The author of Sleeveless on 2010s New York, jealousy, and being out of touch.
I am now one of a small number of people to have actually seen The Four in the flesh. Well, not quite the flesh.
The author of Permanent Record on families of origin, emotional expense, and bodega cats.
In her collection of essays Oh, Never Mind, Mary H.K. Choi summed up 2014 in three crucial lines: “The Internet has turned us all into pure energy. Doesn’t it feel rad? Send help.” Choi would know because she covers the internet (and more) on the internet (and in print) for publications like Wired, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The Atlantic, and The Fader. In 2016, she embedded herself in a group of teens for Wired and probed them on their online behaviour. It’s what ultimately led her to write her debut novel, Emergency Contact, where the internet cultivates a safe space for a burgeoning relationship. Barista Sam is insecure about his own poverty while college freshman Penny is simply awkward. “It’s the intimacy that comes from when you are unencumbered by your mouth-breathing meatsuit of awkwardness,” explains Choi. “The fact that they can just give each other their best, which is just asking good questions and receiving each other and holding space for what the other person is saying and processing it—that is such an act of service and selflessness and I think that is a beautiful aspect of the intimacy we can find in certain digital spaces.” In 2019’s Permanent Record (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), social media is less of a conversational buffer and more of a self-harm tool. College dropout Pablo Neruda Rind gets swept up in pop star Leanna Smart’s life so he can avoid his own debt and stasis. It’s a role reversal with a twist: a realistic Notting Hill with younger people who Choi says “eventually go back to their corners and finish cooking.” I sat down with Choi in a hotel lobby that featured a Beauty and the Beast library, but with vases instead of books. We sat there, contemplating the objets d’art, New York and the gritty in-betweens of success. Sara Black McCulloch: In Emergency Contact and Permanent Record, you focus on the families that we’re born into and the ones we get to choose. In a lot of ways, your characters are coming to terms with their parents being human but also the fact that their parents can’t always give them what they need as adults. You don’t see that particular approach to family dynamics often, especially in YA. Is this something you’re seeing in your own life? Mary H.K. Choi: I think there are a couple of things. As the child of immigrants, there’s always a schism in terms of what you’re experiencing and what they have experienced. In my own life, we immigrated to Hong Kong when I was eleven months old. My parents were in their very early thirties, and there was this trapped-in-amber aspect to their childhood. When they left their mother country, they had this set reality that travelled with them and it didn’t age or evolve. Korea went from having the GDP of a small nation to now becoming a global power, and so there are a lot of things that have iteratively changed and become a lot more contemporary that my parents simply missed out on. Other than the fact that they have KaKaoTalk—the one texting app that all Koreans love—and the fact that now they can stream TV from Korea, they still have a lot of social mores that I think are trapped in amber and really speak to a bygone era. And so there’s been a lot of struggle with me living in a different civilization and growing up and them being trapped in this one thing. That particular gap can widen over the years. Prior to getting older, it was about me having to rebel and feeling as though the way that I wanted to be was something that they could never possibly understand. It was really important to me, with Emergency Contact, that Penny’s mom Celeste wasn’t what you would typically see as the matriarchal figure in a lot of Asian pop culture, which is the tiger moms with all these expectations. So I really wanted to start off with a relationship that was a lot more like Lorelai and Rory Gilmore or, if not, then Edina and Saffy Monsoon, where it’s a role reversal, where the kid is always worried about the mother’s welfare instead of the other way around. It was also very important for me that Celeste be somewhat assimilated into American culture and so it wasn’t the cultural gap so much as it was just expectations, which is something that anyone can relate to. With Pablo and his mother, I wanted to peel back the layers of what those expectations felt like—I mean that filial piety, fidelity and that first-born son expectation—and then just keep going with it. What we find in the second book is that a lot of those expectations come from fear. It’s a fear that is not only specific to East Asian or South Asian parents: you could ask any Haitian, Nigerian, Taiwanese, British parents—anyone! People want their kids to be successful and a lot of that lingua franca, that irrefutable co-sign, comes from name brand schools, vocations that pay very well and are universally respected. Is there a risk of being too prescriptive, though? As a person who is a little bit older writing for young people, I don’t want to be prescriptive in what I’m saying, but I do want to just allow for certain things to be the way they are without imbuing them with morality. For me, in my more recent years, it’s been about receiving my parents where they’re at and understanding that as grateful as we can be to our family of origin, it’s simply a repeated, cyclical trap of resentment to keep going to your family of origin for things that they don’t have. I’m in recovery and 12-step for different kinds of addiction and an eating disorder and there is this saying in meetings: “Don’t go to the hardware store for orange juice.” At a certain point, you know what your family of origin has a capacity for and to expect them to miraculously be different because you want them to be is just a recipe for prolonged and sustained heartbreak and suffering. The only thing you can actually exert control over is your framing around that, and changing your own expectations. And that’s okay. It’s not rejection and it doesn’t have to be. It’s this wild and contrary act of acceptance. I think that’s the only point that growth, mutual appreciation and understanding of each other’s humanity can actually come from. It’s hard being a parent, too. Everyone has intergenerational trauma. It’s not something that’s wholly new to us as a generation just because we have all these social media outlets where we can complain or even have the language for it. My mother knew famine as a child during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It’s a very real thing: that fear comes from personal experience and actual testimony. I can’t fault her for that. If anything, it’s an invitation for me to experience compassion and to know that there’s so much about my parents that I won’t ever know. It goes both ways and I think that there’s so much reparenting that has to happen on both sides. Has that approach to compassion altered the way you now engage with other people? Totally. We’re all so broken! And it’s really beautiful. Anytime anyone has been particularly vindictive or contemptuous towards me, I recognize that what I’m witnessing is a tantrum and sure, the shrapnel is getting on me, but what I’m witnessing is someone else’s pain and that doesn’t mean I have to stick around for it or experience a co-dependency with their happiness, but it is not something I can then use as artillery either. It’s not something I even have to hold onto! It’s been a really beautiful reminder that whatever interaction I’m having with someone else, their rendition of it isn’t something I’m going to wholly understand and I have to be okay with that. Do you find that with career prospects, too? Or even with writing, which is not an easy thing to do. Oh my god, it’s so hard. Now that I’m a quote-unquote author (or scare quotes, rather), I talk to so many other writers and we’re constantly so shell-shocked that we’ve signed onto this vocation where we have homework for the rest of our lives. And there’s nothing more existentially harrowing than having to produce on a daily basis. Also, fiction is wild: So let me get this straight, you’re just sitting there, making shit up? What is that about? It’s so subjective and human—this compulsion to create art. There’s also another facet—selling yourself as a writer—that’s weird, too. I’m thinking of that piece that was published recently, about the journalist being an influencer. How do you mitigate that role and the expectations that come with it? I think about this a lot because when I’m trying to straddle those two perspectives, I get in a lot of trouble. There is nothing more stultifying, in terms of being able to create, than that. Nothing hogties me more than writing while I’m editing while reading while receiving while thinking about the audience. I liken it very inelegantly to the fact that you just can’t poop and eat at the same time. Anytime I sit in my own audience and anytime I’m worried about how someone will receive this based on the merit of my previous work, that is when I cannot write anything with value. I can’t write and aim at the same time. If you’re aiming, you’re aiming for a lot of different targets—for any made-up version of a reviewer or an audience member that you’re imagining. I can’t think of anything more scattershot! I can only write for me, and I know that people say that so much and it sounds like such a stereotypical bromide but I can only move in one direction and so I may as well move in the direction that feels clear to me. Otherwise that’s a guessing game! It’s hard enough to listen to my own intuition versus sitting here, making up what I think other people’s expectations will be. There’s also this idea (or ideal) of objectivity in journalism, which often extends into writing. I think it’s a lofty goal, but it’s ultimately impossible. Is it that people just don’t want to acknowledge their own biases? It’s so impossible! We should also surrender that completely. It’s so interesting because New Journalism, the long tail of it, went from writing in the first person, to interjecting your point of view, doing write-arounds and talking about people contextually and not just what they’re saying and wearing or—god forbid you only have forty minutes for a cover story—what they’re eating. It’s always going to be distorted by you having been there. And I think that if everybody just accepts that, it’s a good baseline. And then other people, having enough integrity, can just not make facts up. That would be great in this day and age! The thing about biases is that largely we don’t know that we have them and that’s not good or bad, it just is what it is. I think it’s compounded with this notion, too, of how we presume social media is straight from the horse’s mouth. I think that can be really confusing because everything is a performance and so everyone, on any day, for every mood and filter should be taken with a grain of salt. In Permanent Record, Pablo really gets caught in the “best life” aspects of Instagram. Yet, he completely overlooks the fact that he has this incredible lifeline: the people who are looking out for him. I mean, both his friends and his parents align in their observations about him. It’s funny because if you were to ask your best friend, “Do I isolate? Am I selfish? Am I grandiose?” Your friend would tell you, “Oh yeah, 100%.” But you have to ask them point blank. It takes a lot for those people to say that to you because it’s so obvious to them that it never occurs to them to tell you that you are these things. Anytime I feel hysterical about someone saying something to me—like if I get that jolt of contempt and I’m filled with moral outrage and righteous indignation—generally, I find that that stuff is accurate. We’re not a cipher! The people who know us, know us. That’s the you. It’s the difference between your recorded voice and the voice you hear. No one thinks their recorded voice sounds better! Like, you think you’re out here shining, and your friends are like “No, you’re doing this weird thing, a weird squirrely dance that you’re trying to hide.” What was it like analyzing male friendships from that perspective? When I was in edits for this it was during #MeToo and Cosby and all I wanted was to write a tender, sweet and true-hearted boy. I wanted to write emo, loving demonstrative friends because that’s what I’ve actually seen in New York by dint of all of us being squished together with very finite resources. My male friends have the most beautiful, supportive and edifying conversations with each other. They really hold each other up and it’s fucking beautiful. I thought that was a particular dynamic that just didn’t get enough attention at all. I also think that in New York, you need to be surrounded by a group of people who will support you because you will need them. I’m a writer in New York. I have needed my friends. I have sometimes needed them financially. My colleagues, my friends, my cronies have supported me during very lean times. I survived 2008 and 2009 in media in New York. I will always be grateful to them for that because it takes a village and if I shine, then you shine. You take turns supporting each other. You take turns reparenting each other. And that’s just part of it. And being happy for someone in the way that you would sometimes hope your parents would be but can’t and so you have people celebrating you with deep, deep love and understanding of what it took to accomplish something. I mean, they put up with your ass in the lead up to this shit! So you bet they will celebrate you. It’s the in-betweens we often overlook. They get left out of those success narratives too. Permanent Record analyzes the Western ideals of success, ambition and straightforward career trajectories. Pablo keeps watching these Secret-like Youtube videos, and yet he can never connect to them. As he starts changing and accepting his own shortcomings, he finally encounters success narratives that resonate with him. Why was it important for you to include that in the book? The thing that the supercut doesn’t show you on Youtube, as the person makes their millions or gets their free ride to Columbia or whatever, is all the disgusting actual work that had to take place. When you’re starting out, your output is repulsive. Ira Glass has that great quote about how your output never matches your taste for a long time and that’s a really important thing to hear because Permanent Record comes from this notion, this data that follows you in terms of your successes and your failings: your FICA score and your credit and all this stuff. It’s also this notion of permanent record, which is the reality distortion of social media, where you feel so much pressure that you feel like you cannot afford to make mistakes. We love the story of the beauty blogger who made billions, or the one about the person disrupting hotels or the child disrupting the salad industry, or Forbes’ 30 Under 30. Now, it’s all about getting a Ted Talk before you’re out of middle school. The bloodsport has gotten so aggressive that it’s sort of laughable. That narrative—jinned by the 24-hour news cycle and the pyrotechnics that we need for every viral hit— really does a disservice to the countless majority of people who just grind. The other thing is that I wanted Pablo to have uncertainty around his own career but also acknowledge that there are a lot of people who are successful doing things that you won’t hear about on your local news channel. I think that there’s a lot of grace in that. And acknowledging that as a path that can lead to happiness is important. Pablo’s dad, Bilal, talks about the notion of autotelism, the act of doing it and the satisfaction in doing it. It’s not about the accomplishment, it’s about the very slow and grueling work of just getting better at something over time. It always takes time. It’s fine to want and it’s fine to try, but the second you try it and it doesn’t work, please try working a lot! Bilal also talks about how the root of all creativity is abundance: wanting what you already have. How ephemeral is getting what you want? I’ve gotten so much in my life and it’s so amazing how quickly it turns to resentment or this voraciousness, that will never be sated, for the next thing. When your first book did very well, like New York Times Best Seller-well, did that make you nervous or even resentful of your own success? Oh, it completely fucked me up so hard. What happened with the first one was that I had written it and rewritten it and it sat in a drawer for eight months because my agent didn’t like it. A different agent reached out saying they were a big fan and asked if I would ever write a book. I told him I already did and he asked to read it. He read it and had notes, so I tackled the notes. And then he told me he could sell it and it went to auction and it did really well. But what happened with that is that because I had zero expectation that the book would ever sell, I had another job on camera for HBO’s VICE and I was just on a different wave during that time. Emergency Contact had sold, but before it came out, I had written a draft of Permanent Record. I told myself, if the book tanks, I’m never going to be able to write again and I have this idea for another book so I’ve got to write it now. While I was shielded for the first draft, I didn’t know that promoting a book would be all-consuming and just emotionally expensive. It didn’t make the NY Times best-seller list the first week out, it made the list on the second week, which very rarely happens, and then stayed there for a month. During that time, I was rewriting Permanent Record and that was the most...I mean if you want to talk about scattershot, I didn’t know what I was doing. There were so many edits where I just rewrote the whole thing and then could not accept changes because what I had written was just nonsense and I didn’t know what it was and I got further away from it. I was more out to sea and that was a really big lesson. I told myself it was just the sophomore thing, because I don’t know how to write a book. I’ve only done it once before, like, who the fuck am I to say that I can write a book? I won the lotto once. It wasn’t until I got away from all that that I realized what I had done and how much my final actual draft resembled my first early draft. I realized how you could get burned out without producing anything. There were so many honest conversations about money, credit and debt and the insanity that is having an 18-year-old figure out the rest of their lives and place a huge bet on that decision (with an insane loan). I mean, we’re all so scared to talk about money and we avoid it altogether because my god, that pressure! And a loan of that size! I mean, you really do mortgage your entire future and it’s like you’re betting on a level of financial solvency by a certain age so that you can recoup on this initial investment and pay people back because, as the clock is ticking, all of these loans are metastasizing. And I really wanted to talk about that. It’s great if you get into Columbia, Duke, and NYU, but how are you going to pay for any of it? How do you enter the workforce in this day and age with that much volatility—with a house strapped to your back? Why don’t you own a house for how much you owe? And then graduate school: do you really want to pursue that or is it an issue of sunk cost where you need to do that extra thing because you haven’t questioned what you wanted to do, and now it’s a question of what you can do to get the money back doing what you’re doing? How will you ever know what you want in your quietest self? How will you ever find your due North if you’re completely saddled by this clock and this money? It leaves you with little room to fuck up, no? You can’t afford to! And if you fuck up you better not tell anybody and you better hide it and again, even if people find out, you better play it off and tell everyone that you’ve got it figured out. And you best hope that watching the right Youtube video will help you figure it out because I don’t know how else you would. There is a great divide and there is so much otherizing and fetishizing that happens with each generation as technology changes at a rapid pace. It was, first, about otherizing Millennials—and it’s not the reductive aspect of it, it’s the difference that you’re creating. And with that comes a great breakdown in communication and apprenticeship. You have people who are in such a scarcity mentality about these people taking all the jobs, so they keep all their institutional knowledge to themselves, and the new people coming have no idea how to deal with that hostility, but they also don’t want to fuck up and so they don’t ask any questions. You now have so many people who have a very specific skill set, and that’s wonderful, but they don’t know how to do fundamental things like ask a question, make a mistake, remedy it and call attention to it in the right way. The result is that everyone is now like “Don’t trust Gen Y,” and Gen Y is saying that you can’t trust Gen X-ers. It’s this incredible communication breakdown that breaks my heart and as a person who is older talking to younger people, I just want everyone to hang on, and not go to AskJeeves to figure out how to write a cover letter! Ask someone and admit to that vulnerability and have that person help you out. I think a lot of that responsibility falls on our shoulders because we don’t make it easy to ask us things and that’s fucked up. It would just be so much better if everyone talked to each other. The food in Permanent Record, especially those snack combinations, really brings everyone together, and showcases their resourcefulness. It also facilitates some difficult conversations. How was it writing about that? It was really beautiful. I wrote a New York Times Magazine article about candy a while ago and it was really short and joyful but that was really triggering. And I realized I was definitely a sugar addict. It’s that recursive nature of disordered thinking. When I’m in that mode of thinking, it’s all I can think about and it was really interesting. I had enough awareness to be like “Holy shit, you’re catching a weird ass contact high.” With this, I knew that food was going to be a big part of it because of Pablo’s mixed race. It’s the one arena in which he doesn’t feel like an impostor, where he doesn’t feel tested, where he doesn’t feel like it’s a pop quiz he’s going to fail. Even if Pablo were at church or at a wedding or around his parents’ friends, he might feel uncomfortable, or might feel as though they’re about to give him a pop quiz about how much of his culture he can actually be familiar with. He doesn’t have that with food. It’s his love language, the way he shows up for people in his life and he doesn’t ever worry about the cultural authenticity of it. And I wanted him to have freedom in some arena. With my own personal history around it, it was a really beautiful thing where I could experience joy around food again and where food was appropriate in my life: you could be excited about it and be happy about it and feel abundance in it, but you don’t have to be drunk on it. And it doesn’t have to be the only thing that you think about. The way I knew I had an eating disorder, even though for years I thought I didn’t qualify as a bulimic anymore, was that someone told me that if you believe that being a different size will change everything about your life, you probably have an eating disorder. And that blew my mind because I thought I didn’t have an eating disorder but I was alternately paleo, or vegan or on some crazy regimen or not eating this or orthorexic or whatever, but thought it was a coastal elite thing or whatever. Now, I know that was really disordered. Now, you eat a meal and you forget about it—that’s what life is actually like. You have life in between meals. It’s not eating something and trying to figure out ways to game it or get rid of it for the next six hours. It was also really important, like an amends to myself or a healing practice, I think, to create a character in Leanna where she’s like ostentatiously famous, where her body is so renowned and admired and gawked at, and she doesn’t have an eating disorder. It makes me weepy to think about a young woman who is that scrutinized who chooses to feed her body and chooses to nourish it lovingly and have an appreciation for what her body is capable of doing. Just the idea of having a woman like that felt like such wild subversion and that was really beautiful for me as someone who is older to just write a love letter to a person like that. I think that that helped me do a lot of forgiveness around all this abuse and turmoil I put my body through and the dissociation and just how I left my body in different places in my life. Leanna, as a mega pop star, is the source of a lot of body anxiety and dysmorphia for other people, but she isn’t absorbed in it at all. Absolutely. She just doesn’t take that on. Leanna is fucking awesome in so many ways. She’s hugely flawed and she’s very young. Someone even told me that I vilify her and I really don’t. I don’t think there’s a single smart woman in this world who has even a modicum of ambition who wouldn’t understand exactly why she does the things that she does. This famous person is surrounded by this cacophony, this overwhelming din. It’s the age and the level of celebrity that we have to grapple with. This is a person, as far as you know and think, but the celebrity industrial complex is a great many other external forces and people. She is the head of her personal brand: she is the CEO, CFO, COO, but also there are people she is answerable to and that’s a real part of her life. But Leanna is also quite whitewashed as a pop star. I really wanted to talk about that. I remember when I interviewed Rihanna for one of her first cover stories for Complex (when Good Girl Gone Bad came out). She had just cut her hair and people were figuring out that Rihanna was stylish. And she told me that she was really excited to have a little bit more autonomy in her career. I asked her what she meant by that and she said that she was singing in her actual accent. I think that there is this coming of age that happens twice when you are not of the majority. You have your coming of age just like in life: your Saturn Return or whatever. And then you have this coming of age where you realize that you have inherited this double consciousness, like what your contribution is as an artist of colour. I certainly had the same thing. And I’m so grateful that I started writing when I was older because I could work all that out and figure out where I was at with it and then produce from there. With Leanna, she gets really excited when the industry changes enough that she’s finally in a position where she can have a Spanish-language release. That was something she felt she had to earn. I wanted that to be an issue, even for her and for how powerful she is: if she’s coming through that Disney entertainment factory (we’ll use that as an example), then what does that mean and how does that affect how people receive her? And then what she can claim for herself later? The centre of gravity for this book, and the source of food and cravings, is the bodega — it’s where everything begins and reconnects. Pablo’s job is a service job and it’s a low-valued job, and it requires a lot of expertise that’s often overlooked. Why was that crucial to you? I didn’t want this to be a dissertation on or contemplation of city living where we don’t know each other and the death of intimacy. It’s more like that New York thing where we’re all crammed in together and you end up gleaning the weirdest parts of each other. And I love the bodega because it’s the place I missed the most when I briefly lived in California for work. I just wanted a bodega! I didn’t want to get in my car to go to Target for Advil! I just wanted the two-pack to swallow dry on the train! But the bodega is a 24-hour way station for a lot of different types of addiction. There are witnesses to your personal crises. All under those horrible lights! And those cameras! It’s just like Russian Doll! That’s the nexus. We’re all glitches in each other’s Matrices. And then there’s that fucking judgmental bodega cat. As much as we think that technology is creating a rift, there are still these little things we have to do that force us to interact with each other. Reluctantly! That’s a really beautiful part of New York: you’re forced into those situations. Like mass transit: the fact that we have to mutually tolerate this broken railway system is just hilarious to me. It’s the source of so much drama and strife and the bodega is definitely another touchpoint where we just all have to put up with each other. We all have to get in that fucking line and god forbid you have to go in the morning and everyone before you is ordering an egg sandwich because you’re going to be there for 37 minutes. With your work, how do you reconcile something that you love bringing you closer to the thing you hate (overworking, capitalism, burnout)? It’s really hard but it’s a scarcity mentality. It’s also something I can speak to from a place of great privilege. I have never been in a position where I had to spend an advance cheque on life. I’ve always had jobs in between the creative moments. I’ve always had a job, feathered the nest, and then did all speculative weird stuff. I keep the pragmatism with those jobs and I keep the high-risk stuff high risk. I also don’t worry about money insofar as I never do something for money because that’s always gotten me in trouble. I call it that Tahiti test: if this thing went away to Tahiti, is there a part of you that would have some regret? Or are you relieved? And if I’m relieved, then I’m not allowed to do it. If I’m regretful over some aspect of it, then I have to sit there and contemplate it. I never send things to Tahiti when it’s just money-based and if I don’t experience true relief. I’ve never done anything solely for money because it’s just too emotionally expensive that way. I’ll do stuff for money that I’m interested in or that I find entertaining or do it because I can’t believe that people can be paid to do it. Doing something expressly for money has only ever made me resentful, has taken three to four times longer than I think it will and has only ever brought me just butt-hurtness. It’s only ever tarnished the work that I do. I just don’t want to be embarrassed about anything that I make and that threshold is low—I mean, I survived being a writer.
