Keeping literature a vital part of popular culture. Electric Literature’s mission is to ensure that literature remains a vibrant presence in popular culture by supporting writers, building community, and broadening the audience for literature through digital innovation.
Tricks of perception shouldn’t cause fights — instead, they should open up new spaces of possibility, like they do in literature
When I first heard about Yanny and Laurel it was in a context of outrage. One person on my Twitter timeline heard the obviously correct Laurel and couldn’t believe the monsters who claimed they heard Yanny. Another couldn’t believe we were all talking about another annoying perception phenomenon, the audio version of that dress whose colors nobody could agree on. Why, they complained, was everyone so exercised about something so dumb?
What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel pic.twitter.com/jvHhCbMc8I
Usually when everyone’s mad about something trivial, there’s something important going on too — a case of something disguised as nothing. In the case of the Yanny/Laurel illusion, as in the case of The Dress, what’s really happening is that we’re being forced to confront ambiguity — a phenomenon that is not objectively one thing or another, that lives in a hazy middle. The hazy middle is not a place we’re comfortable living, and yet it is almost exclusively where we live. These instances have demonstrated that when we can, rather than exist in ambiguity, we will call in experts to do spectrographic analyses and tell us with science which perception is “really true.”
But there is a case to be made for learning to deal with ambiguity, for making peace with the fact that your experience of the world may differ from mine, and neither of us is wrong. If anyone can help with that, it’s Can Xue.
Of all the short stories I teach, “The Fog” by Can Xue makes my students the maddest. “The Fog” is short enough that we can read around the table and finish it in ten minutes, and after we do I look at the class excitedly and ask, “What do you think of that?” One or two people, the ones most comfortable with ambiguity, totally love it. One generous soul who doesn’t want to disappoint me says, “I think I need more time with it.” Everyone else is furious.
There is a case to be made for learning to deal with ambiguity, for making peace with the fact that your experience of the world may differ from mine, and neither of us is wrong.
In “The Fog,” there’s not a lot the reader can trust to be “real,” or a better way of putting it may be that contradictory things are real. At its core, it’s a story about a family trying to survive the pressures and limitations of rural poverty: the father speaks of unrealistic plans to travel and unrealized business ideas; the brothers live with untreated physical ailments; the family is isolated, exposed, vulnerable to the weather, and starving. These ideas are recognizable, but the logistics are not. Line by line, things change shape, change color, stop existing and simultaneously continue to exist. Space and time collapse. The mother leaves but is still there, dies but is still alive. Sometimes she’s so fat she’s soft and sweating oil, sometimes she’s so thin that the narrator suspects she is only emptiness beneath her coat. In one section, the narrator rushes to her mother when she sees she has fallen down while searching for hens she raised twenty years before:
“The fog has damaged my eyes. I can’t see you.”
“There are some human figures in the woods over there. Can you feel that?”
“How can I? It’s impossible. My eyes are completely destroyed.” Frustrated I withdraw my arm from her armpit which is as warm as under a hen’s wing. Instantly one of her ribs cracks and breaks.
“It’s only a rib.” Her blue face wrinkles, then she disappears on the other side of the tree.
My students politely ask: what the fuck? Is this supposed to make sense? What is it supposed to mean? They’re mad at Can Xue for writing it, me for having them read it, themselves for not getting it. They’re afraid they don’t know the answer, but that there is one answer to know is the misunderstanding.
In class we call what Can Xue is doing “dream logic.” The senses don’t match — the mother asks if the narrator can feel the human figures and she responds, how could she when her eyes are damaged? The viewpoints are limited, or unlimited, in ways we don’t expect: her mother “disappears on the other side of the tree,” but how does the narrator know that happened? And we also understand. We don’t but we do. This kind of ambiguity is within us, but it’s something, at least in this country, we try to contain in the category of dreams. When we describe our dreams to the patient souls who are willing to listen, we say things like, “It was you but it wasn’t you,” or, “And then we were suddenly in the house I grew up in but it wasn’t the house.” There is more than one interpretation — it is the house, it is not the house — but more importantly, both are true.
This kind of ambiguity is within us, but it’s something, at least in this country, we try to contain in the category of dreams.
We’d like for this ambiguity to constrain itself to dreams, but of course it doesn’t. One of the times someone left me, it wasn’t the usual situation where we had grown apart or they were moving or I was moving. It was a total shut-out. We had a fight and then they were gone, didn’t want to know me anymore. That kind of loss feels like a death, and my body treated it like one. I couldn’t eat or sleep, focus or function, find pleasure in things. I felt physically sick. I dreamed about them, that they were back, we’d reconciled or never fought, the way I dream the dead are alive again. A death is a loss out of our control, but a shut-out is a loss decided on and imposed by a person still there. It felt as though I’d come home and all the locks were changed, and when I banged on the window, my someone looked out at me as though they’d never seen me before. I was afraid, consumed by a nightmarish fear, that we’d never felt the same way about each other, we had not been having the same experience, that our realities were always different. A possible future shut-out always existed in the spectrum of ways they felt about me, and that was not true for me. I had misunderstood everything.
These thought pathways fan out the same way in almost any interaction I have with a person I care about: parents, partners, friends, people I’m making small talk with, my son. Do you feel about me the way I feel about you? Are we having the same experience? Is yours the real one or is mine? What I’m learning, and I have to learn something many times before I know it, is the answers are always: No. No. Both. Those answers are the same no matter who is asking, no matter what the situation. And it’s uncomfortable.
Do you feel about me the way I feel about you? Are we having the same experience? Is yours the real one or is mine? The answers are always: No. No. Both.
In his essay, “The North American,” Richard Rodriguez discusses the difference between assimilation and multiculturalism. He describes multiculturalism as the Canadian idea that everyone can live harmoniously side-by-side, siloed in their own cultures, and not affect each other. Assimilation, he argues, is the reality, that whether we like each other or not, we affect each other. He gives the example of Merced, California, where the two largest immigrant groups are Laotian Hmong and Mexicans. He says the two groups don’t like each other. He asked the Laotian kids what they don’t like about the Mexican kids and they explained their list of grievances, and he realized that, while the Laotian kids described why the Mexican kids didn’t belong in their community, they were speaking English with a Spanish accent. “I was on a BBC interview show,” he said, “and a woman introduced me as being ‘in favor’ of assimilation. I am not in favor of assimilation any more than I am in favor of the Pacific Ocean. If I had a bumper sticker, it would read something like ASSIMILATION HAPPENS.”
So it is with ambiguity. It’s what happens when more than one consciousness exists. It’s hard to structure our lives around it, trust people who are by definition having a different experience than we are, marry someone, incarcerate someone. Our society depends on absolutism when that’s not our reality.
Our society depends on absolutism when that’s not our reality.
Authors like Can Xue are so affecting because they invite us to approach waking life with the same acceptance as we do our dreams, where the logic accommodates multiple realities. Ambiguous illusions do the same, if we let them, though we often resist. The idea that there are as many realities as there are of us is overwhelming, and it’s also lonely. If we’re alone in our reality, it’s impossible to truly share an experience. But while we can’t experience something exactly the same way as each other, we can learn about each other, think about each other, imagine each other, populate our lives with companion realities. Instead of sameness, we can have multitudes.
“My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” taught me more than just the factsPhoto by Raul Petri on Unsplash
Last year, my husband, Michael, and I went on a weeklong trip to Haiti with the high school where he teaches. Most nights, we pitched our bug huts — a kind of netted tent that provides protection against malaria-borne mosquitos — on the gritty ground of a second-floor, cinderblock classroom of St. Matthias, a school located in the heart of Thomonde. The voices of children rose and fell. Stray dogs barked. Roosters crowed. Someone played “Amazing Grace” on a slide trombone.
I tossed and turned, wishing for daylight. In an effort to find sleep, I reached for my iPhone and played music. When this didn’t work, I discovered the one podcast I had saved on my phone: A New Yorker fiction podcast with Allan Gurganus reading Grace Paley’s short story “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age.”
During the episode, Gurganus talks about how Grace Paley was his first writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence in 1969. He was just off the USS Yorktown after serving a mandatory tour in the Navy during the Vietnam War. “Of course, Grace had devoted most of her adult life trying to end that war,” Gurganus says, “so, it was a weird combination of acceptance and forgiveness. She saw what I was trying to write… . I think her greatest inspiration was her fervent social-political belief that everybody is eloquent when telling their own story.”
The narrative structure of “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” revolves around four conversations between a father and a grown daughter in which he attempts to offer her advice about how to grow old. What emerges amid these sad, intimate conversations is a kind of familial dance of love, regret, and acceptance. I managed to fall asleep before Gurganus finished reading the masterful story. The following morning, the words I remembered were Paley’s opening lines: “My father decides to teach me the facts on how to grow old…. Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning, you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”
My mother has never been very good at giving advice. When I was 20 years old, she gave me an illustrated book about sex and masturbation, and said, I hope you have better luck with this than I did. It was the end of the summer, and I was getting ready for my final year of college. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom and stepfather were on the verge of divorce, her combustible rage splitting apart the seams of their marriage. I flipped through the book, slipped it into a desk drawer, and never looked at it again.
When I was 20 years old, my mother gave me an illustrated book about sex and masturbation, and said, I hope you have better luck with this than I did.
My mother married again during her early sixties. Her third husband, John, was a former Olympic rower who watched Fox News and collected coupons. He passed away at age 89 during March of this year.
By age 65, my mother said that she wanted two things in life: a full-length mink coat and a face-lift. She managed to get both. I still wonder how this happened as John was the type of man who stole tea bags during the coffee hour after the church service and announced upon his return home, “I brought a present for you, dear.” Later, my mother said more than once during our conversations: They say it’s the golden years. Don’t believe them. It sucks.
When I was in my mid-thirties, I underwent two years of fertility treatments and chose not to tell my mother at the risk of being barraged with unsolicited advice. After Michael and I discontinued treatments with no medical diagnosis, I told my mother what we went through and our decision to stop trying. About six months later, my mom sent me an email. Have you tried this?!!! Don’t give up yet!!
The author as a child in front of the fireplace with her mother. Image: S. Kirk Walsh
There was a link to an article, explaining that if I kept my lower torso and legs elevated for a prolonged period of time after sex that it would improve my chances of getting pregnant. The email made me cry — more for my mother’s sadness and disappointment than my own, that she was still wishing that we could have children even though I was moving beyond my childbearing years. I called my mom and asked her not to send me any more emails about how to get pregnant. I’m never going to be a mother, I said to her. We tried. There is nothing to be done. For a moment, I almost enumerated all that Michael and I went through: the IUIs, the IVFs, the expenses, the disappointments, the lack of diagnosis. But I didn’t. It was still hard for me to understand all that happened. My mother said she was sorry, she wouldn’t bring it up again — and then, we both found an excuse to get off the phone.
