On books as mentors for those of us who grew up in the wake of HIV/AIDS.
Like most queer people, my parent are straight. I was raised in the country, in rural Washington State. We couldn’t get cable, so my dad installed an antenna rotor on our roof to help with the salt-and-pepper static that clouded NBC, but this was before Will & Grace. All I knew about being gay is that it would get you beat up as a kid, and then you’d die from AIDS.
I was in college before I learned how gay men had sex. I’d been attracted to men by then—my first boy-crush was a lanky, tall boy who played basketball in the intramural league it was my campus job to organize. Walking home drunk from a party, a straight man told me that gay men fuck in the ass, but I didn’t believe him. This same straight boy often got too drunk and asked me, slurring his words, to slow dance with him, shirtless.
“What did you think gay men do?” he asked.I was 21. I wanted to fuck men, that much I knew, but I had never thought about how.
If sex between men seemed impossible to imagine, intimacy seemed even more so. Intimacy between men seemed then — like it sometimes seems even now — to be a foreign language spoken in a country where I was only a visitor, dependent on a dictionary even for banalities: ordering an orange juice for breakfast, a gin martini at a bar.
“What did you think gay men do?” Two weeks later, home for spring break, I stuck two fingers inside myself and vowed that, after college, I would end up in a city where I’d be able, finally, to learn.
Alexander Chee, smirking, in black and white, stares at me from the cover of his new book of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Inside, there is he again, a grid of him, smiling widely here, flirting there, making, in my favorite image, a kissy face. These photos were taken in a photo booth in Iowa, where Chee did his MFA, to send to his then-boyfriend. They’re intimate, sexy, playful, a glimpse into his life and a relationship he had, and lost, decades ago.
Like me, Chee grew up before the internet and in the middle of nowhere. Unlike me, he wasn’t just nerdy and gay—he was also half Korean in a deeply white town. Alexander’s book begins in childhood, but not in his native Maine. We begin abroad, in Mexico, where he finds in his foreignness a sense of belonging he never had at home. This theme—where we belong, and to whom—runs through all the essays in this book, which act as a memoir in pieces rather than individual chapters themselves.
Alexander follows the thread of his life from Maine to college to San Francisco during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. He met trauma early in life, with the death of his father, and then grew up into a world where gay men were dying of AIDS.
There is connective tissue between all the work. Although the form changes, from a lyric memoir of a rose garden to a listicle on writing and finishing a novel, the essays return, one after another, to the book’s central questions. The HIV/AIDS Crisis. Chee’s childhood abuse and decision to write through it as a fiction. Trauma and healing. Reading and writing. Loving and breaking our patterns of false love. Making art in a world that undermines, even mocks, art’s value.
Here’s the strength, the brilliance, of Chee’s book. He hints at these things, but then withholds detail until much later. We learn of his abuse in an early chapter about his relationships in his twenties failing. Great writers, particularly ones attuned to plot, don’t put a gun into the hands of a character unless that gun will be fired. We wait, and wait, and years and pages later, the trigger finger finally twitches just far enough. This–and Chee’s trademark, precise-but-wandering sentences–pulls us rapidly through the chapters. But beyond its success as a narrative device, this is what trauma feels like: A loaded gun, always there, without lock or safety, ready, at all times, to go off, to break us, to explode the world we think we’ve safely built.
I kept my promise to myself. I moved to New York in 2006, after college and a year abroad, for a PhD program in Biophysics. I was surprised, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been, to find many gay scientists my age in my program. There weren’t any out gay faculty members, though, nor any faculty members of color at the university. It took some time in this new, big city, but I found many gay friends as well–all my own age—outside of science. In school, I had many mentors, all straight, all scientists, all older. My scientific mentors offered much wisdom, but their advice arrested short of the biology of one particular body: my own.
Queer people often find our kin later in life. We find mentors, those who have survived long enough to have accumulated some wisdom and who are willing to share it to make our own survival a bit easier.
Except when we don’t.
I was born in 1983, a year before HIV was conclusively shown to cause AIDS. When I moved to New York in 2006, it was to a city where the so many gay men five or ten years older than me had not survived a plague. I was 13 in 1996, the year protease inhibitors were added to the drug cocktails to treat AIDS. This is the year the positive started to live.
“I was always having to be what I was looking for in the world,” Alexander writes, “and wishing that the person I would become already existed – some other I before me.” As queer scientists, my friends and I understood this too well.
This sentiment can’t be disconnected from Chee’s race or queerness or his ambition to be a writer. It also can’t be taken out of the context, as he writes earlier in the book, of the HIV crisis. He arrived in San Francisco in 1989 and “had to overcome the false impression that no one like us had ever existed before, because the ones who might have greeted us when we arrived were already dead.”
“We lacked models for bravery and were trying to invent them, as we likewise invented models for loving and for activism.”
I arrived in New York in 2006 with much the same feeling, that the older queer men who might have welcomed me had gone a decade before. My friends and I felt the same way, that we had to invent a way to live because our lives were so different than anything we had been taught.
I didn’t see answers for my questions in the rom-coms I watched growing up. I’d read elegies, tragedies, but I hadn’t read novels about gay people who’d made it, who’d survived. I didn’t see examples lived in the mentors I had in science–while they were often open about their relationships, they looked a lot more like my parents’ marriage than my own messy life, so full of false starts and huge losses. I didn’t see answers. And so, it seemed, me and my friends—all my own age—that we had to make them on our own.
