Hazlitt Magazine

The World We're Losing

Ecological grief captures a newly defined set of emotions, all connected to our personal relationship to the natural world.

‘Gestures Across Time’: An Interview with Martha Schabas

The author of My Face in the Light on artistic process, phsyical mediums as a foil to writing, and the tension between surface and interior. 

‘Underachieving Can Be an Act of Profound Self-Care’: An Interview with Rachel Yoder

The author of Nightbitch on anger, needy toddlers, and writing as emotional exorcism.

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‘The System Isn’t About Justice or Rehabilitation’: An Interview with Hugh Ryan

The author of The Women’s House of Detention on forgotten prison history, the incarcerated LGBTQ population, and women being punished for entering the public sphere. 

In the 1930s, Alice moved from a rural town in New England to New York City because she wanted to be queer. She fell in love with an opera diva, and for a year, they lived together. Then the diva married a soldier. In an attempt to prove she wasn’t lesbian, the singer forced Alice to watch her have sex with her new husband. Alice had a psychotic breakdown and ran screaming from the apartment. The police found her two days later, dirty and hungry, wandering the streets with no idea who she was. They arrested her for prostitution and brought her to the Women’s House of Detention in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighbourhood and, according to author Hugh Ryan, “for the rest of her life, she was connected to the carceral system.” Most people today do not know there was a maximum security women’s prison in the heart of Greenwich Village from 1931 to 1974. In The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison (Bold Type) by Hugh Ryan, author of the widely acclaimed history of gay life in early 20th century Brooklyn, When Brooklyn Was Queer, tells a powerful and deeply researched story of the systematic and persistent criminalization of queer and gender-nonconforming women and transgender men. Regular stints at the House of D, as it was known to many people incarcerated there, were a fact of life for the often poor, nonwhite, queer women and transgender men in the New York City facility. Today, 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. The Women’s House of Detention describes how queer women and trans men came to be disproportionately incarcerated, and how their experiences and activism shaped the 20th-century struggle for gay liberation.  Nicole Pasulka: This prison has been closed for nearly 50 years; most of the people who were incarcerated there have passed away. What made it seem like a good subject for a book now? Hugh Ryan: The easy answer is when I was writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, several folks I followed (for the book) had passed through the Women’s House of Detention or the court that was connected to it. That alerted me to its existence, and it shocked me that I didn’t know a 12-storey, maximum security prison had existed in Greenwich Village for most of the 20th century. After that, it seemed like it was everywhere: I found references to the House of D in Audre Lorde’s book Zami, in the writings of Joan Nestle, in movies, in musicals—and then, I found a statistic saying that 40 percent of folks incarcerated in women’s detention centres identify as LGBTQ. This was a crisis of incarceration that we weren’t talking about. In a broader picture, when I started writing When Brooklyn Was Queer, I thought I was writing the history of an incredibly diverse borough, only to discover Brooklyn was—for most of its existence—98 percent white. I didn’t want to make contributions to queer history that were always centred on whiteness and maleness. Writing about the House of D ensured that I literally could not produce a book like that, no matter what I discovered in the existing archives.  I wasn’t going to be writing that story.   How did women end up incarcerated in the House of D? Women ended up in the House of D for everything from wearing pants to mailing the definition of lesbian (or) committing murder — but the vast majority of folks were there for one of three charges.   One was “vagrancy prostitution,” which in the eyes of the law simply meant being a poor woman who had been arrested. According to New York State legal precedent, you did not have to exchange sex for money to be a prostitute: it was defined simply as the “common lewdness of a woman,” so all poor women were an invitation. to prostitution (charges). Many girls were placed in the House of D for preventative reasons, either because their parents or guardians thought they were wayward, or because they were seen as at risk for having venereal disease. Under The American Plan, this meant the U.S. government could incarcerate them until they tested negative for syphilis and gonorrhea, without ever being arrested, tried, or found guilty of anything. The third category, particularly in the later years, was drug charges. After World War II, the U.S. changed its drug laws, and many women got caught up in new punitive carceral solutions to drug problems. What was the stated objective for incarcerating these women—was it to help or to punish? The initial objective was rehabilitation, but from the very beginning, everyone involved in the administration understood that what they were doing was not rehabilitating anyone. In their eyes, that was because of a lack of resources, not because of a structural flaw in the prison system. Either way, everyone knew they were not meeting their stated goal.   In what way is the story of this one prison a history of incarceration in the U.S.? The research taught me that women’s incarceration is fundamentally different from that of men. From the first independent women-only detention centres in the 1870s, the goal was to retrain women to be wives, mothers, and educators of children, because it was believed that was all women could be. As such, it was a forced feminization process. The concern was making them the right kind of women, whereas men’s institutions were simply concerned with not having men return to jail. Women were imagined to have very limited avenues to respectability—wife and mother, or maid, and you had to be feminine to pursue those jobs. Women’s incarceration has always been focused on women who were seen as masculine of centre and therefore has focused on queer women.   The other thing (the research) taught me about 20th-century incarceration is almost everyone agrees that jail primarily functions as a way to get poor people off the streets. I think this tells us a lot about why reform is often a doomed endeavour. The system isn’t about justice or rehabilitation; it’s about warehousing all the people we don’t take care of.   What violence does prison perpetuate against women specifically? Unless you’ve been there, one of the things few people understand about jail and prison is that every time you enter a facility you are given an invasive cavity search, and in some past instances, a PAP smear. These routine procedures are tantamount to state-sponsored sexual assault. Can you imagine being on trial and having a cavity search every morning before you testify, often done by a male guard or doctor?  Knowing that’s what you’re going to face tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that?   How is the Women's House of Detention connected to broader struggles for women’s and LGBTQ rights?   Looking at the House of D shows us how the government has routinely punished women seen as masculine of centre simply for existing—under whatever laws the government chooses. At the same time, my research revealed that in spaces where women and trans men gathered, including the House of Detention, they were espousing what we think of as gay liberation and gay pride long before it ever showed up in homophile organizing or liberatory movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. These people bore the brunt of state oppression, and for that reason, understood before anyone else what state oppression of queer people and women looked like, and how it needed to be resisted. For example, in the 1940s, two young women named Bernice and Renée were in a long-standing lesbian relationship, which their social workers in jail realized. When confronted, both women adamantly said what they did in their own time was their own business; they were not ashamed of who they were and did not feel it was anyone’s business who they loved or think there should be any laws limiting what we today would call “gay rights.” Long before organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis or the Mattachine Society made this argument, these folks, the lumpenproletariat who are often referenced in biographies of more famous queer people, knew these ideas. I often think of this as similar to “freedom dreaming” in Black Liberation traditions. It’s the communal ability to imagine life beyond white-cis-heteropatriarchy and recognize the same struggles in each other, which enables all kinds of leaders to push those ideas forward. Tell me about some surprising people who were incarcerated. How did they end up there? In the archives, I came across a woman living during the 1950s from an upper-middle-class Black neighbourhood in Queens. She trained in conservatories for singing, was a keypunch operator (like in the movie Hidden Figures), was active in the growing New York homophile movement, and was a cabaret singer. She and her girlfriend broke up, and she was arrested when someone offered her money for prostitution. In the House of D, the social workers were intimidated by her. Their notes said they were afraid to attack homosexuality because they didn’t want her to think less of them. This isn’t the kind of case we normally think of when we think of Black women being arrested in the 1950s. How do you get people to care about a prison that’s gone? It’s hard enough getting people to care about prisons that are currently incarcerating people. I think it’s really hard to get people to care about history in general, and what guides my work is helping people see how history leads into the present day and then writing it in a way that is as accessible, emotional, and narrative as possible. We live and die by stories, and when we present our histories as these dry, static moments that barely involve real people, we deaden the subject and ask people to stop listening. Then, in your mind, how does the story of the House of D connect to the present? For me, it always comes back to that statistic: 40 percent of people in women’s prisons identify as LGBTQ. To understand why this came to be, I had to understand how the system came to target masculine-of-centre women, nonbinary folks, and trans men. That is the story of the House of D, but it’s a story that is still operating today though the House of D is closed. Hazlitt is a Canadian publication, and although the story of the House of D is a story of women’s incarceration in the United States, are there ways to connect this to the Canadian justice system? The trends and changes in consideration of women’s roles in former British colonies tend to follow similar trajectories. When we look at the history of women’s incarceration, part of what we see is women in a post-Victorian world entering the public sphere in ways they were denied previously. That is not an American story; that is a story of every country with a legacy of British colonialism.   You said earlier that part of the motivation for this project was telling queer histories that didn’t centre on whiteness or maleness. Were you concerned when writing this book that you wouldn’t be able to fairly represent the experiences of groups—like women, trans men, and people of colour, for example—outside your own experience? When I started this project, a lot of people pushed back on the idea of me as a white cis man writing this book. Most of the time, that pushback came from the point of view of people who assumed that other people would cancel me. That hasn’t been what happened. There are many people who’ve thought long and hard about these issues from different perspectives, who’ve pushed me to think but haven’t condemned me for being a white cis guy writing about women, trans people, and people of colour. It has largely been a nuanced, wonderful conversation I have been welcomed into after doing the work. People who are afraid of “cancel culture” are often actually afraid they won’t do the work, or their work will be crappy, and then they will get called out for it. If my work is crappy, I hope people call me out or call me in to talk about it. But if you do the work well, I don’t think you’ll get many calls to be cancelled, even when you’re writing beyond your own identity.
‘Silence We Inherit and Carry With Us’: An Interview with Eva Stachniak

The author of The School of Mirrors on sexual violence, the history of midwifery, and opening up archival silences. 

Women’s bodies have long been used as tools of conquest, in displays of dominance and acts of war, their voices unheard. These are silences that Eva Stachniak opens up with her latest novel, The School of Mirrors (Doubleday). Véronique and Marie-Louise—mother and daughter, both from the poorest class, with little agency of their own—live in 18th century France, a place where a debauched king can keep a stable of very young women in a house known as Deer Park, some who haven’t yet bled, for his personal pleasure. It’s an historical precursor to Epstein’s compounds and others like them: impoverished young women are lured with false promises of work that would improve their economic situation but become sexual playthings for the king instead. Often, as with Marie-Louise, the king’s agent secures these women with only parental consent. The young women themselves are never even asked. Although women’s sovereignty over their own bodies continues to be threatened worldwide, women have eked out ways to exercise agency and help each other. In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise is taken under the wing of France’s first midwife and becomes one herself. The novel is deeply feminist in inception and execution, a counter-narrative that gives voice to the powerless, whose stories are rarely a matter of historical record. Christine Fischer Guy: How and when did you find out about Deer Park? Was it the inspiration for this novel, or did it come later in the process? Eva Stachniak: It was both the beginning and the inspiration.  Reading the The Private Memoirs of Madame du Hausset, Lady’s Maid to Madame de Pompadour, I came across a scene in which Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV at her side, summons Madame du Hausset and orders her to take care of a young lady until her confinement and make arrangements for the baby’s baptism. From the conversation that ensues, it becomes clear that the king is the father of the child, and that the young lady doesn’t know it. “She and others like her” have been told that their lover is a Polish count, a distant cousin of the queen, who keeps an apartment at Versailles.  That very phrase, she and others like her, was enough to make me dig deeper and discover Deer Park, a secret house in the town of Versailles where royal enablers kept young, pretty, lower-class girls for the king. The house, supervised by Madame de Pompadour but run by the king’s valet de chambre, was an elaborate and well-functioning establishment. The girls were told that they were trained to become ladies’ maids and thus improve their station in life. Most were dismissed after one or two “visits” with their “benefactor.” A few caught his fancy and stayed longer. I tried to find out who they were and what happened to them in the end, but the voices of the powerless rarely merit more than an occasional record. I’ve found a few names, learnt that Deer Park “bastards” were always given to foster parents, that the palace paid for their upkeep and set them up in life.  This is how the novel began, with an image of a young pregnant girl, a child she will give birth to, and the royal courtiers who make sure neither will ever cause their royal master any trouble.   This scenario puts me in mind of “the virgin cure,” an insidious myth that gained prominence in 19th century England: sexual relations with a virgin could cure a man of disease (then, syphilis). It persists in various forms throughout the world, a tragedy that leaves a trail of human wreckage: men of means use a very young woman’s body as they wish, without regard for her personhood. “The virgin cure” is an excellent example. Men of means and thus impunity usurp the right to use the female body as an object, a possession devoid of agency and feelings. We are still nowhere near being free from it. I don’t just mean the cases of Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein, either. It is enough to take a closer look at any war—most recently in Ukraine—to see how quickly women’s bodies become objects of revenge, a weapon of terror meant to dominate and humiliate the enemy. Sexual violence exerts one more terrible price. Silence. Silence forced by shame, by fear of reprisals, by the wish to spare the loved ones from pain. Silence of the victims and the perpetrators, of women and of men. Silence which seeps through generations, silence we inherit as children and carry with us all our lives.   Any family who has been through the terror of war carries these silences with them in various ways, as recent work on intergenerational trauma shows. When a woman’s body is used as a tool of war, she is silenced, as you say. Historically, the fallout—in my grandmother’s case, headaches, bad stomach, nightmares—didn’t have a name, and yet generations after carry the effects of PTSD in their own bodies. We are only starting to understand that these unresolved, unacknowledged traumas are carried forward on a cellular level in future generations. Although women’s bodies are used as tools of war, they haven’t historically been considered as equal value to men’s bodies, have they? Even within legitimate relationships, a woman’s pleasure was never a requirement in sexual relations. The young women in King Louis’s stable didn’t give consent; the act itself wasn’t even named. That’s a kind of erasure, too. In your research, did you find any examples of women who spoke up? What were the consequences?  The young women recruited to Deer Park were never asked for consent. Their parents were asked, and they made their own calculations. In The School of Mirrors, the Widow Roux, riddled with debts, believes that her three sons trump one daughter. All other arguments were a luxury she could not afford. Yes, there were women who spoke up. One nameless Deer Park girl stubbornly maintained that the king of France was the father of her child, until a few weeks of “treatment” in a mental asylum forced her to change her mind. One anonymous girl escaped with the help of her sweetheart. There was also Marie-Louise O’Murphy who, emboldened by the king’s liking of her, tried to win the Versailles game by trying to oust Madame de Pompadour herself, famously asking the king, “What do you still want with the old cocotte?” Louis XV dropped her in an instant and had her married off to an impoverished aristocrat.  The game was rigged then and it is rigged still. As Melissa Febos notes in Girlhood, her changing girl’s body had the “power to compel but not control.” And then she adds: “There is no good strategy in a rigged game. There are only new ways to lose.” Even within their limited scope of power, women have shown resourcefulness and ingenuity, exercising what little agency they had to help each other. I read accounts of women in my family’s ancestral village helping each other find food for their children under the cover of the night when Stalin’s occupying soldiers took the lion’s share of the crops for themselves and the village men were away in Russian work camps.   In The School of Mirrors, Marie-Louise, fierce and strong and intelligent, crosses paths with a midwife who changes her life. France’s first midwife, who we glimpse in the novel, was a force of nature who invented a “birthing machine” for student midwives and won a commission to train others by showing it to the same debauched king. In the words of Mme du Coudray’s biographer, “hundreds of letters existed, to her, about her and by her… There are hardly any women, especially in the 1700s, who left that kind of paper trail.” Du Coudray not only helped improve the lives of other women but carved out a place in history for herself, all from within a very limited scope of power. How she sold King Louis on the idea of funding the training of midwives all over France? By describing the French babies that would be saved. Brilliant and subversive, wasn’t it?   Did finding the record of Mme du Coudray change the course of the novel? Yes, in the most fundamental way.  Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray hijacked the second part of The School of Mirrors. A licensed midwife, a proud professional woman aware of her self-worth, a relentless advocate for women’s health, she fought to improve both natal care and to reduce infant mortality. And in contrast to the Deer Park girls who had no agency or voice, she was a woman who would not be silenced. Madame du Coudray’s biography The King’s Midwife provided the basic facts. Single and of unknown parentage, she practiced as a licensed midwife in Paris in the 1740s and ’50s, rising to the position of head midwife in the Hôtel Dieu, where approximately 1500 babies were delivered each year. Faced with the realization that Parisian high standards of natal care were inaccessible to poor women in the provinces, she obtained royal funding and patronage for her obstetrics course with the help of a teaching tool she had invented, the “birthing machine.” Between 1760 and 1783, she criss-crossed provincial France training thousands of young peasant women in the art of midwifery. She also adopted and raised an orphaned peasant girl, Marguerite Guillaumanche, later Madame Coutanceau, who carried on her work well into the 19th century.  The “machine” speaks of Madame du Coudray’s resourcefulness and ingenuity. It is a curious object: a cut-off model of a female torso, a stuffed pregnant belly designed to give the students the illusion of delivering a baby. It makes use of ordinary, easily accessible materials. An internal wicker frame is covered with straw or upholstery. Sponges imitate flesh. An additional layer of durable linen imitates skin. The vessels hidden inside the belly hold fluids which can be released to imitate breaking waters or internal bleeding. The baby mannequin has an open mouth so that a student could practice the well-proven maneuver for breech births which demanded inserting two fingers into the baby’s mouth.  How many lives had she changed for the better! Not just the lives of mothers and children, but also the lives of thousands of young women from the provinces who received her precious gift of education. The gift that gave them a chance to exercise power over their own lives.  All I needed for The School of Mirrors was to imagine women like her and let them lead me.   Like Mme du Coudray herself, Marie-Louise breaks the poverty cycle in a system set against her. Unlike her mother, she escapes the silencing imposed by the king. I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of silence as I work on my own second novel, about music and silencing under a Russian regime. Silence is violence. The seat of power can be conceptualized as one’s voice, however expressed, whether through the vocal cords themselves or through one’s work. Within the scope of her limited powers as a poor young woman, Marie-Louise gains a voice of her own. I’d like to circle back to your decision to open up historical silences by introducing this counter-narrative to the official version of French history. In an interview, you said, “As a child, I quickly calculated: to be a grandmother I have to live through two world wars, to be a mother, through one World War and one Nazi occupation.” How did the women in your personal history act on the story you tell in this novel? The women who raised me, my mother and my grandmother, raised me in Communist Poland, in the aftermath of not just a devastating world war, but of what historian Timothy Snyder so aptly called the “bloodlands,” Hitler’s and Stalin’s killing fields.  As far back as I remember, war ruins have been around me everywhere. The houses that survived still had inscriptions in Russian: Min nyet. No mines. There were only two kinds of time: pre- or post-war. The words World War II meant that there must have been World War I and that there could be World War III. Stalin and Hitler were dead but their legacy was still very much alive.  At dusk, after all the work was done, my widowed grandmother would sit by the kitchen window, staring into the distance, turning the rings on her gnarled fingers. Her silence frightened me. I remember her startled eyes when I approached, her blue unseeing eyes, welling up with tears. If I asked what she was doing, she would say she was praying for the living and the dead. Every time she heard me laugh, she would tell me to stop, for I would soon cry. Once when I was playing with stones, she snatched them from me and threw them away, screaming, “Do you want your life to be as hard as mine?”  My mother did not believe that playing or not playing with rocks mattered. Refusing to yield to despair, she pushed the war past behind her, became a paleontologist, a professional woman, an outspoken expert in her field. She too warned me, but her warnings were of a different kind. Wars always brought out the worst out of humanity. Men were wolves to each other. Give them half a chance to drown you in a spoonful of water, they will. Then she made me concentrate on what was still possible. “If they close the door, get through the window. Find a way. You don’t know how? Figure it out.”  I thought of her as fearless, invincible, and yet she too refused to speak about her own experiences during the war or the political reprisals that followed. I knew she had been imprisoned as a member of the anti-communist underground, but only because she never let me close the door of a room she was in. “I’ll tell you one day, when you grow up,” she might say to fend me off when I wanted to know more, but mostly my questions would annoy her. We were living under a totalitarian regime; informers were everywhere. A child could be easily manipulated. Not knowing was a form of protection. Nature abhors a vacuum. My mother’s silence, even more than my grandmother’s, had always taunted me. It turned me into an expert in reading clues that slipped through her defences, eyes turned away too quickly, the tensing jaw, the unexpected anger in her voice. Many years later when, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, she no longer knew I was her daughter, she pointed at a bullet-riddled wall of a building we passed by and said: “These were terrible times. I know you want me to tell you what has happened, but I won’t.”  A missing story becomes conspicuous in its absence. A story refused, a conversation that did not take place, leaves a wake of loss behind it. I mourn the intimacy we could have shared, the comfort we could’ve given each other, but I’m her daughter through and through. I too turn to what is still possible. The School of Mirrors emerged from my personal memories of growing up with women marked by silence and loss. Their fear and their insistence that women choose silence for many reasons, not just shame and fear, but also love and the desire to protect those around them. Their conviction that even if the ravages of silence cannot be reversed, life is resilient and thrives on hope and that lost voices can be regained in spite of everything that has conspired against them. The loss of memory did not make my mother forget her determination to keep her secrets, but it did turn the formidable professional woman I had known all my life into a spirited teenager who would assure me she loved me because we were so happy together, or a thoughtful friend offering the greatest gift of all: empathy and acknowledgement of my pain.    “You say you are my daughter. I don’t know how this could be possible. But if you are right, it must be terrible for you to know that your own mother cannot recognize you.” That moment found its way into The School of Mirrors.  That scene was very moving, perhaps more so as my own mother has been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She still recognizes me, but I know the day will come when she won’t. And then there’s the other sort of forgetting, which isn’t forgetting at all but the desire to forget traumatic times or dissociate from them entirely. I grew up with the laughter admonishment, too, and it went “Laugh before seven, cry before eleven.” The subconscious life advice transmitted in that aphorism: one must never forget that tears or disappointment are just around the corner. My grandmother wouldn’t talk about the time that Stalin’s soldiers occupied their village, except once, when I pressed her. “The doctor made sure no babies were born,” she said, and then would say nothing further. That sort of elliptical comment was meant to shut the conversation down but did the opposite—it became a catalyst for my research and imagination that fuels my work. When your mother said, “You want me to tell you, but I won’t,” did it have a similar effect? Did it become a reason for the decision you made to let the women finally tell their story? I’m thinking of your wonderful line “The dead, once wakened, may not stay silent.” It did. I was never old enough to hear it, or she was never ready to speak. Was it the fear of her own reaction or mine? Why couldn’t we talk about it? What would’ve happened if we did? There is enough force in it to make me imagine and probe. This mother/daughter conversation I never had seeped into The School of Mirrors but in some ways, it underlines all my writing. I know that it is the same for you, and that this phantom conversation will continue to frustrate and inspire you.  All my writing comes from the deep need to break this chain of imposed silence, to restore the voices that could not or would not speak. It is no coincidence that I became a writer only after I emigrated from Poland, and that I became a writer in English rather than in my native Polish. My Canadian voice is much bolder, not as susceptible to cultural warnings of what can or cannot, should or shouldn’t, be said. Polish secrets and obligations are not Canadian secrets. Distancing myself from language and place gave me the emotional freedom to explore and restore what might have been much harder or impossible to probe if I had never left.
The World We’re Losing