“That’s a metaphor, right?” asks the daughter of the father in Paley’s story about his instructions of massaging the heart daily. “Metaphor! No, no, you can do this.”
In October of 2012, my mother suffered a nervous breakdown that landed her in one psychiatric ward after another. During the past six years, she has been a resident and a patient at multiple facilities, and undergone about thirty electroshock treatments. At one point, during all of this, I traveled to Michigan for ten days to help out. To pass the time, my mother and I played cards. It was early March, and the snow was falling. We sat in the living room of her home in a quiet suburb of Detroit. At the time John had been admitted to the hospital again and we were uncertain of when he might be discharged, and I was responsible with staying with my mom until he and his caregivers returned.
The author walking with her mother in the nursing home in Detroit, 2017. Image: S. Kirk Walsh
My mom sat down on the houndstooth loveseat in the television room. One of her feet constantly shook, and her thoughts circled wildly. I can’t do this. I have nowhere to go. Who is going to take care of me? Will you clean me if I soil myself? A blizzard howled into southern Michigan, the snow falling hour upon hour. In the backyard, a bright red cardinal hopped from branch to branch. The evergreen bushes were blanketed. As the steely daylight diminished, I shuffled the cards one more time and dealt another round. We played Gin Rummy for six hours straight on the living-room couch, my mom’s foot shaking, her sad eyes fixed on the fan of cards as she considered her next move. The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner and John Garfield, played on the television in the corner, the sound muted. Don’t leave me, my mom said every fifteen minutes. Don’t go.
One of her foot constantly shook, and her thoughts circled wildly. I can’t do this. I have nowhere to go. Who is going to take care of me? Will you clean me if I soil myself?
Since my trip to Haiti, I’ve listened to the Gurganus/Paley podcast many times. The repetition of the story often produces a feeling of solace: the rolling Southern cadence and kindness of Gurganus’s voice, the awkward advice given by the father, how the character can never find the right words, the generous spirit of Paley and her rich storytelling voice. During his discussion with fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Gurganus refers to the story as a kind of “spirit dialogue” between father and daughter. “All of us have lost parents and close friends,” he says. “We have this ideal conversation that we run in our heads, wishing that it could finally transacted exactly the way that we wanted it to. And a part of the gorgeousness of the writing is that we finally get to set down the truth for other people to see and hear.”
My mother now resides in the nursing home in Detroit. Since being admitted, she has not left the facility once, not even for John’s funeral. Her days are mostly spent in bed. Occasionally, she stands up and walks into the hallway, watches television, maybe an old musical, like Singing the Rain, for a few fleeting moments before asking that she be escorted back to her room. A caregiver always assists her when she uses the bathroom. Our phone conversations last anywhere from fifteen seconds to two minutes; my mom is always anxious to get off. I need to go now, she says. Dinner is here — even if it’s not dinnertime.
During my sixteen years of living in New York City, I only saw Grace Paley once in person. Unfortunately, she wasn’t reading at the event. She was a member of the audience for a tribute honoring the poet Stanley Kunitz at Town Hall near Times Square. We were all there for the love of poetry, the love of words, and what words can illuminate during the darkest and the best of times. Poets, such as Marie Howe, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and Robert Pinsky, talked about the profound effect that Kunitz had on their lives and other poets. Poems were read and recited. Kinnell read “Halley’s Comet,” one of my favorites. The last stanza goes: I’m the boy in the flannel gown / sprawled on this coarse gravel bed / searching the starry sky / waiting for the world to end.
As Paley walked up the aisle, many admirers followed her. It was as if she were a rabbi, a beloved spiritual leader, or a member of the royal family.
After the event, a friend and I spotted Paley in the audience with her head of wiry white hair and playful grin. She wore a long black flowing coat. As she walked up the aisle, many admirers followed her. It was as if she were a rabbi, a beloved spiritual leader, or a member of the royal family. Paley’s five-foot, hunched-over being emanated a halo of goodwill and kindness. Gurganus comments in the podcast, “She was a mother of two and the adopted mother of forty thousand.”
Like most people, I have always sought wisdom and insight. The sources were many: literature, writing teachers, students, children. And now, Grace Paley. The words of that story have stayed with me. Hold your heart with two hands. You must never forget about your heart. It’s a great thing. Be patient. Find joy wherever you can. Love better.
My mother’s conversations exist in a continuous loop. Every time I call her at the nursing home, it’s variations on the same theme: I’m not doing well. I’m so lonely. I’m not going to make it. On some days, I long for the conversations that we used to have when she would ask me if I was safe from the latest tragedy in Texas (the fires in Bastrop, Hurricane Harvey, the church shooting in Sutherland Springs) or why I hadn’t finished my novel yet and when was she going to get to read it. Despite everything, I still long for her phone calls, her voice when it wasn’t saturated by chronic depression and anxiety. I miss the questions, criticisms, and gossip about my three older siblings. I miss the softening in her voice when she asked about my husband, his teaching and students. I miss the colorful holiday cards she used to send me with her signature smiley-face and “I love you” scribbled at the bottom. I miss her being the first person to call me on the morning of my birthday.
“My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” was published in The New Yorker when Paley was 80 years old, five years before her death from breast cancer. The last time that Gurganus saw his beloved teacher was during a visit to Duke University. “I got to be with her for three days,” he remembers. “When we said goodbye, we said not goodbye. We just looked at each other for about two and half minutes while smiling. And that was it, that was all we needed to say.”
It was the early afternoon, and my flight from Detroit to Austin was scheduled to depart in a few hours. It was the end of my ten-day visit in March, and I couldn’t wait to leave the confines of my mom’s house. An invisible mold of sickness covered every inch of it. My mom sat on the blue couch in the small windowed sitting room on the second story. I bent down on my knees and trimmed her hardened yellowing toenails. Her skin was dry and calloused. She looked down at me. You and Michael, she said, you have a good marriage, don’t you? A love marriage? For a moment, her voice sounded like a clear bell, a different version of her old self. You’re lucky. Not everyone gets that. She’s right. I know I’m lucky. Twenty years of marriage, and I still feel lucky. Later, I will realize that this is my mother’s version of “Take your heart in your two hands…. You must never forget your heart.” I haven’t forgotten my heart — and somewhere deep inside herself, I don’t think my mother has forgotten hers either.
Elisabeth Cohen, author of ‘The Glitch,’ on books that shine light on the inequities and absurdities of the capitalist machinePhoto by rawpixel on Unsplash
When I was in high school, whenever my mother left the house, this was how she said goodbye: “Be productive!” Another popular expression from my childhood was “make yourself useful,” despite which I did not.
Some people lounge in bed reading cookbooks for dishes they’ll never make, admiring a photo of a bronzed tarte Tatin without needing to actualize it. I enjoy lazy afternoons of reading the websites of time management experts, the blogs of highly productive people, or old paperbacks from thrift stores that tell you how often to vacuum. I especially love books on decluttering, and I settle in to read them in my living room nest of books, papers, coffee mugs, board game pieces, and children’s socks. I recently signed up for a series of emails from the New York Times about how to organize a linen closet.
Purchase the novel
My debut novel, The Glitch, is about someone else who doesn’t vacuum her house, but for entirely different reasons. Shelley is the CEO of a tech company, and she maximizes her productivity by waking at 3:30am, multitasking on the stationary bike, having household staff to shop, drive, clean, cook, and care for her children, and relentlessly applying herself, every moment of the day, to getting things done. Her company makes a device that’s supposed to tell users what they need to be more productive, but the devices are giving out bad information. It’s a lot to manage, even for Shelley. And as with Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate line, humans pitted against the means of production usually lose.
The books below take a daffy but illuminating look at what it’s like to succeed, or fail, within the capitalist machine. They don’t just skewer the inanities of office politics but shine light on the inequities and absurdities of the system. Here are seven funny novels that critique capitalism:
Dial Elizabeth Holmes back to the age of 11 and you might get JR, a capitalist wunderkind who uses a handkerchief and a single share of stock to build a financial house of cards. (The handkerchief is wrapped around the handset of a pay phone to make JR sound older.) Published in 1975 and written almost entirely in dialogue, JR is a warning about capitalism run amok, including radios that won’t turn off, faucets that won’t stop running, and the challenge of creating art (or anything) among the distractions of modern life.
If you’ve ever scrolled through a clickbait listicle on “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand” or “’Memba This?” and taken joy in the shock of recognizing mundane objects from a lost world, you’ll understand the strange pleasure of Baker’s novel, with its probing examination of ephemera like stapled CVS bags, Jiffy Pop foil, the performance of turning the page in a Page-a-Day calendar, and “a once great shampoo like Prell,” now banished to the drugstore’s bottom shelf. The plot is simple: a man enters a lobby and rides an escalator up one floor to the mezzanine. The action, such as it is, takes place in his head, as he recalls his morning and lunch-hour errands. Ordinary situations take on dramatic scope: for a new hire, “the corporate bathroom is the one place in the whole office where you understand completely what is expected of you.” In its own way a philosophically intense exploration of noticing, this book asks to what do we pay attention and what do we miss?
It’s not just her ramshackle house is at odds with increasingly posh Palo Alto. Veblen Amundsen-Hovda (her first name might be a clue to her anti-materialistic inclinations) is living her own form of counterculture, in her case by an ESP-like connection to a particularly incisive squirrel. Her handsome, affectionate fiancé Paul does not share her love of small mammals, and employs them as test subjects in his brain research — he’s developing a device to treat traumatic brain injuries by punching holes in the cranium. His military-industrial ties and her complicated (which is to say unstable) mother, not to mention their disparate views on squirrels, stress the relationship, in a lively, prickly story that posits, cheerily, that “marriage is a continuous inevitable confrontation that can be resolved only through death.”
Among the funniest (and least unprintable) jokes in Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout are the experiments performed on the narrator by his psychologist father, including in-the-cradle aversion therapy to The Economist. He’s forced to choose between a Harriet Tubman doll or a Ken and Malibu Barbie set. (He chooses the latter, because they have a speedboat and a dune buggy.) After he makes almost every other wrong choice imaginable — including reinstituting slavery and segregation in his Los Angeles suburb — the narrator’s twisted approach to righting the wrongs of racism and exploitative capitalism in America are thrown into sharpest relief when he becomes the plaintiff in Me v. the United States of America and inspires “the Black justice” on the Supreme Court to ask a question for the first time in his career.