Maybe everyone feels this way, that the lives lived by their parents can’t teach them much about how to live themselves. Maybe, though, this is the curse and the blessing of queerness. Maybe each generation has to reinvent itself outside of the nuclear families we largely come from and into our new queer possibility, a horizon we walk ever toward. My friends and I had to deal with the loss of many of those we might have followed on our journey. I can’t imagine the pain and loss of being in that generation. But I know, too, the loneliness of growing up gay in its wake.
Alexander Chee’s book is a bit of a trick of false advertising. Its title suggests a How to.., and the book almost, kind of, delivers. The title suggests that the book is about writing, and it is about that, but not just that.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a remembrance of a life lived and the country it was lived in. Alexander remembers. He remembers the HIV era in a different way than I do. In an early essay in his collection we see him at an illegal demonstration putting his hand on the side of an ambulance that’s holding an injured friend, his hand a signal–to the police–not to harm him as well. A signal that he knew, and that we know, might simply be ignored.
In “After Peter,” an elegy for a lost friend, Chee shares the weight of that time, how bad it could hurt to lose a friend, an acquaintance, an artistic and beautiful young man whose possibility was blotted out so early. “The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead,” Alexander writes. Losing a single friend is “a permanent loss of possibility, so that what is left is only ever better than nothing, but the loss is limitless,” like “stars falling out of the sky and into the sea and gone.”
Alexander lived, and tells that story—one I saw on the news, but the news never felt like much to me. I read “After Peter” for the first time on the plane, sobbing between two strangers, for this young man Peter and his friend Alex who, HIV-positive and HIV-negative, were putting their flesh on the line.
Memory and experience are the nucleation point of wisdom. They’re not sufficient; so many people let the worst moments they live through turn them against themselves, make them hide from intimacy, hiding from seeing themselves honestly. Life becomes a running away. Alexander, according to his book, spent decades like that.
But, he tells his writing students, “pain is information… Pain has a story to tell you. But you have to listen to it.” Alexander’s youthful mistake was believing that money, or success, or love, allowed us to control our suffering. “Money is not power over pain. Facing pain is.”
It would be so easy for gay folks my age, in New York City, in the era of Truvada, to forget the pain and loss of the HIV crisis, a crisis that persists in so many places, still, in this country. The memory of what came before, and the willingness to acknowledge the pain of it, might be the first thing we ask for, that we need, from a mentor.
I first made older gay friends through my writing. In particular, it was my writing on growing up in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, how the disease changed my relationship to my body, to pleasure. I was living in New York, I was already in my thirties. Gay writers who had survived that time were—they told me—just glad we were still talking about HIV. They were worried about being forgotten.
The first older men who slid into my Facebook inbox wanted what a lot of fake-ass mentors want. One, a poet, invited me to coffee. He came all the way downtown to meet me in the middle of a snowstorm. We flirted in the way that gay men often do, and he hinted again and again at his closeness to so many famous writers, so many literary agents. It became clear that he’d read about a third of one of my essays, which, in his defense, are usually quite long. This was my first indication that he was more interested in me than in my work.
When he texted me to come uptown for Netflix and bad Chinese delivery, I couldn’t even feign surprise. I had a boyfriend then, an easy excuse. When his subtle offers to connect me to agents disappeared, alongside his ability to make eye contact at readings and events, I knew exactly what he had been after.
Many others, though, gave time, gave advice, gave love. And then there was Alex. I met Alex, the flesh of him, at the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop. He was teaching, and two gay men I’d befriended were taking his class.
We became friends quickly, bonding like good homosexuals over rosé after most of the straight faculty and students had gone to bed. Alex had a way of arriving in a conversation, sitting and listening, cracking a few jokes, and then, in a moment of silence, dropping in a perfect nugget of wisdom, the kind that concludes the discussion of that particular topic, for good.
In his craft seminar at the conference, Alex talked slowly, deliberately, with many pauses. His audience leaned forward, leaned toward the language, jotted notes. “A novel,” he said, “is not simply the story of a life.”
A memoir, I wrote in my notes, isn’t that either.
Later that year, my partner dumped me and moved out to take a job abroad. One of the reasons he gave for leaving me was that he was worried that I would write about him, like I’d written about other exes, and he was tired of living that way. I messaged Alex, asking about the relationship between his writing and his love life. From reading his essays, including the ones that are now collected in this book, I knew he’d written about former loves and lovers.
“I deal with things,” I said, “by writing through them.”
“It sounds like you have a writing process that is hard to survive, and it makes me concerned,” Alex wrote to me. He instituted long ago, he told me, a three-year rule, something he learned from Annie Dillard. He doesn’t write about anything until three years had passed, and maybe even more when a man is involved. I realize, now, that I am breaking it here.
“Living people,” he texted me, “live uncomfortably in prose.”
But, he said, people who have a problem with your writing will have a problem with your writing. He says the same in his book: “Anyone who saw themselves in your characters will mostly see themselves, even if they were not described.” My note in the margin: Word.
Alex checked in on me every couple of weeks for months thereafter. He offered words, a drink, dinner. He offered friendship.
Like Alex, I’d spent much of my life running away from pain and into the arms of willing men. “There was always a new man, another will-o’-wisp of desire,” Alex wrote, describing his life as he moved from place to place, from lover to lover, never stopping to confront himself.
I asked Alex when he met Dustin, his partner. The answer reassured me—I was thirty-four at the time. They’d met when Alex was in his forties. What reassured me even more was the simple fact that Alex, and other gay friends of mine, now in their fifties and sixties, had lived through what I was living through. The simple fact that they’d survived was wisdom enough, as I wasn’t sure that I would. “You can lose more than you ever thought,” Alex wrote, “and still grow back, stronger than anyone imagined.”