Ecological grief captures a newly defined set of emotions, all connected to our personal relationship to the natural world.

A stranger paces around an unfinished shack, speaking to himself as though he is alone. He says he saw dead dolphins floating belly up in the Bayou. He had never seen anything like that, he says, he was born and raised in Louisiana, he had lived his entire life in Louisiana and now what? There were dead turtles on the shore? Dead fish? Dead birds? Tears drip from his wet eyelashes. His face is pink with pain. His hands are clenched into fists at his side. Standing in the room with me are eight other people, a friend from Texas who gave A and me a ride from the Sonoran Desert in an old hearse—we took turns lying in the back on a mattress—and others, friends, acquaintances, strangers I can’t place. A, my partner-in-crime since childhood, is standing next to me, but we are all silent, paralyzed by this rupture in the social shell of the day, alarmed by what the stranger is saying. It is my first time in New Orleans. Everyone refers to us as the Canadians. The city is still full of the wreckage of Katrina. Five years later, each broken-down bungalow and abandoned building is a reminder of someone’s home lost. Rebuilds, restoration, blight laws, auctions, squats, gentrification all working in different ways to erase these markers of history. From the corner of the room, I watch the stranger cry. I am frozen, embarrassed, childish. Some untouchable part of me is afraid of being undone in the same way, afraid of emotional contagion, afraid of cracking, and I am not the only one. I don’t know what to do with my own hands. Do I clutch them? Put them in my pockets? Hold them behind my back? What do I say? What do I do? I feel my heart beat faster and faster. The stranger stops suddenly. He kneels down, holds his stomach and gasps for breath. It is October 2010, just after the BP oil spill. In April, the Deepwater rig was drilling a well 35,000 feet below sea level when high-pressure methane from the well expanded, lit, and exploded the underwater piping, the rig, the platform. After the well opened, an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers were killed by the blast. It wasn’t until September 19th that it was fully sealed. Memory is slippery. With each recall it is altered. The context you remember from colours it. The narratives you’ve told to make sense of it colour it, like a drop of food dye in a cup of water. The identity you imagine for yourself colours it. This memory is persistent. I can feel the heat on my face. I can hear the stranger describing his utopian building plans, touring us around the construction site, pointing at a wooden frame that, with drywall, would become a bedroom, and the holes where windows would be. I watch myself watching as the stranger cries. In the memory I don’t have the language or tools to understand what is happening, but now I understand that this was grief. Ecological grief can be triggered by the loss of a species, an animal, part of a forest, a cherished place, a river, a home, future ecologies, past ecologies. The grief can be acute, anticipatory, vicarious, cumulative. It is connected to a cluster of a newly defined set of emotions: eco-anxiety, eco-panic, eco-trauma, all resulting from our personal relationship to the natural world. I think of this memory as a demarcation, a transition between a time before I understood the idea of ecological grief to a time after. *** “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1945. In 2020, I read in the newspaper that it’s the 10-year anniversary of the BP oil spill. Clean-up crews skimmed the water’s surface and sprayed Corexit dispersants, but oil still coats the floor of the salt marshes. I start to read obsessively about the tar balls left behind from the spill, the pancakes of oil in the sand, the brown tides of dead sargassum, the rig workers with PTSD. I read an account of a wife struggling with her husband’s suicide attempts after working the exploded rig. I look at photographs of pelicans coated in oil. I read about Mexican fishing communities that still haven’t been compensated by the oil company. And the memory continues appearing out of nowhere, vivid but out of focus like a hologram. The stranger weeping in his shack. Part of me imagines I can repair my mistake from those years ago, when I froze in the face of his breakdown, by researching. If I can see what he saw, be equipped with information, facts, then I can honour his suffering now in a way I failed to do then. By now, almost everyone I know has experienced some form of ecological grief. And the more I read, the more I want to see the slow-moving coffee brown rivers where the man described the dead floating downstream. What does it look like today? There is a disturbing paradox between voyeuristic curiosity and bearing witness. I am not sure it can be resolved. In nature we imagine experiencing transcendence by being a piece of something beyond ourselves. The borders of the self turn permeable. They blur. Where do we begin? And where does wilderness end? How do we stop pretending to be bystanders to the natural? But all interactions with wilderness now are edged with equally unresolvable tragedy, seesawing between the poetic and sublime. I want to be in the Bayou again, so I can hear chirping insects in the undergrowth, smell the wet musky earth, so I might reckon with my naïve past self, so I might understand something about the relationship between human interiority and the natural world. Stefan and I sleep in a cheap motel on a snowy Ohio highway next to an adult superstore. When I go in to ask room prices, the woman at the desk calls me sweetie, then complains that she had to work a double shift because the other girl called in sick. She was beaten up by that fucking idiot again, she says. A man in an oversized winter jacket is half-asleep on a lobby couch, watching golf. I am sorry, I say, is she ok? Oh yeah, it happens all the time, the woman says. Here’s your key, the hot tub closes at 11:30. The phone in our room starts ringing for no reason at 4 am. We call the desk to ask why. She doesn’t know, it’s happening all over the motel. We leave the receiver off the hook so we can sleep, but the ringing feels somehow ominous. In the morning over coffee and a bagel, while Stefan showers, I begin a handwritten list of endangered species, repeating the names of the dead like an incantation, an elegy, a spell. I start with British Columbia, where I spent half of my childhood, and then move through North America: American Badger, Basking Shark, Burrowing Owl, Chinook Salmon, Vesper Sparrow, Caribou. In Montgomery, Alabama we stay in a room that smells like it is rotting from the inside out. The only other guest is a young student from California working for the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Monarch Butterfly, Quillwort, Desert Nightsnake, Eulachon, Fragrant Popcornflower, Grey Whale. The next night we camp in Atchafalaya Basin, the largest wetland habitat in the US, where the Atchafalaya river delta meets the Gulf of Mexico. Our tent is a thin membrane between us and the wilds. If we touch the tent wall, water will leak through. We lay with our eyes open listening to a chorus of unidentifiable nightlife singing through the velvet black. The swamp is like nowhere I have ever been. The night is alive and wet. In the morning we eat crawfish etouffee at a gas station, get lost in a forest of sycamore and bald cypress, ferns at our feet, as it rains and the delta fills. The bayous are neon green with algae. Gators swim below the still surface, dinosaurs in the deep. An egret flies by. Its wings are impossible clouds. The bird population of North America has declined 29 per cent since 1970, and I wonder when the silence will eat at this landscape of sound. I take videos of Stefan on my phone walking in the mist, camera slung over his shoulder, bleached hair, plaid jacket, just so I might hear the song of migratory waterfowl again. I’m crafting a time machine.  ***  In The Hidden Life of Trees, rogue German forester Peter Wohlleben writes that trees communicate through underground mycorrhizal networks. They can share water, nutrients, send distress signals, they have kin recognition and memory. Individual trees even seem to have unique personalities. Older trees, with more fungal connections, redistribute water or nutrients from their deep root systems to more shallow-rooted seedlings like a mother might. In an interview, researcher Allan Larocque suggests, “We don’t know how they communicate within their own bodies. They don’t have nervous systems, but they can still feel what’s going on, and experience something analogous to pain. When a tree is cut, it sends electrical signals like wounded human tissue.” I like Larocque’s description because it feels surprising to think of a tree this way. Everything about a tree is so different from how we are taught to imagine an emotional being, and in trying to relate to this idea we have to wrestle with personal histories of knowledge. What is emotion? What is language? How do we feel what we feel? But there is power in attempting this radical act of undoing perception, to pick away at comfort in search of alternative ways of seeing. Thinking of trees this way resonates with me. At six, I lived with my grandfather on the mountainside of a two-lane highway to nowhere. His house is near an old silver mining town in BC called Riondel. Fingers of logging road extend up the Rockies and Selkirks to wilderness, cathedrals of birch, hemlock, cedar, larch. Loneliness is a word with too many divergent meanings. To be alone with others is a loneliness that turns into alienation, a loneliness that traps you inside yourself. To be alone in loss or abandonment is to be forsaken, betrayed, left behind, unwanted. There is a gentler, surface loneliness, the reminder of our perpetual aloneness in time. The kids at school called me Heidi and laughed at my pink rubber boots. I hid my sandwiches in my desk or slipped them into the garbage. The teachers were concerned that I never ate. I told them I hated the butter slathered on the bread, because I didn’t have words to describe what I felt, a war against the invading hollowness of being alone. My grandfather accepted my explanation, and although he was loving, he worked all day in his studio, napped at noon, then worked until we ate in silence watching documentaries on TV. I would have been a very lonely child—sent away from my mom, from everything I knew, to the woods—if I didn’t have the forest to play in. After school I would walk down a moss-covered path, through the soft white pines up the mountain, to Corn-beef Creek. My grandfather and I had made a deal that if I refused to wear a bear bell, which I rejected because it made me feel like a cow, I had to make noise in order not to surprise any predators. There were cougars, lynx, black bears, supposedly grizzlies. So, I spoke or sang to the trees as I walked. I even remember them speaking back to me. Fallen cedars created bridges over the creek. Some days I sat or lay on a log in wait for deer, elk who might come to drink. I saw the trees very differently at six, seven, twelve, than I do now. I felt they knew me, and I knew them in a way that is difficult to describe. I imagined they had a collective and individual sentience. They were wiser than me, with a slow sedimenting concept of time that was comforting. In my mind it stretched past one human life into deep-time and held me in my human limits with care. This relationship eased my isolation. I wasn’t lonely when I was with them. In the early ’90s, the pine beetle started to kill forests throughout BC and Alberta, devastating nearly 18 million hectares of forest. Although the insect is endemic, it moved into new territories. Warm winters and dry summers increased its population, and the trees couldn’t fight against the attack as normal. Beetles bore tunnels into the bark, laying eggs in the living cambium. The larvae then continued to dig deeper and deeper into the trunks, until the mountains were covered in orange patches of dead forest. At the same time, clearcutting mowed bald patches all over the province, usually hidden from highways to calm any outrage. “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love,” write psychologists Colin Parkes and Holly Prigerson in their book Bereavement: Study of Adult Grief in Life. “It is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional blinders, which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others to cope with the losses in theirs.” The first time I saw these swaths of burnt-pumpkin, dead forest, I felt a pain in my chest, though I will admit that I still hadn’t accepted or allowed myself to reveal this to others, consider it legitimate, or let myself feel it, so it became a stunted obscure pain. A pain I considered immature, juvenile, weak. This is the first time I can remember my own eco-grief. An elastic tight feeling inside my chest. I will always equate the orange colour of dead pine needles with the colour of death. *** Stefan and I drive from Atchafalaya Basin to LaFayette. We drink beer and listen to a Cajun jam at a run-down but famous saloon. The Acadian singer sounds like his heart has been broken since he learned to walk. We try to two-step. The next day we drive through Plaquemines Parish, the area hit hardest by the BP spill. A single ribbon of asphalt extends down the peninsula. The road is cradled by marshes, roadkill armadillos, pipelines, stilted houses, banana trees, distant rigs. Sandhill cranes and plovers fish in the ditch. Smoke curls up from who knows where. After the spill, the fishing industry was depleted, the economy devastated. Corexit dispersants used as a band-aid solution by BP to sink and scatter the oil killed marine life, producing mutations in their offspring. Some fish in Barataria Bay were later found with no eyes, or no opening for their mouths. 2 million gallons of Corexit was used in the aftermath. People living nearby who were sprayed complained of boils appearing on their skin, and seizures. Even the solution to the problem was a problem. Dusky Gopher Frog, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I was curious to see the end of the line, to see the coast. Was there oil residue still or had it been completely restored? What did it look like? What did the stranger from my memory see? But the road was flooded. We didn’t even get close. Twice that happened. The road disappeared into the ocean. We would have driven directly into pools of water if we hadn’t stopped to turn around, and it was the dry season. Sockeye Salmon, Spotted Owl, Steelhead Trout, Vancouver Island Marmot, Horned Lark. Solastalgia is a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005. He defines it as the pain experienced when the environment you live in is under immediate assault. It is the loss of belonging when the place you belong to transforms around you, is altered, or no longer exists as it used to. Albrecht interviewed farmers in New South Wales, a state in eastern Australia, during the severe drought of the early 2000s, and families in the Upper Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, living next to large-scale open cut mines. On the one hand, the drought had caused the earth to dry up and crack; on the other, the smelters had caused an eternal night, blocking the sun with smoke and pollution. The change in the landscape was extreme. Albrecht noticed his questions were often answered with a latent sense of doom. The interviewees always referred back to, or referenced, their desolation, helplessness, crisis-of-self resulting from the shocking changes to their homes. So, Albrecht invented a word to name this new emotion, to articulate it. “Solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home,” he writes. Louisiana is the first state with climate change refugees. Entire communities have been displaced by erosion. Islands have disappeared. The state is losing a football field of land every hour. Everyone knows this about their home. It is a mantra. The land is disintegrating because of the intrusion of saltwater, rising sea levels, oil and gas infrastructure, lack of replenishing sediment due to levees and water control. At least 22,000 acres of land have been sucked into the swamp. Isle de Jean Charles, an island that is home to a community of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people, is being devoured by water. They have been forced to relocate. A state restoration project promising to rebuild the land and shift state water control infrastructure in the hopes of replenishing sediment hovers in a distant bureaucratic future. In lieu of this, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have created a powerful Tool Kit for other communities undergoing environmental and developmental pressures. By 2045, scientists estimate that 300,000 homes in the US will be lost to rising ocean water. Western-tiger Salamander, White-Headed