Is it better to live as a poor poet in “mingy circumstances” or give up on your dreams and write copy for Truweet Breakfast Crisps? This is the dilemma that confronts Gordon Comstock as he counts out his cigarettes and bemoans his lack of funds in this very funny evocation of artistic despair in 1930s London. “Everything costs money,” Gordon complains, even “cleanness, decency, energy, self-respect.” Even (because of his “horribly observant” landlord) privacy with his girlfriend, Rosemary (“It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money.”) A turn of events forces Gordon to choose between devoting himself to his ambitious poetic work-in-progress, London Pleasures, or the bourgeois security of writing adverts for a product to cure P.P. (Pedic Perspiration, aka smelly feet.)
Three couples, one previously a booker of vaudeville and circus acts, shambolically run a California ice cream shop in this comedy about utopian business and remaking yourself. Set in a town that is “a dot at the east edge of the Sacramento Valley,” the ice cream shop owners are all also members of a strangely doctrinaire marital support group run by the local Unitarian church. It’s a group where old-timers fill in newcomers: “She poured wine onto his computer…she shot his dog.” The emphasis is on openness and priding oneself on one’s ability to change. Despite the couples’ commitment to stability and loyalty to the group (the store’s napkins are printed with messages like “The Boat of Commitment Can Sail Over the Waters of Uncertainty”), the experiment in entrepreneurship-for-good comes up against the tangled reality of fraying marriages, the bottom line, and the problem of pleasing an audience.
When watching old movies, I often have to remind myself that the shiny oblong objects the characters keep taking out and fondling are cigarette cases, not iPhones. They look surprisingly similar, and like iPhone users, smokers are never at a loss for something to do. In Shafrir’s very funny sendup of tech culture, cigarettes and iPhones — operating via the smoke break and the dick pic — play key plot roles in bringing together characters who would be better off apart. Startup is sharp on the psychological burdens of the modern office: instead of Office Space-style “drudgery” with “zero intellectual or creative fulfillment,” today’s tech-company drudges must do the work while also pretending to love it. The millennials, like Isabel the Engagement Hero, seem to eagerly embrace the startup culture, but Sabrina, a frazzled Park Slope mom (is there any other kind?) struggles to. Rather than seeing a vision of the future, Sabrina regards the employees, with their shared apartments and intertwined social lives, as a contemporary company town, like something out of “the days of Henry Ford.”
About the Author
Elisabeth Cohen majored in comparative literature at Princeton University and her work has appeared in Conjunctions, The Mississippi Review, The Cincinnati Review, McSweeney’s Online and The Millions. She has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and an MLS from the University of Maryland. She worked as a librarian before her current career as a technical writer. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and two sons.
The modern female flâneur still doesn’t have full run of the city’s streets—but she owns the makeup emporiumPhoto by bargainmoose
I t was around this time last year that I decided to move to Paris for a Masters degree in History and Literature. Upon finding out, my friends and family torpedoed me with questions about how I’d spend my time there — which museums, which bookshops would I take to haunting? Which historical figures would I visit in their graves? Even as I made lists to answer their questions, I knew what I wanted to do more than anything. I wanted to be a flâneur.
The term “flâneur,” meaning “one who wanders without purpose” in its derivation from French, had etymologically been in use since the 16th century. While Pierre Larousse, Louis Huart, Sainte Beuve, and Honore de Balzac had all written about the flâneur in their works, it was in the 20th century that Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and cultural critic, mythologized the figure in his depictions of 19th-century Parisian life.
Benjamin saw the flâneur in the writings of Charles Baudelaire in Les Fleur du Mal (1857) and The Painter of Modern Life (1863). He recollected the flâneur in his essays and, most famously, in The Arcades Project (1927–1940), the unfinished magnum opus in which he recorded Parisian life entirely through scraps of memories, quotes, and observations. According to Benjamin, the flâneur haunted the arcades of Paris — the hotbed of urban commercial life in the 19th century. This lazy idler would stroll the urban landscape, observe the crowds around him and, by remembering past memories through the sights and smells around him, access a kind of poetic transcendence. As a result, the outside world of arcades and boulevards became the flâneur’s interior — the familiar landscape in which he grasped the essence of modern existence. Benjamin believed that this figure had been created uniquely through the personality of Paris and Parisians.
Having followed this flâneur from my corner in Bangladesh through books and articles for years, I was certain that flânerie would be my real calling upon stepping foot in France. I still am.
But something changed midway through the semester.
The outside world of arcades and boulevards became the flâneur’s interior — the familiar landscape in which he grasped the essence of modern existence.
After a grueling three nights of finishing an assignment, one of the girls and I visited the Sephora at Forum des Halles. We hadn’t really planned to buy anything; we simply walked the aisles and strolled through columns of alphabetically organized cosmetics. We picked up face masks we knew we didn’t need, making our wrists and nails into color palettes. Since then, visiting Sephora has become somewhat of a ritual for every week that we have to study extra hard.
In the late 19th century, the advent of urban development and modern transportation systems triggered an erosion of flânerie in the classic sense. Nearly 200 years later, the public spaces of Paris today are commanded by cars, motorcycles, buses, metro trains and pedestrians all rushing towards a snarling list of appointments, leaving flânerie as the privilege of tourists or of people taking a break from work over weekends. Even for me, as a grad student, certain streets of this city have become tinged with the panic of reaching classes on time, while the unexplored outdoors felt hostile in the winter winds when I first came here. Amidst these social and natural obstacles, just as Walter Benjamin equated the city with the flâneur’s interior in his The Arcades Project, the warm, bustling insides of Sephora became akin to the outdoors for the modern flâneuse in me. Its aisles replaced the Parisian alleys I was waiting to explore in a warmer weather; its counters took place of the ochre buildings I hoped to touch and enter. Its cosmetics, like their perusers, became the milieu that the flâneur observed.
The warm, bustling insides of Sephora became akin to the outdoors for the modern flâneuse in me.
The sections inside a Sephora first seem as labyrinthine as the streets of a foreign city; but they start to make sense as you take note of the labels. The right side of the outer perimeter stocks fragrances, divided alphabetically according to the brand from the back wall outwards. The spread down the left side follows the same pattern with skin-care products like cleansers and moisturizers. Channeling the flâneur’s soul who submerged in the crowd while remaining aloof from it, I snake my way across this exteriorized architecture, recharging myself through the buzzing throngs around me. Just as finding a city street or building requires instinct as much as it needs a knowledge of basic geography, so here I learn that some nail polish shades in the OPI catalogue lie hidden inside the drawers. That Marc Jacobs perfumes, despite the absence of any “J” shelf on the wall, periodically appear on the lower shelves of “K.”
While piecing together the flâneur in The Arcades Project, Benjamin noted how, “The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flâneur into phantasmagoria.” That last word — “phantasmagoria”—appears recurrently in his description of the flâneur’s cityscape. It derives from the French term “fantasme” and was originally the name of an 1802 London exhibition in which projecting lanterns produced optical illusions. By repeatedly calling the city phantasmagoric, Benjamin implies that the sights the flâneur sees derive a fantastical quality from the lens of their perception. He elaborates how the city also contains “historical shudders” that arouse memories and instructions at the flâneur’s footsteps. Walking through Sephora involves a similar experience.
The first thing to hit my senses is the scent — a floral, elegantly antiseptic smell that wafts from the crowd of cosmetics into the interior of any branch of Sephora located across the world. The smell, which Benjamin labels as one of the strongest sensory experiences in his essay collection Illuminations (1968), reminds me that I am about to enter a Sephora even before I step in through the doors. By virtue of how scents operate, it takes me back to past visits to other Sephora branches, of shopping trips made fun by the company of now absent friends and family.
As I start looking through the cosmetics on display, their names make deliberate attempts to transport me to a location or experience. Nina Ricci’s “Love in Paris” Eau de Toilette. Bite Beauty’s “Amuse Bouche” lipstick and Kat von D’s “Lolita Obsession” lipstick collection. OPI’s “Fiji” nail polish collection, which promises to recreate the island’s “rich ocean blues and exotic flowers.” These products remind me of how I’ve always wanted to visit an exotic island, try a French hors d’oeuvre like Amuse Bouche, or read Nabokov’s great classic. For others who have experienced these things, they will evoke memories. And thus through the lens of these references, the products at Sephora take on fantastic dimensions through my perception of a past or distant experience through my present, much like the cityscape did for the flâneur.
But alas, I’m forced to face some realities. The part of me that dwells in the past realizes why the romanticized flâneur of 19th-century Paris was unequivocally a man; because a woman strolling unaccompanied through the city in those days was not only unsafe but also likely to be considered a prostitute. It also recalls what Charles Baudelaire, a major depicter of the flâneur, had said about women and cosmetics in The Painter of Modern Life — that maquillage is part and parcel of beauty because it allows women to fulfill their duty of appearing as beautiful as possible for men. The part of me that dwells in the present realizes what it often means for a woman to express too much passion for makeup and cosmetics today. By both men and other women, she is thought of as shallow, vain, unintelligent and, in some cases, of questionable character. The freedom to explore the public space may have seeped into the territories of female experience with time, but this freedom doesn’t seem to have shucked the negative connotations attached to it. Instead, the derogatory labels have become a more deeply entrenched and accepted part of a woman’s experience in the public sphere. One could argue that this, too, harkens back to a key habit of the flâneur—of judging types and categories from faces in the crowd; of deciding on people’s personalities from an over-the-surface observation. It is here that a space like Sephora creates a new kind of flâneur.
The romanticized flâneur of 19th-century Paris was unequivocally a man, because a woman strolling unaccompanied through the city in those days was not only unsafe but also likely to be considered a prostitute.
As I take my recuperative walks through Sephora after submitting a particularly draining assignment, I notice how my hands are covered in ten different shades of lipstick, eye liner, eye shadow, blush, and nail polish, if not swinging a bag of purchased cosmetics. At no point of trying these products on did I or my friends worry about appearing shallow or vain or attractive to a man because of a particular shade of makeup. We played with them for our own fun. This makes me a flâneuse who can not only command her presence in a public space in safety and respect, but one who can also participate in the process of self-decoration for her own enjoyment, not to fulfill a duty to the male gaze.
