Within the first minute of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fifth season finale, the show’s protagonist Detective Jake Peralta asks his colleagues to threaten a private citizen. It’s his wedding day, and his bride-to-be’s suddenly stained veil needs to be dry-cleaned ASAP. When Jake entreats Detective Rosa Diaz and Sergeant Terry Jeffords to use force to get it cleaned, Jeffords insists, “We’re not going to abuse our power.” “Of course not!” Jake pointedly exclaims “We’re good cops!” (Emphasis his.)
This episode, indicative of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s series-long anxiety and ambivalence over being a cop show, could have been its last: The show was canceled by FOX in mid-May but picked up for a sixth season by NBC just over a day later, in part due to an outpouring of support on social media that included pleas from high-profile fans like Guillermo Del Toro and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Facebook posts, tweets, and essays lauded everything from the show’s stars, to its representation of gay and bisexual characters, to the way it thoughtfully triangulated its appeal, slowly paring away the initially disturbing aspects of the show in response to viewer feedback—notably, Detective Charles Boyle’s early, creepy obsession with Diaz.
I’ve liked Brooklyn Nine-Nine since it premiered, and I’m glad I’ll be able to watch more of it. Andre Braugher’s deadpan comedic timing as Captain Holt is fantastic, Stephanie Beatriz is hilarious as the tough, too-intense Diaz, and I’m even a fan of Andy Samberg’s goofy mugging. The show has assembled an excellent, likable ensemble. But the brief window in which the public thought it had been canceled raised questions about the show’s legacy, and whether there were elements worth scrutinizing. While many fans bemoaned the loss of the show (and its cast, one of the most diverse on network television), others took issue with its positive depiction of police. The latter cohort raised a question worth asking: Is now really the time to be telling a story about “good cops”?
The persistence of cop shows is itself unsurprising. Crime is a common storytelling device for a reason: Each incident presents a new problem for characters to solve, and, in many cases, for viewers and readers to do so along with them. Also, many Americans still love cops; NCIS remains a ratings juggernaut, and NBC will renew Law & Order: SVU until Mariska Hargitay has to solve the heat death of the universe. But elsewhere, police procedurals have been in decline: the CSI franchise has concluded, every other Law & Order spinoff is long gone, and Dick Wolf’s follow-up franchise of procedural shows set in Chicago has consciously expanded beyond law enforcement.
“Is now really the time to be telling a story about ‘good cops’?”
Broadly speaking, detective stories have adapted along with the times; locked-room mysteries giving way to the existential squishiness of noir, the “grittiness” of urban cop dramas, and the pop psychology of serial killer narratives. But Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not just the rare police comedy—Barney Miller, its spiritual ancestor as a funny cop show, aired back in the mid-1970s. More than any cop show that preceded it, Brooklyn Nine-Nine debuted in a world gripped by growing awareness of mass incarceration and police brutality.
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Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered in 2013, one year before Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, an incident that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement and exploded the rising public profile of American police violence (particularly among well-off white communities that had been unaffected by it). Five years later, large swaths of the American public, particularly young people, are, correctly skeptical of or hostile to law enforcement agencies, from the cruel, inhumane ICE to the unchecked, opaque NSA to an FBI that jails people for being “black identity extremists” while largely ignoring a growing white nationalist movement.
Grappling with the rotten core of American policing might be too much to ask of a sitcom, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine has invited these conversations, repeatedly prodding at the open wound at the center of its premise. In one episode, Sergeant Jeffords is racially profiled by another detective and loses his chance at a possible promotion after filing a complaint—but he goes right back to being the good-natured sergeant in the next episode. (Holt claims the cop will be less likely to profile in the future, but even multiple lawsuits haven’t successfully deterred the NYPD from dropping violent, racist officers.)
When Holt, who became a captain relatively late in his career because of his consistent marginalization as a gay, black cop, describes himself as a “good soldier,” it feels inspiring in some ways to watch him claim value for himself that other have not. But there’s also an element of tragedy to Holt’s determination; he has devoted his life to an institution that, as Jeffords finds out, is willing to betray him in an instant.
One of the running plots of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s fifth season follows Holt’s candidacy for New York’s police commissioner job. His main opponent Olivia Crawford, played by Allison Tolman, withdraws her candidacy so that the two can avoid splitting the vote against John Kelly, the white man up for the job. Kelly, a fictional specter of the white male establishment, evokes David Caruso’s NYPD Blue character of the same name—and thereby the history of American cop shows. But in 2018, this name also calls to mind former NYPD commissioner and noted racist Ray Kelly, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a man who recently justified separating children from their families at the border by saying they’d be sent to “foster care or whatever.”
But however self-aware Brooklyn Nine-Nine may be about the complexities of its premise, the precinct serves primarily as a venue for an otherwise very goofy, well-written workplace sitcom. (In 2015, I wrote about the show’s delightfully dumb, expertly handled physical comedy.) The relationships between the characters could map onto pretty much any office—it’s a sitcom that happens to be about cops, rather than the other way around, which makes sense when you consider that the show was created by Michael Schur and Dan Goor, two of the people behind The Office and Parks & Recreation. And like Parks & Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is determinedly optimist in its storytelling; characters lose their jagged edges and together become a well-functioning machine over time until it becomes impossible to imagine a version of the show in which they don’t all actualize their wildest dreams—simply by virtue of being decent people. It’s a fantasy in more ways than one.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s biggest sin is that it treats policing like a career, simply another job that puts demands on individual people, rather than an institution bigger than any of its characters.”
Brooklyn Nine-Nine wants us to imagine that everyone in the Nine-Nine is a good cop who would never abuse their police power, unless it was for a funny joke about the Backstreet Boys or to get a wedding veil cleaned. TV asks us to believe a lot of implausible things, of course, but in the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine the hardest pill to swallow is the idea that the NYPD as an institution could be fixed or redeemed by the good work and personal integrity of a few honest cops. No amount of good-natured hi-jinx or emotionally frank conversations can solve the investiture of the state’s monopoly on violence into an institution that rewards power-hungry assholes with minimal supervision and fewer consequences for their bad behavior. If Holt wins the race and becomes commissioner, he’ll be heading a department where police unions call defenses of the Fourth Amendment as a “disgrace,” and officers kill unarmed, disabled black men or rape teenagers in holding cells while claiming the sex was consensual.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s biggest sin is that it treats policing like a career, simply another job that puts demands on individual people, rather than an institution bigger than any of its characters. I love the show’s optimism, too, but I wonder what it would look like for a cop show to follow through on a commitment to interrogating the contradiction at its heart—or, better still, one that made its characters actively interested in trying to answer questions about the nature of policing outside of the bounds of very special episodes. What would it look like for the well-worn DNA of the American police procedural—and, specifically, Schur and Goor’s idealism—to be applied a show about, say, a Larry Krasner type, someone consciously trying to reform the American judicial system from the inside by dismantling it? I want to watch more Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but I’d rather live in a world where there’s no reason for it to exist.
Let’s begin with the snake. It was a rattlesnake, medium-sized, a nice long rattle the color of wheat. We found it sunning itself on the dirt path when Brandon and I led the kids back from the river. Brandon and I were both 20, in charge of six kids, aged seven to fifteen, who’d chosen to leave the main camp for a week at an outpost a half-hour hike away. We had neither pedagogy nor schedule. I led art projects. Brandon taught the kids to sing After the Gold Rush. The kids made lunch with food we’d carted in milk crates. The afternoon that we first saw the snake, we’d been swimming naked and were walking back barefoot in clothes that were warmed from lying in the sun. We gave the snake a wide berth, but we were nervous: clearly it lived near us.