I’m a writer, and Alex’s book is a How to. I don’t write much fiction, except the one terrible, fragmented novel I used, for two years, to query literary agents. It won’t ever see the light of day, and that’s fine. The first novel you publish, Alex Chee tells us in How to Write, is “almost never the first novel [you] wrote.”
The first book I published was not the first book I finished.
I’m a writer, but I also never did an MFA. Actually, I never studied writing at all. As a college student I studied literature, yes, but in French, and even then my main focus was biology. I learned to write because I cared about writing, and I cared about reading, and I wanted my work to be good. I got lots of help with craft from friends—my own age—who cared about writing like I did. I got help from them, too, for editorial contacts, connections to agents and editors.
I was learning craft by doing, and figuring out what worked. I needed mentorship to figure out how writing fit into my life, and how to write about myself without undermining the possibility of my own life. I worried that I was so open about queer sex, love, and loss, that I might never get a job. That I might never keep a man.
What I needed, I thought, was guidance. In part, I just needed reassurance. “I was someone who didn’t know how to find the path he was on,” Alex writes, “the one under his feet. This, it seems to me, is why we have teachers.”
I needed to know that I could write about my painful history without being doomed to repeat it. I needed to know that I could write about suffering without seeking more suffering out. I needed to know that writing could free me of my past, not trap me in it. How to Write is an answer. Writing isn’t healing, Alex’s work tells me, but it doesn’t have to stand in its way, either.
In How to Write, we spend time with Alex in writing classrooms, both as a teacher and as a student. We get the wisdom that Alex learned from his own mentors, Annie Dillard in particular. Her advice, passed from Annie to Alex to me: “Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.” I texted Alex a picture of my own finger in literary nonfiction, somewhere deep in the Os.
How to Write goes well beyond writing. Alex shows how to not just write, but live. How not just to live, but to heal. How men can force us to heal, or run and hide, by showing us to ourselves. The difference between the catharsis that comes from writing something down and the healing that comes from facing it alone, without the page. How not just to heal but to share that healing with others, allowing the possibility of connection, of love.
I imagine the gift this book might have been if I had met it in my childhood. The image is bittersweet. The sweetness is how much the book would have offered me. The bitterness is how much I needed it. I imagine how much I’d need the book, too, if I hadn’t met Alex, if I’d never tried to write. And how much I needed to read it this year, even though Alex remains very much in my life.
One of the things Alex has told me as a friend, over a drink, is that gay writers need to allow themselves to be self-indulgent. To get over our fear of being read as dramatic, as camp. Here goes.
Scene: I’m me, it’s 2018, Donald Trump is president and the world is a trash heap. I am a teaching professor of biology at NYU. I am a reader, but I never started writing. I never made any of the friends I made because we all try to do this impossible-seeming thing, taking a blank document and making it sing. I never met mentors by writing about an HIV crisis that some older writers had survived. I don’t know Alex, I don’t know John or Tommy or David or Randall or Darnell. I don’t know any of these people. But I know their work. I’m sitting in my office on the weekend reading, because I love reading. The book is fire engine red, its author stares out at me. In the pages, I find the voice of a man who lived a life kind of like mine, loving and losing men, suffering and healing from suffering. In his words, I find memories of the AIDS crisis, the years I watched on TV. I lean forward, trying to hear the silences between the lines. On the pages, I find guidance, I find hardship and truth. I find love. I find a model for living a creative and true life in my thirties, my forties, my fifties. This book is not flesh, it’s not bone, it doesn’t breathe, but it is friendship, and care, and love. It’s 2018, and all of these things are in short supply. I am 35 and crying at the fact that I never had this mentor, and the fact that I’ve finally found him in these pages.
Scene: It’s 2018, and I am a child, 12 or 13 or 14. It’s me, but not me now. When I was 14, Dancer at the Dance was not available at the library in my logging town, and I wouldn’t have known to look for it anyway. But now it’s 2018, and this book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is big enough to be written about on Buzzfeed and in Teen Vogue and I see it. I am wondering about my sexuality, and I want to be a writer—maybe—someday. I ask my mom to buy the book, and she does, thinking it’s a simple How To. In its pages, I see myself reflected and refracted, I see a future that’s mean and big and true. I cry. I know that life will not be easy, but I know that it will be. Zoom out and look at the book, fire engine red, there in my hands, as I sit on a school bus. No one knows it’s a gay book, and so I’m safe. I see, on that bus ride home, the world grow so much larger, my own future suddenly inevitable, and possible, and grand.
Scene: It’s 2018, and I have Alex and his work, and I well up with gratitude for the gifts that writing has given me. The flesh? Well, I get to love on that too, and on good days I wake up beaming with gratitude for the gift of his gay friendship, his queer mentorship. I know it’s precious, because I remember life without it. It took me three decades and more to find. His book sits now on my desk, next to the molecular biology quizzes I should be grading. The pages of his book are bent and broken, my pen has dug into the flesh of its paper. My eyes, open now on this page, imagining the future, knowing that it’s coming. Now there’s no going back. The world needs changing. At a recent talkback about his book, Alex, told me that we’re trying to change the world. We’re crazy enough to believe that writing can do its part. Now, there’s only giving forward.
