a day trying to get Snap Camera to work with it just because I couldn’t bear to appear unfiltered. There’s so much technology now to assist this sort of thing. I take pictures of outfits now too—although that does actually save time when deciding what to wear. I feel so comforted by this! Last year I read Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory, in which she talks about how our selfies feel truer and more like “us,” because it’s the same image we see in the mirror. On the other hand, candid pictures can feel quite alarming, because at some level we literally don’t recognize ourselves in them. She writes: “It’s the reflection that’s inaccurate, but to us, the unreversed face looks wrong.” Do you mirror your image on Zoom? (I definitely do!) Actually, no! I did at the start, but then I sort of became obsessed with this other, weirder self that I didn’t know at all. On the one hand I’m trying to make myself as fake as possible (all the filters, etc., as I said) but on the other hand I’m so obsessed with the image that’s seen that I want to work on the canvas as I know others are experiencing it. Also I like seeing my book jackets non-mirrored. Bodies loom large in your text—even when they’re practically disappearing. There’s this great paragraph I wish I could quote in full, but some of it goes: “Rachel, whose dark regimen of pubic hair has paraded shamelessly up to her belly button and down her thighs . . . Lissa, whose T-zone cannot be absorbed by all the cotton wool balls in the world . . . Donya, whose underarms smell of offal.” Are the keenest observers of teen girls’ bodies other teen girls? Where does this lead? I think part of being young is about just how much you notice. Kids drink everything in in a way that adults don’t. When I was young, I noticed everything, remembered everything. And I guess I was super-critical in a way I definitely didn’t understand. I sensed that I had this thing that adults wanted, but also that the thing was utterly without meaning or value. Having perfectly clear skin or visible collarbones is just random—or worse, it denotes being young and inexperienced. Who wants that? (Obviously I want it now I don’t have it any more, but back then I just wanted to be “experienced.”) There seems to be a sort of public acknowledgement thanks to the new Britney documentary that teenage girls—including queen Britney, herself—have so much less power than we imagine they do. And I wonder if that imaginary has to do with precisely this: that as adults, we want what they have (or what we once had), so much so that we forget how very little control teenage girls are actually afforded?   Yes, absolutely! It seems to be one of the cruel ironies of life that you want to be old when you’re young, and then young when you’re old. And the celebrity thing is fascinating. One of the great confidence tricks of capitalism is to make us believe that “stars” are powerful. Everyone grows up dreaming of becoming famous, but of course that means being exploited—literally becoming a branded item for sale. In that sense, Britney is less a human and more a product that broke down or malfunctioned. Why do we want that, rather than to become an exec with actual power? Growing up, I attended a very expensive boarding school where I was a day-student (my parents were teachers so I got to go for free). And something I really loved about Oligarchy was that it’s the only boarding school story I’ve ever read where a day-student doesn’t feel left out because they aren’t in dorm, but because they don’t have money. Which is exactly how I felt, surrounded by the many expensive things my friends so casually owned and used and lost. Was this a conscious choice, or have I just latched on to this detail given its personal resonance? It was conscious—I’m interested in hierarchies within hierarchies. Where other people might just see “wealth,” I always want to look for the nuance. It’s great, because we do start by thinking that everyone is just “rich,” but it’s all so relative. Even the context of an elite private girls boarding school is eventually revealed as “less-than” old English public schools (like Eton). Given that this is all still the one (or maybe . . . three?) percent, what do you see as the value in prying apart these distinctions and hierarchies within wealth? For me it’s less about the wealth and more about the hierarchies themselves. Hierarchies can be based on other things—attractiveness, daringness, or anything—but the key concept for me is always power. Who has it, how do you get it, how do you lose it?
‘There’s No Public Health Without a Public’: An Interview with Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley

The authors of Until Proven Safe on the ongoing pandemic, the history of quarantine, and our existential precarity.

In August of 2019, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley gave a lecture in Moscow on the phenomenon of quarantine. “I would go out on a limb and say that we are entering the age of quarantine,” Manaugh said toward the end of the presentation. “If everyone at this event at some point in their life experiences quarantine, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising.”  This prediction was eerily accurate. Due to the global spread of COVID-19—the first cases of which were identified a few short months after the aforementioned lecture—the once obscure subject of quarantine has taken on new relevance. While Manaugh and Twilley’s Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine (MCD) is a timely release well suited for our current moment, it is not a book dealing strictly with the present. Rather, it tracks the historical evolution of quarantine, the origins of which date back to the 14th century.   Heavily researched and inquisitive, Until Proven Safe is an atypical travelogue of quarantine sites that includes the lazarettos of Croatia, the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre in London, and a radioactive waste depository in New Mexico. Along with carefully considering the spatial and temporal implications of the legacy of quarantine, the journalistic duo also looks toward the current pandemic to examine what we can learn to guide us in the future.  Manaugh and Twilley, who are married, spoke with me over the phone from their home in Los Angeles. Both are accomplished thinkers in their own right: Manaugh is the creator of BLDGBLOG and author of A Burglar's Guide to the City; Twilley is a New Yorker contributor and co-host of the podcast Gastropod. It was exciting to have them on the line at once. It wasn’t a light conversation, but it was engaging, much like the couple’s assorted work.     Andru Okun: As your book notes, the last mass quarantine event before COVID-19 was about a hundred years ago. I know the interest you both have in quarantine pre-dates the pandemic, so I’m curious to hear what it was like to have a subject you had been researching for years suddenly enter into global public consciousness.  Geoff Manaugh: Speaking for myself, it was kind of an emotional rollercoaster to be working on a project that, to be honest, was relatively obscure up until about a year-and-a-half ago. Even some of the experts that we talked to for the book thought of quarantine as a thing of the past, that we had moved on to other solutions to dealing with pandemics or contagious disease. We went from feeling as if we were writing a book that made people look twice at us—wondering why on earth are you interested in quarantine?—then suddenly every trip to a restaurant, bar, or gym there’d be a TV on and people would be talking about quarantine. It kind of felt as if our book had leaked out into the world and taken things over. It definitely made us get the book done; we realized that this was something we had been well placed to write about because we had been researching it for so long, and now was the time to finish it. Nicola Twilley: One funny thing is that the book was actually going to be called The Coming Quarantine. Then, of course, quarantine came, so it got a new title. Geoff said it was a rollercoaster and it was. One of the emotions was frustration at seeing all of the challenges, abuses, and issues around quarantine that we had seen through our research for the book. It was almost this strange déjà vu where everything we had learned about quarantine played out in real time, but it was so frustrating to see we hadn’t really learned from quarantines past. In some ways, it made the book a little more activist than it would have been in really flagging how we can do this better next time. I imagine you’ve both formed opinions on the recent pandemic responses throughout the world. Where do you think quarantine measures have been successful and where have they failed? NT: There’s a few examples of success that are interesting for different reasons. Quarantine was initially reliant on islands when it was formulated during the Black Death. Dubrovnik used islands, Venice used islands—that built-in cordon sanitaire of the ocean has always been useful. And it was no surprise to us to see that the countries that did well in keeping COVID out were island nations. New Zealand and Australia were able to take advantage of the ocean and their relative geographic isolation. The other places that have done well, frustratingly, are the ones that used the U.S. pandemic response playbook that we ourselves did not use. One of the central figures in our book is Dr. Martin Cetron, the head of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. We spoke to him a couple of times during the pandemic, and we could hear the anguish in his voice explaining to us that, say, South Korea was running a playbook that the CDC had written and trained them on, and yet, the CDC was not implementing this playbook itself. GM: While in agreement with everything Nicky said, quarantine is really a very specific thing. It’s different from a lockdown or a stay-at-home order or social distancing. In the United States, if you do in fact say it’s quarantine, and if you are quarantining individuals, that comes with a federal duty of care for making sure people can get through quarantine. They’d have accommodations and access to food, maybe even wage coverage. If it’s just a lockdown or a stay-at-home advisory, then there’s no real obligation to do anything for those people. So, basically, you’re asking the population of a city or a nation to take on all of the loss, risk, and responsibility of mitigating a pandemic disease but not doing anything to help them. In nations that took it seriously—that said, we're going to pay lost wages or make up for some of the loss that goes into a pandemic response—people were more willing to do the things they were asked to do. NT: The U.S. is more individualistic and doesn't have public safety nets in place. It’s like we say in the book: there’s no public health without a public. Countries that don’t have a strong culture of public welfare or public good did worse.  Why is this distinction between quarantine and isolation so important?  NT: These terms do get used interchangeably and we’re not pedantic about it, but one of the things that makes quarantine so interesting is this element of uncertainty and suspicion that makes it so powerful and prone to abuse. That’s why we focused on it. GM: We didn’t write a book about isolation or pandemics. We wrote a book about quarantine specifically because it’s so metaphorically interesting. Quarantine means you don’t know if you’re infected or infectious; you don’t know if someone or something is dangerous. So, quarantine takes on these really interesting, almost poetic overtones—there’s something inside of you that might be waiting to reveal itself, and quarantine is the time and space needed to give it a chance to appear. I think that metaphoric aspect is one of the things we tried to emphasize in the book as well—that you find quarantine operating at different scales, far bigger than just medical response. It informs our mythologies, our sense of ancient religion. It gets into a poetic discussion that I think is quite exciting.   Would you elaborate on these metaphorical implications? GM: During the Black Death, quarantine was expanded from thirty days to forty days, and it was done because of the biblical resonance of forty days—it ties back to Christ’s time in the desert and the rainfall that caused the flood for Noah’s ark. The number forty provides this sense of quarantine being tied back to something much larger than oneself, and it thus gives it a kind of theological weight.  “The Masque of the Red Death” [by Edgar Allan Poe] would be a classic literary example of this idea of separating from others and waiting to see if something is in you. Arguably, it’s a story about isolation, but to a certain extent, it’s a story about quarantine. The wealthy of the society seal themselves off to avoid catching a hemorrhagic fever, only to find that they’ve locked themselves in with the disease. Quarantine pops up a lot in contemporary horror as well, even in a movie called Quarantine that came out in 2008, as if the title itself was enough to let you know it was a horror story.  On a mythological level, one of the stories that I love because it’s so fascinating from a cultural point of view is the story of Alexander’s gates. Alexander the Great, when he was conquering the open lands of Asia, had built a huge set of gates in the Caucasus Mountains that would divide the Christian West from a monstrous Eastern other. It’s also very interesting because the Caucasus Mountains became sort of pseudo-scientifically associated with the origin site for the Caucasian race; there’s something fascinating about the idea that Europeans actually thought that at the very heart of what it means to be Caucasian is a set of iron gates in the Caucasus Mountains dividing them from the “other” that challenge their identity. Although that’s a story of separation, it touches on some of these themes of how quarantine, isolation, and spatial segregation impact even our identities as ethnic races.  NT: Another example is how the Austro-Hungarian cordon sanitaire—or quarantine corridor—ended up informing European vampire myths. For about a century, there was a thousand-mile quarantine corridor along the imperial frontier of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It went through Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia—this swath of land that was at the edge, neither one thing nor the other, a sort of liminal zone in which travellers crossing had to wait and see if they were carrying disease. And the people who lived there had to serve on the quarantine line. It’s had a lasting impact on how people conceive of the edge of Europe, how that region functions. It is also the home of vampire sightings in Europe. So, there’s this idea that there’s a zone of suspicion, and inside the inhabitants are neither healthy nor sick; it’s also the home of these sort of liminal, living dead figures. It was interesting to see that these edge spaces are home to monsters, as well as people waiting to see if they have a disease.   I was particularly fascinated and horrified to learn about the “American Plan.” I had no idea of this piece of American history.   NT: I also had never heard of this; I don’t think it gets taught in school. When people look back at mass quarantines of the past, they tend to look at the 1918 flu. But around the same time, there was this Orwellian-sounding American Plan that used quarantine to detain suspect women. A new generation of women were starting to not just stay at home, get married, and have kids; they were moving to cities and working in offices and factories. That newfound independence was causing great alarm among the patriarchy and there was a fear that these “loose women” (and there was no evidence that they were particularly loose) would infect America’s young men with STDs. There was no sense that America’s young men might bear some responsibility for that or might be even able to avoid those STDs. Quarantine was used to detain these women on suspicion of spreading STDs and it was used widely and in very biased way[s]: African American women were detained under American Plan laws at a far higher rate; people used it for personal vendettas, like husbands reporting their wives after an argument to have them detained; bosses reported recalcitrant workers to the American Plan officials. It was an ugly set of laws and even uglier in its implementation. There’s one book about it that came out, [The Trials of Nina McCall] written by Scott Stern, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on this and then turned it into a book. Until then, I think it was a forgotten piece of American history and a fascinating example of how quarantine could be abused.  Do you think we’ve seen similar abuses of quarantine during the current pandemic?  GM: We certainly have. We see that a lot in how potential guilt has been assigned to an entire class of people. In the early days of the pandemic, a lot of divisive language was used to describe Asian individuals—whether they were U.S. citizens or foreigners—as potential carriers of COVID-19. The attitude toward who was considered potentially contagious or quote-unquote dirty or a risk to others. To a certain extent that’s continued, as seen in the huge spike in crimes against Asian Americans. I think that the rhetoric we saw from the previous presidential administration also carried on these themes of who was a risk and who was a threat to the American public and the health of our nation.   NT: This is a slightly different example, but another thing that’s always been true of quarantine in history is that the wealthy and the poor are viewed and treated differently. Even in the very first quarantine regulations in Dubrovnik during the Black Death, essential workers had to stay and the wealthy were allowed to flee. You saw that display of limitations of people’s mobility during COVID-19, too.   In regards to how the U.S. handles quarantine, there seems to be an issue of guiding principles. Given how profit-driven the country is, I question how possible it is to even have a successful mass quarantine unless people figured out how to profit from it. How do you think current socio-economic factors impact our susceptibility to pandemics? GM: I absolutely think that larger questions about inequality, wealth disparity, access to health care, and even access to a home (if you’re being asked to stay at home, you need to have a home to stay in), all of these conversations are relevant. I also think that that’s exactly the role of governance—and I’m saying this as a believer in government. That’s when government steps in to fill a void that is otherwise unaddressed by economic or social circumstances. It’s the government who would be responsible for the individual in the case of last resort, so you can make up for lost wages. Or if you’re asking someone who can’t afford to quarantine because they still have to buy medications or put food on the table and they don’t have savings or have family members that they’re trying to take care of, then they actually have a way to make up for that and they can afford to not work.  