I’d love to describe this camp to you, but I’ve found it nearly impossible to do so. If the person I’m talking to has also attended summer camp and loved it, she interrupts to tell me about hers, speaking both quickly and vehemently as if attempting to convince me of the superiority of her experience. If the person I’m talking to hated or didn’t attend camp, she interrupts to say, in a tone of finality: I’m not a camp person. At this point I can become unpleasantly shrill. Mine was not a normal camp, I insist. It was wild.It was—I sometimes dare this word—utopian. Her head shakes: I’m really not a camp person.
The only way a camp can be spoken about is by two people who’ve attended the same one. This is not so much a conversation as a mythic reconstruction. It’s best to leave them to it and walk away quietly. Because a beloved camp is nothing but myth. It’s not the songs or lanyard-making that keep us talking about it long after we’re grown. It’s the egoic relief of being part of a group. It’s the elevation of mundane actions into rituals. It’s the metamorphosis of a few acres of forest into holy land, of counselors into deities. It’s a lie told again and again until it becomes truth.
Before I went to camp, I longed for camp. That is, I longed to escape my nuclear family with its sad Sunday afternoons. I would read books about early American utopian communities where people trembled with god in the Adirondacks and about kibbutzim where the children all lived together and the adults harvested grapes. My favorite book when I was 14, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, described an experimental boarding school in midcentury England where the students made the rules, choosing whether to study, whether to have sex. I desperately wanted to go to Summerhill. Would I choose to have sex? Would I choose to study? I was certain I’d be a different person there: Less afraid and less bored and knowing how to kiss.
From all of the books, I understood that nature was the necessary catalyst for this type of personal transformation, but only certain types of nature. Not the nature found in suburban Santa Monica, where I lived, but some desert arbor or verdant gully or British moor. And so, when I was 14 and attended a promotional screening of a home movie about a back-to-nature camp in the mountains of northern California, I saw it as the next best thing to Summerhill. Since the movie was old, from the early-70s, everything was washed in the same faded colors as photos of my early childhood; the long-haired counselors resembled my first views of my mother. I begged to go, sure that somehow time travel would be involved and I’d be welcomed into a hippie communal bliss that would nullify the pains of eighth grade.
“I was 14 and I was turned on by the very wind. I was turned on by camp, that potent mixture of ideology, nature, and sex.”
The camp was indeed a paean to the past. We slept outside, did ranch chores, square danced, sang folk songs. But the kids came from the 80s, with their Swatches and MTV references and social strata, and since I’d arrived halfway through a four-week session, they all knew each other and ignored me. I was precisely as miserable and self-conscious as I was at school. Even worse, I was frightened of the very nature I’d longed for. What might it catalyze? Only the transformation from life to death. So plentiful were the ways I might die here! Bucked from a horse. Struck by lightning. Drowned in the river. Slipped off a cliff. Bitten by a rattlesnake. Having begged for this unstructured, Summerhillian time, I spent it feeling guilty for wasting my parents’ money on a delusion; I used paper from the art shack to do the math, dividing the expense of 14 days into hours and then into minutes in order to calculate exactly how much each 60-second increment of my unhappiness was costing.
And that might have been it for me and summer camp. In the future, I would have shaken my head when friends described their camps: I’m not a camp person. I would never have had a recurring dream about trying to reach a mountain valley in northern California, never written a novel about a utopian summer camp, if I had not been sitting alone under an apple tree (truly, it was this Edenic!) at the end of that first week, alone and embarrassed and trembling with homesickness. Two counselors came up to me, a man and a woman. They told me that they thought, from the way I was sitting there, that I might like to join them at an outpost for a week.
There were five of us kids, chosen and removed and then stuffed full of myths, as if the counselors could tell that the source of our loneliness was a lack of narrative. Each night we stayed up late while they read to us from a book of cosmologies, stories of the infinite and sublime across cultures. On my second day, I learned a different kind of myth: while hiking behind the 15-year-old boy, the female counselor explained to me how she knew that he’d fucked, how his experience showed in the way he moved his hips.
That night I lay on the warm dirt, listening to a Hopi creation story, looking up at a glut of stars, the mountains like dark animals, my head on the lap of a girl I wanted to be, my fingers just centimeters from those of the boy who had fucked, and I wanted all of it. The girl, the boy, the night. I wanted to fuck a mountain. It all seemed possible. I was 14 and I was turned on by the very wind. I was turned on by camp, that potent mixture of ideology, nature, and sex.
When I returned home a few days later, I announced that I belonged in the wilderness now. I had to go back immediately! Camp had changed me entirely! I couldn’t believe my family didn’t see this.
The American summer camp was invented precisely to foster this sort of metamorphic ecstasy. Toward the end of the 19th century, teachers, clergymen, and physicians—that is people in the profession of worrying about kids—became very worried indeed. Modern city life, they feared, with its ease and noise and stultifying confinementwas creating weak and lazy kids. If these children grew into wimpy adults, the very stanchions of civilization would erode! The cause, they determined, was industrialization (and, I’m guessing, immigration); the cure was camp. Send the kids—well, at least the white, weak, wealthy boys—to live as Americans used to, in tune with the cycles of nature on farms or in the wilderness frontier, and watch them turn strong and wild.
In other words, camp was born from a particularly American myth of a simpler, Arcadian past, a myth that elides the horrors of slavery on farms and the slaughtering of Native Americans on the frontier, a myth that assumes white maleness.
Camp historians (they exist!) explain that these early American camps relied on an understanding of nature as dichotomous to home. Home was artificial and harmful; camp was real and natural. Over the past 150 years, as the dawn of modernity has turned into the fetid afternoon of postmodernity, many camps have changed their purpose. Instead of promising personal transformation, theater camps and computer camps and camps as posh as country clubs promise to transform college applications. But in the back-to-nature camps, the camps about which some besotted camper might use the descriptor “utopian,” the Arcadian myth remains strong. These camps rely on the communal desire to leave the city for an imagined Eden, to get back to Woodstock, and to become different people there: all of us less afraid, less bored, and knowing how to kiss.
So when I told my parents that I didn’t belong in Santa Monica anymore, camp was having its way with me. Did camp actually change me? I believe it did, just not into a wilderness adept. It changed me into a writer. But first I had to wash thousands of dishes and confront a rattlesnake.
At 16, unable to pay for camp, I got a job in its kitchen. A camp kitchen is a perfect vantage point from which to observe the construction of a myth. I could see how camp obscured class distinctions. Stripped of their possessions, none of the campers were coded as wealthy. They all wore the same dirty tee-shirts, ate the same pb and j. And yet, we were working for their leisure. I could see as well how the camp rules, which were presented as a moral necessity, the only way to protect the sanctity of camp from the modern world, were actually quite arbitrary. While the campers slept, we talked on the phone, listened to music, ate jello mix with our fingers, did everything forbidden.
“Wasn’t it only a matter of time before my fear unmasked me, revealing me as the girl standing awkwardly outside the group, afraid of everything?”