Given our history, Vita, I’m aware you may decide not to read this. I turned seventy this past May, though I don’t expect you to care. For me this long-anticipated leap year (mmxx, as the Romans would have written it) has brought unwelcome news. The rest of humankind advances bravely toward its future while I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia, as everybody warned would happen at this time of life. It’s the craven need for absolution that has taken me by surprise. My thoughts are tuned ever more to Kitty, and to you. I am not a religious man, yet here I am, stuck in religious mode, coming to you as a supplicant.
I have something to propose, but I need to know you’re still there, that you might be prepared to hear me out.
Since I broke off contact, I’ve thought about you often. Mostly unkindly. But there – I have thought about you.
You’ve timed your latest entreaty well, which I’m sure is no coincidence. I’m crawling towards the abyss of early middle age myself. In a few months I will turn forty, as you would know. I read your email and was reminded that you’re one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me. I don’t just mean the money. It was the quality of your attention. The generous yet questionable nature of it. Nobody has ever been so invested in me making good on whatever raw talent I once possessed – not even my parents, for their love was always un- conditional.
Yours came with strings attached.
My dear, your reply is more than I deserve. It made me light- headed, poised somewhere between apprehension and happiness.
I’ll be clear about my proposal. Lately, I have begun excavating my memories of Kitty, a process that has been more than cathartic: it has been purgative, purifying. It has taken me a long time to look directly at all the images of her lodged in the undulations of my brain—for years I was stuck on a single, painful frame of her standing at the rim of Vesuvius, a fumarole within its core gently steaming behind her. That was the ending. In writing about her I am finally able to think instead of our beginning. All I need now is a receptive reader.
Perhaps you might like to do something similar for me and dig around in your own past, get rid of whatever it is that blocks you. Forgive me for saying it, but time is running out for you too. I have waited patiently until now for you to fulfill your early artistic promise. Under the right conditions, I believe it is still within your power to alchemize that potential into actual art. The rewards will be worth it; you know they always are with me. I am, if nothing else, an expert listener, something else we have in common.
My last voluntary contact with you, seventeen years ago—you could not have forgotten —was a letter saying I never wanted to hear from you again. A request you chose to ignore. I could not afford to vanish entirely, and risk losing those bonus cheques with your spidery signature that arrived every two years like clockwork. So there was never a clean break, you always knew where to find me. Once the cheques stopped arriving, exactly ten years after my graduation, the birthday cards continued, asking if I was flourishing.
You’re not of a generation to have these reminders automated. I imagine you still keep a paper diary, ordered from the alumni association of our alma mater, with a dark maroon cover and the crest discreetly embossed on the top right corner. Only those in the know would recognise it: three open books, the Latin for “truth” split into syllables across their pages.
These things mattered to you a great deal, I mean the signifiers of a person’s educational lineage. I recall your college class ring—class of ’71? ’72?—most clearly. I’d seen those clunky gold rings on the pinkies of my male classmates, markers of East Coast boarding schools, modern-day royal seals. They were useful as beacons of what kind of boy to avoid. On your hand the sight of the ring filled me with pity. Those boys were parading their power in the present, but you were still clinging to old symbols, old associations, to tell you who you were.
I understand what you’re asking of me. Mutual confession, the inside view.
I’m open to the idea, but for reasons of my own.
How wonderful to get you in stereo again, Vita. Rudely, I’ve not asked the basics. Are you well? Are your parents well? Are you still living in Mudgee, on the olive farm?
I write this from a very humid Boston. I have hardly left my air-conditioned townhouse this summer. Usually I escape to the house in Vermont, but the various commitments of dying— of what it does not matter—have kept me sweating it out here instead.
The only respite from the heat outside comes late in the evening. If my energy permits I go walking on the Common, past the illuminated softball fields, all the way up to the spray pool at Frog Pond. A breeze comes off the river, or from the sea, it’s hard to tell. Almost every night there’s music drifting across the grass from the Bandstand.
Yesterday evening I felt so revived by my walk that I decided to treat myself to a late restaurant dinner. Since it’s rare for me to have an appetite these days, I no longer mind dining out alone. The wait staff were extra attentive. The sommelier spent time taking me through the cellar offerings. I couldn’t manage dessert but I did have a glass of Sauternes, my favorite, as you know.
It made me think of our very first dinner together. Do you remember? I had ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem to go with the warm pear sabayon. It was produced on Montaigne’s family estate in Bordeaux, though in his day they amassed their fortune not from sweet wine but from salted fish, similar to the local delicacy Kitty and I used to eat in new Pompeii.
You mentioned that you happened to be reading Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” in your social theory class, his reflections on a long-ago tribe’s tradition of roasting and eating their enemies, even sending portions of the meal to absent friends and family members.
“Jungle takeout!” I laughed, and you looked uncomfortable. Montaigne, you told me, was the father of cultural relativism and recommended we suspend judgment of those cannibals. You paraphrased him: while we quite rightly judge their faults we are blind to our own.
Even then it gave me a little chill of recognition.
The sommelier arrived at our table, and poured a neat spiral of wine for you to taste. I must have bored you to tears, going on about the two types of Botrytis cinerea infection in the grapes of the Bordeaux region. Gray rot, which ruins the grapes, and noble rot, which partially raisins the grapes and gives the dessert wine its concentrated flavor. Yet you made me feel as if it were the most interesting thing you’d ever heard.
Partially raisined is an apt description of my own appearance these days. I would like to think that, as with all humans who have not been blessed with good looks, my own rot is noble rather than gray. I have had less to lose to old age.