Woodpecker, White-bark Pine, Limber Pine, Northern Leopard Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Phantom Orchid. Ashlee Consolo, Director of the Labrador Institute, studies the impact of climate change on Inuit communities in Labrador, the fastest warming area in Canada. Her research dovetails Albrecht’s in its attempt to understand this acute existential distress. After interviewing hundreds of people over the course of five years about the emotional effect of the changing environment on their lives, she concludes that profound questions of identity come with climate change. “We are people of the sea ice,” an Inuit elder tells her, “And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?” This is the question of solastalgia: Who are we when our home disappears around us? Who are the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw without Isle de Jean Charles? Or Nehiyaw communities in Alberta without the Bison? Who am I without the pines I spent my childhood with? The impact of ecological grief is different than mourning the dead. With it we mourn the future that will be changed or may not exist, the past that we can never return to. We mourn ourselves. Red Wolf, Pygmy Racoon, Staghorn Coral, Oahu Tree Snails, Franklin’s Bumblebee, California Condor, Ozark Big Eared Bat, Canada Lynx. On the way back up the peninsula, we stop in an interpretive center for a historical fort. The museum has a few relics on display. Descriptions of the objects, printed from a home printer and taped to the wall with scotch tape, give little information. The history seems shallow and spotty, which in museums can mean a dangerous forgetting or a hint of an apologist scaffolding. I try to read between the lines, to tell if it is a disguised confederate mausoleum, but am not sure. The fort is a five-minute drive away, but the gate is locked with rusted-out chains. One motorcycle is parked under a skeletal magnolia. Otherwise, there is no sign of anyone. Spanish moss hangs from the branches. The biker stalks about agitatedly looking for something. I watch him from a concrete ruin, the river on one side, used condoms and beer cans littered underneath. When will the fort be open? I ask the woman behind the counter. It’s always locked up except for re-enactments, she explains. I ask her if the land has changed a lot in the last ten years, if she remembers the BP spill. She tells us she lives in New Orleans. The owner isn’t around, he would know more about the spill, and the land. But she has a lot to say about Katrina, she says. Her neighbors heard them blow up the levy. Nothing else sounds like that. She speaks with her eyes in a language of intimate conspiratorial gesture, looking at us wisely after hinting at the unspoken, leading us through unfinished sentences with a raised eyebrow, a coquettish turn of the head, a laugh. Her name is Val. You can say what you want, some people don’t believe us, some do, but we have ears, she says, we understand what’s happening. She tumbles through her stories without questions. She wants to tell us. She wants us to listen. Her family was split up afterwards. One son went to New York and was having a rough go. One son was never the same after the Superdome. A lot of people were never the same. How could you be the same? *** A group of Berkeley academics and doctors looking at the emotional bonds between humans and nature in the 1980s coined the term ecopsychology. Traditionally other therapies work on healing or understanding relationships between people, families, partners, the self, whereas ecopsychology tries to heal relationships between people and nature. It posits a synergy between humans and the earth, where the needs or rights of the planet are inextricably linked to the needs and rights of humans. Patients are treated outside in natural environments, and work towards sustainability. In more contemporary circles this might mean a patient is prescribed a walk in the park for 20 minutes a day. But earlier advocates of ecopsychology insist on reciprocity. It doesn’t mean just sitting on a bench under your favorite oak, it means somehow caring for that oak in return, maybe watering it, fertilizing it, defending it from removal, planting seedlings. This mutual care can help with healing. “In a culture of gratitude,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, Potawatomi biologist, writes on gift economies: “Everyone knows that gifts will follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you.” Reciprocity builds bonds. A network of bonds is a community. We think about this in our intimate relationships with each other, but less so in our relationship with nature. This “moral covenant” of reciprocity, as Kimmerer describes it, could be crucial to managing our grief. In his work on the role of mental health providers confronting emotional distress due to the climate crisis, Daniel Rosenbaum writes that it’s a problem if clinicians and therapists approach psychological distress as a dysfunctional response that the sufferer must fix. He reminds us that hurt is a normal reaction to loss. “Pain and upset in response to painful and upsetting situations may be both perfectly normative and a sign of healthy mature emotional functioning.” Pathologizing eco-grief implies that it is not healthy to feel a strong emotional response to the climate crisis, but how can we not feel something? Rosenbaum calls on fellow mental health providers to “reject notions of individual’s brokenness, and honor people’s grief or pain for the world as a healthy response to an abnormal situation.” So, then, it is for us to name and normalize what we feel in response to the abnormal situations we are in. Naming is a powerful step in grief work. To name is to acknowledge. To name is to accept that loss is real. A common treatment therapists recommend for eco-grief is mindfulness, the meditative practice of being present to yourself in the moment without judgement. Emotions are inevitable. Resisting or burying or denying them can push them into dormancy. The idea is that a meditative approach can allow people to feel with resilience and unknot the ropework of repression without being flooded into despair. Once you feel, you can begin to integrate the loss, mourning is possible. But how are we supposed to mourn the environment? Some psychologists stress the uniqueness of grief: because each individual grieves differently, finding a personal way to grieve is important. Other strategies for grief work, including psychedelic assisted therapy, using psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy, or daily microdosing to improve the physical or depressive impacts of grief, rearticulating mourning rituals, both public and private and lamentation, are all having a renaissance. The DSM does not provide diagnostics for an ill or afflicted society. Because climate change disproportionately affects the vulnerable, social determinants of health need to be looked at and issues of poverty, racism reckoned with. But without some deep structural shifts these therapies can only go so far. North American society places the responsibility of mental health on the individual, but how can a person heal or be well while living in a social structure with a fundamentally exploitative infrastructure that doesn’t support basic wellbeing? *** On one of our last nights in Louisiana we watch a marching band perform in New Orleans. Halfway home we stop for a drink in the French Quarter, order a round of beers and find a small table to crowd around. A girl with thin hair and heavy blush approaches us. She is beautiful the way teenagers can be beautiful, like deer wandering along the side of a highway at night. She talks to Stefan. He charms her with a sequin patch of a flower he sewed to his jean jacket and his glittering eyes. I lean against the wall, watching the ebb and flow of nightlife in the bar. Then the man she is with turns to me. He speaks with an alarming intensity, telling me how much he hates himself, over and over again, a vicious loop, the mind trapped in repetition. I think it was naïve for me to not have seen what was coming. I try to comfort him, as the roiling alcohol from the night simmers in my blood. I’m sorry that you feel so bad, I say. Maybe you should see someone you can talk to, I think that can help, a therapist? He tells me he has seen psychologists for years but nothing could help. He hates himself, he hates himself, did I want to know why? He can’t tell me, he says. I pause. I understand the power of confession, would it absolve him to confess? I don’t want to absolve anyone, especially not knowing what he’s about to say. Would it ease the pain to be shared? I figure he’s cheated on his wife. It can’t be that bad, I say. He looks all the way through me. Because of what he had done in Iraq, he says. I feel everything leak out of me. I shot a child in the head. The teenager is monologuing beside me, her hands whirling in the air. I look more carefully at the stranger. He is wearing a crew neck sweater and pre-distressed jeans, hair tightly cropped, clean shaven. He looks like a soldier. No one can hear him besides me. My translator was my best friend, he says, and you know what they did to him and his wife after I left? I excuse myself and go outside.   Here it was again, prismatic grief, wounds opening onto wounds. Experts have tried to reimagine grief as non-linear. They suggest that the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, may repeat or switch in order. There is no clear final outcome or end to grief, pain may return in new forms forever. One loss bears the burden and residue of another. A new wound digs into older wounds. In an article for the Intercept, journalist Murtaza Hussein looked at the impact of industrialized militaries on climate change. Citing a report published by Brown University, “Costs of War,” Hussein writes that the US military is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide aside from entire nations, and that if it was a nation, it would be the 55th largest emitter. Beyond its shocking carbon footprint, the direct environmental impact goes much deeper. Afghanistan, after 19 years of ongoing conflict, has suffered extensive deforestation. In Iraq, burn pits and toxic munitions, such as uranium depleted bullets, have caused severe environmental damage, while also leading to high rates of cancer in cities like Fallujah. The country suffers from increasing dust storms, desertification, drought, salinization, all a result of climate change. War is an industry that contributes to environmental destruction, exacerbated by the bottomless violence of racism, colonialism, and anti-poor systems. For so many, home has become a battleground for resource extraction, and, as a result, collateral damage. Trying to understand eco-grief is a puzzle, so many griefs today are entangled, and unexpectedly pass through the same place.  *** At home, March brings the pandemic. I hide out at a friend’s farm watching twilight turn the fields of dead grass a lavender-grey. I can’t stop thinking about the soldier and the stranger from my memory. They begin to become one person. White-headed Woodpecker, Vancouver Island Marmot, Western-tiger Salamander, Whitebark Pine. After dinner, I share a beer with my farmer friends. We discuss what to do, who will get groceries, protocol, masks, what we need, hand sanitizer. Their five-year-old daughter runs around shirtless with pale sweatpants singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. This is the first but not the last time I hear this song. She circles the kitchen like a helicopter. “The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside” she sings. Her voice gets louder and higher pitched near the climax, “conceal don’t feel, don’t let them know, well now they know, let it go, let it go...” Noticing our grocery list, she stops, looks up at us with imploring brown eyes. Daddy, can I get straws tomorrow at the store? We exchange glances. Straws are no good, love, we don’t use them anymore. Why? She asks. Orca, Ocelot, Jaguar, Woodland Caribou, Whooping Crane. He finds the video on YouTube, the three of us hover over his phone watching as two doctors in a motorboat try to safely remove a plastic straw from a tortoise’s nose. It has lodged all the way up its nasal cavity, with the white tip protruding only a few centimeters. For some reason the creature, with its scaled prehistoric beak and sad poetic eyes, does not struggle. It submits. The doctors cut the straw in half, and the tortoise starts to bleed. They debate whether to leave the straw. If it is lodged in the brain, they could do more damage by removing it then leaving it in. I wonder if it’s ok to show this to a five-year-old, but it’s too late. When the straw is finally pulled out, I feel dizzy like I have lost blood. The animal cowers in a corner of the boat, the video cuts, and we are back in the kitchen, in the panicked spring of 2020. Grief again. Maybe grief is the syntax for living. She looks at us with questions but says nothing. What is there to say? *** Thinking about utopia in A History of My Brief Body, Billy-Ray Belcourt writes that joy is a revolutionary act for Indigenous people who are constantly fighting against the settler state to stay alive. “Freedom is itself a poetics,” he writes “in that it seeks to re-schematize time, space, and feeling in the direction of a future driven by an ethic of care, a relational practice of joy-making that is all ours to enact.” He writes this to and for Indigenous people. Joy has a different meaning in a context where it is policed by white culture, where the legacy of residential schools, police brutality, incarceration, forced starvation, climate change, and dispossession of land leave people marked with trauma and poverty, but I can’t find another statement that more concisely speaks to what I am trying to understand about ecological grief. Part of me cringes at optimism, at the word hope, which is fraught with history. Isn’t hope a balm without a strategy? Hope is not an act. Hope is not a tactic. Hope is a fantasy for people who are not afforded agency. Hope is the expectation that nothing can change in the here and now. It is a deferral to another place, another time, a future speculation, a heaven, a hereafter. I was afraid I might have to return to the idea of hope in this conclusion. It felt like a stain I didn’t know what to do with, but an essay about grief can’t be concluded without some refuge, some attempt at solace, some attempt at hope? I hear the word offered constantly as an antidote. In the news journalists conclude interviews with questions about hope, do you have hope? How does hope influence you? Is there any hope? I feel guilty for writing this paragraph. Railing against hope seems so cruel, because what else is there? But I think there is a lot for non-Indigenous people to learn from Belcourt’s statement. Care can be a radical act, a temporal act, a healing act. Care is a protective attentiveness to the future. Care is active, reciprocal. Joy, like care, is also an act of love, to celebrate, to feel delight, wonder, euphoria. If we only grieve what we love, let us also actively love what we love, while we still can. *** This morning the sky is all rough-hewn clouds, like matted hair, feral, unkempt. Summer tightens its jaws. I watch the street from my porch. A neighbor in a mask asks for a tomato from the garden. A child passes with a balloon. My grandfather texts me a photo of Kootenay lake. The water is silver. Waves reflect light in rivulets of liquid mercury. He compares it to a photo from a few days before where the ferry is near invisible, cloaked in smoke from the wildfires. He says he doesn’t go outside anymore, except sometimes in the morning with a special mask to filter the particulates. I think of the charcoal forest, everything burnt an ink-black, ravaged. A pain in my chest rises to my throat like a hand. Is this what the stranger in New Orleans felt? I think of a stand of cedars near my grandfather’s vegetable garden, the perfume of the needles, the red peppermint puzzle pieces in the bark. I drink my coffee too fast. Claustrophobia is setting in. I need to run away to a place where I am unknown, I write in my notebook, so I can be more myself, not controlled by other people’s ideas of who I am. The clouds twist and contort until they turn to waves cresting in the sky. My mom texts to say the animals are acting weird. Birds are flying in circles or hiding. What is home? A photo on Instagram of an inferno peaking over the summit of a blue mountain. I cross out what I have written in my notebook, as if anything makes sense anymore. How can I be more myself in a place that doesn’t know me? Atlantic Salmon, Atlantic Walrus, Blue Walleye, Caribou, Deepwater Cisco, Eelgrass Limpet, Great Auk, Kiyi, Macoun’s shining moss, Whitefish, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Striped Bass.
‘It Did Away With the Entire Juvenile Justice System’: An Interview with Kathleen Hale