NT: One interesting thing that a former head of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, pointed out to us at a pandemic simulation is that the U.S. has a very well-funded military with the sort of health care that you would hope to see. When it quarantines, it provides housing and people continue to get paid and their families are fed. The military does quarantine and health care right, and the U.S. taxpayer funds that. It’s interesting to me that we have this example that is much more functional, and yet there’s an unwillingness to expand it beyond that limited group. One of the things we saw again and again in pandemic simulations, [was that] people who were supposed to evaluate our pandemic preparedness would talk about our manufacturing capabilities and our PPE reserves, but our preparedness to quarantine never came up during these simulations. As Geoff said, can people do what is being asked of them? And if not, how do we make them ready to do so? How do we put in place the structure and resources that would make quarantine possible? As we write in the book, quarantine was just invoked and not discussed or imagined in any way as an experience. There wasn’t thought given to what it would be like to be prepared for it. GM: Also, you mentioned if people could figure out how to profit off of quarantine. I genuinely believe that’s going to happen. I think there’s a drive to get in on quarantine as a business model. One of the things we try to do at the end of the book is look at a rise in the quarantine profiteer—people who are trying to disrupt quarantine in the Silicon Valley sense—and get ahead of it. So next time there are stay-at-home orders, maybe your smart home can be an active participant in your medical isolation. Maybe your subscription Amazon purchases can be used to help mitigate the kind of difficulty of staying at home. We’re already seeing everyday appliances becoming diagnostic tools—our Alexas and other always-on microphones can pick up the sound of a cough and detect whether it might be COVID-19 or not. We’re seeing the rise of all kinds of things that are going to turn quarantine into a niche industry. To be clear, I say this in the dystopian sense and I’m not advocating for it, but I do see that there is going to be profit made in keeping people isolated from one another. And so, it will be quite interesting to imagine when the next pandemic hits exactly who makes money off our quarantine experiences.    This is actually something I wanted to talk about. Contact tracing and genomic sequencing have shown how collecting information can help us respond to viral outbreaks. But on a smaller, more personal scale, data presents some frightening scenarios, like the hypothetical of the hyper-connected smart home determining that a person living within it is potentially contagious, then imposing quarantine upon them by locking them inside against their will. As far as pandemics go, how concerned should we be about surveillance and diagnostic infrastructure? GM: I would say that diagnostic infrastructure is not in and of itself dystopic, but I think the idea that corporate interests will find a way to spin a profit off of making sure that we stay isolated from one another has dystopian overtones. I think it’s a really complex and nuanced conversation because I don’t think the answer is that we need data privacy. It goes back to what Nicky was saying, that we can’t have public health without a public. If people are known to be carrying highly transmissible diseases that are threats to the general public body of a nation or city, public health officials need access to that information. They need to know who is infected and at what stage of the infection they are in, so I think that the testing and tracing infrastructure is important. It belies the idea that we all have to have absolute privacy over all of our data. At the same time, obviously we don’t want to turn all of our medical diagnoses over to the public so that everybody knows our illnesses and ailments. So, I think that we’re constantly going back and forth between information that is vital for public health versus information that is being sold to corporations that potentially don’t have public health in their interests. One of the examples we use are bleach companies or vitamin firms getting access to our state of health—curing illness is not necessarily in their interest if they can profit off of cleaning surfaces for the next six months or selling cough drops instead of a cure. You get into not just mixed messages regarding whether or not they’re on our side, but incentives that could potentially go against public health itself.  NT:  Adam Kucharski, one of the epidemiologists we talked to, has been working on modelling for the U.K. government, and I think he has a really smart attitude to this. He relies on data, and sometimes data that you might otherwise be very reluctant to share about your movements and interactions with people. His point is that it requires trust; if you're asking people to do this, you have to demonstrate a social benefit. You have to think in terms of permission rather than just doing it and hoping you get away with it. You have to involve people; if it’s for a social good then it should be a social effort. The data gathering in and of itself is not inherently bad; using that data to limit people’s movement is not inherently bad. How the protections and the process around building that system work is where the nuance lies, making sure that it’s being done for the public good and not private profit.  One thing that’s worth noting is that throughout the pandemics of history, surveillance and quarantine have gone hand-in-hand and the tools of that surveillance and that monitoring of people’s movement have hardened into the bureaucracy we know today: the border control, the passports. There is a real risk that things put in place to manage a pandemic will harden into a new reality without discussion. I think we would all do well to have the kinds of discussions that Adam advocated and that we advocate, too.  The pandemic is still very much ongoing, but I have wondered about what aspects of the past year-and-a-half will stick. Do either of you have any thoughts on that?   GM: It will be so fascinating to see what the remnants of COVID-19 are and how it changes cities. I think that there are certainly positive things, like the changes to the use of the streets for outdoor dining. It’s almost like the Europeanization of American cities in the name of social distance, so you can eat outside in a way that would be typical for a European city, but that isn’t something that you see very often in a place like Dallas. I think that things like that would be great if they stuck around. Other minor cultural quirks might change, like handshakes; although, it's funny to see people who can’t stop shaking hands. I could definitely go the rest of my life without shaking hands again. I think that the hand sanitizer market is likely poised for a permanent boost, in terms of having hand sanitizer stations everywhere. This also ties into the argument now about vaccine passports. These things already exist in the sense that you’re required to get certain vaccinations before going to schools. For travel, there are recommended vaccinations for places where you might be exposed to certain diseases, but now that it’s happening with COVID-19 there’s this kind of exaggerated political outrage. But will we see vaccine passports become a permanent part of life? Or having to bring your vaccine card around? All these things are going to be interesting to track in the months to come.  NT: And, certainly, there are examples in other countries, like the way China expanded its Alipay system into a health and mobility control app. I don’t see that being rolled back. One thing that I think is interesting is that in the U.S., so much is driven by the idea of liability and trying to avoid it that it’s actually businesses and universities (which are basically businesses) that are figuring out how to bring everyone back together but not make ourselves liable to a COVID super spreader event. So, what you’re getting is these businesses—not in discussion with their employees or consumers—implementing different testing regimes, whether it be swabbing buildings or monitoring sewage or air quality. And those kinds of monitoring systems also are invasive of peoples’ privacy. That’s all being done right now without any real oversight, guidance, or consultation, all in the interest of liability. We've been taught to think that we’re on CCTV in public spaces, but we haven’t been taught to think that what we’re breathing out is now being surveilled through an air quality sensor. And that’s personal information that we’re leaving in a space that's being gathered, and it’s not necessarily something we agreed to. Surveying air quality or swabbing surfaces as a sentinel of disease is a great idea, it’s just something that you want to think twice about the privacy issues around before implementing and ideally have a conversation with people whose privacy is going to be invaded in this way.   While reading this book, I felt like I was being regularly reminded of how incredibly vulnerable the human species is. For so many people, there seems to be a very deep-seated unwillingness to acknowledge this precarity, an unwillingness that is especially pronounced in affluent countries. I’m curious to hear if either of you feel the same. GM: I agree with that. That comes to the fore whenever there’s a blackout basically anywhere in the United States and people suddenly realize how thin the line is that keeps us back from a much earlier age in which we maybe don’t even know how to survive. We certainly don’t know how to make our goods or grow food. I think one of the reasons why there’s been a decade-long interest in infrastructure—especially in architecture and geography—is that it’s almost a branch of precarity studies. It’s people looking into these systems that are otherwise invisible and exist on the periphery of the world and yet keep everything moving. It’s like the stagecraft that allows the actors to get through their roles, and I think that kind of interest—at least in an academic world where people are interested in writing about ports, electrical infrastructure, or hydrology—all of these things are an attempt to shine a light on that precarity. I think that people don’t really want to admit that things are as bad as they are. One of the things that’s funny is that every political ideology has its own pet disaster, and I think on the right there’s a huge fear of electromagnetic pulse weaponry, but it's a very peculiar worry that is specific to conservative geopolitical thinkers. The idea is that North Korea or a similar power will explode a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere above the United States, and so, while it won’t kill everyone with an explosion, it will short out all of our electrical devices, including our power stations and cars. So, there’s this idea that we have to harden ourselves against the disappearance of civilization, which is to say the short-circuiting of our infrastructure. I think that’s fascinating.  NT: The larger, more abstract way that I think about this, and it comes up in my refrigeration research all the time too, is that we have not assigned economic value to resilience and we have assigned economic value to efficiency and optimization. So, we have a system that is highly efficient and optimized (of course in some cases it’s not actually that efficient, but it’s economically efficient and not resilient). I think the idea of incentivizing resilience—or even requiring resilience through regulatory means—is something that we really need to do. Climate change is making this increasingly obvious, but it is something we’re very reluctant to do because the benefits are almost invisible: it’s things not going wrong. It’s hard to get excited about that, as it’s not a clear win in the same way. We saw this again and again in the pandemic preparedness sphere, these big simulations where the same things would go wrong every time. But until they actually go wrong, there’s no incentive to do anything about it.  When you say “resilience,” what specifically do you mean?  NT: It looks different in different examples, but resilience could be not having a supply chain that is entirely dependent on the Suez Canal being open, for example. It could be not having a fruit and vegetable supply that only comes from three states, as that’s inherently fragile.  GM: Redundancy is a really important thing, to have a backup. Also, I think COVID-19 has shown us the limits of just-in-time inventory and infrastructure. Companies have gotten so used to having something shipped in on a twenty-four-hour notice, that we’ve seen a lot of companies just running out of goods. Products are running short on shelves. Starbucks was the big story recently because they were running out of ingredients and didn’t have access to things that they needed for their drinks. The global economy has become really dependent on this just-in-time approach to life, it’s almost become an ideology. I think resilience would be not being dependent on [things being] just in time, even though that would have its own costs built into it.       It also seems like there’s an issue of precedence. There are people in power who don’t want to set up a dynamic in which they help another country out of a dire situation because I think we all know, even if we don’t want to admit it, that more dire situations are certainly on the way. Which brings me to nuclear waste . . . [Laughter]  Your reporting on nuclear waste was an unsettling illustration of how difficult it is to safeguard against human error. How did you arrive at the subject of geologic disposal? GM: What we wanted to do was look at the outer limits of isolation technology in terms of how we think of threats and dangerous material, as well as how we try to contain it. There are so many similarities between the burial of nuclear waste and some of the protocols that exist for quarantine and high-level isolation units in hospitals. There were many similarities we saw between how Ebola patients would be treated in London and the Royal Free Hospital and how the nuclear waste isolation pilot plant in New Mexico is run, in terms of circulation, filtration, and air ventilation. When you get into nuclear industry, these interesting similarities are scaled-up dramatically, and what we wanted to look at was how we handle something that has a danger that is far in excess of an individual human life, if not the lifespan of human civilization itself. How do we figure, model, confront, and build for that?  That led us into nuclear waste as a way of looking at containment, isolation, and, to a certain extent, quarantine vis-à-vis taking something dangerous out of society and placing it elsewhere in a kind of sacrifice zone. We thought that there would be lessons to learn from that; that we could look at the way that systems are designed for long-term, if not permanent, isolation and see how both metaphorically and literally those same systems might inform a quarantine station design or the design of a hospital.  NT: The second half of the book, where we look at planetary quarantine and agricultural quarantine and nuclear waste isolation, we thought that by looking at how we implement these protocols in different fields that we could get perspective on things that are harder to extrapolate when you’re talking about just quarantining humans. When the consequences are existential, you have to approach risk differently. You can’t approach it in terms of likelihood, you have to approach it in terms of its consequences. Looking at nuclear waste isolation helped us pull out larger threads that apply to quarantine and isolation as a whole. GM: One of those things is the challenge of communicating risk to future generations. That’s something we saw throughout the history of quarantine and even during COVID-19 where there was a struggle to communicate to people that this is actually dangerous, a real virus that should be avoided. People don’t always believe the information and they may not trust the authority that’s communicating it. In the history of quarantine, we saw that houses being marked as dangerous or under quarantine were specifically targeted by criminals and burglars as places to break in and steal items because those were seen as unprotected houses where things could be taken. In other words, the warnings weren’t heeded even then, so there’s a challenge to communicate over huge spans of time that a nuclear waste site is in fact a place to avoid, that the danger is real and the risk is not exaggerated. That was a major aspect not just of the nuclear waste chapters, but also just the entire challenge of communicating the need to quarantine.  This last question is very much an existential one: Until Proven Safe claims that there’s an increased likelihood of quarantine in the future. Generally speaking, how optimistic do either of you feel about our ability to handle the crises that await us?  GM: Ooph. I guess I’d say, for me, there are at least two answers to that question. In terms of the prognosis that we’re going to quarantine more, not less, in the future, I definitely stand by that. If we take the time to learn from this pandemic and to learn where and how quarantine worked or failed, then we can use quarantine as a very simple spatial power to address disease mitigation and to prevent the next pandemic from being as bad as it could be. Quarantine has a reputation for political abuse and for being ominous and dystopian, but at heart it’s just an unbelievably simple form of personal responsibility that says we’re going to take some time apart and ensure that we’re not a danger to one another. I’m optimistic that if we’re able to make quarantine work as a tool then it will become appreciated for what it is as opposed to feared. The other question I think is just a temperament question: am I optimistic about our ability to address challenges? Nicky and I kind of swap back and forth between who’s the doomsday foreteller here, but I would say that I am not optimistic at all that we're able to address these larger problems as a civilization or as nation-states or even as a species. Again, I think that’s a temperament question rather than a rational, political assessment of where we are. I would say there are many larger problems than COVID-19; there are many diseases that are much more fatal and dangerous; there are other problems like climate change that we simply are not addressing right now, and those stand out to me. But Nicky, what do you think? NT: I see no evidence that society at large has learned from pandemics past. Individuals have; again, Dr. Martin Cetron at the CDC did a detailed study of what had worked and not worked in quarantines past to come up with new federal quarantine regulations that do all the things that we need to do to make quarantine work. It’s just that they weren’t implemented at scale—we were in lockdown deliberately, not quarantined, and we didn't follow the CDC playbook. So, individuals can learn, but whether we as a society can learn, I see no evidence that that’s been the case in the past, therefore I am not optimistic we will. We need to; we need quarantine. We’re going to use it again, as Geoff said. We need to redesign it so that it works better next time, and if I had to put money on it I would say we’re not going to. I would really like to be wrong.
Digitizing Maxi Cohen’s Legacy

