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Nicola Griffith’s fiction abounds with detail, whether it takes place in seventh-century England (Hild), on a distant planet on which humanity has evolved (Ammonite), or within the complex social and economic dynamics of a near-future city (Slow River). Her books are powerfully immersive, and whether she’s bringing the reader into the distant past or the far future, there’s an almost tactile quality to their settings.

That aspect of her style takes on an entirely different context in her most recent novel, So Lucky (MCD x FSG Originals). Narrator Mara Tagarelli opens the novel at a moment of internal contradiction: while she’s the head of an influential public health nonprofit, her marriage has suddenly collapsed. She is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and Mara’s evolving approach to dealing with this forms the bulk of the book. (Griffith has written extensively about her own life with MS, and about portrayals of disability in fiction.)

When Griffith and I spoke recently, we discussed the process of writing So Lucky, the novel’s relationship to the rest of Griffith’s bibliography, and how it relates to ongoing discussions about disability and accessibility in the literary world.

*

Tobias Carroll: In the afterword to the novel, you talk about the fact the writing of this book came as a surprise to you. Where were you in the midst of working on another project when this emerged?

Nicola Griffith: Well, I think of this as sort of misted avoidance behavior. I was about halfway through the sequel to Hild and I started to do a PhD. And then I got halfway through my PhD, and started to do this novel. And then, I finished the PhD, and now as soon as all this publicity stuff is done I’ll be returning back to Menewood, the sequel to Hild. And I got a little stuck on Menewood, so I did a PhD. And I got a little stuck on my PhD, so I did a book and then I finished. So that’s one way to look at it. And the other, of course, is that I actually wrote a version of this book a very long time ago. And I actually sold it. It was a novella and I sold it and I decided before it was published to pull it from publication, because there was something about it that made me unhappy. I wasn’t pleased with it at all. Have you ever heard of the term narrative prosthesis?

I don’t think so, no.

Okay, well it’s a term used by two disability scholars, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder.11Mitchell and Snyder also wrote a book on the subject, which was published in 2001. And it talks about how a lot of fiction about disabled characters uses disabled people, basically, as a metaphorical opportunity. Their narrative purpose, if you like, is the educational profit of a non-disabled character. And one of the things that one does in narrative prosthesis is that you eliminate the disability. Basically, you eliminate, the way people used to do in queer fiction. So, you know, death, suicide, leaving your lover so that she can be with a man in order to be more normal, that kind of thing. Or you fix them, which means being cured, having your problem overcome somehow. And disability is always the disabled person’s problem in these books. Or you have an epiphany that makes everything magically feel better.

And I realized that what I had done in that original novella was, do this magical epiphany thing and then everything was better. I just realized that that was such bullshit and I couldn’t stand it and I pulled it. But I didn’t know how to write it, so I stuck it in a drawer and forgot it for a very, very long time. Until I was in the middle of my PhD and I suddenly realized that I now knew why I had been so uncomfortable with this story. Not just the narrative prosthesis, but because it was a kind of disability coming-out story and I’ve always had less than friendly feelings towards coming-out stories. I find them a little beginner-ish.

In So Lucky, you’re writing from the perspective of a character who’s going through a lot emotionally and physically, and is also an incredibly forceful character. What was it like to internalize that, to write from that perspective as opposed to something more detached?

It was interesting. Most of my novels are very relaxed and dense at the same time. And they’re large. But this felt much more like a spear thrust than normal. I had a very specific thing I wanted to address. It wasn’t all about how systems work or what it means. It was about how this particular moment feels. In that sense, it’s much more like a short story than a novel. It’s a moment, it’s a sort of extended downplay moment, but it is a moment, as opposed to a distant look at something.

A lot of my novels, they’re very much centered in the body, and how we learn about the world through our body. But there’s also, as you say it, a certain distance from what that means, a certain analytical stance. And I did not have an analytical stance writing this novel, at all. It just came pouring out, like this torrent. I wrote the first draft in two weeks.

It was this raging current, and I had two and a half weeks. I sent in the first draft of my thesis to my advisor. And then I was like, well what am I gonna do for two and a half weeks? Oh, goddamn, I’m gonna write that story I’ve been meaning to write. And it just came roaring out.

Did you find that your process for writing this differed from, say, writing Hild or writing one of your earlier novels?

Oh, sure. I didn’t do any research at all. I did a little bit of research afterwards, but really not much. This is the least researched thing I’ve ever written. I researched even my short stories more than this. This was very much, I had a thing I wanted to say and so I just sat down and said it. And then afterwards when I was rewriting, I would think, okay, I need to know a little bit more about that and I would go find out something. But now, it was a totally different process. I knew what the ending image was. And I knew how it started. But the rest was kind of a mystery to me.

I also knew that there was this scary part with, basically, people hunting down disabled people. Because that was actually a moment from my own life in the ’90s. I was cooking something and CNN was on in the background and I heard about this torture case, and I was super shocked. So yeah, on some level that actually happened. I don’t know the person’s name or where they were or anything. But the fact of the facts, someone with MS was essentially tortured and killed in their own home… That’s real, yeah.

Oh, god.

Yeah, it really woke me up, I can tell you. It made me realize for the first time how it would feel to be a victim. I’d never felt like a victim before, but that moment just made me think, oh my god, yeah, I’m the kind of person that people would maybe think [of] in terms of victimization now.

You’re writing about a character who is very angry about certain things in society, where you may share that anger. But in the novel, there’s also this sense that Mara is perhaps using anger as a sort of a defense mechanism and as a coping mechanism. How do you balance that sense of outrage with having this particular character’s outrage as a dramatic element?

I knew when I sat down to write this that everyone would say, oh my god, it’s autobiography. And of course, I know it’s not, but I very much used elements of my own experience in there. But I tried to think, okay, how can I make this about a person that I would understand but that who is not like me? And so I chose this kind of brittle, defensive anger, because that’s not how I approach the world.

I can get angry, but it’s very fast and it’s not a stance to the world. It’s usually, something happens that really pisses me off, I get pissed off and then I forget about it. But Mara is much more brittle. She feels a little less secure than most of the characters I’ve ever written. Most of the characters I write come from a place of quite high self-esteem. And Mara, on the surface, has that, but I think there’s something a little more fragile underneath that.

In So Lucky, you’re returning to Atlanta as a setting, which you’d previously used in The Blue Place. What was it like returning to a city that you had used as the central point of one of your previous books, in a very different context?

This is another way in which this book is really different. It could be set almost anywhere. There is nothing very particular about it. There’s mentions of neighborhoods, there’s Lake Lanier. But really, it could be pretty much anywhere. It certainly could be in, say, North Carolina or somewhere like that. Somewhere that’s about the same kind of temperature. It’s very non-specific. It didn’t really matter to me. So in that sense it was kind of an easy thing. This is where I was first living when I was first diagnosed, so it just seemed like the default setting. It wasn’t a conscious choice at all.

When the book was finished and when I was talking to my editor about it, he said, “So why Atlanta? Why not Seattle?” I said, “I don’t know, just seemed like a good idea at the time.” Also, because the very first time I thought about this story, when I wrote it twenty years ago, I was having thoughts and making notes for the draft, at the same time I was actually writing The Blue Place.

So there’s a mix there. And if you actually read the book carefully—I don’t bother doing a lot of description—Mara’s house is actually Aud’s house.22Aud Torvingen, protagonist of three of Griffith’s novels: The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. I realized as she was moving through the rooms—I thought, damn, this is the same house. So there is some weirdness in that way, but because I never felt as though it was particularly important, I just thought, why change it? It’s fine.

So much of what Mara goes through is in terms of the way the temperature of a specific place can affect her. Having the book be set in somewhere where it is going to be fairly warm and fairly humid often added to that.

That was very useful to me. Because here in Seattle, what happens is that it only gets hot at certain times of the year and nobody in Seattle has air conditioning. Because they’re all like, oh, it doesn’t get hot in Seattle. Except every year it does, but just for a little while. The people here are … well, they’re kinda cheap. It’s like, well I know we can just hang in there for two or three weeks. And me, I’m like, oh no, I want air conditioning. Even if it’s just for two or three weeks.

I saw on your website that you recently got the rights back to the Aud books?

Yes, I am so excited about that. It was always meant to be five books and I just stopped writing them. Partly because of the MS thing, but honestly more because of the publication issues. But now I’m back on track with being okay with all the MS stuff, and I’ve got the rights back. Oh, I’m so looking forward to it. You know what I’m really excited about the Aud books is the possibility of doing the audio narration.

I did the audio for So Lucky, and I enjoyed it enormously. So I really want to do all my books now. I’ll just have to go back to my entire back list and turn them into audiobooks.

Where in the stage of writing this book did the title come into play?

Fairly late. It was originally in my head, it was called Season of Change. When we first meet the old woman and she has the little dog, except it may not actually exist, I started thinking of it as Small Dog Theory. There’s a small dog theory of illness: you treat it like this little yappy thing over there, keep it well fed and it won’t bother you so much. And then I realized that that theory was bullshit, so I didn’t want to use that. And then I hit this exchange between Mara and Rose about, “Oh well, fuck you, you should be so lucky.” And I thought, huh, I think So Lucky is rich with irony, not irony, and all the different layers of that. So I chose that.

It’s one of those things that resonates in different ways depending on where you are in the novel, which I really appreciated.

Yeah. No, I like the title. A couple of people were like, can we do something else? I’m like, nope, that’s the title. Take it or leave it.

You have a book coming out about a character living with MS, and I feel like in recent years questions of accessibility in literary spaces are more and more coming out into the open. I feel like every year there’s a lot of discussion about the AWP Conference not being particularly great in terms of accessibility.

Oh, god, yeah.

Is the hope that this book will also enter in that debate, in addition to being a work that stands on its own?

Well, sure. I always like my books to actually have an effect in the world. I write because I want to find out, and I write because I want to change the world. And this book helped me figure out some things, pretty much at the same time as I was figuring out other things in my PhD.

And then I’m hoping that it really helps people to see that, just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you’re a pitiable creature. You know, you have a life. It’s just that you might use a wheelchair instead of your feet. Or you might use a support animal instead of your friend. People just have different ways of approaching the world, and I just want, honestly, readers to see disabled people as human beings in and of themselves.

It goes back to this whole notion of narrative prosthesis. Most people’s notion of disability is super sad, heart-wrenching and all inspirational things that they see on TV or read in books written by non-disabled people who haven’t a clue. The kind of things where you see someone in a wheelchair and they are confined to a wheelchair. They are bound to a wheelchair. Or other people look at them and think, oh, if I was in a wheelchair I’d just kill myself. And that’s how we learn ableism, is from all the stories out there.

So, this is my version of just writing a story I want to write, but also a way to sort of overwrite the ableist narrative. Just give people a different story to replace the old story.

Have you found that your PhD work has affected your work in fiction as well?

One of my worries when I was working on it was that, yes, it would change my fiction. And in one sense, it already really has. I couldn’t have written So Lucky without doing that PhD.33Griffith’s thesis, Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia, can be downloaded from her website. I came up with a portmanteau term, focalized heterotopia. This one’s focalized heterotopia, in the sense that the focalized character, Mara, is queer. And queerness isn’t the point, it just is. And she doesn’t run into any homophobia or sexist violence because of being a woman or being queer.

But I realized that in the disability sense, what was making me so uncomfortable about thinking about writing So Lucky was that I would be making a person’s difference one of the points of the story. And I have never written about lesbianism or about being a woman. And here I was, writing on some level, about disability. Except, of course, then I realized that really it’s not about the person’s problem with disability. It’s about the world’s problem with her disability. It’s about how life is much more difficult in the world because of being disabled. So, doing the PhD really helped me write this book—in that sense, yes, it’s totally changed things.

In other ways, I’m hoping not. We’ll know when I get back to Menewood.

Whereabouts are you in that right now?

I’m about 90,000 words in and it’s going to be another long book like Hild, so probably I’m about forty percent there.

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Daemon Fairless begins his debut book of non-fiction, Mad Blood Stirring, with a description of a fight in a Toronto subway car, where he head-butts a verbally abusive, very drunk man who has become a potential threat to his wife, and other people on the train. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and the author tells us he made a conscious choice to put himself in a position to do it. The other man is arrested, and Fairless goes home with his wife. If this were just an anecdote of an isolated incident, it might have just rested where it lay. But, as Fairless shows us over the course of the book, there are far deeper implications of his actions, and his feeling that he had to act.

The personal access in Mad Blood Stirring is the core of the book, and the reader’s entry point to this exploration of violence. In the chapters to come, Fairless keeps an eye on his own experiences and emotions while going down the pit, level by level, to investigate the evolutionary and behavioural impulses that lead to male violence. A former journalist for the CBC, Fairless spends time with professional MMA fighters, a high-school football coach and his team in an impoverished area of Toronto, a criminal on the lam, a serial rapist, and a murderous psychopath locked up in a maximum security mental health centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario.

What the author learns from these interactions is relayed empathetically, but it is never finessed or glossed over. And, by looking directly at these violent men and actions, Fairless provides an unusual insight into a topic that most people rarely engage with in earnest.

I met with the author recently, in Toronto, to talk about the process of writing the book, and the personal journey behind Mad Blood Stirring.

*

Kevin Hardcastle: When you were younger, did you have an experience with violence, like fighting in the street, or those urges to intervene in physical altercations that you talk about later as an adult?

Daemon Fairless: I mean, when I was a kid I lived in a below-blue-collar neighbourhood, a really poor neighbourhood in Halifax. And I would fight with the kids across the street. And by fight, I mean they would initiate and I’d survive. In high school I think I would’ve done just about anything to avoid a fight. I was super sensitive at that point, and I didn’t grow until late in high school. But even when I grew I didn’t have it in my head to fight. All that stuff just intimidated me.

While reading the book I kept considering my own experiences with violence, and writing about it in fiction. Trying to understand how it manifests. When I was in high school I got into something like a blood feud with these other rural folks, that ended up in a series of fights where I could’ve been killed. That sort of cured me of those urges you talk about in the book. I realized early I could die behind this. And those people I was fighting didn’t give a damn.

You realized they’re way meaner than you were.

Absolutely. And when I got out of there, to Toronto and university, it was just over. Simply from being out of that environment.

Well, it’s like a form of gang violence. And it’s almost in its organic form, or whatever you would call it.

You know, I think about this a lot—that fighting is a tool, and if it works for you, it’s very hard not to use. It’s a way of resolving all this alpha-beta animalistic tension. I think we can all do the math on how a physical altercation is going to go; you sort of do it in your head. I might have an idea it is going to go a certain way from the jump. So, I’m not going to do all the stepping up and talking, escalating it. I’m just going to get right to it and exert my will. And so, it becomes a very quick tool. And I think that one thing that happens once you get the shit kicked out of you is that you say to yourself, “I can’t beat everyone up, so I’m not going to put myself in this position at all.”

That was certainly where I got to, after being on the receiving end.

If you get beat up in a non-lethal or traumatic way, it probably can help you stop playing that game. I was talking to someone the other day who went through the same thing [as you] in high school. As I mentioned, I never did. In many ways I was just a peaceful dude, until I wasn’t. When I did get in fights as an adult, I was a lot bigger, and I was extremely lucky. I’ve rolled sevens every time.