I’ve been thinking about how far back I need to go in order to understand how I ended up where I am, and have decided there might be some safety in chronology.
When I was given a place at our alma mater and a financial aid package, my parents were gobsmacked. An American teacher at my high school in Sydney had suggested I apply. I was an obedient immigrant daughter, after all; I’d done the work, had excellent grades, a fighting chance of getting accepted, she believed. I accepted the happy news blithely. Things went right for me all the time in those days. I didn’t quite realise my great good fortune until much later, on freshman move-in day, when I saw the Americans around me arrive on that campus as if they’d been allowed to see the Holy Grail. Many had three generations of family there to witness the rapture. I turned up alone, with one suitcase, so unprepared for college life that I had to borrow sheets on my first night in the dormitory. My roommates were friendly, and curious at my being almost a year older than them. I’d had to bide my time in Sydney, waiting for the American school year to start in September.
Most of the time, when somebody asked where I was from, I said South Africa, though by then I’d spent exactly half my life, in non- consecutive stints, in Australia, and had flown to Boston after four years in Sydney. It was interesting to test what new mantle I could draw around myself in that enlivening novel context, to see what I could get away with. It was the start of my obsession with my African roots, a phase that I believed would last forever. I had come to think of myself as a child who’d had no say in taking leave of a certain place, who longed to return to the source as to a womb. At first cautiously, then with growing confidence, I spoke about my passion for South Africa to anybody who would listen, and found that my new American friends generally believed anything I said about it, though I had not lived there myself for years. They were the brightest of the bright but not always well travelled, and some of them were a little shaky on the geography and cultures of the Southern Hemisphere. I was sometimes complimented on my English.
A second strange certainty coinciding with my arrival in America was the realisation that I wanted to be an artist, though I wasn’t yet sure what kind. I was in no rush. A liberal arts education, I’d learned from the glossy application brochure, allows the luxury of taking a nibble at a lot of different subjects over four brain- boosting years. I signed up for an introductory class on portrait photography, an abstract painting class, and a life-writing seminar; I would have a whole new roster of classes to choose from in the spring term, and every term thereafter.
Gradually, over the course of that fall semester, I was disabused of any notions of being a photographer or a painter or a life-writer. Each student in the photography class was loaned a stills camera and taught to develop black-and-white prints. I found I disliked taking portraits of people. It felt archival, like pinning something dead behind glass. I hated the darkroom, lit with a single red bulb like a brothel, and the chemicals, which burned the insides of my nostrils. Every time liquid splashed from the developing trays onto my skin, I imagined my flesh was sizzling.
In the painting class, I had no aptitude for making marks on paper. And it seemed to me an art form in which labour was irrelevant to outcome: the end result had no connection to the amount of time I’d spent on it. To another kind of person, that might feel like freedom. To me, it felt too unpredictable to pursue.
As for the writing seminar, in which a circle of eager first-years competed around a polished table for the professor’s attention, I discovered I had very little to say about myself and my past. Or more accurately, I could not trust that the things I had to say should ever be said, or that anybody would care either way. When I talked about South Africa to friends, it was with very broad brushstrokes: apartheid, Mandela, elections, democracy, flags, rainbows. But my childhood there was like a speech bubble floating above my consciousness. An empty bubble, containing exactly nothing. For reasons I was not yet prepared to confront, whenever I sat down to write about my personal experience of that country I literally could not produce a single word. I almost failed the class.
So in the spring, I was forced to expand my focus. I enrolled in a social anthropology class because one of my roommates’ mothers was an anthropologist. On a visit, she took us out for lunch and answered my many questions about her work by saying that anthropologists were professional outsiders, lurking at the fringes of other people’s lives, slipping in and out of circles of belonging and exclusion. Fieldwork, she said, was scientifically-endorsed hanging-out, for an extended period of time, in a place you found strange. Until you could begin to pinpoint why it felt strange to you in the first place.
It hadn’t been my first epiphany but it was still intense. The moving between two countries as a child, the strategies I had developed of wiggling my way into acceptance by a new group while still keeping a safe distance, the endless listening, the half- participating, my wait-and-watch approach. Maybe there was a way to turn who I was into what I did; maybe observing others could be an art form in itself.
Warily this time, I also signed up for a group filmmaking seminar, alert to the possibility of once again finding something about the medium that didn’t suit me. In the first class, we were sent outside to handle the equipment. When it was my turn, I balanced the big celluloid-film camera on my shoulder, looked through the viewfinder, heard the film roll start to turn mechanically as I recorded my classmates moving about in the sunlight. I felt a jolt of power and joy. With this machine I had the magical ability to capture time, place, light, movement: life itself, streaming into the aperture and settling on the rotating spool of film. It was like meeting my medium soulmate.
And in one of those satisfying symmetries that seem to happen all the time when you’re young, that same day—in the first meeting of the anthropology class—I discovered that film could be used as a research tool in ethnographic fieldwork, and that I could declare a double major in film and anthropology at the end of the year, hedging my bets between art and social science.
I hardly slept that night. I felt I had found it. The thing I was meant to do.
The film seminar was small, only ten students. Our collective assignment for the semester was to make a documentary. We brainstormed various topics and somehow settled on the BDSM scene in Boston, pleased with ourselves for our outré choice. We hung about in a local sex shop, asking permission to film people buying dildos and crotchless underwear and handcuffs. Most people, surprisingly, said yes. There were usually three of us filming – camera, sound-recordist, boom operator – a proper crew, which gave us some much-needed legitimacy, given how young we were. The staff at the shop began to pass on invitations to private BDSM parties and bondage events at clubs, and helped us negotiate permission to film, which was easier than we’d expected because people’s faces were often covered by masks or blindfolds, and these parties and clubs were, after all, filled with exhibitionists.