At the end of my second summer on the kitchen crew, the camp director drove me to the bus station two hours away. Like everyone, I was enamored of this handsome, weathered man who could silence a field of chittering kids just by standing in front of them. He was camp embodied, a man out of time, untouched by fashion. And yet, a few minutes into our drive he nonchalantly turned into a normal guy. He handed me a pile of classic rock cassettes and asked me to choose one, but before I could, he chose for me. You’ll love it. He sang along, off-key. He told me that he really wanted to buy some wheatgrass juice before dropping me off. I’m way into wheatgrass juice, he said, sounding just like a mortal.
The next summer, when I returned as a counselor, I worried about making my own transformation from human to counselor. I knew that I had much of the necessary attributes. I was a natural zealot, but I lacked something essential. I remained freaked out by the violent potential of nature, unsure I could protect my campers from all the ways they might die here. Wasn’t it only a matter of time before my fear unmasked me, revealing me as the girl standing awkwardly outside the group, afraid of everything?
I’d been a counselor for three years when Brandon and I were put in charge of an outpost. We saw the snake twice more on our way back from the river, although never near our campsite. At dusk on the fourth day, Brandon took the older kids to clear poison oak from the trail. I stayed behind with the younger girl and boy. The boy was stepping onto the wooden cooking platform when he screamed. There, stretched out at the threshold as if to block us, was the snake. Its tail twitched, began to hum. I shouted at the boy to move. But he froze, the snake moving toward him. I grabbed the shovel from the side of the lean-to and with one thrust chopped off its head. When Brandon returned, he skinned it. The snake drooped thinly over the fire, shrinking as it cooked.
I’ve told this story for 20 years. Just a few days ago, I thought: What a great essay it would make! I wrote a book about a transformative summer camp, and now I’ll describe my real camp, how it transformed me from a frightened girl into a snake killer.
Essays, however, rarely obey their authors. In the course of writing this one, I’ve come to realize that I have no idea if this story is true. I remember the smooth wood of the shovel, but then again, I’ve held many shovels. I remember Brandon skinning the snake, and I remember chewing its meat. I remember telling this story, and I remember my husband saying that it was his favorite story about me.
I don’t remember the shovel making contact with the animal. I don’t remember the head severed from the body. Was there blood? I remember touching the needle-points of the fangs, but only much later. I remember holding the rattle in my palm, light as a dried leaf. Did I really kill the snake? Or did I make up that story to impress someone in college, and after enough retellings it became truth?
I fear that’s it. I’m guessing it was Brandon who killed it. Or the camp director, visiting us at dusk.
But maybe I killed it and didn’t kill it at the same time.
What I mean is this: There’s a reason some of us long for camp, years after we’ve gone. I’m not sure it’s only because of the carefulness of its myth, its watertight wonder, its true Arcadian promise. Maybe we long as well for the carelessness of the myth of camp. The way it shows its construction. The way we can walk right into it.
The teachers, clergymen, and physicians were right to worry about kids, but not necessarily because of urbanity’s moral and physical pollutants. We should worry about kids raised in a country reliant on a myth that doesn’t serve any of us, a myth of a happier past and the true Americans who lived free amid nature. But camp with all its gorgeous and unsatisfactory myth-making can help us see a myth’s false promise. It can help us learn how to hold two contradictory truths at once—and if anything might save civilization, that might be it. The camp director is both a god and an annoying man. The kitchen is a drudgery and a sanctuary. Camp is real and artifice.
Did camp change me? Definitely. It turned me into a liar, which is to say a novelist. It taught me the power of a story, how to construct it, how to expose its contradictions. It made me want to create a world, to have that world be flawed, and to love it anyway.
Let’s say I killed the snake. Doesn’t that make a better story? A better life? In the 20 years since, I’ve rarely been so brave. I’ve hidden under trees at the sound of faraway thunder. I’ve hidden in the bathroom at parties. I’ve hidden from ambition, from adventure. But all along I’ve known myself to be a snake killer, too.
Why should it be a man who killed the snake? Why not Eve herself? Eve alone under the apple tree. Eve turned on by the mountains. Let her kill the snake to save the boy. Let’s say that it’s a myth and let’s love it anyway.
I’ve been ill for a few years, mostly bedridden. While there is reason to hope I’ll find some form of recovery in the next year or so, it’s not a given—and in any case, I want to cherish my life as it is today. I am writing you because I don’t know how to do that.
I’m a writer, but mostly unable to write. Such a huge part of my identity has been ripped from me. Many days I’m simply unable to think over or through the physical pain. However difficult, satisfying, tedious, or inspired, writing was always the nucleus around which my life and my sense of purpose and self-worth orbited. Now I feel scattered, the parts of me disparate—some of them having drifted away altogether. I feel alienated from who I was and who I am. Often, I feel alienated from the world outside my apartment, which I rarely leave.
I’m grateful to be able to maintain the relationships that matter most to me. In fact, my marriage and closest friendships have only deepened through my illness. Previously independent to a fault, I’ve learned a humbler way of relating to others. I value community, love, and friendship more than ever. I’ve learned to ask for and receive help, and I’m especially eager to help others—because I care deeply, I certainly have the time, and doing so makes me feel like my life is worth something. I’ve become a better listener, quicker to forgive. I have a heightened awareness that there are so many experiences that cannot be fully appreciated unless I’ve lived them, no matter how much imagination or empathy I may have, and I’ve become more sensitive in the way I offer support to people going through profound changes (whether becoming a new parent, losing someone close to them for the first time, facing the end of their life, finding their own path into adulthood, etc.).
I do all I can to find and instill meaning and to be grateful for whatever wisdom and growth this long illness has given me—yet I can’t stop fixating on what it’s taking away. I cry almost every day for what I’m losing. If I don’t write (which is most days), I feel like I’m wasting my life. Serious illness makes life seem shorter than ever, and it’s swallowed so much time and aged me so much; as a result, all that I hoped to accomplish has been whittled down and clarified and underscored. Writing, traveling, and becoming a parent are currently out of my reach, yet feel more urgent than ever.
My questions is: How do I accept this illness and not being able to write—a huge part of what makes me who I am? Why does writing define me when I also cherish my marriage and friendships so much? Instead of being angry and living so often in grief, how can I dwell in a state of gratitude for the many wonderful people in my life and the good qualities that I retain? Or should I accept that life is a mixed bag, and I’m in a gray zone of some kind—holding the good along with the bad?
There is so much to cherish and admire about your letter. There’s so much to mull over, to think about, and to save for later when one needs courage and determination. It’s easy to look up to you. You have been brave, and you have, in this letter, made bravery seem right at hand. The paragraph that catalogues some of the good that has come from your illness is one of the best such pieces of writing I have encountered recently (“In fact, my marriage and closest friendships have only deepened through my illness”). It is alchemical in intent, this paragraph, and manages its transmutation through simple determination. It changes your circumstances by describing your circumstances in detail. The fact of observation, as in the quantum world, changes the thing observed.
But the main thing about the letter is: the letter is written! Despite your difficulties writing, you did manage to write this letter to me, describing at some length your inability to write. Apparently some writing can take place, and even if this is a minor amount of work from your point of view, the letter, after all, was the beginning of the 18th century novel. The letter was the origin of prose storytelling during the Enlightenment. Letters, if you take Richardson as a starting point, or Fielding, are a way to signify the genuine complexities of intimate contact, but with the reflective distance that Derrida ascribes to Poe’s famous “Purloined Letter.” The letter is intimacy and reflection at once. You have written a letter, that is, and it has been correctly sent to me, its recipient, and thus you are able to get a letter through. From letter writing may come great things.