Finally, I notice the fellow Sephorites around me — a man trying to choose a women’s perfume for someone in his life, each of my friends heading separately towards moisturizers suited for their skin types, or a woman steering clear of the loud, bright nail polish shades that call out my name. It shows me how the admittedly profit-seeking strategies of Sephora’s mass market products also help create a space in which observations and connections are formed on the basis of individual tastes and physical types, which are in turn shaped by individual mental or physiological histories. It is a space given numerous interpretations by what beauty and the experience of shopping means for each individual explorer; a space that welcomes a new kind of flâneuse. Breaking free of the urge to judge and generalize, crushing the age-old demand to decorate a man’s world, this flâneuse who haunts a Sephora deals in the individual and not the collective, in tactile observations over just the visual, in a landscape that serves its female citizens instead of making aesthetic products out of them.
“Bounce” and “Order,” flash fiction by Jason Porter
Welcome to Recommended Reading’s new Monday Commuter, our home for flash, graphic, and experimental narrative.
Illustration by Sara LautmanIssue №11Bounce
Coach Dawson called me Jeff even though my name is Josh. Basketball spoke to me. Its flow and rules against contact. Movement and bounce. The team was good that year. Vance Dalmation, our new starting power forward, was an exchange student. Rumors were that he was in his early thirties. All the female teachers wanted him in their classes, whispering basketball-themed jokes about the handling of balls. I wanted to be the backup point guard, but I set my goals in achievable increments. I was late on puberty. The rest of the team was hairy in ways I wasn’t. I couldn’t compete. I became the manager. Vance liked me. I helped him with geometry, history, and theater homework. The theater director, Mr. Jeffries, was nice to me because I knew Vance and he wanted Vance to star as Julius Caesar. Never mind that Vance could barely read. Whatever. I took the power I could. Pretty girls talked to me, said they wanted to be friends. I wanted more but was afraid, because I wanted to feel like a man but wasn’t. I practiced basketball. Dribbling with my left hand. Fadeaway bank shots. Free throws. Vance came over one night for a sleepover. He made me sleep on the floor. In the morning I found him standing close to my stepmom as she flipped pancakes. A smell hovered in the air that was not blueberries. Today I am an accountant. Vance and I are still friends on Facebook. He’s bald.
We were free that afternoon. A half-day declared on technical grounds we didn’t care about. Virus sweeps and data boosters. The sweaty tech workers who scoffed at our downloads were working under the desks all afternoon. “Down on your hands and knees,” I said to the one with the terrible B.O., loud enough so Sheila could hear. She pinged me back, “Make ‘em fix yo ‘puter doggy style,” not thinking about how the tech guy might look at my screen. That laugh I have that I can’t control and is too loud started. I said, “Guess I better start my weekend now.” We decided on the tackiest drinks from the lamest bar-restaurant-cantina-nightspot within a four-expressway radius. Sheila said I want something with blue rum in it “by the end of business hours” in our manager’s voice. Taco Murphy’s had outdoor seating. We kept telling the waiter, a community college student with huge hands and pokey badger hair, that we needed things “ASAP!” We were intentionally loud. The parking lot filled up. Men in loose suits poured in. I said, “How many drinks would it take to sleep with attorneys?” Sheila said, “They’ll make you sign something first.” I ordered another pitcher, saying “pronto.” We played the hypothetical game where we’re trapped on an office-shaped island and forced to repopulate. I hated my job so much, but I never wanted to quit, because I never wanted to risk not having Sheila to hate something with.
About the Author
Jason Porter writes fiction. His first novel, Why Are You So Sad?, was published by Plume. He is currently hard at work on a collection of 250 stories all precisely 250 words in length. To document this endeavor he has started a podcast, Grownups Are Lucky, where you can hear him read these small constructions, including the two stories featured here in The Commuter. To subscribe visit www.thejasonporter.com/grownups or any of your reputable podcast wholesalers.
About the Illustrator
Sara Lautman is a cartoonist, illustrator, and editor in Baltimore. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Playboy, Mad, Jezebel, The Paris Review, The Pitchfork Review and The Awl, and more can be found on her blog, saralautman.com.
About the Recommended Reading and the Commuter
The Recommended Reading Commuter publishes here every other Monday, and is our home for flash and graphic narrative, and poetry. Recommended Reading is the weekly fiction magazine of Electric Literature, publishing every Wednesday morning. In addition to featuring our own recommendations of original, previously unpublished fiction, we invite established authors, indie presses, and literary magazines to recommend great work from their pages, past and present. For access to year-round submissions, join our membership program on Drip, and follow Recommended Reading on Medium to get every issue straight to your feed. Recommended Reading is supported by the Amazon Literary Partnership, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. For other links from Electric Literature, follow us, or sign up for our eNewsletter.
Maybe you can learn too much about me by reading my work, but it bothers me when people don’t even try
I sat on the floor of my cramped Bangkok apartment, a to-go container of ramen warming my legs, and my laptop opened on the coffee table. On my computer screen, thirteen hours behind me in San Antonio, Daniel lay on a hotel bed. We’d dated for a few months in the Fall, but stopped when I moved to Thailand. We still spoke often. Our conversations towed the line between “just friends” and “more than friends.” My Thai students called it jeeb: liking one another, but not actually dating.
I complained about how recent dates didn’t read my writing. “It’s not the language barrier,” I said. “They’re all fluent in English. They just don’t care.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “You don’t actually want me to read your stuff, do you?”
I swirled my chopsticks in the ramen. My answer to his question was yes, I did want him to read my stuff; I just didn’t know why. In the seven months Daniel and I had been in jeeb he’d only read one of my articles: a Huffington Post piece about watching porn. Many of my dates read it, but I knew it was just due to the subject matter. If I wrote an article detailing a one-night stand they’d probably read that, too. What they didn’t read was anything else: my essays not about sex. The lack of interest bugged me; the fact that it bugged me also bugged me. Why did I want dates to read my writing? Did I want approval? Validation? Feedback? As a writer, what role did my work play in my dating life?
During the seven years that we dated, my ex read everything I wrote. Published, unpublished — it didn’t matter. As an engineer, his comments weren’t always constructive nor were they exalting, but my writing interested him and I liked that. I grew up in an artistic family: my dad a potter and glassblower, my mother a painter. I often helped them sell their work at galleries and art fairs. People judged their artwork, deeming it worthy to purchase or not. I wanted that concrete validation for my own art. Financial validation seemed a ways off, so I sought verbal appraisal instead.
Suddenly single and navigating the dating world, I found it awkward to say to dates, “I’m a writer.”
“Do you have any books?” they’d ask.
“No,” I said, questioning what made a “real writer.”
“I have some publications: journals and websites.”
The dates would smile and nod.
Their interest in my work fluctuated. One date read everything of mine that existed online, including my graduate thesis, which he found in my university library’s electronic database. He texted his opinions and critically analyzed one essay. I told Daniel about this on our fifth date.
“That’s weird,” Daniel said. “I’m not going to read everything you’ve ever published.”
I laughed. “It was a bit intense,” I said. I wanted to add: But it was also flattering.
Another date told me, “I won’t read any of your stuff. That way you can write whatever you want about me.” I’ll write whatever I want anyways, I thought. Two other dates read an essay not depicting porn or sex and said, “That was long. Can’t you write something shorter?” Another date said he fell asleep.
“Gee thanks,” I said.
“It wasn’t because of the work,” he said. “It was late. I was tired.”
“Did you try reading it the next day?”
Mr. Tired and I dated for another two months. I asked three more times if he’d read the article. He didn’t.
There’s a stereotype that writers thrust their work upon anyone they meet: Do you want to read my book? Do you want to read my poems? Do you want to see why I’m the next Hemingway? I am not one of those writers. Throwing my work at someone feels aggressive and sets a high bar: This better be damn good if she’s forcing me to read it. There are even times when I’d benefit from being a little less humble about my work (or is “insecure” a better word?). Still, something about my dates’ apathy gnawed at me. It felt similar to watching a movie that began with a character’s death; I didn’t know the character; I wasn’t attached and had no reason to feel sad, but the death and its effect on the story made me want to hug a pillow and hide in a blanket fort. When dates showed as much interest in my writing as they would a teeth cleaning, my interest in them dropped to teeth cleaning level, too.
When dates showed as much interest in my writing as they would a teeth cleaning, my interest in them dropped to teeth cleaning level, too.
Besides the way my dates’ disinterest made me feel, I knew sharing my writing came with risks. I primarily write nonfiction. When I tell this to a date, they don’t even hide their look of concern. Who wants to date someone that might transcribe your every word and movement for the world to read? I use fake names (unless I hate someone — sorry, Ross), but the prospect of being written about and published is daunting. Another risk: in just a few pages someone can learn more about me than they would in a full year of dating. My insecurities, my flaws, my bad decisions, my emotional baggage — it’s all just a hyperlink away.
The final risk: they could hate my work. A date could think my craft was crap or silly, and tell me I had wasted the last fifteen years of my life and education. I can handle criticism and I know what is constructive and what’s not, but it would still be a blow. Dating is bedlam. Did I really want to add extra risks to the mix?
Yes — I did. I do.
Seeking validation or not, my writing is me. It’s not just a job or a hobby. It’s my art; I feel compelled to create it. A lack of interest in my work feels like a lack of interest in me. Dates will read an article about porn, but what about other topics? What about the essay about my dream to follow in my hippie mother’s footsteps and be teargassed during a protest? What about the essay about an eye infection that symbolizes my inability to ask for help? What about the essay where my friends and I were nearly shipwrecked in the North Atlantic Sea?
I’m not asking that someone read my work after only one or two dates. I’m not asking that they read every page of my thesis. I’m not even asking that a date read my work before we have sex. What I ask is that, if we’ve gone on a handful of dates and have moved beyond a quick drink at a bar, they show some interest in my art. A date who doesn’t care to read my writing — or who falls asleep reading it — doesn’t care to know me.
A date who doesn’t care to read my writing — or who falls asleep reading it — doesn’t care to know me.
On the floor of my Bangkok apartment I continued to pick up and drop clumps of ramen noodles. Daniel propped himself up on his elbow and looked at the webcam. “You don’t actually want me to read your stuff, do you?”
“It would be nice if you read something,” I said. “It is what I do, after all: I write. You could show some interest.”
Daniel’s normal flirtatious grin dropped. He looked at the bottom of the screen. Then he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I will.”
Astrology is having a moment. From astrology-inspired lingerie to astrology-themed bars, it seems like it’s being applied to literally everything, to the point of being a gimmick.