What does it take to preserve an independent filmmaker’s oeuvre?

In 1986, seven female independent filmmakers from five different countries came together to interpret the seven deadly sins for a film called Seven Women, Seven Sins. In preparation for filming Anger, New York-based filmmaker Maxi Cohen placed an advert in The Village Voice that read, “ANGRY ? ? ? ? WHAT MAKES YOU ANGRY? I'M MAKING A FILM ABOUT ANGER. PLEASE CALL 976-5757.” She made a second casting call on a local radio station. The host said, “I think you picked the right city. New York is the anger capital of the world.” Cohen interviewed her ad respondents on BETA-SP, a then cutting-edge Sony camcorder, resulting in a collection of narrated traumas: a young woman with white-blonde curls recites the details of being raped and, years later, stabbed, expressing a wish that all the evil in the world be concentrated on her attacker; a couple who loathe each other but can’t afford to stop living together form a wall of hateful noise; a man in sunglasses recounts murdering four people. The most remarkable aspect of these interviews is the accepting calmness in Cohen's voice. “I do feel like I speak to people's higher selves, and hope that I create a safe space so that they can honestly reveal them,” she says. “When you see a documentary, sometimes it's hard to realize that it's just as much about the filmmaker. Somebody else might get different responses or not as much openness. It's my nature that makes people feel comfortable and safe and open.” She is not intimidated by bearing witness to these raw stories. Cohen’s flair for gathering confessions from everyday people is a constant in her films. Second Grade Dreams (1983) is, literally, a collection of seven-year-olds relaying their dreams. Intimate Interviews: Sex in Less Than Two Minutes (1984) features women talking about sex. Las Vegas: Last Oasis in America (1982) brings together a patchwork of eccentric Vegas characters, including kids with sage insights on gambling. Birty: Godmother of Watts (1994) is a moving portrait of a Black 50-something foster mother in Los Angeles who has suffered several lifetimes worth of state-inflicted losses to her family, yet persists in caring for the vulnerable, including two drug-addicted babies. Much of Cohen’s work blurs the line between fiction and documentary. In Boney (1982), Cohen's long-time collaborator, and a spoken-word artist in his own right, Joel Gold, improvises an outsize character walking the streets of New York. The Edge of Life (1984) is metafiction chronicling a day in the life of a video artist with a striking resemblance to Cohen, filmed in her own SoHo studio. How Much Is Really True? (1989) features Cohen herself as one in a group of four women who take a trip to the beach. Sometimes Cohen invites members of the public to enact her filmmaking ideals. In South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices (1994), she gives cameras to members of the Black, Latino, and Korean communities who lived and worked in the areas most affected by the 1992 LA riots sparked by the police killing of Rodney King, a Black man. The camerapeople embed themselves within their own communities and the combined footage is a panoramic people’s history of a major moment in US civil unrest. The Belgian auteur Chantal Akerman also contributed to Seven Women, Seven Sins (she was Sloth). Akerman’s death in 2015 brought on retrospectives that included screenings of the film, which, in turn, led to renewed interest in Maxi Cohen's body of work. The majority of Cohen’s films had been made using magnetic video, a medium that formed the basis of grassroots political and artistic filmmaking from the ’60s until the ’90s but is now more or less obsolete. “We had been asked by curators to do this retrospective of all my work and it really wasn't available,” says Cohen. Established filmmakers are more likely to have the financial means or machinery in place to preserve their work for rediscovery and retrospective. Artists putting out work on niche formats, who are relatively unknown, are more likely to lose it to the whirligig of life. The possibility of a legacy is weighted towards those whose interests dovetail with market forces at a crucial moment in their creativity. Is it up to an individual to try to secure their legacy? Or must they succumb to luck and collective impulse, as unfairly stacked towards the ruling classes as these forces tend to be? How can artists from more disadvantaged backgrounds give their work the best chance of survival? *** Cohen has been interested in the arts since her stage debut, at age two, as a rabbit in a local theatre production. In her early years, she tried dancing, the piano (“but my mother told me I was tone-deaf”), and painting. “The truth is, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a painter. I thought, ‘If I learn to animate, I can paint.’ So I went to New York University to do animation. I thought they had animation classes. But they didn't.” A lack of animation classes wasn’t the only issue Cohen had to contend with. NYU was a lonely place to be in the late ’60s for a woman trying to figure out her creative path in a sea of men. On the surface, she had arrived at an aspirational location, for the school was scattered in stardust. Martin Scorsese taught classes and Oliver Stone was often around. These trappings belied the rampant misogyny which meant that Cohen was constantly second-guessed by the men in the film department. As she puts it: “The guys who ran the equipment all knew better than you did.” Cohen’s driving force was not a particular career role, but the expression of ideas. So when her class was given an assignment to make a three-minute film about how to open a door, she was unimpressed. “I thought that was the stupidest assignment. Instead, I raised some money and made a film about Black Jews who were hiding in the pine barrens of New Jersey, who had escaped the anti-Semitism in the ghetto of Philadelphia. I thought, ‘Nobody's made a film about them. That's much more interesting than how to open a door.’” Due to the steamrolling nature of the men in the film department, this project was subject to interference. “One of the guys in the film department who handed out the film cameras said, ‘Let me come shoot it for you,’ and he was just horrible to work with. He took over and then most of the film was light-struck.” This patronizing attitude was everywhere. Haig Manoogian (to whom Martin Scorsese dedicated Raging Bull) told her that women had no place as filmmakers and that she should probably leave school because “the best I could become was an editor, and the best grade I could get was a C.” Nonetheless, she kept plugging away. “I tried to take as much advantage of the situation to discover what it was that I wanted to do. I had to figure out why I was there. I knew that I wanted to make this film about my father because he was a bigger-than-life character. That was the way I reasoned being in film school.” The film about her father became Joe and Maxi. It was released as a documentary feature in 1978, immediately stirring both praise and controversy and securing a cult prestige that causes it to crop up in repertory programmes to this day. Mainly shot on 16mm when Cohen was 23, eight months after her mother died from cancer, it’s framed narratively as a way to bond with her dad, Joe, after years of estrangement. Theirs had been an inappropriate relationship when she was an adolescent, involving sexual behaviour and beatings. She was scared, but she never stopped loving him. Joe and Maxi is a casually shocking chronicle of a dynamic that veers between touching and queasy. The vulnerability that Cohen would later inspire in her interviewees finds precedence in her own emotional nakedness before the camera's gaze. She is unafraid to show herself stunned into silence by the tsunami that is Joe. Formal rather than filmic influences set the tone of the documentary. Cohen learnt her craft through working on magnetic media, where she says that editing meant literally cutting then scotch-taping film back together. To avoid too much of this, she developed a habit of shooting in long takes. “Years later I saw Faces. John Cassavetes could have influenced me but I hadn’t seen him at the time,” she says. When Joe and Maxi was released, documentaries tended to be contrived around a pose of objectivity. As Cohen recalls, “Somebody would be shooting and you would have a narrator explaining what you saw or interviewing someone. My favourite accolade for Joe and Maxi came when it was played in LA. Some guy came up to me and said, ‘Who played your father?’ It was so real, he thought it was fiction! The intimacy and this way of working was instinctive. When I made video, the camera was an extension of my hand and my mind. A lot of people have told me over the years that Joe and Maxi influenced them, filmmakers who are very well known and who are much more successful than I am. . . .I don't know if I should say this but Michael Moore once said that to me, and Judy Helfand and Michel Negroponte.” *** Magnetic media marked a revolutionary departure from earlier television cameras, which were so heavy that vehicles had to transport them. In 1967, Sony released the Portapak, a two-piece set-up composed of a video camera connected to a tape recorder, both small and light enough for one person to carry around. It used magnetic tape, as did the later iterations that Cohen used: a one-inch open reel and 3/4-inch U-matic. (Although by 1994, she had upgraded to digital. Birty: Godmother of Watts and South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices were shot on D2, a digital video camera.) While Cohen was finding her filmmaking legs, so too were people from different subcultures. The freedom that magnetic video offered to shoot one’s community away from establishment red tape and systemic homophobia made it a form that appealed to collectives like Queer Blue Light, a non-profit organization that operated from 1971 to 1974 capturing vignettes of gay life in San Francisco. “You weren't going to be able to get a studio television camera that weighs 400 pounds and commercial people weren't going to be interested in your subculture,” says J. Vincent Raines, who spent the years between 2000 and 2008 volunteering for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, a museum and archive of materials and knowledge promoting understanding of LGBTQ+ history, arts, and culture. He says that magnetic media opened up possibilities for his community. “It was more accessible. In many cases, it was cheaper; it was reusable; it didn't need to be sent away to someone else to process. So if you were dealing with material that was sensitive in some way, you didn't have to involve a third party. It was more easily shared, it was more easily and cheaply duplicated than, say, a film.” Over eight years, Raines digitized thousands of hours of audio and video from the GLBT Historical Society’s archive of film and magnetic media. “This was all material that was sitting in boxes on a shelf somewhere for decades,” he tells me. “I found it fascinating to bring this material back to life. A doorstop-looking reel of tape could have images and sounds and bring you back to another time to meet people who, in many cases, are long gone.” His descriptions of the works channel the energy of the ’70s gay counterculture. Raines digitized videos by Queer Blue Light shot on EAIJ-1, a one-inch open-reel videotape that came out in 1969. “They ran around the Castro District in San Francisco taping various events, including the second or third Castro Street Fair in 1976. Harvey Milk pops up in one spot.” Then there are more personal scenes. “Not only were they out on the street, there were a few tapes where they're just goofing around sitting in someone's living room, so there's insight into more of the interior lives.” The biggest collection he worked on was shot on U-matic, “you know, the chunky three-quarter-inch videotapes,” by a man with a home-video business who recorded everything from leather and drag pageants—Mr. Leather and Miss Continental—in his native Chicago, to fundraisers and talent shows in San Francisco. “That was just an enormous collection,” says Raines. “What was poignant is that, towards the end of it, there were tapes made by his partner after he had died of HIV. A lot of the challenge working with that archive is much of the material came in a chaotic fashion and out of order as people died during that plague [the AIDS epidemic]. Often the family, or whoever was trying to get rid of a lot of property, would just throw them in boxes and donate them.” All the work that Raines digitized remains held at the GLBT Historical Society archive, and some, like “The Gay Life,” a radio show made on audiotapes, is publicly available to listen to online. The counterculture of the late ’60s and ’70s existed along identity lines, but also, notably, along anti-establishment lines. We need only hark back to images of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, grinning under a walrus moustache as he rides a motorbike through the desert to the sound of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild,” to know the type. Michael Shamberg has been a Hollywood producer since 1980 with big-boy credits like Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich, and Contagion to his name. In another era, he was a part of the New York video counterculture, and in 1970 co-founded the Raindance Corporation, an “alternative culture thinktank,” with Frank Gillette (a social activist and video artist), Paul Ryan (a former research assistant to Marshall McLuhan), Louis Jaffe (a musician and journalist with money to invest), and Marco Vassi (Gillette’s friend who went on to become a renowned erotic novelist). A journalist by trade, Shamberg met Gillette while covering a video art show and, after spending some time hanging out with artists, realized the potential of video art and public-access television. Switched on by a medium he felt had the potential to be a great social equalizer, he quit his staff job at Time Life. “I was young and didn't need much money and just felt it was a valid form of expression.” Raindance put out a video art journal called Radical Software that brought Shamberg into contact with an ever-greater network of video artists. For Shamberg, the most compelling element of magnetic media was rooted in his journalistic impulse to document events freely. In 1972 he co-founded TVTV, a video collective that made documentaries using guerilla techniques, with Allen Rucker, Tom Weinberg, Hudson Marquez, and Megan Williams. “The first things we did were the political conventions in 1972. I have to laugh because myself and my partner, Allen Rucker, we'd go to the White House every day with long hair and press credentials.” Shamberg was filming in Steven Spielberg's office when he didn't get nominated for Jaws, and the extremely charming response can be found on YouTube. He says this was a time when even well-known directors were less guarded. “There were no publicists to say, ‘No.’ Everything you got was much more authentic. Whereas now, people are both guarded and filtered or, conversely, with social media they're simply doing it for the camera.” An ex-boyfriend introduced Cohen to magnetic video and it immediately impressed her as free from the hierarchies and misogyny of traditional filmmaking. She went on to do a master’s at NYU where she became friends with other video artists fuelled by the same ideals as Shamberg and his collective. “We were guerrilla TV-makers, all seeing video as a political tool. We could play and go anywhere and experiment. It was the beginning, so nobody knew more than anybody else. There was a level of equality between men and women and there was a kind of freedom about it.” *** As video artists were finding their way forward, a new era of public-access television was dawning in America. Previously, there had been only three television networks: CBS, NBC, and Public Television. In 1969, the government mandated that two channels be given to the general public to create their own programming. Public-access television decentralized the means of production and freed broadcasters from having to abide by studio production values, tone, and equipment. Both Cohen and Shamberg say this foreshadowed how smartphones and social media have blown open citizen journalism today. The truth of this parallel is evidenced by the extraordinary social impact of Darnella Frazier, who had the presence of mind and fortitude to record on her phone the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, which sparked an explosion of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and led to Chauvin’s eventual conviction and sentencing. Indeed, filming on smartphones has become a ubiquitous way for non-white Americans to document the racism they experience and witness, making it harder for wider society to turn a blind eye and, sometimes, mobilizing real change. Back in the early ’70s, Shamberg’s work with the Raindance Corporation in documentary videos overlapped with public-access television to the point that he wrote a book, Guerrilla Television, in 1971, solidifying the values central to both mediums. “I look back on it now and it was so jargony it's a little bit embarrassing, [but] it was a manifesto about democratizing television. The idea of a manifesto is that for a new media or art form, historically, like with Dadaism, somebody is always going to write about it. So I'm proud of it as a manifesto. It summed up a lot of ideas.” In Guerilla Television, Shamberg writes, “The inherent potential of information technology can restore democracy in America if people will become skilled with information tools.” Like Cohen, he was influenced by the idea of new technology for social change, a movement spearheaded in America by Red Burns and George C. Stoney, the latter carrying the epithet “the father of public-access television.” Cohen recalls speaking alongside Shamberg on a ’70s panel about programming hosted by the National Cable Television Association. “When I started out in video, there were a handful of people across the country and we all knew each other. The people who were part of TVTV are like my closest friends,” she says, citing projects with TVTV participants Nancy Cain, Skip Blumberg, Elan Soltes, and Wendy Appel, who co-produced Cohen’s South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices. Fresh from graduating with her master’s in 1971, Cohen instantly found work creating public-access television in Cape May, a small town in New Jersey with a population of 5,000. Her local community series was called Are You There? “I showed up and taught people in town how to make television. I had an open workshop. I did a TV show once a week and played the videotapes that the public made. I said, ‘Well, if you want to respond, just call me up and I'll come make a video with you.’” The impact of Cohen’s work in Cape May was historical, causing her to butt heads with the town’s mayor. “A dialogue happened in this town and as a result, for the first time in 100 years, a Democratic mayor got elected. [Public-access television] changed the social, economic, and cultural trajectory of that town forever.” After a year in Cape May, Cohen returned to New York where she worked as director of the Video Access Center, part of the Alternate Media Centre (AMC). This was the first public-access facility in the United States, set up by Red Burns and George C. Stoney. The AMC trained thousands of laypeople in the tools of video production. After another year, Cohen set up video arts distribution at Electronic Arts Intermix, putting out work by the likes of Tony Oursler and Bill Viola, “all the people who were using video as art.” Oursler and Viola were pioneering multimedia artists at the time and have gone on to have prolific, award-winning careers, exhibiting work to this day. Cohen recounts AMC alumni recording everything from homophobic police officers talking to members of the gay community to Salvador Dali just kicking back; from Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshops to Allen Ginsberg in his tiny apartment in the East Village; from the 1974 Democratic Convention to Yoko Ono talking cosmic feminism in her white room at The Dakota. Cohen wore many hats in these scenarios, enabling others to make work, but also shooting her own stuff. It was a time when the fruitfulness and momentum of making videos far outweighed thoughts of storage and archiving. *** In 2019, Matthew Hoffman, a young Canadian studying for a master’s at NYU in Moving Image Archive and Preservation, was doing a collection management assignment that involved a variety of possible tasks, some purely organizational, some involving collaborations with artists. “We were essentially given a long list of people we could request to work with in a top-three order. I looked into Maxi's work and started reading about Joe and Maxi; it sounded like everything I've ever wanted to see in a documentary film. I watched it and thought that it was one of the best documentaries of that era, as important as anything the Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) were doing in the ’70s. I was shocked by how raw it was.” Hoffman was moved. “When I came to class, I said, ‘Look everybody, I have never gotten my first choice for anything over the last year and a half, and you all know that, so I want to do the Maxi Cohen collection. Does anyone have issues with that?’ Everyone said ‘No’ and then I turned to the professor and said, ‘Okay, so that's what we're going to do.’ I was very adamant.” Over the course of the collection management assignment, Hoffman spent quality time at Cohen’s studio in SoHo, New York going over records of her archives. He was excited to see that she still owned the master materials of films shot on magnetic video. “It leaves this great window open for preservation that's timely.” He created a list of Cohen’s video works, noting which had yet to be preserved, considering both the films and the surviving recordings from Cape May and the AMC. The non-film works felt too sprawling for a student project. “It was expansive and I don't know if I was ready for that quite yet.” There was much to choose from, which “speaks to the fact that there's so much to preserve with Maxi and with so many artists. If only those resources were readily available because it is not only a financial commitment but a time commitment. It's amazing how much there is to be done.” Hoffman’s anxieties about the scarcity of preservation resources were born out in the experience of Raines. He relays an illustrative experience with buying and selling a time-base corrector that he first bought on eBay for a little more than $100 and then auctioned off a few years later. “I put it up with a really low opening price and it sold for almost $800. So, obviously, in that amount of time, they had become scarcer and grew in demand.” For his thesis project, Hoffman decided to digitize eight films—one feature, South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices, and seven shorts: Second Grade Dreams, Intimate Interviews: Sex in Less Than Two Minutes, Las Vegas: Last Oasis in America, Birty: Godmother of Watts, Boney, The Edge of Life, and How Much Is Really True? He hired a vendor (Mercer Media in Long Island) based on affordability and the ability to meet the required technical specifications; he also observed and assisted in the digitization process. When the video files were delivered, Hoffman performed quality control and, once satisfied, ensured that both the newly digitized works and the magnetic media masters were stored according to best practice. “How lucky can I be?” was Cohen’s reaction. For several years, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had shown interest in paying for a 4K restoration of Joe and Maxi. Hoffman and Cohen seized the idea of using the restoration as a hook for a retrospective featuring her newly digitized films. Hoffman collected the digitized files on March 9, 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global pandemic on March 11. When Cohen and I first talked in August 2020, well into the COVID-19 pandemic, MoMA had gone quiet. “Communication has only gone in one direction. Whatever plan was in place may no longer be in place,” said Cohen, deluged with other projects but keeping a half-hopeful, half-mournful eye on the horizon. So, then what? *** Legacy is a crushingly heavy idea that requires all logistical dominoes to be in a row. Without the Raineses and Hoffmans of this world, less mainstream and more obscure work would be as good as extinct. But what about the people who do not have access to the means of production in the first place? Even though magnetic media was more accessible than other forms, its heyday wasn’t a lost Eden powered by equal opportunity. “Let's face it, even back in the ’70s and ’80s, getting this equipment for most people required at least a certain income, unless someone was fortunate [enough] to get it through school or a friend,” says Raines. “Much of the material we have from the ’70s and ’80s is by men, and white men in particular, so it didn't completely open the door to everybody. There are a lot of barriers to having your expression preserved and your legacy carried forward, especially in this realm where you don't have a studio and a machine and a patriarchy behind you.” Still, without the patriarchy behind her, Cohen managed to make the work, but its preservation was down to Lady Luck visiting in the form of Hoffman’s university assignment. This is not a lottery that many disenfranchised creators tend to win. Shamberg agrees with Raines that the video art scene, as he knew it, did not include the widest demographics. Having used the term “marginalized” to explain how his peers in the counterculture identified, he is keen to stress that it had a different meaning then. “We were a bunch of, basically, white people wanting to express ourselves about the culture. We were hardly oppressed the same way that women, Black people, and minorities are.” He is turned on by the possibilities of the present moment and doesn’t seem remotely nostalgic. “The rebellions that are happening now for political and media power have much more scale and weight to them than what we did. We were probably ahead of our times in seizing the means of production, but the dynamic of technological exploration continues to today.” Shamberg has made his peace with not having a legacy: “I don't think you can look at me like some really good Black filmmaker [such as] Ava DuVernay, or [someone like] Quentin Tarantino, and say, ‘Well, there's a Michael Shamberg legacy.’ The abilities and skills brought to mounting those films are probably worthy of recognition, but not me personally.” Instead, his focus is on keeping on moving. “I’m 77 and I’m just going to keep working as long as I can, looking for what's new.” It’s perhaps easier to shrug off the idea of legacy when your works remain accessible. Shamberg doffs his cap to Pacific Film Archives, who have taken his TVTV collective’s archive into storage. Meanwhile, there are artists whose work disappeared before anyone even knew to save it. There will always be talented people who are locked out of the dominant technological platforms, who have not been brought up to believe that their voices have value. In such conditions—lacking access to technology and a support network—many also lack the confidence to push their work forward publicly and end up destroying it, either actively or through atrophy. As Raines says, “That happens so frequently with artists. It was so easy to do in haste with magnetic media, to just record over it or erase it, whereas, if you've made a film, you have to go to the trouble of burning it. People don't understand the value of what they have in the moment.” A normal way of working on video involved recording new footage over existing tapes, meaning that a lot of Cohen’s material from the AMC years has been lost. Raines talks about the same phenomenon with regard to the Queer Blue Light collective: “At some point, one of the guys reused tapes to record Chinese lessons, probably for pay, and recorded over who knows what. I heard that they had a whole tape of Harvey Milk practising political or campaign speeches and I'm pretty sure they recorded over it. So that's the peril of magnetic media. What's priceless in the future, you don't know; you might record over it.” As towering Australian goddess Nicole Kidman said on the Marc Marron podcast WTF, “I give blood and then the interesting thing is to see the reaction.” Artists offer something that makes them vulnerable—and subject to a private backlash of self-questioning and doubt. Perhaps a way to reduce instances of work being lost is to prioritize artistic communities over individual stardom and teach creators that they are not best placed to judge their own work. If all creators had a network of cheerleaders, maybe some wouldn’t have their chance of a legacy strangled at birth. The problem, as ’twas ever thus, is that potential profitability is mistaken for intrinsic value. No matter how many cautionary tales exist of great artists like Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, who laboured in obscurity for their lifetimes only to gain an enduring legacy after death, the comfort of being recognized by a large number of people—and their wallets—in the here and now fogs up a more existential awareness that this moment will be washed away by future ones and no one knows what works will be left standing. There is, of course, the real and pressing need that we all have to survive by selling our skills. While the industrial fight for fair pay will never end as long as bad-faith operators, per Oscar Wilde’s definition of “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing,” wield exploitative pay practices, it is vital that artists resist this kind of cynicism on an individual level. Most creative people, understandably, want to earn a living from monetizing their art, yet struggling to do so does not invalidate the art or preclude its potential for finding an audience at a later date. *** How important is it that a work lives in public? Does it still have value if it doesn’t connect with a large audience, or has no audience at all? Some idealists believe in art for art’s sake. That is to say, something profound happens in private when you work on your art. I think about the day I spent as a volunteer art critic for The Koestler Trust, reading a binder of poems by prisoners identified only by their serial numbers. These poems reckoned with primal emotions and experiences: love, death, suffering. They would never bring their authors fame or fortune, or even recognition, yet by putting words to their feelings, something important had already happened in their lives. But for many artists, creation stems from wanting to communicate something to leave behind. For that possibility to exist, the work must exist. Dead formats tell no tales. *** Since the pandemic hit, Cohen has worked alone out of her studio in SoHo on a variety of projects, without her usual producer, assistant, and interns. There is a book, a film she’s been gathering material on for 40 years (“a sequel to Joe and Maxi”), a feature documentary on ayahuasca, a feature documentary that arose from her filming evicted artists in her SoHo neighbourhood breaking into a fancy hotel, and an art installation on “the movement in water,” created in connection with the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s Design Science Studio who gave her an award in service of imagining a world that works for everyone. “It’s really exciting because you’re working with a lot of futurists and people who are highly optimistic. You see the renaissance—or the regenaissance—below the surface of all this turmoil, and all this male, right-wing domination, trying to play itself out.” When we speak again a few months later, in January 2021, it’s all systems go, and she is thriving. “I have a film editor who’s edited all of Gus Van Sant’s films. I’m in a cyber community.” What’s more, to the delight of Hoffman, who is only hearing this news on our call, MoMA has come through with the digital restoration. “Seeing Joe and Maxi made me really want to put on this epilogue,” says Cohen, referring to the eight films digitized by Hoffman. Seven Women, Seven Sins is the other of her films out in the world, anchoring her in the consciousness of certain industry gatekeepers. She tells herself to make a note to reach out to the curators in Italy and Belgium who wanted to host retrospectives after Chantal Akerman died and before her newly digitized canon existed. On our first call, reference had also been made to a streaming platform interested in buying South Central Los Angeles: Inside Voices, as its subject spoke to the Black Lives Matter movement. “I never heard from them actually,” says Cohen. “I don't know if I stayed on them enough. I should really pursue them. I'll make a note. I have, like, lists and lists of things I have to do.” Papers rustle over the line. I say that maybe she has enough on the go, but no. “It would be nice for the film to have a home.” Finding homes for all the newly digitized works is a Sisyphean task, add to this the fact that there is so much work yet to be digitized from Cohen’s time in Cape May and at the AMC. Much has been lost or recorded over, but stray treasures abound, even as their ripeness for preservation is risked with every passing day. Cohen has held onto the Yoko Ono video from her AMC days, which Hoffman finds thrilling. “I'm ready to get the Yoko Ono transferred right now!” Does she feel like she gets enough credit for the trailblazing work she did? “Well, that's so sweet that you're writing and that Matt is doing this because the truth is that I've never really been out there. I don't brag, I'm a modest person, but in having these discussions I see that I did make a real imprint on the cultures. So I appreciate all of this. None of us want to go and be forgotten.”
‘It’s Very Easy to Imagine a Dystopia’: An Interview with Joss Lake

Talking to the author of Future Feeling about letting characters carry on in literary reality, counterbalancing angst and humor, and the interconnectedness of queer relationships.