“If everything is poignant in just the way your letter is poignant, if everything can tell us something beautiful and important about what it means to be alive, then there is no particular need for ‘high literature.’ ”
And yet: I don’t want to get hung up on the fact of your letter, its materiality, because that’s just one way to think about what you have done by writing of your struggle. I want to talk about writing itself, and what it means, really, to be able to write. To put it another way, I take your difficulty not to be about the physical inability to write—though I understand your pain and disability, and do not wish to minimize these. But I understand your wish to be about writing in a certain way. Your letter is, in part, about having a conception of what writing means. In part, Anonymous, you are saying that mostly it is books that count. Or: the long form. If, in this view, your disability is such as to make typing at any length impossible, what kind of writer are you, but, for example, a writer who is falling away from a normative idea of writing as a thing that is contained between covers. It is totally reasonable to have this conception, because the world supports it, ratifies it, and does not often think about alternatives.
But what if books and their cachet, the publicity machinery, and the opinions of others, have nothing to do with writing? Or are only one way of doing this thing called writing? It’s at least worth asking this question. It’s at least worth the thought experiment. What if writing, most importantly, has little to do with barometers of the work that are primarily mercantile?
Writing is a kind of mark-making, that is what I would like to propose, and a wrestling with language, broadly construed, wrestling with codes, that does not have to be between covers. Writing is a trace of self, a remainder, a reminder, of self, for the time when self is no longer here. The limitations of this mark-making, in instances when the writer is not at liberty to roam across the page in this way that involves covers, a dust jacket, etc., are not really limitations, unless you understand yourself to have some baseline minimum that is non-negotiable about what constitutes the work.
If we expand what writing is, so that writing meets us where we are, then it begins to acquire a flexibility and generative value that is much richer and more varied than the pages between the covers. The physically afflicted and challenged, in this view have infinitely more opportunities than we originally imagined them to have—if writing is understood more broadly to be mark-making or the remains of mercantile capabilities.
For a long time, Anonymous, I taught writing to art students at various schools, and I always really loved doing this work. The reason I loved it was that art students had no idea how to write, in most cases, and were often very afraid to undertake to do it at all. They had scriptophobia. The first assignment I often gave them, in recent years, was to use the predictive writing feature of their phones, and with this predictive feature turned on, make a text simply by choosing whatever came up in the little prompt box of possible words to select. This often produces a fine result. I’ll give you an example, right now:
I’m glad to see that justice
Has a United Wise man.
Come now and the
Defense of Kansas
Will bring the money—
Zone out there;
Everyone should love
The new version.
This poem was just produced by my phone with minimal cerebral activity, in the time it took to type it. Am I the author? I’m not sure. It may be that my subconscious is the author. I will leave it to exegetes to parse these differences. My point, however, is this: the literary act, in the final analysis, does not have a specific shape. It’s a field of communications and expressions of self. It is about mark making, and it is about language construed in the broadest possible way. The cave paintings in France are a literary act, the Roman graffiti of the second century is literary, the poems made of refrigerator magnets are literary.
Given that this is the case, that the mark making of a literary sort is just as valid as a “book,” whatever that word means now, we should, ideally, come to understand that a letting go of the book form is not settling. It is meeting the creative act where it can actually be practiced. It is transformative labor of the feasible. There is nothing that any of us must produce, there is only the things we make by sacrificing specific types of ambition, and contenting ourselves with the what-might-actually-be. I could, as of today, continue only with predictive typing process-oriented poems (which do bring me a lot of joy), and you could choose some entirely abstruse method of production that involves blowing into a tube. I use this example because it resulted in Hawking’s Brief History of Time.
If everything is poignant in just the way your letter is poignant, if everything can tell us something beautiful and important about what it means to be alive, then there is no particular need for “high literature,” or, at least, the distinction between the high and the low is not meaningful in all cases, or even in most cases. Nor is the distinction between the genres terribly meaningful. Which means, Anonymous, that you can do whatever your body will allow you to do, however it will allow you to do it. You could draw three green lines on a blank pad with one of those extra-large crayons, and I would be convinced of the value of the work, actually, especially in context of your predicament.
A lot, as you correctly suggest, is lost in chronic illness. And your life today is not your life before. These are incontrovertible facts. But we do not require of your writing that it be exactly as it was before—no one, not even the most able bodied writer, remains static in one approach—nor that your writing share the concerns of before, nor that its themes are the themes of before. On the contrary, I am most interested in the complex you of this very moment. And I am interested in the writing of the you of this very moment, writing to be understood as mark-making and an honest gesture in the direction of depicting or cataloguing what you feel and who you are capable of being now.
In truth, your letter is all the things you ask me for. It’s very well composed, and beautiful, and poignant, and much more accepting than you say you are. One could make the argument that your next work should in fact be made of such letters. Which leaves only one last query from your letter: how to accept?
Sometimes acceptance is impossible, and that is human, and all you can do about that is be patient. However, on the days when there’s a flickering of awareness, here are some possible routes to self-acceptance, which is at the heart of your request of me: watch a cardinal or a video of a cardinal, eat a salad that has fresh mint in it, rejoice in Richard Straus’s “Four Last Songs,” think about a painting by Mark Rothko, look out a window, look out the same window at a different time of day and in a different seasons, support a friend in whatever way is useful, sleep in, pet a house cat, listen to the room tone, say a prayer, in whatever way is meaningful, make your own list, and append it to the above. Gratitude can start anywhere and often begins simply with being.
The language with which to make work again can emerge from this place of gratitude. And this language can be the beginning of a new practice that is from the you of now, as opposed to the you of then. Trust that your story is valuable, because it is, and know that your practice is just, and that you need not worry over any deadline. Be where you are now.
I admire you and I look forward to what you write next!
Like many places, New Zealand found its bookshops slowly dwindling over the past decade: Quilters is gone, though its previous owner still operates a private dealership from his home, as is Capital Books, which cited e-commerce from the other side of the world and the process of showrooming as the cause of their demise. Parsons, a long-standing bookshop in Wellington’s CBD, simply couldn’t find anyone with the fiscal capital to take over when the owners wanted to retire. Before finding my home at Unity Books, an institutional indie that celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017, I myself worked in a Wellington owned-and-operated franchise shop until May 2009, when we showed up to work to find a lawyer waiting for us; he told us to close the doors. All of this within 10 years, in a single city! Yet I also served tourists who would marvel that we existed at all. They would tell me, “in our town, all the bookshops have closed.”
Although those turbulent times are seemingly behind us, as evidenced by the rise of indies that has followed, many great booksellers had been forced to close their doors. As the pool of experienced booksellers who could share their knowledge with a new generation halved, the question arose as to how a young bookseller was expected to grow into the trade. How does a long-time bookseller, beginning to wonder about retirement and possibly the future of their shop, ensure that their staff, stellar though they may be, continue to develop and deepen their bookselling skills? Especially in a time when the salary of a bookseller has been dramatically disheartening?
It was clear, not only to me but to my superiors, that with the globalization of reading culture and online prospects, so too must bookselling culture expand itself by diversifying the experience of the next generation of booksellers, and growing new, hopefully long-term connections between bookshops and booksellers. This, precisely, is the intent of the Bookselling Without Borders scholarship.