At our first party, held in the basement of a large house some- where in Boston’s south, I was assigned camera. I was still learning how to operate the complicated instrument and had only a limited supply of canisters of very expensive film. They had to be loaded and unloaded inside a lightproof bag, making me feel like a clumsy magician.
The point of starting us out on celluloid, our professor had explained, was to give us an old-school training in frugality as a guiding artistic principle. You couldn’t just let the camera run on and on as you could with video footage. Thought had to go into framing each shot so that no film was wasted. Capture the man climbing into the black leather cocoon strapped to the table. Cut. Follow the other man’s hand as he zips him into the cocoon, all the way over his face. Cut. A long shot of the table, the black lump unmoving, waiting in anticipation for the other man to begin to flick at his body with a whip. Cut. The whipping man looking at a stopwatch religiously between flicks, making sure the man inside the cocoon will not suffocate. Cut. The unzipping, the first gasping breaths.
At the end of each shot, I had to remember to pan over to my boom operator, who would knock the mic twice with her hand in a chopping motion to make synching easier later, while behind her people continued going about their leather-clad business.
A man at one of these parties invited us to film him alone in his own house. The class decided it would be an important scene for the film, something more intimate than the bigger gatherings, but only two students were available on the day of the shoot: Kate, on camera, and Agatha, who would do sound and boom.
They showed the rushes in class the next week with no sign of being traumatised. As I watched, I could feel horror welling somewhere in the region of my heart. The man had warmed up by crawling around naked, then asked Agatha to use her free hand to unzip his gimp mask and feed him grapes, and to whip his bottom with chains. Eventually he told Kate to film him masturbating on his knees, mask still on, until he came in a spurt towards the camera. When Kate panned after this to Agatha, who with a deadpan expression hit the boom, everybody laughed, even the professor.
To hide how disturbed I was by the footage, I enthusiastically offered to synch the sound and image reels. That night, alone in the film department basement, I ran the footage repeatedly through the editing carousel, clipping frames out with the tiny guillotine, marking the filmstrip with an oil pencil. The cum shot turned out to be difficult to synch, and I had to listen to his high-pitched whine backwards and forwards many times to get it right. It later became a class joke to mimic the sound he made while ejaculating in reverse.
The last time we screened the entire film for ourselves, before the public screening at the end of the semester, the projector jumped and trapped a single frame in front of the lamp. It was from the final scene, of this man on his knees, hand around his small hard dick. The frame went bright white and then began to burn from the inside out, as if he were being roasted in the fires of hell.
I have never forgotten the shock of the public screening. In some ways I’m still recovering from it. It made me tentative, too conscious that all art is eventually viewed in cold and critical light. I became afraid of the hubris of creation, of how seductive the wrong artistic choices can be. For our film proved to be terrible. Not because of the subject matter, but because we were so enthralled by the idea of making the film that we failed to make it well. The shots themselves may have been shapely, but taken together the film was nothing more than a meaningless montage of people looking like freaks, doing freakish things. It was a vehicle for cheap voyeurism, the kind of filmmaking we were supposed to have been immunised against.
I wanted to leave the cinema but I couldn’t, because Kate and I had thought it would be amusing to wear matching dog collars and handcuff ourselves together. So I remained beside her as the audience—other film students, professors, parents, roommates—went rigidly quiet. It was a hostile silence, the silence of an audience watching bad art. And it magnified the sounds of the film itself, every single sound all the way up to the climactic scene: the jagged shriek of an older man getting off on his audacity at engineering the participation of two young women, by letting them believe they have played him.
Along with my crushing fear of artist’s blindness, another insight came from that experience. I had initially assumed that people got into BDSM because they liked to break rules, push boundaries. In fact the opposite was true. The rules of engagement were precise, exhaustive, often set down in writing. Roles were strictly defined, pleasure and pain allowed only in prescribed amounts. Even the gimp-masked man had stuck to a script of sorts in his interaction with the girls filming him; he had not coloured outside the lines.
Until the night you locked me in your bedroom, Royce, I hadn’t feared you or what you might do to me. I’d intuited that you too had set yourself certain rules of engagement, and must have done the same with Kitty. But now I know the discipline it takes to keep unrequited passion obedient, that it must be tied up if it gets out of hand. How hard it must have been for you to let me go untouched back out into the cold air of morning.
Well, that took a dark little turn, didn’t it? No matter. Bad behavior always needs an audience. The temptation of any visitor to Pompeii is to look at the ruins as if they’re trapped inside a snow globe, an illustration of ancient Roman life as it always was, the ur-illustration. It was only thanks to Kitty’s guidance that I was able sometimes to grasp that Pompeii was not timeless but, like any city, always in flux, caught up in shifting currents of politics and style, opinion and preference.
An example of what I mean: at the time of its final destruction by Vesuvius, the city of Pompeii was still reeling from a devastating earthquake nearly two decades before, in AD 62. This earthquake had strongly influenced, of all things, home decoration in the years following. Some people tried to emulate the latest styles of Nero’s Rome when rebuilding their houses; on interior walls they had theatrical paintings done in vivid colors with fantastical images, what Kitty described as “illusionistic effects,” suddenly in vogue. Other families, unable to afford the new styles, or perhaps unaware of or unmoved by them, were left behind by the changing fashion. Little did they know that this minor failure of taste or economy would be documented forever.