The author of The Innocents on growing up, survival, and giving your characters dignity.
Since his 2001 debut novel River Thieves, Michael Crummey has woven together Newfoundland’s rich and often ignored history with fiction. His latest novel, The Innocents (Doubleday Canada), took years to begin and was written almost out of compulsion after a trip to an archival library. The novel follows two young siblings, Ada and Evered, following the death of their parents and baby sister. With very little contact with the outside world, the brother and sister survive the harshest conditions. Having only each other to rely on, the siblings form a bond that is tested as they grow into adolescence. The siblings endure unimaginable hardships, giving the reader a highly complex and rich coming of age narrative, one that Crummey was almost too afraid to explore. Through his writing, we see an empathetic portrait of what becomes of familial bonds when tested beyond their usual limits. Sarah Hagi: You’ve mentioned how this story came to be, through reading about a clergyman’s findings. Can you get into that a bit more? Michael Crummey: I was at the provincial archives in St. John's. I spent a lot of time there for a bunch of different projects so I was there working on something else, I don't remember what it was and it was quite a while ago. Just in the process of poking through things, I just happened on this one paragraph. It was from way back, so possibly a newspaper. And I don't know if it was the clergyman himself writing it, or if it was somebody reporting what he'd been told by the clergy. But this clergyman was traveling around the island, which was not unusual because most places didn't have a church or a clergyman. In the course of traveling around the islands, he came upon an orphaned brother and sister who were living alone in an isolated cove. It became obvious to him very quickly that the sister was pregnant and he immediately assumed that the brother was the father. The brother ended up driving him off with a rifle. There was no more information about who the brother and sister were or how old they were. I immediately thought that would be a story, and I immediately rejected it. Like, I didn't want anything to do with it. Yeah, so I didn't take note of the source material or anything, I just sort of, I read it, and I just kept going with whatever the business was. And I mostly forgot about it, I think, But, but not completely, obviously. What was it that stuck with you? Every now and then I would think about those youngsters. And I think the thing that really hooked me was thinking about them in relation to my own childhood, and what it was like for me growing up. Just how unbelievably confusing it was trying to come to grips with those kinds of changes that were happening within me. Even though I grew up in a place where I had some resources and there were bits and pieces that I could try to cobble together into a picture that said something about what I was feeling, it was just appallingly confusing. And so thinking about these two children who had been left on their own completely, with no resources, with no one to turn to, and guessing that they wouldn't even really be able to have words to even try to describe what was happening, and then to end up in the situation that they ended up in, I guess I was kind of heartbroken for them. In a way I wanted to tell a story that did the opposite of what the clergyman did. I was hoping that by the end of it, that they would be left with some kind of dignity, but I didn't know how to go about that at all. I imagine it was very difficult to write about. I mean, one of the things I wanted to do was to provide them with a life that was more than that. I don’t want it to be the incest book. I decided what I had to do was try to put them into a life in which what happened between them, in that intimate way, was just one of the things that happened to them in the stream of things they had to deal with. Their entire family dies within the first ten pages of the book. When you’re writing these two characters and there’s so much left to the story until the end, how was it dealing with that grief they obviously felt and with them becoming adolescents? I mean, it's no wonder that I went so long not touching this book. I wrote that opening actually quite a while ago, maybe three and a half years ago. Then I just put it away—I thought, “I can't do it.” I didn't know if I had it in me to tell that story in a way that felt believable, and that wouldn’t just be a misery trek for readers. It wasn't until my editor Martha called me. I didn't really have anything except this [opening], it's about three thousand words. After she read it, she said, “I'd like to know more about those children.” So I kind of thought about it, as a story about childhood. I just tried to write them as real children in extreme circumstances. What was it like dealing with the survivalist aspects of the story? That was part of me wanting them to be situated very clearly in the rhythms of the life that people would have had at the time. My father was born in 1930. But he started fishing with his father when he was nine, down on the Labrador Coast. He says he didn't take a full share of the crew until he was eleven. And I think that's part of the reason I picked the ages I did. They’re eleven and nine when the book opens, because I thought, okay, at that point, they actually would be able to survive. They've been working their entire lives, really, to that point they have probably reached a stage where it's not out of the realm of possibility that they would be able to make a go of it. All of the survival stuff was basically just putting them in the landscape and letting the landscape happen to them. Even though they’re so isolated, the story very clearly takes place in Newfoundland. I feel like it couldn't have happened anywhere else. I've always said that the books that I've written have been an attempt to get Newfoundland down on paper, and to create a real sense for readers of what the place is like, and how people have lived there. With this book, I had a slightly different feeling, because I felt like the story of the brother and sister could have happened anywhere. I was just sort of happenstance that this particular story happened. But then the fact that they were in Newfoundland shaped almost the entire narrative, because the place itself was such a presence in the lives of people at the time. Just in terms of what you had to do to survive and how you could or couldn't live in that landscape. You mentioned feeling the need to write this story to do these kids justice, do you feel like you accomplished that? It was kind of like Martha pushed me off a ledge in a good way. I always doubt a book when I start it. But about halfway through the book, I started thinking, “I hope I don't die before I finish it.” I just had that sense that this was a story that I really wanted to see told and that I was telling it in a way that I felt good about. There was a real sense, when I was done, that it was pretty much what I hoped for. I’m happy to have it out in the world.
The author of Trick Mirror on the self as a lens on the system, scams, and the internet beat.
Over the last several years, at the Hairpin, Jezebel, and now the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino has cemented herself as almost peerless in her ability to capture our current cultural zeitgeist in a world that sometimes moves so quickly it can be hard to define what the zeitgeist may be. With her book of original essays, Trick Mirror (Random House), Tolentino weaves together online culture with real life in a way that not only captures the present, but how the past and perceived future shape our understanding of the world as it continues to change. Right on the heels of an extensive book tour and becoming a newly minted New York Times best selling author, I spoke to Tolentino about the delicate balance of writing about topics so of the moment and how we can feel less alone. Sarah Hagi: Your book has been doing incredibly well—it sold out everywhere. What’s that been like? Jia Tolentino: I really, really, really did not expect it to be successful in this way. The book is pretty dense. Parts of it are kind of academic and it's kind of hardline anti-capitalist to some degree, right? And I just didn't expect that people would be down. Like, it's really crazy. I only ever thought about finishing the book, all I wanted was to finish the book and be happy with it. You never know how something is going to do when it comes to writing. The thing that has made me feel truly validated in a deep way is this instinct that I didn’t really want to write a book with any obvious takeaways. That’s really the reason why I’m surprised it’s doing so well: I very deliberately wanted to try writing a book that didn't propose any solutions. It feels really good to realize the desire for that is really widespread. Talking about the book so much, it's helped me realize things that are underneath it that I didn't understand while writing it. One of the things I have been trying to think about is that all of the structural forces that govern our lives with the internet, and male power, and capitalism, they want us to be isolated individuals just running as fast as we can. They make us feel like we’re alone in these anxieties that we have and that we have to solve them by putting our heads down and working harder. A cold consolation is that one of the ways in which we are actually very connected and interdependent are all these fears and subtle dreads that wade through our lives. Like, “Oh yeah, we’re all feeling this all the time.” You weave in a lot of personal experience throughout the book. Was there anything you were surprised to learn about yourself and your understanding of the world while writing this? I do write in the first person a lot, and I have this everyday narcissism and probably a lot more of it than the average person given I’m trying to make my career around this super individualistic, self centered thing. I don't feel, on an everyday basis, particularly interested in myself. But I am interested in the way that the self is literally your only lens for your experience of the world and of systems. I think I did learn some things about myself while writing because I never learn anything except through writing, and inevitably I figured out some stuff about myself. I think I've developed this much stronger sense of my interest in the self, really, insofar as it is the only way we experience the world. It’s like this thing that walks around and can gather evidence about the things you're actually interested in. So much of what you write about in Trick Mirror is stuff that very online people know about, but someone who isn’t online as much can understand. Was that difficult to balance out? I mean, embarrassingly, my beat is the internet, right? But increasingly, that's the only beat, right? I started realizing that the internet, no matter what you’re writing about, is a part of it. If you’re writing about ISIS, the internet’s a part of it. If you’re writing about climate change, globalization—the internet is woven into anything, like any other overarching structure, and it’s done that so quickly. I was definitely aware that, especially in the first chapter, these are unbearable things to talk about in real life. I pretty strongly try not to talk about the internet in real life, but I felt like an essay like that is a good use of the stuff that occupies a lot of my online attention but is so fucking boring to talk about in real life. I think that, in general in my life, I’m trying to see the internet for how we underestimate its importance, and also how we overestimate it at the same time, and constantly sort of adjusting my understanding of how important something is. But yeah, that was something that I consciously wanted to do with the book. It was hard, but the things I like writing about are the things that are hard to get right tonally. You go deep with bringing in the past and present together. Do you think about how a lot of it will read five or ten years from now? Oh, no, I never think about that! Already, my first job that was so important to me and probably shaped the way I write more than anything, I can’t find half of the shit I wrote there. Coming into writing with a sense of the fact that the industry was in such a crisis, it felt like it was a total fluke I was there until recently, like it was a total accident that could go away at any second. That’s really how I felt until close to when this book came out. I’m bad about thinking about the future in any specific terms. The idea that anyone would be reading my work five or ten years from now is not something I think about or hope for. I think, subconsciously, I'm probably trying to work in such a way that this will be a book about the present that will be readable in five years, like it won't seem so obviously dated, like a lot of work that concerns zeitgeisty stuff does. I guess it has occurred to me that a lot of pop culture essay collections are pretty fucking dated in a bad way when you read them, like, four years later, but I think it's hard to calculate. The future is very opaque. How does the future seem to you? I only think of the future because I'm like, “I haven't lived a life yet so there has to be more!” I have just this unshutoffable thing about myself, I’m trying to do so much shit that it’s so much harder to turn it off than it is to keep going. I can trust that my automatic instinct will just make me do all this shit. I think that’s one way that I work and live—I try to get the underlying drives and then not think about the rest at all, and just hope that takes care of it. I think that's one way in which I've been absolved of even the question of thinking about the future. It's just because, for whatever reason, I've been formed into this person that is so attracted to work and effort in a way that I don't think is really healthy. But it's like, I could just trust that machine will just keep running, I had to find it really hard to just turn it off. One essay that really stuck out was “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” and how not all of these scams immediately stuck out as being scams or even similar to one another. How do you define scams? They’re all pretty normalized and valued. To be a banker, or to take out a loan for college, or be a girlboss or disruptor—these are all very highly valued scams. They are genuinely presented as a way to live. Before I wrote that chapter, I read a lot of books about the history of scamming in America that never really made it in. For example, every time there was a shift in the banking structure, there was a massive uptick in scams of various sorts. And a lot of them would be like this full on counterfeit money scams, a lot would be more complicated. They would sort of give rise to these cultural corollaries. So, it became clear to me that around times of transition, it becomes really easy to do. If you boil scamming down to the basic definition, which is the abuse of trust for profit, it's like, what doesn't that seem like? Social media in general has been the abuse of trust for profit, some of it has been inadvertent. Zuckerberg didn’t know he was going out to build this fake advertising business, he thought he was just making a face book. But we have been able to successfully do the real scam of social media, which is making a personal brand, a safety net. It's like making us put our lives online in case we need it financially because we don't have any other safety nets, really.
The author of Sleeveless on 2010s New York, jealousy, and being out of touch.