Photo by Matt Bialostocki
In 2014, the Booksellers Association of New Zealand selected me as one of two booksellers to attend Winter Institute in Asheville, North Carolina. Upon the close of the conference, I would spend a week working in a local independent bookshop, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. In substance, the Winter Institute was not wildly different from a booksellers’ conference in New Zealand, but the attendance alone was ten times higher, and there was a wider range of publishers, reps, and trade services available.
For me, the most significant effect of the conference was being connected to a large, international community of booksellers. In addition to the folks at Flyleaf, I met booksellers from Denver and San Francisco, New York and Austin, France and Australia. I travelled through Colorado and California for two weeks after my time at Flyleaf ended. It was surreal to hear someone yell out “Matt!” in a state I had never visited before—a Tattered Cover bookseller I had met 10 days earlier.
Throughout my time in the US, booksellers generously offered to spend time showing me their shops, and their communities. A bookseller from Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, offered to drive me around the greater Marin area and show me a number of bookshops I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to see. Each differed wildly from the next; he took me to second-hand dealers, a cookbook-focussed bookshop, several small indies that were advocates for local publications and often publishers themselves.
Photo by Matt Bialostocki
At City Lights, I spent an afternoon talking to the Paul Yamazaki about the common elements of our shops’ respective histories and what problems he felt were facing bookselling in 2015. With so many varied and diverse bookshops across the globe, it’s heartening to find commonality on the other side of the world. He showed me the ways in which City Lights had developed over the years; since its humble beginnings in 1953 as a tiny storefront, it has gradually taken over the building in which it resides. (My own shop started the size of a closet and had moved through four locations on the same street over the 50 years it has been open.)
The booksellers at Green Apple Books showed me their computer system and merchandising, the range they have developed in response to their readers, their hand-selling culture (personally, one of my favourite things about bookselling), and the ways they work with publishers in California. It strengthened my personal belief that publishers and bookshops should work in tandem, relying on each other’s perspective to work through issues facing the bookselling community. In Asheville, Chapel Hill, and San Francisco, the bookshops with the deepest, richest histories all had strong relationships with one or two specific publishers who most met the needs of their customers.
Photo by Matt Bialostocki
Because of Bookselling Without Borders, young booksellers can come to understand their bookshop’s place in the larger bookselling ecosystem. They’ll come to see what they can do to cement their home shop into the culture of their own city, and they’ll make personal connections with booksellers around the world. As 2017 scholarship recipient Courtney Smith puts it, each recipient has come back “bursting with ideas and energy.” 2018 recipient Cassie Richards elaborates: “there is so much value in the sharing of ideas and experiences. Indie booksellers should stick together! Cross-culturally, there will be a lot for me to pick up on and bring home.” And that benefit is mutual; Courtney advises future scholarship recipients to “take local books with you; you have so much good shit that the world wants to know about.” I also found local books and publishing were the elements of my home shop that other booksellers responded most strongly to.
Personally, I see a quite simple benefit to the scholarship: any bookseller who receives it will see the full impact of bookselling. While intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding—there’s nothing like having 50 regulars come to you for their reading fix, and sometimes for the solution to life’s problems—bookselling is also a valuable and important for the literacy and education of the world. There is great benefit to encountering diverse voices and being able to promote other cultures’ literature; this can serve as an edge against ignorance. As we continue to face an ever-changing global culture, the value and the worth of sharing and listening to other voices cannot be understated. So if you ever have the chance to visit the literary community in another country, I recommend you take it; not only will you be able to promote the voices from your own community, but your worldview will inevitably be deepened as well.
Don’t let yourself be fooled by the Millennial-pink flower on the cover. Olivia Sudjic’s debut, Sympathy, has been dubbed “the first great Instagram novel,” and it touches on technology and intimacy and our obsession with the internet and the very dark consequences that can follow if one takes online stalking to the extreme. But Sudjic, 28, has been surprised at reviewers’ quick statements that she’s written the definitive internet book. “I don’t think that, and haven’t said that!,” she says, bemused.
Sudjic says she isn’t interested in making moral points but rather in exploring her characters’ inner lives, psychologies and senses of self, with the internet an integral part of their experiences of the world, as with most of us today. The plot follows Alice Hare, a British woman in her early twenties who goes to New York for a bit—slightly lost in life, looking for meaning, post-university. We find out at the beginning that she has become extremely obsessed with Mizuko, an uber-cool Japanese writer and Columbia teacher. Alice finds Mizuko through a genetic-testing app and, upon discovering apparent similarities between their lives, she embarks on full-blown Instagram stalking and starts to mistake knowing her crush’s interests, favorite places and pictures with knowing Mizuko in “real life”—quote marks very much needed.
Sympathy reads like a fluid fever dream, blending consciousness and paranoia and dreams, and jumping back and forth through time—like you do on the gram. Sudjic writes about actions like unfollowing and scrolling in sensual, unusual ways that make them feel organic, as she masterfully integrates technology into her characters’ lives. I dare you not to recognize some of your own behavior in passages—though hopefully you won’t see yourself in the extreme actions that ensue. Very much a 21st-century novel, where characters “overlap” and mimic each other, the book is peppered with literary allusions and references to mirrors, grids—Instagram’s and New York’s and that of a metaphorical game of chess—and Alice Through the Looking Glass. The epigraph is from Lewis Carroll’s book and tellingly reads “I wouldn’t mind being a pawn, if only I might join.”
I met with her for coffee at an art gallery in West London to find out more.
Marta Bausells: Did your own use of social media change after finishing the novel?
Olivia Sudjic: I definitely don’t feel like I am in any way a spokesperson for my generation and Instagram and Millennials. But I do think that I started out and came to it from a place of anxiety, of not really knowing how this [moment of technological change] works and what it’s doing to me and not necessarily my relationships, but the unconscious ways in which my choices are nudged, shaped. Your daily life, in so many ways that are invisible, is shaped by this technology. Whilst writing it, this turned into paranoia and afterwards—I’m still in that afterwards—it’s definitely changed… On a literal level, my boyfriend and I are not friends on social media. I didn’t want to give myself the opportunity to do all this stalking, all this intel-gathering. I didn’t want to go into every day armed with some kind of even semi-self-conscious foreknowledge. Especially because that would either inhibit us from really knowing each other, or it would give me the sense that I already knew him. […] And I’ve also become a lot more aware or sensitive to the way that we, as individuals, interact with an internet that’s increasingly corporate and targeted.
MB: The book is full of mirrors, symmetry and sameness—in fact it’s Mizuko’s supposed sameness with her own life that attracts Alice to her. Can you talk about this motif?
“That is often what the internet enables us to do, is to peer into other people’s lives and vicariously experience what we imagine them to be experiencing.”
OS: It came from a few different places, but the internet enables us to enact fantasies in a digital sphere that we imagine to be separate from our “real life,” and more and more those distinctions are bordering on meaningless. This idea that our mirror self is our digital self. And I wanted to draw on Through the Looking Glass, where Alice goes through this mirror screen into this world where everything is sort of the same but not, all the rules go backwards, everything is a reflection. Also, I guess the idea of mirror images evoke the way that—as with all technology or the way we build cities—often what we think we want or what we try to do leads us into its opposite. Let’s say we overplan the way a city works, and it ends up dying, with empty shopping malls no one uses. And we try to overplan interactions, create intimacy—we created a web to open up the world but actually it’s narrowing it around personalization.