The author of Slenderman on deinstitutionalization, early onset schizophrenia, and “crimes of the century.” 

On a spring morning in 2014, three little girls went into the woods and only two came out. That’s about as much as most people remember about what came to be called the Slenderman stabbings. Two twelve-year-olds—one in active psychosis due to childhood-onset schizophrenia and the other wrapped up in her delusions—invited their friend to a birthday sleepover and planned to murder her, to protect their families from a villain named Slenderman.  Slenderman, a character written about profusely on a user-generated site called Creepypasta, was just one of the many fictions that bonded Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. But it was the one that would infect their reality, so much so that they felt the only way to keep themselves and their loved ones safe was to kill someone important to Morgan. They chose her long-time best friend, Peyton “Bella” Leutner. The morning after their sleepover, the three friends walked into the forest. Morgan stabbed Bella 19 times, and then she and Anissa set out on a trek to Slenderman’s mansion, the location of which they imagined to be outside their midwestern town. Bella, severely injured, managed to drag herself to the edge of a nearby road where a cyclist found her. She was rushed to the hospital and survived. Doctors told her that if one of the stab wounds had been just a hair deeper, she would have died. It wasn’t long before police found Morgan and Anissa and arrested them, at which point the girls gave separate, lengthy confessions. (Both of which you can watch, in their entirety, online.)  What followed was a trial that brought to national attention issues of mental health care, child crime laws, friendship, and mythology. But what struck author Kathleen Hale most, as she watched the case unfold, was that no one seemed troubled by the idea that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a severely mentally ill child as an adult. She first wrote about the story here at Hazlitt, an in-depth look at the case and its cultural significance, and has since expanded the story into a book: Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls (Grove Atlantic). As Hale’s editor on the original piece, I was curious to talk to her about the case again. “One of the biggest revelations of writing the book,” she told me, “was that there were no villains, and that’s what made it such a difficult story.”  Haley Cullingham: After Morgan and Anissa are arrested for stabbing Peyton, or as they call her, Bella, the thing everyone wants to ask these girls is why. And it made me wonder, when was the last time someone asked them that, about anything, before the crime?   Kathleen Hale: If anyone had acknowledged it in any way, or opened up the conversation, this might never have happened. I think, in some instances, the reluctance to engage with these girls about what they were saying, experiencing, exhibiting in their behaviour, just speaks to a real national reluctance to talk about mental illness in general. And I think some of it came down to local culture, as well. The girls cared deeply about Slenderman and the Creepypasta stories, and nobody else in their lives took these stories seriously. But the girls made Slenderman serious through their actions. They forced people to take it seriously. That was one of Anissa’s intentions, she told police. Part of this was just wanting to prove that Slenderman was real and that she wasn’t “crazy.” But I think, in her child mind, proving that Slenderman was real was code for proving that her pain was real, that she wasn’t crazy to be feeling the way she was feeling, that what she was feeling was okay, lovable, and relevant. She just wasn’t getting that attention. Her sadness was being ignored, and at the same time, she felt like she had to hide it because she didn’t want to cause extra stress for her parents because she craved their attention so much. I think, in a really terrible way, this crime might have occurred, among other reasons, as a cry for help. You spend so much of the book at this intersection between brain development and cultural context, and the idea of being a girl in middle school specifically somewhere like Waukesha, Wisconsin. In exploring these draconian juvenile justice laws, or really the lack of juvenile justice in the United States, I was really surprised to come up, again and again, against this idea that children are no different from adults, and if they commit a serious, “adult” crime, they should be treated as adults in their punishment. First of all, what is mature, what is adult, about a crime at all? And, second of all, this idea of “adult crime, adult time” just flies in the face of science, which I know has unfortunately become very politicized in our country. But you can see on an MRI that a child’s brain is different, and undeveloped, and remains undeveloped, until the age of sometimes 25. The brain develops from back to front, and so the executive functioning skills that allow us to make decisions based on future repercussions, they don’t exist. We can all remember being children and not being able to grasp the permanence or the reality of death. That’s just one example. Children are biologically different, and I was very shocked to see a defense team—Morgan and Anissa’s defense team—trying to prove in court that Anissa and Morgan were biologically children at the time of the crime, and having it contested. It was contested to the point that Anissa’s pediatrician’s report was brought up, and read from, and they went down this list of prepubertal characteristics in Anissa to try to prove she was a child to get the case transferred. It was surreal to see these kinds of things debated in contemporary society. So much of the horror was that this was done to someone who was a child, but people could then not make the switch to realize that the girls doing it were children as well. When there’s child-on-child violence, in Wisconsin but also in many other states, there’s only one child, and there’s only one victim, in the situation, as far as prosecutors are concerned and the public is concerned, and that’s the victim. The other children who are assailants become adults in the eyes of the community, at least with serious violent crimes like attempted homicide. There’s definitely no room in the discussion for the idea of more than one child or more than one victim. Morgan and Anissa victimized Bella, and then they too were victimized by our justice system, and both of those things are true, but it’s hard in our country to hold both of those facts in mind. A lot of that comes from something you go into deeply in the book, which is the super-predator phenomenon. Could you talk a little bit about the impact that phenomenon, and its very destructive legacy, had on this case? It’s impossible to overstate the importance and the destructive impact of the super-predator theory when considering the ways in which we now harshly prosecute children in the United States. It basically did away with our entire juvenile justice system. In the mid-’90s, a man named John DiIulio Jr., who was then a sociology professor at Princeton, said that he had done all of this research and had found that children growing up in “moral poverty” in urban areas—he used all the coded racial language—were becoming super-predators, which is to say that they had no souls, and therefore they were psychopaths, and the usual punishments would not work on them. What we needed to do, the only way that we could stop them, was to set up laws that put them behind bars. And it just caught fire. It happened across the aisle, both Democrats and Republicans advocated for these laws, Hilary Clinton pushed for it, Joe Biden talked about it. This is something that, right now, is associated with right-wing politics, but everyone is guilty. Every single politician during that period, pretty much, pushed this theory into law. In places like Wisconsin, they have the harshest laws, which is that children ten and older are prosecuted as adults in attempted homicide cases and homicide cases.  So, a couple of years after this theory came out, it turned out that John DiIulio Jr. had made up everything. It was all fake. It was fiction. He wrote it like a novel. It wasn’t real. There were no super-predators, just like there’s no Slenderman. But nothing happened. He went on to work for the Bush administration, nothing upended in his life. And the laws built in service of his fake theory exist to this day. And no one is interested in changing them, because tough-on-crime politics has become so ingrained in our political system, especially in voters’ minds, especially right-wing voters. It’s impossible to tear down, because no one wants to admit to their voters that they bought into a conspiracy theory—a racist conspiracy theory. Voters are still very worried about crime. In a lot of states, the laws have been reversed, and the minimum age for adult prosecution has been raised, but Wisconsin—I’ve talked to juvenile justice advocates who have campaigned there, and they say it’s impossible. Whereas in other states, they’ve managed to move the dial, they just cannot start the conversation in Wisconsin. It’s such an interesting parallel, because in a lot of ways, Anissa and Morgan were punished for believing in and acting based on something made up, but then the people punishing them were able to enact those punishments because they were scared of something that also wasn’t real. Everyone was swayed by fake news. I want to talk about Wisconsin. I’m ready. You’re from Wisconsin, and not far from Waukesha. You weave a lot of the culture of the place into the book, and part of what makes the book so compelling, as someone who is not from that culture, is I felt immersed in and like I understood it through reading the book. Can you talk about how where the girls lived had an impact on how the case played out? Because in a lot of ways, we’re talking about two girls who are in a fairly privileged class in American society. They’re white, they’re from, if not wealthy, middle-class families, but things did not go in their favour. I would love to hear how you saw Wisconsin, because you said you got a really good feeling for it. I think the thing that struck me the most was how important it seemed to everyone from Waukesha that people understood that Waukesha was a good place to live. That was really fascinating to me. It’s a place that’s fairly close to a major city, but people don’t really talk about the city much. Even Peyton, or Bella, who had this terrible thing happen to her, is like, “Waukesha’s a great place to live.” Prior to this happening, and after, Waukesha was and still is a really safe place to live. It’s actually voted one of the top places for families to live. It’s just a really wholesome place. The downtown is very quaint, it’s out of a set for Our Town. It’s even still got a Christian joke store, with wholesome joke toys. That’s one side of it. But the other side is that there’s some pretty big economic disparity in Waukesha. For instance, that apartment complex where Morgan and Anissa lived was for lower -income families and provided housing to that population of people. And although it was a safe place to live and it had a very safe school district, the schools were underfunded and understaffed and that played in a lot to so many of the warning signs [being missed]. Morgan’s behaviour leading up to the crime was bizarre and troubling, and her teachers just ignored it, and I think part of that was just that they had a lot of students to take care of, and didn’t have the time. They obviously we not trained in mental health care. Putting the laws aside, culturally, what do you think would have been different about the public perception of this case had it not happened in Wisconsin?  I think what makes Waukesha different is that nobody questioned the fact that the state of Wisconsin was prosecuting a mentally ill child as an adult. Nobody seemed to care about that—it just seemed right to everybody. To keep the area safe, to make it a good place to live again, they would just get rid of these two girls, and then everything would be okay. The degree to which fear and punishment seem so baked into the culture of somewhere that is statistically quite safe is disturbing to read about. And the not talking about things, that culture spilled over into the case too, because sending these girls away to a hundred total years in prison, which was the plan, that was a way of sweeping it under the rug, and that’s what had been going on leading up to the stabbing as well. I think people thought, if they go away, then everything would be okay again. Morgan’s father has schizophrenia, something she hadn’t been told at the time of her crimes. The mental health piece of this case is incredibly complex. How did you prepare to report on that? What were some of the things that you were keeping in mind when you were getting into that part of the case, and interviewing Morgan?   I knew that I needed to know everything I could about schizophrenia, in particular. As someone who lives in a major city, my conception of schizophrenia was when I would cross paths, and this happens almost every day, with an unhoused person who is confused and talking to themselves. It was hard for me, and I think it’s hard for most people, to conceive of a child, a very young child, having these kinds of hallucinations that I had seen disabling grown people, and at the same time going through her life, and managing for the most part to mask it. I knew that I needed to really deep dive into what that felt like and looked like. I interviewed a lot of leading researchers on early-onset childhood schizophrenia. I interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists. I watched this amazing special called Born Schizophrenic, about kids who have it, and what it looked like to them.  So that was my way in, and then I tried to listen as much as possible to Morgan talk about her schizophrenia, and how it feels to her, and how it manifests, and over time I developed a very different conception of schizophrenia, which is that it exists on a spectrum. Not everybody has scary hallucinations, and not everybody has disabling hallucinations. But what’s true across the board is that schizophrenia is a degenerative illness, which means that over the course of one’s life, it can lead to cognitive decline. Psychosis without medical intervention causes brain damage. That’s part of why it’s so upsetting, so abusive, that Morgan was withheld anti-psychotic medication for 19 months after her diagnosis. The State of Wisconsin treats basic mental health care as some kind of luxury amenity. As a result, Morgan was in a state of psychosis for over a year. She was in medical crisis. She lost the ability to read and do basic math. If therapeutic intervention had happened sooner, it might have changed her life. As things stand, it’s still unclear to what extent those 19 unmedicated months will affect her long-term prognosis. So it was through my research into schizophrenia that I came to understand certain story points a lot better—one is that, once Morgan was finally given anti-psychotics, it was like putting on glasses, everything got clear, but because she was not also on antidepressants, this terrible, crushing depression set in, because now that she had clarity, she understood what she had done to Bella, she hated herself, and she became suicidal. Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of schizophrenia, and how it’s something that people can live with, and take medication for, and function and come of age and grow—so long as they have access to mental health resources, which are virtually non-existent in the US. Anissa’s lawyers used the concept of folie à deux explain her actions. Can you tell us what the folie à deux explanation is, and why they used it? Morgan, after being arrested, was pretty quickly diagnosed with early onset childhood schizophrenia, which runs in her family. Anissa did not receive a diagnosis for a major mental illness, so her defense team had to take a different approach to defending her because she’d already given this lengthy confession. Folie à deux is a 19th century French diagnosis, and it basically says if you’re in a close, intimate relationship with someone who has a severe mental illness, you can begin to exhibit the same symptoms that they do. This has been proven true in other situations; for instance, mass hysteria springs to mind. Hatred can catch on, and we’ve seen that playing out in other ways in society.  But with folie à deux, usually it was a different kind of approach. Most of the time, folie à deux arguments are made about couples or people who are married or related in some way. A very minor variation of that is to talk about codependency in a family that’s ruled by addiction, where everyone starts to act a little bit “crazy,” for lack of a better word. So, a folie à deux argument is saying that Morgan’s schizophrenia affected Anissa, and that she got wrapped up in this delusional world, and as soon as she was separated from Morgan, the fog lifted, which proved that it was Morgan-related, and not Anissa-related. It was a creative Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity defense, which allowed them to push for that without having a mental health diagnosis. What do you feel like you were able to explore, as a writer and a reporter, about those very deep pre-pubescent connections, through Morgan and Anissa’s friendship? So much of this story centered on the intensity and platonic romance of close female friendships. In Anissa and Morgan’s case, Anissa started out as Morgan’s bully, because Morgan was bullied. But over time, Anissa grew to really like Morgan, and started hitting the bullies who bullied Morgan. I think that Anissa had never really had a very close female friend, and Morgan was and is so funny, and they both liked the same kinds of stories, and I think what ended up happening is that when Morgan told Anissa about her hallucinations, Anissa’s instinct was to make Morgan feel better by believing in the same thing. And she came to see Morgan as a medium for Slenderman as a way of understanding and trying to make Morgan feel less unusual. And so the plan was a byproduct of this friendship between them that started from a relatable place of mutual childhood infatuation, and that feeling you get when you finally have a best friend, and someone to talk to, and unfortunately they bonded over the wrong things and everything went horribly wrong. It’s interesting, because Bella talks about doing the same thing with Morgan—going along with those hallucinations, supporting those hallucinations, because she felt like that was an act of love and friendship. Yeah, to make Morgan feel less unusual. Everybody was bending over backward to try and erase Morgan’s differences, which they thought was the compassionate approach. This idea that we’re all the same. And that’s what Morgan saw modelled with her parents—her mum’s compassion for her dad’s schizophrenia, and her setting up their whole life around not having to have that be a problem for him. Totally. And they didn’t want to scare her, that was one of the reasons that they didn’t talk to her about it. They were sort of waiting for a moment where she was old enough. But she knew that something was off, and when she was a kid, she would ask him, “What’s wrong with you?” And Morgan told me he would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re sixteen.” What did the reporting for this book make you feel about how we talk to children about difficult things? It made me think a lot about my daughter. I was so new to parenting, and I was really struck by this case. I found out that Morgan had schizophrenia, she was twelve, she was being prosecuted as an adult, she faced over sixty years in a woman’s prison at the age of twelve. I immediately thought of my daughter, and I thought, what if she becomes so confused, so secretly, and makes a horrible mistake, and she’s taken away from me, and I won’t be able to help her come back from that? I won’t be the one to punish her, I’ll have to watch her be punished in front of me. My mind just immediately went there. What if my child got sick and I didn’t know and something terrible happened as a result? And I guess I didn’t realize how controversial it would be to have that perspective and not to immediately think, at the expense of all else, what if my child was stabbed? I think what came up for me was this very strong feeling of recognition that these were children. These were little kids. I was aware of that at every juncture, just how young they were. You talk about the HBO documentary, Beware the Slenderman, and how Morgan’s mental illness isn’t mentioned until three-quarters of the way through, but Slenderman and the effect of the internet and Creepypasta on the girls is so present. This case has been seen through that lens everywhere, and one of the great things the book does is see it through other lenses, but I’m curious if you’re surprised that that was what so many people clung to? I was and I wasn’t. With every passing year, I expected somebody to take my “angle,” which was, these are kids, and one of them has schizophrenia, why is the state of Wisconsin doing this to two twelve-year-olds? And no one did, and that was surprising to me because it seemed like such an obvious question.  But when I started researching the book, I realized that there’s a history of doing exactly this, adults view child-on-child violence through the lens of whatever new media is most confounding to them. Columbine springs to mind—it was blamed on Marilyn Manson songs, and violent video games, and none of that turned out to be true. If you read Dave Cullen’s book Columbine, you’ll see that one of the killers was actually a psychopath, and the other one had suicidal depression.  In Morgan and Anissa’s case, people blamed the violence on new media, and it’s the same story as it’s always been. This terrible crime occurred because of what kids like these days. It turns out we’ll go to such extreme lengths to not talk about mental illness. We’ll invent this whole mythology around whatever the new technology is, and we act like it bewitches kids into violence, when the real reasons behind it are going unnoticed and undiscussed. When we were working on the Hazlitt piece together, you talked a lot about other cases going far back, these other girls who commit crimes in pairs.   I went down a lot of different roads in terms of looking at other cases that involved similar forces and they didn’t all make it into the book. I looked at some of the big cases, like Leopold and Loeb, Columbine, the Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand—the topic Heavenly Creatures is based on—and drew from those and other headline-grabbing “crimes of the century” as they’re always called, every single time. There was this pattern, this real pattern of people blaming outrageous, scary acts of violence on whatever the newest media was. You’ve been immersed in this case for so long. How many years did you work on this? I first really wrote about it in earnest for Hazlitt. Another outlet was supposed to publish a version of the piece, and they got spooked, because the lens on my piece was more from Morgan’s point of view, because that’s who I had access to, I had access to her mother. And they didn’t want it to come across as victim-blaming by treating her with anything other than derision and fear. This is something I’m very interested in exploring, which is this phenomenon of ignoring any other angle on a crime except for the victim’s angle. I wanted that to be something that I investigated next. And then I published the piece with you guys in the fall of 2017. The book is out of my hands now, but I’ve been working on it for five years, and I started talking to Morgan in winter of 2017, and I started hanging out with her in the spring of 2018. I have been writing this book for a really long time. With all the research you’ve done, with all the reporting you’ve done, what do you think needs to change about the way cases like this are treated? It would require so much cooperation between different factors of US government that I don’t even think it’s possible. I think we’ve messed it up too badly, to be honest. I mean, you can hardly go to a DMV in the US and get a driver’s license without it taking eleven hours, and even then, the system usually crashes because our government is so disorganized. Add politics to that and you’re completely fucked. But in an ideal world, the first step is to raise the minimum age for adult prosecution to eighteen. It should not be lower than eighteen, it just shouldn’t. It should actually be higher than that, if you’re taking a science-based approach. But people as young as ten should not be thrown into prison with adult sentences. That goes without question. The other thing is that we need a mental healthcare system, and we don’t have one. It used to be that if you had schizophrenia, you could move in and out of a public hospital that was well appointed, where patients had dignity, clean clothes, food to eat, recreational activities, medical attention. Then, movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest really lowered people’s opinion of public mental hospitals, but there were also some very well-publicized cases of abuses of power. If a neighbour can drop you off at a mental hospital, and they checked you in, doctors have a lot of control over whether you leave or not, you’re really relying heavily on that neighbor and those doctors to be just and fair. So of course there were some abuses of power, and those were widely publicized. But instead of finding a middle ground for how to admit people who needed medical treatment to medical facilities, the government just emptied them, and created a diaspora of homelessness, which persists to this day. Today, in order for somebody to get mental health treatment who’s in crisis—who’s in a state of psychosis, who’s standing naked under a bridge and they’re terrified and they can’t see straight—in order for that person to be admitted, a cop will say, “Are you a danger to yourself or others?” And the person in crisis will have to say yes. That’s the secret word. And you can imagine somebody who’s controlled by psychosis might not describe their current reality very well. And when they can get admitted to a hospital, and don’t have insurance, their stay is covered for the first forty-eight to seventy-two hours—after that, it costs $2000 a day to stay in hospital. So, then our healthcare system comes into play, which is also very messed up. So, basically, there are no resources for people like Morgan before they get arrested. After they get arrested, they get into the prison system, which has become our largest mental health care provider, and of course there is no mental health care provided, it’s just that there are prescribing doctors and a lot of inmates with mental illness whose basic human needs were not attended to, and that became the gateway into crime. I talked to a lot of people, who didn’t make it into the book, whose stories all went something like this: they began exhibiting symptoms at the age of eighteen; they devolved very quickly; their parents and families tried to get them help but could not, because the person was eighteen. The cops would come, say, are you a danger to yourself or others? They would say no, and then they would end up committing an act of violence that got them arrested, sent them to prison, where they degenerated really quickly, because they were in prison. That’s the pattern, over and over. In the United States, in other words, unless you’re rich, you must commit a crime to receive free treatment for severe mental illness, and even after you’re arrested, there are not resources to serve this population of people. Morgan’s hospital has something like one nurse at night for forty patients, is what I was told by patients there. And there’s a doctor who visits every so often, but the bulk of care is provided by entry-level employees who don’t have any mental health training, and there’s a lot of accidents that happen, and it’s not a very safe place to be. Definitely not the get out of jail free card that people describe. But it’s a whole mess of different factors, and unfortunately, with mental illness being as politicized as it is in the US, and with tough-on-crime laws being so hotly politicized, I don’t see a future in which this will ever get figured out.
Not This: Considering Oscar Isaac’s Face

“I like when you watch something,” Isaac once told Rolling Stone, “and you get the sense it’s something you’re not supposed to be seeing.”

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Before he became the perfect internet boyfriend and a hot professor dad, Oscar Isaac was an unlovable loser. The first time I watched Inside Llewyn Davis, on a drizzly winter morning in 2014, I was surprised to learn that being good-looking isn’t enough. Isaac plays the eponymous balladeer-singer, a man constitutionally incapable of catching a break in 1960s New York. Not too long ago, he was one half of a promising folk duo, but then his partner died by suicide. Now he performs solo for pennies at bars—dire, hummable ditties, actually sung by Isaac, bereft of a chorus. His life is a litany of pregnancy scares—usually after a fling with someone else’s girlfriend—and misgivings about becoming an artist. Most nights he ends up on friends’ or strangers’ couches, expecting the next day to be no different. Deprived of royalties, and all signs of affirmation, he wonders whether he was better off becoming a sailor like his father. “You have to owe me something,” he just about begs his manager at one point. “It’s cold outside and I don’t even have a winter coat.” In the opening scene, at the iconic Gaslight Cafe in the Village, Llewyn bellows his heart out in a fit of barely restrained anguish, but the evening clientele  responds hesitantly, clapping more as an afterthought. The next evening, a lanky youth in military fatigues mumbles something less dolorous from the same podium and Llewyn can only watch from the sidelines as the audience applauds with vigour. The soldier finishes his song and then invites a couple of Llewyn’s friends to perform a number together on stage. This time the crowd, unprompted, joins in the chorus. Surveying the singing crowd, Llewyn—or rather, Isaac—raises his heavy eyebrows and shakes his head. Moments ago, he had mocked the soldier’s voice. “Does he have a higher function?” he’d wondered aloud to a friend. But the look that passes through Llewyn’s face is not one of resentment, although the plot of the film indicates that might be the case. You’d think that the soldier has everything Llewyn might covet: the promise of youth, a steady job to cover expenses, a disposition at once sunny and sincere, an offer of representation from a kingpin Chicago manager who is also on Llewyn’s wish list. One morning, we see the soldier striding confidently about the lower West Side in full military regalia. Llewyn, on the other hand, has grey streaks sticking out of his unkempt curly hair and wears the same thrifty-looking scarf and brown jacket everywhere. Indeed, his overall appearance mirrors his working definition of folk music: “never new and…never gets old.” And yet, that evening at the Gaslight, he doesn’t exactly seem envious of the response to the soldier’s performance. When he shakes his head at the crowd, it’s more that he can’t believe their tastes. There comes a moment in every Oscar Isaac performance when his resting face onscreen betrays that look, flitting between disapproval and discernment. His temperament as an actor might be more immersive than inventive, but soon enough a close-up will focus on his half-drowsy eyes when they are inadvertently poised in disbelief, as if to suggest, “not this.” In Ex Machina, Isaac plays a billionaire edgelord, Nathan, who works bare-chested out of his secluded AI research facility somewhere in the mountains. After a day spent perfecting sentient sex robots, Nathan drinks himself to sleep every night alone in his living room—you glimpse that look in these moments, replete with flashes of absolving self-awareness. Jonathan, the forbearing professor and father in last year’s HBO remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, strikes a familiar note as the bespectacled, betrayed husband. But the fact that he is just as capable as his partner of inflicting emotional cruelty is never in doubt, even though we are rarely shown those scenes. As Llewyn Davis, Isaac’s mannerisms oscillate between ecstasy and despondency. The film itself delicately straddles the real and unreal faces of the American dream, both the stage-lit myth of making it big and the dark underside of the hustle, so that even at the brink of exhaustion Llewyn must, in some way, be ready to roll. It’s not enough that he can sing and play the guitar; he has to act out the part of the tempestuous musician at dinner parties, inside recording studios, with his sister and father—like Sartre’s waiter going through the motions of being a waiter in a café. The poetry of Isaac’s performance is unforgettably evident in one scene when Llewyn is told that a comedy song he had worked on some time ago is set to become a chartbuster. This should have been good news, except that after recording the track he had signed away his right to any future royalties in lieu of some quick cash. For a flicker of a second, you can perceive in Llewyn’s face the incredulity of someone who has missed his chance again, but then, without missing a beat, he is back to playing at being a mercurial artist. He is at a dinner party, where the hosts have been parading him around as “our folk-singer friend.” Soon they will invite him to strum a tune. He’ll refuse at first—the other guests would no doubt be impressed if he took his time to relent. And so a pivotal moment is passed off as casual, not so much to downplay its significance, but to suggest that Llewyn, for all his ambition, is at peace with the inexorability of his modest fate. In interviews, Isaac seems aware of the moods his face can evoke. “I like when you watch something,” he once told Rolling Stone, “and you get the sense it’s something you’re not supposed to be seeing.” Why, oh why, has he then preoccupied himself with so many fantasy projects over the years: movies saturated with VFX sequences and puerile storylines, where his face is often the last thing you’re supposed to be seeing? It could be that he loves the genre, or that there aren’t many big-ticket choices available for actors to pay their bills these days. To emote alone in front of a green screen is perhaps the archetypal scenario of a movie star playing at being one in our time. I feel wistful when I watch Isaac blow up buildings and nemeses in  X-Men: Apocalypse, and the recently released Marvel TV series, Moon Knight. As Poe Dameron in the Star Wars films, at least you get to see his face always unmasked, but you miss the grace with which a creased eyebrow could once reveal a protagonist’s inner life.
‘We Should Be Articulating Joyful Alternatives’: An Interview with Nona Willis Aronowitz

The author of Bad Sex on the body horror of pregnancy, selling books about sex, and why this might be her last word on her mother’s body of work.