In her book of critical essays on artists Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm writes, “There are places in New York where the city’s anarchic, accommodating spirit, its fundamental irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds.” Opening a copy of Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless (Semiotext(e)) is like entering one of those footholds, be it the red glow of China Chalet at 3 a.m., a corporate warehouse party where everyone is beautiful and no one talks to each other, or a downtown coffee shop buzzing with nervous, striving energy where the person at the next table happens to be Coco Gordon Moore. Sleeveless covers the glittering void of 2010s New York, which Stagg chronicled first as a contributor for the underground art magazine DIS, then as a senior editor at fashion glossy V, and now from the aerial view of a copywriter shilling for the brands she used to cover. It’s an endless parade of free cocktails and vacuous conversations where Stagg serves as both participant and observer; a bit like Andy Warhol’s diaries if they were written by a millennial, populated by shiny happy people until an unflattering zoom reveals the rot festering inside. Stagg writes, “I love expensive things but I hate being around people who can afford them,” which may well serve as a metaphor for the entire book. Stagg’s New York is nearly fifty years past the decadent heyday chronicled in Patti Smith’s Just Kids, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to Knives and fictional texts like Slaves of New York and Bright Lights, Big City. But instead of complaining about missing out on all the good times, Stagg ventures into the fraught territory of chronicling her own era, which is still ripe with the turmoil, angst, and ennui that make New York both unbearable and the greatest place in the world. Isabel Slone: It occurred to me while reading Sleeveless that you’ve managed to capture and preserve a specific era of New York in amber, specifically the intertwined fashion and literary scenes of the 2010s. Did you set out to write a quintessential New York book? Natasha Stagg: I had been trying to write another novel—I wrote a novel a few years ago—and was pretty stuck trying to write another one for a bunch of different reasons, then realized the whole world is too bizarre to write something fictional right now. Most of this work was not done in preparation for a book, but on assignment. The intention of editing all of these stories together was to capture a moment and to kind of challenge myself to not be afraid of doing that. I think a lot of writers are afraid of sounding dated when they just write about one particular time period. I guess I was just thinking, "If I’m not writing a novel, what do I have? What am I doing? Am I going to be able to write something ever again?" Then I try to motivate myself by looking at things I wrote for some other reason. I have all these folders on my computer and looking through them, I realized there was enough for two books and all I had to do was figure out how to make them feel cohesive. I ended up just sending a big folder of work to Chris Kraus, she’s my editor, and she was like, "Basically don’t change the format here, this is just chapters." When you were going through the folders on your computer, was there a reason for selecting the pieces you chose to single out and rework for the book? I started seeing a theme of articles that were questioning personal image, personal brands and the way one sees oneself in this era, which is shifting a lot every day. Whatever I wrote ten years ago, I would probably write differently now, but it’s interesting to see what I was imagining would happen in the future back then. Most of the articles I chose weren’t about a typical celebrity. They’re about a person that is in a very precarious place in terms of their status and visibility. That added to this longer narrative I had in my mind of what is going on with the way people view themselves in this age, whatever you want to call it, and all the changes that have occurred in the past 10 years in terms of media. The precariousness you mention also applies to the way the book is narrated; it often feels as if you’re this dual character, playing the role of participant and observer at the same time. I’m curious, how did you end up working in fashion in the first place? When I moved to New York, the first job I got was at Beacon’s Closet. To me, it was the best job ever, because I met so many interesting people. It’s this unique place that attracts really interesting people like stylists, fashion journalists, drag queens and all these other kinds of performers. Before I moved to New York, I was writing a column for DIS magazine, so I met a lot of people through them, and Beacon’s Closet, and just living here. Very quickly, within a year of living here, I got the job at V magazine. I worked with Patrik Sandberg who has become a very close friend of mine over the years. After that, I took all these other writing jobs and now I work for a few different brands through a design firm and do my own freelance stuff writing press copy and articles for magazines whenever I want to. In the book, you refer to fashion as “the most insecure of any art form,” and I’d like to discuss that statement specifically in regards to fashion writing. Often I’ll see someone on Twitter asking for a recommendation for "good fashion writing," as if it’s this excruciatingly rare thing that’s impossible to find. It almost seems like people choose to actively ignore all of the good fashion writing getting published in order to preserve the idea that its difficult to be a rigorous thinker on the subject of fashion. What do you think about that? This happened to me yesterday. I was at a talk and somebody asked for a recommendation for good fashion writing, and the panel’s response was to seek out participants in call-out culture, like Diet Prada. You know, the kind of Instagram accounts responding to culture and saying, "This is what you should know about this collection that the critics won’t tell you because they’re getting paid and I’m not." I think there is really good critical fashion writing out there and what’s stopping people from finding it is they’re looking at fashion magazines for it. Those magazines can’t afford to be critical of their advertisers. What is unique about fashion is that there’s this exclusive component. With art writing, anybody can go to a gallery opening, you don’t have to be on the list. You do have to become a networker to get exclusives on artists, it’s the same with any type of journalism, but there isn’t this exalted status of fashion journalist where you get to show up and borrow clothes and be in this inner circle. It all looks very rich and exciting and they basically become a brand ambassador when they’re invited to be a critic at the same time. There is something unique about fashion criticism: it kills itself eventually. Anybody who is looking to become a good fashion journalist is easily brought into the fold, which means they can’t be a good fashion journalist because they’re too biased. In addition to being a writer of fiction and nonfiction, you’re also the in-house copywriter for Balenciaga. How important is it to compartmentalize all the kinds of writing you do, from advertorials to celebrity profiles to criticism? It is difficult to get the tones correct for the different types of writing I do. Maybe I let them bleed into each other too much sometimes. Who knows how this affects my mind? But I know I find brands more exciting when I know more about them. If you know the full story of a collection and see it up close and know the designer’s intentions, it gives you more of a bias towards it. You end up defending it when you wouldn’t otherwise. I’m not a fashion critic. I think it would be hypocritical of me to point out the flaws in the industry and at the same time participate in it to that extent. I’m not anyone’s favourite fashion writer necessarily, especially the fashion brands. I guess that’s kind of weird for me to say since I am working for Balenciaga. But I think they’re a different type of brand, actually. They like art writers. One of the main themes in the book is jealousy: romantic, professional and otherwise. You write, “Jealousy is the most poisonous emotion and admiration is always laced with it.” What drives you to explore jealousy and get cozy with that sick feeling? I experience it a lot. People lie to themselves if they say they don’t. Most of the time, if they’re participating in social media, they’re participating in an endless trap of jealousy. That’s the reason why all these apps are so addictive, probably; this sick jealousy that we all have needs to feed itself. Then it drives us to project our own actions just to make sure everyone knows that we’re not jealous or doing something people could also be jealous of. Everyone is super jealous of everybody’s lives no matter who they are. It’s the way that jealousy has shaped the media I find interesting. I’ve always been obsessed with celebrities throughout my life, but then we all discovered that you could also be obsessed with a non-celebrity, and that is the idea behind influencers. Technically everybody is an influencer and therefore everybody can be influenced. That you can actually put numbers on the level of jealousy we experience daily is so interesting to me. Imagine living 100 years ago, when there were no numbers behind any of these emotions and now its quantifiable. Well, except that it’s not. All those numbers are phony in their own way. But I think the impulse to make everything into a chart and a graph is a fascinating one. Your novel Surveys is essentially written about an influencer before the term became ubiquitous. Now people are having conversations about whether or not the influencer bubble is going to burst. Do you have a perspective on that? My instinct tells me that it will burst. In its current form, the influencer marketing strategy will become defunct in some way. Like all advertising, people get wise to a certain strategy and then they don’t trust it, so advertisers need to find a new way to capture their attention or their trust. I don’t think that will ever end. There’s no way advertisers will stop being super creative in ways to manipulate their audience into thinking someone they know or admire uses a product. At least I notice that everything getting sent to my feed is more and more appropriate. I think, "Oh that is an interesting new brand, and it’s sustainable and I can buy it right now." The algorithm that produces the content is directly doing its job. I don’t see someone’s face and think, "Because she uses it, I should use it," but it’s the same kind of shit. Somebody has found out what I look at, suggested that if I look at that, then I should look at this. It’s not that different. I’m still being fed a lifestyle that should influence me. I really liked when you wrote, "I could always sway people in a conversation by using the phrase 'out of touch.’” Who do you think is out of touch right now? Sometimes I say that about myself, you know? "Well, don’t ask me, I’m out of touch." It’s just this perfect way of getting out of something. Most of the time when I say that in meetings it’s not even accurate, I just don’t want to keep talking about a certain person. It’s so bizarre to me. Remember a few years ago, when every single fashion brand wanted A$AP Rocky to be their mascot? In hindsight, that makes so much sense. They wanted to check a lot of boxes; he was very safe in a lot of ways but also dangerous in the right ways and interested in fashion, whatever. I feel like that person for right now is Billie Eilish. Oh totally. She checks so many boxes of what a quintessential person of today should look like and behave like. Whenever this happens, I get so sick of hearing their name, it makes me feel their time is almost up. So I have to say, "I think that’s kind of out of touch," or, "I think that’s kind of over." But nobody listens to me anyways. I’m not like some bigshot in any advertising meetings ever, I’m just kind of there.
To visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why.
The wind blows south over Drancy. It blows south along the horseshoe of boxlike buildings, south through the dark cluster of trees they enclose. It blows south as it musses the hair and scarves of the residents of Drancy as they make their way to and from the towers in which they live, and it blows south until it strikes the strange structure that has been erected in the center of the ring: a repurposed cattle car, at the base of which is a plaque that reads, “The French Republic in hommage to the victims of racist and antisemitic persicutions and the crimes against humanity commited on the authority of the de facto ‘Government of the French State.’” [sic] Most of the Parisian friends I tell about my plans to visit Drancy have never heard of the place: hugging close to Charles de Gaulle Airport, some hour and a half outside of the centre-ville, it’s a suburb both geographically and psychically at Paris’s perimeter, out of sight and out of mind, a place where you wouldn't wind up without a very specific reason for going there. Though Paris’s subway system is so extensive that its maps resemble a plate of spaghetti, Drancy is not hooked up to it; to get to where I need to go—a modest housing development known as la Cité de la Muette—requires a commuter train journey followed by a mile of walking. Now home to low-income residents primarily from France’s former colonies in the Middle East and North Africa, the tower blocks that make up Drancy’s Cité de la Muette constitute France’s cheapest social housing, and some of its least desirable. But at its inception almost a century ago, the complex was intended to be a shining model of salubrious modern design, a haven to which Parisians tired of the cramped and crowded central city might retreat by choice, not by last resort. Between its origins as a starry architectural project and its current fate as a graying banlieu of which most city residents are scarcely aware lies one of the darkest phases of France’s history: that of its wholesale collaboration with the Nazi occupation, during which time Drancy would imprison between 67,000 and 74,000 Jews, many of whom would die either within the complex’s walls or upon their transportation to concentration camps in the east. As such, to visit Drancy is to confront dark and unsettled questions—in France and elsewhere—of who is remembered, who is heard, who can speak, and why. * En route to la Cité from the rail station, it strikes me that the urban planning of the surrounding area seems in many ways an apologia for the history it plasters over. There’s a Rue Charles Fourrier, a misspelt tribute to the eighteenth-century French thinker whose proto-socialist ideas about utopian communities would collectively be known as Fourierism (note the one r). Farther along, there’s another street named after Paul Lossing, a member of the French Resistance who was shot by the Nazis in 1943. There’s a Rue Dr. Albert Schweitzer and a Rue Nelson Mandela and a Rue Sacco et Vanzetti. Elsewhere in the district, the street names morph from homages to freedom-fighters, radicals, and humanitarians into simple prayers for social good: Rue de l’Harmonie, Rue de la Prospérité, Rue de la Liberté. Yet as I walk through the area it is impossible not to note—or perhaps, given that I am psychologically primed, to project—a certain aura of death. I see multiple funeral homes, multiple gravestone sellers with their wares parked out front like Toyota Camrys at a used car dealership. My route passes through a walled cemetery, packed with graves and deeply ugly especially in comparison with the stately central Parisian necropoles of Père Lachaise and Montmartre. Placed on several of the graves are plaques by the National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots, in memory of the death of one of their members. It was a blistering day: I see few people about, hear few voices. There is no grass for the breeze to rustle. The name Cité de la Muette means the silent city, the city of the mute. Describing the slum he lived in during the late 1920s in Down and out in Paris and London, George Orwell recalled rooms so mite-infested that residents had resorted to burning sulfur as a bug repellant; the street itself, he wrote, was a “ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had been frozen in the act of collapse…and packed to the tiles with lodgers.” The opening of the book memorably sketches the nerve-jangling din that characterized everyday life in that place: “quarrels, and the desolate cries of street hawkers, and the shouts of children chasing orange-peel over the cobbles, and at night loud singing and the sour reek of the refuse carts, made up the atmosphere of the street.” If life in the city’s most overcrowded and unhealthy districts was marked first and foremost by incessant, calm-shattering noise, the Silent City stood apart as something new, modern, clean, and above all quiet. With its generously sized lodgings, quality ventilation, and signature peaceful atmosphere, the development contrasted sharply with much of the housing stock that would have been available to most Parisians at the time. This combined with its broad central green and large-windowed apartments that let in plentiful light created a sense of utopia, a serene oasis at the edge of the city. It seemed to point a way forward, to a future in which all could afford to live in the kind of serenity that had previously been the preserve of the wealthy. The large-scale development was composed of several buildings: an exclamation-mark suite of five fifteen-storey towers accompanied by long, low buildings, and then, at the end, a final building in the shape of a U. Constructed using exposed concrete and an iron armature, the buildings were avant-garde both in style and execution. What’s more, the fifteen-story highrises were Paris’s first skyscrapers: eager tourists bought up Drancy postcards and attended guided tours of the site. In 1939, seven years after construction had begun, Drancy’s design was showcased as part of Houses and Housing: Industrial Art, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that aimed to showcase the best of public housing around the world. At the MoMA show, Drancy was placed on par with contributions from the likes of Alvar Aalto, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier. Its designers, Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, envisioned copycat colonies springing up as more and more people were won over by the concept of the decentralized, green “garden city” approach to urbanism. That vision was never realized: on May 10, 1940, the Germans launched the invasion of France; by the beginning of June, they had begun an assault on Paris; and by June 24, the French government officially surrendered. Hitler inspected the broad Haussmannienne boulevards, walked the plaza over which arched the bowed base of the Eiffel Tower, visited Napoleon’s tomb, and left after only three hours. Arrests of Jews began that year. At this time the apartment blocks that had once been postcard fodder for eager visitors were in a sad state of half-construction. The economic difficulties of the Great Depression had put construction on ice: beginning in 1939, the as-yet-unfinished buildings were put to use by the French government to intern communists (the Communist Party having been officially outlawed that year). Following France’s surrender to the Germans, the Nazis originally converted the site into a prison camp for French and British POWs. But when the major roundups of French Jews began in Paris, Nazi officials decided to put the buildings to a different purpose. Other aspects of the location made it attractive to the Nazi administrators as well: the horseshoe-shaped block, designed to curb the flow of the wind, was easy to close off with barbed wire and the addition of a couple guard towers. Once that was done, the open central green—which the designers had once envisioned as a place of afternoon strolls and weekend relaxation—became instead a place where Jewish internees could be kept and easily monitored. Elements that had been intended as building blocks for utopian design were put to use for dystopian purposes with amazing ease and speed: the distance between the two poles, in the end, proved frighteningly small. Camp conditions quickly deteriorated—Drancy was at one point filled to ten times the buildings’ maximum capacity, and woefully inadequate nutrition combined with squalid conditions to produce rampant and deadly disease outbreaks. In a sardonic twist on the development’s earlier life as an ideal dwelling place, internees referred to the latrines (located in one building put up in the courtyard, as the apartments’ plumbing installation had never been completed) as the “chateau” (a reference, said one internee in a later interview, to the idea that wealthy prisoners had swallowed their diamonds rather than letting them be seized). In other moments, internees were forced to ape a paradise they did not know: of the five extant sets of photographs taken when the Drancy camp was in operation, four of them were staged propaganda shoots, either for French newspapers or to hoodwink the Red Cross. And in the meantime, except for these visits, the camp was sealed off; roundup after roundup of Jewish prisoners was forced to live in conditions that were increasingly squalid, and beginning in 1942, trainful after trainful were sent to the east. Those outside of Drancy said nothing at the disappearance of their neighbors; those inside it could not speak, or if they could, would not be heard. This was a silence of a different kind. * “I’m not at ease at Drancy,” says Jacques Saurel. “They hurt me, these buildings.” I’m listening to recordings of Drancy survivors at the Shoah Memorial of Drancy, a museum located just across the street from what used to be the outer walls of the camp. Marked by minimalist restraint of design, the building is easy to walk past even if you are looking for it. On its north façade, floor-to-ceiling windows turn their unblinking gaze at the site, a request for contemplation that is direct yet unspoken. The archive, library, and galleries that comprise the Shoah Memorial represents perhaps the deepest of the many attempts to commemorate the tragedy of Drancy: if the site itself is marked by a kind of silencing, its monuments constitute a visual argument of styles and opinions. The first was Shelomo Seligman’s 1976 modernist sculpture, whose title, The Gates of Hell, references Rodin’s famous work. The sculpture is composed of three parts, all rendered in pinkish stone: two bracket-like monoliths (upon which a dedicatory inscription has been carved) and a central sculpture of writhing and oddly suggestive masses. The red lettering, the rough-hewn style of the sculpture, the reach upwards—all of these are visual cues that on paper should sum to something. But in person they repel more than they provoke, producing neither an articulate statement nor a plain surface upon which to project one’s own. The train car standing not far off––which viewers approach by walking along a train track—is a more scrutable memorial, an obvious emblem of the fate that so many of Drancy’s internees eventually suffered. As well as these installations, however, there is the ever-present question of whether or not the entirety of the site should constitute a memorial to itself. In the years following the end of the war and the eventual liberation of Drancy, Paris faced a massive housing crisis. The former camp buildings that had until recently served as a temporary waystation between life and death were unceremoniously put into use as social housing. Drancy became a no-frills, no-luxury, no illusions home of last resort in which people were billetted because they had nowhere else to go. Drancy’s transformation into an undesirable housing block also mirrored a larger demographic shift in Paris’s urban geography whereby the periphery became the province of the poor—and increasingly the ethnic minority—mired in low-wage work that had left them unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of the central arrondissements. The Shoah Memorial’s archive of interviews with Drancy’s survivors reveal contradictory attitudes about what should be done with the site. Henri Gotainer, who was taken to Drancy in 1942 at the age of 11, said he had been back only once, for the inauguration of the train car memorial, though he has visited Auschwitz (where he was never interned) several times. For Gotainer, the need for people and place to move on is not only natural but essential to survival: “If I lived permanently in these memories,” he said, “It would be intolerable.” For others, however, the question is more complicated. Jacques Saurel, who was taken from Drancy to Bergen-Belsen, describes “coming out of [his] muteness” about the war after reading that a memorial for those who died at Bergen-Belsen would be erected at Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Shortly thereafter, he says, something took hold of him: he got in his car and drove to Drancy. “It was history that accompanied me,” he said of the journey, which he had never thought of making before. But though Saurel has since returned, the place remains indelibly associated with the pain and suffering he witnessed there. Sometimes, Saurel says towards the end of his interview, he thinks it would be better after all to turn the whole place into a museum: “It’s a question I haven’t found the answer to.” Saurel’s uncertainty and discomfort point to one of the central tensions of Drancy: that even if one accepts that life must go on in places of tragedy, the degree to which normal life is contingent upon a certain degree of forgetting makes it seem somehow deeply wrong. Today, the majority of Drancy’s residents are Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in the Middle East and Africa. The fact that many of these low-income residents lack the means to move elsewhere renders the question of whether or not they would prefer to live in a place with a less gruesome past something of a moot point. This particular lack of freedom points to the ways in which those who are marginalized today are forced to live with the ghosts of history, the places haunted by deaths at the hands of people whose ancestors now quietly choose to look away. Given Drancy’s current demographic makeup, the question of memorialization becomes a fraught one: razing the entire site or converting to whole area into an open-air museum would render homeless residents who had no part in the historic wrongs committed there. As Katherine Fleming writes in “What Remains? Sites of Deportation in Contemporary European Daily Life: The Case of Drancy,” Drancy plays host to some of the most difficult problems in modern French public discourse, including “questions relating to the memory of the Holocaust in contemporary France, on the one hand, and the place of (largely Muslim) immigrants, on the other. In many ways, these debates are two different historical instantiations of the same ‘problem,’ the ‘problem’ of the outsider. In Drancy, they collide.” These residents, too, have been silenced. This is the defining characteristic of Drancy, its ability to swallow all sound like freshly fallen snow. * Of Drancy’s many silences, perhaps the most pointed one is that of the question of French complicity. A Parisian Jewish friend of mine once posed the following question to me: how many Jews did the Germans deport from France? The answer: none—because the French were so willing to lend a helping hand and do it themselves. One of the reasons Alain Resnais’s seminal Holocaust documentary Night and Fog was banned in its director’s native country until almost a decade after it was made is that one of the shots of deportation trains being loaded with people shows a French gendarme on the station platform, overseeing what was effectively the administration of a mass death sentence. This was the rule for Drancy as well: though the site was planned by Nazi overseers, the entire camp was largely run—and its prisoners supplied—by French police and government bureaucrats who proved more than willing to collaborate. French officers conducted the round-ups; French officers stripped Jews of their possessions upon arrival; French officers profiteered from Drancy’s black market. But the 1976 tear-down of all but the Cité’s U-complex marked the irreparable destruction of physical evidence of the French guards who had been billetted in the adjoining tower blocks. The fight over the acknowledgment of French culpability cannot be understood without a full acknowledgment of France’s antisemitism, which is not a confined historical phenomenon but a living strain of thought that continues to draw blood in the present. It was not until 1995 that the French government (then headed by Jacques Chirac) admitted to culpability in the Holocaust, but more recent statements by politicians on the far right—most notably Marine Le Pen during her unsuccessful presidential bid in 2017—have rejected the idea that France was in any way to blame for the deaths of over 70,000 of its Jews. Such hand-washing statements come against a backdrop of increasing antisemitic violence across the country. In March of 2018, two assailants broke into Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll’s Paris apartment, stabbed her to death, and then set her body on fire, allegedly under the assumption that because she was Jewish she would have money to steal. Knoll’s funeral attracted thousands of mourner-protesters. Hers is only the latest in a string of murders motivated by antisemitism that have collectively contributed to what the president of the European Jewish Council has described as an “increasing sense of emergency.” As a site of confrontation with France’s collaborationist past, Drancy is not unique: many major French urban areas were affixed with “silent cities” of their own, internment and transportation camps created on their outskirts of which even locals today are largely ignorant. Near Toulouse, there is Saint-Sulpice-La-Point and Recebedou; near Pau, there is Gurs; near Aix-en-Provence, there is the Camp des Milles. But none of these are comparable to Drancy when it comes to the fact that at the latter the living of the present occupy the exact same space as the murdered of the past and lead lives whose normalcy depends, at least in part, upon the mental shelving of this fact. Drancy was not a purpose-built containment site for evil; it was a normal place in which horrific things occurred. This too is not unique: the most infamous of France’s wartime roundups took place at a bicycle track. Transport to camps was often undertaken using requisitioned public buses. There is no kind of space that cannot play host to the crimes of history, just as there is no human heart in which evil will not roost. Perhaps what is most disturbing about visiting the Cité de la Muette is the disjuncture between my knowledge of what happened there and how little of this I would be able to glean on my own had I stumbled upon this place ignorant of what it was. People commonly speak of “energies” or “auras” exuded by certain places, of a permanent eeriness or chill left by the ghastly events of the past, but in truth as I circumambulated the courtyard I could feel nothing of this kind. Views of the indoor entryways often revealed peeling paint or dirty stairwells, but the exterior walk was swept clean, the doors painted a cheery pink. There is a center for the elderly; there is a maternal health clinic; there is a wooded park, though no one is there. It is comforting to think of places of great evil as perceptibly, palpably marked out; the truth, that time is capable of rendering invisible even the most horrible of crimes to the naked eye, is far more frightening. Drancy is not, candidly, a beautiful place, but nor is it scarred by the kind of ugliness that its moral history would merit. Had I come to this place not knowing what it was—and were it not for the memorials there to teach me—I might even have found the place pleasant.