There was something poignant to me in this detail; it seemed embarrassingly revealing. It was like me being caught today, if Boston were covered with lava, with my landline still in place— probably one of the few left in my neighborhood, a marker for all future observers of my antiquated ways. People would notice that I had not managed to keep up with the pace of change in the very culture in which I lived.
I hadn’t known about the earthquake of AD 62 until Kitty took me to see an excavated public temple, rebuilt after the quake, which showed an artist’s impression of what happened that day. Carved into the marble relief was a panorama of catastrophe: the Porta del Vesuvio collapsing, a cart pulled by two donkeys suspended in mid-air, the Temple of Jupiter already toppled. The inhabitants of the city who decided to stay and rebuild had created new shrines in penance for bringing the natural disaster upon themselves, and gave thanks for having survived it.
Seventeen years passed in peace. The people of Pompeii moved on with their lives. How could they have known what lay in store for them? They believed the very worst had already happened. Yet the earthquake held signs of the obliterating nightmare still to come. The ancients reported that a flock of six hundred sheep had perished on the slopes of Vesuvius, poisoned by the carbon dioxide emitted as the earth shifted, as the volcano slowly, slowly prepared for its next major eruption.
Clues to your own demise are more plentiful than you might think. The people who founded Pompeii had built their settlement on a prehistoric lava flow from the same volcano that was fated to bury the place forever. The city walls trace the..
Lewis Hyde, in his seminal cultural study Trickster Makes This World, writes that “a trickster is the archetype who attacks all archetypes. He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart. He is an ‘eternal state of mind’ that is suspicious of all eternals, dragging them from their heavenly preserves to see how they fare down in this time-haunted world.”
Akwaeke Emezi, the author of the debut novel Freshwater, is a literary trickster, an Afropolitan who glides between US and Nigerian cultures, mores, and faiths. Her bio says that she is an “Igbo and Tamil writer artist based in liminal spaces.” Freshwater itself exits in such an in-between state. It is a novel “based on the author’s realities,” a novel that moves between a traditional Western coming-of-age novel and a non-linear West African praise song, with a heroine who resists the gender binary and is simultaneously human and inhabited by Igbo gods. To enter Emezi’s world, you not only need to decolonize your mind, but also free yourself from patriarchal and binary ways of viewing the world.
According to traditional Igbo beliefs, all children are born open to the spirit world. Then, after birth, the gate separating the temporal and spirit worlds shuts so you don’t go crazy. But when Emezi’s heroine is born, the gate is left open and she is inhabited by an Ọgbanje (literally “children who come and go”), an Igbo spirit that’s born into a human body. The Ọgbanje is a kind of malevolent trickster whose goal is to torment the human mother by dying unexpectedly, only to return in the next child and repeat the cycle.
Her oblivious Nigerian father gives her a name colloquially meaning “precious.” But it literally means “the egg of python,” and in Igbo cosmology the python is the messenger and agent of the most powerful deity, the earth goddess Ala, from whom all things flow—“all freshwater comes from the mouth of a python.” The spirits do not dare call her by her name, but call her “the Ada,” which means daughter of Ala. The Ọgbanje that inhabits Ada is actually multiple spirits fighting for control of their human vessel. It is these “brothersister” spirits who tell the story of Ada, whose Tamil mother protects the sensitive daughter as she grows up in the troubled city of Umuahia, in southeastern Nigeria. A “We” chorus narrates as the mother dreams of more opportunities for her precocious daughter and travels alone to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid, saving up enough money to send Ada to Virginia for college.
The gods, naturally, are restless in their mortal vessel. “Forgive us, we sound scattered. We were ejaculated into an unexpected limbo—too in-between, too god, too human, too halfway spirit bastard,” the “We” narrator tells us. Inside Ada they struggle for supremacy until a violent sexual encounter enables the vengeful spirit Asụghara to take over. “Flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here. No one would ever touch her again.”
With the strong-willed and often cruel spirit acting as protector and mask, the previously chaste Ada unleashes herself sexually, taking what she wants, inside and outside of college. Yet she still cuts herself to try to feel fully in control, repeatedly slicing her forearm with shards from smashed mirrors.
Many coming-of-age novels feature variants of this struggle to define one’s identity, to decide “which internal self is the true me,” but in Freshwater they are given explicit voices by the competing gods. They constitute the driving force of the novel, powered by tough, beautiful language:
“She gave me this name, Asụghara, complete with the gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. When you name something, it comes into existence—did you know that? There is strength there, bone-white power injected in a rush, like a trembling drug.”
Ada resists the amoral Asụghara, occasionally wrestling the narrative away from her dominant spirit, touching base with the buried spirit St. Vincent, a queer god who understands her attraction to girls and disapproves of Asụghara’s drive toward punishing straight sex.
Ada herself feels like a trickster, who “could move between boy and girl, which was freedom.” As the spirits struggle within and unsettle Ada, she tries praying to Jesus, known to the Igbo spirits inhabiting her as Yshwa. She also tries drugs, alcohol, and therapy. But, as Asụghara explains to Ada, “We’re the buffer between you and madness, we’re not the madness.”
This celestial battle plays out against the familiar, terrestrial struggles of a sensitive young woman in a small liberal arts college and her fraught relationships with dislocated young men: a Dane via Eritrea, an older Irishman, and a Christian Nigerian family friend in Georgia. It is hard to care about any of these relationships as they are only instruments in the internal struggle, all information about the men filtered through the spirits. As “We” puts it about one of the young men: “Besides, he was only a beautiful blip in the crazed timeline of embodiment—he mattered so much, and yet, not at all.”