“But I don’t believe in astrology,” you might say. The thing is, astrology isn’t necessarily something to “believe” in. It’s not a religion. It’s a system — a tool — for understanding the world around us. There are many tools we can use to understand this incredible world, many stories we can tell ourselves about why it works the way it does. Astrology is one of these, and it might even be a tool that resonates with you.
Part of the learning curve with astrology is that there is a lot to keep track of, and in the saturated “Instagram witch” market we are in right now, complex ideas can get boiled down to stereotypes (like “Geminis are untrustworthy”) that are often incorrect and easy to dismiss.
But what if the signs were associated with your favorite authors? Maybe you can’t identify a Sagittariu, but can you identify a Joan Didion type? Probably.
I’ve put together a list of 12 authors that correlate to the 12 sun signs— the core of a person’s identity, what they are centrally concerned with as well as how they are concerned with and interact with the world. (There are other kinds of signs, but being, say, a Maya Angelou with Oscar Wilde rising is more complicated and we won’t get into that today.)
Perhaps if you never really “felt” like a Scorpio, or just couldn’t remember what that would mean, you’ll be more comfortable as an Atwood.
ARIES: Maya Angelou
March 21–April 19
Aries understand the world through understanding themselves. The leader of the fire signs (or “cardinal” fire), Aries springs forth with the spring equinox, the start of the zodiac year. People born under Aries have a fierce devotion to self. Often misinterpreted as selfish, Aries are in fact self-possessed: in knowing themselves and creating roads others never dreamed, they pave the way for others.
Maya Angelou was a quintessential Aries. Angelou first worked as a dancer and pursued numerous creative outlets — Aries are performers, after all. But Angelou is best remembered as a memoirist and essayist, for her autobiographical work. For the articulation of the “I,” for understanding herself through her writing. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Angelou wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou redefined how black women could write about themselves and be perceived by a wide reading public. “Phenomenal woman, that’s me.”
Aries is ruled by Mars, and, like their ruling planet, people born under Aries are warriors: the kind of folks you find on the front lines, all fired up. Aries are battering rams you do not want to mess with. But there is a tenderness to that fire, a desire to just be seen, to be understood. There is wisdom, there, that you find when an Aries settles into themselves: they become the eye of the storm. Think of Angelou later in life: it was as if, if she so chose, she could speak fire into existence. Her words made the air crackle and spark. That’s the power of Aries.
TAURUS: Angela Carter
April 20–May 20
“I desire, therefore, I exist,” Angela Carter wrote in her 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. A more perfect motto for Taurus you’d be hard pressed to find.
Taurus digs into the earth, gets its hands dirty. Taurus grows the seeds that Aries plants. Taurus plows, slow and steady. Taurus knows that the body is the work and the play and the reward.
Taurus is fixed earth: the stubborn bull, the earth mother, the sensual lover, the person whose emotions show up in their body. Taurus is ruled by Venus, the planet of pleasure. Taurus wants a good meal, a good fuck, and a good nap.
From novels like The Magic Toyshop to short story collections like The Bloody Chamber to her nonfiction like The Sadeian Woman, Carter’s work centers on the body, on sexuality: on the carnal, and how the individual is shaped by the carnal. By desire, but also by environment: places like the titular bloody chamber, or the cold white of the snow in “The Snow Child.”
And this is Taurus: ruled by Venus, Taurus revels in the sensual, in the body, in the earth, in the five senses, in understanding the self through the experience of the physical environment. Carter brought the theory of BDSM and the mystical of fairy tales into the body, into the deeply physical realms of desire. She made the unimaginable imaginable.
When the body is aligned with the spirit — or, when the spirit comes into the body — Venus shows up. There is magic to be found — magic that Taurus is particularly adept at summoning.
GEMINI: Gwendolyn Brooks
May 21–June 20
Of all the air signs, Gemini moves the fastest — there is a Peter Pan quality to Gemini folk. Ruled by Mercury, Gemini is mutable air, whipping up the solidity of Taurus earth. The world is alive with spring, Gemini says. Have you heard? In the tarot, Gemini is represented by The Lovers: a world come alive with ideas, with romance.
Geminis are the poets of the zodiac: obsessed with language, sharp, incisive, and playful as hell. In this, Gwendolyn Brooks was the consummate Gemini. Brooks was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer, ever, and of course, she won for her poems. Even Brooks’ only novel, Maud Martha, is told in short vignettes; every word counts. Geminis are magicians, speaking ideas into existence with their words.
Communication is what Geminis are known for, but undergirding this is their true defining trait: curiosity. Children of Hermes, Geminis are the winged messengers among us who bridge the gap between friend groups, between generations, saying what others can’t or won’t, pollinating numerous areas of society. They have a gift for duality, for seeing all of life’s shades of grey, a gift which can get them in trouble. Unlike their opposing sign, Sagittarius, they are not devoted to the pursuit of Truth; they just want to express their truth as honestly as possible. And Geminis, perhaps better than most, know that their interior truth can change — which is part of why they’re so hell-bent on being good at communicating. Communicating, mind you, not necessarily talking: “I am a writer perhaps because I am not a talker,” Brooks once said.
Brooks’ oeuvre speaks to this commitment to curiosity and communication: she was extraordinarily prolific, working into old age, publishing numerous collections and working in schools to the end of her life, largely through her work as a Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress — the first ever black woman appointed to the position.
CANCER: Octavia Butler
June 21–July 22
Summer solstice brings with it Cancer season: the heart of summer, the longest days, the shortest nights. Cancer is cardinal water: the leader of the water signs, the fertile rains which nurture and grow. Traditionally associated with the moon, the home, and motherhood, Cancer rules the private realm. But it would be a mistake to underestimate Cancers: the depth of their loyalty, and the ferocity with which they guard their domain. Don’t mess with a Cancer — but especially do not mess with a Cancer’s people.
Above all, Cancers are charged with tending to life. With extraordinary empathy and a gift for boundaries, they are well equipped to do so. Octavia Butler, one of the most renowned science fiction writers of the twentieth century, continually pressed on the question of the value of human life in her work: what does it mean to be human? “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining,” Butler once said. Butler, the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, is often celebrated as one of the vanguards of Afrofuturism, one of the few voices bringing characters from marginalized backgrounds to the forefront of genre fiction.
Like its opposite sign Capricorn, Cancer is concerned with history and legacy, and Butler’s work bends time back and forward to comment on racism, sexism, and the deeply entrenched hierarchies that folks must struggle to survive against. In Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred, Dana, an African-American woman, travels back in time from 1970s LA to 19th century Maryland, where she meets her ancestors: a white slaveholder and a black freewoman forced into slavery. Butler’s work continually finds ways to hold the past and the future simultaneously. This is a central challenge Cancer faces: the integration of the family with the finding of the self. As Butler once wrote in the Parable of the Talents,
Self is. Self is body and bodily perception. Self is thought, memory, belief. Self creates. Self destroys. Self learns, discovers, becomes. Self shapes. Self adapts. Self invents its own reasons for being. To shape God, shape Self.”
You know when a Leo walks into a room. It might be their hair, it might be their clothes, it might be that they always know how to make an entrance. But mostly, it’s their presence. Leos crave a stage, but they aren’t just performers — they are the consummate actor who also writes, produces, and directs the show. Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage, but for Leo, all the world’s an audience.
This isn’t a bad thing. Leos get a bad rap for being selfish, but Leos teach us how to value ourselves. Not the boastful braggart, not the loudest person in the room. The most centered person in the room. The person who is really, truly assured of their worth and value. That is why Leos radiate confidence: because when you know and love yourself, you shine. Have you ever met an apologetic Leo sun or Leo rising, a Leo person who was anything less than the fullness of what they were? No, of course you haven’t. Leos are fully themselves, and this makes folks who are operating at a bandwidth or frequency that is less than themselves uncomfortable.
An invaluable gift — especially when society wants you to bow to its norms. James Baldwin was a Leo who refused to bend, a lionhearted man who knew his gifts and who used the spotlight to his advantage — personally, professionally, socially, turning it back on society to reflects its ills and prejudices. Baldwin wrote fiercely, unapologetically. His 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room contained significant homoerotic themes; facing criticism, he published it anyway. Baldwin gave speaking tours; was close friends with people in all circles, stretching back from the Harlem Renaissance (his teacher was Countee Cullen) all the way to Maya Angelou; appeared next to his longtime friend Marlon Brando at the March on Washington. Baldwin was a media darling, because he knew how to use the press to his advantage. In death, he has become almost mythic. Leos know how to spin a legend out of a life.
“You write in order to change the world… if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it,” Baldwin once said.
VIRGO: Mary Oliver
August 23–September 22
Virgos get lost in the details — but really, they just have a passion for the project. They want to see it through, and they want it to be the best. If their fellow earth signs Capricorns are concerned with the long-range view, and Tauruses are concerned with the pleasure of the moment, Virgos are the taskmasters, the organizers. Virgos have a reputation for being critical, but they are less often seen for what they really are, underneath all those other things: the analyst. Ruled by Mercury, like Gemini, Virgos are also deeply curious, but their curiosity manifests in wanting to see how everything works — they are scientists, if you will, even when their profession couldn’t be further from science if they tried.
Mary Oliver, for example. A lesbian poet living in relative seclusion on Cape Cod, Oliver has, for the most part, elided personal subject matter in favor of the natural world. For decades, she has published poetry considering roses and grasshoppers and water and ripples. Her poetry reveals the analyst, the critic, the organizer and, yes, even the taskmaster in Virgo: the person who wanders the woods and takes note of the smallest bits and bobs, who notices how it all clicks into place, how it moves as one organism, how it fits together — often illuminating something about the human experience in the process. Oliver writes, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
This attention to detail reveals another superpower in Virgo that is not often considered, which can be found by considering Virgo’s opposing sign, Pisces. In its attentiveness, Virgo heals: Virgo brings insight that serves the greater good. Virgo notices the details that others miss — Virgo is the nurse who finds the missing piece, the parent who notices the misstep in their child’s pattern, and, yes, the poet who brings us to stillness in nature.
Virgo finds healing and beauty in the smallest detail. Virgo finds beauty and worth in the work, whatever that work is.
As Oliver also writes, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
LIBRA: Oscar Wilde
September 23–October 22
The autumnal equinox ushers in Libra season, and with it, the official beginning of fall: a crisp cooldown, sweater season. Libras are cardinal air (leader of the air signs, if you will) ruled by Venus. Whereas Venus manifests as pleasure in earthy Taurus, in Libra it is more high-minded: art, culture, elegance — the expression of beauty. “A Libra is just an Aries who has been to charm school,” said astrologer Jayj Jacobs.