The author of Here Until August on the cruelty of language, fiction as a form of introspection, and writing as an act against ventriloquism.
Josephine Rowe’s latest short story collection Here Until August (Catapult) is full of people leaving, returning, and biding their time. Seven years in the making, many of these stories take place all over the world: from Australia to the Catskills to Newfoundland. There’s an interiority in the work; of secret passageways, bated breath, family history and inside jokes reserved for old friends. As a poet, Rowe demonstrates a dislike of wastage in her work: every word counts. Her debut novel—A Loving, Faithful Animal—is just under 200 pages, and explores intergenerational trauma through a group of siblings growing up in 1990s southeast Australia. Josephine and I spoke while she was on assignment in Western Australia as a journalist, before returning to Melbourne for the launch of Here Until August. Nathania Gilson: As I read the stories from Here Until August, I was struck by the Australian-isms that sung out on some of the pages: “runners,” “pissing contest,” “reffos,” “bogans,” “hauled arse,” “lark." What is it about this kind of colloquial syntax that deserves its place in a story (even at the risk of losing or confusing readers outside of Australia)? Josephine Rowe: I’ve never really understood that a writer might run the risk of alienating or losing readers—especially those who’ve elected to read a book by a foreign writer—by using an unfamiliar word. Reading—however you’re coming to it—is a willful act of discovery. Of engaging. So, I’m not sure who that reader is, but I hope never to be stuck in a lift with them. It would be a dreary wait. That said, colloquialisms probably tell us something more pointed about people than standard language. For instance, the word “reffos” makes me cringe. In the story, it’s treated as a harmful and dehumanizing word—which it is. It trivializes the experience of dispossession; of unfathomable loss (of country, and more) while seeking to shrug off our national responsibility to extend asylum to those in need of it. Not everyone who uses that word—children, for example, as is the case in the story—does so in full consciousness of its cruelty. But what does it say about Australia as a country for that word to be so prevalent in the lexicon? So many of the characters in this new collection of stories are so attentive to language: they hear words as though they’ve “been kept in the wrappers they came in.” They compile mental lists of words that sound differently when spoken than they do written down—“vital and gleaming.” In your own life, do you have any language-based rituals or systems that you use to collect words, sounds, sentences, or turns of phrase that catch your attention? How do you make the most of noticing things? How to make the most of noticing things—this might be the perfect mission statement for much writing, and much of art. I just write things down on whatever’s to hand—notebook, envelope, wrist—then often forget about them just as quickly. But your question makes me suspect I’m being left out of some terrific methodology of cataloguing. Certain things I’ve probably internalized without consciously recording. The speech patterns and idioms of friends, or the various ways that English breaks when spoken as a supplementary language. I remember studying your work at uni, and being shown evidence that published short stories need only be one sentence long, that more words didn’t necessarily mean better (or more interesting) narratives—especially from your early short stories and Tarcutta Wake. These stories were published not long after the introduction of Twitter, which was envisioned at the time as “like texting, but not.” I wonder what you set out to achieve—or rebel against?—at a time when short stories (or flash- or micro-fiction) may not necessarily have been in vogue, seen as profitable, or a thing to "aspire" to, as a writer? Writing those earlier collections, social media wasn’t remotely on my mind (I was a latecomer to social media; also, the term “flash-fiction” always seemed like weird, time-poor branding to me). I wasn’t rebelling, either, even though I was told often enough that I was doing something unpopular or unsaleable. But it was only ever publishers who told me that—“five-finger exercises,” one man dismissed them as. I was just writing in the mode that I felt fueled to write in, and that I’ve always loved to read in. We don’t have to reach very far for galvanizing examples of writers who are exceptional—and often at their best—in shorter forms: Yasunari Kawabata, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, Lucia Berlin, Sandra Cisneros, Michael Ondaatje (in his early novels). Jorge Luis Borges, Raymond Carver, Eliot Weinberger, Janet Frame—pretty much any fiction writer who is also a poet, as they are more likely have the patience and the reverence for distillation. The stories in August being generally longer (if not necessarily better or more interesting!) might have something to do with them being further from autobiography (which I’ve delved into elsewhere) but also simply the luxury of time. I say “luxury” to mean something closer to a self-imposed effort towards patience. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or several years further into things. Thinking on it, perhaps there was a particular urgency early on—that the twenty-something-year-old writing those stories didn’t believe she’d make it to thirty. Post-thirty (and then some), I’ve at least a slightly longer view: I quite like the process of a story accruing over many months, or years. I think in many ways I’m working from the same instincts, with the same sensibilities—definitely from the same methodological disarray, and occasionally from the same sense of urgency—as I was with those shorter stories. But if we were to break it down to say, the attention that's gone into a sentence, then there’s probably no difference between my approach to a long story or short: the sentence would be holding the same amount of time (and ghost versions of itself). Several books into your writing career now, how do you motivate yourself to keep writing? I was speaking recently with my oldest friend, a cellist, about how much can be meaningfully addressed (not just expressed) through our respective artforms. Whether there might still be time to become qualified in something more practicably beneficial to the environment or to others. Or, are these vocations that we both came to honestly, worked shitty jobs to support, with no real expectation of ever making a living by them (even a modest, no-car-no-kids living) what we are beholden to push forward with? To find a way of ensuring they’re relevant, in the service of the right things. (For the record, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a perennial crisis about this, so long as you keep moving.) What keeps me writing is some blend of that innate compulsion, not quite articulable, and the desire to hitch it to something definitive. And—shorter, straighter—I write because it’s the best means I have of figuring things out. In the final short story at the end of Here Until August, a couple drives past a frozen pond. They want to walk out onto the ice just to see if it’ll hold their weight. Of the trust required to believe the ice will hold their weight, they remark, out of superstition: “It is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic.” There’s a sense of being dumbfounded by nature there, I think. Wanting to be impressed by the force of it, but not necessarily getting wrapped up in how things might actually come into being. Earlier this year, you wrote a weather report on global warming for The Believer. In the piece, you name the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht who coined the term “solastalgia” which was widely adopted as a watchword to describe existential crises brought about by environmental crises. I’m wondering how you grapple with writing about home, homesickness, and a sense of place in the age of climate change and the looming realities that impact our physical sense of where we come from? While the stories in Here Until August do have human lives as their fulcrum, the non-human world—animal and elemental—is very present. And the characters in each story, even if they’re somewhat bulwarked by city life, are moved by these forces whether they’re conscious of it or not. But these stories were collected over seven years. And seven years ago, like most of the attention-paying world, I was less afraid (at least in regards to the climate). So much has happened, or come to light, in the intervening years that locates us in the tipping point, not simply bracing for it. In The Believer essay I mention last summer’s news cycle—within the same report there’d be fires, floods, the mass death of fish in one of our most significant river systems. New colors appearing on the temperature map as record highs were consistently broken. If the stories here are reflective of the concerns I have about those looming realities, then great. But I don’t think they speak as loudly to them as I presume my next book will. At present, I’m probably more likely to confront these things directly in essay and non-fiction. Which is not to say that they shouldn’t be a focal point in fictional narratives; absolutely, they should. Only that sometimes overtly assigning a character one’s own agenda can feel like a flimsy act of ventriloquism. After a point, the story resists. In non-fiction, that isn’t a problem. I don’t have to worry about whether it would be believable of X to think deeply and at considerable length about Y. So much of your work reveals the thrill of being understood—and the devastation of being misunderstood. I’m thinking of in “Real Life,” the Yukon Jack girls, whose neighbours can never tell if they’re fucking or fighting. When the narrator in “Repairs” removes the “s” arm off her typewriter so she can’t spell her ex’s name. Instead, she types: “Bezt. Regardz. Cheerz. Xincerely. Thanx.” Short stories often come with intentional gaps or unfinished business—how does the form help you resolve or contain things that don’t necessarily work themselves out as you’d like to in real life? It does help, but it might take a lifetime to get to the why. Maybe writing neither resolves nor contains these things, but rather opens to air, or helps to metabolize. My own clearest example of this were the realizations I came to in writing A Loving, Faithful Animal, my first novel, and a quintessential first novel in many regards (very close to the bone). But also, this is not the only reason I write. Are there narrative forms beyond the short story and novel that you have experimented with and found a new voice in, or that you’re interested in exploring? I’m not sure about a new voice—for better or worse I think I’m fixed to this one, at least authorially—though I do hope characters’ voices are distinct from this. But I do write in other forms—and perhaps feel most myself in fragmentary, genre-eliding works. But where to house these? So, they don’t often make it as far in finding an audience, and that’s okay. Once something’s published it’s essentially set, and there’s something comforting about the prospect of works that might stay malleable and in-progress for an indefinite period of time, something you may never have to call finished. (And also, I should say that I appreciate very much the outward attention that an essay or profile requires, if we might include these as narrative forms. Being brought out, blinking, from the grainy introspection of fiction. I find it’s necessary.) What advice would you have for young writers who doubt themselves and the stories they want to tell? Firstly, that doubt can be a formidable ally, indicative of many favorable and necessary attributes; that you take your work and the story you’re trying to tell seriously. Probably that you have a moral compass, believe in accountability, etc. Of course, doubt can be entirely inhibiting, so we have little choice but to make a friend of it. I say this with the caveat that some doubt is well-founded, so we’re continually tasked with determining whether we hesitate because we are ill-equipped, or because we are simply afraid, and undervalue our voices. A friend sent me a Georgia O’Keefe quote a couple of weeks ago: “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” I can’t claim the same, exactly (of never allowing fear to scupper my ambition or desire) but it’s a good stone to have in your pocket, remembering that the most courageous and dedicated people we know and admire are generally also scared witless, in one way or another.
The late film producer’s cookbooks reveal a subtle, coded queer sensibility.
Though he was hoping to see Rock Hudson or Doris Day on the street, Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman didn’t see any stars when he first arrived in New York in 1958. The 21-year-old Indian man lived in a drab room on the sixteenth floor of Martinique Hotel in Manhattan’s Herald Square. The neighborhood was nothing like he pictured. Given the number of movies he’d seen featuring New York City, he was a naïve believer in the cliché that each street was paved with gold, so he was spooked by the sight of the homeless people who clung to liquor bottles. Animal desire drove him to the city. On August 11, he boarded a boat that snaked its way from his native Bombay to Genoa, hopped on a train to London, and then flew to New York. He had finished his degree in political science and English literature at Bombay’s St. Xavier’s College, where he spent his last year applying to American business schools. He was desperately hoping to gain admission to the University of Southern California, which would provide easy passage to Hollywood. Cinema was his great love in life, after all. The world would come to understand him in such terms when he re-christened himself Ismail Merchant, paired himself creatively and romantically with the Oregon-born James Ivory, and produced such films as A Room with a View (1986) and Howard’s End (1992) under the Merchant-Ivory label. These films trafficked in lush imagery, their moods carefully calibrated to convey the inner lives of characters who found themselves unmoored in the world and struggling to express their longings. Some films, like The Bostonians (1984) and Maurice (1987), came out in the thick of the AIDS epidemic and reckoned with queer desire. He ended up going to New York University instead. It only took hours after arriving for the young man to wonder if he made a mistake in moving to the city. Most disorienting of all his new home had to offer was the food. He was puzzled by a place called Horn & Hardart, a clinical coin-operated food operation unlike anything he’d ever encountered. The sense of sterility extended to the grocery store, where all this food was sheathed in cellophane and he had to silence the impulse to touch and smell the food as he could in Bombay. He couldn’t make peace with the hot dogs and hamburgers in America. Not even the street food consoled him. Maybe he should have foreseen this disappointment. The Bombay of his youth was a gastronomic wonderland, where bazaars felt like tactile museums: He could poke the poultry, sniff the melons, pinch the produce. He walked through Null Bazaar’s seafood stalls, made from marble slabs wobbling on wicker baskets. He gazed at the fruits and vegetables at Crawford Market as if they were jewels, filtered through forgiving skylights. He saw 20, sometimes 30 chickens cramped in straw baskets as they cawed and clucked, listening to their screams before slaughter. The absence of refrigeration in his Bombay home meant that any meat was cooked the same day his family bought it home from the bazaar. Merchant didn’t do any of the cooking, though. The men of his middle-class, Muslim family were discouraged from entering the kitchen, primarily the domain of women like his mother and six sisters, though the hired help tended to be men. Merchant relays these stories in two of his cookbooks, 1986’s Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine and 1994’s Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals, both published well after he became an esteemed producer. America, Merchant explained in his cookbooks, was always the imagined destination. Once he had his business degree in hand, he found himself jobless, and he could only afford to eat meals from coffee shops like Chock Full O’Nuts. By then, he was trying to get financing for a short film, which would become 1961’s Oscar-nominated The Creation of a Woman. He needed a way to entertain his potential investors. The only way for him to survive was to learn how to cook. In New York, he had the latitude to perform all the kitchen tasks he couldn’t in Bombay: cooking, serving, entertaining. Cooking came naturally to him. As if by osmosis, he’d unknowingly absorbed the lessons of his family’s cooks. He could make a simple dal or a keema of minced lamb and peas. These skills always lived inside him, awaiting articulation. Cooking became a form of currency for Merchant, capital he used to ingratiate potential investors who could help finance his career in films. He knew it was odd for a would-be producer to feed investors himself rather than take them out to restaurants. But his food was a great equalizer. “I like to think that my cooking and the occasion softened some of them up a bit,” he wrote of his guests. Merchant went on to achieve greatness in the culinary realm, making meals that had become legendary in their own right, particularly amongst the artists in his orbit. Actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey called him “a shrewd horse-trader” in the foreword to his 1994 cookbook, a man who could “inject a sense of easy camaraderie between those high up in the entertainment establishment and those barely on the rise” through food. (Jaffrey, one of America’s doyennes of Indian food, has credited Merchant with kickstarting her culinary fame. He persuaded Craig Claiborne of the New York Times to write a 1966 piece on Jaffrey’s culinary talents in a bid to generate publicity for 1965’s Shakespeare Wallah, a film Merchant and Jaffrey worked on together.) “In India we say that the ability to create flavor is in the hands,” Jaffrey wrote. “Some people just have it. Ismail certainly does.” In the kitchen, Merchant was a creature of instinct. Cooking was not a merely iterative process oriented towards producing a favorable result for him; it was an opportunity to experiment with abandon. Merchant’s greatest fear, he wrote in his second cookbook, was boring his guests with a static repertoire. “I disobey all the conventions and laws of cooking, preferring to improvise and make new discoveries all the time,” he wrote. His recipes flaunted the rules he knew in Bombay. He tossed leftover lemons that were sitting in his refrigerator into his masoor dal. He cooked fresh ginger root and green chili into his burgers. He cooked shrimp in Dijon. The food was sly, giving convention a knowing glance before tilting it ever so slightly. When Merchant wrote of his distaste for the rules that guarded cooking, he was, of course, referencing blind devotion to ingredients and techniques. Implicit in this statement of culinary rebellion, though, was his skirting of the rules of a world that told him that a cook must be a certain kind of person, must be a certain gender. On trips back to India, he tried his best to keep his culinary inclinations a secret from the women in his family, until he couldn’t hide it any longer. His mother became too sick to cook one day, so he prepared a meal of large prawns in mustard sauce in fewer than fifteen minutes. His mother and sisters never quite got used to the idea of the family’s only son inhabiting the kitchen, though. It was as if he was committing an act of transgression, a man who took on a feminized trait and performed it. There are codings in Merchant’s food writing that remind one of the unavoidable fact that Merchant himself was a gay man who was never publicly out, moving through spaces that could have very well been inhospitable to him had he been an openly gay man. Merchant died in 2005, at age 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. His widower, James Ivory, has recently stated in unambiguous terms what was once unspoken: The two men were in love. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, when pressed as to why he and Merchant dodged questions about the nature of their relationship, Ivory suggested that keeping them both in the closet was a shrewd way of protecting Merchant. “That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever!” Ivory told the paper of Merchant’s sexuality. “You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.” Understanding that Merchant maintained his public life in the closet shades his food writing with notes of queer desire, as if the kitchen gave him a chance to fulfill yearnings he had theretofore repressed. In these cookbooks, Merchant conjured a fantasy world, the kind some may associate with the prototypical domestic goddess. Merchant became the impresario who spun wonder out of groceries from Gristedes in the stuffy confines of 5 ½-by-8-foot kitchen equipped only with a four-ring gas stove and oven. “A great cook should be able to do something well with the snap of a finger rather to toil over it,” he wrote in the introduction for his first cookbook. “He or she should be inventive, be someone who can whip up something from nothing.” A culinary wizard, to his mind, could practically assemble a salad from two strands of straw. Tucked in his recipe headnotes were the names of people most of us have only seen on celluloid: Maggie Smith, Christopher Reeve, Raquel Welch, Vanessa Redgrave. He summoned an existence a casual reader may dream of when standing inside their own kitchen. The brand of domestic performance that Merchant perfected has long been coded as female. As writer Emily Gould noted in The Cut in 2017, the kitchen can cloister women as much as it can provide them a stage for expression. It follows, then, that when Merchant’s first cookbook was published in 1986, the most visible Indian cookbook authors in America were two women: the aforementioned Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, a dancer-turned-architect-turned-cookbook author who’d grown up in a Tamil Brahmin family. Merchant published his first cookbook when America was finally disabusing itself of the notion that Indian food was too intricate to bring into the American kitchen. (Merchant’s first cookbook shows its age when it includes a recipe for fried paneer that calls for Cheddar cheese.) Both Jaffrey and Sahni had, the spring before the fall publication of Merchant’s first cookbook, published two cookbooks, A Taste of India and Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, respectively, illustrative of the point to which the genre of Indian cookbooks had grown. But Merchant’s cookbook was not an Indian cookbook, per se; he certainly didn’t classify it as such. To start, he was operating from a different center of gravity than Hindu Indian food writers, having grown up in an Indian Muslim household who regularly consumed nonvegetarian food, thus disrupting the worn myth of the Indian national who is automatically vegetarian. More crucially, the cookbook is neither national nor regional in scope. Instead, as Craig Claiborne of the New York Times noted, it is “simply one man's inspired notion of what his native land's cookery should taste like. It is tailored to his own sophisticated and remarkably original palate.” Only Merchant could have written these recipes, in other words. Sitting alongside this cultural history of women inverting the trap of the kitchen into a province of creativity is an obscured history of gay men pulling off a similar magic trick. The kitchen has long been an arena for expression for gay men, too, a tradition that food writer John Birdsall unwrapped in his 2013 piece for Lucky Peach, “America, Your Food Is So Gay.” Birdsall gestured towards a working definition of food shaped by gay men (Claiborne, one of the 20th century’s most influential culinary gatekeepers, was one). This was “food that takes pleasure seriously, as an end in itself, an assertion of politics or a human birthright, the product of culture.” Birdsall wrote of his own impulses as a young line cook working in a casually homophobic San Francisco kitchen. He weathered prejudice routinely in these spaces, resulting in a fury that he soothed into spirited artistic output. He was “fueled by sublimated rage, the outsider with something to prove, taking the ingredients I was handed and making sure they transcended their limits.” Merchant’s writing suggests a similar cognizance of the fact that his cooking possessed a whiff of radicalism, as if he was overcoming the boundaries others had set for him. His friends came to regard him as a master chef. He interpreted the compliment as a testament to his boundless imagination and fearlessness in execution, rooted in a desire to prove his own worth. In his eyes, as he wrote in his first cookbook, a master chef “must have imagination, a flair for mixing conventional and unconventional ingredients, an appreciation of different seasonings, and a desire to satisfy his or her ego.” Today, some of the most prominent male voices in America who have written cookbooks borrowing tenets of Indian cooking—Nik Sharma, Suvir Saran, Raghavan Iyer—happen to be gay men, as if Merchant’s culinary spirit echoes in this current generation. Call it coincidence. (This is to say nothing of the queer women, like Preeti Mistry, who have written cookbooks.) Reading Merchant’s gentle pleas to “be adventurous and not be afraid to make discoveries” in the kitchen brings to mind Sharma’s Season, the 2018 cookbook that brims with similar refrains. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food,” Sharma writes, as if explicating what Merchant could communicate only in hushed tones. “It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago, one that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter.” Sharma’s is a philosophy that tosses curry leaves with the buttermilk batter for popcorn chicken; that grills pork chops with chaat masala; that puts paneer in places some may least expect to find it, like a salad of cauliflower and lentils. He, like Merchant before him, is guided by reverence to tradition without unwavering fealty to it. His is cooking that moves towards freedom, mindful of the worth of culinary tradition and carefully breaching it. Merchant developed a vocabulary of cooking that was entirely his own long before these men, his queerness contained in whispers. He encouraged the curiosity that motivated him to take cooks places they may not otherwise have imagined. These recipes flowed from him freely, as if he was, in the kitchen, a man who had nothing to hide.