I liked that you know that, and say so in the book. Also, as you mention in the early pages, you have size. That can go both ways, for sure. But now as an adult with size, and training and some skill, you know you have a good shot to come out of a fight okay.

Yeah, eighty-five percent of the time. Or you get killed. I try to tell myself, “The next fight is when I die.”

That’s what being older and my experience with training in Muay Thai and boxing taught me. When you get on the tough-guy ladder you realize you are nowhere compared to real dangerous people. There are levels of violence so far beyond you.

And that’s why I think about evolutionary and psychological factors, because we are emotionally tuned to think, “If I’m the biggest and meanest, I’ll win.” But then there are guns and knives. Or, in my experience, I might get so focused on one guy, the main person I’ve been in a confrontation with, that I forget about that other guy coming from my blindside. You can get hijacked by these notions.

I try to avoid all of that now. I make a conscious effort. I try to dress a little nicer. I’m not even going to present as a tough guy. I’m gonna look like a dad.

But if you were in the same mindset of hyperawareness that you need for a fight, or a combat zone, you can’t take that if it’s your whole life, every minute of every day.

And that’s where I’m at now, with accepting a level of vulnerability. I’ve got to be cooler headed, not looking for the danger always. Essentially all of the instances of violence I’ve been in [have been] as a result of me being hyper-aware, because I think, at some level, I’m anxious. As we talk about the inherence of aggression, many think that just means people are mean and nasty, but there is a lot more to it.

What I’m saying is that, at a basal level, most of the guys I’ve met—with those one-in-a-hundred exceptions of course—most of us at some level are operating at a certain level of anxiety. I’m not saying we’re timorous little creatures, but that hyperawareness, that hypervigilance, is part and parcel of that inherent state we’re talking about. We pay attention to our environment, to each other’s body signals—sexually, in terms of aggression, in all sorts of different ways. We’ve got all these signals going on all the time. It took me a long time to realize, or at least admit to myself, that the aggression that comes from being in this mindset is a response, a fairly inherent response, to an equally inherent anxiety.

People call it status anxiety, pack-hierarchy anxiety. I’m fine with that. So now, given that I’m aware this anxiety exists, I don’t have to be on that hyper-alert level, because it takes hold of you. I want to be a creative, constructive guy. And do you know how much time and thought it takes to be like that, anxious and hyper-aware all the time? It takes over everything.

I’ve tried to explain to friends of mine in the United States that Canada actually has a significant history and culture of aggression, violence, and even organized crime. From the major crime to the petty, this underbelly of Canadian life seems to be ignored all too often. We are not nice in many ways. We are not nice people.

And in many ways the whole “sorry” thing is about a pre-emptive defusing of conflict. All the sorrys are just trying to stop something from escalating. It’s a pre-emptive strike to defuse a situation. That’s what that niceness often is, and underlying it is that dangerous anxiety that can lead men to violence.

In our popular national literature, few of us want to talk about violence nakedly, or look at it head-on. As a result, authors and readers may begin to think all violence is the same.

I think [people get] confused because they’re not facing it head-on. I had this really interesting experience, with an acquaintance of mine who is gay and was in an abusive relationship. This acquaintance was a psychiatrist, so I was kind of like, “What can I tell him?” But we had this conversation and the conversation basically came down to, “Your partner is using these ancient rules of confrontation and aggression to control you, and you’re using these lovely rules of civilized rationalism to try to win that conflict. So that will not work.” You only resolve the situation but understanding the rules that the other violent person is playing by.

And that doesn’t mean anyone is saying understanding them is accepting them as good.

The thing is that when you’ve realized this imbalance, and realize it’s probably not going to change or be resolved in a peaceful way, then you can make the decision to try to just get out of the situation. Which I think he did.

Also, at that time I was training jiu-jitsu, about five days a week, so I took him to a jiu-jitsu class because he was interested, and for him I think it was like probably the emotional equivalent of taking an uninitiated person into a serious BDSM situation. He didn’t react well. It was just too much.

We really get freaked out about the emotional intensity of something like grappling. Even just the basics, they can so overwhelm people with the intimacy and physical closeness of it that they can’t see it as sport. All these real fight emotions just start firing off, and they can’t see past that yet. But, the thing I found in training, when you get used to it, is that you can kind of just bring your emotions under control. And then you start to solve it physically, and it’s no longer a big deal.

But the thing that I found most interesting was that this guy who worked as a psychiatrist was encountering this area of human behaviour that was just overwhelming to him. And, I mean, this is a guy who deals with all sorts of horribleness in his job. In that way, I really started to consider that we are the same way about this stuff that the Victorians were about sex. I mean, on TV or in entertainment, we want the violence, we’re asking for it—as long as it’s fictional or dramatized. As soon as you show them violence honestly and tell them, “This is what’s really happening,” they say, “Whoa. No, don’t show me that.”

I was at Canada Reads this year, and watching the second day of debate. And I found the direction of that debate really frustrating. Two of the books especially, The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline and American War by Omar El Akkad, kept banging up against this unbelievable resistance to accept and explore the realities of violence, war, cultural genocide, colonialism, and the potential of catastrophe from climate change. Their defenders, Jully Black and Tahmoh Penikett, had such an uphill battle trying to get across exactly how important it is for Canadians to look at all of this head on. But the resistance to those ideas, and the reckless sort of arrogance shown in dismissing those books, without engagement, really highlighted that inability or ignorance to address the ugly, difficult parts of human behaviour.

They just couldn’t see it as something that they should have to look at. “Alienating” was the word that kept coming up. With The Marrow Thieves especially.

We’ve created such a nice, civil society for ourselves that people can now be like, “I’m not going to get my kid immunized.” I mean, I lived in India, and no one there says that because they know their kid may well die if you don’t get them immunized. But here, because everyone has been in a more advantageous position for things like vaccines, you’ve got this barrier of safety around us. No one thinks that mumps or polio is real. It’s an abstract thing that only a certain type of people get.

And I think it’s the same with violence. People think, “Well, that won’t happen to me.” Really? That’s stunning.

What I saw that day on Canada Reads was a sort of desperation to be forgiven, and see something resolved. And what I liked about your book is that you don’t do that. Many of these violent men can’t be resolved. There’s not even resolution in your accounts of your own personal journey, and struggle with violent behaviour.

One of the things that a lot of people have written or said about the book is that it’s “terrifying.” But what I’m writing about is what’s happening everywhere in the world. It’s under the surface, even as we’re sitting in this restaurant right now. Again, to get back to that Victorian approach to sex analogy, we’re blind. We’re willfully blind to this. Though, it’s not like I’m saying we should revel [in] it.

We say we want a more civilized society, but I don’t see how that happens unless we face these things. I’m not suggesting some kind of social movement, but for me, I have changed myself as a result of writing this book. Just from facing the stupidity of some of the actions, and the instinct behind them. So, when people say what I’ve written is “terrifying,” I’m a little dumbfounded that they aren’t putting it together that you could get the same kind of story from the news every day. There’s nothing new about it.

But we have this amazing ability to cordon off that reality for some reason. And I mean, part of the reason I left the CBC is because I found reporting on the news frustrating, because as much as we’re ostensibly reporting on reality, what we’re doing is we’re sanctioning certain stories, certain types of stories to tell ourselves, and the underlying story that we’re telling ourselves—the meta-story—is that if you follow the rules and you do your job and all of that, bad things probably won’t happen. And it’s just kind of a pat explanation of the world, right?

All of this seems patently clear to me, whether I’m articulating it properly or not. And, I’m not an especially violent guy, but we live in an especially violent world, so I guess I’m a little stunned and think, “What world are people living in, where they’re not aware of this?”

Were you worried the honesty in the book would just switch people off?

You know, I guess my bigger concern was writing a good book. My overwhelming anxiety writing this was more, “Can I do it?” I’m not too concerned about whether or not people can handle the content, but I do find it interesting that, like, a Jo Nesbo can write the goriest details for their thrillers and people are like, “That’s great.” Yet, if you write a reality-based book about violence, people think there is something weird and terrible going on. Well, the weird and terrible thing is actually not wanting to face it.

What I liked about your approach is that the book accepts and investigates negative aspects of male violence, but still judges it and weighs it out honestly. And makes you look right at it. Nothing is ever explained away. I think this subjective element really works. Especially in parts where you interact with the rapist or killer, and share your distrust of them even while you’re trying to understand their behaviour.

I think I kind of uncoupled a lot of things that hold back journalists and hold back journalism. I realized I don’t really have to be a journalist while doing this, I can just be a guy who’s trying to figure these people and impulses out on a human level. And that worked a lot better. It really became a lot more freeing and it is also just the way I work. I don’t pretend to know everything, and I could totally be wrong about everything. And I’m okay with that. Show me good evidence to the contrary and we could talk about it. I’m cool with being wrong and knowing that there’s stuff I’m wrong about. There’s bound to be something off the mark when you write a three-hundred-and-something-page book on something as complicated as this.

But at least it starts the conversation.

I think as long as you fool yourself into thinking you can look at all of this objectively, you’ll never understand it. I’m willing to be co-opted by my subject, and I think that’s the whole thing about violence. When it starts to get hold of you and it starts to distort you—because it distorts your perception, and that’s why I’ve gotten in every fight. The emotions start to distort your rationality.

You convince yourself, “I should be doing this.”

Yeah, “This is the right thing to do. This is only thing to do.” And until you’re willing to be co-opted by that experience, you don’t understand. It can remain this abstract idea that you get frustrated with because people aren’t behaving rationally. You cannot understand it until, like you said, you put a toe in, and that’s all I’ve got, my baby toe in. But it’s so gripping that you still have to delve deeper to understand. So, I think we’ve got all these well-intentioned policies and thoughts and programs to try to deal with violence. But as long as people delude themselves, or deny the importance of the subjective experience of violence, they will never be able to control it.

I had arguments with people who’d read the book early on, regarding some of the guys I wrote about, like Nelson, the fighter. After reading an early draft, people were saying, “You’re being too nice to (the subjects).” And I was trying to explain that the people I’m writing about are doing what they’re doing because they’re going through something in their life, and training in martial arts or combat sports is helping them as people. Going through training or being around it like I have lets you gain an understanding of how it affects you. So, having people with real, subjective experience with the emotions that come about in combat sports, I think these are the people who, if they’re analytical and compassionate, are better suited to control those emotions. I have very little faith in people who’ve never been in a violent altercation, who’ve never experienced these feelings, to address them. If you’re telling me to control these things that override rationalism with rationalism, you’re an infant in terms of your understanding of those emotions.

So, because there’s this sometimes understandable disdain for fighters, we’ll have a tendency to ignore their insights into these emotions, and we end up losing the ability to learn from that subjective knowledge.

Similarly, in literature, there’s a tendency to ignore the voices of people with varying subjective experiences with violence. I was on a panel with David Chariandy, the award-winning author of the book Brother, and the poet Matthew Dickman, where we talked at length over the fact that people have criticized certain writing about poor people, or violence, and have been confused by it, because they can’t see past the abject representation of it. People seemed to want the protagonist’s mother in Chariandy’s novel, for example, to be more abjectly miserable in her circumstances. That’s not the way it always is. Dickman also talked at length about how violence doesn’t happen the way people want to believe.

There’s no drama like people think there is. It’s a thing that happens and you deal with the consequences.

That’s why I’m happy to see these writers get their stories out. Especially in contrast to this environment of academics and “public intellectuals” who are assigning their versions of masculinity with an agenda and without this level of experience, I think we’d see less of that swing between a fear of masculinity and this desperate defense of it.

It’s funny, because I think one of the classifications of this book is gender studies, and I didn’t sign up to write about masculinity. I mean, violent men are definitely in the broader discussion about masculinity, but I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about manliness or maleness or any of it, I just wanted to look at the way the world is. I wanted to look at real people doing real things and find out what’s going on there. It’s really that simple.

I feel like I’m interested in the same subject that people are interested in, when it comes to violence, but I speak a different language. And for me that language I’m speaking is the easiest way to articulate this subject, and what is really happening. There’s lot of the work in sociology that covers social factors that lead to violence. I believe that, I don’t disagree at all. You can be schooled or conditioned to be performatively masculine or whatever you want to call it. But I don’t know if talking about it that way helps the guys who are doing it actually think about it.

I think you’re right. Because it’s undeniable. I mean, you were very forthcoming about your urges and feelings, or in the section of the book where you detail graphically violent, disturbing hypnagogic images you would have before sleep. For me, I think about those people who tried to kick my head in every day, and that was decades ago now. I think about fighting them again, differently. About revenge. That’s been in there since I was seventeen.

Again, that’s where I think some evolution comes in. I mean, your experience in your small town is sort of a great analogy for the way parts of society have always been: you’re in a tribe and if you are taken out of that tribe you’ll probably die. So you try to prove something. Also, you’re finding your place in that hierarchy of a small town and if you end up in a bad place within it, the consequences can affect you for the rest of your life. It’s not surprising that you still think about being physically attacked and overwhelmed by other people. I think we’re keyed in to take it very seriously. Because it conditions you to think that, if you aren’t the guy who is going to change that situation, you’re going to be the guy who’s getting beaten down.

So, obviously we can say, “I don’t live in that world. Those are silly thoughts.” Well, they’re not silly. They’re real.

They’re formative, too.

Yes, they’re formative and they affect how you behave. I don’t know about you, but my ambition to be a good writer is kind of a healthy way of taking that anxiety and status concern and processing it in a more productive way.

But you have to accept these feelings as they are before processing them.

Yes. Because if we don’t acknowledge these emotions, we won’t know what the cause of related anxieties and impulses are. And you’ll try to cope with it however you can.

Because of what we’re talking about, and my own experience writing about violence, I worried about your book being just dismissed as a book for men about violence. But, of course, male violence really is a feminist and women’s issue to a large extent—there’s even a quote to that effect on the book’s jacket.

I see more reviews about this book and hear more about the book from women than I do from men. And, in fact, in writing it, almost all of my readers were women. I was trying to make sure I was triangulating the direction of it based on their responses. Women so far have been really supportive of what I’ve written about. It was interesting to me that Jane Doe, on the back cover, calls the writing feminist. I’m great with that, but I just tried to outline real things that I saw, and because the book does that, she sees it as feminist because it deals with many of the issues that feminists are concerned with in violent men.

It also doesn’t let anyone off the hook, as we’ve discussed. It goes against some idea that because you’re talking about male violence that you’re letting the fire breathe.

Or by saying that just because there’s some inherent reality to the emotions behind violence that it’s okay. No way. There’s inherence to alcoholism, but we can still know that it’s bad.

That’s why investigating all these variations of violence is useful. Without that,..

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Hazlitt by Bee Quammie - 2w ago

“Lorna” was the name I knew my mother by. But whenever we found ourselves enveloped in the circle of our boisterous Jamaican family, she became “Newberry.”

“Constantine” was the name I knew my father by. But whenever he touched road to link up with his bredgrins, he was met with greetings of “John Hawk reach! John Hawk deh yah!”

I was an inquisitive child, but the names “Newberry” and “John Hawk” seemed so firmly established in the fabric of our family that it felt silly to ask where they came from. Nearly all of my family members who were born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada had them, too. I accepted these aliases as part of the Jamaican culture I adored, and didn’t want to ask a question that would highlight yet again that I was a “Canadian kid.” 