Autumn is also cuffing season, and Libras are known for being romantics. This is a bit of a misconception; Libras are more invested in harmony in relationships than romance, per se (although they’re quite good at performing the trappings of romance). Represented by the Justice card in the tarot, Libras bring a sense of order to their surroundings, imbuing beauty and harmony into their environments. Whether that’s a put-together room, a well-styled outfit, or a great book club with the right mix of people, Libras understand how to find that internal rhythm to make something hum. Libra suns and risings understand who to introduce to who at a party. They are often consummate hosts. And they have a keen sense of timing.
Look at Oscar Wilde, who brought his own sharp wit and social observation to his work — The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband. His plays feature that special sort of cutting humor that goes down easier with a gloss of society finery: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Wilde’s humor is rarely concerned with hurting feelings, also a Libra trait — air signs are adept at detaching emotionally, and Libras especially can enjoy banter and flirting for their own sake.
Even so, in his personal life, Wilde had fierce convictions and refused to be anything less than himself; he was a flamboyant gay man living a very out life in a time when to do so was criminal. Wilde defended the “love that has no name” when he was put on trial for homosexuality in 1895. Ultimately, in order to be in harmony with others, Libras must first be in harmony with themselves.
SCORPIO: Margaret Atwood
October 23–November 21
Scorpios see the underbelly of this world. Born at Samhain, when the leaves are falling and molting, Scorpios enter this world when the veil is thin, when the dead walk the earth. Of all the water signs, Scorpios are the most stubborn — they are fixed water, a deep deep well. Le petit mort — the little death — is a euphemism for orgasm; it’s also a good description for Scorpios. Scorpios have a reputation for being sex-obsessed, but they’re more interested in transcendent experiences that bring them to the brink, that allow them to experience other planes of life. Scorpios understand that we all hold light and dark, and there is no convincing them otherwise. Death, rebirth, transformation. The phoenix bird is one of the symbols that represents Scorpio.
More than any other sign, Scorpios are interested in the other side of the story — in the the untold, the maligned, the abject, the obscure. That’s a pretty good summary of Margaret Atwood’s body of work, which takes us to the transformative, to the unimaginable. She takes on myth (The Odyssey, Bluebeard) and imagines the other side of the story; in today’s day and age, her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, feels downright prophetic.
Pisces, one of Scorpio’s sister water signs, understands cosmic oneness and disintegration, spiritual transcendence; Scorpio understands the cyclical nature of the corporeal body, of the many deaths experienced in a lifetime, and consequently, of how precious life can be. In this, Scorpio finds a ferocity to fight for its convictions. Atwood is involved in season two of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale; you’d have to be a fool to not see how strongly the show reflects both reality and imminent possibility.
Like Aries, Scorpios are ruled by Mars. But whereas Aries are the warriors you find on the front lines, Scorpios are stealth: they are the spies, the water churning and roiling beneath the surface. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Sagittarians are ruled by Jupiter, the planet that expands everything it touches. Like their ruling planet, Sags want more: they’re the kid who looks at the sky, wondering when they can move out of their parents’ home, wanting to just sell everything (or put it all out on the sidewalk) and move to another country. Sags love their freedom. Even if Sags return to a beloved home or city, they have to travel first: first and foremost, Sags understand themselves through experiencing the world and all it has to offer. They love learning about other cultures (but not in an appropriative way), food, dance, art, music: through understanding others, they better understand themselves and where they come from.
You could say that Sagittarius, the philosopher of the zodiac, is obsessed with place and home. Joan Didion, for example. Didion currently lives in New York, but she penned perhaps the most famous kiss-off (or rather, love letter in the guise of a kiss-off) to the city, “Goodbye to All That,” in her 1987 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The city had stopped working for her, and she needed to leave in order to be free again.
But Didion maps other landscapes, too — not just place. Sagittarius takes us to places we didn’t know we could go, and this includes interior realms. The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights map grief in stark prose, laying track for her readers who would grieve after to follow. Didion writes into the most uncomfortable corners of the human psyche.
That’s the thing about Sagittarius: they aren’t poets, like their opposing sign, Gemini. This isn’t to say they can’t be poets, but their mutable fire wants to get to the heart of the issue as fast as possible. Gemini is sharp and precise; Sagittarius is big and expansive and searching, always searching. Sagittarius looks for capital-T Truth. Unattainable, almost. Except when they find it in themselves.
CAPRICORN: Lin-Manuel Miranda
December 22–January 19
Capricorn season starts on the winter solstice — the longest night of the year. Saviors come to us in solstice season; so do empire builders, CEOs, folks at the top of their fields. Capricorns are cardinal earth, the leaders of the earth signs, and unlike so many of the other cardinal signs, they understand how to follow through on what they start. They are mountain goats whose problem is not climbing a mountain, but merely choosing which mountain they want to climb (and then, which mountain after that). The Capricorn work ethic is legendary.
“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” is a question oft repeated in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton. Miranda is a Capricorn; unsurprisingly, so was Alexander Hamilton, the titular immigrant Founding Father who Miranda so identified with. But it’s not just hard work that defines Capricorns, or — more stereotypically — an obsession with money or status, although Capricorns can get wrapped up in money (the energy essential to continue the work) and status (recognition for the work).
Capricorns’ real concern is legacy. They understand, better than anyone else, that their life is limited: that they are, in fact, running out of time. It’s said that Capricorns age backwards: they are old souls as children who only understand how to truly relax and have fun in adulthood. They are ruled by Saturn, sometimes called Father Time, or the planet of karma, so this makes sense — Capricorns have a perhaps undue sense of responsibility. They are obsessed with tradition, history, family, place, lineage.
To understand this, you don’t need to look further than Miranda’s work. Consider In the Heights, Hamilton, Moana. Consider the behemoth empires he works with in the entertainment industry: Broadway, Disney. All of this work is obsessed with family, with legacy, with tradition — and with the mutation, with change, with how time works. And, of course, Miranda himself often speaks of his Puerto Rican immigrant parents: of his upbringing in Washington Heights, of his connection to lineage, of his sense of roots and of the past. Capricorns use the past to create a more rooted present and future.
“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” Miranda writes.
AQUARIUS: Toni Morrison
January 20–February 18
The perpetual outsiders even when they’re part of the in circle, Aquarians have a special gift for being able to detach and look at things from everyone’s point of view. The Google Earth view, you could say. There’s a contradiction with Aquarius: they want to be seen, deeply seen, while..
Researchers Have Found Two New Pages in Anne Frank’s Diary. Should We Read Them?Her diary is an important public artifact, but maybe she still deserves some privacy
The New York Times reported this week that the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has successfully uncovered two pages from Anne Frank’s diaries, which Frank covered herself in brown paper. The original diaries are so fragile, they are only taken out of storage once every ten years for study. The two new pages were discovered on one of these exhumations in 2016, and only with the help of new technology which enabled the researches at Anne Frank House to discover what was underneath the brown paper without actually touching them.
Anne Frank was revising herself — covering up two “spoiled” pages that included dirty jokes and an imagined conversation with a man how she would talk to him about sex ed. These are not the only two pages in the diary that reference sex and the body. They’re not even the only pages referencing sex and the body that have, at one point or another, been excised from the diary. But they’re the only two that Anne Frank blotted out herself.
The Diary of Anne Frank has a fraught relationship with editorial changes. That’s because The Diary of Anne Frank that you may have read in middle school is not, in fact, the singular “original” diary written by Anne Frank.
Frank wrote two diaries in her lifetime. The first was a personal account, which she intended to remain private. But, as reported by The New York Times, in 1944, Frank heard on the radio that the Dutch government in exile wanted to archive and publish the stories of people living under German occupation. So she went about rewriting her diary for a public audience. The new book was called “The Secret Annex” and was based on her diaries, but not a perfect facsimile. She completed 215 pages of “The Secret Annex” before her family was arrested, deported, and sent to the concentration camp where she died in 1945.
Her father, Otto Frank, survived the camp, and then the war. As explained in the Critical Edition of The Diary of Anne Frank, Otto Frank then worked with a Dutch publisher to compile a revised version of the diary — taking pieces from Anne Frank’s private diary, and others from “The Secret Annex” to create the third version of the diary we have come to know as The Diary of Anne Frank. But as Stephanie Watson points out in her article on Otto Frank’s arguably sexist editorial direction, some of his choices are cause for concern. In the third version, critical descriptions of Otto and his wife were softened, and some of Anne’s language about her own body and sex were also removed.
But what’s interesting about this most recent bibliographic development is that these are passages about sex and the body that Anne herself tried to cover up. So should we respect her wishes, and keep the pages under brown paper wraps? The question of authorial intention has plagued bibliographers for decades, but it should concern the rest of us, too.
The question highlights the tension between our obligation to authors and our obligation to history. We do not have a great track record of respecting authors’ intentions after their deaths (with a few exceptions). Kafka and Hemingway are still turning in their graves. And our relationship to authors’ private journals are particularly fraught. So it’s pretty interesting that researchers are using the fact that Anne tried to stop things from being published from her private diary in order to prove that Frank was practicing authorial moves for a public audience. The two pages come from Anne Frank’s first, private diary. Given the fact that this was meant to remain a private diary, and the content Frank removed was about her own body, is there an even greater responsibility to respect her wishes?
On its FAQ page for the two new pages, the Anne Frank House goes on to validate their publication by suggesting it’s too late to worry about what Anne Frank might have wished for, since that was done away with in the version published by Otto Frank: “Texts from Anne Frank’s diary papers that she did not herself intend for publication have been published earlier, at various times. That already occurred in the publication arranged by her father in 1947, and later in the compilation of the critical education by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which was published in 1986 and republished in 2001 after the discovery of five new diary pages.” In other words, if we’ve already violated her privacy, we might as well do it again.
But maybe her privacy, and her intentions for her public-facing diary versus her personal one, don’t matter when weighed against the demands of history. The Anne Frank House believes that the potential for historical value and the public’s interest are more important than what Frank might have wanted. The Times quotes Teresien da Silva, the head of collections at the Anne Frank House, who argues: “It’s not always good to follow the wish of an author…It’s important sometimes for scientific research and also good to know for the public what she didn’t want to publish.”
So, now that these two pages are being published, should we read them? Is it our historical obligation to read them, or is it our feminist obligation to respect Anne Frank’s wishes? Maybe a bit of both. Regardless of what we think, the Anne Frank House has confirmed that a transcription of the new pages will be available on their webpage soon, but because of copyright restrictions, the text will only be available in Dutch for the time being. If you don’t read Dutch, you can put off the moral quandary a little longer.