The author of Screen Tests on allowing for randomness, accusations of naïvety, and productive nap times.
Kate Zambreno is drawn to the ambulatory nature of the photographer and writer Moyra Davey’s work, how she uses texts to roam through an idea. A film by Davey features her pacing—a visual metaphor for the monologue she's speaking—through her apartment, talking evenly into a microphone that picks up the gulps of air she takes before her next sentence. I picture Zambreno, the author of books including Heroines, Appendix Project, and most recently, Screen Tests (HarperCollins), as she works, physically moving in the same way Davey does, roaming through genre, time periods, and mediums. Zambreno works within the same interdisciplinary nature that once caused Anne Carson to be accused of naïvety. We can hear Davey speak in the film, but she’s not necessarily speaking to us. It feels like she’s making a voice note for her own reference—layering the life of Mary Wollenscraft with that of her own and her sisters, the timeline overlapping like tracing the contours of a drawing with vellum. Who is Zambreno speaking to? In Screen Tests, short texts are removed from the reader, allowing them to process each sentence in private. This distance begets texts that feel more personal than Appendix Project. The second half of Screen Tests is saved for essays—or rather, fragments linked together to form an essay, further proving Zambreno’s knack for lack of specificity. In both books, Zambreno gives the reader insight into the ambulatory nature of her process, a generosity atypical of writers. The following interview provides further insight into Zambreno’s nesting doll mind, motherhood, bad reviews, and the nature of performance. Tatum Dooley: In Appendix Project, you're using French philosophy and children's books as a lens to view your life in a way that it becomes an autobiography. Kate Zambreno: I’ve been thinking about not how to fill a text with myself, but how to empty myself from a text. Recent work, since Heroines, has been characterized by an ambivalence towards the first person. A lot of the specificity is emptied out of Appendix Project but it penetrates through almost unknowingly. The children's book stuff is my favourite part of Appendix Project. I think my meditation on the strangeness of these children's books is about how these appendices, these lectures, were written in pure exhaustion. There's this pure ghostly state of exhaustion. Exhaustion is so much like grief and grief is an exhaustion where everything is slowed down and so you notice the strangeness of everyday life. I read each talk in Appendix Project as a mind map. A single talk connected William Mumler to Roland Barthes to your own photo albums to the film Wanda to Goodnight Moon. How do you make those connections? I think that's definitely what I intended with the talks, for them to be about the connections the mind makes and about finding surprising connections between things. The truth is I just read the same things over and over again. Bhanu Kapil's work is so much in Appendix Project because I teach her work and I read her work over and over again. I feel like Roland Barthes is throughout everything. Appendix Project is my failure and my attempt to write about the last couple of years of Roland Barthes's life. I'm really interested in the sort of ambulatory, or the idea of, like, walking in an essay. I think about the writer and photographer Moyra Davey a lot. She'll take on a subject for a book, like the notebooks of Jean Genet, but then she'll drift through all of her reading and put everything in connection to each other. For each of the talks I had about five or six objects that I was thinking through. I allowed for some accident and randomness. You've mentioned that you had writer’s block after you published Heroines until your daughter was born. Was that a symptom of something larger? Do you have an idea of what brought on the writing block? I was used to writing books that had very little readership except a small community. Heroines broke through and it kind of astonished me. It surprised me and I think it estranged me from myself. Some people had very, very, very strong reactions to Heroines when it came out. I found that paralyzing. Then I moved to New York. I felt very much closer to New York publishing which is closer to thinking of writing as a commodity. People began to ask me what my next book was and wanted it to be something as buzzy and as loud as Heroines was. I found myself withdrawing and wanting to go more into a private space which is the space of writing. I had to almost revolt against what New York wanted of me and what publishing wanted of me. What came out of that was a rich period of writing. I thought I had writer's block but really it was that I chose to think and read for a while. As soon as I gave birth, I stopped feeling writer's block. The demands of my life meant I had to take on more commissions and I had to be a little less precious about being paralyzed. I had to have a little bit more confidence. I've noticed in Appendix Project and Screen Tests that you keep returning to the origins of things, the town you are born and also motherhood. Book of Mutter only cracked the surface of me trying to write my origins. I feel like that's something that writers are uncomfortable about, it has a lot of shame associated to it. Those tend to be some of the most interesting areas to write, but they can take a long time. One of the areas my work has started to think about is childhood. I haven't really wanted to write [about] childhood or origins and since I don't really want to write it, the work kind of has a bruise under the narrative. I was surprised to find, in Screen Tests, how much I write about my father. In a recent Paris Review interview, you said, "With the talks and shorter appendixes I felt more liberated to try to think through a weird collage of concerns and ideas, a live-wire essaying. I allowed myself to exist in this space of unknowingness. Maybe it helped that I was not planning on publishing them as a book, until they became one. They were more ephemeral, they were refusing the monument.” I wonder, is this writing similar to what you're interested in with the artist On Kawara—is the text a performance that's ephemeral? I think that there was a lot of desire not to have the talks printed. I thought that that would have been really wonderful for me to have resisted having them made into a book because I think that would have been truly a tribute to their mortality and the performance of them. There was a moment in the book where I write about the writer Sofia Samatar, our dialogue about our desire to write a book and distribute it in train stations without our names. How literature can have this energy of performance, which is a desire of mine. The first talk is a meditation on the daily paintings of On Kawara. I was really interested in this idea of painting as ritual and painting as process and painting a date much like Roland Barthes writes a journal in his Mourning Diary. The paintings stand in for a life lived. What is art but time and transcending time? I have this quote I've been thinking about a lot lately, which was in one of my notebooks from three years ago. It's from an obit of a painter who is really a critic. I don't have his name. He never sold his paintings, but he kept on painting. This is what he said about why he started painting again: "Although my guess is that the art object is done with. I myself go on making paintings but this doesn't have much to do with making saleable physical objects, making them is more like philosophical investigation, art criticism, or yoga.” I think in some ways the appendices were art criticism, philosophical investigation, and yoga. And so, my desire for writing to have that process feel to it. The last sentence in each of the short stories in Screen Test twists the knife in the same way Lydia Davis does—it almost becomes like a poem. There’s a cadence to the stories that is enunciated in the last line. I feel like I'm a prose writer who will never be seen as a poet, but everything I write is a desire to be a poet. When I finished Heroines, which felt like this very maximal work in a way, all I wanted to do was write one sentence stories. I'm really drawn to short forms, to the fragment, to smallness. I'm a huge Lydia Davis fan and also of Diane Williams. Anne Carson writes, in the Gender of Sound, which you write about, how she's been called naïve in her use of bringing together different time periods and sources. And I wonder if that's ever been an accusation lobbed at you. Yeah. That passage is about the accusations that she's been naïve in the past for bringing in all different time periods and styles. There was a review last week that brought in Heroines as being incredibly naïve. So much of Appendix Project is a talk about talks—it’s very meta in terms of being aware that I'm often invited as a wild outsider who does this naïve form of scholarship that would be considered very criminal in the university and academia, which is why I don't have a full time job. The truth is I don't identify as a scholar. It’s hard for me to imagine Anne Carson being called naïve. Maggie Nelson has spoken about earlier reviews of her books where she's been called similar things. When Heroines came out, the writer Sheila Heti sent me a very tattered copy of a book called Manet and his Circle, which is about when Manet's paintings came out he was derided as completely naïve, as a plagiarist, as a copyist, and that his paintings were incredibly ugly. It's very hard for us to realize that because Manet is in museums and these works are so beautiful but they were seen as, like, not painting. The idea that in certain time periods if you do something that's considered naïve or ugly you're threatening. You write that Anne Carson says she always has six books by her side when she's writing. I wonder if you do as well, and what are those six books? Well, it just changes with every piece that I'm working on. I'm currently writing a book about Hervé Guibert's To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I'm thinking through Guibert's Compassion Protocol. And then I have Moyra Davey’s Burn the Diaries and The Station Hill Blanchot Reader and I have Foucault's Birth of the Clinic and I have Anne Carson's Decreation. When people ask me if I'm reading, what I'm reading, I'm like, I'm just reading Hervé Guibert all over again in translation. I’m thinking back to when you said you started writing when Leo was born. Alice Munro talked about starting to write when she had children, that there was an urgency to write and finish a story as her children napped. So did Raymond Carver. There’s an urgency to write to provide, but also time constraints. Ninety-nine percent of the Screen Tests and Appendix Project were written when Leo napped. Some of the times I had childcare and some of the times I did not. I sat next to Diane Williams [at an event] and I spoke to her about that, I think she started writing when she had children too. One of the things I said to her is that when you're a mother you're a ghost, there’s a sense of you being in the dark and being quiet for the baby. This difficult thing happens, your identity is through another. There is almost a loss of the self that happens, especially at first. It's about the baby. For me, this extreme loss of self was also a form of decreation. I think that's why I really desired to write. Writing is a way into and out of existence. I often write when I'm feeling the most ghostly and I felt extremely ghostly right after I gave birth. There was a desire to write myself back into existence, to mark, like the On Kawara paintings, I am still alive.
In Jean Rhys’s novels, women exhibit a particular kind of English suffering, a perfect illustration of the female condition in the interwar years.