As it turns out, these aliases are part of a wider Caribbean culture. Through both my on- and offline circles, I’ve shared jokes with other people of Caribbean heritage about a cousin called “Tallman” simply because he was tall, or not realizing that Granny June’s name wasn’t actually June until her funeral.

Whether discussing the shock of learning a loved one’s real name, the confusion of trying to decipher a nickname, or laughing at the creativity of the alias bestowed upon a family member, these conversations have always felt very familiar. But few of us knew the origins of the practice itself.

Born in the United Kingdom to Grenadian parents, author Shirley Anstis conducted seventy interviews in order to write her book They Call Me…, which uncovers the stories of Caribbean nicknames, also called pet names or family names. “Some nicknames, such as Diggit for a gardener, simply reflect a role in the community,” Anstis has said. “But others, such as Snakehead, might reflect something you can’t change, like the shape of your head, and living with that unkind label is a very different matter.”

Anstis’s book references “an African tradition of real names being secret,” a remnant of ancestral practice that survived the Transatlantic Slave Trade into the Caribbean. Protection of one’s spirit is of utmost importance in African diasporic spiritualities, and naming practices are a vital part of that. In one of my recent online discussions, Twitter user @jamaloahustles shared that nicknames helped to keep children safe from “bad mind”—those who wish harm or call forth evil spirits to wreak havoc on young lives. Names are important for incantation. If a child’s real name was a mystery, it would confuse or elude the negativity that was meant for them. Others called this the act of “duppyfying” loved ones, protecting people of all ages from malevolent spirits.

I decided it was time to find the answer to the question I wanted to ask since I was a kid: how did my parents get their nicknames?

I asked my dad first.

He leaned back in his chair, stretched his arms wide then folded them behind his head, and let out a deep chuckle. His Patois hasn’t faded in the three decades that he’s been in Canada, but it seemed to get even thicker as he reminisced. “Well, yuh see, it used to just be Hawk—di ‘John’ come afta,” he began.

“When mi young, mi friends call me Hawk ‘cause mi did ‘hawk’ up all di gyal dem,” he laughed. My dad remains a charmer and an infamous ladies’ man whose penchant for wooing women got him in trouble more than once. Vintage photos of him, in his slim-fitting pants and silk shirts unbuttoned to his navel, chest adorned with gold chains and always with a fresh haircut, told me more stories about him than he ever shared about himself.

He kept chuckling as he walked down memory lane, recounting his youth and both the innocent and intentional ways the “Hawk” was activated. Sometimes he didn’t realize a young woman was interested, and his friends would tease him about his naïveté. Other times he might have issued a challenge to a comrade, waiting to see who a young woman would accept a date with, and winning every time. To know that a nickname followed him from the outskirts of Montego Bay to small-town Ontario meant that he was—and in many ways, still is—legendary.

My mother’s story was more heartwarming than hilarious. Where my dad’s nickname was earned over time from a combination of his looks, personality, and reputation, my mom’s was born in the parish of Hanover, Jamaica, just minutes after she was.

My mom is the baby of the family. Her eldest sister is old enough to have been her mother, and I was always curious about the age gaps between my mom and aunts. As it turns out, my maternal grandmother had a history of miscarriages among her three live births. Before she got pregnant with my mom, Grandma was told not to test her body again, but she did.

The pregnancy with my mother was a smooth one, and when the midwife delivered a healthy, beautifully brown baby girl, she handed her to my Grandpa who said “I finally have a new berry!” At that moment, Mom’s nickname was solidified—and with the migration of my mother and most of her family from Jamaica to Canada, the name travelled too.

My aunt is known as “Pansy” because my Grandpa loved the flower. One of her sons, my cousin, is known as “Wayne” because she liked John Wayne. Once I asked, I learned that every nickname in my family comes with a story that taught me something about the recipient, or the donor. Each story either confirmed something I knew about someone, or illuminated something that would likely have gone uncovered without me asking about its genesis.

*

The stories made me lament the fact that I wasn’t given a nickname of my own. The practice seemed to evaporate with us Canadian-born kids, and part of that loss seems to be related to the fading or shifting of diasporic connections with each generation removed. Elders mentioned various reasons—not thinking it fit the “Canadian way,” or not wanting to “confuse” us or our Canadian friends—but I always felt a bit of envy that I didn’t have an alias to share with my loved ones, and didn’t have a hidden story to tell about myself.

In my own way, I’ve resurrected that practice and joined the assemblage of Caribbean nicknames, albeit with a bit of a remix. “Bee” isn’t the name I was born with. My first name can’t be shortened down into a quick, snappy nickname, but in university, my close friends started calling me by my first initial, B. Adding two e’s to it turned a lone letter into a new name, one that came in handy when I was trying to separate my writing identity from my nine-to-five. And even the people who know my daughter’s real name will default to calling her “Little Magician,” a nickname I came up with while she was still in the womb.

Those names were born and maintained out of the same need for protection—mine as a way to keep two different careers from colliding, and hers as a way to create a boundary after being born into this digital era. My decision to share a photo of her on Instagram or write a story about motherhood exposes her to an audience not of her choosing, and it feels like I’m able to keep parts of her sacred when I keep her name to myself.

*

For all of the people who’ve never known why Auntie Beauty is called Beauty, or who look at funeral programs in confusion, wondering who “Winston” is when they’ve come to lay Grandpa Carlos to rest, you are not alone. You are part of a tradition that shows the creativity and complexity of a people who have used those traits to survive and thrive. Digging to the bottom of these origin stories can open up an entire new world of understanding of our families and the personalities within them, so if you’ve ever been tempted, take my challenge to ask that question today. From the forced migration of my ancestors to the chosen migration of more recent generations, these names and the reasons behind them have endured. Whether we have our own nickname or not, our awareness of them helps to narrow the chasms between who we are and where we come from.

On paper I am the child of Lorna and Constantine, but in essence, I am Newberry and John Hawk’s firstborn—and the latter makes much more sense to me. Braggadocio, confidence, style, resilience, and renewal are all pieces of what my elders gave me, and through the artificial names given to them, I’ve come to know more of the truth about myself and where I come from.

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Hazlitt by Bryan Washington - 2w ago

Here’s how it starts: you spend the first years searching for yourself on-screen, all the time, but you don’t even know what you’re looking for. What that even looks like. But you do know there’s a trailer in Kentucky, where you live. It’s got this heater that’s always broken and a television tucked under some quilts. There is cold. There is snow. It blankets everything in whiteness, indiscriminately. You watch movies, often: black movies, sometimes, or movies that you’d call black now. Sometimes, there are movies where men and women fall in love. Sometimes there’s a wedding or a shooting or some homologation of unruly relatives, hell-bent on corrupting the lives of your televised betrothed.

But, mostly, everything is white. And rich. These men and women always make it out of these films unscathed. There’s never any question, no doubt as to where they’re going, and you watch these films with your mother and your father and their friends, knees hunched up in the living room, behind ankles splayed on coffee tables.

Then one day it happens. You’re just lying there with your folks and some uncles, lazing through the mendacity of some mid-’90s rom-com when it blasts across your retinas: two men touching. Just for a blip. In jest, probably. Or maybe it’s the gesture of a touch—a touch implied. But, nevertheless, there is static in the room where there wasn’t before.

Somewhere behind you there is a cough. A scowl. A muffled curse.

And then, the men are gone, the air clears, and the moment passes.

The smiling couple returns (happy!). There’s a cheer when they reunite.

You don’t know it then, but you feel like something’s shifted.

(Even that early? Yes, that early.)

So this is what you decide love looks like.

*

It isn’t like you’d taken the time to do your research, but if you had, you’d have known know you were fucked (or not fucked) from the outset: the representation of queerness in American films—the only ones in your vicinity—was nil. The films and televised specials we’d later deem queer didn’t emerge as viable on-screen narratives in the States until the early ’80s. Of course there was 1972’s That Certain Summer, broadcast a few years after the Stonewall Riots, which was followed by 1985’s An Early Frost (about a gay lawyer with AIDS), and 1993’s And the Band Played On—but each of these works ended in despair, accommodating what the American public deemed the “acceptable” queer trajectory at the time.

Those onscreen depictions of queerness were restricted to a certain single strain of desirability: there are no people of color at the forefront, let alone anyone who looked like you. And in those works that donned queer characters without being explicitly queer, the range of their representation was circumspect: their gayness was so firmly tucked into wealth, or so thoroughly and irremediably without, that their queerness is treated as the result of their maladies, rather than a fact of their existence. Both experiences exist, obviously, but in these works there was no middle ground. Queerness was either so wildly privileged, or so parallel to pain, that the actual queerness was muted either way.

*

But eventually, you and your people move to the South. Your new spot’s got two stories. There’s this yard, with some trees. Many (most) of your neighbors are white; you see that people actually live like this, that it’s not just another thing from the television. Also, surprise: you discover that white folks aren’t always as kind as their ciphers on television. You skirt around new ways of interacting with them, ways where you’ll leave the tiniest indents you can, and one day you walk to a kid’s house for a party and his mother asks you to come in through the backyard, she doesn’t let you follow his other friends through the door.

So there’s a lot of new shit going on in your life! But perhaps only one thing that’s immediately relevant: you watch Beautiful Thing. Grab it from the Blockbuster. There are two boys on the box, a little in love with each other, and you’ve only been staring at it for twenty minutes when the attendant, a tall lady, asks if you’d like to give it a try. You tell her you’re not interested, not really, and she gives you this long look. Then she smiles. Tells you it’s great. Highly recommended. Plus, she’ll even give you a discount: she prints out a coupon, and you take it home for free. One of those acts of grace that doesn’t click in your dome until decades later.

At this point, you’re all but a latchkey kid, and once you’re home the very first thing you do is tune in. The film stars Glen Berry and Scott Neal. They’re two boys living in some London projects (you didn’t even know Britain had projects, at least not like the ones you’d seen, you’d thought it was all wands and mystery and incantations but it’s the beginning of your education and we’ll chalk this dumbness up to that). They’re also gay. It’s the first time you allow yourself to use that word, even if only abstractly, cryptically. By the middle of the movie, you notice something in these two white boys, and that something is yourself.

There, you say, pointing at the screen.

You trace your finger across it, following their movement across the frames.

Eventually, one boy asks the other if he thinks he’s queer, and his friend says, It doesn’t matter what I think, and you don’t know what to do with that information.

You replay it. Watch it again.

And then again.

And then again.

For the next few days, the next few weeks, you hold the scene in your chest like this bright, vibrant blue jay. The gag is, you feel lighter (a rare thing, for a chubby kid like you), and people pick up on it. Your Ma asks if you’ve got a girl or something. Your father asks if you’ve got a girl or something. The kids you’ve conned into keeping you company ask if you’ve got a girl or something.

You don’t say that you do, but you don’t rebuke their inquisitions, either. You at least know not to go and do that. Mostly, you grin, cheesing like it couldn’t be anything else.

Weeks later, you bring the film back to that Blockbuster. It’s wildly overdue, but the woman who loaned it to you is beaming. She asks if you enjoyed it. You study her face before asserting, It was aight.

That’s when she smiles. Asks if you’d like any recommendations. And you say, Whatever, a little too quickly, but beginning to cheese along all the same.

*

As Wesley Morris has noted, “the national terror of the black sexuality is central to the American blockbuster,” but the terror of black homosexuality is so terrifying, apparently, as to be unfilmable entirely.

It reminds you, often, of a joke you’ve heard at your old barbershop: who in the world has the hardest time at the auto shop? A black man. And more difficult than that? A black woman. And even more difficult than that? Two black queers, two faggots.

*

And then one month, years later, in high school, you’re outed! It’s a whole thing.

There are tears. Facebook’s involved. And you’ve read some books by then, some Baldwin and some Foster and the Kushner play and the Monette autobiography. They’re tucked under your mattress like porn. All of them bring you damn near to tears. And, all of a sudden, your very private identity has become very public, very quickly, like you’re in some half-fucked K-Drama, so that the rush of catching yourself somewhere, anywhere, dims. You’d rather not see yourself at all.

But even now, you relate everything back to the movies.

For example: let’s say, one night, you take a long drive with your father, who doesn’t ask you the thing that both of you are thinking, and that this silence is more potent than any form of dialogue you two could have, and it reminds you of this quiet moment in Tropical Malady, where nothing much happens at all, but everything is happening simultaneously.

Let’s say that, a few months later, you leave home for school in the city, which is another way of saying you leave home for three jobs, and you think of Maurice, and his navigation of a whole new world, entirely unfamiliar but familiar all the same.

Let’s say that, one night, you’re with this guy (you met in a course on Milton, you were assigned as partners for Paradise Lost, and of course your dumb ass hadn’t read your passages because you were out working the parking lots), and at some point in the night you wake up to find him watching Desert Hearts, crying fat tears into the pillow, and it’s another, what, forty-five minutes before you find yourself bawling beside him.

You tie these films back to your life: Mala Noche and Victim and La Cage Aux Folles. And even if you don’t necessarily see yourself (black, middle class-ish, heavy) in these stories, they become the ciphers through which you identify. They become points of reference in your grid. Because when you’re starving, you don’t skimp at whatever you’re offered: you eat. You make toasts out of tap water. You imagine it’s a banquet.

*

A few years later, someone will ask you why any of this matters. If you know these people—queer folks, gay folks, lesbian folks, trans folks, bi folks—exist in the world, then why bitch about their not being on wax? Why not simply acquiesce to their transparency, the way everyone else deals with their ghosts in our overarching narratives?

And it occurs to you that the worst thing you could do to this person in response, the most thorough device, would be to put them in your shoes.

*

But, before that, there’s the year that doesn’t feel like a year at all, because you find someone that’s looking for these narratives, too.

Of course the first date is a film. A re-screening of Happy Together. And this someone doesn’t nod off or close his eyes or shake his head at the silences. He watches. You find yourself bracing for a grimace, someone who groans at the pacing, but this guy is enraptured. Pointing out the details, nudging your elbow. As Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai break down in one another’s arms, you look at the face of the guy beside you, and it’s a face you’ll see from him many times in the future, but you don’t know that yet. It feels like a fucking glitch in the system.

But it becomes your thing. Together, you watch more queer movies. Queerer movies. You unfold yourselves into cinema. It’s how you chart the days. Over a pile of pizza boxes, or on a sofa, or through a tangle of knees, or atop hoodies in the backseat of a van, you and this guy watch La Vie D’Adele, you watch My Private Idaho, you watch Girlhood and My Beautiful Laundrette. One night, on this shitty sofa, you watch Weekend, just once, and then once again the morning afterwards, and it shifts your respective axes. Another day won’t pass where you don’t think about the film, and the indubitable conflagration of chance and geography. When you see Tom Cullen come out to Chris New, as a fly on the fourth wall, it feels like you’re observing an Olympic feat, the highest you’ve ever seen anyone leap. You’ll watch it for the rest of your time with this boy, and then, when he’s gone, you’ll watch it even more frequently afterwards. You’ll think about it with the partners that follow. You’ll think about it through first dates, new apartments. It is you and him or you and them but also Tom Cullen and Chris New on that mattress. You’ll think about the way the light played across the camera when you wake up in the morning, comparing and contrasting.

*

It occurs to you that, at its peak, this is what representation can do. Representation can wreak havoc. It chips through the stone.