Future Feeling (Soft Skull Press), Joss Lake’s debut novel, is a delightfully queer book. Penfield R. Henderson, the novel’s narrator, is a trans man living in a near-future Brooklyn in which social media is still a powerful force but also cellphones have hologram capability and New York City’s subway cars scan their passengers’ cumulative emotional state and change colors accordingly, like a public mood ring. Pen is in a lull in his life at the start of the narrative: he’s a dog-walker for those wealthier than him, he’s got a casual sex thing going on with a minor celebrity, and he has a love-hate parasocial relationship with Aiden, a trans social media influencer with perfect pecs and a seemingly serene soul. When the hate part of the love-hate gets a bit too overwhelming, Pen enlists his roommates—one a witch, the other a hacker—and attempts to hex Aiden. Instead, the hex ends up affecting a total stranger, Blithe, a transracially adopted trans man in California, who plummets into a sudden, deep depression. In this near-future world, queers in distress aren’t left to their own devices; they’re assisted, in more or less direct ways, by a kind of queer caretaking body, the Rhiz (pronounced like the word rise), whose name gestures at “mycorrhiza,” the mutual symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants—a kind of mutual aid, if you will. The Rhiz sees fit to direct Pen and Aiden to figure out, together, how to help Blithe. But this is, as I said, a very queer book, and these characters’ trajectories aren’t particularly linear or predictable, making Future Feeling all the more fun to read as its surprises, anxieties, and hilarities unfold alongside each other unexpectedly. I spoke to Joss Lake over Zoom about the novel’s structure, world, and incredible narrative voice. This interview has been edited and condensed. Ilana Masad: About halfway through the novel I realized that even though Pen, our narrator, is in his early thirties, he narrative is a kind of coming of age. In fact, that’s the case for all three of the trans men whose lives Future Feeling focuses on. What interested you about this post-transition, post-coming out time in Pen, Aiden and Blithe’s lives? Joss Lake: I think what interested me was the way that Pen had transitioned but was still in this very teenage, angsty mindset. And I was interested in this queer non-linearity of life phases. He's at a point in time where maybe some of his cis “well-adjusted” friends are having children or moving up in their careers, but he's sort of moving through puberty and then getting to a point where he's like, What is it that I actually want? [I was] playing around with disrupting these developmental milestones, with [the question of], like, what does help people move through these stages? How do you hold yourself together when maybe you're doing things out of order? Maybe you know, intellectually, that you can do something at any age, but emotionally it feels very much like, Oh, I'm stuck, I'm behind, but also I'm just getting a chance to do X, Y, and Z. For Blithe—because of the hex, but potentially this could have happened anyway—he’s just starting to confront all of this emotional turmoil and trauma for the first time. So his career was in a good place, but he’s now sort of stepping off onto another path. And then we have Aiden who is coming to terms with the limitations of his role as an influencer and is trying to conform to some social messaging and find some sense of security. One of your blurbers, Jordy Rosenberg, wrote that this book “accomplishes that rare and difficult goal: the conversion of anxiety into laughter.” Your narrator, Pen, is an extremely anxious person. He’s not always likeable—although he’s often extremely relatable, TBH—and he messes up plenty. But he’s also hilarious, and he’s able to poke fun at himself and his anxiety. How did you develop Pen’s beautifully unique voice? It was a long process, and originally, in earlier drafts, I didn't necessarily know that he would evolve [as a character]. I'd taken this class in grad school on the hysterical male and I kind of hated most of what we read. It felt like you're sort of trapped inside these very fragile cis male narrators, and there's no movement—you're just supposed to either find humor in their fumbling around or identify with them if there's something about them that's relatable, but there's no particular movement. At first, I thought I could create a hysterical trans masculine narrator, and that would be subversive in itself. It was fun to do that, but I was like, This feels very limiting. And I don't think it's actually that subversive to have a white trans hysterical narrator just spinning off in his head. I don't know that I would really care to read that, after a certain point. So I started to think, what if this narrator has all this fragility and this messy way of relating to people, and I also send him on a journey? I also wanted to have other characters give him feedback and elevate other voices; I didn't want people to be trapped in his consciousness. I wanted them to have all these ways of relating to other characters and other characters’ perspectives rubbing up against his so that he's not our elevated, picaresque hero. In some ways he is, but he has all these other elements and people that can balance him out. There was this question of what does move someone out of deep angst and [out of] taking themselves too seriously when they are stuck in a dark place? One thing that very organically arose was humor. Because the more he dug into, like, my life is horrible, I live in this whatever apartment in Ridgewood and I just walk people's dogs, the more heavy it felt. So there was a lot of counterbalancing: I'm going to counterbalance this heavy angst with humor, I'm going to counterbalance zooming in too far on him with other people coming in to add some breathing room. I think another factor was that I wrote a fairly serious, experimental, historical fiction novel, and then a memoir in the third person about transitioning, and it was very dark. I couldn't get them published. And then I started doing The Artist's Way [practice] where you write three pages every morning without thinking and what came out was basically Pen's narrative voice. I was sort of surprised that that was spinning around inside of me, but it was pragmatic to go with it. I wasn't thinking very intellectually about it—it was just some part of me that I hadn't really thought about or explored. Would you tell me a bit about how you arrived at the concept of the Rhiz—this officialization of the unofficial queer underground network that anyone who's queer has (hopefully) had some kind of contact with? It came out of a blend of personal experience and sort of imagining new possibilities. [In terms of] personal experience, just thinking about the interconnectedness of queer relationships, and using the internet in relating to queer folks, and the way you can find housing and all sorts of things just from knowing different people, and that being a kind of alternate structure—with its own problems—to capitalist, hierarchical ways of maneuvering. The Rhiz also came out of trying to come to terms with the internet and feeling, myself, very depleted by the internet and social media, but also wanting to approach it neutrally. The internet can obviously have really negative effects and can also have positive effects, so [I was] thinking about it more generatively as a structure that is linking things together and imagining an underground structure that is parallel to the internet and is very relational. Because [the book] is set in the near future, and there are a lot of futuristic technological factors, I wanted—and I didn't have a ton of space to do this—but I wanted to gesture at the queer past, so that it wasn't like these characters are existing in a vacuum. I did want there to be a sense—or at least a way to mark—that generations of queer folks have been working together for various forms of liberation. I also wanted to build in a sense of vastness, so it wasn't like Pen’s life or Blithe’s or Aiden’s is the end all, be all of queer existence. I did have a lot of fun building out the Rhiz. At first I wanted it to be a little more nefarious, like maybe there’s something sinister about it. But in a way it felt more subversive to have elements of a sort of utopia, because, to me, it's very easy to imagine a dystopia. The world that the book is set in is just far enough in the future to include some technology we don't have, but it's near enough that it's very recognizably our own late-stage capitalism, social media influencer, climate disaster-filled world. So I was wondering what did setting the book a bit in the future allow you to achieve? Did it feel hopeful or bleakly realistic to preserve many of our contemporary social anxieties and ruptures in this future space? I think putting it in the future helped me get a little imaginative distance. Setting it in the present, I would have felt more of a pressure to make things more recognizable. I mean, obviously you could set something in the present and still have these imaginative flourishes, but setting it in the near future just felt more spacious. It also gave me space to write towards something. In my immediate present, as a person and as a writer, things just felt very stuck. And so I think the future—not even in terms of following our present socio-political reality a little bit further, but the future in a more expansive way—allowed me to be able to move around in some possibilities. I think originally, the idea was that by setting them in the future, I can take all these aspects of the present and turn up the volume on them so that the characters feel extra tense and squashed by these mediating elements, and then as I was writing and changing internally, it felt like I had some agency over determining what the future could be. So, again, not thinking in the way that we're receiving information from the media about what the future will be in ten years, but just as a writer—maybe I can decide in this narrative space what a future could be. Maybe the characters—in relation with each other, in relation to the Rhiz—maybe there is a way that they can evolve in some sense. I did think a lot about how to modulate this so it's not a sort of uncomplicated happy ending. I was sort of afraid that by making any gesture toward things not being hopeless, that people would just scoff at it, like, Oh, that’s so naïve, who gives their characters a happy ending? Your characters should remain unlikable and suffer until the end. But who does that literature serve? I want to talk about the structure of the book a little bit. It has a kind of prologue, and then three parts or chapters, and then we catch up to where the prologue left off. It also has these stories-within-the-story sections, where Pen is telling a story or putting together other people’s stories. Events bleed into one another at times, and the narrative focus allows itself to shift around. In other words, the structure of the book itself feels very queer to me, very much eschewing the familiarity of simple linearity. How did the structure of the book develop and what was your vision for what it would feel like to read? I really wanted the prologue to be a kind of flash forward. The way that Pen opens [the novel], with the hex and his frame of mine—I wanted the reader to be cued that he wasn’t going to remain the same from the beginning to the end. I was sort of afraid that opening with him hexing [Aiden] would signal that maybe the book is very much about social media, which to me was the starting point, but then I wasn’t particularly interested in delving too far into that. So I wanted to mark the complexity and the layers by having this sort of signpost at the beginning—we’re building up to something and this character and the plot of the novel is going to change a lot from the beginning to the end. In terms of the narrative structures—one generative way I was thinking about social media and the Rhiz is like: Okay, if social media companies have so much data about people, then in this sort of tilted world [of the novel], maybe there's a way that characters could use all the data to understand each other and to put together these narrative packages. How can we take surveillance culture and reshape it so that characters are taking on the role of writers? Part of Pen’s process of evolving is working through stories: the stories he tells about himself, the way that he's encountering other people's stories, the way he's relating to Aiden and what that's telling him about himself. So I definitely wanted room for there to be narrative play. Having written this more experimental historical fiction novel and this memoir, I really was thinking more about the reader and wanting them to feel like they're in this heightened or different or exaggerated world, but there's a layer of generosity in the humor and how characters are relating to each other. I wanted [the book] to be inviting, through color and language and things moving around. And I did want there to be a lot of narrative elements, not to overly complicate things, but just to keep shading in complexities. One of the novel’s main themes, I’d say, is the ways in which people—all people, mostly likely—project narratives onto people. This happens with the parasocial relationship Pen has with Aiden and the way he first gets to know Blithe through his data. But even as Pen learns more about who these people actually are (as opposed to his stories about them), there’s a sense that he can only go so far into their experiences. How did you decide how far to go into the various other characters’ stories and experiences, and what held you back from exploring some of them further? It was a really interesting tension for me, knowing that I didn't want to completely keep us close to Pen and also wanting to model not going too far into someone else's experience—which is not a hard and fast rule, but it felt, at the time, like an ethical decision to stay in Pen and gesture at the complexity of other people's lived experiences without trying to narrate them too far. Especially, I think, with Blithe, giving him in dialogue and plot a lot of room to be taking his own space—going off and looking at his past and his ties to the culture of his family of origin—without me narrating that too closely. So [I was] trying to gesture at Pen's own limitations, because he can access other people’s experience in some ways, but there's also this gulf. I think he's anxious enough that he would love to just find a way to close the gulf; in some fantasy, there'd be no tension if he could just understand everything and wouldn't have to deal with the messiness of other people's experiences. But I wanted to show that there are some things that Blithe has to do internally, or with people who are not Pen, that Pen just doesn't have access to. And that's just how I imagined a sort of ethics of having Pen work through different people's experiences and how he relates to them. My last question, fittingly, has to do with resolution. At one point in the book, Pen spends time reading crime novels because he “longed for every loose end of a story to get tied up.” (216) There are narrative threads that are resolved in this book, and there are threads that are clearly deliberately not. How do you feel, as a writer and a reader, about leaving loose ends of a story dangling and free? Maybe it’s just my TV watching habits but I do love these really tight structures, like in procedural crime shows where there’s a problem and then things happen and then it's tied up at the end. But in my actual writing and my way of experiencing reality, I wanted to have so many threads unspooling in the book that it would feel sort of artificial to have to neatly tie them up. So instead of looking at the end as Okay, how do I resolve everything that I opened up in the earlier sections, it was more like where can the characters end up that represents a new phase for them? Maybe in the new phase they don't necessarily get to wrap up all these other elements of their life. I wanted it to feel like they were continuing on in literary reality and that the place where the reader left them at the end was just starting the next part of their lives.
‘Oral History is Its Own Source’: An Interview with Sarah Schulman

The author of Let the Record Show on AIDS activism, gossip, and collective memory. 

Here’s what I would have done in pre-COVID times: I’d have left my apartment in Brooklyn and biked over the Manhattan Bridge, down Allen Street, past the Bluestockings book store, until I reached Sarah Schulman’s East Village apartment. The building is an old six-floor walkup, and it’s made up of a mix of old-timers who have been there for decades and inexplicably well-to-do twenty-somethings. Sarah would leave the door slightly ajar for me to enter and, after a warm hiiiiii come in, she’d remind me to take off my shoes. But today we talk on the phone. We’re talking about her new book, Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Let the Record Show is the culmination of nearly forty years of activism, journalism, nonfiction writing, fiction writing, filmmaking, and oral history work. The book synthesizes 188 interviews that Schulman has collected along with Jim Hubbard and James Wentzy over the past twenty years in the ACT UP Oral History Project. In contrast to historical accounts that privilege a unified, authoritative narrative, Schulman approaches her political history with a novelist’s understanding of the complexities of character, action, and consequence. As much as possible, she sets the scene for ACT UP members to describe their participation in their own words. But neither is she a distanced, objective observer: she was a participant-witness, and her own experiences—particularly as a reproductive rights activist and a girl reporter—shape her analysis of ACT UP’s political history and significance. At its height, ACT UP NY drew in 500-700 people to the Monday night meetings, and there were dozens of affinity groups working simultaneously on a wide range of projects, campaigns, and actions: making needle exchange legal in New York City, establishing housing for people with AIDS, ending insurance exclusion for people with AIDS, and changing the CDC’s definition so that women could get access to benefits and drug trials, to name just a few. Let the Record Show preserves the spirit of ACT UP’s single statement of unity and purpose: “The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power is a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals, united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” By and large, her work shows, this description was true.  Sarah Schulman has been described as one of the most “underrated” writers in the US and (ironically) as “the lesbian Susan Sontag.” She’s always been out in her work and has always featured queer—especially lesbian—protagonists. Forty years into her career, though, we may be having a long overdue “Schulmanaissance,” as Emily Gould puts it. Having published twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, she is one of our most formidable contemporary intellectuals and an essential recorder of queer and activist histories. I first met Sarah in a discussion about her book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. The conversation challenged me intellectually and politically. As our conversations continued, I came to recognize this feeling of gratifying challenge as part of the Schulman-effect. Sarah is a talking encyclopedia of queer and New York history. Our conversation spins through many of the people and events that propel the book. Because I am always running to catch up to ideas she has been formulating for decades, I never leave our conversations in the same place I started. To talk with her from across a queer generational divide is to receive something simple but transformative: information and responsibility. Kelly Roberts: You aim to record ACT UP members in their own words. The book is organized around people and experiences, not strict chronology. How did you arrive at this structure? Sarah Schulman: The way that I write is that the discovery is in the writing, so I don’t usually know things before. And I’ve written a lot of formally inventive novels, and I’ve been looking at experimental film for thirty-something years. The first realization came when Jim [Hubbard] did the film [United in Anger], and we went to funders. They said, to do a documentary film, you need to take five or six individuals and take them on a journey. And Jim said, “no, we can’t do that, because that’s not what happened.” So I already knew from the beginning that it was going to be the history of the group. Then I realized I couldn’t tell it chronologically because it wouldn’t be accurate. So much happened simultaneously and overlapped, and that is what made it work. Many ACT UP members had died before you started the interview project. How did this absence influence your approach to the book? Not only had many people died, but every woman with HIV had died, except for one. So what I did was, I recreated what I call “a landscape of disappearance and apparition,” which are these remembrances of people who died. But they’re not uniform. I wanted the form of the book to reveal and express some of the emotional experience of being in ACT UP. That to me is the point of formal invention. It expresses experience instead of describing it. Some of the remembrances are quite long and detailed and some are very brief. And that’s how it was in ACT UP—somebody might die who you knew well, and somebody might die who you talked to once. Why did you approach this political history at the level of character? To just say that the group did something doesn’t explain what happened—you have to say what the people did and how they understand it. So there’s two parts: what they say they did and how they understand what they say they did. Oral history is its own source. It’s not a proof of anything except what people said. But there’s a collective energy to that. Previous histories have focused on like five people; I mention 140. I tried to say even just a few words about who they were before their experiences in ACT UP, because then you find out quite a bit. People come from some very interesting, different places, and that, I felt, was significant. If history takes place in personal experience and interpersonal relationships, how did you navigate the line between gossip and history? Well, what’s the difference? Good question. I think we’re used to histories that don’t take relationships into account, and those histories are incomplete. This is not the first popular history. But because of the gay aspect, there’s a dishiness to everything, there’s a camp quality or aesthetic. And relationships are verrrrry important. There’s a book, Personal Politics by Sara Evans, about how the feminist movement came out of the civil rights movement. I read it when it first came out, and it put relationships in the forefront as motive for political insight. But most histories don’t do that. What did you think were some of the difficult histories here? The theft of ACT UP money, dishonesty about status, and the working relationship between Gay Youth and NAMBLA [North American Man Boy Love Association]—those come to mind. I’ve already done like fifteen interviews. No one has mentioned [those things]. Well, maybe once. But it shows overall that this was not respectability politics at all. It was extremely messy. It was very human. I mean it’s about people dying. It was a very vulnerable, bodily event occurring within a highly sexualized and abandoned community. There’s a lot of humanity, and I’m just showing it. There’s a desire to punish and repress contradiction and pain and all of that. I guess that’s part of what’s called respectability politics, and I think it’s destructive. Did coming back to this book after writing Conflict Is Not Abuse help to clarify the shape the book needed to take? I think it’s the other way around. People in ACT UP were doing the right thing; the government was doing the wrong thing. When ACT UP tried to make the government do the right thing, we would get arrested. So that’s the structure of Conflict is Not Abuse: that when you resist something that is unjust, then you become stigmatized and punished. So that was a lived experience. At one point in the book, Garance Franke-Ruta says that conflicts turned inward. You have this section of archived notes from the “Tell It To ACT UP” newsletter—a place where people shared opinions and criticism outside of the regular meeting space. You called it Twitter before Twitter. Did these alternative lines of communication and inward reflections lead to productive conversations? Well, I think what Garance says is that she thinks we all went crazy. And I would agree with that. It depends. I mean some of them are anonymous. But I think the people who really could express themselves clearly on the floor did not use TITA. It was the place for people to speak who didn’t speak on the floor. “Tell It To ACT UP,” you know, what I think is the most interesting thing about that section is that the things are all written by people who are not in the book. It’s a whole new group of people. Who are these people? Many of these people I don’t even know who they are. So it’s like it was a way for people who were not leaders to express themselves. There’s always a movement between the daily grind of organizing and a historical spark that allows a movement to take off. What allowed ACT UP to gain momentum in these years? The zeitgeist is a big factor. AIDS is identified in 1981. In the first five years, 40,000 people die. The government does nothing. The gay community is abandoned by familial homophobia. People are totally in chaos. Then there’s the Bowers v. Hardwick decision where the Supreme Court upholds the sodomy law. So you have this community that needs help from the government, and they’re being told that anal sex is still illegal. There are demonstrations, and you have a political airing of a certain anger in the midst of all of this death and state oppression. There’s the action by the Lavender Hill Mob, where Eric Perez and Michael Petrelis dress up in concentration camp uniforms and scream at the CDC. Then Larry Kramer gives a very good speech. The SILENCE=DEATH poster had gone up a few weeks before. Then people are like, OK, let’s do it. The longer history is that some people who came to ACT UP had been in previous political movements. Movements are not discrete. Gay movements are usually understood as coming from nowhere, because gay people in previous movements were usually in the closet. But nevertheless, gay people come from these previous movements. People came from student movements in Latin America, from Black movements, from sectarian Leftist movements, the reproductive rights movement, the women’s peace movement. Those people came in with very specific skills that really influenced and informed the structure of the organization. How did cultural and social scenes around ACT UP play a role in your work? In the 1980s, every part of the apparatus of power is white and male: the art world, the media, the government, the private sector. If you look back at the art element of ACT UP, if you look only at galleries, you only get white males. But if you look at things like nightlife or performance art in Asian gay clubs, then you get people of color and women. Those milieus were stratified. The Clit Club and Meat, which was the men’s night of Clit Club that was held in the same space, were both run by people of color who were in ACT UP, and they became extensions of ACT UP in a sense. In many ways this is a how-to book: how to do recon at the stock exchange, how to xerox fake IDs, how get the right screws to unhinge the Statue of Liberty for a banner drop. What are some of the most important practical organizing lessons here? The most important lessons are: don’t use consensus—have radical democracy, big-tent politics, and simultaneity of response; direct action, not social services; theory emerges from the action, not before; and you have to create your own solutions to problems instead of being in an infantilized relationship to power. Women and people of color: do not waste your time trying to have consciousness raising for white people and men—just marshal their resources to get your projects accomplished. What have you seen that’s been effective recently and why? I don’t want to answer it that way. Let me say what resonates now, what’s interesting. In ACT UP, there were 148 chapters, but they were not coordinated. You could be in ACT UP, and you could really do what you needed to do. You didn’t need permission. It wasn’t like a political party. That’s sort of what’s going on now with the anti-police violence movement. Each city, each community, is having very a localized response to police violence, is producing its own local leaders. The media is not covering those local leaders, and they’re not covering the local strategies and demands. But they’re different from place to place and milieu to milieu. And that’s the right way to do it. In Gentrification of the Mind, you said that you predicted the big era of gentrification would come to an end, that we’d be able to historicize it. Right, because of the crash, 2008, yeah. I was completely wrong. Right. Where do you see the era of gentrification now? Do you think that with a growing emphasis on local actions and multi-issue politics, more people are beginning to imagine a political future on different terms? Well, gentrification is very complicated right now, because, in New York City, for example, there’s a lot of empty real estate. But because the prices won’t come down, it can’t be accessed. So, we have empty storefronts, empty offices, empty apartments all over the city that nobody can afford. So that’s where government needs to step in. It’s not like there’s no housing stock. I don’t know. I don’t know what the post-COVID thing is. But looking at the New York mayoral election I think is a very good barometer. The outcome will tell you where we’re going. You follow the contradictions of an Insider/Outsider strategy, where some people get inside and have conversations with people with power while other people exert pressure from outside. Well, sometimes people who are inside are also outside in the streets screaming and getting arrested too. But because of the demographic of power at the time, the only people that people in power could identify with were people from their own class, race, and gender. So those are the people who were able to communicate with each other, but the thing that gave them legitimacy was the power of the outside. Jim Eigo describes this very well. I juxtapose three campaigns. I show T&D [the Treatment and Data Committee] going into meetings with pharma, sitting at the table. Then I show the women’s campaign that couldn’t get a meeting for two years. Then I show the drug campaign, which was total chaos—people stealing, people OD-ing, everything. I raise the question, if the rest of us were the ones who went inside, would we have gotten anywhere? I think that’s a totally legitimate question. Tell me more about experimental trial 076 for pregnant women with HIV, to track mother to infant transmission. There are a lot of moving parts here about race, gender, and consent, and it sparked debate about strategy and values. There’s a lot of things going on there. One is that the population involved was mostly poor women of color who were HIV positive and who were pregnant. Some didn’t find out they were HIV positive until they were pregnant, and many felt guilty. That is a force that makes people agree to be in a trial that could save their child from AIDS, but it could make it impossible for the woman to take a new class of drugs. To be a good mother, you sacrificed your life for your child, right? But is that consent? This goes back to the early reporting I did on pediatric AIDS, where infants born HIV positive, who were mostly people of color and poor, were put in placebo trials. I thought that both of these things were wrong, because I had been in the reproductive rights movement. I had been in the anti-sterilization movement, where women—this same group of women—in previous generations were sterilized against their will. The issue of poor women of color having real consent was something that everyone who had been in the reproductive rights movement was very sensitive to. And then there’s this other issue of women as “vectors of infection,” which we had already seen with sex workers. Women were seen as “vectors of infection” to men or children, not as people with AIDS deserving of treatment. There’s also the fact that those women were not getting any healthcare except by being in a trial. So there’s that, which is completely real. There’s no such thing as good medicine in the United States, so you’re in situations that are absurd. Sharon Tramutola says that for some people in ACT UP, government neglect was new, while other people always “knew the system stunk.” Ray Navarro was also critical of the “drugs into bodies” slogan because it didn’t take into account historical oppression. How did the debates about treatment and access anticipate the way the HIV/AIDS crisis looks in the present? Early people, like Vito Russo—who didn’t have health insurance—they were more radical. They came from gay liberation, and they had a vision of healthcare for all. “Drugs into bodies” came with the second iteration. They had access, they had insurance, they had good doctors. Moisés Agosto-Rosario discusses this, Sharon Tramutola discusses this, Rick Loftus discusses this. But it’s hard to say. ACT UP did the best they could, and they accomplished an amazing amount of things. But they couldn’t overcome capitalism, that’s really the punchline. In your conclusion, you share your own difficulties with gender biases in healthcare and consider the legacy of the campaign to change the CDC’s definition of AIDS to include women. What is the significance of that campaign? That in a way is ACT UP’s most far-reaching success, because today any woman in the world with HIV who takes a drug, is taking something that was tested on women. After the Thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, pharmaceutical companies were sued, and women were banned from experimental trials. It may not be to the extent that we wish, and there are still different problems of viral suppression in woman and men, but that change now affects every HIV-positive woman in the world. But as Terry McGovern points out, in timelines of AIDS history, they show Rock Hudson, but they don’t show the CDC definition change. You conclude with “the enduring relationship of AIDS,” keeping the physical, emotional, and political aftermaths of this moment tied together. What narratives were you working against? I was following César Carrasco. He’s talking about the myth of resilience: just because people are alive doesn’t mean they survived. There’s the loneliness of that generation, and many people of that generation have had drug problems, and many are depressed. He also talks about the Latino Caucus, he names like twenty-five people. And he’s like, why couldn’t you ever see us? We were there! And I end up in this phlebotomy lab with this nurse who’s my age, and she’s also a veteran of AIDS, and there we are. Or my acupuncturist. You know, we’re these old people, and we’re these veterans of AIDS, and we have private conversations about what we experienced. And that’s where it ended, because that’s where it is. This is a 700-page book with no unnecessary page. There’s much more to discuss. What was an under-represented or under-theorized ACT UP action or campaign that excited you when you were writing the book? The solidarity with Haitians is so important, and that overlaps with housing. That’s incredible. The fact that gentrifiers became housing activists because they were personally affected by AIDS—that’s amazing. I love Santa has HIV, the action at Macy’s by Action Tours. I mean who has heard of Action Tours? But they did all these crazy actions, with Jamie Leo dressing up as a priest, and the police thinking he actually is a priest, and he’s screaming. All of that, I love all of that stuff, and I’m so happy to be able to show it. And Karin Timour and her amazing insurance campaign—hundreds of thousands of people have gotten insurance because of this woman that no one’s ever heard of! What was important for you in writing this work, and what has surprised you in its reception? I don’t know. I’ve been writing about this, doing this, my whole life. I started writing about AIDS in 1982, when I was 24. Now I’m 62. This is an ongoing part of it all. The most annoying thing that people have said is “you foreground women and people of color.” That is completely false. I simply say what they did and what white men did. That’s it. I would say that’s the predominant misreading. The thing with me is, I’m a novelist, so my nonfiction books work cumulatively. There are tropes and arguments that build as you read. I actually work with the form of nonfiction. There was a book called Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch, and it was an analysis of the strategies of the civil rights movement. I read it when it came out, and it really influenced me a lot. There are certain books like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Parting the Waters, there are these histories that can only be written by people who have some kind of proximity to the events, and otherwise it gets lost. And I hope that this is a book like that.
‘A Woman Tells War Differently’: An Interview with Kim Echlin