If you consume Jean Rhys’s first four novels one after another, the books begin to bleed into each other. You may try to be logical, making a note of names and ages. There are, after all, four different protagonists: the 18-year-old chorus girl Anna Morgan (Voyage in the Dark), the 28-year-old wife Marya Zelli (Quartet), thirty-something Julia Martin (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie), and the middle-aged woman Sasha Jensen (Good Morning, Midnight). But after a while, the protagonists start to look like the same person, distorted in funhouse mirrors—this one a little younger, that one a little poorer, one with a fur coat, one who has already sold hers. They are all, even Anna, sad about aging and obsessed with clothing; they’re largely underemployed and dependent on the palely awful men they date for food, board, and taxi money; they flit from depressing lodging to depressing lodging, and they spend the course of the novels inhaling one drink after another. It’s tempting to chalk these similarities up to the novels being largely autobiographical: if the heroines are the same person, maybe that person is Rhys herself? Indeed, in an essay in The Guardian, her Wide Sargasso Sea editor Diana Athill argues that Rhys’s novels were “based on things that really happened.” Several details from Rhys’s own life neatly dovetail with plot in her work: the chorus girl career and abortion in Voyage in the Dark, the affair with Ford Madox Ford in Quartet, the characters’ drinking habits through all four novels. But are these novels really best consumed as autobiography? These four books seem at their most powerful in portraying a general female melancholy that speaks to the conditions of the interwar years rather than one specific to Rhys herself. The financial precarity, the hostile landladies, and the blurred line between dating and sex work sound all too familiar when we look at the historical context. Of course, the geography of these novels matters, too. Nothing feels more characteristically Rhysian than Quartet’s Marya gazing down the Rue de Rennes in Paris and thinking of Tottenham Court Road or Leaving Mr. Mackenzie’s Julia spending 600 francs on new clothes before her trip to London in the hope of looking respectable enough for her family to welcome her. Rhys’s novels are obsessed with England and Englishness,11I will be using the terms “England” and “English” in lieu, in places, for “Britain” and “British” throughout the essay since these are the words Rhys uses over and over in these four novels.regardless of where they’re set. But while her heroines are preoccupied with a sort of establishment Englishness that they feel shut out from, Rhys (who was born and grew up in Dominica) uses these novels to portray a new form of Englishness. Her take on Englishness is markedly multicultural, reflecting how the British colonies have disrupted and dispersed English identity. These novels suggest that to be an English woman in the interwar years is to be unhappy, no matter where you were born or where you live. In Voyage in the Dark, Germaine, a French woman, says “Scorn and loathing of the female—a very common expression in this country… I wouldn’t be an Englishwoman… for any money you could give me or anything else.” In Good Morning, Midnight, a male escort named René claims, ‘“England isn’t a woman’s country. You know the proverb—‘Unhappy as a dog in Turkey or a woman in England’-?”’ In her short story “Till September Petronella” (published in 1960, but written in the ’30s), we hear the same old ditty from an English man himself, someone from the heart of the establishment, telling the eponymous Petronella, “You poor devil of a female, female, female, in a country where females are only tolerated at best!” In Voyage in the Dark, a suitor asks Anna about her work as a chorus dancer, her accommodation in lodgings. When he finds out her wages, he responds, “Good God… You surely can’t manage on that, can you?” How did a generation of women make things work when their wages and bills didn’t quite equal out? *** In the years Rhys was writing about, two competing fairy tales were being circulated. One was heartening. Things had changed forever for women in Britain. After a surge of women into the workplace during World War I, the gentler sex were on an almost-equal footing to men: they worked, lived in lodgings in big cities, drank, dated. Flappers existed! Everything was thrilling. The other fairy tale was comforting, like someone rocking you back to sleep after a bad dream. After women held the fort while British men were away fighting, now the men were back and the old order could resume. Women could work for a while if they liked, could live in lodgings if they liked, but the vast majority of women would end up marrying and dropping out of the workforce. They would be financially cared for by men or by their families. The truth, situated in the space between the two competing narratives, is painfully clear in numbers. In her study on British lodgings, British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature: Alternative domestic spaces, literary critic Terri Mulholland notes that the number of single women over the age of twenty-five increased by over half a million between 1911 and 1931, which meant they outnumbered single men. This is presumably a disparity partially caused by the loss of male lives in World War I, a disparity which would have felt particularly exaggerated in the middle and upper classes, since the largest loss of life was sustained in the officer class. She tells us that 50 percent of women who were single in their late twenties in 1921 were still single a decade later. The obvious conclusion is that women whose families were unable to support them would have gone out to work. But Neal A. Ferguson reports in “Women’s Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles” that throughout 1911-1931 approximately one-third of all “employable women” had jobs. In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha’s hostile English employer asks her to explain a five-year-long gap in her resume and draws his own conclusions with a sneer. But this wouldn’t have been uncommon. As Ferguson explains, “Underemployment was not a temporary condition; it typified women’s economic position.” While women were eligible for unemployment benefit, their benefit was set at a fraction of what was granted men. Counterintuitively, the number of women in lodgings soared in Britain, implying women were no longer living with their families. A lodging or boarding house was a house in which a person could rent a room. According to Kate Macdonald, lodging houses were structured differently depending on the class of their guests—“there were ‘common lodging houses… hostels for the poor and homeless.’” In these houses, multiple beds would be crowded into one room. “Next up on the scale was the rental of a room rather than a bed.” This is the sort of lodging Rhys’s heroines stay in, but Macdonald emphasises that even within this point on the scale, there was slippage: “At its worst this room would be in a crowded slum building, with a bare minimum of furniture and heating, and no means of cooking other than at the fireplace.” Mulholland observes that between 1861 and 1911 the number of female clerical workers in London more than doubled. She concludes that the increase in women workers resulted in an urgent need for affordable housing “that was simply not available.” What these statistics depict is a society out of step with reality. It was a system, for the most part, structured around the idea that women would be financially provided for by their husbands or their relatives. But there weren’t enough men for women to marry their way into financial security and even middle-class families no longer seemed to be financially stable enough to provide for their daughters. The wages women earned, at approximately half the male rate in most industries by 1931, probably weren’t high enough to live comfortably on while paying the rates demanded for “respectable” lodgings. While Mulholland notes that boarding houses “run by philanthropic organisations” did offer some women on lower incomes cheaper rooms, these were primarily targeted at women under the age of 30, contributing to the idea of lodgings as a short-term solution for working women before married life. *** In Rhys’s books, many heroines come close to going broke. And it is part of these novels’ very particular brand of tragedy that when our heroines work (and for much of these novels, they’re supported by men), they are mostly drawn to professional roles with a built-in expiry date. It would have presumably been more challenging to make a living as a forty-year-old chorus dancer or a forty-year-old artist’s model or a forty-year-old shop mannequin, than a clerk, for example. And this isn’t broadly representative of Britain at the time—according to social historian Katherine Holden, during the 1930s nearly a quarter of all occupied unmarried women worked in retail or clerical work. A secretary or a typist or a shop assistant might not have to be young in the same way a chorus girl would to hang on to their job, but ageism was still prevalent: Holden notes that 75-80 percent of workers in these areas were under the age of thirty. In her study of British lodgings, Mulholland quotes an unemployed 38-year-old woman seeking office work: “I went to the Employment Exchange and to my utter astonishment I was told my age was against me. Now I was made to realise that having put 38 as my age on application forms, no employer had any use for my type of services.” The same woman makes a confession straight out of the pages of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie: “I am tired of the struggle […] I am always hungry. All I can do all day is wander about the streets. No one needs me. There is no place in the world for me.’” These precarious conditions didn’t go unchallenged by the women they affected. In 1934, Holden reports, a group of middle-class women in central London set up the Over Thirty Association, a group formed to campaign on two problems. The first was female unemployment, which was “widespread” at the time, but the second issue was arguably even more pressing: the deplorable living conditions that so many unmarried women tolerated. *** Rhys’s heroines are grappling with alcoholism and brutal misogyny and mental health issues, but to compound these problems, they have no permanent home—just rooms in boarding houses and hotels. They could get kicked out of their lodgings any time, and they do, over and over again. There’s Anna in Voyage in the Dark, whose landlady gives her the boot after she gets new clothes and comes home late a couple of nights in a row. In Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia’s lover insists she bring him back to her London boarding house—he suspects they might get caught and she might get kicked out, and that’s his kink. And sure enough, she does. This wasn’t a problem specific to Rhys’s characters—this was an interwar issue. Holden writes of an “invisible majority” who “lived in lodgings, boarding houses or institutions or who had no permanent home.” In a boarding house, Holden notes, bachelors were given the “services usually offered by a wife,” like help with housework, meals and laundry. Despite women paying the exact same rent on less wages, these services were rarely included for female boarders and it was common for landladies to regard their female tenants with suspicion. As Mulholland notes, unmarried landladies with no male relatives living in their boarding house were at risk of their establishments being labelled brothels. The way out of this precarious housing system—buying property—would have been unachievable on the average female wage of the time. So, what would you do as an unmarried woman trying to live comfortably, instead of paycheck to paycheck, or save money in the years between the wars? Possibly, you’d have supplemented your wages as an amateur sex worker. Rhys’s heroines usually “manage” by supplementing their income by moonlighting this way. As literary critic Sue Thomas has noted, this isn’t as clear-cut a deal as traditional sex work—instead of settling on a price from the beginning, the exchange would be “implicitly negotiated,” with sex made available in exchange for gifts of money and clothing, dinners out, drinks. In this exchange model, the sex worker has markedly less power and autonomy—another key difference between sex workers and their amateur equivalents is that most sex workers would have multiple clients but an amateur typically has just one. In other words, these women occupy the uneasy grey space between sex worker and wife. In Kerry Chamberlain’s investigation into interwar sex work in Liverpool, she observes that from 1926 onwards, the number of arrests for amateur sex work “consistently, and often significantly, outweighed” the number of arrests for traditional sex work. She also observes that unlike traditional sex work (which was predominantly carried out by younger women), a wide range of women of different ages were arrested for amateur sex work, which she believes implied that women carried out amateur sex work “at different stages of their lives on a casual and short-term basis, perhaps in response to periods of economic difficulty, departing from the trade before the point at which they came to be legally recognised as ‘common prostitutes.’” Of course, there is nothing inherently harmful about exchanging sex for money. But what’s painful about the amateur model is the way it obscures intention. The woman is reduced to acting on blind trust—that the man will be generous, that he will give her enough money so that she can not only provide for herself but set some aside. There’s no safety net here, no other clients to cushion things if he ups and leaves (which we see in one of the most upsetting novels of the era, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off). The amateur’s own feelings for the man are also entirely irrelevant: leaving isn’t an option. Which might explain Rhys’s curiously numb descriptions of the men her heroines date. This wasn’t an attitude exclusively held by those carrying out sex work. According to history writer Ellie Cawthorne, a common tip from 1930s advice columnists was to prioritise financial security above all other attractions when considering settling down with a man: “Readers ‘were reminded that if a woman married for stability rather than romance, although she may be ‘starved emotionally,’ she would ‘at least be sure of her daily beef and potatoes.’” *** Rhys’ first four novels all have the same stutter. They’re all compulsively, repetitively focused on Englishness, with hundreds of asides about England and English people (which are fun to read; like Thomas Bernhardt on Austria, Rhys is at her best when she’s dripping contempt for the English). There’s Anna, a white woman who hails from the West Indies but moves to London aged eighteen—more or less exactly like Rhys herself. Marya is so English it’s repeated twice in the first ten pages, except that she’s married to a Polish man and seems so foreign that a fellow Brit isn’t sure of her nationality. There’s Julia, who grew up in England, but whose mother is Brazilian. Then there’s Sasha, who’s English but previously married a Dutch man and spent a sizeable chunk of her life in France. The novels coax out a new vision of English identity that seems to reflect the dispersed England of its colonial history. These novels seem to argue that it’s no longer only the Mr. Horsfields or Walter Jeffries of this society who are English. To be English is no longer just to be from England, but to be from everywhere and nowhere, to have no single national affiliation. In Rhys’s early work, Englishness becomes a sort of trauma you’re powerless to shake—something which also reflects the reality of English colonial rule. England took formerly healthy countries and bled them dry. In these novels, England does the same to its women. Her characters do not enjoy the same privilege of being English as a Mr. Horsfield—they seem partially disqualified from enjoying the same automatic social acceptance by marrying a foreigner or having a foreign mother. But these women still seem held hostage by their national identity and infected by the same sadness that they associate with England. Like the countries England colonised, they’re given second-class status while remaining beholden to England. In both Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet the protagonists talk about relocating to Paris as a great escape. But none of Rhys’s heroines can ever escape the island, not really. In Paris, at a gathering, amongst new friends, we find Sasha “talking away, quite calmly and sedately, when there is it is again—tears in my eyes, tears rolling down my face. (Saved, rescued, but not quite so good as new…)” Considering what life for unmarried English women of the time was like, these sad, hard novels do not end unhappily. Not as unhappily as they could, at any rate. Nobody is homeless. Nobody kills themselves. An attempt at assault is averted. And despite their precarious existences, the heroines always find money somehow, from someone. “People talk about the happy life,” Sasha says, “but that’s the happy life when you don’t care any longer if you live or die. You only get there after a long time and many misfortunes.” Sasha, along with her heroine doubles, is well on her way.
How queer BDSM and sex work helped me to refuse an inheritance of indoctrination.
In the mid-1970s, the man who would later become my father joined the Unification Church. He had moved to a commune in Northern California after finishing college and wanted to share his newfound devotion with his parents back in Brooklyn. So, he took them to see his guru, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, at a Madison Square Garden rally. That night, Moon spoke through a translator to a crowd of 20,000. He proselytized that all of human history was on the brink of culmination, that the third world war was going to happen within the next three years. He preached his sexual philosophy, which has since been quoted as, “Woman was born to connect in love with man's sexual organ. Man and woman's sexual organs are the place of the true love palace.” And then Moon declared that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. An enraged word pierced the hush of the reverent crowd. In front of thousands of my father’s fellow acolytes, my grandmother stood up and screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIAR!” Her son was humiliated. But this moment of shameless dissent would become an iconic one for me. I keep the story close to my heart the way other people wear heirloom lockets. Still, if I met you while tipping red wine into mugs at a house party and the subject of cults came up, as I find the subject tends to in our anxious times, this isn’t the story I would tell you. Here’s the one I would: Unification Church members like my father were to remain celibate before they were deemed worthy of participating in mass weddings officiated by Moon. After these weddings, they would become the True Children of Moon and his second wife Hak Ja Han, known as the True Father and True Mother. My dad, a communications major, was known even then for his persuasive charisma, and so he was sent on road trips to collect acolytes. On one such trip, the church sent as his companion a schoolteacher in her late twenties who had moved west following a Lutheran upbringing in Iowa. She was not persuasively charismatic, was in fact skeptical of Moon’s teachings. During that road trip, they spread the good word all right, but they apparently didn’t take their vow of abstinence very seriously. On one drive, a group leader noticed my mom leaning over to put a stick of gum in my dad’s mouth. Subsequently, yours truly was born in sexual rebellion. That’s the tale I would tell you, and some of it is even true. My parents were definitely Moonies, but we never talked about it growing up. In fact, my younger sister and I weren’t raised with any faith whatsoever. I might occasionally fudge the years to construct a salacious punchline about my conception being the reason they left the church. This makes great bar talk, a very sensational origin story for a long-time dominatrix and queer pornographer. If every artist’s work centers on a single obsession, mine is sexual power. * From a young age, my attraction to power exchange and pain play was as innate as my multivalent gender orientation. It was more than a single fetish that held my fascination. I was aggressive and restless in my early conventional relationships, like a perverted lab animal that was growing too big for its cage. Unlike many religious people whose proclivities develop from a need for new rituals, I had an organically agnostic approach to my erotic life. I was curious about everything and subscribed to nothing. Which gave me a very good disposition for sex work. It wasn’t until my twenties, when I discovered forums for experimenting with sex professionally, that BDSM (bondage, domination, sado-masochism, and so on) became a proud part of my identity. I discovered an informal commercial dungeon in the Bay Area where I worked collectively with other dominatrixes. We had monthly staff meetings, negotiated the rules of engagement for our paid sessions, and cleaned up our own lube-y dildos. To clients, we were goddesses in thigh-high leather boots; in the basement locker room changing back into street clothes, we were colleagues and friends. We called one another “Mistress” (as in “Mistress, your bicycle almost fell on the latex-drying rack so I moved it!”) with a confirmed ironic wink. The owner of the business was our boss, and there were shift managers, but the Master/slave element of BDSM stayed strictly in the session room. After a few years of exchanging cash for working with men on their illicit desires, I more aggressively pursued my own. I enmeshed myself in Leather subcultures centered around values like exchanging comprehensive education, fighting social oppression, and creating mutual care. And sex. Lots of weird hot cathartic sex! Leather was never fundamentalist: it was open source, which made it the ideal erotic philosophy for my adult life. Power was to be played with in order to be understood, and that required rituals of communication performed in good faith. Pleasure was not to be pursued at the expense of someone’s agency. Intimacy and ecstasy happened when everyone opted in. Vulnerability was a gift we exchanged with those who deserved it. The more I opened my body and heart freely to my friends, the easier it was to see non-consensual power trips coming a mile away. Where my queerness led me to rip up inherited family recipes and create new tastes from scratch, my parents re-inscribed old values onto a new cult with the same rotten problems as ancient religions. The queer Leather community has offered me a middle path between pleasure and pain, healing and suffering, structure and anarchy. I feel very clear about the appeal of BDSM: for me, it has always provided a space to confront and undermine authority, including the emotional control my parents try to hold over me. * I had always been content not knowing much about my parents’ lives before I was born; they rarely offered and I rarely asked. When I was thirteen, they separated, and they are both still single and discontented. I actually didn’t know anything about my celibacy-breaking conception story until I was twenty-five and in therapy with my dad. We were attempting to reconcile after our first period of estrangement. I told him I was working happily as a pro-domme. He told me that he and my mom met in a cult. In the years since, when I’ve asked my dad, typically a notorious over-explainer, what drew him to Unification, he can never give me a satisfying answer. He usually just shrugs, saying, “Well, honey, it was the Age of Aquarius.” The best reasoning I’ve been able to come up with is that my Judeo-Christian-disillusioned parents were both looking for fresh, definitive meaning. They thought they found it in Unification but didn’t actually want to follow the rules of their new authority. In the forty years since leaving that group, my dad has continued to explode outward seeking purpose, while my mom continues to apathetically implode, seeking only oblivion. In the decade or so since I learned the truth about my parents’ past, I’ve grown apart from both of them. The more they make me feel obligated to take care of their emotional needs, the more boundaries I feel I have to erect in order to care for my own. I wonder how their early adulthood attempts to find a True Family together led them to very distinct but equally lonely twilight years. I am now the age my mom was when she gave birth to my younger sister. Like many grown children, I do not want to repeat my parents’ mistakes. Since my love, my friendships, and my work all center around explorations of intimate power through the cultures of kink and the politics of sex work, I find myself considering the questions: what is the meaningful difference between identifying as a Leather queer and participating in a cult? How do you know whether you’re in a kinky polyamorous family or part of an abusive scam? And has settling into a comfortable role within Leather communities helped me to heal from generational trauma that my parents never seemed to have resolved for themselves? Plenty of my polyamorous kinky friends have intimate lives which, frankly, might appear to outsiders to be indistinguishable from a cult; chosen Leather families in which adult queers instate consensual hierarchies dictating anything from domestic chores to erotic play. I’m constantly surrounded by limbs bearing whipping bruises, murmured boot cleaning protocols, echoes of “Yes Ma’am” and “Please Sir” and “I’ll just send my sub out to grab us more coffee.” It has become urgently important to me that I’m able to differentiate consensual domination/submission from the exploitation I associate with cults—not only to separate my own tastes and impulses from those of my parents, but also to be able to tell if a BDSM relationship has gone from being consensual to coercive. Especially since, as I would learn, the Unification church was not exactly known for its asceticism. * Since my father wouldn’t tell me much about his time as a Moonie, I went looking for answers elsewhere. I reached Dr. Janja Lalich on the phone from her house in Butte County, California, not far from where I grew up. Lalich is a professor of sociology at Chico State, and the author of several books on charismatic relationships, political and social movements, ideology, social control, and issues of gender and sexuality, including, with Margaret Singer, Cults in Our Midst. Around the same time that my parents met, Lalich was part of a radical Marxist-Leninist group called the Democratic Workers Party. She told me that, like my father, she earned leadership roles within her cult that gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Since leaving the group during its dissolution in the late 1980s, she has devoted