*

Eventually, years later still, you find yourself taking to pubs. There’s one in particular that gets you. The whole joint’s intricately coiffed, with twenty-four-hour playback of glam videos circling the premises. The bartender you talk to most often is short and stocky, with a heavy accent, and one night after you’ve called out for a refajo, he gently cocks his head your way.

Mostly, you watch the videos above you. You are regaled with the images of women dancing across their screens. Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears and k.d. lang. The ladies sway between strobes. They dodge the men dancing around them. And an admiration of their grace is a lingua franca between you and everyone else in the bar: you tap your feet to it. Every now and again, someone nods. They’ll raise their drink and you’ll raise yours in turn.

Once, you ask your bartender how they choose the videos that they do.

We know when we see them, he says. I recognize what I’m looking for when I find it.

Like porn, you say.

No, says your bartender. Like magnetism. We just watch it and we know.

You blink at the screen for a little longer before the bartender grabs the remote, switching the channel to a rugby match. It’s being played in Britain, although neither team is from there. The two of you sit with your cheeks in your palms, drinking, because this is a sort of queerness, too.

*

And then one day, you’re on a plane, the sort of transcontinental flight whose length has motherfuckers reaching for their Benadryl. You are headed to Ontario, from Tokyo, in order to connect to Houston, and the guy you’ve been plopped next to is sleepy, in a baby blue button down.

He’s young in the face. You glance at his hands for a better gauge. Turns out he’s spent the last two months visiting family in Hong Kong. Dude hasn’t seen them in fifteen years, so you ask him what that’s like, and he laughs, and says he doesn’t know yet. He says he’ll talk it over with his partner in Toronto.

Your neighbor says, He and I have been together for fifteen years—and when he says he, this guy braces, just a little, for your response.

You think: here is this man, traveling so far to return home. And here you are, returning home from so far away. You yourself left your own family to figure something out, and here is someone who’s done that and gotten his answer. This is what that looks like.

Eventually, you fall asleep beside your neighbor. You wake up drooling on his shoulder. When you apologize, embarrassed as fuck, he smiles and says he hopes you’d do the same thing for him. On his tablet, he’s watching Carol. You two watch the movie in silence, for a while, before he asks if you’d like to borrow an earphone.

At first, you politely decline. But then you change your mind.

An hour later, when your flight attendant passes through the aisle, handing you your sencha and this man his water, he whispers that he loves this movie, and although you barely hear him, the both of you smile way too wide.

*

Lately, there are so many mirrors. Right out in the open. There are the works of Xavier Dolan. There’s the gay boy from Riverdale, cruising through the forest. There’s the gay couple navigating life in and adjacent to law school in How to Get Away With Murder (one of whom is poz). There is a queer black woman on Black Lightning, a nurse who moonlights by tossing villains, throwing them at her feet. You talk about these characters with friends—straight friends—IRL, and not on message boards or through thrice-veiled allusions with strangers twice your age. It always shocks the hell out of you.

*

But, sometimes, shit comes full-circle.

One day, you’re sitting in the living room with your family—think the roomful of kin in Kentucky, all of them crowded around the screen—and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, two black dudes flash across the screen. It’s a clip from Moonlight, featuring Chiron and Kevin, and the two men aren’t touching, not really, and then all of a sudden they are. Although it isn’t really all of a sudden, because you knew that they would. Of course you’d know. But the point here is your family. You imagine them shifting behind you, making faces. CTRL + ALT + DELETE-ing the moment from their minds. Or maybe they’ll ask you about it. Or maybe they’ll think nothing of it. Maybe you’ll have to fume at their reaction, flip a chair, fly away. You are not entirely sure which of these outcomes is the worst.

But what actually happens is that your mother opens her mouth, and she says that the men on the screen remind her of an acquaintance’s son. A family friend notes the way the light plays across the two men’s faces. Your father says he’s heard about the film, that it’s something he’s been looking forward to seeing.

This moment couldn’t have been more than, what, ninety seconds altogether? And yet, it feels like an appropriate bookend. You wonder if that’s all it really is.

*

The audacity required to ask if we need another gay movie, if we need any more gay movies, transcends thinking altogether. It is a thoughtless question. You only ask it if you’ve seen yourself so ingrained into the culture, into the fabric of the world, that your absence from those seams is unthinkable. You only ask that question if you’ve never been repulsed by yourself, or the idea that anyone like you, anywhere, could be happy. You only ask that question if you don’t know what it means to feel like the only person on the planet.

In Black Deutschland, Darryl Pinckney’s novel about a gay black dude living in Berlin, the narrator touches on the elusiveness of that temporality:

“Successful people, people good at life, can look ahead: they’ve been ahead all their lives, even at summer camp. They knew the next school year was coming and their bodies were getting ready for it, while yours was just goofing off and drinking sugar. People can say live in the moment, but the moment was the only thing I was good at. I could make the moment last, stretch it out for days, years, my whole life.”

Queer cinema is, in a lot of ways, conjuring that moment. Stretching it. Expanding it. Dissecting the contours, freaking it, and then giving it back.

*

One day, eventually, you’ll sit in some theatre with your partner, in an advance screening of a comparatively big-budget film about queer boys. It will occur to you that this is a moment you could never have imagined, watching this homosexual coming-of-age story in a room made up almost entirely of queer folks. It is literally science fiction.

When they laugh, you laugh, and you all know what it is that you’re laughing at. There’s a sob in the crowd, and you all know why they’re sobbing. When the film ends with a kiss, there’s a cheer from both ends of the theatre, which is followed by applause. Not at the event, necessarily, but at the fact of its actual existence. Of all the shit it took to even get here.

Because, now, for what it’s worth, there are so many windows: You see yourself in Being 17, watching a young man transition from bully to friend to annoyance to lover. You see yourself in Esteros, floating on a fishing boat with an old flame with your past. You see yourself in this spa in Koreatown in Spa Night. You see yourself crossing the expanse of India with a childhood friend in Loev. You see yourself negotiating your sexuality in Mexico City in Cuatro Lunas. In God’s Own Country, you see yourself being given the gift of an embrace by a Hungarian worker, and you see his tenderness as he skins the coat of a lamb and places it on the back of the tiniest runt, and you look at this gesture, the same way you’ve looked at all of these gestures, and they do that thing to your chest that these things have never done, that thing you’ve heard these images could do, and it’s as John Birdsall noted: “watching Alec Secareanu’s character in God’s Own Country skin a dead lamb and make a cloak for a rejected runt, in order to coax acceptance from a ewe is the most hauntingly beautiful queer moment in cinema.”

When someone asks you which of these moments is your favorite, you’ll try to describe them all, simultaneously. But it is like trying to conduct an entire symphony with your tongue. The whole thing comes to you in spurts. Movement by movement. Note to note. A reel that shows you what it wants and nothing more than that. You look for the bits that make up your life. You try encompassing the whole thing in a single, slow-moving frame.

But you can’t. Sorry. What you say is that you’re still waiting for that one, that it always seems just around the corner.

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Just before the shamanic ritual begins, Min Hye Kyung comes over to me bearing two curved daggers that look like they could be props on the set of a pirate movie. She shows me with deft, graceful gestures how to lay them flat on my lap. “For protection.”

I am only observing her kut, or Korean shamanic ritual; indeed, I am not even allowed to cross the invisible threshold that separates the viewing area from the ceremony. But as the spirits will soon be called forth and appeased, one can never take too many precautions.

At the Haedong Mudang Kut Center on a cold winter’s morning just outside of Seoul, the room has gone from a blank canvas to fully and colorfully adorned. Three walls have been covered with large paintings of Min’s gods—the specific motley of spirits that the fifty-one-year-old practitioner worships and calls upon for power. The shrine underneath the gods is filled to the brim, stacked seven layers high in pyramids of ripe, unblemished fruit—pears, apples, pineapples, bananas, oranges, kiwis. On the back wall facing the shrine is a long horizontal metal rod upon which colorful hanbok costumes of different shape and sizes, beautifully pressed, are densely hung as if on display in a costume gallery, a bounty of colors, thick silks and linen ready for the choosing.

The kut center is at the foot of the mountains and a short drive from the nearest town. This is because kut are loud, rambunctious, disruptive affairs. Many local village shamans in Seoul have relocated in the past few decades, their temples and shrines destroyed by city development and reform policy. Their noisy, days’-long ceremonies that used to take place in the heart of communities have since been chased out by, in turn, the Confucians, Japanese imperialists, the South Korean military government, and Christians.

The Haedong center holds a cafeteria and several small kut rooms on the ground floor, but Min has rented the second floor, a larger, more private space with a small veranda. The room is set up like any standard one-bedroom apartment. The ritual is set to take place in the glorified living room with its sliding glass porch doors that look out onto a view of the neighboring mountains. The bedroom is reserved for Min—it’s where she will retire during breaks throughout the day-long event. A small kitchen area and recessed dining space stand off to the side, and this is where I am seated on a sofa, separate from the ceremony but with an open view of it. Observers are not allowed to enter the kut space. Min and her three associate shamans and two musicians flutter about the space preparing final props, garments, and cushions.

A young woman who looks to be in her early thirties is sponsoring this kut, and though I don’t know her name throughout the ritual, I think of her as Jane. Jane is wearing a grey turtleneck sweater dress and leggings. Her face is puffy with what look to be an aggressive amount of filler injections. She is sponsoring this kut because she has issues to air and resolve: for one, she is having an affair with a married man who financially sponsors her life and she does not know how to proceed with him; second, she wants to move back home with her mother but they constantly argue; third, she had experienced shinbyong in the past.

Shinbyong is the sickness that comes with the spiritual calling to become a shaman. Jane had begun the training process of becoming a shaman herself but gave up her training prematurely. Today she appears before the gods to apologize and ask for their patience, a little more time.

As Min and her team of associates (including a male shaman, with long hair tied back, wearing a hanbok dress) and musicians prepare, the water heater in the kitchen area begins to boil over. Min announces with calm bemusement: “The water is boiling by itself—would you look at that.” We all turn with surprise at the possessed water boiler, which was indeed turned off one minute ago and now has steam rising angrily from its spout.

A young apprentice runs over. “Oh, no, it’s just because it’s broken. If there’s water inside, it’ll just keep going and going.”

The musicians take a seat behind their percussive instruments. The shamans take their respective positions around the room, the rustle of their hanbok silks fluttering to a standstill. The kut begins.

Min brings Jane into the center, where Jane begins bowing and chanting under her breath. She seems to know what to do without being told. Min walks out onto the balcony, waiting, looking upon the mountains. After several rounds of prostrations, Jane sits back in her seat and Min returns to be changed into her first outfit. She stands in the center of the room and is dressed. Red robes are layered atop her hanbok and a white band of cloth is tied around her temples. Then an elaborate tall hat is secured with straps under her chin. Her assistants and apprentices take her discarded robes as she patiently holds out her arms in a crosswise position.

The smell of incense fills the air as Min begins to dance, circling around and around to the quick beat of the drum and the cymbals. There is no crescendo to the music; only a sudden and oppressive fortissimo that fills the small space and expels any thought circulating in the mind. Jane, in her chair, calmly watches the scene in front of her, occasionally looking back as I snap a photo. When Min begins to speak, relaying the practical advice and blessings of the gods and Jane’s ancestors, it is in a husky singsong, the words modulated by melody, like chant, like a sung-through musical.

After a few minutes of this, Min turns to me, smiling graciously, and explains: “It’s really because of her resistance to her calling that all these things are happening in her life.”

I first met Shaman Min Hye Kyung a few days earlier at the Kut Center in Yangju, about one hour’s drive north of Seoul’s city center. When I arrived, I was greeted first by one of her apprentices, a pretty young woman in her early thirties who said that “mother” Min had been training her for about seven years. 

Min has now worked as a shaman in Seoul and Gyeonggi-do for over twenty years, where she makes a decent living and trains future initiates in the traditional apprenticeship. Shamans in Seoul can charge from 3,000,000 KRW upwards to 10,000,000 KRW (roughly $2,500 to $9,000 USD) to sponsor a kut. Individual divinations by shamans can cost between 50,000 to 300,000 KRW (roughly $35 to $2,700 USD). In contrast, non-shaman fortune tellers and astrological readers who set up tents and benches along popular night-life areas in Seoul charge as little as 20,000 KRW for a reading.

But the life of a shaman is not an easy one. When she was younger, Min would perform kut for neighbors and clients, but when she encountered them in public afterward they would pretend not to know her, ignoring her as they walked by. “We take on their problems. Then they act like they don’t know us. That’s the thing I didn’t like the most. The most painful part.”

Throughout Korean history, shamans have been hunted in the name of social order by Confucians, in the name of modernity by Japanese imperialists, and, most recently, in the name of industrialization and anti-superstition under President Park Chung-Hee. Modernization and the erosion of folk culture is not unique to the Korean nation. What is unique, however, is the way in which folk customs were forcibly eradicated by presidential command in the late twentieth century.

In 1970, President Park Chung Hee began the Saemaul Undong, or The New Village Movement, which aimed to bridge the wealth gap between Korea’s cities and countryside villages. In concert with this movement arose the Mishin Tapa Undong, or the Movement to Defeat the Worship of Gods, in the 1980s. The timing coincides with the rise of Protestantism in Korea. Under the banner of the New Village and industrialization, Korean shamans and folk tradition practitioners were harassed and their temples, houses, and shrines systematically destroyed. Folk music and culture was silenced, set in opposition to the country’s rapid economic agenda.

The legacy of Shamanism is filled with contradictions. Since the 1960s, shamans have been identified as intangible cultural assets by the Korean government and have represented the country in cultural events worldwide. In the Korean imagination, shamans are simultaneously witches, psychologists, folk legends, history keepers, and schizophrenics. Park Chung Hee, despite his attempts to cleanse Korea of superstition and destroy shamans and their shrines in the late twentieth century, has become a spirit god to many shamans who identify with his spirit in death, restless due to his abruptly shortened life in the service of his country.

Despite decades of persecution and discrimination, and despite the gradual and inevitable erosion of folk customs, traditions, and even architecture in South Korea today, shamanism, the nation’s oldest belief system, still maintains its hold on the national psyche, a source and a host for intrigue, pride, even presidential scandal.

*

Shamanism is an indigenous pre-historic religion of Korea, thought to be descended from Siberia. The gods and spirits that the Korean shaman worship are often the spirits of those who lived but were wronged or cheated in life. The spirits choose those who are to become shamans because he or she has experienced deep trauma or pain in life as well. Because she has suffered, she is able to understand and empathize with the suffering of the gods; she is able to understand, hear and translate their words to the living. In this vein, popular gods are often military heroes, killed in battle.

Korean clients today (mostly women) still go to shamans (also mostly women, called “mudang” in Korean) for divination, spiritual guidance, and for rituals. One of the most popular types of kut in the past twenty years has been the ritual to bless a new business venture. During these rituals, shamans invoke the client’s ancestral spirits to speak through them, dispensing advice, warnings, and reflections. Mudang also make and bless amulets that clients can keep for good fortune. Many clients go in secret, partaking quietly in what some call the “women’s religion” of Korea.

To be a woman In Korea has traditionally meant living by a narrow definition of womanhood. Korea at its core maintains a deeply Confucian culture, evolved from the Chinese scholar and brought to Korea in the fourth century. Families and companies are run by often dictatorial patriarchs, and women are expected to serve the men in their lives.