My favourite plot twist (spoiler alert!) in Bad Sex (Plume), the new memoir-cum-feminist-history by Nona Willis Aronowitz, is that the chapter “The Real Experts” seems at first to be about heteronormative motherhood, but ends up being about liberation through abortion. My least favourite plot twist about the ongoing cultural politics that Bad Sex documents is that when I first read it earlier this year, abortion was still a constitutional right in America. It’s good to live in a reality in which rigorous personal writing on sex appears on our bookshelves when we need it most, but goddamn, it would be nice if we weren’t always in such dire need of good timing. Bad Sex is an odyssey through Aronowitz’s life as a slut and a reader. There are as many vivid scenes of her voraciously consuming research in a library as there are of her adventures in dating. The inner life she documents is one that defies the myth of the nymphomaniac: as she searches for meaning through sexual experience, she also documents profound intellectual analysis and complicates everyday human emotions such as annoyance and heartbreak. Aronowitz uses the stages of her post-divorce sexual escapades as prompts to research topics from race to queerness, from the institution of marriage to the feminist porn wars. A chapter on non-monogamy becomes both an investigation of anarchist Emma Goldman’s relationship to romantic jealousy and a discovery that Nona’s dad cheated on her mom. One of the book’s most refreshing angles is the choice to explore the topic of women’s pleasure by interviewing female clients of male sex workers. All the while, her memoir passages have the refreshing frankness of an early 2010s hookup blog. The prose is infused with natural humour, as when (in the essay on bisexuality, “In It For The Dick”) she concludes that for her, sex with women isn’t “the difference between ‘roller skates and a Ferrari,’” as described by Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle, but “more like being gifted a Ferrari when you don’t have a driver’s license, and anyway, you live a block away from the subway.” A great deal of sexual scholarship and literature seems devoted to distancing itself from lust to be deemed legitimate. Bad Sex does what more sexuality books should do: prove that our politics can be horny as hell. Tina Horn: In the essay on reproductive justice in Bad Sex, you tell the story of your own abortion. In this politically catastrophic summer of 2022, what I want to ask is: what is the question you’re most tired of being asked about abortion, and how do you wish we were talking about it instead? Nona Willis Aronowitz: The biggest a-ha moment I’ve ever had when it comes to abortion was in a Sally Rooney essay about the topic, wherein she points out that in no other circumstance does one human legally have a right to avail themselves of the blood and organs of another human, even in the case of a corpse’s organ donation. So, it really frustrates me when people ask, “Is a fetus a person?” Maybe it is some version of a person—so what? A person does not have the right to take over your uterus and cause permanent changes to your body in order to survive. This point really became vivid when I was pregnant this past year. Now that I’ve met my daughter Doris and experienced her inside my body, it does seem plausible that some parts of her personhood existed before she was born; she had the hiccups every day in the womb and still does, for instance. But as much as I love her and am happy she exists and feel very sad at the thought of her not being here, she still should not have a state-given right to violate my bodily autonomy, whether she’s in utero or earthside. I appreciate that perspective from a new parent. Speaking as a child-free-and-proud person, the ethical philosophy of abortion is emotionally uncomplicated for me; and feelings influence politics, whether we like it or not. When I read family abolitionist Sophie Lewis (“A key correlate of viewing gestating as labor is that forcing someone to gestate against their will is forced labor”) her ideas make perfect sense to me. The concept of pregnancy as a body horror violation of my autonomy is one of the reasons I’ve never wanted to have children. I like that you understand that, and still welcomed someone to take over your uterus. Yes—after being pregnant, I’m more sure than ever that having a wanted child is a profound act of generosity. If it’s not wanted, it’s absolutely body horror; and if it is, it’s still frankly body horror (at least for me, it was) but body horror in context of a conscious, joyful invitation. In its first few chapters, Bad Sex could be read as a divorce memoir. It then morphs into something more slippery: an assessment of sexual politics at large through historical research, cultural criticism, and even an engagement with your mother through her writing. I’m curious if you set out to write something so genre-bendy, or if it started off as one thing and became another? To put it in the language of the book, what were your desires and drives when it came to writing this? I always knew the book was going to be genre-bendy—the memoir element of my story was so genuinely influenced and informed by history that it would have felt weird to focus too much on my personal story. That said, I discovered new historical touchstones and new family secrets as I got deeper and deeper into my research (and some books, like Angela Chen’s Ace or Jane Ward’s The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, were released in the midst of my writing process). So, there were certainly surprise twists and turns along the way. It’s funny you mention divorce memoirs, because I definitely think of the first act of my book [as] fitting perfectly into that genre of freedom-seeking through obliterating one’s romantic and domestic life. But my ultimate goal for Bad Sex wasn’t just to end there—it was also to talk about what happens after you take the first step toward freedom, and then realize, “Oh shit, there’s so much more to untangle here.” The institution of marriage is a broken system, but so is the vast world of casual dating and “sex for sex’s sake.” There’s the promise of pleasure (and the reality of it—I had a lot of wonderful times both in my marriage and afterwards, when I was fucking a ton of people). But there are just so many roadblocks getting in the way of that pleasure, too. I tried very hard to not have a “ride off into the sunset” vibe with any of it. I like the idea of divorce as a beginning instead of an end: a beginning of unprecedented sexual self-discovery and of the ideological explorations that make up this book. Can you talk more about those roadblocks getting in the way of pleasure, and sex for sex’s sake being a broken system? Do you have a utopian vision of a system of love, sex, and commitment that works?   The roadblocks were multi-layered: They came from all the different messages I’d received; from the traditional patriarchy to my mom’s version of feminism to my own generation’s interpretation of sexual liberation. There are lots of different, often clashing standards of how to be an acceptable sexual woman, and—despite feminism’s history of consciousness-raising and the development of candid female friendship over the last few decades—not enough space to talk about those harmful standards. I found myself having doubts about my marriage and the importance of orgasms and my heterosexuality and my ambivalence about casual sex, and I’d feel embarrassed to vocalize these thoughts even with people (like my pro-sex feminist mom, like my progressive friends) who would ostensibly be receptive to them. When I say that “sex for sex’s sake” is a broken system, I mean that we still haven’t managed, decades after the 1960s sexual revolution, to solve the problem of quality, not just quantity. Put simply: a lot of casual sex is bad, especially for women. The uncomfortable fact is that good sex usually involves a certain level of vulnerability and surrender from its participants, and yet this quality is often discouraged during casual encounters. Women are told to have their physical and emotional guard up, but a state of self-protection seldom produces the kind of transcendent experiences one may hope for during sex.   I can’t say I have a fully coherent utopian vision of love, sex, and commitment, but I do know that some element of mutual care, empathy, and patience needs to be involved if the sex is going to be worthwhile. This doesn’t mean good sex needs to take place in the context of a committed relationship, but it does mean that people need to be committed to kindness and attunement for the duration of the encounter, at the very least. And I also think that commitment needs to be de-coupled from old-fashioned ideas of monogamy, the source of so much pain in heterosexual relationships especially. Of course, monogamy is fine if it’s actively chosen, but all too often it’s the unspoken default, which not only breeds mistrust and jealousy but can also really get in the way of uncovering one’s true desires. At the risk of being cringe, I have to tell you that Ellen Willis, your mother, has been one of my heroes since I was very young. Her writing about rock ’n’ roll and sex gave me many a-ha moments, like, “Hey, I too could write professionally about the things I find endlessly fascinating.” I return to her work a lot, including through her anthologies that you edited, when I’m seeking clarity in prose or analysis. Obviously, your relationship to her work has infinitely more layers of meaning. You write about her being there for you through her writing even though she’s gone. How is this book a new stage of the work you began by archiving your mom’s writing? Did the book ever feel like a ghost story? Writing this book felt really different than putting together her archive or editing those anthologies. This was me really dialoguing with her through her writing, and not always agreeing with her! I’m so glad I’ve preserved her work, but there’s always the danger of inviting hagiography if I don’t also critique and wrestle with my mother’s ideas. And I really grappled with who she was as a person and a mother, not just a writer. She was someone who was fiercely loving and principled, but also at times overly boundaried and extremely hard on herself. Bad Sex feels like, in many ways, my final (and most complex) word on my mother’s work—not that I won’t keep grappling with her love and legacy privately, but I doubt I’ll do another big project that features her work so prominently. So, in some ways, yes, it’s totally a ghost story, because her unfinished business has finally, thoroughly been attended to, and I do feel a sense of peace about it that I didn’t before. You write about personal sexual situations where your arousal and consent changed, and how the men you were with responded to those changes. I want to ask you about the cultural tension between seduction and consent. It seems to me that consent culture is very attached to the idea that consent is sexy, as if we need to eroticize ethics in order to deserve good treatment. But we also know that wanting or agreeing to have sex with someone and being aroused by them is not the same thing. When other intellectual giants try to grapple with this, they seem to have a lot of issues reconciling desire and safety. We have Camille Paglia’s loathsome assertion that women stay in abusive relationships because the sex is hot, and more recently we have Slavoj Žižek insisting that consent undermines the essential pleasures of seduction. Where do we start reconciling our need for an ethic of consent with the value of lust, and the centrality of power struggle and danger in arousal? What does that have to do with what you identify as the vulnerability paradox? This is a central question that I’ll probably be asking myself forever, but one thing I can say is this: good sex and the pursuit thereof will never be completely safe. We can’t rely on consent to protect us from potentially dangerous, unpleasant, or painful experiences if we truly surrender to our desires, which can be made up of a whole mess of surprising and politically inconvenient elements. There’s always a possibility that an unsafe experience can be unexpectedly arousing, and we need to make room for that possibility and not blame ourselves or put ourselves down if we experience it. Regardless of this fact, I do also think it’s worth interrogating where our desires come from. My mother once wrote that some desires of domination, for instance, might be a learned coping mechanism for dealing with pervasive misogyny—which is similar to the recasting involved in BDSM, where the person ostensibly being dominated is actually controlling the whole scenario. I don’t agree that consent kills seduction, but at the same time I think we need to complicate the campus-friendly slogan “consent is sexy.” Consent can be sexy, because it’s great to have sex with someone who’s attuned to your desires and cares about your pleasure. But desires are culturally constructed, so that means that they’ll often clash with the politics we have in the light of day, including our views on consent.  I feel like American media is becoming more repressed than ever about sex. Have you found that to be true? Why is it so hard to sell a project about sex? What obstacles did you face in getting this book made? Asking for a friend! (It’s me. The friend is me.) I wouldn’t say that American media is more repressed about sex than in the past, but it’s certainly not a time of great expansiveness when it comes to sexual freedom. And there’s definitely been some backlash to the idea of “sex positivity” on the heels of #MeToo. On one hand I sympathize—as I make clear in my book, consensual sex can still be unsatisfying or straight-up bad. But the recent handwringing over dismal dating-app experiences and porn also worries me, because along with critiques we should be articulating joyful alternatives besides just committed relationships, which as we know have their own toxic traps. I went out of my way in this book to describe moments of joy, surrender, and pleasurable surprise (regardless of whether they were with someone I loved or wanted to commit to) because those things can still happen even in the context of an imperfect system! Those moments are what we should be reaching toward and cultivating, not retreating into the solutions of the past or designing narrower lives for ourselves. In terms of selling projects about sex, I actually think it’s slightly better than it was just a few years ago. I was selling Bad Sex right after the blockbuster success of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, which gave me an opportunity to say, “See? People really do care about women’s erotic lives!” And since I got that book deal, thoughtful books about sex like Tracy Clark-Flory’s Want Me or Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex have done really well. That said, I did face a lot of rejection from publishers, though their letdown letters were often less focused on the sex element than the genre-bending element. And I do get the general sense that some media/publishing gatekeepers still think of narratives around sex as not “prestigious” or “serious.” Also—and this isn’t only true in media but—it frustrates me so much that straight men have basically cut themselves out of this conversation completely! Very few straight male editors and writers engage with these types of books, even though they’re often the subject of them, and that’s a huge problem.  What’s the deal with straight men divesting from the discourse? What would you like them to do differently? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I learned the most from your book in the chapter about men: woke misogynists, success objects, MRAs, men’s lib, etc. You portray your struggle with having boundaries versus being a doormat, how to give men the benefit of the doubt for their good intentions while also having standards. What have you learned about trusting men while we’re all simmering in the broth of the patriarchy? This is very delicate, because every time a straight man attempts to write about sex or relationships, a lot of people yell at him on the internet. But we need men to be more vulnerable about their desires, too, both through writing and in their everyday lives. At its best, that’s what the men’s liberation movement of the ’70s was about: stripping men of their many, many layers of pretense and self-protection. Since this book, I’ve become very good at sniffing out men who want to at least try to be vulnerable. The men who admit they don’t necessarily know the answers, who want to explore alongside you rather than facilitate your exploration, men who are patient and don’t appear to have a particular agenda—those are the men I now trust. Nowadays, if I stumbled upon that woke misogynist I write about in my book, my spidey sense would have gone off sooner, because he was just too confident! And too eager to be in control of the whole situation. I know lots of women are attracted to confidence and control, and that’s cool, but if you ask me it’s very hard for men to pull those things off and earn my trust. One of my favorite Ellen Willis quotes is, “In practice, attempts to sort out good erotica from bad porn inevitably come down to ‘What turns me on is erotic; what turns you on is pornographic.’” I often use this to expose the (usually classist) hypocrisy in anti-porn rhetoric. I love that you’re building on your mom’s feminist response to pornography, especially your critique of Robin Morgan’s notion that the difference between hardcore masculine lust and softcore feminine romance is self-evident. (“‘Every woman here knows in her gut,’ wrote Robin Morgan in 1978, ‘that the emphasis on genital sexuality, objectification, promiscuity, emotional noninvolvement, and coarse invulnerability, as the male style, and that we, as women, placed greater trust in love, sensuality, humor, tenderness, commitment.’” To which you hilariously responded, “Other women’s guts begged to differ.”) Can you speak more on complicating the analogy of “porn is to erotica as male sexuality is to female sensuality”?  I love that Ellen Willis quote, too! I felt a little self-conscious about not delving too much into porn in this book, even though I actually know a huge amount about the feminist porn wars. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like porn was a huge part of my sexuality, and it also seemed like lots of other writers were already covering how internet porn affects the youngest generations. But yes, I am fascinated with this fallacy of aggressive male sexuality versus softer female sensuality, a dichotomy I do see creeping back into people’s critiques of modern dating. I’m the sex advice columnist for Teen Vogue, so I’m privy to a lot of young female fantasies, and they’re all over the map—they really do not fit into one category or the other. I do think kindness and some measure of vulnerability figures into what most women (people, really) want sexually, but that can look all kinds of ways. Intense BDSM, when done right, certainly incorporates elements of both. Even more, anonymous, “unattached” sex can be a fulfilling, humanizing experience if you choose to make it so. I tell an anecdote in the book about a one-night stand I had in Texas with a seemingly conventional, not very sexually sophisticated guy, but he was curious and present and he didn’t want to totally orchestrate the situation. Which made our all-night fuckfest a really pleasant experience, one that didn’t fit into any rigid category of “hardcore” versus “softcore.” In your essay on race and “The Vulnerability Gradient,” you discuss “the violence of the archive,” or “archival silence.” Do you see your work as an affront to that violence and silence? Honestly, when it comes to feminist sexual liberation, straight white women have had the most space to opine and the most latitude to participate—so I don’t think that my story directly remedies archival silence. That’s why I wanted to include a chapter that deliberately centred the narrative on a different story: [that of] my friend Selah, a Black queer woman whose journey gets told far, far less. I believe the particulars of my story are important and worthwhile, but as I wrote this book it began to seem like the elephant in the room that I kept quoting and profiling other straight, white women because they really took up the most space when it came to sexual freedom narratives, at least explicitly feminist ones. So, I did try to include other stories from women of colour and queer women, too.  Why do we fight so much about what IS feminist? Do you see a resolution to this in our future? I think, thankfully, that question has actually become less relevant as the years go on; I do feel that the pressure to be some feminist orgasm goddess is loosening a bit. There are always going to be culturally imposed standards for sex, though, which is super annoying—I feel a certain amount of pressure to be “embodied” or “mindful” with my sex thanks to Instagram and sexual wellness companies. The closest to a resolution I come up with in the book is that any movement’s standard is always going to be reductive and kind of judgy by design, which runs the risk of alienating the very people they want to recruit. Feminism is wonderful in so many ways, but there are serious limits to how much it can and should dictate your intimate life. Once I realized and accepted that and gave myself space to grow and surprise myself, things felt a lot more hopeful.
The Goodest Girl

“I’m not afraid of a dare,” I said. “I’ll do whatever.”