The author of Speak, Silence on a writer’s responsibility as a witness, the unexpressed history of war, and carrying a feeling of home while witnessing the world.

Kim Echlin’s fifth novel, Speak, Silence (Hamish Hamilton) explores what war does to women, and seeks out the stories that exist, decades later, behind the frontlines: in homes, courtrooms, and offices. At the turn of the millennium, Gota, a Canadian travel journalist and single mother, accepts a job to write about the annual Sarajevo Film Festival. It’s a welcome opportunity to pursue some light travel writing and reconnect with her long-time love interest Kosmos. Soon enough, though, Gota’s trip turns into something much more significant: uncovering the fallout of the Bosnian and Yugoslav wars, which took place between 1992 and 1995, and witnessing a landmark international tribunal on war crimes against women at The Hague. Inspired by—and containing material from—the Foča case at The Hague, the novel blends unchanged courtroom testimonials from women who survived war crimes with a fictional account of life as an outsider in early 2000s Bosnia. After Gota arrives in southeastern Europe from Canada, she finds herself in a love triangle with Kosmos and Edina, who runs a documentation center to record the statements of women who survived the war. Edina also happens to be Kosmos’s true love, but she eventually makes friends with Gota when she becomes the subject of an essay Gota is writing on the tribunal. The trial at The Hague, which happened in 2000, lasted nine months, and the mandate by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) lasted from 1993 to 2017. Judges were appointed from 52 nations and 900 people from around the world worked in the courts. An international team of lawyers and researchers also travelled around the world to find women—refugees of the war—who found the courage to revisit those memories and testify in court. By drafting statutes, listing crimes, and then persecuting those crimes, legislative change began to take shape. Although rape had long been considered a violation of human rights, it hadn’t yet been criminalized or considered a crime against humanity. These trials helped set a new precedent. The women—survivors whose lives changed historically, politically, and socially—were burdened with an inter-generational legacy of physical and emotional trauma. By being given the opportunity to voice their experiences in court and on the record, those responsible for crimes committed were held accountable. Speak, Silence has been a decade in the making, involving travel, consulting with women who had lived experience of the war crimes, and reading thousands of pages of testimonies from the trials. “To be able to write about these war crimes means having an awareness of that line between research and the truth that's already on the record,” Echlin tells me, speaking from her home in Toronto about the process of separating experience from knowledge when writing about war. “But it’s also about the empathy needed in order to enter into the imaginative space when you're creating a novel.” Echlin and I also spoke about how long it takes for change to happen, having visceral proof of your culture being erased, and who gets to be remembered as heroic. Nathania Gilson: What was your research process for this book? Kim Echlin: The research for a book like this is intense. I’ve been working on it for 10 years. In the early days of the research, it was focused on finding out about the International Criminal Court (ICC). There were a lot of Canadians involved in these courts as interpreters and case managers. And I am of a generation that watched this war on television. I had a small child when this war was being broadcast, too. So I had a long association with the region. When the trial started, I became fascinated with what was happening because this was absolutely groundbreaking jurisprudence. For the first time in human history, according to the law, war could not legally be fought on a woman's body. And when I understood the magnitude of the shift of consciousness around this, I thought, I really want to write about this. So I visited The Hague. I saw the places where the trials took place and talked to prosecutors and case managers there. And a very transformative moment for me was a visit to Sarajevo and Bosnia. I traveled with a former soldier who had also been a former UN driver and was now running a tourism group focused on war tourism. His company was called Funky Sarajevo Tours: Breaking Prejudice. This man had lost his own brother in the war. He had survived the war, gotten his family through the war, driven for UN researchers, and was now continuing to be a kind of living memory of the war for backpackers who were coming through. He's a marvelous man. And then the other person who came on that trip with me was a case manager from The Hague. He met me there and traveled with us. We went to see the places that are mentioned in the novel; Karaman’s house [a torture campsite near Foča] was one of them. I also had the opportunity to visit The Association of Women Victims of War—the NGO that works on prosecuting perpetrators in Bosnia and gives information to international courts. I met with its founder, Bakira Hasecic, there. That visit helped me learn about how the research was done in terms of gathering the women's stories that were then selected for the court case in The Hague. What was it like speaking with the women who’d lived through this period of time? I was very conscious of my responsibility as a witness in not being part of any form of retraumatizing or exploitation of the women’s stories. I only worked with Bakira, who herself was a war survivor. I got the rest of the stories from the trial transcripts. There were 2,000 pages of transcripts for this trial. These women had already told their stories and told them in some detail. I didn’t feel it would be worthwhile to ask them to repeat what they had already put on the record. Through the process of writing this book, how did your understanding of the legal system change? The Foča trial was in the year 2000. The primary shift of consciousness embraced by that trial is that sexual assault and war is now legally classified as a crime against humanity. A crime against humanity is now also part of the legal definition of genocide. By starting to put those things together, you get a different pressure on war to respect the rules of war: what's acceptable, what's not acceptable. This seems contradictory but it's actually part of our international legal system. If we're to look at the fact that sexual assault and war is now a constitutive part of genocide and a crime against humanity when we look at what is happening among the Rohingya people, or China's northwest Xinjiang region, where women are being systematically sexually assaulted in order to perpetrate this genocide against Muslims in the region, and in a number of African countries, too, what we see is that while we have the law in the books, we are still not enforcing that law. There’s two important things to remember: we have the law on the books, and we can think about enforcing it globally. Twenty years is a long time to wait for change to happen, but it's not 2,000 years. I’m thinking of people who might be too intimidated to engage with the subject of war crimes in fiction. Just as many of us have read The Iliad. We read it as a work of art but we also read it as something that describes war and how people felt about war at that time. In contemporary writing we can strive to do that as well—we can strive to recreate war in an imaginative space. This isn't epic poetry but the novel can help people better imagine what we're actually trying to think about. There are lots of poets, writers, and thinkers you quote in this novel. One of them is Virginia Woolf, toward the end of the book: “The public and private worlds are inseparably connected. . . .the tyrannies and servilities of one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” How did you decide whose voices to channel to bring the ideas in this book to life? Virginia Woolf is just a perennial favorite of mine! But that quote is so central to the thought change in this book because what it does is it brings this book into our own households. If we haven’t experienced war firsthand, we have definitely experienced tyranny and servility in our own homes, and in our communities. That allows us to imagine what it would be like in the public sphere. It allows me to connect with you, it allows me to connect with a Bosnian woman, it allows me to connect with a weaver from Northeast China. It gives us the point of reference where we have all experienced this core condition that allows bullying, war, or the different kinds of degradation that happen among humans if they’re not conscious. There are lots of vignettes going back to the main character Gota’s childhood. Lots of scenes retelling fictionalized family history. I wonder: why was it important for you to keep the small details of everyday life in the book? Gota, when she reaches back through the generations, understands that in her own family she comes from a woman who was sexually assaulted and who dies during childbirth. It's an experience that we can't say is over there or far away. If we look carefully at our own stories, we're likely to see that there are shared points of reference. Also, in the court cases, it's important for the prosecutors to look at the expression of genocide through three generations of women. In a genocide, what you're doing is destroying past memories, the present, and the possibility of a future. That’s why in the court case, they constructed it around three women in the same family to have some visceral proof of the attackers trying to wipe out their culture, not just individual women. In Gota’s own story, she has a long and unexpressed history of war and how women [in her family] have lived and coped with war in their own lives, even though she hasn't had it in her generation. Her parents both experienced the second World War. The idea was to ask the reader to consider that war is not so far away from any of our lives. If we peel off some of the layers in our own stories, we're bound to find it in our lives. What was your interest in having travel or movement be such a big part of the story? I think that the contemporary world is very interconnected. And there are many people in the world now who identify with many places in the world. Gota is able to travel quite easily for education, or just to go to Paris to live for a few years to get away from home and so on. But the other side of international travel is actually international displacement, such as Bosnian women who are forcibly displaced. The thing that connects them both, is that wherever these women go, the notion of home that they have is carried inside them. It's not a geographical place. Gota, she carries her feeling of home inside while she's out witnessing the world. Edina, the Bosnian woman in the book, goes home. She’s very courageous, but her mother and daughter can never go home again. They decide to live in Vienna. That's actually the true story of most of the women who testified: they've set up in different parts of the world. And the city where I live, Toronto, is a city where 50 per cent of our population speaks a language other than English or French at home. So when we step outside our door, we can—if we're open—hear stories from all over the world. Many of these are people who have been forcibly displaced. In a contemporary setting, the idea of a story taking place across many places has become quite familiar to us. You were trying to reflect the world we actually live in. The other thing is the very idea of the International Criminal Court, where you have legal representatives from around the world. Over 123 countries were represented. The trials themselves are international. They reflected an international consciousness that was fairly new. They had to write laws specifically for these courts so that everybody had the same rules and procedures. And they're very careful that judges come from all of the participating countries, and that prosecutors and defense lawyers come from different parts of the world so that this is truly an international reflection: what can we agree as a human species that we want the law to be? What do you think are some of the stereotypes of being a war reporter? How does Gota rise above this or challenge the public perception of journalism, in the novel? Gota’s not really working as a journalist before she starts covering the court case. She's not really covering a war—she's covering a court case—because she has a child to look after. So the question is: how does a single woman who has a baby, keep working? She has a relationship with the wonderful Jaques Payac, her editor at the magazine where she works. He’s an amputee from his time as a war journalist. And he understands that she can't do the kind of journalism that would require her to be on the ground for long periods of time because she's a mother. So, he gives her this to do instead. It's light travel journalism.  But then she has this alter ego, Joe de Pone, when she's writing the serious pieces about what she really sees when she's on these trips. Pone means penance and Jaques Payac has given her this name for her serious work that invokes the idea of doing penance: if you're going to go and witness the world, you also need to do penance because you're watching from the outside and you're not subject to it. She is deeply aware of this. When she goes to cover the trial, she's doing it from the point of view of a Torontonian or Canadian or Westerner who is watching a trial that affects her in the sense that it's about crimes against women, but she's also doing it from the point of view of her friend, Edina. It’s not so much reporting on the trial as it is writing the story of the trial from this double optic of a crime against her gender and a friend who's been victimized by this crime. So there's more at stake. Gota’s connectedness to the story is defined by the fact that she's writing it as an essay. She has no aspiration to be objective. She wants to tell the story of this trial as she sees it with the consciousness of her friend woven into it. When I worked as a journalist for a national public broadcaster, the guiding principle was that you aim for a form of objectivity knowing that it is impossible because we all come from our own biases. Have any stories in the book been based on historical events that have been off the record? All of the court details are on the record. The novel is a fictionalized version of these transcripts which I read very closely. So there’s no manipulation of voice or changing of voice in these court transcripts at all. They're very, very close to the original. In fact, anyone can go online and look up [the] “Kunarac Trial transcript.” You'll then find the transcripts that I based my own court transcripts on. I was highly conscious of not wanting to change either anyone’s testimony or the legal process that happened. Even the forms of argument that happen in my novel are the exact forms of argument that took place during the trial. Anyone can verify that. There’s this really great line in the book. One of the counsellors says it to reassure a woman who’s scared to testify: “A person must be loyal to who they are, no matter what happens.” I’m not sure if it’s from a transcript or fictionalized, but I loved that line. It took me back to the smallness and everydayness of living with the consequences of war. One of the things I worked on during the writing of this book was taking The Iliad as a classical model of an overstory. A woman tells war differently. And she tells more through the details of daily life, and through her preoccupation with her children and her relationships. It's not that it's not the view of war that comes from generals. I noticed that in the book, too: seeing the documenting of war, or war crimes, as a job. But then also realizing that at the same time people who are living with the aftermath of these experiences still have things, or people, that they care about. The meals they cook. The music they listen to. Things that keep them going. And how you portray a woman who survives as heroic because we don't traditionally think of these women as heroic. The women themselves have insisted that they not be called victims. They wanted to be called survivors. And then I wanted to show them as heroic, not only in their ability to survive but in their ability to be strong enough to tell this story, which is so full of shame. In The Iliad, we don't consider it shameful when Hector’s corpse gets dragged through the dust and is disemboweled. It’s so graphic: there are descriptions of blood spilling out and broken bowels. This is considered heroic poetry. These women said, our bodies are as worthy as any soldier. And we have the courage to tell exactly what happened to us. Which is what happens in the court case. I only used small fragments of it in the novel, but throughout 2,000 pages of documentation and testimony in the court case, those women described precisely what happened to their bodies. This is heroic. And this is breaking all the prejudices and boundaries of shame. This is them saying, we deserve for our story to be told and put on the record. I think a lot of what holds people back from speaking up is whether that behaviour, or their response to it, would be considered acceptable. Should it have happened in the first place? That is a huge part of the courage and the testimony of these women. Because [with] a lot of these women, their families rejected them after their experiences. Their families didn’t want anything to do with them because of the shame. These women were even willing to risk being rejected or not being believed. Some of them never were able to go home to [their] families after this. How did those women rebuild their lives? Many of them lost most of their family. They couldn't go home because there was no home to go [to]. The war had burned the farms. It’s hard to start over in the same place, psychologically, when so much has been lost. So, instead, people decided to start new lives to the best of their abilities. This happens here in my own city, Toronto, where people come and begin new lives out of difficult beginnings. Often, it’s to benefit the next generation.
‘Nobody’s Going to be Having Any Moral Epiphanies’: An Interview with Patrick Radden Keefe

Talking to the author of Empire of Pain about the value of editors, the family name as a brand, and the feeling of getting your hands on the hot docs.