There has long been an alternative way of life, however, for Korean women outside of the confines of their roles according to traditional Confucian ideology as the glorified indentured servants of men. The path is difficult and lonely, for it requires a rejection of the structures of society and family. But it is available for those who have been chosen by the gods.

When Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Ethnology and Division Chair of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, went to her first kut viewing in Korea in the 1970s, she was surprised by what she saw. The Korean world as she knew it was turned upside down. Women were laughing, praying, and shouting, she told me during a phone conversation. The men, on the other hand, were huddled in a corner. One shaman even grabbed the man of the house by the ear and, in her possessed state, proceeded to yell at him.

Shamans are unclassifiable in terms of traditional gender expectations because they are at once women and vessels for gods, capable of being possessed by both grandfathers and children. To transform from woman to shaman, the initiate must also physically travel to the fringes of her social world, isolating herself, and cutting all ties with her family.

It starts with shinbyong. This illness can continue for years. It is often an unclassifiable illness that modern medicine cannot heal. Once identified as the spirit sickness by an experienced shaman and also accepted and acknowledged by the initiate, the sickness will then seem to go away. The initiate is cured once she ceases to resist her calling by the gods and ancestor spirits.

To begin her training, she will find a shaman mother who will take her on as an apprentice for a period of one to ten years. During this time, the apprentice will identify her individual set of spirit gods through meditation and prayer in the mountains, as well as learn the oral tradition of shaman ritual.

The initiate, upon completing her training, will then perform an initiation kut, during which she will showcase the gods speaking through her, dance on knife blades (as a sign of her possession by the gods and insensitivity to human fear or pain), and perform divinations for the audience. Her performance in this kut will determine whether she will be deemed an authentic shaman, and whether she is ready for the gods and spirits to speak truthfully through her.

The initiate’s family will be in the audience, and the initiation kut will include a goodbye ceremony, in which the initiate will formally separate her bonds from her mother and father and siblings, and possibly a husband and children that she had in her previous life. After this separation ceremony, she will proceed to use the formal honorific in speaking with her parents; her parents will also use the honorific to speak with her. She will not attend any future funeral ceremonies for her parents.

Once the shaman is initiated and trained, she may then work her own kut ceremonies, where she will hear and address the grievances and worries of her clients. In a kut, the client, usually a woman, will have the space to air her grievances. Perhaps her mother-in-law is causing her stress; perhaps she cannot conceive a child. The shaman communicates for any discontented spirits who have been ignored or prescribes steps for the woman to make things right with the living or the dead. (In Korean shamanism, there are no evil spirits, only discontented, or ignored, or restless spirits who are unfairly treated in life or in death.) During the kut, the client is made to participate, bantering with the shaman or answering questions. She is invited to dance to the drumbeat that is constantly beating in the background, to the cymbals that are being crashed to an even tempo. She dances, laughs, cries, in a cathartic and oftentimes humorous and light-hearted process that expunges from her what Koreans call “han,” or what Daniel Kister, a Jesuit Father and academician who has long studied Korean shamanism defines as “the bitterness, rancor, regrets, and gnawing woe that a life of pain, frustration, and misunderstanding too often leaves pent-up within a person.”

There is a school of academic thought that claims Korean shamanism to be a form of psychosis —that the women and men who receive shinbyong, the spirit sickness, are really suffering from a mild case of schizophrenia. Kister writes that a number of Korean psychiatrists have asserted that working, productive shamans are recovered neurotics—that shamanism is “an institutionalized system of sublimation.” These doctors also see shamans as primitive psychiatrists themselves who are “healed, and achieve psychotherapeutic effects through empathy.”

Seong Nae Kim, professor of religious studies at Sogang University in Seoul, does not necessarily agree, but she does say that those who venture down the path of shamanism are particularly perceptive and sensitive souls, catering with generosity of spirit to those they serve. In addition, she spoke of shaman groups and teams of divine sisters, mothers, and brothers as reminiscent of the classical theatre troupe.

Shamans are indeed talented performers. During kut, performer and audience, as well as musician and costume and prop all work together to invoke the spirits in a thrilling and dramatic kind of theatrical improvisation. A friend I talked with in Korea, a longtime practitioner of Korean drumming, explained how the constant beat of the drums and cymbals during shamanic kut—increasing, persisting, escalating—turns its listeners “a little bit insane.”

*

Shamanism in Korea has experienced waves of popularity in modern times, especially during periods of crisis and insecurity. Laurel Kendall suggests there are two common responses to shamans today. Some believe that it is simply irrational, superstitious; others feel that shamanism is something that makes Koreans unique. The search for this authentic Korean-ness was a trend that emerged after the civil war, after colonialization, and with the emergence of the first folklore studies departments in universities in South Korea. This was in part a reaction to Korea’s turbulent twentieth century, during which its self-identifiers were torn asunder and replaced again and again by outside forces.

But there cannot be a discussion of the authentic and original Korea without addressing Korea’s current bifurcated state. Korea is a modern country. But embedded deep is a trauma, a psychological instability and threat to the very identity that has been carefully built over the past fifty years. Korea is still divided, still in crisis, with a wound running along its thirty-eighth parallel. Can Korea be said to be authentic and whole as long as it remains divided?

For the South Korean shaman, it is a privilege to make the pilgrimage to Paekdu, a mountain which sits on the border between the two Koreas. To get there, they travel through China to its border with North Korea. Paekdu is the sacred, original mountain, where Korea’s mythical founder (and first shaman) Tan’gun was born; Paekdu is the mountain from which all the other mountains in Korea acquire their spiritual power. On the foot of Paekdu, it is not uncommon to see Korean shamans performing kut for reunification, or to see shamans trekking to the top of the active volcanic mountain. On its summit plateau, across from the shining turquoise lake that sits upon the border, you can see to the other shore, where North Korea begins.

*

Shamans trek to great heights to heal divides, but their work has also been implicated in creating them. In late 2016, it became clear that the cabinet of President Park Guen Hye and the president’s unofficial aide, Choi Soon Sil, were using their positions to siphon government funds and bribes from corporations.

Choi, the daughter of a former Korean cult leader, Choi Tae Min, allegedly came to know Park after Park’s mother, Yuk Young-soo, took a bullet for Park’s father, then-president Park Chung-hee, and was killed. Choi’s father, a spiritualist and medium, claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit of Park’s deceased mother. Choi Tae Min died in 1994, and Choi Soon Sil maintained her close relationship with Park, who eventually became president.

Choi was said to have an influence on everything from the president’s speech-writing to her handbag choices, and the president was accused of sharing confidential documents with her. In early 2017, Park was impeached for abuses of power, and Choi was sentenced to a twenty-year sentence in jail. This year, Park was sentenced to twenty-four years in jail.

Throughout the almost two-year-long ordeal, Choi has been referred to repeatedly as a shaman, or a Korean Rasputin. To the shamans implicated in the political scandal, the connection is erroneous and heartbreaking, though not unexpected. Min says that shamans and the women who choose the difficult profession, have been, and continue to be, the scapegoats of Korean history.

“These days, because of all the negative energy and press, I have been thinking—Is this the end of our era, our profession? Is this it for us?” Min asks.

When I ask whether she could foretell the political scandal involving the president, she asserts she did feel something tragic on the horizon for Korea. “I sensed something in 2017—it wasn’t clear, but it was some kind of natural disaster or crisis; I kept telling people not to buy real estate.”

*

Back at the Haedong Mudang Kut Center during my last week in Seoul, Min has been dancing and chanting at, for, and sometimes with Jane for two hours without pause.

“You always want to leave, you’re always looking to travel, aren’t you?” she sings. “Where are you planning to go? Japan? Hong Kong? The US?” Jane nods. “But when you travel, go to Hong Kong and not Japan. And be careful walking around at night. And don’t go now, maybe some months later.”

During a short break where we are again served coffee and drinks, Min changes into white clothes and a black hat. “You’re feeling isolated, aren’t you?” Jane says yes. “You’re crying a lot, depressed all the time.” Jane nods her head, rubbing her palms together as Min/spirit speaks. “You have difficulty with your mom. We’ll take away some of the pain, some of the conflict, don’t worry.”

The drumming is very loud, so loud that I can hardly hear the chanting at times. In her fourth set of robes, speaking as another ancestral spirit now, Min, standing close to Jane and right in front of her, addresses the issue of money: “You have to make it. You can’t keep spending money as soon as it comes in.” Jane bobs her head to the beat, even swaying now. The continuous clanging of the drums is almost too much to bear even from the periphery of the room. Min begins dancing, selecting knives to wave in the air, spinning in circles. Her trainees and the other shamans stand around the room, rubbing their hands in supplication to the spirits, at times uttering “Thank you, thank you.”

Min takes a break and her associate shaman, a man named Kim Ki Chan, takes over for a while. Kim, a male shaman, wears his waist length hair wrapped in a low bun and, like Min before him, wraps a man’s costume over his hanbok dress. The former Catholic who had once aspired to priesthood and worked as a banker became a mudang after his grandfather visited him in his dreams. After wrestling with his destiny for a long time, falling into despair and alcoholism, he learned to cast off the long-held shame he once felt over his mother’s own work as a mudang. He finally relented to his calling.

Jane selects colored flags placed before her, and Kim wraps Jane in a yellow fabric. Above the clanging of the cymbals and drumming he tells her to clutch the fabric so that it forms a kind of pouch in front of her body. Kim then spins around, chanting, grabbing what look like two wands with long streaming strips of paper attached. He sings while bringing the wands over his head and arcing them into the yellow cloth bundle Jane holds in front of her. He is pouring spiritual luck into her makeshift pouch.

Kim then stops to ask, “There is something strange going on with the law, isn’t there?” Jane is surprised. “Yes, actually. There is a lawsuit. It’s getting settled in March.” Kim gestures to the apprentice. “Give her some grains to eat.” As Jane chews on the grains handed to her, Kim dances and sings without pause. “This is for fortune, I’m placing fortune into your bundle. Keep hold of it. Hold on to it tight!”

Later, Min reemerges and orders Jane to select some robes to wear. Jane is indecisive. She doesn’t know which to pick from the deep chest of colorful fabrics, and so Min and her associates choose one for her. It is a sheer pink robe laced with silver detailing and lined with pink fur. Cut differently it could look like something for sale at Victoria’s Secret. Jane fidgets with it, and with the yellow bundle of luck swollen at her belly, she looks like a pregnant woman wearing a negligée.

“Dance! Play!” they instruct Jane. She starts dancing but it’s clear she’s not feeling it. The associates cheer her on. “You have to let it go!” they say. To each other, they scoff, “Does she think it would come so easy?”

“It’s the clothes. I think I chose the wrong clothes,” Jane says with despair. They reject this idea, urging her on. But eventually they relent and grab some folded clothes for her, placing them into her hands. With the luck bundle, the flags, and the loose dresses clutched in her two hands, she begins to jump timidly to the beat and the cymbals. Min urges the musicians to start with a..

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In her debut short-story collection Belly Up (A Strange Object), Rita Bullwinkel traces the fault lines in intimate relationships, and maps meaning onto small exchanges and chance encounters. Characters stick their tongues into electrical outlets, hide food under church floorboards, consider cannibalism, and commune with the dead, among other delightfully odd pursuits. In experimental, surreal-feeling stories that range from two to twenty-seven pages, time is measured in haircuts had, meals consumed, houses constructed, and paintings finished. Bullwinkel dares to build terrifically offbeat, imagistic worlds in quiet, often rural places (a double-wide trailer in an Oregonian park, an “Easter-blue” house in Florida, and an algae-coated pool in rural Texas). 

The most compelling stories center a conspiratorial narrator and highlight darkly funny details (in a scene that takes place in a prison infirmary, a surgeon almost grafts a left thumb onto a prisoner missing his right). Weaving pithy bits of dialogue into economic sentences, Bullwinkel captures subjects on the brink of collapse or calamity or fugue state—lending the collection a degree of emotional intensity.

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Anna Furman: Odd jobs crop up a lot in these stories—a medium, a breast-holder, a furniture saleswoman. What sort of odd jobs have you had? 

Rita Bullwinkel: All jobs are odd, in their own way. One of the strangest jobs I’ve had is working the graveyard shift at the Chelsea Market Anthropologie store in New York City, where management made employees memorize narratives of five fictional women for which specific parts of the store were designed. These fictional women were supposed to embody the main categories of Anthropologie shoppers. Some had real names, like Claire, and some had fake names like Nomad. Nomad was a little crunchy and went to Paris for the weekend with her boyfriend and loved shopping at the Brooklyn Flea. One day a month there was even a staff wide costume contest to see who could best embody the essence of one of these fictional women invented by corporate. Sometimes my manager would give us pop quizzes about what the women did over the weekend. We got updates on their lives via weekly emails. The winner of these contests always got a $25 Anthropologie gift certificate. I really hated that job.

Does anyone in your family work in publishing?  

No one in my family works in publishing or reads much fiction. Everyone in my family has read the book, which I think they find eccentric. But, I think they find that writing books, in general, is eccentric. It’s not my specific book they find strange. My father had the best response to the collection. He is a methodical man, so his response was methodical. He documented his reactions to each story, and then sent me a document with notes like: “Concerned Humans: Identity confusion. Consumption confusion. Poison or safe confusion. Satisfaction confusion. Life is complex!”  

In some stories the characters have specific names, and in others they are generic, as in “What Girl Built.” Why didn’t you give Girl a name?

Partly for the sound of it. I like the way Girl sounds in the mouth. There can be a special power that comes with not naming your characters, or giving them an archetypal name. A master of this is Yuri Herrera, especially in his brilliant novel Kingdom Cons.  

“Mouth Full of Fish” takes place in Balmorhea State Park in Texas. Have you traveled there? How did your visit inform the story?

I went to Balmorhea the summer after I graduated from college. My partner and I drove a really shit car across the country and then sold it when we got to California. We took three months to drive from Providence to Tampa, Florida, where he’s from, and then from Florida to San Francisco, where I’m from. We stopped in Marfa, which I really hated. It felt like a bunch of very rich, beautiful New Yorkers transplanted into the middle of Texas. Everybody seemed like they were from Chelsea. It really disappointed me. The Chinati foundation is very beautiful—I won’t deny that. But the rest of Marfa is total garbage. We stayed in a yurt that was very expensive. When I asked the woman who managed the yurts how to get to the Prada store, she said: “There’s no store. There’s only art here.” And I was like: “OK. Can’t you just give us directions to this place?” We never found it.

After Marfa we drove to these hot springs in Balmorhea, and it was everything I wished Marfa had been. The sides of the spring looked like a pool, which is very disarming because the bottom is uneven and rocky and has algae on it. We stayed at a motel near the springs and there were these beautiful sky-blue benches and sun-bleached, dead animal bones hung everywhere as decorative pieces. I spent sixteen hours there.

I was unclear what the narrator’s gender was in the story. And several other stories are written in this way, centering a narrator whose gender is somewhat ambiguous. Was that intentional? 

Yes. While I was writing “Mouth of Fish,” I decided that fundamentally the gender didn’t matter. There was never a draft in which the character had a specified gender.   

The last story, “Clamor,” is roving and expansive; it’s told from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator. This wide-reaching vantage point affords the reader a degree of access to several characters’ psyches, which makes it unique from the other stories in the collection. Is it based on a real event?