Kenzie was the last to arrive to the sleepover party, which I assured the girls was just “hanging out or whatever.” It was surreal seeing her again in the entrance to my house; she had been over all the time when we were kids, but now she seemed a million times taller, plunking her monogrammed TNA gym bag on the ground. (Where had she got that? We didn’t even have an Aritzia in town.) She slid off her UGGs. They were the real UGGs too, the ones that cost three hundred dollars and had the label on the back and felt like clouds and only came in camel and were ugly as sin and completely impractical for Canadian winters but were for some reason the outdoor footwear coveted by every girl in my grade. Kenzie was the only eighth grader to have a real pair; most settled for the grape or forest-green knock-offs. My mother offered to buy me a pair last time we were at the mall, but I begged her instead for a pair of hot-pink Doc Martens, which were half the price. She scoffed and asked if I really wanted to be one of “those girls.” I wondered if, in a bigger city, Kenzie would still be considered popular. She didn’t look like the girls in the teen magazines my mom subscribed me to, angular reality-TV starlets with long blond extensions, pink velour tracksuits, and chihuahua accessories. But Kenzie had a natural confidence that everything she was doing was exactly what she should be doing, as well as exactly what everyone else should be doing. And though I thought the sleepover was stupid, I was grateful she had shown up to give whatever was happening that night some legitimacy.  After pizza (Kenzie refused to eat the crust because she wasn’t “into carbs right now,” and Alyssa and Steph D. followed suit while I tried to hide that I had already had two slices), after watching Bring It On (“God that’s, like, so our lives,” said Alyssa; no school we knew of had a cheerleading squad), we set up our sleeping bags in the living room, sprawled out like a cross with our pillows at the intersection. Mom had decorated the room with streamers, which I had quickly torn down and shoved under the couch before anyone had shown up. Kenzie lay on her stomach on her sleeping bag, dressed in a floral tank top and matching shorts, propping herself up on her elbows. The rest of us mimicked her position on our own sleeping bags. “Are we sure Anita’s asleep?” Kenzie said. Hearing her refer to my mom so intimately jarred me. “Uh, I guess so?” I said. “She’s a light sleeper though, so we should probably be pretty quiet.”  “Perfect,” said Kenzie. She pushed herself up and reached into her TNA bag near the head of her sleeping bag and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. “It’s called Fireball. My brother got it for me. It tastes really good, not like beer at all.” “Is that . . . alcohol?” I asked, dropping my voice to a whisper. I looked around at Alyssa and Steph D., but they seemed untroubled. Excited even. Kenzie screwed the top off the bottle and took a swig. I had never had booze before. “Don’t worry,” she said. “My brother isn’t going to tell anyone.” She passed the bottle to Alyssa, who took an equally large swig. I didn’t know what would happen to a person when they got drunk. I didn’t know what would happen to me. On TV, characters seemed transformed from their regular selves, unaware of their actions, free from consequences until the next morning. The thought terrified and thrilled me. Would I know what I was doing? Would I be like a person possessed—completely out of control, at the mercy of a little voice in my head brought on by the Fireball—and do something really stupid like strip down naked, run out into traffic, and end up in jail? People did stuff like that when drunk. I’d read the news. Alyssa was next to me with her arm outstretched, passing me the bottle, and I realized they were all waiting for me. “I don’t know,” I said. “My mom’s right upstairs. We could get in trouble.” “Come on,” Alyssa said. “We’ll be quiet. She’ll never know.” “It won’t be fun if you’re the only one sober,” Kenzie said. “I’ve done this before. It’ll be fine. Don’t you trust me?” She was sitting cross-legged on her sleeping bag in her pyjamas, but sitting up straight, she had an authority to her. She seemed to have figured out eighth grade in a way that I hadn’t yet: how to drink, how to have boobs, how to simply live without fear. In that moment, I wanted to believe everything she had told and would ever tell me. I took a sip. It tasted pretty good, like cinnamon hearts. “That’s not gonna do anything,” Kenzie said. “You have to drink a lot really fast if you want to feel the effects.” I took a larger swig, winced as it burned down my throat, and passed the bottle on to Steph D., who squealed and clapped her hands, and Alyssa quickly mimicked her. I sat up a little straighter at their approval.  We passed the bottle around the circle three more times before deciding to play truth or dare. Kenzie asked Steph D. who her crush was, and Steph D. named Richard, a boy from our class we had all known since kindergarten. We all burst out into giggles—it was so funny, why was it so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing at how funny every- thing was—and Alyssa said, “He is pretty hot.” I didn’t know boys our age could be hot. I still associated Richard with the time in second grade when he threw up at our  class Halloween party after eating too much candy. I shud- dered. Don’t think about vomit right now.  “Alyssa, truth or dare?” Steph D. asked. Alyssa started to giggle, and the rest of us joined in—everything about the game continued to be the funniest thing in the world, my friends were so funny, my best friends, I was light and happy with my best friends and nothing bad would ever happen to us while we were safe on our sleeping bags—and then she said, “I don’t know. Dare, I guess.” “I dare you to . . . hmmmm.” Steph D. looked around the room for inspiration. “Get on your hands and knees and bark like a dog.” “Ew, that’s so gay,” Kenzie said. I flushed. I knew we weren’t supposed to be using gay as an insult, but it seemed like the wrong time to correct anyone, least of all Kenzie. Steph D. looked embarrassed too, self-conscious that her dare had been criticized. “I think it’d be funny,” she said, picking a piece of lint from her PJ bottoms. “How is that even a dare? You should dare me to drink more Fireball,” Alyssa said. Her words were starting to slur. How long did it take to get drunk? I realized I had no idea what time it was, how long we had been sitting there. Nothing mattered anymore, nothing except the taste of cinnamon hearts and playing the game. I looked at Steph D., who was still focused on her PJs, looking like she had done something wrong. “I’ll do it,” I announced, the words out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. “You’ll drink more Fireball?” Alyssa asked. “I’ll be the dog.” “Ew. Why?” Kenzie asked. I sat tall, rolling my shoulders back. “I’m not afraid of a dare,” I said. “I’ll do whatever.” There was a moment of silence, and Alyssa looked to Kenzie as if to find out what her reaction should be. Kenzie burst out laughing.  “You’re so funny,” she said. “I forgot how funny you could be.” The other girls started giggling again too, and I joined them, a safe, warm laughter. I crawled onto my arms and knees and let out a little yap. Kenzie started laughing again. “You’re so good at that,” she said. “You sound just like Smarties. Do it again.” I yapped twice more, then stuck out my tongue and started to pant. I was making Kenzie laugh harder than I had ever seen her laugh, and it felt good. She jumped to her feet. “Wag your tail!” she commanded, adopting the condescending voice I had heard her use when talking to her family’s golden lab. I did as she commanded, and Steph D. clapped her hands. “Good girl, good Smarties!” Kenzie said, and I wiggled my butt even harder. Right then I knew I had to keep making her laugh, to keep that smile on her face as she looked down at me, to know I was doing a good job, the best job, everything that was expected of me, everything I needed to be doing. “I have an idea,” said Kenzie, and she turned and started walking out of the room. She stopped, looked over her shoulder at me expectantly, and ordered, “Heel girl!” before continuing. I crawled after her. Alyssa and Steph D. jumped to their feet and followed. Kenzie brought us to the kitchen, where she grabbed a cereal bowl from the cupboard and filled it up with water. She placed it on the floor by her feet. “Drink, girl!” I did as she commanded, lapping up water from the bowl, my hips still in the air. “Keep wagging that tail!” she said, and I obliged, listening to another chorus of giggles above me. “Good Smarties! Good girrrrrrl.” That last word fell out of her mouth a long drawl, and she crouched down to tenderly scratch me behind the ears. Her hands smelled delicious, like apricot body lotion and something else, something indescribably and uniquely Kenzie. I wasn’t able to smell her for long because Kenzie pushed my face farther into the bowl until my whole jaw was submerged, the tip of my nose feeling the cool wetness, and I was unable to do anything but follow orders and make Kenzie happy. “Keep drinking,” she said. “And that tail wagging, girl.” I lapped away at the water. I wondered if I could finish the whole bowl from that position. I bet Kenzie would be impressed if I could. “What the hell is going on here?” My mother’s voice stopped us cold. Kenzie released her hand from the back of my head. I started to raise my head, water dripping down my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at my mother, or to make eye contact with anyone at all. “Mrs. Selberg!” said Kenzie, her voice honeyed. “We were just playing this game. It’s something everyone is doing at school. We’re so sorry if we woke you. We definitely didn’t realize how loud we were—” “Have you been drinking? Where did you get that?” Still on all fours, I allowed myself to turn my head to see what she was talking about. Steph D. was holding the bottle of Fireball. It was half empty. The bottle swayed in Steph D.’s fist. No, not the bottle. My vision. The sleepover party was over after that. Mom split us all up; Steph D. and Alyssa stayed in the living room, their sleeping bags moved to either side of the coffee table. Kenzie got my bed. I had to sleep in my mom’s room, listening to her reproaches as I climbed under the covers of her big bed, tears stinging my eyes. “I don’t know what kind of sick game you were playing, or what on earth would possess you to debase yourself,” she was saying as I put the pillow over my ears, my body turned away from hers, shame like I had never felt coursing through my body. She was still going off as I fell asleep, the alcohol knocking me into a heavy slumber.  By the time I woke up the next morning, Mom had already driven the other girls home, an hour before they were scheduled to be picked up, and I somehow felt even worse than I had the night before. A hangover? No, guilt. No, both. Mom met me in the bathroom with a glass of water and a Tylenol as I kneeled over the toilet, retching up the cinnamon-scented contents of my stomach. Later, I came down to the kitchen, where a pot of herbal tea and dry toast were waiting for me. Mom was wiping down the counters. I started to speak—I expected she would want to talk about last night—but when she heard me enter the room, she made eye contact with me, frowned, shook her head, and left the room. We didn’t speak for the rest of the day. I was mostly ignored at school the next day too. I learned that my mom had told Alyssa, Kenzie, and Steph D.’s moms that we had been drinking, and they had all been grounded. They—and their friends, and by extension most of the grade—seemed to take it out on me, as if I were the one who tattled. The silent treatment I could handle; I never cared much about being popular, but the shame felt new. I didn’t speak to anyone except when I was called on in class until, third period, I was stopped by a voice behind me. “Hey, Lucy!” A pink-polished hand touched my arm. I jerked my head up. Kenzie had a serious expression. I opened my mouth to speak, to apologize—though I wasn’t sure what for—but she spoke first. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? About the dog thing. I mean it.” She looked in my eyes when she said this and took off down the hall before I could respond. Watching the back of her UGGs, it struck me in that moment that she could feel the shame too. Excerpted from Good Girl by Anna Fitzpatrick, out now from Flying Books. 
‘A Portrait of Dangerous, Painful Love’: An Interview with Fawn Parker

The author of What We Both Know on literary scenes, abusive relationships, and weary characters. 

“The closest thing to perfection is a relationship unexamined,” remarks Hillary Greene in Fawn Parker’s What We Both Know (McClelland & Stewart), a novel constructed to prevent its narrator from leaving any of her family relationships unexplored. Hillary is a writer who can’t quite think of herself as one yet—but in her new role as caretaker to her famous, literary-legend father, she has a chance to produce a very unique kind of book: her own father’s memoir, assembled and ghostwritten by her hand.    Leaving her life in Toronto behind, and dealing with the aftermath of her sister Pauline’s suicide, Hillary immures herself in her father’s rural home, excavating memories of his abuse and secrets from his notes, files, and increasingly distorted speech. As he fades into dementia, Hillary takes on the task of confronting the truth about her family and herself, and of constructing the last element of her father’s legacy on the page.    What We Both Know is Toronto writer Parker’s third novel, after two novels with Winnipeg’s ARP Press, both intense examinations of deception, family connection, and the small and sometimes poisonous communities clustered around the worlds of writing both on-campus and off. Parker returns to these themes with increasing precision and genuinely unsettling clarity, in a relentless novel that manages to be both gently funny and ruthless. Naben Ruthnum: Hillary is tasked with writing her father’s memoir in the book—he’s in rapid mental decline from dementia, and she’s taking his notes to assemble this final book for her father, who had a storied career as a sort of Mordecai Richler or John Updike-like writer—a 20th century “lion of letters” who also, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an abuser. As Hillary performs this task, she’s getting both closer to and further away from her own family story: does this allow her to see herself more clearly? Fawn Parker: I think that’s one of her fatal flaws: she doesn’t see herself at all. She doesn’t see what’s happened to her, she isn’t really able to look at her life. She describes herself as a terrible writer, and obviously we’re not supposed to think she is, but that might be what’s missing for her (from her writing): she just doesn’t know how to capture herself. I’m interested in how emotion and connection work in your books—both here and in your first novel, Set-Point—they’re both emotional novels, to me, but skimming the Goodreads I found what I suspected I might: what reads as richly emotional to me is interpreted as cold by many other readers. I do hear that feedback a lot—even about my own person. It’s important to me, when I’m writing, to not shy away from any emotion, because what I always want to read in a book is the most raw, intense feeling. That’s what a book is to me. There’s something about going at that that does feel cold to some people, and I do see that in the Goodreads reviews—they hate the thing in the book that happens with the dog, they don’t like a lot of the sexual abuse—it’s almost like it reads like overkill, like I’m not being sensitive at all.   Some of it is that—your narrators can be almost clinical in detailing what happens to them. At one point, Hillary says “When I am watched, it is as though I see myself from the outside.” These narrators also seem to write “from the outside.”  I think there’s definitely a distance. I think a lot of my characters are a little bit worn down. They can describe the emotion, but it’s not even affecting them anymore. I like to write a really weary character. You think that weariness is where a reader might find a gap in emotion on the page? Yeah. The characters are never going to break down and cry. They’ve already been there, a hundred times. Are there cathartic moments in this book?  I think so. It always happens in the aftermath, when Hillary is alone and she realizes something, or she goes over something for herself: that’s where her catharsis happens. It’s never really—I don’t think she’s present, a lot, in the moment. There’s genuine love and affection in certain scenes between Hillary and her father, which is one of the disturbing aspects of the relationship, especially as we find out more about him.   I think it’s really specific to anyone who has loved somebody abusive. You sort of develop a way to split and to love things about them. It can also, sometimes, deepen it, because of the intensity and the toxicity of abuse. It can keep you feeling very alive and very focused. That’s how abusers get people, they’re very charming, charismatic, and lovable in some ways. But I do think that I was signalling to a certain group of people who have experienced abuse—that you do, you do love in that way. I wanted to make this a portrait of dangerous, painful love.   And her father has different relationships to love and sex, including the transactional sexual relationship he once had with his ex-lover Catherine, who remains an important figure for Hillary. That stems from someone in my extended family, who used to do that. He would bring home sex workers, to the family home, and sleep with them upstairs as the rest of the family would operate downstairs as though it wasn’t happening. I thought that was so disturbingly beautiful, the chaos of that whole situation, the disrespect by the head of the household. I wanted to play off of that, this character from my family, and I wanted to explore what that would be for the sex worker—for Catherine. Who she was, who she is when she’s alone with Hillary. She’s another hurt woman, who admired this man.   You brought up something else I wanted to ask about: Hillary has this sense that something is missing from her writing, that she’s not good, though she does have these little glimmers of confidence. Stylistically, how do you capture the writing of a writer who thinks of herself as incompetent? I think when she has moments [of confidence about her writing]—she’s able to experience those moments through anonymity. When she’s writing as her father, she can see it as good and bad, because it’s not hers and her name’s not on it. When it’s just hers, she projects her own badness onto everything she touches.   We see her writing as her father in these excerpts you have of the memoir—but the narrative voice, I feel that’s also her writing. I think so too. I think maybe that part is a little bit of a joke, a bit of self-deprecation: the whole book could be bad. I struggle with that within myself too. With the excerpts from her father’s memoir: I think those were fun for me. They’re gross, they’re hyper-masculine. I wanted it to be something that she could see as embarrassing and over the top. Part of Hillary’s sense of being an imposter is the way she’s been earning her living for the past few years, before coming to be her father’s caretaker: she’s working an admin role in a creative writing department. She’s around writing and writers but emphasizes that she’s not actually involved. I wanted her to be stuck. She’s outside of Toronto, where she feels her true life is. She’s not in any sort of real relationship. Her only connection is with Catherine, her father’s past lover. She’s always on the outside looking in, especially in this writing position that she’s in, and I think that’s the place: maybe it’s where I feel I am sometimes, and I wanted to explore that in a more overt way. Hillary’s father has tendrils all over her life, including that job, and we get this sense that getting her that role in this department that he haunts—he stopped teaching there after a harassment scandal, but the department has never turned on him—it’s part of his controlling, abusive reach. Something I think about a lot—my previous novel is a campus novel—I think about campus politics and how that world operates. It’s not really changing at all: we keep firing men and then hiring new ones and firing them. Hillary has that moment where she reaches out to the coordinator and he just defends her father. It seems like satire, but it does seem to me like what’s actually going on.  I keep saying “Hillary’s father” because he goes by a couple of names in the book: his “real” name, Marcus Greene, and the name he used throughout his writing career: Baby. What are the origins of this pseudonym? That’s my dad’s name. He’s also adopted, he’s nothing like this character, but his birth name as a foster baby was Baby Davidson. They just give you the surname of the biological mother and the first name is Baby. I thought that would be so funny for a grown man to have to revert to this name because he’s ruined his other name, Marcus Greene, in his agent’s eyes. I like the part of story of how he “ruined” his name; it’s one of the lighter parts of the book. Can you talk about that? He had this past as an anarchist poet in undergrad, under his real name. He was in a troupe of writers called the Arthurs, who published a literary magazine, or zine. His agent wanted to sell him to New York as a big, American-style writer, so they tried to kill off that true identity and make a new one out of his previous identity.   It’s the Arthurs troupe part that I especially enjoyed—what part of literary culture were you touching on there? That just feels so CanLit to me, and hopefully that doesn’t sound like an insult. I love the idea of the Arthurs, even though I make fun of them. Canada’s so… no one ever wants to make it, and in previous generations it feels like there was so much collaboration and teamwork, and communities of people who really focused inward. You’d see the same people at every reading. I love the way that it operates, especially the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal little cluster, and I think that it’s so different from the way that people who do make it to New York blow up, like Baby. The Arthurs are what I love about the writing scene. And you are involved in community things—not exactly in a troupe, but you’ve run reading series, and even represented authors? Oh God, yeah. I tried to. It didn’t go very well, but I did want to. I think I was doing more harm than good, but I tried to help. How did you do more harm than good? I just didn’t sell a book. I tried to be an agent for a year and a half. I edited some contracts, so maybe did some good there, but I told myself that if I didn’t make a sale by the end of the year, it was over.   What gap were you trying to fill? It’s sad to me than there’s no representation for poets, and there’s no representation for small press authors, and it’s so hard working with small presses—and hard for the presses too, because those houses are always operating on grants. But for the authors, they’re signing option clauses and they don’t know what that means, they’re getting $500 advances at best… I just wish that everyone had a little bit of a cheerleader with them, helping out. What could read as condescending about the Arthurs—which didn’t, to me—comes from a genuine fondness for this kind of community. Yeah. I do love it, and I kind of make a mockery of it. I kind of exist in both worlds, which is maybe a bad thing. Baby’s celebrity was another thing that I got stuck on, because there’s something nostalgic about it, like this memoir is not only a remembrance of his life, but of a literary life that’s increasingly rare. The kind of celebrity that Baby has is increasingly rare, boutique—what new writers have it? Sally Rooney, obviously, but it’s a very short list if we think of people in their twenties and thirties… And the ones who are there, it’s more fleeting, and I think because we all have access to this big conversation it’s more nuanced than just celebrity or not. I don’t think there is a Baby Davidson figure right now.   I think it also has to do with the fading cultural primacy of literature… which obviously concerns me. You too? Absolutely. It’s all I have, literature. It simultaneously concerns me and is quite beautiful, because as the group of us narrows, the connection becomes more intense. I’m so excited when I meet other writers who really love writing and literature. Aside from the authors, there’s a constant humour to What We Both Know: certainly not a jokiness, but moments of comic remove that both break and deepen the sadness.  My approach to humour is to demonstrate the things I think are so funny about people. When I write a character, I want them to exist in the humour. I don’t want to write a character who’s going to tell jokes—I know sometimes I do that—but I think the funniest thing is just the nuance of how people form a sentence, and the strange things they do.
The Magic of Alleyways

An ode to a vibrant public commons.