James Pogue, author of ‘Chosen Country: A Rebellion in the West’, on the cowboy fantasy, tribalism, and what Americans are owedPhoto by Sebastian Pociecha on Unsplash
I n January 2016, a few dozen men and women with assault rifles staged a takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a site in eastern Oregon best known as a protected habitat for waterfowl and migratory birds. The group had convened to protest the punishment of two local ranchers who’d been imprisoned for setting fire to publicly owned land. But their project was larger in scope. Led by a rancher’s son named Ammon Bundy, the occupiers were waging a semi-contained war against the federal government in general, and the Bureau of Land Management in particular.
The occupiers’ underlying grievances were (and remain) valid. Simply put, federal restrictions on public land use have curtailed ranchers’ abilities to graze their cattle, preventing them from supporting themselves and their families. And the restrictions, it ought to be noted, seem to get more stringent each year. But the group’s approach to resolution — armed standoffs with federal agents, physical threats to adversaries, collaboration with xenophobic militias — has undermined much of its legal and moral standing.
The Malheur Refuge occupation lasted several weeks, culminating in several dozen arrests and the death of a rancher named LaVoy Finicum, who was shot by Oregon State Police. The writer James Pogue covered the standoff for the New York Times and Vice, and his first book, Chosen Country, is an investigation into the cultural forces that led to it. He became a trusted presence on the Refuge, and was granted unprecedented access to Ammon Bundy and his inner circle. (Throughout the narrative Pogue frets, not without cause, about whether his journalistic integrity has been compromised.)
For those of us who, reading the newspaper two years ago, were quick — as I was — to assume the occupiers were little more than anti-environmentalist, anti-government, NRA-aligned provocateurs out to raise a ruckus, the book provides much-needed context as to how and why this standoff arose, and its implications with regard to future conflicts. It also makes clear that the deregulation the ranchers are fighting for wouldn’t much help them; rather, the primary benefactors would be gas and oil companies that would, inevitably and irrevocably, ruin the land.
I recently spoke with Pogue, via FaceTime, about his book. He was in his apartment in Los Angeles, where he’d recently moved after stints in Santa Fe, New Orleans, New York, Cincinnati, New York (again), Los Angeles (previously), and Oregon. He’d just come in from gardening, and whenever he gestured with his hands — which he did often and wildly — I noted the soil under his nails.
Max Ross: Let me make sure I have this straight: Cattle ranchers led the occupation of the Malheur Refuge, but not all of the occupiers were themselves ranchers.
James Pogue: A minority of the occupiers were ranchers. Most of the people there were militia people — that is, people affiliated with independent militias who see themselves as protecting the United States constitution.
And they like to protect the constitution with guns. They feel very strongly about both these points: the constitution, and the guns.
MR: And why are they supportive of the ranchers?
JP: Well, at the most basic level, they believe the federal government, in its treatment of the ranchers — or, actually, in its implementation of restrictions on land use — is violating the constitution. But there does seem to be something deeper going on.
The more time I spent with them, and the more I read about them, the more I came to see these men — they were mostly men — as trying to fashion a tribal identity. They wanted to be part of a tribe. And the ranchers provide an easy template for what that tribe might look like. They’re cowboys — real American cowboys. They’re tough men. They’re well-adjusted, generally happy men. They raise well-adjusted, generally happy children. They have families, which is no small part of the draw. They do cool stuff out on the land. You or I should be so lucky as to have Ammon Bundy or LaVoy Finicum’s life.
And certainly the militia people wanted to be part of that. They latched onto it, even though most of them have never ranched a day in their lives. It’s a cowboy fantasia, and it’s unattainable for most, (and it’s uncomfortably bound up in whiteness). But it’s a fantasia that Ammon Bundy is remarkably good at promoting, and the militia people will kill and die for the idea of it.
And while this may take us into speculative territory, I feel comfortable saying that these guys are essentially — what they’re doing is looking for a sense of belonging. Except for the militia stuff, they feel they don’t fit in anywhere. They’re outcasts. And so the militias give them a sense of belonging to America, and the ranchers provide a sort of ideal for what an American man should be.
The only problem is that their vision of America is arcane and warped and ignorant of the market forces that are actually keeping them apart, and the cowboy thing is unrealistic.
The militias give them a sense of belonging to America, and the ranchers provide a sort of ideal for what an American man should be.
MR: You connected with a lot of these guys, it seems like. Or at least made yourself comfortable with them.
JP: I got along with them. I like a lot of the same stuff they do. I like going out in the woods and camping. I like trucks and cowboy boots. So we were able to connect on that level.
And I suppose I should say, too, that I want what they want — a sense of American belonging. I’ve realized in retrospect that that’s the foundation of my interest in this story: I was on the outside of something, I was moving from place to place without ever feeling at home, and when the standoff started I viewed these guys as being on the inside of something, and drawing immense satisfaction and meaning from being on the inside of it. I didn’t want to belong to what they belonged to, per se, but I understood that aspect of what motivated them.
I grew up believing that if you do the right stuff — school, hard work, whatever, et cetera — at the end of the rainbow you get this patch of land and a sense of rootedness to go along with it. I was desperate for that, I didn’t have it, and that was the thing I communicated best about with the occupiers. You could say it’s an idea of Americans are owed. Because I do, I think we’re owed a living and a patch of land. That was the vision of this country and I grew up subscribing to it, even if it was never a realistic vision, or a vision that was realistic only for members of a white majority.
In any event, that’s not the country we live in. Nothing is provided. There is no security, regardless of academic pedigree or whatever else. There is no land in place. There’s no point at which you are fine. And the underlying question of the book is: How will we address this natural human desire for stability and belonging? (Especially when economic forces keep separating the top from the bottom more and more starkly, and pushing the middle down.)
The underlying question of the book is: How will we address this natural human desire for stability and belonging? (Especially when economic forces keep separating the top from the bottom… and pushing the middle down.)
MR: Sticking with the ranchers a moment — are their grievances against the government legitimate?
JP: Their grievances are legitimate, though no more legitimate than the grievances of anyone else who’s watched their brand of middle class life in America disappear. That said, the forces that have led to the ranchers’ loss are more tangible and obvious. Everything stems from regulatory decisions. And so it’s easy to think that if the regulatory decisions were rolled back, life as it was will be restored.
MR: Why have the regulations been put in place?
JP: The regulatory decisions — which restrict how many cattle a given rancher is able to graze on public lands — have been driven by environmentalists. And I have to be careful here: in broad strokes, environmentalist regulations are good. Of course they are. But the ranchers have become collateral damage and, also in broad strokes, the environmentalists have not been sympathetic to that. Generally speaking, environmentalists wanted ranchers off the land because they viewed grazing cattle as a threat to wildlife and the sustainability of the land itself. They had a slogan in the nineties: Cow Free By ’93. And that’s not productive, because it’s disrespectful to these people, and to the idea that ranching was a way of life that was going on. And that, while ranching does damage the land to an extent, it is far from being the main culprit.
There’s something fundamentally different about ranchers who beat up the range and industrialists who want to rape the land for oil or gas or whatever it might be. And, in my opinion, environmentalists largely ignored this distinction, which led to a lot of animosity. And it didn’t have to be that way. In reality, ranchers and environmentalists should have similar interests in protecting the land. They both face the same threat. But the way the issue was handled put them on opposite sides.
MR: What was the most important part of the story for you to capture in your book?
JP: The book is very much about the psychodrama of the standoff. The characters, and their relationships, and their craziness — that was what interested me most.
It was such an insane environment. There were rumors every day that the FBI was set to invade the Refuge, and the paranoia among the occupiers became more and more pronounced. Meanwhile, the media gave them more and more attention, which stoked a sense of self-importance among the group. The essence of my reporting was being able to show how these forces converged and affected some of the major players.
Their grievances are legitimate, though no more legitimate than the grievances of anyone else who’s watched their brand of middle class life in America disappear.
MR: How integral was Ammon to all of this?
JP: It’s worth painting in broad strokes — apparently the only strokes I like to paint in — the figure of Ammon Bundy. He’s a man who matured as a family guy. He wasn’t a twentysomething forcing himself into a position of power. He has six children and lives a relatively quiet Mormon life. But then when he’s thirty-nine, federal agents descend upon his home, and he essentially summons and leads an army against them. And wins. A few years later he takes over a wildlife refuge, and is able to draw people from across the country without yelling and without carrying a gun. And these people are willing to die for him. Add into the mix that he believes angels told him to do what he was doing. He was visited three times in the night by an angel who told him to occupy the Refuge, and he believes this deeply. The gears turning in there are insane.
I should say, too, that I wanted him to like me. I suppose I would defy any man who has a bit of a male competitive thing to not want Ammon to like him. Even as I was reporting on him, even as I was interviewing him and remained skeptical of his motives and found him to be an incredibly dangerous individual, I was being seduced. And I don’t think he was trying to seduce me. I think he has a gift.
And I see that as part of the story. If you don’t have a figure like Ammon — a Svengali guy — none of this would have happened.
The problem, from a journalistic perspective, was that he’s an ideologue, and that to an extent he is unknowable. He toes his own party line and never goes off script. As much time as I spent with him, I kept waiting for that reveal, that moment where he was going to crack and say what his true motives were. But his façade remained frustratingly intact. Ultimately it was like trying to get to know a really charming and engaging golden Retriever.
MR: And you view him, and his followers, as dangerous.
JP: Their influence is spreading and they’re dangerous — we’re talking mostly about the militia guys again. They believe in civil war. And, in a sense, they’re already winning.
Around the world, states and countries lose control of areas filled with people with AR-pattern rifles all the time. And these areas of the world look an awful lot like the American west. The ingredients are all there.
It’s very difficult for me to think we’re fundamentally different from other places where fratricidal violence has erupted. It would be more surprising to me if we didn’t have some sort of fratricidal violence than if we did. It just seems weird to me that people think that’s strange.
The government won’t be able to stop anything once it starts. You can’t roll into a rural place with a tank and put a stop to a grassroots insurrection. We learned that through the Malheur Refuge standoff. When LaVoy was shot, the movement got way bigger. Which is to say, this is demonstrably a movement with a martyr. Think about that — there is a considerable faction of the American populace with a great many weapons willing to use violent means to limit the federal government’s power, and when the government interferes the movement only gains more support. These are people who feel like they have nothing to lose. And that’s really scary. They’re extremists and they have martyrs and they have nothing to lose and the danger is real.