My grandmother, who is recently deceased, did take my sister and I to visit a medium in Oregon with the hopes of connecting with her dead husband, my dead grandfather. But she was always doing things like that, so it’s not like that story, “Clamor”, is about a specific time when we went to go see a medium. She frequently would try to get my sister and I to connect with our grandfather through a medium, either over the phone or in person. I had a lot of forced experiences with mediums when I was a child. I was always skeptical of them and felt very resentful of them. I thought it was ridiculous that a stranger might know more about my grandfather than me, or have access to him in some way I didn’t. But my grandmother believed in it.  

Did your grandmother read the story?  

No, she died in her sleep three months ago. I was planning on sending her a galley but she died before the galleys were printed. I don’t know if she would’ve recognized herself, though. I wrote a story, once, where I verbatim used language that she had used to give me advice about plastic surgery, if I ever decided to get some. She read the story and said, “This is all such excellent advice! So practical. How nice of you to share it.” She didn’t see any of herself in it. You never know how someone is going to read something. I wasn’t scared that she was going to be offended or anything like that.

Can you tell me a bit about your decision to apply for MFA programs?

When I was applying to graduate school, I told almost no one I was applying, because I thought that the likelihood of me being accepted into a program was basically zero. It was something I wanted so badly that I felt I couldn’t talk about it. So much so that when I was admitted to a few programs, some of my family members and friends felt like I had lied to them, or purposefully kept my writing life from them. Many of them hadn’t any idea that I had any interest in writing at all, and felt that I had been writing in secret, covertly, which is not how I was thinking of it.  

I was very surprised when I got into programs. I only applied to programs that gave full funding to everyone that was admitted because I knew that’s what I would require to go. I am very grateful to Vanderbilt. They accept three fiction writers a year, and their funding is very generous. I made more money going to graduate school than I ever did working in New York City.

It’s very rare to be in a place where you are being paid to make art and an institution is telling you that that is what you’re there to do. And that is something that Vanderbilt made very clear. It’s something that no one in my life had previously given me the license to do. More than the money, it was not something that I would’ve been able to convince myself of on my own, that making stories was something that I should be doing. I needed someone else to tell me that it was something that I should be doing. Vanderbilt gave me the ability to say out loud what I’m doing: trying to write something.

Do you have a person in mind that you’re writing to?

The brilliant poet, Tiana Clark, says that her ideal reader is a waitress at PF Chang’s reading her poems on their five-minute break, which is how Tiana fell in love with poetry.

Perhaps every writer desires a reader to feel about their work like they felt about words the first time literature lit them on fire? I didn’t read fiction at all until fairly late in college. I thought I didn’t like reading because I had been given very boring things to read. The common core of the California state public education system is full of banal literature that is either so old it’s irrelevant—no one’s debating that Macbeth isn’t important—or you have to re-read the same thing a bunch of times in different grades. I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird six times and The Catcher in the Rye two times, and I kind of thought, well, I guess these are all the books that exist, and they’re kind of boring.

What I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t some super well-read literary reader. I’m terribly read. I’m always playing catch up. I am still trying to make up for all the years I spent growing up not reading the right books.

So I wouldn’t want my “ideal” reader to be especially literary, whatever that means. Books get labels like “literary fiction,” which implies that they’re meant for a certain type of person that isn’t the type of person I am, or ever will be. I would be much more excited to be read by the waitress who has no idea where Vanderbilt is or what literary fiction means. Maybe my ideal reader is a poet? That would be a compliment for me. I try to make sentences that sound pretty.

What do you think can be accomplished in a short story that might not be as possible in another form? 

I think that short stories have the ability to be read in one reasonable sitting, and that that gives them a special power. I often think about how the time that one spends in consuming a piece—whether it be music or a painting—is very involved in the emotions it elicits. Time is a strange thing in writing, because compared to other works, it takes a great deal of time to consume and it’s an all-encompassing consumption.

The time it takes one to read thirty pages, perhaps the length of the “typical” short story, is a potentially resonant time to spend with something, which is like forty-five minutes or an hour, similar to something like a movie. I think that is unique with the story.

However, whether it be a poem or an essay or a novel, genre isn’t really an important grouping, writing is still the most effective art form we have to inhabit the consciousness of another. I think that’s why I’m more moved by writing than any other art form. It seems so amazing that one can sit in the thoughts of another so thoroughly that one begins to question if they are thinking these thoughts. It’s like the opposite of voyeurism. That’s what I love about reading.

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Hazlitt by Lyndsie Bourgon - 3w ago

Sandy Island does not exist; this we now know for sure. Sandy Island died—it has an obituary.

Sandy Island lived for more than two hundred years, appearing first on a 1908 British admiralty map at 19°S, 160°E. In 1876, the whaling ship Velocity reported a fifteen-mile long sliver of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, about five hundred kilometres northwest of the French colony of New Caledonia. The captain named it Sandy Island.

Scientists now suspect it was a giant, floating pumice bobbing in the Pacific fog. Recent studies have determined that the coordinates of “Sandy Island” bordered an oceanic “pumice superhighway,” clogged with the byproduct of volcanic explosions. But no one knew any better then. For more than a century, no one had thought to question the wobbly paper marks of a whaling captain on choppy seas. Sandy made its way from nautical charts to the World Vector Shoreline Database and eventually, inevitably, into Google Earth, where, if you went looking, it appeared as a black pentagonal square.

It took a pair of amateur radio enthusiasts, on an expedition in 2000, to suggest, in whispers, that the island might not exist at all. In 2012, a scientific exploration investigating the eastern Coral Sea aboard the R/V Southern Surveyor passed through Sandy Island’s coordinates multiple times. There was nothing there, and the water was too shallow for the land to have sunk—they had officially “unfound” Sandy Island.

In his new book, The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago of Myths and Mysteries, Phantoms and Fakes, Scottish author Malachy Tallack asks: “How could an island have slipped through the net of satellite technology for so long?” The answer is remarkably simple: Sandy Island had been placed in ink on a fallible nineteenth century map, and believed in until proven otherwise. 

Tallack grew up on Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands. His school’s motto pledged allegiance to an unfound island thought in Roman times to be the most northerly point of the western world: “Thule.” Dispecta est Thule curled in wrought iron on his school’s gate—Thule was seen. So, too, was Sandy. “Many were drawn to this episode by the idea that what are taken as baseline truths—world maps—may not actually be true,” Sandy Island’s obit in EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union magazine concluded.

Historically, many unfound islands have been in the Pacific Ocean. Dougherty Island, off the coast of New Zealand, took its name from the captain who spotted it, though he never stepped foot on land. Some historians suspect that his fishermen mistook an iceberg through the fog for land itself.  Emerald Island, thought to be located by a sealing vessel between Antarctica and Australia, wasn’t unfound until the 1980s.

Theories are varied as to why “phantom islands” persist. There is considerable debate in the realms of philosophy and science as to how and why a concept—or place—is eliminated. The “unfinding” of Sandy Island, says a recent study, is the perfect example of the modern confluence of technological truth and mythological attachment. There is proof of the fallibility of our institutions but only if you go looking for it. 

In the late nineteenth century, the British decided to “clean” the world’s maps of superfluous islands, particularly around the Arctic and Antarctica. Tallack writes that we are now in an age of “undiscovery” that is experienced, confusingly, as human loss alongside enlightened progress. “We are paying for cartographical completeness with a feeling that something, somewhere, is missing,” he writes.

*

In the Middle Ages, an Irish monk sketched an island on a map and named it the Island of San Brandan. The island, it was said, had the power to emerge from, or submerge entirely within, the sea at the whim of the fates. It was illustrated next to St. Brandan himself, standing arms outstretched towards his namesake.

But the island did not exist. It was a work of fiction inspired by the fantastical stories of Johan de Mandeville, who wrote of griffins and cyclopes, headless figures whose faces peered out from their trunks, dog-men, of apples that fattened women just at the smell. And, it so happens, of disappearing islands in the middle of seas. 

These prophecies influenced geographers, who drew connections between the literary and the physical. They placed those magnificent worlds on maps without question. Their fantasies would dissolve in the shadow of the Enlightenment a few hundred years later, but the basis of cartography—springing from realms just beyond reach—would continue to be rooted in these tales. Wild worlds existed until they were disproved. The Island of San Brandan rested just to the west of the Canary Islands, halfway between there and the Azores, on maps and globes well into the 1500s.

Historians of science believe the first attempt to translate mythical land into concrete geography took place in the seventeenth century, by Scandinavians interested in Viking mythology. Soon, islands of the mind would be usurped by an explosion of geographical research, those pieces of land tracked on the trails of celestial navigators at the end of the nineteenth-century. But even they were tricked.

*

I once lived on an island that was in danger, twice in six months, of being flooded. Haida Gwaii is low-lying and an eight-hour ferry ride from the coast of British Columbia. Two large earthquakes had instigated the risk there of tsunami washing up on shore from Alaska, just to the north. I thought a few times about how tsunami survivors in the Philippines held onto the tops of trees as the tide swept them up. 

The futile precaution against this cold and watery death was to follow a tsunami evacuation route along the only major highway to the highest point on the island and wait out the warning with the rest of the residents. It was very apparent that the tallest part of the island was not tall enough. We were standing on the future ocean floor.

Would Haida Gwaii become unfound, erased by a surging wave? Would it be wiped off the map? An island can disappear in less than ten minutes, I learned. We’d all be dead in our cabins or on the road to safety.

In the end, the shaking served only to disconnect the hot springs in a national park. The ground shifted again, about a year later, and they sprung back. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, by the end of this century, various low-lying island states within the South Pacific and Indian Oceans could become totally immersed by rising waters. One day, the Republic of the Maldives could be just as “unfound” as San Brandan or Sandy Island. 

The disappearance of an island is a kaleidoscopic dissolving. When a chunk of land disappears, does it take with it its culture, language and history? Some have suggested that money be poured into a reconnaissance mission that would construct artificial islands to replace the sinking land. But does a state exist if its land is entirely built, not naturally appearing? Likewise, some international migration lawyers have suggested appropriating or accepting donations of land from other countries, plots onto which nationhood could be transferred. In this instance, because these countries are home to people, the Maldives can only truly be unfound on paper:  its identity and statehood will live on above water.

“Not only is it easy to lie with maps, it is essential,” writes Mark Monmonier in the first pages of his treatise How to Lie with Maps. “To portray meaningful relationships for a complex, three-dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper or a video screen, a map must distort reality.” When we look at maps, most of us, he argues have suspended disbelief for a moment, have trusted that the mapmaker knew their coordinates and their borderlines. “Because of personal computers and electronic publishing,” he wrote in 1996, “map users can now easily lie to themselves—and be unaware of it.” Our digital lines look sanctioned, but they are essentially our folk maps, etched by hand, snapped to a grid. 

In 2016, according to Google, a “bug” accidentally removed the labels for the West Bank and Gaza on Google Maps. When activist groups noticed, outrage ensued—a hashtag, #PalestineIsHere, was deployed and a petition was circulated to get Palestine “back.” “The move is designed to falsify history, geography as well as Palestinian people’s rights to their homeland,” read a statement from the Forum of Palestinian Journalists. Five months before the Forum had mounted their scathing criticism, a Change.org petition asked for 500,000 signatures to petition Google to put Palestine on the map.  Now, it’s demarcated with light dotted grey lines but remains un-labelled. Microsoft’s Bing maps label Palestine as a country.

Google Maps, globally our most ubiquitous cartographer, is—dangerously and admirably—partly crowdsourced, and so not immune to the ideological whims of political and social upheaval. Aiming to dispassionately track the world’s borders, Google Maps instead is a living and breathing document that’s easily altered in real-time. “This is not an issue that’s easily resolved,” says David Bodenhamer, a scholar of cartographical history and philosophy, of the political power behind the creation and maintenance of maps. “But Google has a commercial interest for everything that it does, and its main purpose is not so much to avoid doing evil… the imperative is pushing up against any interest that national governments might have in protecting certain things.” Google’s reliance on users to report shuttered restaurants and new contact information brings with it the enormous power to find or un-find a place.

“For years, archaeologists believed that the Arginusae islands in the Aegean Sea were the product of myth and storytelling. The Arginusae (now called the Garip) are located off the shore of Turkey, close to where the ancient Greek historian Xenophon pinpointed a sea battle between Athens and Sparta. His words pointed to three islands, but until 2014 one had been missing. On that island would have been the city of Kane—small but important along a Black Sea maritime trading route. In 2014, archaeologists drilled into the earth, finding in the depths the third. Once an island, it eventually became a peninsula, attached to the shore by a land bridge formed by erosion and earthquake debris.     

And so, the unfound had returned. “The notion of discovery is now a notion of re-discovery, things we thought had once existed and were then lost are now found again,” says Bodenhamer. He wonders if finding a once-lost island brings with it a stronger connection to Greek history and identity for the Greek people. The battle that took place from the port of Kane, for instance, was won by the Athenians who were then socked-in by storms and unable to save surviving soldiers whose ship had been damaged. Kane, home to bittersweet victory and defeat. 

“Maps may be flawed, but at least they are familiar,” writes the philosopher of science Larry Dossey. “And because they are familiar they make us confident.” The digital age is no different—Google Maps is a fallible god, the first place we turn for answers, our backbone on familiar and unfamiliar terrain. And yet, and yet: “We all had a giggle at Google,” said a scientist on board the Southern Surveyor, “as we sailed through the island.”

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Hazlitt by Eric Thurm - 1M ago

After the Parkland shooting, President Trump blamed the murders on violent video games. In practice, this meant hastily setting up a summit with executives from video game companies, members of congress, and representatives from conservative think tanks at which the president played an 88-second supercut of violence in video games including Fallout, Wolfenstein, Sniper Elite 4, and multiple titles from the Call of Duty franchise. After the video played, Trump reportedly turned to the assembled parties and said, “This is violent, isn’t it?” There were few, if any, actual policy options on the table, and it seems unlikely that the video game industry will take any of Trump’s suggestions. Which is to say, it was yet another installment in a long history of empty political controversy over games, and the latest iteration of an endlessly replicable and largely meaningless discourse.

In the era of mass shootings that has followed since Columbine, a recognizable pattern has emerged. Activists call for gun control measures while politicians respond that, actually, the shooting happened because of cultural decay exemplified by the shooter’s love of violent video games, or movies, or TV shows. (In the case of Columbine, a debunked rumor claimed that Eric Harris created custom high school levels for the game Doom.) Then, news outlets and “experts” push back, using social science research to “prove” that there is, in fact, no connection between violent games and gun violence. This has become the standard talking point in response to the argument against violence in culture: to completely deny the possibility that it might contribute to the strain of the national subconscious that perpetually asserts itself in blood. There are many, many other factors that contribute to the frequency of mass shootings—access to firearms chief among them—but they exist within a broader ecosystem of contributing factors, rather than on top of or before them.

People will tie themselves into ideological knots defending their stances on this cultural issue; even The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed arguing—to what audience?—that Antonin Scalia, of all people, would oppose the link between violent games and violent actions. (To be fair, American courts have repeatedly protected the existence of violent media as a form of expression: the Columbine victims’ families’ lawsuit against entertainment companies was dismissed by a judge.) And while Columbine occurred at a particular moment during the rise of now-omnipresent shooter games, it happened a few years after Joe Lieberman’s Mortal Kombat hearings, which led to the creation of the ESRB rating system.