            “Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...” -Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978     ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life”   On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering.   That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys?  The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day. Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love. This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth. Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes. ACT II: “Question Everything” My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago. Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire. That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile.   From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.”    Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today. He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate” If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message. Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys. For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places. More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites.  It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too. As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons. One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky. “Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...” For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true. ACT IV: “The Hourglass” In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls. For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins. The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history.  But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear.  Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.”   Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street. And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his  battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart.   The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit? ACT V: “Speed Control Zone” Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls. This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed. The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe.   And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog. Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life. That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon. Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t. Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.” With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.
Relatability Gambits Will Never Die

Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.

Welcome to Untimely Meditations, a monthly column about fashion for people who hate fashion time, and are perpetually late.  There was a time when the French ruled the world. Now, it seems more like playacting. Enter #SadMacron, a collection of images from February and March that the internet memefied, poking fun at the French president’s seeming burlesque of seriousness. Taken by Macron’s official photographer, Soazig de la Moissonoière, the pictures show the president after a (seemingly fruitless?) conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Missing his characteristic navy blue blazer, and attempting something that approximates human emotion, these images seek to launch Macron into the pantheon of historical importance. For those of us who missed Cold War myth-making the first time around, the #SadMacron images are underwhelming updates to the genre. Stealing Kennedy valour, Macron goes for the just-add-water mystique of legacy building. He colourizes and reverses Jacques Lowe’s “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph that sees JFK turned away from the audience, without internalizing why that image works. Steadying himself on the resolute desk, caught between two flags—the symbol of the people on one side, and the symbol of the presidency on the other—Lowe’s interpretation of Kennedy hinges precisely on the tension between the president’s strong silhouette and the gravity of his office. Cutting a shadowy figure, Kennedy is armoured in a midcentury suit, the look calling to mind his wife Jackie’s plea to designer Oleg Cassini to “PROTECT ME.” In contrast to Kennedy, Macron drops the jacket, and faces the audience, caught between nothing in particular. Bracketed by rococo cherubs, he is a “sober” intrusion into a world of pastels and gold. The removal of the suit jacket implies a “willingness to get down to work;” yet, without loosened tie or rolled up sleeves, it looks as if the president is posing. In other images of the #SadMacron series, we see furrowed brows and attempts at despair, all of which have the subtlety and range of a staged paparazzi shot. Yet, what is most compelling here is not what the president does or does not do, but rather the tension between the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and the codes of modernity, best exemplified through Macron’s crisp suit. * Unlike the gilded whimsy of an Ancien Regime interior, the contemporary suit means business. It is a triumph of the bourgeois mode over the aristocracy that came before it. Even without the accoutrements of work—namely, piles of papers, folders, and envelopes—the suit exudes seriousness. Changing little over centuries, the suit intrigues due to its simplicity of design, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the physique and character of its wearer, eschewing most ornamentation. For the architectural modernist, Adolf Loos, the suit was a holy garment. Per the fashion historian, Christopher Breward, Loos saw the suit as a “fundamental component of an enlightened existence…the suit had seemingly always been there to remind man of the responsibilities and prizes attached to his higher state.” It became the garment of masculine republicanism par excellence, with the psychologist J.C. Flügel remarking that it was a sign of “the great masculine renunciation,” which argued that from the late 18th century onwards, men abandoned the more ostentatious garments of the past, opting instead for sartorial minimalism. Flugel writes: “as commercial and industrial ideals conquered class after class, until they finally became accepted by the aristocracies of the more progressive countries, the plain and uniform costume associated with such ideals has, more and more, ousted the gorgeous and varied garments of the older order.” Despite being called “Jupiter” in the French press—a veiled reference to both a god and the French king, Louis XIV—Macron is neither. His penchant for the suit reveals the heart of a bourgeois technocrat whose proximity to the Sun King perhaps comes from schoolboy imaginings, lofty ambitions, and a certain inflexibility of temperament. We accept gods and kings to be more opulent in their presentation, but the suit is often an exercise in restraint. In comparison to the gleam of the crown, the contemporary suit is aesthetically parsimonious. It is the stuff of clerks, industrialists, and civil servants—hardly ordained by god to govern, but apparently the market is fitting replacement. Yet, the suit—as we now know it—has its origins in Restoration-era England, a sartorial salve in an era of instability. Though some date the birth of the suit to Revolutionary France and the Romantic era that succeeded it (or Beau Brummell, anyone?), the fashion historian David Kuchta argues that the three-piece suit emerges in the late 17th century, as a means of re-articulating aristocratic power following the English Civil War. Disagreeing with the “Great Masculine Renunciation” theory, Kuchta believes that the suit “shifted elite masculinity from a regime that valued sumptuous display as the privilege of nobility to one that rejected fashion as the concern of debauched upstarts,” instead inscribing modest consumption as a public virtue. And it started with a vest. Introduced by King Charles II in 1666, the vest, per English diarist Samuel Pepys, was an attempt to “teach the nobility thrift” by introducing a style that “[they] will never alter.” Consciously unadorned, the vest meant to deflect from condemnations of English aristocratic excess made by radical reformers such as the Puritans. Per Kuchta, the vest could also be seen as a way for the English court to combat French influence by introducing a distinctly English style. Lord Halifax wrote that “[the English must] throw off [French] fashion, and put on vests, that we might look more like a distinct people, and not be under the servility of imitation.” This economic and political rivalry with France recast luxury and tyranny as distinctly “French vices” that the English imported—at their peril—through dress. As the poet Sir Thomas Overbury wrote, “vainglory, new fashions, and the French disease are upon terms of quitting their country’s allegiance, to be made free denizens of England.” Sumptuary nationalism further solidified the trend, with wool becoming England’s “manly and moral fibre.” By 1688, extravagance in dress was seen as “base effeminacy,” with a gentleman’s reputation increasingly reliant on perceptions of their public piety, which was seen through the absence of adornment.  By introducing the three-piece suit, the restoration court, according to Kuchta, “temporarily reversed the relation between power and display.” In forgoing obvious luxury, the crown regained its moral authority, and grounded it in a particular vision of masculinity—one that deliberately did away with the ornamentation of old. * English mores eventually found their way to France smuggled in the works of Enlightenment era thinkers like Voltaire. Entranced with English pragmatism, French fashion changed accordingly. It embraced English styles like the frock coat, gilet, and greatcoat, and according to the costume historian, Aileen Ribeiro, the Anglomania of the 1780s influenced French dress towards the sobriety of the black suit, a look “worn by middle class businessmen and the professional man—the lawyer, the doctor, the official—which was to become the urban dress of the nineteenth century man.” Yet, unlike the suit’s ability to unify at a time of social upheaval, Anglomania was a symptom of a society coming undone.  Another influence on the suit’s design were innovations in military dress. The uniform retrained and refit bodies and minds for combat, according to Breward in The Suit: Form, Function, and Style, “the military uniform was a potent agent of court and state control,” allowing for the expression of the staunch hierarchy of the Bourbon era state. It was a sensibility that continued throughout the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era. Drawing on the historian Daniel Roche’s comments, Breward notes that “Uniform is at the heart of military logic…when war is a necessary continuation of politics. Uniform constructs the fighting man for mortal combat. It imposes control, a source of efficiency in battle and means to social power….it creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence….uniform is central to a utopian and voluntarist vision of the social which reconciles the conflict between automatic docility ‘and the concrete economy of the individual liberty in which the autonomy of each constitutes the measure of his obedience.’ It impregnates the whole of society.” For revolutionaries in particular, English style suits became the antithesis of aristocratic opulence; the simplicity and rigorousness of its tailoring made it the perfect assertion of the new order.        Countering the tyranny of an immaculately baubled aristocracy, the suit was infused with the austere self-confidence of neoclassicism—a new masculinity. As Barbara Vinken writes in “What Fashion Strictly Divided,” the Revolution did away with the sybaritic noble, reducing their symbolic power to mere trinket, instead promoting “the citizen-man—the only real man—[who] stands in a negative relation to the world of frivolous appearance. He is. He does need to represent.” The suit was no mere uniform, it became, in Roche’s view, part of a new delineation of public space, [establishing] distances, a code of human and social relations, and it was all the more persuasive in that it developed an aesthetic.”  * On March 14th, Macron swapped Kennedy-core for purposeful schlubbiness. Emerging for the press in jeans and a black French special forces hoodie, he looked uncharacteristically casual. Instead of memes, the internet noted a curious similarity between Macron’s new look and that of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, war hero du jour. As Oleksiy Sorokin of the Kiev Independent quipped on Twitter: “A month ago it would have been hard to imagine French President Emmanuel Macron trying to copy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now it’s the reality we live in.” Compared to Zelenskyy’s man-of-the-people greens, Macron’s new look reads as army man cosplay. It’s odd that the avatar of the “Jupiterian presidency” would even deign to be perceived in sweats. Stranger still is that anyone remotely deserving of a mythological moniker would dress like a post-Gordon Geckko style corporate raider devoid of sleaze and personality. Nevertheless, he persisted. Relatability gambits will never die. Though the internet lambasted Macron’s jeans-and-a-hoodie as an attempt to copy Ukraine’s wartime leader, his look was less post-Maidan everyman, and more 2000s tech bro. A fashion revolution of a different kind, the tech bro uniform of t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and Patagonia vests implied the same Protestant impulses as the proto-suit, with a decidedly amoral twist. Uninterested in the hereafter or any particular religious statement (unless relentless optimizing and money is your god), its “dogma,” wrote Hannah Murphy in the Financial Times, is that “minimalism and monotony yield extra productivity.” Social media titan Mark Zuckerberg famously stated, regarding the monotonousness of his dress, that his intention was to “clear [his] life to make it so that [he had] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve [the Facebook] community.” He continued: “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Though he shed the suit, he never shed one of the most potent ideas behind it; that you are what you do, not what you appear to be. By relentlessly simplifying until there’s barely anything left and posturing at a kind of anti-fashion, the tech bro uniform undermines the suit’s potency, highlighting in the latter a kind of stuffy pomposity and lack of intellectual rigour. This sentiment calls to mind Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s disdain for CEOs in suits. As he wrote in Zero to One regarding how his company chooses to invest: “pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings.” It’s a similar logic that underpinned criticisms of French aristocratic fashion during the French Revolution; if you are what you say you are, contend the investor and the critic, then why are you laden down with needless accoutrements? If power in Silicon Valley derives from mental acuity and obsessiveness, slickness and attention to detail in dress suggests a lack of intellectual virility; a need to preen and pose, and a lack of attention to what really matters, vision and code. As Thiel wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.” The tech bro uniform suggests a shift in where real power lies. The symbols of the past cannot hold. Instead, power belongs to those who create and control the attention economy: tech titans, and those best placed to surf the fickle waves of the discourse. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to seem “real,” or at the very least, “disruptive.” That’s something that the likes of Zuckerberg got, and what Zelenskyy in his army greens understands. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Macron aimed for war hero and emerged instead as dweeby tech despot. Thank god he didn’t go for a vest, bulletproof, Patagonia or otherwise. After all, we’re in the midst of a social media war—where it’s as much about creating spectacle as it is combating it. So why not pay tribute to those who ultimately shape what and how we see? Why not don the guise of the new gods? Jupiter is so passé.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of MTV Books

How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?