There is a harrowing scene midway through Empire of Pain (Bond Street Books), every sentence slick with danger and dread. It is an April morning in 1995. Inexperienced workers at a New Jersey chemical plant have been tasked with mixing volatile chemicals they scarcely know or understand. And on this particular day, the mix goes terribly wrong. “The chemicals were smouldering and bubbling, like the contents of some infernal cauldron, and emitting this sickening, noxious smell,” the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe writes. Temperature and pressure begin to climb. A chemist later compares the brew to a hydrogen bomb. Soon, the smell is so overwhelming, so odious, that it becomes clear something must be done. Seven men go back into the plant to try to clean the mess up. Radden Keefe’s description of the chaos is so visceral that I was immediately reminded of a particularly distressing moment in HBO’s Chernobyl, when members of the cleanup crew race to shovel radioactive debris off the ruined reactor’s roof. Inside the New Jersey chemical plant, a similar threat is unfolding: urgent, palpable, and invisible to the untrained eye. As the men inside the plant begin to empty the smouldering vat, the mixture begins to hiss. Then it explodes. Five people died, forty people were injured, and incredibly, the owners of the facility felt no responsibility at all. As Radden Keefe recounts repeatedly over hundreds of meticulously researched and detailed pages, for the Sackler family this is something of a theme. Empire of Pain is a book about dynasties and legacies, about cycles repeated across time and lineage, and the lengths that powerful people will go to hold onto their power. It is a story about a name, and how for decades, the Sackler name adorned countless museums and schools across the world while obscuring the source of their immense philanthropic wealth. It is a story about OxyContin, the powerful opioid created, marketed, aggressively sold and defended by the Sacklers, and the opioid crisis they helped create and sustain. It is a story about a family more concerned with status and standing—with how they should be perceived, be remembered—than the impact of the drugs from which they made their fortune. It is a story shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation, one that starts with Arthur Sackler, born in 1913. Radden Keefe has made a career out of finding the messy truths at the heart of sprawling mysteries, of pulling the most thrilling, revealing threads. Empire of Pain is based on a story he first wrote for The New Yorker. Last year he hosted an eight-part podcast that asks: what if the CIA wrote the Scorpion’s hit metal power ballad “Wind of Change”? Denial is a frequent theme, and the stakes are often high; Say Nothing, his last book, was about the Troubles and the IRA. His writing is vivid, gripping, and hard to put down; he knows how to tell a compelling story, how to put us inside people’s heads. That skill is of particular importance in Empire of Pain—a book whose main subjects were not merely reluctant but unwilling to speak with the author. Thankfully, Radden Keefe does not share the Sacklers’ penchant for silence, and spoke with me via phone late last month. Matthew Braga: I saw on Twitter that you had come down with COVID. How are you feeling? Patrick Radden Keefe: I'm fine. I'm better. Thank you. I was sick last week, right around the time the book was published. So I've been kind of isolating. I'm sitting in my backyard right now, away from my family. But my symptoms are not bad at all, and I'm actually out of isolation tomorrow. So I'm fine, thank you. Say Nothing came out in 2019. Wind of Change came out in 2020. Now you have Empire of Pain. It's an incredible amount of output, and as someone who frequently feels like I'm not being productive enough, or writing enough, or publishing enough, I wonder if I could ask you: how? It's been a busy few years, definitely. But it's a little bit misleading, because Say Nothing took me four years, during which time I didn't take leave from the New Yorker. So I was working on this book on the side, but I basically had a full-time day job. And then when that came out, I decided to write the Sackler book and do Wind of Change pretty close in time. At that point, I realized I couldn't stay at the New Yorker. I had to take a leave. I like having different projects so that if I hit a dead end in one, rather than just kind of mope around and feel sorry for myself, I can turn my energies to another one. So it was really helpful for me to have the podcast going while I was working on this book, particularly because the podcast is just so fun and collaborative, and the stakes felt lower. Are you saying that you don't ever still mope around and feel sorry for yourself? Oh I do [laughs]. Believe me, I've been feeling very sorry for myself for the last week with my extremely mild case of COVID. But I think the pandemic affected different people differently. And for me, what it did was it just kind of wiped the slate clean in terms of plans. And that ended up being an opportunity. I had not a lot going on, I couldn't leave my house, and by an excellent coincidence of timing, I had done a lot of the research already. So really all there was left to do was just write the damn book. Secrecy figures prominently in Empire of Pain, and also in Say Nothing, Wind of Change, and the work that you've done previously—secrecy in terms of worlds and occupations, but also secrecy as a human trait. What it is about secrecy that fascinates you? Why is that a well you keep returning to? I don't really have a good answer for it. It's funny, because in my writing, I am always looking for these rosebud moments in the lives of characters that help explain who they are. And I stumbled on that moment when Isaac Sackler tells his son [Arthur] the importance of a good name. He knows it's the most important thing. That becomes this key that helps me understand them. But I'm not as good at identifying those moments in my own life. Some of it is probably a stubbornness on my part where, if there's something I'm not supposed to know, I want to know what it is. But I'm also interested in the dynamics of secrecy in a community, in a family, and even on a national level. I'm interested in the stories that people tell themselves about the choices they've made. I want to know the story they tell themselves when they look in the mirror. You can also ask those kinds of questions about a nation looking at its own history and how it accounts for choices that have been made at a national level. You mentioned that rosebud moment of Isaac Sackler conferring the value of a good name. I was so struck by how good of a frame that was to look at the family through. It’s so simple, but so powerful in its simplicity. When do organizing principles, or threads like that, typically emerge in the process? Was that something that you had very early on? Or was that an “ah-ha!” moment later on, like you had with Say Nothing? It was fairly early on in my research. I don't really have a technique per se, other than to just do as much reporting as possible, and to report as widely and as deeply as I can. And I know those details when I see them. It's my favourite thing, honestly, certainly professionally and possibly in life—that moment when you're in the midst of reporting and then there's just this thunderclap moment when you discover something. And in that case, I knew that Arthur Sackler had donated money to have this library with the Sackler name at Tufts University in the 1980s. Arthur didn't give all that many interviews in his life, and I thought I had them all. But it turned out that there was this newspaper at Tufts that had done a special issue in which they covered the opening of this Sackler building. Arthur gave a one-page interview—this is, like, something on microfilm, and I think I got somebody to PDF it and send it to me—and in that interview Arthur tells this story about his father. And as I was reading it, I knew, “This is it. You have to tell the story early in the book.” Because it explains this kind of bizarre family attribute that you then see manifested over three generations. That idea of a name and the legacy it can confer, the values that it can confer upon the wearer… once you started thinking about that as a frame, did you start to look at your own world differently? Your own family differently? Your friends? Oh, that’s so interesting. I don't know that I did. I have an extremely common name, so I don't know that I ever had any sort of particular sense of a name as quite the talismanic thing that it was for the Sacklers. What I became very aware of after discovering that story about Isaac is you start seeing this theme played out with different Sacklers. They talked about it in this way that just seems very weird. I’ve never known anybody to discuss carrying a name in quite that way. There's an analogy that I didn't really think about much when I was writing the book, but which a number of people have raised since the book has come out, which is Donald Trump, and that idea of the name as brand. On the other hand, it wasn't far into the book before the dysfunction of the family in HBO’s Succession popped into my brain, and I'm glad to see it was mentioned in the book as well. Do you have the sense that the world of Succession is even on any of their radars? One thing that I puzzled over in this book with the younger generation of Sacklers was how anybody could be so un-self-aware. I imagine they would watch something like Succession and think that it couldn't possibly have any comparison to them, because they're all very serious people who are really brilliant and bear no resemblance whatsoever to the pampered idiots in that show. The funny thing for me was three sources, totally independently, compared the experience of working for the family and the company to living inside that show. Denial has always been a subject I've been very interested in. And part of what's so intriguing to me about the Sacklers, as personalities, is that they believe that I'm wrong, and that The New York Times is wrong, and The Wall Street Journal is wrong, and The Washington Post is wrong. And the 49 states that are suing their company are wrong, and the congressional investigators are wrong. And all the books are wrong. And all the studies are wrong—that they're just terribly misunderstood. By the end of the book I was left with a feeling of, well, if everything up until this point hasn't spurred some introspection—if even the arrival of this book doesn't spur introspection—then what will? I think that's exactly right. In recent years there's been a very slight recasting of their public persona, their kind of public posture on this issue, where they're saying, “Oh, we feel great compassion. We care about the opioid crisis. It is very regrettable that there has been a loss of life associated with our product”—all this kind of carefully scripted stuff. And what I found so revealing is I got these private emails from just a few years ago—like 2019, 2018, where privately, Jacqueline Sackler is saying, “our family’s done nothing wrong,” and Mortimer Sackler Jr. is saying, “the so-called opioid crisis.” Their willingness to cynically recast the talking points, just to the degree that they think is necessary—which is to say, like, “We accept no responsibility, we make no apologies. But opioid crisis, sad”—inclines me to think that nobody's going to be having any moral epiphanies anytime soon. I just don't think they're capable of it. You combed through so many documents for this book. The Sacklers also wouldn't speak to you, wouldn't answer your questions. What was different this time, compared to some of the work you've done in the past, in trying to peel back those layers of secrecy? It actually wasn’t that different. The idea of a big, formidable reporting project in which there's a story that I want to tell that a variety of people who are characters in the story would prefer that I not tell—that actually is pretty familiar territory for me. One big thing that was different in this case was… I often think about Robert Caro, who published a book about reporting and writing while I was working on this project. And he has a line in that book, where the advice that he gets as a young reporter from some seasoned old newspaper man is, “turn every goddamn page.” And it was funny, because I thought about Caro turning the LBJ archive. Like, there’s millions of pages! It’s a daunting prospect. And I was in a similar situation with this where, usually, the problem is you want, as the lawyers call them, the hot docs. You want the hot docs. You want to get your hands on the hot docs, and there's never enough that you can get your hands on. In this case, there were too many. It was overwhelming the amount of paper, and it led to some really crazy, truly crazy moments in terms of reporting. How so? At the risk of exposing what an obsessive maniac I am… at a certain point fairly late in the game, I was close to done with the book, and a source that I knew—a lawyer, who had been involved with some litigation involving Purdue—called me up and said, “I have 40 boxes of documents that I want to share with you. I'm going to send them to your house.” And I got very excited at the prospect of 40 boxes of documents. But the Sacklers had sent me what's called a litigation hold, which means that a lawyer representing the family basically said, “Look, we're probably going to sue you. So don't destroy any of your files, any of your emails, any of your text messages, any of that. You need to hold on to everything until the day that we sue.” I had this conversation with my wife and I said, “This guy is gonna send 40 boxes of documents to the house, and we can never throw them away.” And she was just like, “No, we cannot have 40 boxes of documents that we just carry around with us indefinitely into the future. That's not an option.” So I decided to go fly to the place where this guy was—that way I could just go through the documents and they wouldn't be in my possession—find what I needed, and then come back. This is during the height of the pandemic. I spent four days going through these 40 boxes of documents. And in the end, I didn't use a single thing from any of them. But I also couldn't not go through them, you know what I mean? Like if I hadn't done it, I'd still be wondering now if there was some amazing little golden nugget that I overlooked. The only way to figure that out is just through brute force. It’s through turning every goddamn page. We're talking about stuff that is very heavy on research, very heavy on time. In this particular case, you have legal threats from the Sacklers coming at you as well. I've been thinking a lot about how folks are leaving jobs and going independent and starting newsletters and going direct to their readers. I know you've been a freelancer, and you also know how difficult it is to be a freelancer, and I wonder, would you be able to do the kind of work that you are doing today without the support of your editors? The backing that you have of the institutions that you work for? Yeah, not at all. Personally, I'm so grateful for my editors, that I think I'd be very nervous about doing anything where I didn't have a really astute editor coming in after me to protect me from myself. I feel incredibly lucky to write for The New Yorker—both in the sense of, the people that I'm working with are so resourceful and so smart and make everything I do so much better. But also because there's just a level of institutional support, that in the case of the initial Sackler piece, yeah, it would have been very hard to do that without my boss David [Remnick], my editor Daniel Zalewski, and our general counsel at The New Yorker, and all the fact checkers, and everybody willing to stand by this piece of writing that made some very powerful people very angry. And similarly with Doubleday, they've been incredibly supportive since the beginning. I think the Sacklers probably won't sue. But if they did, I'm confident that Doubleday would be amazingly supportive through that process as well. So I don't take for granted for a second the kind of structural institutional advantages that allow me to do this work. None of this is easy. And I'm not alone. I have very good supportive people and resourceful people in my corner. In the book you detail the level of obfuscation the Sacklers go through—certainly Arthur Sackler—to obscure their various business ventures, the connections between those ventures, the conflicts of interests, the subterfuge. Would that be harder to pull off today? I think it would be harder. Yeah. It would be a lot harder. I went through the files of the Kefauver investigation [into pharmaceutical industry practices in the early 1960s], and I was just kind of amazed that, in some of their internal reports, you have these senate investigators from this pretty powerful committee. And they just had some very baseline questions, where they were just saying, “Who are these brothers? What's the scope of the stuff that they control?” And I think that today, when you think about accessing corporate registries and looking up identities that are associated with particular addresses and so forth, there would be a level of easy checkability that would probably make it hard to obscure things to the extent that they did. That doesn't mean to say that they wouldn't still be able to keep things pretty obscure. I mean, Arthur Sackler had all these weird relationships where he would put frontpeople in instead of himself, and he had all these handshake deals, and that kind of stuff is not, I don't think, any more legible today with the Internet and various databases for reporting than it would have been back then. But I think in terms of the kind of baseline questions, like, “Who’s this family? Where do they live? Which businesses do they control? Here's this strange building on 62nd Street; how many corporations are registered there?” Those types of questions I think would be easier for reporters to answer today. And congressional investigators. In a similar vein, I wonder whether the ability to burnish your legacy in the same way would be harder today? Would it be harder to build a legacy like that If you were starting today? If you had started in the ’90s, let's say, or the early ’00s? I don't know. What strikes me as significant, though, is that with the Sacklers, it was kind of an open secret. When I reported on the Sacklers in 2017, I was not the first person to report that they were the owners of Purdue Pharma, this company which had pled guilty to felony charges and had been so intrinsic in helping start the opioid crisis. The truth was out there for anybody who wanted to Google. And that was true in 2003, when Barry Meier's book came out. It was true in 2015 when Sam Quinones’ book came out. But even then, at a time when you had the Internet and stories, if people cared to look, connecting the family to the opioid crisis, they kind of managed to sort of stay above the fray. They had no problems at any of the institutions. After my piece came out in 2017, The New York Times contacted 21 cultural institutions, and there wasn't a single one that put any distance between themselves and the Sacklers. So I don't know that it's gotten that much harder. Honestly, what really started bringing about some accountability in the philanthropic sector for the Sacklers was Nan Goldin more than anything else. And Nan Goldin is kind of lightning in a bottle. The idea that you would have somebody happen along who was a revered artist whose work really meant something in that world, who was recovering herself from an OxyContin addiction, and who, because of her experience during the AIDS crisis, had this history and taste for and talent for activism… it's hard to dream up a more threatening scenario for the Sacklers than Nan Goldin. Do you think the names would have come down if not for her? I don’t. I think my piece had an influence. And there was an Esquire piece that came out at the same time. And I think that made a difference. And I think that when the state of Massachusetts became the first state to individually sue members of the Sackler family, that made a difference. But I also think that it was Nan's willingness to be the skunk at the garden party and actually show up at the Guggenheim and show up at the Met and show up at the Louvre. And has that had a knock-on effect? I remember around the same time I started to see other artists say, “Okay, well now we have to do the same for exhibitions and galleries that are funded by oil and gas money,” for example. Has that ripple effect played out? This is the big fear of the institutions. And I actually think this is part of the reason the institutions have, in many cases, been reluctant to take any bold steps when it comes to the Sacklers. They're worried that if you start introducing an ethical litmus test to any money given to arts organizations the arts might dry up altogether. And I think you have started to see hard questions being asked. To what degree are these types of institutions complicit in reputation laundering? To what degree do they end up effectively co-signing on some of the really repulsive behavior of the families and businesses that donate to them? I don't, for a second, pretend that these are simple issues. But I also feel as though we are living through a moment in our culture in which this question of naming and legacies and the kind of prerogatives and institutional approval that money can buy, are being re-evaluated almost in real time. For all the people affected by this crisis, people who have lost loved ones to opioids who have struggled with addiction, what do you hope this book will mean to them? After my piece in The New Yorker came out in 2017, I started getting a lot of mail from people who had lost loved ones, or who had struggled themselves with OxyContin or other opioids. I got more mail about that piece than I've ever gotten about anything I've ever written. And there was a pretty consistent strain in a lot of these notes where people were just saying, “Thank you for helping me understand the forces that my loved one was up against.” With Purdue and OxyContin, there's this whole notion of the drug abusers—as Richard Sackler called them, the reckless criminals, the scum of the earth. And I think that's a powerful idea, the idea that it's really entirely about the kind of personal moral character and choices of individual consumers. And I also think that's bullshit. I think that in the case of OxyContin, you see lots and lots of people who had ready access to the drug recreationally because it was flooding their communities, or who were prescribed the drug in a doctor's care and found that there was a sort of undertow, that they just couldn't control themselves and their relationship to that drug. And if I can tell a story about the huge juggernaut that those people were up against—between the pharmaceutical company and all the pharmaceutical reps, and the deceptive marketing, and the FDA being asleep at the switch, and the Department of Justice not doing its job to hold the company accountable in 2007, and on and on and on—that when you array all of that systemic corruption, I think there are some individuals who just don't stand a chance. And if that can bring some comfort to people, that would mean a lot to me.
‘Science Has to Have a Relational Connection to the World’: An Interview with Diane Wilson

Talking to the author of The Seed Keeper about the tragedies of modern agriculture, and restoring Indigenous foods to communities as one way of healing historical trauma.