MB: How did you go from brand consultant to writing your first novel?
OS: Studying English at university made me feel like I spent a lot of my time deconstructing, going behind the scenes, basically smashing up other people’s books. In a way, that meant that when I finished my degree I didn’t want to touch fiction for a while. A few jobs later I ended up as a brand consultant, which I think is at the furthest end from where my initial interests and talents lay. I remember the day my boss saw a slide I’d made where I had to condense a complex concept into one word and she said “that’s lovely, but it’s very baroque,” [laughs]. I knew then that what I wanted to do was take one idea and open it up. I initially took a sabbatical, but obviously what happens when you take time off to finally do writing is that you do nothing! So the bits of the book where Alice is wondering around New York feeling almost paralyzed by choice, that was partly my experience of suddenly not being in an office or institution. I eventually quit and wrote it all in three months.
MB: I find technology so unsexy and wonder if it was difficult to write about. The way you write about sliding, scrolling, (un)following, and even the object of the phone is very sensory. Did you set out to do that?
OS: It’s definitely difficult to write [about technology] lyrically. Even just the word phone, I found every time it came to writing it down, it was like writing the word “plugsocket” or “telecom.” It somehow had this sound to it that was clunky. And I worried at points that that is like suddenly shining a light behind the scenes; you want to imagine that a novel comes to you in a message in a bottle and it washes up on shore, you don’t like to imagine a laptop and a plugsocket and a packet of Quavers [laughs]. And I felt that that very unsexy word jarred with a love story. But at the same time, it’s become such a seamless part of our lives—it’s not quite wearable but we have it on our bodies the whole time—so I set myself the challenge of: how do you make a phone so that it’s almost like a character in itself?
There are points in which it’s described as somebody’s brain, it’s almost like a source of someone’s power. Being able to see inside their search history is like a wormhole in someone’s brain, it makes me think of Being John Malkovich! And I started using the word “device” which implies the way that we use it to manipulate people and the way it manipulates us and draws our attention all the time… mine’s on the table right now, it’s like this constant demon or spirit animal, like an extension of myself. So I wanted to think of it in an almost bodily way, so that when it’s gone it’s like having a limb removed.
MB: You date the whole story in 2014, leaving plenty of signposting all over—the lost Malaysian Airlines flight, the ice-bucket challenge, the Higgs-Boson discovery (around which Alice develops an obsession), Maya Angelou’s death…
OS: Yes, I wanted to date the story so precisely, I mapped it on a chronology of that year so people can remember those moments, and map what’s an increasingly hyper-real story onto something that’s almost a calendar. I gave it a specific kind of time that otherwise is lacking from the story, because time and space are so collapsible, you can scroll back three years and four years forward, and look at Instagram pictures that can transport you like a time capsule to different places and times. When I was writing I was so in my own head, it was like living in a permanent dream. And I wanted to give that an external, real-world frame of reference. Also I feel like 2014 was an important turning point, everything that’s going on in the world today was kicking off.
MB: Alice’s desire for Mizuko is largely voyeuristic—is it stronger because it’s based on a fantasy?
OS: Totally. Obviously that is often what the internet enables us to do, is to peer into other people’s lives and vicariously experience what we imagine them to be experiencing. But as with all fantasies, these are projections which, if actually allowed to become a physical reality, suddenly become totally different. This is not a new human desire, of course, but the internet has accelerated and widened the scale. […] I was interested in the way that by proximity or by voyeuristic access into someone else’s life, you start to maybe take on their lives.
I wanted to explore what you might say are 21st-century characters. 20th-century characters probably have linear lives and they have quite a stable sense of self, and there’s a boundary around where their character stops and another character or person begins. 21st-century characters overlap, they have porous boundaries and can syphon off character traits or likes or dislikes, the way that Alice mimics the way that Mizuko dresses and her interests. She can parasitically take that on and then float away from it again. I didn’t want each of my characters to feel like separate bodies, I wanted them to overlap; but the way that Alice tries to find her equilibrium or sanity by the end is to see the body as a natural barrier, the skin as a natural boundary.
MB: What is your life like in London?
OS: I would die if I couldn’t walk places. I love going to stuff alone, and basically spend my whole time in museums. One of the best things about my job is not having to be in a particular place every day. The thing I’m weirdly into right now is urban planning. I watched this Jane Jacobs documentary about how the city looks like chaos but it’s got order that comes intrinsically from the people who live in it. What I love most about my job is that I can have these pet research projects.
Evening swept through the Delta: half an hour of mauve before the sky bruised to black. It was Chike Ameobi’s twelfth month as an officer in Bayelsa, twelve months on the barren army base. His ﬁrst sight of the base had been on an evening like this, bumping through miles of bush, leaves pushing through the open window, insects ﬂying up his nostrils and down the dark passages of his ears. They came to a clearing of burned soil with charred stumps still rooted in it. Out of this desolation had risen the grey walls of his new home. Later, he would note the birds perched on the loops of barbed wire wheeling around the base. He would spot the garganeys and ruffs gliding through the sky, their long migration from Europe almost over.
He had grown quite fond of the canteen he was making his way to now, a low, squat building with thick plastic sheets tacked to the windows, the walls crumbling with damp. Officers and lower ranks sauntered into the building in an assortment of mufti: woolen bobble hats and black T-shirts, wrappers knotted over the arm or tied around the waist, the slovenly slap of slippers ﬂip-ﬂopping their way inside.
Colonel Benatari sat by the door, watching the soldiers ﬁle past. Chike’s commanding officer was a stocky box of a man, his bulk ﬁlling the head of his table. The most senior officers on the base ﬂanked the colonel. They ate from a private stash of food cooked separately in the kitchen. There was always a struggle to clear the colonel’s table, lower ranks jostling for the remnants of fresh ﬁsh and the dregs of wine left over in the bell-shaped crystal glasses.
Chike threaded his way through the hall, edging past square wooden tables and round plastic ones, past benches, stools, and armless chairs, no piece of furniture matched to another. His platoon was already seated.
He was in charge of twenty-three men, charged to lead them in battle and inspect their kit, to see to their hygiene and personal grooming. They were all still in uniform, not a single button undone. When he sat down, they stretched their hands, the clenched ﬁsts of their salutes blooming like doorknobs on each wrist. The conversation did not stop.
“Oh boy, you see Tina today? That her bobby.”
“What of her nyash?”
“I go beat am.”
“Nah me go beat am ﬁrst.”
“You think she go ’gree for you?”
“Why she no go ’gree?”
Tina was a new kitchen worker. His men could talk of little else these days. Chike, too, had opinions on whether Tina was more beautiful than Ọmọtọla but he knew not to add to these conversations. If he spoke, they would listen politely and then continue, a column of ants marching around a boulder.
“Night had come, and with it the sense that Chike could be anywhere.”
Still, he ate dinner with them instead of joining the junior officers’ table. He felt an officer should know the men he was in charge of even though these soldiers under his command would rather not be known. They obeyed his orders but questions about their lives and families were met with a silent hostility. His only friend was Private Yẹmi Ọkẹ, the lowest-ranked man in his platoon, now seated next to him and eating his beans without bothering to pick out the weevils. It was the fourth day in a row they were eating beans and dodo but Yẹmi did not seem to mind.