America’s mass shooting epoch is new, but the specific arguments about the role of video games in generating real violence are an escalation of old, cyclical debates over the influence of culture on consumers. Writing in The Atlantic in 2013, Alexander Abad-Santos took this systemic view by articulating shooters’ obsessions with games as a “symptom” of deeper issues. Among those issues: depression, which Abad-Santos suggests may be comorbidly linked to playing video games—they exist in a vicious cycle. One could think of any number of other psychological or moral issues that might exist in a similar relation.

Abad-Santos describes these arguments as a “race to pin the blame,” which certainly captures the feeling of watching conservatives shout about games in the wake of a shooting. Frequently, pushback against calls for censorship (correctly) describe these crusaders as using video games as a scapegoat, putting up a smokescreen for a gun lobby happy to blame America’s mass shooting hobby on anything besides easy access to guns. (In 2012, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre literally described video game companies as “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows violence against its own people.”) But defenders put an enormous amount of time and energy into disproving any possible link between violent video games and violent actions. This effort is not only impossible, it has the effect of obscuring a much bigger issue and admittedly more difficult set of questions: Not whether culture can influence people at all, but how it does, and how we should respond to it.

Because of course it can—that’s the whole point of culture. If you’ve been moved by the sadness of Call Me By Your Name, repeated a joke from a book, or used the phrase “Sam and Diane” to illustrate and simplify the complexities of a real-life romantic entanglement, culture has acted upon you in some way. Even the commonly cited social science research suggests that there is a more pervasive, complex way of understanding the influence culture has on people than simply saying a movie or game can cause someone to act in a certain way. Writing for The Guardian, Katherine Cross summarizes: “What has been clear to social scientists for a long time is that the ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’ model of media influence is a fiction. They may influence passive behaviours such as stereotyping, but they absolutely do not cause active, violently antisocial behaviour like murder.”

People who instinctively deny the capacity for violent entertainment to contribute to violent actions—broadly speaking, the type of liberal who earnestly tries to respond to obviously disingenuous criticism with a set of numbers—are quick to recognize culture’s capacity to influence people in many other cases. The president’s brain has been rotted by cable news, and his election was in part the culmination of reality television and the twenty-four-hour news industry’s influence on American culture. (True.) Representation of marginalized people is valuable. (Also true.) It’s cool to wear things because Rihanna wore them. (Absolutely, one hundred percent true.) There are even cases where many people who otherwise resist any attempt to link culture and violent behavior are willing to admit that art might negatively affect people who watch it, as in cases of reasonable public outcry against works like Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper, which glorify not just violence, but the use of violence by the American military. One other example, that demands some regulation: depictions of smoking, which the MPAA seemingly does take into consideration—at least, sometimes.

Why, then, is it so difficult to admit that there might be something wrong with not just the amount of violence we’re exposed to, but also the way we’re exposed to it? Admitting the very possibility does not, of necessity, enjoin us to the conservative conclusion that video games are “really” the problem instead of guns, or inequality, or racism, or untreated mental illness, or any of the thousand institutional and systemic factors that produce alienation and pain. In an interview with The Outline, academic Alfie Bown puts it succinctly: “games like GTA create the appearance that there is a desire to do such things, whether we do them or not.” This is true of all culture, which stretches the imaginative bounds of what human life can and should be, even if that stretching does not happen in an especially “serious” direction. The existence of Grand Theft Auto gives us the potential to imagine an infinite, consequence-free crime spree. The existence of Fate of the Furious gives us the potential to imagine a chase between Vin Diesel, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and a submarine piloted by Charlize Theron.

Our decades of argument about violent video games, movies, and television shows has produced a full archive of denial, but it’s just one part of a broader conversation about culture and art’s potential to influence consumers, a topic that dates all the way back to Plato, whose work repeatedly cast aspersions on playwrights, musicians, and artists because their work could potentially corrupt the youth. (It’s easy to be dismissive of Plato’s concern with censorship, but he had at least some skin in the game—one of the crimes Socrates was charged with, and eventually convicted of, was corrupting the youth of Athens with his words.)

Culture, like most human actions and interactions, exists as a constant, chaotic series of feedback loops. Symbols—Batman, Master Chief, Carly Rae Jepsen—acquire meaning and force in part because they have been invested with it by people who then transmit it to others. The simple fact of acknowledging this power, again, does not require us to take any course of action other than continuing to be honest about our tastes, our judgments, and our sense of ethics. We protest or otherwise disparage politically objectionable works like Eli Roth’s airless, gleefully cruel Death Wish remake because they do have power—even if that power merely lies in making the unimaginably horrific seem bland and boring. And, of course, part of the influence of these works is a result of communicating the sensibilities of their makers—people who, as we are becoming ever-more aware, are frequently monstrous.

Blaming eruptions of tangible, physical violence solely on culture is obviously misguided at best and disingenuous at worst. If pressed, I suspect most people would agree that there is at least some cultural influence at work here—but I doubt they would be willing to say what, exactly, it was. For years, I found myself instinctively, reactively arguing in any and all situations that there was no reason to even have the discussion. And therein lies the problem. We may all be willing to admit that culture has some influence on people, and that that influence might not be especially salutary. But it’s rare for people to earnestly, enthusiastically, and honestly take the next step—identifying what culture has a bad influence, how that influence exerts itself, and how to avoid it—because that seems like playing on the turf of the zealots. Learning to speak this language, developing our taste and sensibilities and, yes, our moral awareness, until we can confidently say that something is bad for the soul, is of the utmost importance.

This is not an easy task. It requires a clear-sightedness that can be unpleasant at best and downright incriminating at worst. All of us love culture that is not strictly good for us—it’s part of being an embodied, frail, chemical-fueled human. Whether it’s The Walking Dead, The Real Housewives, or the collected works of Woody Allen, the task before people who care about culture is not to expunge anything we think might be bad for us. Doing so would be impossible, and even thinking of it as an option is part of a creep toward reactionary haze. The goal is to say why those things are bad, and if we continue to consume them anyway, then to at least admit that that is what we are doing. (Consuming mass media is, essentially, one big ethical cheat day.) The task before us, then, is to do honest and thoughtful criticism.

To start, this means being willing to agree that even meaningful, important art can potentially have an unpleasant effect on the soul, and that consuming such art (and even liking it) doesn’t make you or anyone else, of necessity, a bad person. It means acknowledging not just the text of a work by itself, but also the conditions under which it is consumed, and the people doing the consumption. Grand Theft Auto, played in isolation by someone already inclined to antisocial behavior, is more likely to contribute to an outburst of violence than Grand Theft Auto played by fans of open world games who just like driving around listening to the radio stations. And an obsessive player in Sweden will take away different things than an American, though they are both interacting with the same coded scenario—it’s hard to make these sorts of moral judgments, and doing so effectively requires being attentive to all of the different contexts that weave together into a single experience. And it means centering our work on how a work of art represents and asks us to engage with something, rather than simply on what is being depicted.

It would be impossible to account for all of these factors in a single sweeping piece of criticism, but that’s the point. The top-level debate about “violent video games” says nothing about this violent video game, whether that game is Doom, Halo, or Assassin’s Creed. There are absolutely games with more superficial gore that manage to present their subject matter in complex, ethically thoughtful ways—or, at least, more directly politically argumentative ones—and heavily pixelated, relatively bland ones that are far more insidious. (NRA: Practice Range was unceremoniously removed from the app store.) Talking about senseless murder in action movies doesn’t mean anything until it becomes a conversation about specific works.

Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, reportedly played video games for up to fifteen hours a day. Does the president know what games? And if Trump did know what games Cruz played, would he or anyone else engaged in our public conversation about mass shootings have the cognitive tools to effectively consider how those games influence and shape players? If we are committed to honesty, and to not being wrong-footed by bad-faith ideologues, we have to be willing to take up those questions ourselves, and to say that, for example, the Call of Duty series may consist of mostly cookie-cutter, interchangeable games that flatten violence—but that this doesn’t mean it’s capable of getting single-handed grip on someone’s mind.

Instead, it means that artists in all fields have an obligation to grapple more seriously with how they depict violence rather than avoiding the question, and to do so in a setting free from interlocutors like the president. “This is violent, isn’t it?” isn’t an open question, really. (It is.) But part of the answer to the bigger question—if we’ll ever stop finding ourselves in this situation of not being able to effectively talk about mass death—rests on whether we can start to do the work of asking how, and why.

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As a thirteen-year-old girl in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Barbra Streisand would spend her Saturday afternoons huddled in Loew’s Kings Theatre. It was a paradise. She couldn’t resist those comfy seats, air conditioning, gigantic ice cream cones, and double features. 

The movies allowed her to live out a fantasy the rest of her life couldn’t offer. Home was certifiably miserable. Her father died three months after her first birthday, and her mother Diana married a man, Louis Kind, who liked to berate her. He liked to call her ugly.

So, the movie theater was a refuge, insulating her from the merciless taunts thrown at her in school and at home. She vowed, as legend would have it, to have her name up on the marquee at any cost. “It was me up there and those men were pursuing me!” she would reportedly mutter to herself as she walked back home to the housing projects on Newkirk Avenue where she lived.

It worried those closest to her. Her mother, Diana, “couldn’t fathom why she wanted to be famous,” Streisand would later tell an interviewer.

But hers was a determination not even a mother could stifle. Maybe her mother’s worry just made her more determined.

It has been fifty years since Streisand, draped in a leopard and mink coat, coyly glanced at a mirror and uttered her first words on film: “Hello, gorgeous.” She’d say them again when she stepped foot on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April 1969. Her debut was a home run; she won an Oscar for Best Actress on her first try.

She would go on to make nineteen films throughout her career, directing three. The most recent of her film appearances is 2013’s The Guilt Trip, a mom-son road comedy in which she starred alongside Seth Rogen. The film’s distributor, Paramount, expected her to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, so much that it prematurely aired an advertisement proclaiming that Streisand was a nominee before the nominations were even announced. She was not nominated. Streisand did manage to get one nomination that season, though: a Razzie for Worst Actress.

Take it as a sign that Streisand’s career on film is a study in baffling asymmetry, bracketed by the highest and lowest possible distinctions that can be conferred upon anyone.

It’s easy to see why she divides critical opinion so sharply. Streisand performs in italics; she is, by design, incapable of receding. As a director, she puts herself where she believes she belongs: front and center. She can be a film’s greatest asset or its fatal flaw. To actress Anita Miller, an onlooker in Streisand’s early acting classes as a teenager, Streisand acted with the ferocity of “someone who had been starved.”

Miller was correct. In her best and worst performances, Streisand channels a palpable desperation to be liked. Her presence implies that she has been deprived of something vital somewhere in her life—nourishment, care, love. This quality can move audiences or grate on them. But she always projects something constant, knowable, unfluctuating. This is the marker of a true star.

Throughout her career, Streisand’s detractors have ambushed her with adjectives most of us wouldn’t want attached to our names: egomaniacal, controlling, self-absorbed, caustic, shrill, difficult. Perhaps this is an example of the anti-Semitism and sexism that run deep in American soil. Perhaps her own behavior warrants that reputation.

It says a lot about an artist’s power when she can inspire both such ferocity of devotion and spirited hostility. Her trajectory invites you to consider writerly clichés. She is the fulfillment of the American dream, the ugly duckling turned swan, the unlikely star. She demolished every odd stacked against her, giving America a story as easy to root for as it is to tear down. There are currents of subversion in her star persona. On screen, she is the misfit who normalizes her difference by constantly reminding us of it, toppling the very powers that sought to destroy her. Streisand inverted the predominantly WASP-oriented conceptions of female superstardom, offering, as an alternative, “that double whammy of Judaism and Brooklyn,” as biographer Neal Gabler once put it.

Gabler would speak of entering the very exercise of writing a biography of her with ambivalence about Streisand’s career, aware of her import yet unswayed to parrot the unceasing fandom she inspires. Yet he emerged from the pursuit fully converted to her charms.

There is something about Streisand on film that fosters this allegiance and tugs at our most basic sympathies, compelling us to rationalize the appearance of self-obsession. Fifty years ago, she asked us to see what she saw in herself, to believe in her. Some of us still do.

*

“I don’t know what other actresses do,” Streisand would say during the filming of Funny Girl in 1967. “Do they just sort of stand around … like mummies, get dressed, get told what to do, move here, move there? That can be pretty boring.”

She’d played the role of Fanny Brice nonstop on Broadway since 1964. What could her director, William Wyler, possibly know about the role that she didn’t? And so, she’d be fidgety on set, adjusting lights and getting angry when her costuming wasn’t finished in time for her to begin shooting. 

Streisand began filming Funny Girl in August 1967, at the tail end of a seven-year period during which she became America’s top-selling female singer. Born Barbara Joan Streisand in 1942—she dropped the second a in her first name in 1960—she left Brooklyn the minute she finished high school at the age of sixteen and moved across the East River to Manhattan’s Theater District.

Life wasn’t easy for her in those days. She got by on unforgiving odd jobs, from operating switchboards to working as an usher for The Sound of Music at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. But she pawed her way onto Broadway. She took acting classes. She worked the nightclub circuit and parlayed those stints into off-Broadway shows. She landed on Broadway, eventually, and knocked everyone’s socks off with a Tony-nominated supporting performance in 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale as a fifty-year-old Miss Marmelstein, a role Streisand played at nineteen. She signed with Columbia Records in 1962. By 1965, she would record three albums and win three Grammys. She guest-starred on The Judy Garland Show in 1963. In 1964, she would begin her wildly successful stint on Broadway’s Funny Girl as entertainer Fanny Brice. That same year, she signed a CBS contract for ten hour-long television specials. And her face, once an object of derision, landed on the cover of Time and Life Magazines and inside Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

It was quite a face, one unlike any America had seen before.

“Streisand came onto the scene and rewrote the rules of beauty,” biographer William Mann tells me. “She wouldn’t change her nose. She wouldn’t change her name. She was as unambiguously Jewish as you could possibly be. She would not compromise a single part of herself.” 

In Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2012), Mann traces her formative years before film, demonstrating how, for Streisand, Broadway was merely a pit stop to Hollywood. In conversation, Mann insists to me that Streisand has not quite gotten the respect she’s yearned for, and certainly earned the right to, in film.

“She’s always sought respect for something else [other than singing]—as an actress, as a director,” Mann tells me. “She has the most amazing voice of all time, yet she’d always say, I didn’t work for that voice. It just sort of came to be. I’ve worked at being an actress. I’ve worked at being a director.”

To Streisand, Mann explains, acting was more demanding than singing. It required restraint, discipline, effort. Acting was work.

*

Streisand challenged convention surrounding American female stars in cinema. 1967 was a watershed year, a moment of tectonic change in American movies. Filmmakers like Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) were injecting newer, more dangerous blood into a studio system creaking beneath its own ballast. Streisand was an agent of change.

“The late sixties were a moment when stars who didn’t look like movie stars of old—for instance, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate—were suddenly staking claim to the public’s attention,” Mark Harris, author of 2009’s Pictures at a Revolution, writes me. “Streisand was one of those stars, and she also exuded a kind of forthrightness—a comfort with her talent, with her voice, with her power—that was perfectly timed to the end of the studio system. Unlike many of the young actresses who had been rising in the decade before her, Streisand didn’t seem molded, shaped, or tamed by anyone. That was an important part of her appeal.”