MR: You were not left untouched by the standoff. Even though you were reporting it, you didn’t remain a fly on the wall.
JP: I spent a lot of time with these guys. And so, just naturally, I ended up liking a lot of them, even as I disagreed with them.
And so as everything came to a head, I was more and more shaken up. I had never had someone I knew get killed by the cops. I never had three-dozen people I knew, some of them well, all of a sudden end up in jail. You don’t have to agree with the people involved to be shaken by that. And it all hit really fast.
To say nothing of the fact that the FBI started lingering outside my hotel room and patching into my phone calls with these guys.
But — and this will be no real surprise — I’ve been most affected by LaVoy’s death. I felt like that didn’t need to happen. And the people responsible for it were not the Oregon State police who killed him. The police killed him, but I saw this as being Ammon’s fault, and I had a lot of anger toward Ammon. And in sitting with my anger, the entire scenario crystalized for me into a story about people who gave a lot, about people who sacrificed a great deal, and were willing to sacrifice a great deal more, to follow a deeply compelling, misleading leader.
It’s Me, I’m ‘The Idiot’Elif Batuman’s essays and novel finally let me see my Turkish American experience reflected on the pagePhoto by John Salvino
I haven’t heard of Elif Batuman — brainy, hilarious essayist and novelist — until I go exercising at a Snap Fitness 24–7 location near my apartment one afternoon. It is January 27, 2011, a day I only remember because I will later send myself an email and archive it. Subject line: TODAY I FOUND ELIF.
This particular gym is managed by two enormous, suntanned brothers who want me to invest in their diet smoothie pyramid scheme. The brothers have recently purchased a state-of-the-art stairclimber, the crown jewel of their fitness franchise. We have to sign up for it on a special clipboard. The person on the climber before me that day leaves a women’s magazine behind on the reading rack. The magazine is one of those Christmas gift guide issues filled with photos of luxury candles and control-top pantyhose. A bit weirdly, there is also a suggestion that, for the bibliophiles in our life, we should all purchase Batuman’s new memoir, a collection of essays called The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
When I see the blurb, I have no reason to believe this book will change my life. First of all, I have never embarked on an adventure with a Russian, or even a Russian book, so I don’t feel I fit the target audience. But the book does change my life. It changes my life before I even read it.
It’s not an exaggeration to say as soon as I see the author’s name, I launch myself off the stairclimber like a mountain goat in flight, and sprint back to my apartment, abandoning my workout in order to conduct a thorough Google search. It turns out Batuman has written for the Atlantic, for the New Yorker, for the literary journal n+1. She has published a funny piece about a Thai kickboxing champion, written about ice palaces, Central Asian landladies, and how to find a good watermelon when in Uzbekistan. She has written about it all.
The book does change my life. It changes my life before I even read it.
At my kitchen table that afternoon, I discover Batuman’s personal blog, and immediately enter an alternative-reality fugue state where everything not on the screen vanishes. All I can do is keep reading and reading until finally, I look up and realize it is pitch dark and I haven’t moved for about four hours. My sweaty clothes have long dried and stiffened. My thigh muscles are frozen tight.
The blog, which is no longer available online, tells me about Elif’s life, her experiences as a graduate student, as a writer, as the only child of Turkish immigrants. It is my gateway drug. It leads me deeper, and to other things: to print interviews, to her Twitter feed, to NPR conversations, and a scathing, brilliant essay she has written, for the London Review of Books, on the strange obsession creative writing programs have with craft (“What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”).
I order The Possessed straight away, rush delivery, hardcopy, yes, please send the free sample chapters to my inbox. Then, I write an email to my entire family, subject line: İnanılmaz bir Türk Amerikalı yazar buldum. Translation: I’ve found an incredible Turkish American writer — which is true, but it is incomplete. Batuman isn’t just an incredible Turkish American writer. She is the incredible Turkish American writer. She is the only one.
Batuman isn’t just an incredible Turkish American writer. She is the incredible Turkish American writer. She is the only one.
If I were to write a story about my life, my protagonist-self would be, like Batuman, the only child of Turkish immigrants. My tale would be one of general nerdiness and loneliness and cycling up and down the same stretch of sidewalk on a ten-speed. It would be a story of not having a boyfriend until the age of 20, and most scenes would take place on the couch, me in loungewear, reading about Narnia.
Some loners are video game-enthusiasts. Some grow heirloom tomatoes. For me, it has always, always been about books. But in all that time, years upon years, stories upon stories, I have never encountered a heroine who speaks Turkish like I do, who grew up in between here and there; someone whose experiences, in some fundamental way, mirror my own. Until now.
After The Possessed is delivered, I race home after work every day to devour Batuman’s words. I am thrilled to find essays about America and Turkey and the former Soviet Union’s Turkic republics. In one piece, Batuman recounts a trip to Kayseri, the “Turkish pastrami capital.” In another, she describes her uncle, a man who “spent his later years in a gardening shed in New Jersey, writing a book about string theory and spiders.” She shares her adventures in Uzbekistan, where she survives on “some kind of chocolate spread” eating it directly from the jar with a “souvenir Uzbek scimitar.” She attempts to learn old Uzbek, a language with 70 words for duck, 100 words for crying.
There is something mildly bonkers/deeply resonant about every single essay, and by the time I finish the book, I am electrified in a way I have never been before. I have only read about this part of the world, ostensibly “my” part of the world, through the eyes of European writers, usually white men. The Possessed is different. It is richer, feels truer to life, free of condescension and bad stereotypes about what it means to be Turkish. It is an infinite improvement over everything that’s come before.
When Elif’s debut literary novel The Idiot, about Selin Karadag, a Turkish American first-year college student, is announced, I set up a Google alert for it and begin the wait. That winter, I preorder online, and read the first chapter, previewed in a January issue of the New Yorker. When a troll launches a Twitter-attack on Elif, I secretly report him every day until he eventually disappears.
I read The Idiot slowly, savoring it, dog-earing the pages. Some chapters I finish, then go back and immediately read again. Some parts I read out loud to my best friend. Some parts make me cry. Never has the act of reading been a means of such profound self-affirmation.
I love Selin, the type of bookish, dorky, peculiar character chronically underloved and overlooked in literature. I love her for the silent “g” in her super Turkish last name. I love her for her observation of a dinner buffet in a Mediterranean resort town (it has a “kebab station and a swan made of butter sweating in a tub of ice”), and for her hilarious visit to Turkey’s first golf hotel, where she rides around in a golf cart with a man shaped like a barrel.
When I meet Selin on the page for the first time, I am pushed to examine how I’ve accepted a lack of representation, or bad representation, as the norm for all these years. Selin shows me what I’ve suspected all along: that something different is possible. She helps me see, after decades of watching from the sidelines, mute and passive, maligned or ignored, what it is to finally become part of the plot.
She helps me see, after decades of watching from the sidelines, mute and passive, maligned or ignored, what it is to finally become part of the plot.
Three years ago, before the release of The Idiot, Elif published an essay in the New Yorker on reading racist literature. “As a Turkish American, I couldn’t prevent myself from registering all the slights against Turkish people that I encountered in European books,” she writes. “In Heidi, the meanest goat is called ‘the Great Turk’;” in the Agatha Christie novel, Dumb Witness, someone decides it’s “rather dreadful for an English girl to marry a Turk,” as it “shows a certain lack of fastidiousness.”
Elif describes these encounters as mildly jarring. “There I’d be, reading along,” she says, “imaginatively projecting myself into the character most suitable for imaginative projection, forgetting through suspension of disbelief the differences that separated me from that character — and then I’d come across a line like ‘These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children’ (The Brothers Karamazov).”
After I finish Elif’s essay, I print it out and pin it to a cork board in my office. I feel defiant. The first paragraph alone makes me want to march out of the building and start a riot. Every act of literary cruelty and exclusion has diluted and erased the richness, the fullness of experience not just of Turks, but of people of color; of women and the LGBTQ; of immigrants; of the poor.
Every act of literary cruelty and exclusion has diluted and erased the richness, the fullness of experience not just of Turks, but of people of color; of women and the LGBTQ; of immigrants; of the poor.
But suddenly, here is Elif. Here is Elif, beginning to do what no one else in this country’s Turkish community has done before. Here is Elif, gently pointing the finger at what’s wrong, showing us there is a better way.
I am spending the winter in Istanbul. I am staying for a full month, and will be on the same college campus where Elif is writer-in-residence. I’ve never been to this campus before. It’s relatively new, and has been built atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest of birch and chestnut, looking down onto the Black Sea coast.
I don’t think I should email Elif. I have her email, I found it on her blog, I think, but I don’t want to use it, because what would I even say? That I’m a big fan? I think it’s weird to be a big fan, especially at my age. Twelve-year-olds can be a “big fan;” can fangirl over someone. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a fanwoman and if there is, I don’t want to be one.
Twelve-year-olds can be a “big fan;” can fangirl over someone. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a fanwoman and if there is, I don’t want to be one.
So I don’t email her. Not for, like, a week — which for an Aries, is roughly equivalent to one calendar year. I hold out that long until one night, my friend Çağla comes over to my place for dinner, mentions she just saw Elif at the bus stop across the street, and the next thing I know, Çağla and I are drafting an email on my laptop. I convince myself it’s okay to do this because Elif isn’t just any writer. She’s someone who has written, with humor and grace and smarts, about the complicated, messy particularities of her life as a Turkish American young woman and, in the process, has given me the courage to do the same.
I don’t remember exactly what I say in the email, but I remember I try my best to sound jokey and not like a serial murderer. I invite Elif to a picnic Çağla and I are organizing in Kilyos that Sunday. I tell Elif I’m a “big fan” of her blog; that I follow her on social media. I try to keep it short. I make sure to use spellcheck.
As soon as I hit “send” I am filled immediately with regret, and already predicting my future embarrassment at this picnic, but it turns out I don’t need to worry. Although Elif will write back, gracious and kind, she will not be able to make it to Kilyos on Sunday. I’m glad she won’t. Honestly, I am. I’m sad for a minute, but then relieved, because I know what they say about never meeting your heroes. People say that. They say it all the time.
Years later, long after I’ve left Istanbul, I will try, shaky and green, to write a short story about a Turkish American girl. I will name her Elif. This is my smoke signal, a tip of the hat to show: she paved the way. She had things to say that I needed to hear. She saw the humanity, the humor, the stories in us so that I could, too. She made me feel like we’re all in this together.