“Did you shoot today?” Chike whispered to him.
“Good. Meet me by the generator hut when you ﬁnish.”
There were a few slices of dodo left on Chike’s plate, overripe and soggy with oil. Yẹmi would eat them before coming. Chike left the canteen and went outside to wait for his friend.
Night had come, and with it the sense that Chike could be anywhere. The sky was wide and open, the stars visible in a way he never grew used to. The militants would be out in the creeks tonight, piercing the pipes that crisscrossed the region, sucking out oil, insects drawing on the lifeblood of the country. The army would be out too, patrolling the waters.
He stood with his back to the generator hut, the tremor of the machine passing through him. It drank more than two hundred liters of diesel each day, its belly never satisﬁed. The land sloped away from him, a scattering of buildings and tents running down the mild incline of their base. Soldiers clustered in groups, their cigarette ends glowing like ﬁreﬂies. The air was warm and heavy, almost too thick to breathe. It was the ﬂaring that did that, great bonﬁres of gas burning night and day like stars.
The oil companies worked at all hours, ﬁlling and ﬂoating barrels of oil to overseas markets that decided what they were worth: ﬁfty dollars today, a hundred tomorrow, and the whole of Nigeria’s fortunes rose and fell on what foreigners would pay for her sweet crude. Chike had seen the spills, black poison running over the waters, ﬁsh gone, ﬁshermen displaced, ﬂora destroyed. Who was to blame? Not for a soldier to answer.
He saw Yẹmi approaching in his slow, loping gait.
“Sah,” Yẹmi said, saluting when he arrived.
Chike returned his salute.
“At ease. You were saying.”
“I no shoot. When Colonel order us to kill that boy, I ready my gun, aim, put my ﬁnger for trigger but I no ﬁre am.”
“I didn’t either,” Chike said. “When those white journalists came, I should have found a way to talk to them. I should have whispered to them that they should look out for freshly turned soil. Must we destroy a whole village before people start to notice?”
The futility of his and Yẹmi’s resistance, the cowardice of it, ﬁngers bent but never pressing down. They would be found out. Someone would notice their limp index ﬁngers or see them slipping their unused ammunition into the creeks. But for their sanity, he and Yẹmi must register their protest in some way.
Chike had not taken much notice of the lowest-ranking member of his platoon until he came upon him one day, crying.
“Nah young girl. E no good,” was all Yẹmi would say. There were others who felt the same about the woman shot for allegedly harboring militants but the only protest he had heard voiced was from the runt of his platoon. Their friendship had begun then, an unequal one where he gave the orders and Yẹmi obeyed, but a friendship nonetheless, based on their mutual distaste for the colonel. A treasonous friendship.
The 9 p.m. bell clanged. The generator would go off in half an hour; the water would dry up soon after, the electric pumping machines silent till morning.
“Sah, I wan’ wash my cloth,” Yẹmi said.
“Dismissed. Thank you for your report.”
Chike walked to the room he shared with three other junior officers. The space was small for four men, eight foot by twelve with only one window, but they were all disciplined, neat with their possessions and clothing. A single naked bulb hung from the ceiling, drawing a lampshade of insects to its hot glass surface. His roommates would be in the junior officers’ mess, a tent he rarely went to these days. There was a bottle of gin passed around and drunk in thimblefuls, there was a radio with a long spoke of an antenna, and there was guilt, evident in how fast the alcohol disappeared.
He sat on his bottom bunk and unbuttoned his shirt before drawing out a slim Bible from his pocket. He read the Bible often now, ﬂicking to a new passage each day, one evening on the plains of Jericho, the next in the belly of a whale, sunlight streaming through the blowhole and into his underwater cell. He liked the improbable images, ﬂakes of manna falling like dandruff from the sky; the formal language of thees and thous, begetting and betrothing betwixt the Jordan and the Red Sea. There were stories of rebellion in the book, of slaves standing up to their masters and waters parting for their escape. Things were less straightforward in real life.
He lay down and stared at the wooden slats of the bed above him, the Bible unopened by his side. His bunkmate had stuck Nollywood starlets to his portion of wall: actresses Chike did not recognize, clutching handfuls of synthetic hair and thrusting their hips at the camera. Chike’s patch of wall was blank. He had put up a picture of himself and his mother, her arm around his waist, her head below his chest, and her left hand raised to the camera, asking the photographer to wait. As the months passed, the hand became a warning, an accusation, a signal from beyond the grave. The photograph was facedown in his trunk now, stowed away under his bed.
Even to witness Benatari’s crimes was to take part in them. There were strict rules of engagement, ﬁxed codes detailing how soldiers should deal with a civilian population, and the colonel had broken every one. Chike could desert, drop his gun and run off into the darkness one night. He could abscond to Port Harcourt, or Benin or perhaps even Lagos, any large city, with backstreets and crowded houses he could disappear into.
And what would he do when he got there? He was not ﬁt for life outside the army. His four years on military scholarship studying zoology at university had proved that to him. He had held his ﬁrst gun at twelve: induction week at the Nigerian Military School at Zaria. By fourteen, he could crawl a mile under barbed wire, shoot accurately from a hundred paces, lob a grenade, curving it in a neat arc that landed on its target. He was nothing more and nothing less than a soldier. He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep, anxious over what new blood the next day would bring.
Want to get into poetry but not sure where to start? Prefer to read a whole book of poems straight through instead of dipping into random single servings online (or—gasp—on Instagram), but have no idea which collection you might like best? Well, as ever, you’ve come to the right place. Find yourself among the descriptors below and you’ll also find your perfect read. Or two or three perfect reads, because if you’re anything like old Walt, the patron saint of American poets, you probably contain multitudes. Besides, all of the collections below are pretty great, so you really can’t go wrong.
Sappho, If not, Winter, tr. Anne Carson
Most of Sappho’s poetry has long been lost. Only scraps remain; some of them have been translated and collected here by the brilliant Anne Carson. She uses brackets to show where the papyrus was torn or the word obscured. The result is a volume of tantalizing fragments with a lot of empty space—some of these poems are barely even poems anymore!—but it is exactly that empty space that gives them their ecstatic beauty.
Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars
David Bowie, outer space, science fiction, interplanetary travel, the universe and everything: that’s what you’ll find in Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning elegy for her father, who worked on the Hubble space telescope. You’ll also find his drink, and what his eyes were like, and what it feels like to be a human in the world, both with and without him. It’s about as wide a spatial attention span as you’re likely to find in literature.
Good Witches Who Also Happen to be Emily Dickinson Stans
Lucie Brock-Broido, The Master Letters
Don’t act like you don’t have at least one friend who fits this description, okay? If you think you don’t, it’s probably you. This collection by Our Lady of the Unicorn Hair Lucie Brock-Broido is based on the letters Emily Dickinson wrote to her unidentified “dear Master,” and were discovered after her death. The work inside is bizarre and lush and full, each poem as close to a real spell as poems can get (pretty damn close). At least the final poem, a tribute to Georg Trakl, works some kind of magic on me every time I read it.
Social Media Addicts
Lyn Hejinian, My Life
If you think you’re adept at building a life and/or persona out of a stream of artful and semi-meaningul but essentially unconnected sentences and sentiments, well—check out Lyn Hejinian. If for no other reason than it will be endless fodder for your Twitter feed and Instagram captions.
Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga
Like the best class clowns, Seidel’s poetry is darkly funny, savage and unprecious, tackling serious themes with oft-offensive glee. These poems are not particularly beautiful! But they are pretty unforgettable. Also a good volume for anyone who thinks they are like, much too cool for all that nice poetry.
Mary Oliver, American Primitive
Nature is sort of an old-fashioned topic for poetry—long treatises on sunsets and intricate descriptions of clouds are what give it a bad name. And though what Mary Oliver does is take nature and elevate it into the sublime, she still isn’t “cool”—she’s really too popular for that (imagine). But her Pulitzer Prize-winning American Primitive is worth it, even if you’re a snob.
History Buffs and/or Luddites
Cathy Park Hong, Engine Empire
There’s a reason this book has a plumb blurb from David Mitchell: it recalls Cloud Atlas in its arc, if not in its scope. Engine Empire is a triptych, with the first part set in the Old West, the middle section in contemporary China, and the third in an almost fully-virtual future, where “smart snow” connects us all instantly. It is much about myth-making, of our past, present, and future, but also the way we see ourselves. I’d recommend it for anyone with one foot in the past and the other dangling off the precipice of the future—so, you know, everyone.
Girls Who Grew Up on D’Aulaires
Analicia Sotelo, Virgin
Case in point: I personally grew up on the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and I personally am a girl/woman, and I personally love this sexy, magical volume of poetry, in which Ariadne and Theseus and Persephone appear to reflect and refract notions of contemporary American girlhood in the most scintillating manner possible. These poems make me short of breath.
Paige Ackerson-Kiely, My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer
To explain, I will simply quote from one of my favorite prose poems in this book, “The Meteorite.”
Imagine that we are finally together. I am drawing my finger under the waistband of your pants. Then a black vapor leaches out of my eyes and everything I gaze upon shrivels and dies. Don’t make a joke about how it is a good thing I haven’t gotten your pants off yet because this vapor also kills everything I rest my mind on. This is how a night goes insane. It is brutal and you will surely die even though you are strong and beautiful and I love you so much. There is no way around it.
Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Each of the poems in MacArthur Fellow Hayes’s latest collection has the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Each one was written in the 200 days following Donald Trump’s election. Which makes this collection the sound of a certified genius wrestling with our present—and as you might expect, it is sometimes funny, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes despairing. This one isn’t a personality type, you say? Most people are registered voters in addition to whatever else, you say? Well, good. Most people should be reading Terrance Hayes.
Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds
If you aren’t ugly crying, you aren’t doing it right. And if you aren’t ugly crying, you probably also aren’t reading this book—or maybe you just don’t have a soul!
Frequent Wedding Toasters
Pablo Neruda, Love Poems
Because you must be just like, overflowing with love and loved ones! Or more likely you are simply too nice for your own good and could really use some quotable material. (Though officially I am against the use of Neruda at weddings, I know that I am in the minority.)
The mighty Hay Festival of Literature and Arts is turning 30 this year, and despite its incredible success and steady growth, it retains all the original charm of the early days in a small, Welsh valley town. We asked festival co-founder and one of Hay’s current directors, Peter Florence, how to survive one of the world’s biggest book festivals.
How exactly did Hay-on-Wye, Wales, offseason population of 1,600, become home to one of the largest literary festivals in the world?
As a young actor I’d toured a play about the war poet Wilfred Owen around the world and played at lots of festivals, and I’d loved the buzz, the intensity of celebration they generated. We thought—why can’t we do this at home? Hay has a special gift for hosting parties. The town itself takes music and light beautifully, and the people here like nothing better than welcoming friends to share the landscape and a good story.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened at the Hay Festival (please be honest, as if you’re telling a story to old friends…)
In 2001 we’d booked Bill Clinton to speak, one of his first events after leaving the White House. Paul McCartney and Seamus Heaney were due here too that year, but a week before the festival there was an outbreak of Foot-and-Mouth disease four miles down the road. We knew we couldn’t bring tens of thousands of people to this rural town and that we’d have to cancel, and go bust in the process. We called a public meeting to explain, and the Young Farmers said—no. The farms were all closed and quarantined. If the festival closed too the whole community would fold. And they maintained the footbaths and the car-cleaning and the rights of way all day and all night, so that no-one who came took any contagion away and all our guests were cared for. That was when the festival stopped being an art festival and became a part of everyone’s culture here.
What is someone doing right if they’re having a great time at Hay?
What is someone doing wrong if for some reason they’re not?
Well, to paraphrase Tolstoy… unhappy festivalgoers will find their own special misery, but there is always the remedy of turning to the person next to you in the queue or in the seat beside you and starting a conversation. Writers and literature give us the gift of being able to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. The whole project is basically a celebration of empathy.
What is your all-time favorite event at Hay? You can cheat and pick three.
Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry’s conversation with Joan Bakewell about blasphemy from 2005. They ranged over faith and litany, heresy, transgression and the enlightenment in a two-hour wrangling of absolute wonder. It’s in the HayPlayer archive as an audio file. Two of the greatest talkers of all time, and one of the greatest listeners.
And Maya Angelou’s Shakespeare lecture here in 2002, when she summoned a rainbow over the town by sheer force of poetry.
And the moment Owen Sheers first presented his astonishing dramatic poem “Pink Mist” at the festival. He’d been with us at the festival from the age of 14 and his first poetry competition, but “Pink Mist” was the moment we knew he’d found his voice completely and was touching on greatness.
What three events are you most looking forward to this year?
Margaret Atwood on the terrifying prescience of The Handmaid’s Tale; Philip Pullman, always—but mostly I’m looking forward to being surprised and having my prejudices confounded. There are threads of programming that run through the ten days, and I am always intrigued and delighted how that weft begins to make its own sense to a festival audience, and makes its own beauties.
Which relatively unknown author are you most excited about people discovering this year?
Look out for the LatAm stars of Bogota 39—Claudia Ulloa, Laia Jufreisa, Emiliano Monge, Liliana Colanzi, Felipe Restrepo Pombo and Carlos Fonseca. Not known in the English-speaking world so much yet, but the A-list superstars of the emerging generation of Hispanic fiction. We’re publishing a collection of their short stories in English in June.
What is different about Hay from other literary festivals?
The audience is open-minded and generous and adventurous. But I think that’s pretty universal. There is great comradeship in the literary festival world. I think we all have a special sense of place that defines what we do and how we do it. For Hay that’s the open green mountains and the dark skies, and it’s the fact that the town has 1,600 people and 28 bookshops. How many cities have that kind of wealth?
Who is the most interesting Hay-on-Wye local?
Don’t take my word for it. Come and meet them for yourself. They’re ALL interesting, and in more ways than you’d ever guess.
If you had unlimited space and budget, what’s one thing you’d add to the festival?
I like the intimacy of the festival as it is, so the space thing doesn’t play. If I had unlimited budget, I’d make sure that 25 percent of the audience every year would be young people who could not normally afford to come and camp. Hay is already free to students, and we work with the BBC to amplify the events and make them available digitally, but there’s nothing quite like being in the room, around the picnic rug, face to face.
TODAY: In 1897, Oscar WIlde is released from Reading Gaol after two years of hard labor, an experience which will inform his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
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