In 1996, fifteen years after its seismic launch, American television network and cultural kingmaker MTV surprised viewers and skeptics alike with an untypical announcement: it was hosting a fiction-writing contest. Embarking on a new creative endeavour was not, in and of itself, unique to the brand. After all, MTV’s very existence was born from a brazen experiment uniting popular music, visual culture, and a brassy, free-swinging attitude. By the mid-nineties, the brand’s reach had unfurled in a variety of directions—often adjacent to music culture, but by no means focused on it—perhaps most famously those of animated programming (Beavis and Butthead, Æon Flux) and reality television (The Real World, Road Rules). But literature is a domain often regarded, however snobbishly, as antithetical to the sorts of stimulations available on MTV. What’s more, the lofty, cerebral associations of the written word did not align with the channel’s bawdy reputation. The knowingly provocative music video for Duran Duran’s 1981 single “Girls on Film” initiated what critics regarded as a catalogue of garish smut. As early as 1983, journalist Steven Levy described MTV in a Rolling Stone cover story as “the ultimate junk culture triumph.” The channel won a Peabody Award for its 1992 “Choose or Lose” programming, which sought to mobilize young voters, and succeeded in its aim—at MTV’s inaugural ball, newly elected president Bill Clinton declared, “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton–Gore victory.” Still, the channel’s efforts to achieve something so serious as heightened political awareness were widely lampooned. But MTV did not cower before mockery. And though its faltering start augured an uncertain future, the brand’s imprint, MTV Books, ultimately captured the hearts of its target audience of elder millennials who kept their dog-eared copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower close and lovingly at hand. I was among them. A fickle fan of MTV’s television programming, I wondered whether MTV Books could offer me the nourishment I only occasionally found in the channel’s prodigiously splashy media. It did. And, in so doing, it secured my allegiance to that hell-raising colossus that loomed at the back of my generation. MTV Books was the MTV I wanted. *** Together with its cosponsor, Pocket Books—the entity through which MTV would found its own literary imprint—the music entertainment behemoth solicited entries for “The Write Stuff” from aspiring, yet heretofore unknown, writers. The contest winner would sign the inaugural MTV Books contract, launch the imprint with their debut novel, and reap a $5,000 advance in the process. In the twenty-first century, these spoils might seem meagre, even exploitative, but a book contract, especially one tethered to such mighty commercial influence, is a seductive prospect for any labouring writer. So too is fame—and this MTV intimately understood. To qualify, “The Write Stuff” entrants were required to submit three chapters from a work in progress and be under the age of twenty-four. The latter stipulation accommodated the brand’s glorifying emphasis on youth and youth’s weightiest and most cutting-edge preoccupations. In other words, MTV was in the market for prose that aligned with its programming, so predominantly focused on the tangled, horny sociality of kids coming of age in the nineties, like the contestants on Road Rules or, when the animated sitcom premiered in 1997, Daria. Maybe the characters of a future MTV Books title watched MTV—if they had cable television, that is—or maybe they thought MTV was garbage. Regardless, targeting teens and early twenty-somethings made it more likely that the submitted manuscripts would express the current milieu. But whether due to lack of access or disinclination, the so-called “MTV Generation” hesitated to participate; at first, turnout for the “The Write Stuff” languished at two hundred entries. As the deadline neared, the New York Times ran a short article about the contest which noted, with mild derision, the shallow pool of manuscripts. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every misunderstood youth must be in want of a publisher. Or is it?” the piece asks, as if with eyebrows raised. Then-MTV executive Van Toffler expressed a similarly detached bemusement. “Apparently they’re taking their time,” he told the Times. “There’s no denying it. Literature is not the most popular art form with our audience.” The adolescents and young adults of the mid-nineties—the audience in question—had long been maligned with the rest of Generation X as inert and intellectually disengaged. Writes Jonathon I. Oake in his 2004 article “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” “Thus, the deviance of Xer subculture lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing’. . . Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict.” The prevailing assumption—accurate or not—was that young, would-be literary stars were too busy watching MTV to pick up a pen. Tepid press is press nonetheless. Despite its brevity, and its equivocations, the Times write-up must have roused interest in MTV’s new venture. Ultimately, “The Write Stuff” yielded over five hundred manuscripts, and Robin Troy, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was named the winner. Connecticut-raised Troy’s debut novel, Floating, imagines a dinky, dusty town in Arizona where its comely protagonist, Ruby, falls in love with her husband’s estranged, cowboy brother. One might imagine it adapted for late night on The WB, after Dawson’s Creek, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Skeet Ulrich smoldering against a sunset. Surely MTV Books hoped, as any imprint would, that its first title would be met with a warm reception. But when Floating was published in October 1998, it and, by extension, MTV Books, inspired brittle critique. “One of the differences between cake recipes and novels is the greater likelihood of actually getting a decent recipe from a contest,” begins Kirkus’s trade review. Individual critics were similarly grim. “If this is the future of fiction, bring on the music videos,” writes Patrick Sullivan for the Sonoma County Independent. Sullivan’s review, devastating in its sneering dismissal of Troy’s book, also insinuates that MTV’s primary cultural contributions are too feeble to portend the brand’s success in the intellectually elevated domain of book publishing. In fact, he likens Floating to a music video, referring to it as “its literary equivalent . . . full of quick cuts and perspective changes.” Whatever its accuracy, this comparison heaves with the weight of MTV’s spotted reputation, one that largely turned on the critical response to their music videos. As early as 1984, video director John Scarlett-Davis belittled the channel’s main fare as “masturbation fantasies for middle America.” Many agreed with his assessment and claimed to be repulsed by the videos’ reliance on sexed-up, scantily clad women and the broadcasting of so-called loose morals. In 1998, MTV’s viewers thirsted for replays of Brandy and Monica’s music video for their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” and teenyboppers panted after a glimpse of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys as they hopped and thrusted through their choreography—but as is so often the case, this searing popularity did not coincide with highbrow assignation. If Floating’s structural template was an MTV music video, it was doomed to sink. Yet Troy is not to blame for this fumbled literary entrée, insists the Kirkus reviewer, who nonetheless sinks their teeth into the book and leaves puncture wounds. Rather, it is MTV Books who is responsible for sending “this novel-like object” into the world and perhaps “[devastating] any ambition [Troy] might have had.” By sharing her debut with that of the MTV Books imprint, Troy shouldered a prodigious burden. Implicit in Sullivan’s review is the belief that MTV had trespassed into territory beyond its expertise, dabbling wantonly where more robust powers of creative discernment were required. As the first expression of this breach, Troy’s work was bound to attract skeptical scrutiny—when, indeed, it garnered notice at all (Floating, like so many other books written for young readers, did not receive much critical attention). The shortcomings of any novel can be wielded as evidence of larger lamentable trends; this sort of intellectual synthesis is an expected function of literary criticism. If Floating was regarded as the crude effort of an undeveloped writer, it doubled as a symptom of MTV’s thought-annihilating influence on literature. In Sullivan’s estimation, MTV Books was not so much committed to telling stories as it was concerned with perpetuating its brand aesthetic. “As a physical object, Floating seems designed to provoke the same reaction as a stuffed animal (or a Backstreet Boy),” he writes. “The book is little, it’s funky looking, but most of all, it’s terribly cute. The chapters are all roughly ten pages long (just about right for perusal during a lengthy commercial interruption).” Rather than existing for its own sake—for the sake of a narrative, and for the possibilities exclusive to writerly craft—Floating seemed designed to complement MTV’s programming. Perhaps MTV earnestly hoped to encourage the habit of reading, so long as the practice did not infringe upon its raison d’être, that is to say, televised programming. But how much influence did MTV expect to brandish when it came to young readers’ literary interests? The success or failure of one book cannot predict the life trajectory of an imprint. If Floating’s prickly reception was not auspicious, surely it did not indicate doom, or anything else, for that matter. Readerly attention is finicky; so is the ebb and flow of cultural preoccupations. As a result, meteoric success eludes most published books, whatever their flaws or strengths. Floating might have been more elegantly crafted—and it might not have mattered. *** Then, on February 1, 1999, MTV Books published The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slender, epistolary novel by debut novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Chbosky. And whether due to the narrative’s easy resonance with many among the MTV viewer set—the main characters are white, suburban high school students—the intimacy of its language, or some unquantifiable alchemy, it was a hit. To date, Perks is MTV Books’s best-selling title, and the most recognizable of the imprint’s nearly forty novels and short fiction collections. Rapid, fervent popularity amongst teenage readers fostered robust circulation; by October 2000, MTV Books was printing Perks’ hundred-thousandth copy. And twinned rivulets of momentum, cult readership and educator enthusiasm, solidified the book’s material success: after the production of a high-profile film adaptation in 2012 and a stint atop the New York Times bestseller list, the title is ubiquitous. Even without the confidence of hindsight, this commercial success would come as no surprise.  Perks emerges from MTV’s crowd of early aughts literature as an eager shepherd, scouting out its flock of pubescent misfits: the guileless, the preemptively jaded, and the rest of us wobbling from one emotional pole to the other. The 2012 film adaptation, written and directed by Chbosky, cemented the book’s stature as a darling among contemporary bildungsromans, although initially, critics did not receive it with unanimous enthusiasm. In fact, Perks’ trade reviews weren’t much better than those lobbed at Floating. Kirkus called it a Salinger “rip-off,” and Publisher’s Weekly accused it of being “trite.” Then again, the sort of reader who finds Perks “trite” might prefer the irritable machismo of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An epistolary novel is structured by the pursuit of human connection, and in the case of Perks, the gesture is unvarnished in its earnest, almost puppyish, hopefulness. Chbosky’s narrator, Charlie, writes to his unnamed recipient—someone he has never met, but has reason to think well of—just as he trepidatiously begins freshman year of high school. Charlie’s only friend has recently died by suicide, and his own experiences of trauma and mental illness are growing evermore unwieldy. He is befriended by two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick. But as Charlie sinks into the novel joy of these intimacies, his determination to be an attentive and loving friend churns with a twinned, subterranean urge for self-obliteration. As a character, Charlie is emotionally generous, but he also prefers not to think about himself, and to instead commit to passive observation (he is, of course, the titular wallflower). However, this is a coming-of-age novel, and so all that Charlie carefully avoids, he must ultimately confront. As an adult, I find the novel warm and, at times, rather effortful. At sixteen, I thought it was a perfect triumph—and that, perhaps, is the appraisal that matters more. When teenage me encountered Charlie’s now-famous pronouncement, “I feel infinite,” the words hummed, carrying me to the lip of synesthesia. I received this expression of tranquil, comradely bliss—vague, yet invitingly capacious—as both revelation and yen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, in my adolescent estimation, the Rosetta Stone of teenage angst, the Key to All Adolescent Mythologies. And, as its issuer, MTV Books had distinguished itself as a purveyor of unabashed truth. Charlie’s journey towards self-understanding, strewn as it is with romantic missteps, hallucinogens, and live Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, plausibly coincides with MTV’s carefully cultivated brashness, but his wide-eyed earnestness might, at first, seem at odds with the acerbic cool so central to the brand. Then again, perhaps MTV Books was heeding the zeitgeist’s elevation of things red-heartedly sincere. For, although the nineties are canonically understood in terms of disaffection, many sought respite in softer territory. James Cameron’s Titanic, exultantly melodramatic, debuted in 1997 to near immediate, orgiastic obsession and cleaned up at the following Academy Awards. Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster’s suitably extravagant love theme, was inescapable, practically atmospheric. The Billboard Top 100 was flush with similarly impassioned declarations: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight;” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply;” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” In the meantime, America gawked at the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton’s pungently insincere sex life and the simultaneously public excoriation of Monica Lewinsky: dismal proceedings which perhaps inspired us to scout out sweeter expressions of humanity. With Perks, MTV Books sauntered nearby, pairing coming-of-age sensitivity with of-the-moment stylishness. *** It would have made sense if, after finishing Perks, I had scouted out more of Chbosky’s work. Once besotted with a literary work, this tends to be a reader’s next move: investigate the author’s back catalogue and nurture a bit of fandom. Granted, Chbosky was a relative newcomer, and in fact, he didn’t publish a second novel until 2019, twenty years after his first (this follow-up, Imaginary Friend, was published by Grand Central Publishing, not MTV Books). In 2002, the results of any research would have been lean. But I confess that I did not seek out more of his writing. Instead, I meandered the aisles of Barnes & Noble in pursuit of more titles from MTV Books, the entity that had delivered Perks’s keen fluorescence into the world. This was the first literary imprint I had ever recognized as such. And although I lacked understanding of the logistics, I was receptive to the whispers of its branding. Surely my response was no coincidence. In an interview with Variety’s Jonathan Bing, Kara Welsh, then-deputy publisher of Pocket Books, explained that Perks’s success derived partially from the imprint’s kinship with MTV. “It’s a coming-of-age story aimed right at the MTV audience,” she noted. Bing then emphasized the prodigious advertising potential generated by such porous boundaries. “MTV produced an on-air spot for the book,” he explained, “a marketing coup enjoyed by few novels, especially first novels by little-known writers.” Implicit in these remarks by Welsh and Bing is the potency of the MTV trademark and its enticing associations of stylish audacity and cultural relevance. *** The guiding principle of any brand is this: be distinct, visible, and seductive. The MTV of the early aughts achieved this end. Still unimpeded by Napster and the gradual digitization of music, it reigned as the chaotic angel of entertainment. Its logo was—and still is—unmistakable: the solid loom of the “M” pressed against that hurried, inky dash, “TV.” Every weekday, Total Request Live (TRL) commingled the anticipation of a top-ten countdown with the tomfoolery of celebrity guests. And thanks to the exposure of MTV’s Time Square studio, it whipped Midtown Manhattan into an ecstatic frenzy. The MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s answer to the Grammys, offered more feral pageantry and commitment to shock. When, in 2001, Britney Spears strutted across stage with the thick rope of an albino snake draped across her shoulders, viewers spoke of little else. I can’t recall whether I watched Britney’s performance on the night that it aired; my television privileges were spare and strictly monitored. But as an elder millennial living in suburban Virginia, I harboured an abiding influence in MTV’s programming events, like The MTV Video Music Awards, or a thrilling celebrity guest appearance on TRL. If I was home alone, I would turn on the channel in search of boy bands and Daria reruns. And if the programming ever seemed crass, absurd, or try-hard, well, I was captive nonetheless. MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on American music television (with the exception of its more benign sister channel, VH1). If one wanted to hear the buzziest hits, and if the radio felt too unpredictably curated or one-dimensional, MTV prevailed as a brash sensory playground. Of course, my peers and I complained about its provisions. The music was redundant and vanishingly deprioritized; Carson Daly presided over TRL like an amiable automaton set to power-save. And by the early aughts, happening upon a spate of music videos felt as rare as a sighting of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the same room. As Amanda Ann Klein writes in Millennials Killed the Video Star, MTV gradually supplanted music videos with reality shows like Laguna Beach and Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Market research suggested that “millennials wanted to be a part of the media they consumed.” If this was my generation’s majority opinion, then I heartily dissented. Above all else, I chased the music video’s walloping glut of sound and fleeting images. And despite increasingly paltry offerings, I continued to watch. For a cloistered high school junior, MTV—even this diminished iteration of it—signified worldliness. Its programming instructed me in how to be young and how to pretend I enjoyed it. MTV Books piqued my interest because they had published Perks, but my curiosity was amplified by their affiliation with this popular culture juggernaut whose material endorsements guided my hand and my babysitting cash. For despite my quibbles with their early aughts lineup, I loved MTV. My musical tastes were sufficiently omnivorous to be satisfied by TRL; I knew that Tori Amos and Smashing Pumpkins weren’t likely to gain airplay, but Shakira and Britney Spears would. When, in 2000, MTV broadcasted their first feature-length film, 2gether—a satirical rendering of the boy band phenomenon perpetuated by the channel—it was an urgent cinematic affair. And although I doubted that Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane would have given me the time of day, I admired the animated series as the epitome of perspicacious wit. Surely, then, an MTV literary venture would unite good storytelling with a youthful, uniquely de nos jours attitude. Perks bore out this hypothesis, and so I was motivated to follow the thread. Over the years, I had consumed a healthy dose of young adult literature; although, in 2002, that taxonomy was not so ubiquitous, at least not among my peers. (Yet American librarians have been referring to adolescents as “young adults” since the 1940s, and the term “YA literature” has long been in circulation.) There was no shortage of decent—albeit homogenous—writing for and about adolescents when MTV Books launched in 1998. And while I treated my copy of Perks with attentive ardour, it had never previously felt necessary to read about modern life in order to locate emotional or dispositional familiarity. Why had MTV Books turned my head? At the risk of ellipticity—because MTV turned heads. The allure of MTV Books was always, to some extent, aesthetic. And it’s not surprising that an imprint with MTV’s influential heft would understand the craft of packaging. As their name suggests, Pocket Books creates mass-market paperbacks, soft and easily tucked in a coat. MTV Books’ offerings were designed according to this model, and in the years following the imprint’s launch, they manifested a reliable artistic calling card: candid, lowercase typeface, thick monochromatic blocks, and scraps of imagery loosely relevant to the narrative. They were “perfect for sliding into your messenger bag clad with pins and patches,” recounts one of my high school classmates, a fellow elder millennial. Any book can be wielded as an accessory, but MTV’s paperbacks complemented a particular look, one that was punky and chic. And for someone like me, hapless in her polo shirts and humdrum shoes, they supplied an air of subversion. The irony of this—brandishing slickly designed, commercial paperbacks to adopt a more alternative posture—sailed over my tidy, pony-tailed head. Teenage rebel I decidedly was not; subversion only interested me if I could practice it in good company. MTV seemed to assure me that I was. Although its fiction traded in misfits—Perks’s Charlie, Brave New Girl’s Doreen, the titular Fuck-Up—MTV Books was offering its alienated readers a means of fitting in. What a heady, beguiling paradox: come as you are, and you can be like us. I was addicted to the possibility of belonging and resonance, particularly when it was stained with rebellious aspirations. Relatability is more pleasant when it rhymes with validation, when the person on the page reminds us of ourselves, if only we were more audacious or capable of poignancy at the most cinematic moments. Hungry for that poignancy, we lonely millennial readers chased the unruly narrators of MTV Books. Narrators who listened to The Smiths and The Pixies, who wielded “fuck” with confidence, and who pontificated self-seriously the way we did on LiveJournal. Narrators who were existentially stymied and frustrated and bewildered by eros. Narrators who were emotionally bruised, who had survived traumas that, perhaps, vibrated in time with our own. Narrators who were love-voracious yet flinty, who bore shields of self-sabotage and well-whetted wit. In return, MTV Books hailed us, offering itself as both the drug and the dealer. *** In recent years, MTV Books has abided, at least publicly, in a quiet lull, without marketing razzle-dazzle or new releases. The imprint’s most recent output was a hardcover edition of Perks commemorating its twentieth anniversary, released in September 2019. We may, however, be at the lip of an MTV Books renaissance. In January 2021, various literary media outlets broadcast the imprint’s imminent “relaunch,” to be helmed by industry veteran Christian Trimmer. I confess, I am skeptical. In a cultural milieu brimming with screen-based diversions, how can the brand wield even a portion of its early-aughts might? Does Generation Z want their MTV just as its predecessors did? With the glut of accessible digital media, I’m inclined to say no. What’s more, in a marketplace now flush with YA literature, and so many authors, both seasoned and debut, triumphing within the genre, I wonder how this new iteration of the MTV Books imprint will distinguish itself, tethered as it is to a diminished pop culture giant, a relic of a society oriented towards cable television instead of YouTube and Instagram and TikTok. *** I discovered MTV Books nearly two decades ago, when my peers and I stood unknowingly at the cusp of a great digital onslaught. But for the time being, we wandered mall food courts and Blockbusters without the truss of a cell phone, and internet activity was oriented around winking AIM chat boxes and legally dubious mp3 downloads. Dawdling in Barnes & Noble served as another reliable pastime for a bookish teenage girl too callow for parties or heavy petting. My best friend and I would station ourselves there on Friday nights, drawn to the sugary scented hodgepodge of the café’s Starbucks coffee and baked goods and the ready supply of magazines—Cosmopolitan, Glamour, NYLON—which I preferred to read at a distance from my father’s skeptical gaze. But we would also roam the aisles of books, announcing themselves like so many slick, bound promises of intellectual sophistication and worldliness. One evening, mid-meander, no doubt riding the rush of a cinnamon bun the size of my face, I spotted the MTV books; they were housed together, like a serial—The Baby-Sitter’s Club, if Kristy, Mary Anne, and Stacey were soused in cigarette smoke and sexual longing. The early aughts marketing does register as libidinous: it flirts, tosses its hair, and urges starry-eyed obsession. “Like this is the only one,” razzes a bulletin at the back of one paperback, before listing the rest of the imprint’s catalogue. “Don’t even pretend you won’t read more,” teases another. And to be fair, they had my number. After finishing Perks, I seized upon Louisa Luna’s 2001 novel, Brave New Girl, highlighter in hand. I visited Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up (1999) on intermittent bookstore visits, eyeing it like a shy girl at the high school dance. I didn’t dare bring it home. Yes, my parents would have reeled at a book entitled The Fuck-Up, but perhaps I was shrinking from an agitating boundary. Did I trust myself with such provocations? “I don’t feel like putting on MTV because all they play is trash,” narrates Luna’s protagonist, the fourteen-year-old Doreen. Another provocation, lobbed casually, and presumably at the author’s discretion. And yet its placement seems almost fastidious, as if the result of a pointed conversation. MTV hovers like a paternal spectre, insistent on performative accommodation. “We can take Luna’s joke,” they seem to say. “See? Look at us, taking it.” When I read that line as a girl, I was thunderstruck, even though I understood that this broad-swathed disdain suited Doreen’s character. She likes what she likes (The Pixies and Ted, her only friend) and is unimpressed by the solicitations of mainstream culture. I may have recognized that a behemoth like MTV could tolerate mild ribbing, that the suits in the room harboured no illusions about their motives or their product. Still, it unmoored me, this recognition of permissibility. Louisa Luna could lampoon MTV in a book they championed. But of course, this cheeky line was hegemonically sanctioned. Rebellion in MTV Books rarely takes too outlandish a shape, and it predominantly manifests in white, middle-class, able-bodied characters who are inevitably more attractive than they perceive themselves to be. Beck, of Rachel Solar-Tuttle’s 2002 novel, Number 6 Fumbles, self-medicates with booze and the company of frat boys, but still dazzles her UPenn professors with papers dashed off at the eleventh hour. In Fake Liar Cheat (2000), Tod Goldberg situates his everyman protagonist, Lonnie, in a bourgeois variation of Bonnie and Clyde—note the rhyme—but events devolve into such outlandish tumult that the narrative reads not so much as an anti-consumerist critique, but rather as the noirish wet dream of an aggrieved office drudge. Alongside Claire, a comely, chameleonic femme fatale, Lonnie frequents glitzy Los Angeles restaurants, dining and then dashing without paying the bill. When, eventually, his sneaky accomplice frames him for murder, there’s little surprise. At base, Fake Liar Cheat is a nihilistic tale for young men who want to have sex with beautiful women and then blame them for ruining their lives. Like Goldberg’s Lonnie, the unnamed narrator of The Fuck-Up nurtures a diffusive, hyper-masculine dissatisfaction that propels his undoing. He flings himself through 1980s New York City, seemingly hell-bent on bludgeoning his life, but his every predicament arrives after limpidly evident bad choices. Ultimately, he is offered salvation and takes it. MTV Books chronicled all manner of suffering in the early aughts, most of it cruel and undeserved. It was also the suffering of the systemically blessed. Despite the exploits within, these are primly woven stories that deliver snug denouements, implicitly rendering the characters’ subversions controlled and validated, their hardships, if not easily solved, then at least socially legible. Perhaps we ought not be surprised: their packaging—audacious and distinctive yet streamlined and contained—seems to promise these tidy, digestible rebellions. And for MTV Books’ target readership, so vastly dominated by white, upper- and middle-class school kids, this was a digestible, satisfying dosage. Donning the solipsistic lenses of coddled adolescence, resonance and familiarity can easily masquerade as literary virtuosity. A trendy book cover might look like an invitation to a new home, one that feels safer and intrinsically true. At the start of The Fuck-Up, Nersesian’s narrator—comfortably separated from the novel’s sordid events—briefly appraises the circumstances of his domestic harmony. “Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film,” he recounts. The vicissitudes of a placid adulthood: a dinner that tastes good, but not great; a film that entertains but doesn’t transport. This sort of mundanity might send you searching for Charlie’s beatific infinitude—searching, perhaps, in a rowdy little paperback whose logo promises wild delights. And when you’re sixteen and full of ache, you’ll believe in them.
The Loneliest Man in the World

Watching Irrfan Khan over the years

A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say. Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us. There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing. Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene. *** The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again. From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset. I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break. I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project. Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again. *** Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.” His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house. In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.” Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film.   Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking. He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain. I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses. Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on. The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat. *** I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed. When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face.     The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan. By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen. Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads. In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work. Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments. On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find. *** What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him. Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up. The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.” In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance.  ***                             Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.” It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?” Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night. *** “You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives. I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us. *** The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence. Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state. I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi.             After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage. Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.