In Funny Girl, Streisand imbues klutziness with majesty, giving the most minute of emotional inflections a sense of grandness. She even projects this in moments of humor. “That color looks wonderful with your eyes,” Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif) says to Streisand’s Brice, a total babe in lilac. “Just my right eye,” she quips. “I hate what it does to the left.”

Funny Girl is a classic star vehicle, the kind one may have found, say, a Susan Hayward in, once upon a time. Indeed, elements of Streisand’s persona recalled a bygone era in American cinema in this period of so many tidal shifts. Streisand both embodied these changes and pushed against them.

“Funny Girl was, in many ways, a classic star vehicle, but Streisand wasn’t a classic star,” Harris says. “Audiences weren’t used to seeing someone like her in an expensive, plushly appointed traditional studio musical. To take someone who, a decade earlier, might have been relegated to a career as comic relief or the heroine’s wisecracking best friend and put her at the center of a romantic musical was a revolutionary act, even if in its plot particulars and style, Funny Girl wasn’t a particularly revolutionary movie.”

Revolutionary or not, Streisand won the Oscar for Best Actress in a tie with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter and, afterwards, wandered through musicals built around her persona—Hello, Dolly! (1969), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)—where she was the main attraction. In Hello, Dolly! she was, at twenty-six, flagrantly miscast but still magnetic as Dolly Levi, written as a widowed matchmaker in 1890s New York. Carol Channing, an actress twenty-one years Streisand’s senior, had originated the role on Broadway. Funnily enough, Channing had also beaten Streisand out for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Hello, Dolly! in 1964.

The films were non-starters, financially and critically. Don’t blame Streisand; the American musical was in decline, considering the failure of all the musicals surrounding it, like 1969’s Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine, 1968’s Star and 1970’s Darling Lili with Julie Andrews. Not even America’s biggest star could save this bum genre. 

Evidence of Streisand’s growing range came with a triumvirate of comedies: 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat and 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and Up the Sandbox. She plays, respectively, a sex worker, a conwoman, and a Manhattan housewife who, in the midst of her third pregnancy, loses herself in surreal fantasies that include hooking up with Fidel Castro and aborting her baby. In each, hers is a magic that seems nearly impossible to deconstruct, because her energy is so singular, her comic timing note-perfect. “I think she has enormous range,” her Up the Sandbox director, Irvin Kershner, said of Streisand’s abilities. “I think she could do anything.”

Her second Oscar nomination for acting would arrive for 1973’s The Way We Were, Sydney Pollack’s atypical love story of a Jewish woman with Marxist politics and a white bread, dreamboat goy (Robert Redford) who first meet in college in the 1940s. At its heart, the romantic drama is treacly, its politics half-baked. Though it is just under two hours, the movie also feels quite long, zigzagging across eras with a lopsided sense of continuity.

The film itself has an undeniable pull largely because of Streisand, though. Katie Morosky is a consummate Streisand heroine, a character who contains what may be the fullest distillation of the Streisand persona in dramatic form. The Way We Were’s finale, in which Katie looks at Redford’s new shiksa girlfriend and proclaims, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell,” is a line that’s practically sewn into America’s shared cultural consciousness.

But there’s another scene that stands out even more. It’s just after she offers to have Redford’s character stay the night because he needs a place to crash, even though they haven’t hooked up yet; their attraction had heretofore been expressed in covert glances. Here, though, desire practically spills out of her as she begs him not to leave.

“You can’t, you can’t. I’ve got steaks and baked potatoes and sour cream and chives!” she wails, groceries in one hand, a bouquet of daisies in the other. “Salad and fresh-baked pie. I would’ve made pot roast—I make a terrific pot roast—but I didn’t know whether you’ve ever had pot roast, whether you like pot roast. Either way, it should’ve been made the day before. You can’t go yet! You’ve just gotta stay for supper. That’s all there is to it.”

Streisand approaches the scene with a near-comical sense of anxiety, running through her lines with the fury of an Olympic sprinter. She treats it as if Katie might just die if Hubbell doesn’t stay for dinner that night.

Unfortunately, Streisand’s best dramatic work would largely be behind her after The Way We Were. She lost the Oscar; in an earth-shaking upset, Glenda Jackson won, her second, for A Touch of Class.

Streisand’s next few films were middling. She followed The Way We Were with 1974’s For Pete’s Sake, a comedy where she was game and appealing, and then reprised the role that made her a star in 1975’s Funny Lady. Most of the films she made after For Pete’s Sake—Funny Lady, 1976’s A Star Is Born, 1979’s The Main Event—were Streisand vehicles where other passengers were basically nonexistent.

Stories of Streisand’s on-set difficulties, her tendency to war with her directors, grew more intense in this period. A Star Is Born was, in particular, a plagued production. “A Star Is Shorn,” a January 1975 cover of New Times Magazine declared, bearing an illustration of Streisand’s bald head. Inside was a scathing story that alleged Streisand had almost single-handedly turned the production, a remake of the 1937 movie that was also remade in 1954, into “Hollywood’s biggest joke.”

To make matters worse, just before its December premiere, the film’s aggrieved director, Frank Pierson, penned an extensive cover story for New West Magazine (and, later, a modified version for New York Magazine) titled “My Battles with Barbra and Jon.” The latter referred to Jon Peters, Streisand’s boyfriend who produced the film along with her. The story contained allegations of Streisand’s explosive temper. In the space of a few thousand words, Pierson confirmed every rumor about Streisand’s behavior as a megalomaniac.

The film was a smash success financially. But absent from A Star Is Born, and other performances in this period, is the sense of vitality and charge that made Streisand so unique and watchable. Even her fans were growing bored. “Again as Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand is no longer human,” Pauline Kael, an early Streisand advocate, would write in her review of Funny Lady. “She’s like a bitchy female impersonator imitating Barbra Streisand.” Hell, she herself was growing bored. “Her commitment was not one-thousand percent to the film,” her Funny Lady director Herbert Ross would say. “Funny Lady was virtually a movie that was made without her.” 

Something about the Streisand America had grown to know and love had changed. She hadn’t exactly flat lined, though; financially speaking, she reigned supreme throughout the decade, as critic Molly Haskell tells me. What drew audiences to her so continually? Maybe it’s the fact that Streisand was, in some skewed way, her era’s Doris Day, Haskell says.

Doris Day was code for that “creaky, sort of prurient cinema in the late fifties and early sixties [new filmmakers] were trying to get away from,” Haskell says. “Streisand was a persona. In a funny kind of way, she’s both Doris Day’s antithesis and an analogue. They both had fantastic musical gifts and began as singers, they both took naturally to the camera. They both had defined personas.”

Hollywood was changing even more aggressively into the late seventies. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wanted to get away from old-school Hollywood glamour with its stylistic flourishes, from careful and delicate framing to Vaseline lenses. With this shift came a total disruption of the conception of what a star could be, what a star looked like.

Streisand suggested the edginess of an outsider, yet there was something confident and brassy about her that held appeal for mass audiences. There was a touch old-school about her, too, her glamour.

For Streisand, like Day before her, came with her own persona and packaging. Audiences knew what they’d get once they stepped inside the theater and the lights dimmed, and that was reason enough to go to the movies.

*

“What the hell does Barbra Streisand know about directing or editing a movie?” The New York Daily News would ask in its pan of A Star Is Born. The production of that film had, per Pierson’s notorious cover story, been surrounded by rumors that she even insisted on directing portions of the film herself and demanded she receive co-director credit. “I’ve directed at least half of this movie,” she reportedly told Pierson. “I think I should have the credit for it, don’t you?”

She knew quite a bit about directing, it’d turn out. With Yentl, her 1983 directorial debut, Streisand demonstrated she could more than hold her own with the men who’d directed her before. Maybe she was better. 

Streisand had been directing herself in one way or another since 1968. Sure, she’d developed a reputation for tinkering and meddling with a director’s vision. “Barbra’s Directing Her First Movie,” a New York Magazine story from April 1968 by Joyce Haber joked. But she’d always felt she’d guided herself to her best work, her directors be damned. “I never thought about it back then,” she told Stephen Holden in 1991 around the time of the Prince of Tides’ release, “but I was always directing. I always saw how things should be.” 

She’d been fighting the itch to adapt Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” since she first read it in 1968. Streisand was utterly transfixed by this story of a shtetl girl in early 1900s Poland who wants to study the Talmud. She faced funding and distribution roadblocks, with Orion Pictures backing out after the titanic failure of 1981’s Heaven’s Gate, until United Artists stepped in.

There is something enchantingly preposterous about the notion of Streisand, 40 at the time of filming, playing a teenager in Yentl. But she affects anyway. Streisand exhibits a lightness of touch as a director, threading musical numbers with grace and ease into the film’s tangled story of a teenage girl who cosplays as a yeshiva boy. Her performance relies on trademark Streisand mannerisms, like line readings that scale from leisurely to frantic within seconds, but the performance is gentler than the ones she’d given in the years prior, even in 1981’s pleasant but unremarkable comedy All Night Long. 

Yentl suggested that perhaps Streisand knew something her previous directors didn’t, that she could tap into reserves only she knew she had. The film was a critical and commercial juggernaut.

Reviews were largely glowing, even from those who’d been hard on Streisand just years before. “In a Star Is Born and The Main Event,” David Denby would write in his 1983 New York Magazine review of the film, “Movies she starred in, produced, but did not direct, Barbra Streisand seemed to be transforming herself into a monster right before our eyes. The aggressive yet tender funny girl had become hard, blustery, and greedily insensitive.”

But Denby had exceedingly kind words for her directorial debut. To him, Yentl represented a comforting return to form. “[T]he sweetness and even delicacy of her finest moments as a young performer have returned, taken fresh root, and really flowered,” he would observe.

There’s a sense, within these reviews, that Streisand was coming into her own after years of creative stasis, reinvigorating her career. “In fact, it’s possible that Streisand’s directing ability … may transform her movie career,” Gary Arnold would write in The Washington Post. “Ironically, in the process of portraying a girl who aspires to a privileged position traditionally reserved for men, Streisand may have created a new professional and artistic role for herself.”

For Streisand’s critics, though, this wasn’t enough. Bashevis himself was no fan of the end result. “Miss Streisand is always present,” he would say in the New York Times. “While poor Yentl is absent.” She could not win. The Razzies pelted her with a nomination for

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What if you could look back and pinpoint the single person whose presence in your life most determined its trajectory, forever? For many people, this exercise isn’t too tough; most of us, whether we like it or not, come from somewhere. Most of us, if we’re lucky or if we are cursed, will fall in love. Yet in life, as in fiction, the kinds of relationships that one might reflexively anoint as the most impactful of all don’t necessarily align with the obvious and omnipresent. Often, the human collisions that shape who we become are fleeting figures who scrape and press at our psyches like a palette knife with an urgency absent in those connections written into us by body or blood.

Such is the central relationship in Meg Wolitzer’s latest, long-awaited novel The Female Persuasion (Riverhead). In it, shy college freshman Greer Kadetsky encounters Faith Frank, a sort of parallel universe Gloria Steinem who has become a Grand Dame figurehead of second wave feminism (Frank’s answer to Ms., in the novel, is a magazine cheekily named Bloomer). As Frank reinvents herself upon the collapse of her iconic, yet woefully outdated, rabblerousing rag, Kadetsky—naïve but determined—sets upon the course that will take her exactly where she needs to go, and where she may never have imagined.

The novel’s publication seems fortuitously timed. While the #MeToo era has brought with it discussion of workplace sexual harassment and the everyday predation by (usually) men of (usually) women, it has also raised a heightened awareness of the generational differences between women’s attitudes. Present day conversations have produced concrete examples for not only a generation gap, but an evolution in modern feminist perspective. In a perceptive essay for Shondaland published earlier this year, author Glynnis Macnicol writes, “The Gen Gap, naturally, is not new to me. I’m just not used to being on this side of it.” Indeed, inter-generational conflict and the spectre of progress weigh prominently in The Female Persuasion, whose characters endeavour on their respective roads forward with perhaps unexpected results.

Kelli Korducki: Can you talk a bit about what prompted you to build this novel around, specifically, an inter-generational feminist mentorship?

Meg Wolitzer: I was interested in looking at the idea of a person you might meet when you’re young who changes your life forever; and I was also compelled by ideas around female power and influence. As I thought about all of this, I got excited about how these ideas could braid together, and so my story that involves inter-generational feminist mentorship came about.

In terms of this book’s release, do the timing of Me Too, Time’s Up, and related conversations feel like a fortuitous fluke to you as an author? I ask because I could see how it might also be frustrating to watch one’s parallel, self-created and self-contained universe interpreted alongside the news cycle.  

I’ve been writing this book for a few years, and it is definitely being published at a heightened moment. I like the fact that that gives me a chance to have conversations about ideas around female power and misogyny, among other subjects. In the midst of all of this, since of course the book is a novel and not non-fiction, I’m also enjoying continuing to talk about its characters and story, and about novels in general. In this time of the 24-hour news cycle and all the “hot takes” out there, I have jokingly said I am the master of the warm take. 

The Female Persuasion certainly engages with the criticism that second-wave feminists tend to receive online—among them, accusations of being rich, white, and insufficiently progressive—but ultimately presents us with a sympathetic, if imperfect, representative of that cohort in Faith Frank. What were you hoping for readers to take away from that character and the dynamics of her relationship with Greer?

For me, I really need to know my characters and explore them in all their human dimensions, as opposed to punishing them for their limitations. And these characters do indeed have limitations and imperfections, like all people. What I like to do when I write novels is repeatedly try to show what it’s like: being a particular person, or living in a particular moment.

I thought you really nailed the small sillinesses of feminist branding, past and present. “Bloomer” and “Fem Fatale”—the second- and third-wave feminist publications referenced, respectively, in the novel— seem to strike at the heart of how we try, extremely awkwardly, to package our movements in ways that become totally goofy and replaceable in retrospect. What do you think?

Well, there’s a playfulness in those choices I made in the book, of course. In all arenas, it’s always startling how quickly virtually everything new that’s introduced into the culture—everything named or pronounced or created—can seem self-conscious or dated.

Through the course of the novel, your four characters set out to do some things and, instead, succeed at others. What drew you to this type of narrative trajectory?

I am interested in following different characters as a way of cutting a wide swath through a story, letting it breathe and feel expansive. No one’s life is a straight road, so it made sense to me that my characters would end up with different experiences from the they had thought they would have.

A recurring theme in the novel is the idea that the next generation is expected to surpass the previous one—the immigrant kid advancing beyond his parents’ station, the daughter of transient stoners taking up the cause to save womankind—but it’s paralleled by an implication that the younger generation must also work to measure up to the previous generation, in perhaps a different and more fundamental way. Can you elaborate a little on this—or alternately, tell me if my interpretation is totally off?  

I definitely am interested in the interplay between generations. For me it’s not so much that I hoped to make fixed statements about the generations, but instead explore the relentless tides of movement and slippage that affect all of us. 

Were you ever a Greer? A Faith? With whom and when, and did the experience factor into your writing of this book?

I do try for invention with all my characters. I like to get to the point at which it feels as if they are people in the world, and not just in the world of my head. That said, it’s important to try to know, and really inhabit, all the characters, so that the things they do and say feel natural and even inevitable.

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