her career to writing and teaching on the topic of extreme beliefs. Dr. Lalich asked me where my parents had lived when they were involved in the Unification church. I found myself embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. Berkeley? No, somewhere north, on some land I think? Mendocino? “They might have been at the camp in Boonville,” said Lalich. An uncanny shiver ran through me. Years ago, chatting with my mom about having stopped on a road trip at a Boonville brewery, I watched her get opaquely nostalgic. Lalich described Moonies waiting in bus stations for hippie travelers to arrive in Northern California. They would offer them a hot meal, driving them to the Boonville camp in buses with all the lights on so no one could see where they were going. “By the end of the week, they’d be devotees,” she said. The more I learn about my parents’ lives before me, the more I wonder why I had accepted origin stories with so many plot holes. But guardians can raise you with more than faith: they can also discourage curiosity. Maybe I had been raised with a familial version of “bounded choice,” the term for the internal logic of cult followers which Lalich prefers to “brainwashed.” This logic is often inscrutable to those outside the belief system. When you’re on the inside, you find it normal, since someone else is shaping your world. I guess my parents raised me to be inquisitive about everything in the world besides their past lives, to think it was perfectly normal that I didn’t really know anything about them. I guess a lot of authority figures do that. Lalich spoke about the experience of being in a cult, filling in some of the blanks left by my parents. One particular detail made my blood run cold. She explained that most cults assign a “buddy” to new members. “That person is supposedly guiding you,” Lalich continued. “What they’re really doing is monitoring your growth and reporting back to leadership.” Of course, this false pretense was the basis of my parents’ relationship. My dad, though six years younger than my mom, was her “discipler” in Unification. As Lalich described the “closed reality” that disciplers create on behalf of the leader, I wondered for the first time if my parents ever restored their compromised capacity for listening to their own intuitions. And I thought about how much more I trust my own gut since playing with erotic power alongside my adult friends and partners. Cult leaders don’t assign you a partner to assuage concerns; their job is to manipulate your shame, to use “humiliation and belittlement” to push you further along the path of devotion. “Questions are turned back on you rather than answered,” says Lalich. Those who join a cult often think they’re gaining a new family, but Lalich warns that if members criticize or try to leave the group, “these people who were once supposedly your family no longer want to have anything to do with you.” Like many gurus, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon seemed to have had erotic domination on the mind even as he preached for world peace. “Moon was a pervert,” Lalich told me. I asked her to clarify, since "pervert" is a reclaimed word in my friend groups, a source of communal pride like slut or dyke or whore. “He would tell [his followers] what sex positions to take,” she said. Mariah Blake offers more context in a piece for The New Republic: “Moon told his followers that they could join his sin-free bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of rituals. First, the newlyweds would beat each other with a bat, and then they would perform a three-day sex ceremony involving prescribed positions in front of Moon’s portrait. After the final sexual interlude—in missionary position—the bride would bow down to the groom, a confirmation that they had restored the ‘lost ideal of goodness.’” Most people would agree this is perverted behavior. It’s not the acts that I find disturbing, though. Personally, I enjoy beating and being beaten with large wooden implements, and one person telling others exactly how to fuck sounds like a hot enough scene to me! But the dictating leader seems to be the one being gratified by these rituals, rather than either of the people performing them. In a BDSM relationship, a sub might prostrate themselves before their dominant, but the idea is for both people to enthusiastically consent from a place of mutual desire and equal volition. My own need for assurance that I’m not being indoctrinated borders on the neurotic. BDSM soothes that neurosis with a sometimes-comical amount of built-in processing. Scene negotiation and safe words and consent check-ins can feel invigorating even if they’re also tedious at times. Ultimately, they offer an infrastructure of individual agency and subcultural accountability: the opposite of discipling. Speaking with Dr. Lalich reassured me that my sexual experimentations have given me the tools to resist abuse rather than make me more vulnerable to seduction. My parents and their cult background gave me a counter-model, a way not to be. My ass has been beaten black and blue while I've been adrift on waves of euphoria. I’ve given and taken orders, administered and yielded to deserved punishment. My leather pants have been shined with saliva in view of hundreds of casual observers. I’ve fisted men in the leather slings I helped install into warehouse ceilings. I’ve guzzled the piss of strangers in bathroom stalls. I’ve called female partners “Daddy” with a tone that in no way invokes my male genetic predecessor. I’ve done it for cash and I’ve done it for fun and I’ve done it for love; no one has ever persuaded me to pledge my allegiance to anyone or anything. And in all of my years of experience with sexual countercultures, I’ve only met one group that set off all my internal silent alarms, and that I now feel meets Dr. Lalich’s criteria of a cult. * “Hello, Mistress,” says the tall, tense white man at the bus stop. He looks to be about fifty, someone who has seen little excitement. “I’m slave brain. That’s brain, not Brian. Most people ask me that so I figure I should clarify.” I hoist up my black rolling suitcase. slave brain reaches out to grab it, then hesitates, confused. I’ve seen this look on slaves before. He is wondering how this little woman in Chaco sandals, black jeans, and a tank top could be a Mistress. This is how I always give myself away. I’ve known plenty of femme supremacist dominas who expect male submissives to literally throw their coats down in puddles for them. But my domination style has always had a camp wink and piggish urge to rut around in filth. For me, being a sex worker doesn’t mean I’m a formal dominatrix 24/7. I’m all for patriarchal restitution, but dominating someone I’ve just met, who isn’t paying for the privilege, actually feels to me like extra emotional labor. A slap in the face is still attention. I’m headed to a rural East Coast town, on the recommendation of a new friend, Michelle, who I’ve met through mutual colleagues in the feminist porn scene. Michelle is a captivatingly stern pale goth queen, busty and heavily tattooed, the kind of pro-domme who capitalizes Me and My in her emails. In one such recent email, Michelle has invited me to take sessions at the “kinky inn” she’s involved with. I’ll call it The Space. I’ve recently moved to New York from the Bay Area, and I’m still getting used to the different cultures of BDSM and sex work on opposite coasts. My expectation is that The Space is like the dungeon I’ve worked for in Oakland, or some of the other professional studios I’ve rented in my travels to Toronto and LA. Apparently, The Space hosts play parties and couples retreats, and also welcomes guest professionals to take sessions. According to Michelle, they have enough of an existing clientele that I don’t even have to take out an ad online. The website of The Space boasts about its own kinky reputation in self-aggrandizing terms. I have to admit, I’ve totally fallen for this marketing, probably because I want to believe such subcultural places are real. Their social media presence is vague enough to inspire me to fill in my own fantasy, and I’m expecting something old and grand like the house in the Bette Davis movie Watcher in the Woods—or, more to the point, the deviant isolated manors of Story of O or Laura Antoniou’s The Marketplace. I follow slave brain across the parking lot, a vast sprawl of mostly deserted asphalt. I get into the Jeep Cherokee of this strange man because that’s what I came here to do. I trust him because Michelle told me a slave was coming to get me. I trust Michelle because she’s a fellow kinky punk sex worker, a reckless principle that has nevertheless gotten me in surprisingly little hot water so far. I guess I’m in it for the curiosity almost as much as the money. “So, what’s The Space like?” I ask brain as he drives us into the woods. “Oh, Master M changed my life,” he says, his eyes on the road but suddenly dreamy. “You’re so lucky. And the new headmistress is wonderful, too.” I ask what her name is. “Quinn.” He blinks. “Mistress Quinn.” “So, why do they call you brain?” I ask. “Well, Master M gives everyone a slave name. My name is Brian.” “So, your name is Brian!” “Yes, but Master M says I think too much. So, my slave name is brain to remind me not to think.” A contented grin spreads across his face, as if he is reflecting on a great blessing. The Jeep pulls onto a rural road, bouncing down a sloped gravel driveway, where my provincial mansion fantasies are given a rude awakening. The Space is actually just a squat grey one-story house. It’s not the modesty that catches me off guard, but the dissonance between the grand fantasy it’s selling and the reality I’m now seeing. I let slave brain take my bags this time. After holding open the screen door, he moves aside for me to meet Master M and Mistress Quinn, who are standing expectantly in a small country living room. Master M looks like he is pushing 70, sinewy and rough-skinned, with a stringy grey ponytail and black beady eyes. Quinn can’t be older than 25. Her considerable breasts pour over a leather corset, which she wears casually under black cotton leggings and a hoodie. She has a round, open, girl-next-door face and long shiny brown hair. She does not shake my hand. Michelle is there, too. She seems irritated with M and Quinn for reasons no one bothers to explain to me. The three of them seem distracted and stand-offish, neither friendly nor particularly professional. They show me to a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom and inform me that dinner is in an hour. slave brain is dismissed and Michelle follows him up the road in her car. I’m alone at The Space with Master M and Mistress Quinn. They inform me that I have a client booked for tonight. The thought of cash soothes my discomfort as we sit down to homemade dinner at a large wooden table. Master M serves venison stew and congee. They offer me red wine and a joint, asking questions about my experience “in the scene.” Trying to find some common ground, I explain that my professional BDSM practice has a different dynamic than it does in my personal life, but that I really love my work and exploring power and… “She takes a long time to answer, doesn’t she?” M says to Quinn, and they both laugh at some joke I’m apparently not going to be let in on. The way they touch each other makes it pretty clear to me that they fuck. I’m unnerved by the creeping sense that I’m being appraised. I’ve met eccentric dungeon owners before, but the worst they’ve been is impersonal while giving me an orientation: Here’s how you buzz your client in, here’s the madacide, here’s the binder of dusty old Portishead CD-Rs, I’ll be in the other room smoking menthols. The Space is making me feel disoriented. I ask my host some reasonable questions: “So how do you screen clients?” and “Where do we negotiate our scenes?” and “Should I collect my money before or after session?” All my queries are met dismissively. “We’ll discuss it later,” or, “You don’t need to worry about that.” So far, I’m not able to discern a concrete reason to feel in danger; but they aren’t giving me any cause to trust them either. After dinner, I change into a sheer pink and black polka-dot teddy and robe, pulling on opaque black stockings and a garter belt because I’m still not sure how East coast clients will react to hairy legs. I’m instructed to wait in the guest bedroom listening as my client, Steve, arrives. M calls me out to the living room. I’m surprised to discover that Quinn has already led Steve downstairs to show him the basement dungeon. Every place I’ve worked has had its own particular style of theatrics. But I’m used to a clear differentiation between the role you play in session and the person you are, the person being hired. Back in Oakland, the worker always greeted the client at the door fully dressed and negotiated the scene for herself. Here, M instructs me to kneel in front of him on the thick musty carpet. Getting on my knees in an ordinary living room, next to couches and a coffee table and an acoustic guitar, feels much less comfortable than crawling around on a dungeon floor. It’s dawning on me that M and Quinn see me as the same class as slave brain. Several voices, deep inside my body, wage a war that lasts an instant. My female-socialized subconscious coos, You probably just missed something. It’ll be over faster if you just go along with what he wants. My insolent self-preservation screams: Call the whole thing off! Don’t kneel to this man! Michelle will come pick you up! And some punkass part of my nature, the part that always prevails, wants to see what M thinks he can do to me, and how much I can resist while placating him at the same time. So, I do as he says. “Our slaves always stand with their eyes down, to show humility, and their chins up, to show pride in subservience,” M explains as he begins to stalk slowly around me. Does he want me to feel beneath him because he’s hiring me? I think to myself. It’s also possible that he believes the money that Steve is paying me and the cut I’ll owe The Space is beside the point. If part of the fantasy of this place is for clients to interact with “trained house slaves,” I might have agreed ahead of time to play that part. But the client is downstairs, and Master M is not my master. So, who is meant to benefit from this pageantry? M leans forward and begins to stroke my ear. “This is your clit,” he whispers, as if saying it would transubstantiate one collection of nerve endings to another. I don’t feel anything in my clit. But drops of sweat pour down my side from my underarms. I stay still and quiet. M pulls his fingers back and continues to stalk around me. I sense a wave of smugness. That unwelcome appraisal feeling again. Does he think I am enchanted by this? “It’s time for you to go to the dungeon,” M intones. I stand shakily and walk to the basement door, avoiding eye contact. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, I see Quinn and Steve in the far corner, standing expectantly next to a leather sling. Quinn has removed the casual part of her outfit, and now cuts an impressive figure of a tightly corseted girly dominatrix. Steve is a very conventional-looking middle aged white client, bursting out of his skin with anticipation at the sight of me wobbling on kitten heels down the wooden stairs. The dungeon is fully and uniquely stocked with horn-handled crops, matching alligator skin floggers, and hand-built bondage furniture, but the walls are covered in trash bags. It feels like I’m in the haunted garage a family makes every year for Halloween. “Steve likes to tickle!” Quinn explains. I’m comfortable with tickling fetishism: the top is looking for an involuntary and unstaged response. But I don’t understand why Quinn is telling me this instead of Steve. I’m used to having my own negotiation with a client, especially one who will be dominating me. Together, they guide me into the sling, wrapping leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles so I’m laying back, spread-eagle and fully restrained. Any moment now I am expecting Quinn to leave me alone with my client. It’s unsettling to have her there observing me. I would have understood if she or M had explained they would stand by for safety reasons or because I’m new to the house, but that’s not what’s happening. My dynamic with my client is completely thrown by her deliberate presence—imagine a psychologist being non-consensually monitored by the person whose office she is renting. Steve approaches me slowly. Then he dives in. He doesn’t caress or stroke. He just goes directly for my ribs and jabs mercilessly. This kind of fetish torture usually makes me feel euphoric and strong. But I’m also used to clients with finesse, who work with me in real time to build a sort of movement narrative incorporating ebb and flow. Steve is just relentlessly attacking. His face is shocked and delighted. Ordinarily, I would “top from the bottom,” teaching a new client how I like to be teased, but Quinn’s creepy presence has me all out of whack. I laugh. I shriek. I curse excessively and loudly—ohholyfuckingjesuschristshitaaafuckingaaaauuuufhh! If I’m going to be in this weird isolated dungeon in the woods, I figure the least I can get out of it is the catharsis of screaming vulgar bloody murder, something I can rarely justify in a thin-walled city building. My squirming and giggling and chain-rattling is amplified by the tension of this entire situation. Ordinarily, even if I’m enduring something challenging, I can ground myself to the presence of the other workers in the house. They know who I really am when I’m out of character. Here, there is no anchor. I’m learning they expect me to be the character. Every so often Quinn approaches and joins in on the tickling. I could use a safe word, or call the scene off, or tell her to fuck off, but I’m worried that this will be seen as insolence or a reason not to pay me. I choose to let Quinn touch my body, but the choice is bound to the disorientation of my situation. Finally, Quinn tells Steve his allotted hour is up. They unlatch me, and I’m quite shaky getting up the stairs, where M is waiting for us. Quinn, Steve, and I stand in front of an expectant M, who again instructs me to kneel in “slave position.” “I’m very disappointed in you that you would use such language in my house,” he says, referring to my litany of cursing screams. I have no idea what to say. I’m embarrassed and furiously insulted being spoken to like this in front of my client. I thought I had done a professional job making this tickling fetishist very happy. No one has ever questioned the way I process pain and sensation. Cursing is my style, and my style is the experience a client is paying for. Steve genuinely didn’t seem to mind my language, so why should M? The Space seems more concerned about maintaining manipulative hierarchies than doing good business, which is antithetical to everything BDSM means to me. After Steve is sent on his way, I collect my cash with relief, retreating wordlessly to my room. I draw a scalding bath, pouring excessive milks and salts into the tub, seething with indignity and confusion. I realize the boundaries between personal and professional are very blurred here, in a way I’m not used to, in a way that disturbs me. I open the linen closet in my room and notice the labels: maroon towels are for slaves, black towels are for guests. So which towel is for me? In the morning, I leave the house in my exercise clothes without seeing anyone. I run up the gravel driveway and turn left on the dirt road. I don’t encounter any cars or people or other houses. Just trees and birds and clean mountain air for miles. This is a rare treat, to be able to run and let my mind go, even close my eyes, with no surprises and no traffic. I try to breathe the fresh air as deeply as I can. As I run, it occurs to me that if I had to leave, this would be how I would have to do it. I stay at that house for two more days. During that time, I see a different client, a regular to The Space, who singletail whips me mercilessly with no warm up. He makes me walk naked through the surrounding forest carrying a wooden cross, explaining that I’m “a goddess taking on the suffering of the world.” As an atheist I find this extremely ridiculous, but I do take some pride in enduring outrageous scenarios for the satisfaction of paying customers. I hit my limit, though, when he attaches me to the cross by suspension cuffs and raises it, by hydraulics, up the side of a tree. I look down at M, Quinn, and the client, all visibly amused. For the very first time in ten years of stomping and spitting and cursing and cumming for money, I instinctively imagine my best friend—who has been unconditionally supportive through some truly weird sexual shit I’ve done—feeling concerned about the position I’m in. So, I use my safe word. M clucks in disapproval, and I live through an excruciating pause. A safe word is supposed to be a ripcord; you’re not supposed to have to negotiate with the parachute once you’ve pulled it. All of the times I’d used yellow for slow down or red for stop everything, the client has checked in and dropped whatever roles we were playing. No one has ever seriously shamed me for invoking these consent tools. No one has ever questioned my professionalism or devotion to my craft or value as a sadomasochist as a result. Until now. But they do let me down off the cross. And the session is over. And I do get paid. And I do decide it’s time to call Michelle. As I roll my suitcase out the door, Master M tells me scornfully, “It would be good for you to come back. We would love to have you, since you can barely take the pace of one of our kindest Masters.” Staring out the window of Michelle’s station wagon, I feel the dread of a horror movie third act. We head back to her place and spend a few days together. I don’t really tell her about my experience. I roll my money into a sock and zip it into a compartment of my bag. We take her dogs for a walk and swim under a waterfall. We cook vegan dinner with her best friend, a short dark-haired guy with huge ear gauges who owns a tattoo parlor. He makes fun of my $10 pink smoke shop belly button ring, just visible under my loose tie dye shirt, and I snap at him that not everyone can afford fancy things. The next day, he walks into Michelle’s apartment and drops to his knees in front of me. Pulling latex gloves from the pouch of his red and black hoodie, he starts unscrewing my belly button ring. He produces a new piece with aquamarine gemstones that sparkles so much brighter than the cheap one I’ve worn for ages. Slipping the new silver through my piercing hole, he threads the shining ball in place, muttering, “I just don’t like to see good people with bad jewelry.” Michelle takes me to an enormous warehouse owned by her friend. On one floor, the friend makes string for lacrosse sticks, hundreds of white lines whirring and shifting away in somehow whisper-quiet industrial machines. We smoke a joint and she shows me the floor where she wants to shoot porn, giant beams from floor to ceiling, dust catching light from filthy windows. I start to fantasize about raw and dirty kidnapping scenes, how it would feel to run across this enormous space as if you were really trying to escape from someone alluringly sinister. We head to a dive bar where she introduces me to the local motorcycle gang, not just guys in leather jackets, but a real gang, with initiations and hierarchies and birthrights. There is karaoke. I sing “Sympathy for the Devil,” slithering flamboyantly as my beer foams out of its bottle. Broad men with scratchy-looking beards buy me drinks because they claim they have never seen a woman sing like that before, which, as always, I find difficult to believe. Michelle takes me to the parking lot to catch the bus back to Manhattan. I never ask her about her relationship to The Space and frankly I can’t explain that choice. Maybe I was ashamed that there was some expectation I had misunderstood. Or maybe I was just happy to have survived with several bills stuffed in my boot, on my way home to the city, and didn’t want to push my luck. Every so often, I meet someone who has trained at The Space, even close friends whose approach to sex work I respect and BDSM lifestyle I trust. Though I’m typically notoriously over-inquisitive, I find myself biting my tongue instead of asking them to explain the Masters and Mistresses and slaves and clients out there in the woods. I realize now that I don’t really want to understand. All I care about is staying as far away from that house as possible. My personal philosophies of kink and sex work did become clearer to me after that weekend. I’m not looking for new authority figures. I’m not looking to recycle the suffering of old gods. I’m looking to make something new. Sometimes, when I look down at the shimmering blue of my belly button ring, it reminds me of that moment of kindness, of a man willingly getting on his knees in front of me to give me a gift, expecting nothing in return. It reminds me of pulling out of that gravel driveway, and of everything women everywhere have endured to make their rent. When I meet the Master Ms of this world, the people who try to take advantage of their perceived power over me, I try to invoke the spirit of my grandmother, screaming “LIAR” at the top of her lungs in front of hundreds of acolytes at Madison Square Garden. * My family, like most families, has exchanged moments of selfless care and moments of critical resistance. My dad and I did reconcile after those revelatory therapy sessions, and it took another ten years before I would cut off communication with him again: for unapologetically slapping my ass in a bar, for ignoring my boundaries about when he was welcome to crash on my couch, and most of all for warping every conflict between us to make himself the hero. People usually think of cults in terms of groupthink, or a collection of people brainwashed by a single guru. The more I learn about them, the more I’m struck by how the psychic manipulations of cults echo the dynamics of abusive intimate relationships. Sometimes those abuses look like slaps, and sometimes they’re felt in the form of a man’s entitlement to dismiss a woman’s boundary because he likes it better when it seems like she has none. “You should be allowed to say no,” Dr. Lalich said when I asked her how to tell if you’re in a healthy group relationship. “To question anyone in the hierarchy including the dominant. You should be allowed to leave when you want, without any rebuke or shunning. You shouldn’t be made to believe that this is the only way to live. You should be able to untie the bonds!” If a family is a cult, then I’m in a perpetual state of trying to walk away from the influence of my own. Even though the healthy consensual BDSM situations I’ve been in have put me in many positions of literal subservience—down on my knees, withstanding torture—nothing has made me feel freer. Because when you surrender from a place of recognized strength, you learn to see false prophets for what they are: people who expect filial piety when they haven’t earned the privilege.