The title of Diane Wilson’s sophomore book and debut novel, The Seed Keeper (Milkweed, 2021), is already evocative on its own. Seeds are powerful both in physical and metaphorical forms. These small, dry vessels of genetic information carry profound memory, they store the energy that will allow them to grow and provide further nourishment, and their resilience across time and space is unique. It is from these dormant but indefatigable seeds that Wilson draws inspiration for her characters, novel, and life. The Seed Keeper follows Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakhota woman who, at the outset, doesn’t realize that seeds are a big part of her inheritance. Rosie, which she goes by, loses both of her parents and comes of age in a brutal foster system. Finding relief and escape in a summer job detasseling corn on the Meister farm, she sees John Meister, the calm and steady white man who has inherited the generations-old farm from his family, as an acceptable way not only out of a life that doesn’t appear to have much to offer her, but onto and into the land she feels drawn toward—“on a farm that once belonged to the prairie.” As the story follows Rosie’s life as a wife, mother, and, finally, seed keeper, it also tells other stories: of ever-increasing divergence from a relationship with nature (in the form of corporate agriculture), and of Rosie’s ancestors, women who carried and cared for the seeds on which they had come to be mutually dependent. The Seed Keeper is a beautiful ensemble story about family, grief, reverence, and what it means to live with, not just off, the land. “These seeds carry our stories; they are witnesses to their own long history on this land,” Wilson writes. Her knowledge of and love for plants is palpable in her writing, as is her longtime work with nonprofits working toward Indigenous food sovereignty—she is a board member of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA). I spoke with Wilson on Zoom about agriculture and food, capitalism, memory, and what it means to come awake by fire. Sarah Neilson: I wanted to ask you about the tension, or maybe not even tension but parallel existence, of the ideas of “wild” and “domesticated.” The two show up both literally and metaphorically, in people, animals, and plants. There’s a line where Rosalie, who is pruning in an orchard, narrates, “While my father believed that any plant not grown in the wild was nothing more than a weak cousin to its truer self, my years of caring for these trees had taught me differently.” Do you think there is a tension between these ideas of wild and domesticated? What does it mean to be or hold wildness? Diane Wilson: The night before my book launch with All My Relations Arts, there was a night of traditional storytelling. This was actually one of the themes that came up in an old story and it has to do with that idea of wildness. These plants, these seeds, have agreed to surrender their wildness in exchange for a reciprocal relationship with human beings. That made us mutually dependent on each other; we care for the seeds, they help care for us. So it's a really interesting tension and dynamic that happens between plants that survive on their own in the wild, and then plants that have agreed to be in relationship with human beings. That’s a big theme in the book. The storytelling event had three different storytellers. They told Lakota, Dakhota, and Ojibwe stories about how corn came as a gift. These were stories that were told with such reverence that people understood no matter when these stories were told, what generation was hearing them, that corn was a spirit being, was a sacred plant. The reason why it is so important to indigenous communities is because it really helped people survive. Because with weather and the unpredictable nature of hunting and gathering, and, in any season, as a farmer, things can go wrong. Corn was a stable plant. It was a source of food that really helped communities survive. So the reverence is there for those plans. There’s also a difference between the way that a character like Rosalie approaches farming or gardening, and what agriculture means in a settler context. I think, the way it exists in its dominant form, even “organic” or “sustainable” farming involves more manipulation of the land than it can reasonably take over time. Do you agree with that? What are your thoughts on the meaning of the word “agriculture” and what a mutually beneficial relationship with land and plants can look like beyond that word’s confines? I think the big question I was trying to ask, or hopefully encourage readers to ask themselves, is about this relationship with seeds. That's why the seeds opened the book reminding us of that original agreement. They gave up their wildness—this is a huge thing—and came into our lives to help us survive and support our children. That relationship began to shift when settlers moved in; they brought a very different worldview about that relationship with plants and animals and water and soil. In Dakhota, we say Mitakuye Owas’iƞ. That means we're all related. So I have to literally regard the soil; when we use the term mother earth, it's a literal relationship. Meaning, to treat that soil with the same care and respect that you treat your own mother. So you see the shift when the settlers came, and over time, in particular, as we moved into corporate agriculture, that there was a mind shift to viewing plants, animals, soil, water, air, as commodities. It became something that could be bought and sold. Profit and loss entered into these equations that were all about relationships in life and partnerships in order for human beings to live. That's when I think we really lost sight of what that original relationship was intended to be. I think there's a part of farming, the subsistence farmers back in the day when people were taking care of their families and rotated their crops and took care of their animals, that had more in common with that Indigenous worldview. But where we've gotten to now with corporate farming, it's all about that commodity viewpoint. That's what I think is just tragic in what is considered to be agriculture today. That is really the big question of the book, is to look at how that relationship has evolved over these generations, and what does that change mean for us as human beings. Yeah. I really loved how in the book, the corporation was named Mangenta, a not-so-subtle nod to Monsanto. Not subtle. Not subtle. I think a lot about capitalism and how food and land don't really mesh with capitalism, but people keep trying. I was wondering about your work with NAFSA and what it means to you to seek food sovereignty and food security outside of the capitalist framework. Oh, it's such rewarding, beautiful, joyful work. I've worked in two nonprofit organizations over the past 15 years that are all about restoring or supporting native communities to reclaim their sovereign food systems. What I didn't realize before I started that work was how much people have been controlled over hundreds of years through food. The way food is manipulated, the way hunger is used as a tool and has been used to control native communities, and not just native people—hunger is a huge tool. At one point, earlier in my writing career, I realized that I could actually tell the history of what happened to Dakhota people in Minnesota through what happened to their food. So, in the commodity foods that native people were given once the reservation system was put in place, and really what that did to the health of native communities. Then you link that to the health crisis that many communities are facing today with diabetes, heart disease, which made people so vulnerable to this pandemic. I look at restoring these Indigenous foods to native communities as being one of the most profound ways we have of healing historical trauma, and it's a joyful way to do it. Plants are beautiful. Gardening is nurturing and restorative, and who doesn't love to share a good meal? One of the most potent parts of the book for me was, again, something true that happened, which was that Dakhota women sewed seeds into their clothes in order to ensure that mutual survival you talked about. Can you talk about your approach to writing such an important aspect of the story not only historically, but that directly endures today? I heard that story probably close to 18 or 20 years ago when I was participating in the Dakhota Commemorative March. That was before I really got involved in the food sovereignty work, but it made such an impact on me to think of the sacrifices those women made and their determination and commitment to making sure that those seeds survived for future generations. As I moved into doing the food sovereignty work and realized how much we owed to the women and people like them who made sure that these foods were preserved for us today so that Dakhota corn—so many of these seeds have already disappeared—but that Dakhota corn was preserved by enough families that it's now being grown out again by a local nonprofit called Dream of Wild Health. I have those Dakhota seeds to grow out in my own garden. To me, it's all part of the same work. I can work for a nonprofit and have an impact that way. I can write books that then share it through stories that enter into people's imaginations. Then I can grow it in my own garden so that I can have that experience myself of what it means to take care of those plants. So my approach to writing that kind of historically based scene is to try to enter into the experience of it as deeply as I can. When I plant that corn in my garden, I bear in mind those women and their actions. I was so drawn to the way you layered complex relationships between characters and complex relationships with land. For example, Rosalie and John have a very layered relationship with each other and the land where they live. Can you talk about shaping their narrative and relationships to each other and the land where they both felt they belonged, in different ways? To me, their relationship really embodies a lot of what I have heard or felt or observed in Minnesota, in that tension between when European settlers moved into Minnesota and then after the [1862 U.S.-Dakhota] war, the treaties were abrogated and that small reservation was actually taken back. But before that time, the Dakhota lived across the entire southern half of Minnesota, and well beyond that. So in a Dakhota historical sense, all that land is still homeland. It's still the place where ancestors are buried, where they've had this thousands-of-years-old history of belonging to that place and knowing it intimately, and then to have people come in and basically displace you from it. . . .it brings us back to capitalism again. You put a price tag on a piece of land and then you own it. It gives a different sense of entitlement. This was something I really was trying to convey through the book, was this bumping up of worldviews that are so different in the way they see the world around us, the relationships, and they just keep bumping into each other. How do you reconcile that? How do you reconcile the Dakhota sense of having homeland for thousands of years, and then to be removed from it, and then to come back, but basically having to purchase your land that was your homeland, and to have people with that entitlement. To me, that is so complex. Another part of the book that really struck me was the exploration of what wakes the seeds: water, fire, light. There’s a line where Gaby says to Rosalie, “Fire is a purifying force in the world. It cleans forests of dead wood, sterilizes as it scorches, and consumes us all if we let it. Some seeds need fire to sprout. What if you’re that seed?” Can you talk about this line, and the idea of embracing the different ways that seeds begin to sprout, both literally and as a metaphor for your characters? It's always funny to reflect back on when you wrote something and you're just kind of flying along, and then be a little more analytical about it. What I was thinking about in that moment was that sometimes we respond to stress in ways that force us to take action or to come awake. I think of Rosalie, who was orphaned at the age of 12, and then put into a system where you are basically shut down, in a sense, and then to move into a marriage where she had hoped to find safety, just a safe place to be for a while. But, it's in what is an alien system. It continues to press her down in the sense of keeping her in that dormant state. So with Rosalie's family, I see this long line of women who have been seed keepers and who have really endured so much through their lives, through boarding schools and everything else, and here's Rosalie who is potentially the end of the line. The family has almost died out. She's lost connection to those seeds. She doesn't even know they exist. She's lost connection to her family. So I thought of her metaphorically as that seed that requires that fire, the intense stress, in order for it to germinate and then take action and begin to blossom. I want to stay on the idea of embracing the fire. What does fire as a purifying force mean to you and how does it intertwine with the idea of protection and preservation? There's a scene about a fire and the seeds. I actually had that dream, where there was a fire, and I dreamt that I was carrying those seeds, that they’re what had to be protected. I thought about that later, that those are the instincts that these women had, the instinct to protect your food source, no matter what, because you didn't have a Costco, you didn't have Cub, you didn't have social services or food shelves or anything else to rely on except yourself. Fire, to me, it's got the two sides of it. It's the simultaneous purging and cleansing, but it's also destructive. But then you see what happens after a fire out in the forest and the deadwood's gone and all of a sudden, there's all these wildflowers coming up. I love that. I love that cycle of renewal that happens with fire. That was a really key element in the story. There’s a part in the book where Rosalie’s father says, “You can’t have science without caring about how it’s used.” He was talking about astronomy, but it applies to everything on earth. I think about the way science is kind of this siloed thing in academia and institutions. What are your thoughts about using care in science and having care and science be together? Because I think sometimes, at least in settler frameworks or institutions, they're not really talked about in the same sentence. Yes. To me, that's Western science that has made that very arbitrary distinction. I think the extent to which we can consider ourselves “objective” is something of a myth because we bring all of our filters, we bring all of our experience, and while I believe you can have a rigorous process that really does your due diligence in research, it's never separate from who you are and it's never separate from everything around you. So that Western understanding of science is very different from an Indigenous understanding of science, which is all about place. There is a great book called Native Science by Greg Cajete. It's one of my favorite books. I've got it underlined, I've got it marked up. He talks about the metaphoric mind. He talks about how science has to be relational as well. You can't take it out of life and its context with everything else around it and say, "There's just this." That's why I think technology has gotten so out of control, because it never takes into account what's going to happen in the future. It doesn't take into account the consequences of it, meaning some of the pollution or the using up of resources or nuclear power, when we think about waste that's going to last for thousands and millions of years. That's unethical in my mind. What you've done is borrowed or poisoned the future for your grandchildren. That's not right. So science has to have ethics. It has to have a relational connection to the world around it. That book is just a beautiful way of understanding science. That's my foundational book. Where are you finding hope or joy or inspiration right now? Plants, seeds, food, anything to do with the outside world. To go out and garden, to have my hands in the soil, to walk out the door in Minnesota in March and hear birds singing, because our winter is very, very quiet. So to hear birds singing as they're returning on their migration, and the fact that when all that craziness was happening, the political coup and everything, they didn't care. The birds keep singing. The world around us is just profound in its disconnect from what humans get so excited about. I think of that as a really good check and balance for our priorities. Writing, reading, working with native writers: those are all joyful places to me.
‘Activists Are Seen As the Enemy’: An Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

Talking to the author of Hummingbird Salamander about propagandizing animals’ supposed desire to be eaten, writing loners, and yard owls.

“We had a bit of excitement,” says Jeff VanderMeer as I log in to our Zoom call. “An immature hawk just landed on the bird feeder,” he explains, lifting his digital camera towards the computer screen to show me. VanderMeer speculates that the young hawk was learning to hunt, but had yet to absorb the finer points of stealth. Animal behavior is one of the lenses through which VanderMeer, the prolific, Florida-based “weird fiction” author explores the familiar, yet more confounding, behavior of humans. VanderMeer is best known for his Southern Reach trilogy, which includes the novel Annihilation, adapted into a 2018 film by Alex Garland and starring Natalie Portman. He has published more than a dozen other novels and books, including anthologies of science fiction edited in collaboration with his wife, the renowned publisher and editor, Ann VanderMeer. His new eco-thriller, Hummingbird Salamander (McClelland & Stewart), follows a middle-aged tech executive, wife, and mother—dubiously named “Jane Smith”—as she descends into a risky mission instigated by the mysterious activist (and possible bioterrorist), Silvina. A near-extinct hummingbird triggers a cascade of events that may very well bring Jane’s (and possibly the) world to an end. What seems like a corruption of Jane’s normal life quickly becomes an awakening, a frequent theme in VanderMeer’s work, which often deals with speculative, uncanny manifestations of the climate crisis and environmental destruction. As in Annihilation, sickness has a clarifying effect in Hummingbird Salamander; fever that burns clean as it burns down. On a day when a young hawk attempted to blend in with VanderMeer’s backyard birds, we spoke about surveillance and paranoia, writing about/through a pandemic, love as a possible human flaw, animals begging to be exploited, and secret autobiography. When I apologize for going over our allotted interview time, VanderMeer gamely says he has nothing much to do today. “Well,” he pivots, “I do have to go outside and feed the birds.” Naomi Skwarna: The novel features so many massive and high-stakes topics—wildlife trafficking, eco-terrorism, climate change, security and surveillance. How did you come to connect these different subjects through the mystery of Silvina? Jeff VanderMeer: I had this idea of a character saying, “assume I’m dead when you read this,” and an image of a hand holding a taxidermied hummingbird. Everything came out of that. We’re living in an accelerated capitalist system that depends on things like surveillance. The window of what’s acceptable for activism has shrunk. I wanted to comment on the fact that the way we talk about the environment and activism has changed because activists are seen as the enemy by governments. They just passed a law in Florida with regard to Black Lives Matter that now means that peaceful protests may result in ten years in prison. Early in the novel, there are several allusions to a coming pandemic and then later on, references to a surge of pandemics. You never name COVID or even place the story in a particular year, but I wondered how the global pandemic affected your realization of the book? I was actually writing and rewriting up through the pandemic, and keeping in mind that there was a lot of election stress that was already leaking in without the pandemic. All of that created a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that I was trying to channel. [This] pandemic is definitely in there emotionally, but I was also wary of being too specific, because everyone has their own experience of what the pandemic is. I wanted to allow the reader to bring their own experience of it to the novel. We’re all still making sense of it, so that felt like a mistake to be too specific, but it also felt wrong for it not to be in there. It going unnamed fits with the way Jane draws certain characters in broad strokes for anonymity. There’s something very pointed about keeping the pandemic anonymous. Oh yeah, definitely. I do this a lot. In Annihilation the characters’ names are never given, and in Borne it’s like the city itself is the anonymous part, with the characters being in sharp relief. I find the idea of a certain distance very useful. And yes, the things that are named more precisely, it does make them stand out, like you said. Related to the idea of contagions—I thought it was interesting that Jane, as she’s drawn deeper into Silvina’s mission—refers to what’s happening to her as an illness, and the hummingbird is a “terrible catalyst” for that illness. I’d love to know how you picked the hummingbird and salamander as these catalysts? At one point I was thinking that there would be more pieces of taxidermy, but that began to feel like some kind of weird scavenger hunt. I narrowed it down to just the hummingbird and the salamander specifically because the hummingbird has a long migration that covers thousands of miles. It’s very indicative of a certain thing about the climate crisis for us too, which is that the hazards of that journey are much worse with so much human development, and changes in temperature and climate; and then the salamander because it breathes through its skin and is extremely vulnerable to environmental pollution. It’s also fairly stationary, so they felt like opposites in a sense. Neither of the species in the novel is extinct. I didn’t want to use an animal that was totally extinct in reality because part of the hope of the novel is the fact that there are real hummingbirds and salamanders still out there, and their situation is our situation, whether we realize it or not, in terms of if we’re going to weather this crisis. I asked a friend of mine, the biologist Dr. Meghan Brown, to create the hummingbird and the salamander, their whole life cycles, so I could react to that. It really was quite interesting to take someone else’s work and incorporate it into the novel. How did the two of you determine what the hummingbird and salamander would be like? I needed a hummingbird that migrates from the Pacific Northwest down to Argentina, and the salamander also had to be from the Northwest, with a larger mythical version of it. That was based on having read a lot of stuff about Bigfoot legends, but around giant salamanders in Northern California. I didn’t expect that I would use too much of [Dr. Meghan Brown’s] writing, but it was so beautiful. Especially with the hummingbird, Jane gets hooked on the mystery in part because of learning about it, and thinking about the hummingbird being special to Silvina. [Mumbling foolishly] I think they’re sometimes called, like, flying gems or flying jewels? They’re so small and delicately beautiful. Finding that hummingbird would feel like finding a profound treasure. Absolutely, that’s also the thing—the contrast between them. There are some quite brilliant-looking salamanders, but that’s not really what you think of. I think we relate more to hummingbirds because we encounter them more often, and because they have very sharp personalities. They’re always checking you out! Here in the garden in Florida, they’re always periscoping up to the walkway and kind of scanning me before zipping away. The salamander has more of a primal or prehistoric quality. On the subject of relating to animals—you quote at length a non-fiction book from 1938 called Oddly Enough: From Animal Land to Furtown. I couldn’t believe it was real! The passages you quote are truly deranged. It’s actually over my shoulder right here. [Holds book up to his screen] It has these weird illustrations of animals, all of them happy to be turned into fur, wearing tuxedos. It’s really a very creepy book. It made me think of advertising that features animals who want to be eaten. They’re basically winking and beckoning you towards them, begging to be devoured. It seems like an outlier when you first read it, and then you realize that this propaganda still exists in the world, where we try to get animals to tell us that they’re okay with us exploiting them. I found this book in a used bookstore in Minneapolis, about ten to fifteen years ago, and in some ways I didn’t want it in the house, but in another way, I was like, I know that I’m going to use this in something because it’s already suggesting fiction. It is fiction in its way. The reclamation of nature is thematic in a lot of your writing, and here, it comes with the possibility of eco- and bioterrorism. Jane is initiated into Silvina’s cause, while simultaneously learning the truth of her family’s history, which in her case is touched significantly by poverty, mental illness, abuse, and dementia. I was curious to know how you would like a reader to think about the way these particularly human issues fit into the grander narrative of humans exploiting our environments and natural resources. I don’t know that they do. Here, I think it impacts how Jane responds to the initial message from Silvina, more than it has to do with the foreground of the novel. I do think that there’s something useful in the contrast between Jane having grown up on a farm, with that background, and the fact that she’s a security analyst within a high-powered, high-tech world. The main thing for me is that I have to follow the individual character’s quirks as I see them. There’s also stuff in there—like, I once received letters from my first real writing instructor—she was absolutely amazing—but she wound up in a situation without enough care where she had the same kind of symptoms as Jane’s mother. I would get letters from her where I was a character, like she had re-imagined me as somebody else. It was deeply horrifying and moving, and I had all these emotions about it because she’d been so important to me as a writing instructor. Another thing that was fairly unique about that relationship is that she was more-or-less giving me creative writing instructions on the side, because she was in a different department. The university I was at had a very misogynistic creative writing department that I wanted no part of. I could see the damage coming out of it on some of the other students, and they’d tell me about it. So there was also this aspect of getting tutorials from someone who didn’t need to be giving me that. It was a very precious gift. Sometimes there are things like that, which you’re trying to work out the meaning of, so you put it in a different context. I’ll probably write a personal essay about that whole situation someday, but for now, a lot of autobiography in different fragments and contexts often gets into my fiction. People don’t much remark on it because it’s kind of a secret autobiography; it’s not really something that you would know automatically has some connection to me. But it feels important to the underpinnings of certain characters. On the subject of his early writing, and borrowing wisdom from the movies: When I was a very young writer, and fairly arrogant, I didn’t realize that you need to leave some imaginative space—like I said about wanting the reader’s experience of the pandemic to come, but not forcing it on them. When you’re just starting out, of course, you’re kind of a control freak, but you don’t necessarily have control over your technique. Another thing that I didn’t realize until later—and I learned this from Karen Joy Fowler—she’ll write the scene, and then she’ll leave it out. She realized that the echo of it is still somehow in the book; the ghost of it’s still there. That seems very cinematic to me. I am a big fan in general of stealing things from cinema and acting classes, in terms of creation of character. Oh, can you give me an example of some technique you stole? For this novel, just trying to imagine the physicality of the character [of Jane]. She’s a really big person, you know, she takes up space and, in some ways, she enjoys that. So I had to think: how does someone like that move through the world? They don’t think about certain things after a while, but maybe they’re reminded every once in a while of that physicality. Little things like that. Jane is a vulnerability analyst and part of her work involves “anticipating flaws in the human element.” Then she leaves that world and ends up as a sort of detective and vigilante. I wondered, where do love and intimacy fit into Jane’s characterization? And in the case of this novel, would they be considered flaws in the human element? I do often write about loners and people who are just fine not having that much connection. I think to some degree, the biologist in Annihilation is a little like that. But I think part of this novel is Jane looking back and trying to make sense of all this. Whether Jane thinks she’s protecting [her family], I don’t think at the end of the day she’s able to make sense of whether she’s done the right thing there. Or whether she has an impulse to both protect them and distance herself from them. The short answer is that she is, in a way, trying to jumpstart her life, out of a situation that for a lot of us would be the ideal, but that for her is not the right fit. Deep in her psyche, she knows something is wrong in the life she has. And that’s also probably why she’s somewhat reckless at conventions, why she’s reckless about pursuing this thing. I personally know some people who look like they wrecked their entire lives from the outside, only to reform them later in a way that makes sense to them. And the reason that they wrecked their lives is because they recognized that eventually, it was going to kill them inside in some way. I have a final question for you. I read that you once worked with a group to band saw-whet owls, and I just want to ask if you personally held one. I did hold one, and I couldn’t believe how incredibly tiny it was. It’s really the tiniest bird. We have a barred owl down in the yard. You have an owl in your yard? Yes! This house hugs a little ravine, and the upper level is way up in the canopy because of the slope. So we have this hilarious thing where I’ll turn the corner on the walkway, and there’ll be a barred owl in a tree, like 20 feet away at eye level. I’m surprised, but the owl’s really surprised. Owls are very good at looking surprised.
‘As a Female Recluse, I Took My Reclusiveness Very Seriously’: An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi

Talking to the author of Peaces about not forcing lessons in fiction, building stories within stories, and having an uncertain relationship with the truth.

Helen Oyeyemi’s novels and stories are never simple narratives; they often include stories within stories, questionably real apparitions or places, and ambiguities galore. Ambiguity isn’t something we seem to like much these days. Uncertain times (although what times have ever, really, been certain?) seem to evoke in us a need to be certain, a desperate desire to have some fixed things in the midst of all the unknowns. Yet there is pleasure to be found in ambiguity, in uncertainty, in letting go of the belief that there is only one truth, one reality, one way of seeing things. There’s an existential kind of joy in wrestling with the gray areas and letting them remain so. At least, that’s how I’ve always felt when reading Oyeyemi’s work: joyfully along for the ride, letting her questioning narratives unspool without answers, finding satisfaction in the telling itself rather than the resolution. Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Peaces (Hamish Hamilton), is—there’s really no other way of saying it—a romp. That doesn’t mean it isn’t serious, because it is, but it’s also fun, twisty, surprising, and sometimes tender. Largely narrated by Otto, who has just taken his partner Xavier’s last name (Shin) in lieu of a wedding, the novel follows the pair as they take a non-honeymoon honeymoon aboard a privately-owned passenger train. The train’s owner, Ava Kapoor, could be considered a recluse, as she’s been living on the train for some five years, but she’s not its sole occupant: her girlfriend, Allegra, is one of the train operators, and another woman, Laura, lives on the train with them as well. Over the course of their strange ride, Otto, Xavier, and their pet mongoose get into all sorts of shenanigans that test their relationship, how well they know one another, and unearth something—someone?—shared in their past. Meanwhile, they learn that Ava needs to prove her sanity a few days hence in order to receive a large inheritance bequeathed to her by a former employer. Despite the fact that she lives on a train and plays a theremin, Ava appears rather on the sane side—except for the fact that she’s never been able to see that former employer’s son, Přem. I recently spoke to Oyeyemi, who lives in Prague, via Zoom. Ilana Masad: I loved Peaces so much. Could you tell me a bit about the title and how you arrived at it? Helen Oyeyemi: I think it's probably connected to the epigram. So the epigram is this poem by Emily Dickinson about thinking that peace has arrived, or that one has arrived at peace—but there's always another frontier to arrive at. It’s a sense of ongoing war. And instead of peace, it's a sort of illusory lull between battles. I think that's maybe what relationships are. A kind of a bleak view on relationships, but also on arriving at any kind of certainty in terms of perception or existence or any of the things that we're trying to deal with as human beings. And just packing it all into a one-word title. I’ve noticed your novels—and stories, too—becoming more openly queer over the years, and in this book, we probably have more queer couples than not. The characters’ sexuality isn’t at the center of the story, but would you speak about how you’ve been making these choices that seem to make the characters’ queerness, as Rita Mae Brown might say, the least interesting things about them? I don't know if I feel like I can call them choices. I like that Rita Mae Brown quote, actually, because [I’m] just writing from a sense of what is normal, if that makes any sense. It doesn't feel deliberate. With every book, it's almost like sending out a party invitation and seeing who decides to show up in response. And then whoever shows up is just in the story. It's definitely happened that way with all types of sexualities and people. I like having people in my stories who just kind of don't need to name themselves or even identify themselves. They can just be in the story. I feel like that's very important. I wouldn't call it a choice, but I feel like it's also important to not exclude. I don’t really have the words for it. I’m struck by this notion of sending out an invitation to a party and seeing who arrives. Does that reflect anything about the people you surround yourself with, that you invite into your own life? Very much so. I think because I'm quite an alienated person, I never have any sense of belonging to a group or a sort of tribal mentality. It’s always very much about an individual connection. So it's almost like building—building one's own family or one's own crew of friends, but it's person by person. If you meet someone who on paper has the same characteristics as your best friend, that really doesn't mean you're going to like them. You just don't know until you're actually together. We talked a bit about the epigram by Emily Dickinson. Ava is described as “some sort of recluse. Though apparently not the sort who was averse to lovebirds.” Many of us have been taught that Emily Dickinson was this shy, depressed, sad recluse. And Otto, the book’s narrator, says, “Even though I know several [women who live by themselves], and even though I understand that for five out of seven of the female loners I know, it’s truly their choice, the next female loner I meet never benefits from these other friendships I share, because at the moment our paths cross I instantly revert to Oh God, what ails this person??” What it is about the myth of women living and being alone—I say myth because Ava, like Emily, isn’t really alone—that you were thinking about when you wrote this book? I am, of course, a female recluse—the nun life is my life. But you kind of go through it in your own head, where you're like, What is wrong with me? Why do I need to be alone so much? Is that okay? And it’s something that I bought into about Emily for a long time. It's actually interesting how over time, biographies of her have gotten a lot more subtle and more nuanced. And you'll see the ways in which she's actually played with other people's perceptions of her. So things she would do—like making gingerbread for her nieces and nephews and lowering it in a basket, and refusing to appear in rooms, and her doctor only being able to examine her by watching her walk across the corridor (like, he wouldn't even come to the room!)—I felt like she really pushed the limit. Kind of like, Okay, you think I’m a recluse, I’m going to give you recluse. I feel like, for a long time, people took that seriously, and only now, in the current framework, are we realizing that she was actually having some jokes with people as well. So for a long time, as a female recluse, I took my reclusiveness very seriously, and I've only recently started to realize that it's okay, and that it's not indicative of a pathology. It's maybe just neurotypical difference or something, something that's just as human as the other ways of living. It’s something that I wanted to play with more and more in writing. Your last book, Gingerbread, has a long central section that’s a story within a story. Mr. Fox also plays with stories within stories, stories deconstructing other stories. And here, in Peaces, we have these littles stories each character tells, stories that slowly unfold and make connections with people. Would you tell me how you think about structure and stories within stories in this novel? I feel like the whole stories within stories approach is part of what I think of as my big project as a writer. Ultimately, what I want to do is to try and find out what stories are actually made of, why we believe them, why they take hold of us, and why no matter what we do to try and control the story, or even to create a story, there's some element of it that is just wild and almost seems to make itself. And also, I guess, whether stories are our friends or our enemies. I just have a lot of questions about what stories are, and the only way to try and interrogate or possibly persuade stories to reveal something about themselves is to make all these provocations and assaults on them, and try and unpack them and unpick their seams and see if they react. Will the story bite you back? Sometimes it does, and then you do sort of run off, but then you come back and have another approach. So I think that in Peaces, in particular, there was an interesting new angle in that you have a character who almost is a story, and is trying very hard to move out of storyhood and into personhood, and is somehow being prevented and limited by... well, mainly by Ava. I found Ava so inscrutable. I kept wanting to see if she would wink or something. I really couldn't figure out what she was doing with this whole, There is no Přem. I honestly couldn't tell you the answer to what is going on there. But at times I was like, Can you really see him? Like, what are you doing, Ava? What are you doing to this poor Přem? And then other times I just thought, I know whatever's going on in this group dynamic is interesting. And it's something to do with stories and stories about a story about a person, a kind of hall of mirrors type investigation. I don't know if I’ll ever work it out as a writer, but just trying to work out what stories are made up of, that’s my jam. The book doesn’t deal overtly with politics (which is not to say that there aren't politics in it; we could probably argue that everything is political), but I do think it’s interesting, as we see the world grapple with what stories are as well and how stories can unmake nations and peoples, to have this kind of relatively safe space in which stories can unmake and remake and connect. Do you find yourself thinking consciously of the politics of the moment as you write? Not for this particular book. I wrote Mr. Fox, and I felt like I spent a lot of time explaining to people that it was a fairy tale. And then with Gingerbread, I felt like I spent a lot of time having explained to me that it was a fairy tale. I was like, No, I'm actually writing about the year that I wrote it in. I started writing it in 2016—we'd had the Brexit referendum, we'd had Trump elected. It was an of-the-moment book of somebody trying to wake up from the neoliberal nightmare. But everyone was like, It’s so whimsical, and I was like, No, but it's life, this is actually life. With Peaces, I'm not trying to do anything otherworldly or whatever. I think it's casually asserted that this is just the world that we're in. And it’s a relationship book, a kind of, what if you broke up with someone and they didn't accept your breakup and then sent you onto a train and punished you for [the duration of] a train ride kind of story. There's an objection on behalf of this [person]—that [it] turns out they all have in common—who is just like saying, Look, I'm not just a stop on your way to the perfect relationship, I didn't cease to exist just because our relationship ended. There were a lot of thoughts about, I guess, not trying to use other people as an experimental lab for whatever persona you want to have in a romance. Which I think Xavier and Otto had both been guilty of in the past. [And it’s about the] ways in which we are casually criminal in our love lives. That’s such a great term, “casually criminal.” One of the most satisfying things to me about this book is that we have villains, of a kind—but we’re not actually sure who they are. Is it Přem, because he’s insinuated himself into everyone’s life? Is it Ava, because she can unsee people to alarming degrees? It’s kind of all about perspective. How do you see the relationships between these characters, and do you think there’s a single or central antagonist in the book? No, I think the interesting thing is that it's all almost entirely situational. Because if you look at it from Přem’s perspective, everyone on that train is an absolute bastard. They’ve all mistreated him. But they're actually pretty good to each other, when they're not in relationship to him. So what does that mean? I think I had, especially in heartbreaks in my early twenties, a really difficult time separating someone having been a very bad lover to me, or not the right lover to me, from them actually still being a good person. It was that real struggle where you’re like, No, you’re evil. But thinking about it objectively, you know that that's not true. And that [knowledge] feeling like a burden you have to take on yourself. Nobody else can carry it—you really have to work through that in real time. Ava is the character in the novel whose sanity is in need of being tested—legally, in order for her to receive an inheritance— I love the idea of a sanity test. Do you think you would pass a sanity test? Because I don’t think I would. No, me neither! That’s part of why I’m so interested in her! I also feel like none of the characters in Peaces, really, would pass a sanity test. And the world of the train that they're inhabiting is also not entirely sane. There are these things that make a kind of surreal sense on the train and that people don't comment on, which makes me feel as a reader like, Oh, well, I'm supposed to think that this is kind of normal, even though my brain is telling me, Wait, but that can't happen. So I’m wondering, what draws you to writing these psychological fissures in your characters? I think that what's fun is the fact that no one comments on [the odd things about the train, which] makes it really ambiguous as to whether or not it is real. I think everyone on the train’s probably afraid to ask Ava about anything because she can immediately nix things. She can say, No, I don't see that. And then suddenly it's not real, right? So the best thing is just to never discuss it. One time my sister came to visit me in Prague and we were walking around this market and this clown started following us. We were just really chill, and then at some point, my sister looked at me and said, “Can you see this clown?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And she was like, “Oh okay, good.” I felt like that was a moment where we both confirmed that the clown was actually following us, because either one of us could have been the only one who's just being followed by the clown. And I think [in Peaces] it’s like that. The whole atmosphere is very edgy and shifty in that way, where people just sort of hope that maybe if they don't talk about it or put it into words, then it doesn't have to become an issue with a capital I. This may be an odd question, but all your books bend reality in some way—by which I mean, they bend the nature of the so-called logical, rational, Western notion of reality. What is your relationship to reality, I wonder? How do you feel about it? Hmm, fairly relaxed. I don’t know, everything is just real to me. I don't feel like I've encountered anything and just thought, well, that's unreal. It's more of a question of truth for me—I feel like things can be real, but then is that true or false? I'm more interested in that. It's difficult, because I wouldn't say that I'm really a truth seeker—that’s kind of bad, but I kind of like the mistakes, I like the misunderstandings, I like the confusion. I sort of characterize Otto as chaotic neutral and Xavier as lawful neutral. And I feel like Otto just takes any opportunity to confuse anyone or to say, On the other hand, could it be this—and I feel like that’s very much me as well. Which means that you need to be roughly aware of what the truth is so that you can mess with it. But it's not that I'm directly seeking it. I'm more interested in other things, I guess. That makes sense to me. I feel like each of your books is like a coin that's always being rolled on its edge and never going to fall one way or the other, so you never know if it's going to be heads or tails. Yes. And I would like people to be comfortable on that edge of just not really knowing for sure. That's actually how life is like. We don't know. I heard you say in an interview once that the more books you’ve written, the more you’ve let yourself stop thinking about “the message” of the book, as it were. Would you tell me more about this? About how you used to think about “the message” and how you’ve moved away from that? I feel like looking for a message is something that I had had drummed into me from studying English literature at school and stuff. I feel like they would present us with a story and say, this is what the story means. And I would like it less for the meaning that had been presented. It’s part of why I got so super excited about fairy tales when I started reading them for myself without looking for a message. I was looking at them aesthetically and structurally and in all of these ways that have nothing to do with some didactic thing that you're supposed to take from it or some life-improving lesson. I just feel like letting stories go wild in a way is what we're meant to do as the receivers and tellers of stories. Stories as a freedom-generating element is the best way for them to be in our lives. Maybe? I don't know—that is also handing down a message about stories. In the initial books, I think I was sort of depressed by the way that they might be read. I was kind of like, Oh, this is the message that people are going to take from this. It's just about becoming less self-conscious, I think, overall. And, finally: I’m always curious to know what my favorite authors are reading. I know a lot of people haven’t been managing to focus much on reading during the pandemic so if that’s true for you, I’d love to know what you’ve been watching. There's a really good K-drama right now about psychopaths. I'm not quite sure what the storyline is, actually, but I love it. It seems that this guy has had a brain transplant and the brain that he's received has the frontal lobe of a psychopath. So he can now think like a psychopath without being one, but it's also very confusing for him because he's now incredibly violent. So I hope that works out, I hope he doesn't kill anyone. In terms of what I've been reading—I [just finished] this book by Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore, that she wrote in the 1970s about a community living on houseboats along the Thames. It’s a very, very short book and the characterization is just stunning. This guy is kind of a professional gigolo and he can't tell the difference between his friends and his enemies. All he knows is that he responds to them in a certain way because they demand something of him, and if it's not transactional, then he thinks that they're his friend, but actually, they're his enemy. It's the most sad thing, but also the most beautifully crystallized way of getting to the heart of somebody and how they relate to the world and to other people. I just love Penelope Fitzgerald and this was one of her books I hadn't read before.