The author of Three Women on desire, community, and the male gaze.
When Lisa Taddeo set out to write her new nonfiction book about desire, three women she met stood out. It took eight years for her to map out the inner workings of Maggie, a high school student in North Dakota who develops a relationship with her English teacher; Lina, a housewife in Indiana who works tirelessly to please a husband who refuses to kiss her; and Sloane, a poised restaurant owner in Rhode Island whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other couples. Throughout each account, we watch as the women unwind. As the coils holding them together give way, they experience a kind of renewal, face condemnation, and wrestle with their newfound freedom. And Taddeo is there not only to bear witness, but to observe and unpack the reactions of the women and communities surrounding Maggie, Lina, and Sloane. Three Women (Avid Reader Press) is not just a book about desire, but the consequences for acting on it. Sara Black McCulloch: What led you to write about desire from this perspective? I read that what partly prompted this book was that you were reading Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and that you were put off by it—that it was written from a very particular and male perspective. Lisa Taddeo: The main thing with Mr. Talese’s book was that, and you know I met him and he was an unofficial mentor for a certain part of the process, but you know, I found that there was just not a lot of emotion behind the acts he had been describing, and his book was different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it—I enjoyed it very much. But at the same time, I just wanted to know more about... you know, there was a lot of swinging in it. And what I found with a lot of swingers is that they kind of go, “Oh you know, it’s fine.” And maybe for you it is fine and you don’t feel sad, but I just wanted to know about more of my own biases. I don’t judge them, I’m just so fascinated by it, but I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to know why these people could, in a sense, do it. I just feel like there wasn’t much talk about why—the whys about everything—and that was where I wanted to have a departure. I think Talese was interested in different things, but I was also so fascinated by swingers that I went looking for swingers. I spoke to a lot of different groups of swingers and I could not find someone who gave me the sort of complexity I was looking for until I found Sloane and that was game-changing for me because she was the person I always looked for. I don’t think she’s necessarily representative of swingers, but what she is for me is representative of the complexity I wanted to know more about. How did you find the women? I know, for instance, that you met Lina in a discussion group you were running. I posted signs across the country, literally in bars and casinos. I posted them on windows of cars too, just everywhere: churches, bus stops, truck stops, everywhere. I went to the Four Seasons, seedy motels... I was just trying to find people. I moved to Indiana because of the Kinsey Institute [which researches sex and gender] and because I met a doctor who was administering these hormone treatments to women and he was telling me about them. I found Lina really early. I think I spoke to her on the phone before I moved because the doctor had given me a number of his patients who were interested in talking to me. I didn’t know how fascinating she was going to be until she walked into that room and started telling her story. I had read about Maggie when I was in North Dakota researching a different story. It was about women who were working as waitresses during the day at this coffee shop and by night, they were being trucked into the local oil fields to have sex with the men who worked there. So, I was reading about Maggie in a coffee shop and I read about the trial, which had just ended. I called her mother’s house and introduced myself, asked if I could come and tell them more about what I was doing, and then drove to North Dakota the next day. I found Sloane by moving into her town to speak to several other people and at that point I was hearing rumours about not just a woman who was swinging, but a woman whose husband wanted to have sex with her every day and that not only did she allow it, she wanted to do it too. And that was the rumour. What was shocking to me about that, and indeed every woman and person that I spoke to, was the ways in which they were reviled by their communities for doing things like that. I just don’t think you should judge other people for their lives. So, I was interested in that. That was how I found those three, but I spoke to hundreds of other people, at least 20-25 at length. I also noticed a shift in voice and POV throughout the book, from diary entries to third-person accounts. What was the reasoning behind these particular choices? They were all different choices, but I wanted the voices to be reflective of the women. For Maggie, one of the reasons why I started with the second-person was because she had been so reviled in the local press that I had in mind the most staunch disbeliever and I wanted that person to be able to instantly get inside her head in such a way that it would be impossible for them to not at least try to understand her. I wanted the literal experience. I did the trial and the other stuff more in the third-person to keep it factual. With Lena, she found herself in the sexual moments—I would say more than anyone else did—and so I wanted her section to reflect that. I mean she told me everything so openly. It was just so infinitely interesting to me that I wanted to show how present she was in those moments. With Sloane, who was the most reticent to talk and also the most eloquent but detached, I tried to tell her story in her rote voice. You explored some really small communities that judged and condemned others for living their lives, and I wanted to know if you believe that there is such a thing as community anymore? You moved to these towns where these women lived—do you feel like a community is there to essentially police and surveil people now? I do. You know, it’s funny, because my daughter is four years old and we live in a rather rural part of Connecticut, and a lot of people have said to me, "You should move here and here because there are a lot of moms and kids." But I moved to so many places and I’ve seen so many moms and dads, and no! There’s a lot more competition than there is community or a sense of community. You know how people say a child is raised by a community? I just don’t see that anymore in any way. Even with social media, it’s really become so much about who’s got what, and whose kid is doing this, and whose partner has a better career, and a nicer house—all of that! That’s what I found in almost every place. There were some places that were kinder than others, but for the most part, it was not a loving situation. You don’t just discuss how women condemn each other but how they compete with each other, too. There was something really striking that your mom told you: “Never let them see you happy,” and by “them,” she meant other women. Were you noticing this in your discussion groups and even how these women were communicating with you? One of the reasons I was most drawn to these women was because they were the victims of these things. They were less judgmental about the things that happened in their lives. They were victims of men, to an extent, but also the victims of other women. They were not so much the aggressors, and I found that really warm about them—that they didn’t want other women to necessarily suffer, whereas I found other women who wanted other women to suffer. All the women that I observed for the final cut of the book were all, in some way, jealous or just condemning of Maggie, Sloane, and Lina. A lot of this is frankly biological, as men are not necessarily competing against each other, at least not the same way. The women are competing to be the thing that is chosen and that’s sociological and biological. The idea that men spread their seed—not be clinical—across a large group of women in order to perpetuate the species, whereas women are meant to stay back with the child and bear the whole situation. I find that really informs the way we move about. The sociological implications are that we also, at the same time, want equality. We’re very sentient, wise beings, but our biology and our sociology either mix or they don’t, depending on the day. I really think it’s other women because we’re fighting against each other for men or whatever—at least in heterosexual relationships. (It’s different things across different orientations and sexual predilections.) The male gaze really fuels that too, but it many ways it also fuels the desires of these three women too. We’re still rooted in it. We can’t change our history, but we are complicit in perpetuating it in the present. We’ve been living under it for centuries, and we can’t just wake up one day and change. We first have to admit that it’s there before we can figure out how to combat the negatives in our lives. When you’re immersing yourself in someone else’s life, especially as a journalist, there is always talk of objectivity. Did you ever find yourself slipping, in a way, and judging these women, or would their stories force you to confront something within yourself? Or trigger the memory of a personal situation? Did you find yourself connecting with them on a deeper level? It’s funny because there were countless things, but the thing that I think about the most is that when I was a kid, like 10 or 11, I was going to Puerto Rico with my parents. I had helicopter parents before the term was coined, and they wouldn’t let me out of their sight. And I just wanted to take a walk down the beach. They finally said yes and I was so happy. That day, I packed baby oil because I wanted to get super-tan. I was wearing a black bikini with little neon butterflies and I loved it. I was so happy. I took Stephen King’s The Stand with me because I was a depressive kid. I laid down in the sand and fell asleep. I woke up with two things: one was a second degree burn across my body that was insane. The other thing that woke me up, in fact, was a man, I don’t know if he was 30 or 40, but I knew that he was a man and I was a kid. He was licking my arm. The first thing I thought—I remember the feeling very well, and not just the tongue, but the feeling I felt in my head, which was, “I don’t want this man to think I don’t... like him?” I don’t know, it’s weird, but I still have that feeling today and I’m nearly 40 years old. It was shocking. I went back to my parents and I did not tell them about the situation for two reasons: one, that I didn’t think they would ever let me out of their sight again, and two, that they would think I was a slut. And that’s what I thought. I was an 11-year-old girl. I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have put baby oil on my body, but other than that, I didn’t do anything. It’s super interesting, and multiple things like that came up. And mainly, it’s about how the formative years shape the way that we are, and we desire, and in other ways that are more obvious in the present. And a lot of people weren’t aware of it. Neither was I! We internalize those experiences and feelings of shame, and that plays out in very different ways: you have to be careful with how you’re perceived by other people. You need to be constantly vigilant. I noticed, too, that even the women you talked to couldn’t fully let go of this vigilance either. It’s a weird kind of invisible service in their public and personal lives. They’re always making sure that everyone else’s needs are being met. And just the performative aspect too—just being aware of yourself and your attractiveness and I found that so much in everyone that I talked to—women and men. But men have this goal, which is an orgasm, no matter how sloppy and smelly they are. With women, some of them can, and I’m inspired by the women who can, but I myself have never personally found that. I will not do anything if my teeth aren’t brushed. I wanted to talk about parents and what we inherit from them. In the introduction, you talk about your mother and the secrets she hid, and how that creates a barrier to communication—or not telling your parents what happened to you. Yes, but also, it’s not that I didn’t think I could talk to my parents, it was more that I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, too. I didn’t want them to stop letting me be alone. I didn’t know that I needed to go to them—I don’t think what they would have said would have been helpful. With Maggie, we see that too—that she didn’t really confide in anyone because she couldn’t. The women you spoke to had these fractured relationships with their parents and people in their lives and they really had to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and themselves. I think that a byproduct of growing up years ago—although this has less to do with Maggie, because with her, it’s more of a byproduct of where she’s from in the country—but with Lina and Sloane, they both had parents that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable going to with the things they experienced. With that said, I think it’s the time, and that now there are a lot more studies about how to be with children. I don’t think people were really looking at that back then. Are any of the women planning on reading the book? Two of the women have read it. I’m in touch with all three of them pretty frequently, so they’re very much aware of the book’s publication date. I’m not supposed to reveal which two have read it. Some are a little more nervous than others about it. Are you planning on keeping in touch with them and seeing how their lives turn out? Yes! I am so interested. I’m close to them. I would call all of them friends, but the nature of our relationship is very much—it was mostly one-sided because I was asking the questions. With that said, there were many intimate moments that we shared about their men and about my own stories whenever I thought it was something they would want to hear or that would help them or make them feel comfortable because they were giving so much of themselves. It was organic. One of the things that allowed women to explore their sexuality and desires was the advent of birth control, and in terms of what’s happening now in the U.S., this is going to have an impact on everything, but what impact will this have on desire? I think that to make any heaving step forward, there’s going to be a thousand steps back. It’s always shifting and what’s going on now is awful, but I also hope that it won’t last very long and that eventually those people in power are going to die off and when then do, hopefully there will be less people taking their place that will deal with it the same way. It’s definitely going to change the way women talk about it, but I also think that it’s making voices louder because there’s a lot of rage. Also men—in general and in the book—are threatened by their desire and tend to use it against these women in many ways. Men get nervous when women have desires that go above and beyond their desires. I think that’s why there’s such a rise of this incel community coming out of the woodwork, because they’re hearing about what women want and they’re translating it into, “Women want to have sex with good-looking guys.” For centuries, men have wanted to have sex with good-looking women, but the fact that we’re hearing from women now is making a lot of men who are not confident—and this is sad and they should be heard—but the way that they’re trying to be heard is despicable and that’s a perfect example of what happens when men feel nervous about female desire.
Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back.
Visiting the World Showcase at Epcot when you've had three red wines and a Canadian beer in the outdoor pavilion so you drunkenly ask the attendant at the movie theater in France what Paris is really like: The attendant smiles and says, “come watch the movie.” She says: If you lay on the floor before the lights dim they make you get up, but if you wait until it's dark they don't care what you do. From opening to close, the same film plays every sixteen minutes. In rural, rustic France, wooden carts bustle past soaring, fairytale castles. The fields are dotted with pristine white sheep. Female attendants who work at Epcot, France wear long, russet skirts and peasant tops that tie delicately at the throat. The attendant asks the audience to enjoy this introduction to her home. She says "home" like you might mouth a packet of Splenda. The panoramic screen reveals a view of rocky ocean cliffs and even more soaring castles and cyclists and more sheep and women carrying oversized baskets of bread. Every sixteen minutes the same country road winds along valleys sprinkled with tiny yellow wildflowers. Places people like to fuck at Disney: The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and the sixteen-minute movie in Epcot, France. Stains dot the theater seats, the curtains, and the floor where you can lay if you wait until the lights dim. Only after the lights dim, the attendant says. Not a second earlier. "The music is from Beauty and the Beast," she whispers in my ear. "Like from the Disney version." If you lay on the floor after the lights dim you see people's feet and bagged merchandise from every country in Epcot. Around the world in less than an hour if you don't stop to watch the sixteen-minute movie in France. A woman feeds her partner a chocolate-covered strawberry bought from the pavilion and he licks the residue from her fingers. You're not supposed to eat in the theater, but according to the attendant, nobody cares what happens after the lights dim. These people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and wear sport sandals. They’re climbing each other like real sports enthusiasts, I tell the attendant. One of them kicks a bag and it rustles. Ocean waves crash against the rocky shore. Sheep bleat beside a moated castle. The attendant says she’s heard it a thousand times before: the movie soundtrack and the fucking. The lights have dimmed so we’re on the floor and she's untying the delicate knot at her throat. I knew this would happen just like I knew it would happen the last time like I know it will happen again. Next weekend. A month from now. Tomorrow. Every sixteen minutes the attendant introduces a film about her home in a peasant top that ties delicately at the throat. The cyclists speed down the road past a cart full of bread. Sheep saunter up the hill, guided by a man in blue slacks. People in the back of the theater wear sport sandals and feed each other chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck next to a rustling bag of Epcot merchandise. Tiny, yellow wildflowers. During her introductory speech, the attendant says you can leave at any time by exiting the theater to your left. No one gets up. There’s only rustling bags, chocolate-covered strawberries, sport sandals, fucking. When I ask the attendant if she ever stays to watch the movie with special guests, she takes my hand. Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you lie on the floor with me? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: will you untie the delicate knot at your throat? Do you ever stay and watch the movie means: I will not take you to dinner after this, we won’t go home together, I did that in another life with a woman like you but that tenderness is gone now, sixteen minutes is all I can offer, please, I’ve already given the other parts of myself away, do you understand? Pan over a snow-capped mountain. A line of people ski down its frozen side like a trail of ants. I tell the attendant the frosted mountain looks like mint chocolate chip ice cream and she laughs. “I haven't heard that one before,” she says, but I’m positive she has. Villagers sell pink and white flowers from a wooden cart. The attendant pulls up her skirt, loosens the knot at her throat. A woman on screen carries too much bread. The man herds sheep in his blue slacks. "Three red wines and a Canadian beer," I tell the attendant when she asks what I had for dinner. She's asking what I had for dinner because she’d like us to get dinner. There’s no dinner in our future, but we will lay on the floor of the movie theater. I know this the way I know the movie repeats every sixteen minutes. The attendant touches the delicate knot at her throat and undoes it using only two fingers. Wooden cart, castle. Pink and white flowers. Bleating sheep. Midway through the film a couple exchanges marriage vows inside a crumbling chapel. The music piped over the ceremony is familiar. “It’s what they use in Beauty and the Beast, the Disney film,” says the attendant. The bride wears a white dress and a shimmering veil. When the couple kisses, it looks like they’d rather die than let their lips touch. When my wife kissed me on our wedding day, she was so nervous her lips trembled. We did not listen to Disney music and there were no castles. Her hands left damp marks on the paper she carried so she could remember the order of the vows. We lit a white candle and the wind blew it out. Every sixteen minutes the couple in the film gets married. Every sixteen minutes they kiss like they wish they could take it back. In the movie theater, the lights dim and the attendant hikes up her skirt to reveal socks that buckle over the knee. “They’re regulation,” she whispers, when I slip a finger beneath the elastic band. Behind us, plastic bags rustle and people's legs move back and forth as they fuck and the attendant wants to know why I'd have three red wines and a Canadian beer for dinner, but what she's really asking is why won't I have dinner with her. Dinner isn’t on the table. We served chicken at our wedding so stringy I picked the gristle from my teeth and my wife kissed me with a mouth full of regrets. Why’d you drink dinner, asks the attendant, and I’m answering her question by ignoring it completely. This is a repeat of the conversation I had last week, two days ago, tonight, tomorrow, three weeks from now. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. On screen a girl in a yellow dress delivers flowers to a market full of smiling, happy people. She hands out flowers until her cart is empty. In sixteen minutes, she'll do it again. Flowers, the wooden cart, cyclists, skiers racing down the mint chocolate chip mountain, a lone woman carrying too much bread. The attendant rolls down her regulation socks and undoes the delicate knot at her throat. My hand slides up her thigh. Sheep dot the landscape like someone ripped open a pillow. There are castles everywhere. I ask the attendant what Paris is like and she says "it's exactly like this," but her eyes get wide when she says it and I know “exactly like this” means she’s willing to be whatever I want. Why did you drink dinner, she asks, and it's an echo in the valley between the ice cream mountains as the bags rustle and the people eat chocolate-covered strawberries and fuck in their sport sandals and we lie on the floor, once the lights are dim. The couple gets married in the crumbling chapel every sixteen minutes and they kiss like strangers. We lit the candle at our wedding and the flame blew out while I laughed, but my wife’s lips trembled and her hands sweat all over our vows and there were no castles anywhere. Why did you drink dinner? The attendant asks, and up come the lights. People pick up their bags and move out of the stained seats so other people can sit in the stained seats and set down their bags on the floor beside bits of popcorn and discarded gummy candies. In a few minutes, the attendant will loosen the knot at her throat. Roll down the regulation socks. Three red wines and a Canadian beer slosh in my stomach in lieu of dinner. There will never be dinner with this woman. There will never be dinner with any of them; there will never be. The movie replays every sixteen minutes. The attendant says: “Please enjoy this introduction to my home,” and we begin again. Sheep. Crumbling chapel. The couple kisses in the church and their mouths are trembling. Every wedding kiss is an earthquake. Pink and white flowers. Castles. We can slip down to the floor, the attendant whispers, once the lights dim.