After college, when she moves to Brooklyn, lets St. Vincent take over, and starts dating women, Ada’s encounters with mortals still don’t matter much to the spirits. The drama lies in whether Asụghara will re-emerge or whether Ada will find peace recognizing all of the competing voices inside her. Anyone even slightly familiar with Integrative Psychotherapy will empathize with this struggle to get the balance of one’s personalities right, a struggle to be seen, as Walt Whitman put it, as containing multitudes.
The great trick of this novel is that we want not only peace for Ada, but also for the troubled spirits inhabiting, and one with, her. Reading Emezi’s unfolding integration of fictional forms and modes of thinking—spiritual, analytical, historical, cultural, clinical—you feel like you are witnessing a talented and emotionally astute writer finding her voice(s). Freshwater is a dazzling, problematic debut that promises so much more.
“I don’t believe in being safe or right,” Dorothy Allison says to a group of men and women gathered around a writing workshop table. She pushes up her sleeves and rakes her fingers through her long hair, which is streaked with gray. Her voice thickens with gravitas as the dozen or so of us, who range in age from eighteen to almost eighty, look to her for guidance. If there were a tablecloth, she would whip it out from under all our dishes. She is as subversive in her sixties as she was in her thirties, when she co-founded the Lesbian Sex Mafia. If anything, age and motherhood made her more indomitable. “Write something inappropriate, however you define the term,” she prompts. “I give you absolute license,” she says, after a pause.
As we put pens to page, I wonder how the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate subjects have changed since Allison published Bastard Out of Carolina in 1992, a book that is still banned from many classrooms and libraries for its depiction of sexual abuse. Such “absolute license” as she offers us was not extended to her, who grew up poor and female in the 1950s, and it is not often offered to those around this table who have left behind working-class families to pursue their educations. It is why, in part, I invited this radical to our Tennessee campus.
Born in 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, Allison was the illegitimate child of a waitress and first member of her family to graduate from high school. Not expected to go to college, much less to win the Robert Penn Warren Award for her fiction, she has a lot to say about risking contempt, humbling yourself before scholarship committees, and understanding characters whose fury is as justifiable as it is unchecked.
Allison has been recognized with the Ferro Grumley prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. Her first novel was an award-winning bestseller made into an award-winning film. Her second novel, Cavedweller,became a New York Times Notable book of the year, and was adapted for the stage. These achievements overcame incredible odds, but what baffles her most is that she did not die before receiving any of them.
A social activist deeply invested in the early feminist movement, Allison met head-on the dangers of free expression. If her courage to keep raising her voice empowers others, she is not so naïve as to imagine our right to speak will ever be equal. Nor, I realize after spending several weeks with her, would she deprive anyone of the fight, her sentences often undercutting someone else’s surety, or her own. Having written genius works of resilience, she recognizes the favor you do a person to unsettle her.
The conversation that follows took place in my sunroom. At one point, a doe crossed the backyard and Dorothy stopped talking to watch her watch us, ears pricked to any threat of danger.
—Amy Wrightfor Guernica
Guernica: What defines class?
Dorothy Allison: It’s always an argument, because class is defined in opposition, and to some extent in denial. Especially in American society, there is a lot of shame and refusal. To a large extent we have the bias that we are a classless nation, and that’s just a frank outright lie.
The essential assumption of the working class is to be always inappropriate and embattled. You’re always in an argument with the over-class about who and what you are—particularly in the South but also in other regions. They have complicated gradations of class in California, yet we have very simple-minded ways we think about socio-economics in this country. We think in terms of the broad categories of working class, middle class, upper class, but if you ask someone to define herself it always gets more nuanced.
My sisters, for instance, never wanted anyone to know that we were poor, so there was a refusal to discuss our position in the class structure. If someone did try to talk about it, my sister Barbara would say, “Well, we’re really middle class.” Our stepfather always had a job. Our mama always worked, but the working poor is still a phenomenon, and I define the working poor as people who can’t eat every night. I know it sounds trivial and petty, but the struggle was to go to school five days in a row without having to wear the same outfit three times. Kids are ruthless. They notice all those details. So all of the earmarks of being raised poor were there, but we pretended with the rest of America that we were part of the great middle. It’s very hard to change something you can’t acknowledge.
Guernica: How does your conception of class differ from that projected on you?
DorothyAllison: You know those famous pictures of the South in which dirty-faced kids are standing there with a finger in their mouths? They are not speaking because they aren’t sure what to say or how to behave. You are aware absolutely that you are not as valuable or as human as people who speak easily and who are comfortable.
Learning that is class is actually a huge empowerment. When I read Marxist theory, it was like being handed a shovel. You could do something. You could dig out of the hole. You could defend yourself, because what not being as important as others really means is that you’re always in danger.
Let’s be clear. I came out of an enormous violent Southern working-class family. Most didn’t graduate from grammar school. When I graduated from high school I was considered a freak. I had all of these boy cousins whose trajectory in life was to either become a mechanic or go into the Army. There wasn’t a lot of room for anything else, but the third option, which really happened to most of them, was to go to jail.
I had a cousin who got picked up with another boy for breaking into telephone boxes. I should explain that there used to be phone booths where you paid for calls with coins. They got a tool that could open the lock box and get the money out, and they were caught by the sheriff and taken to jail. Now that was a petty crime. They didn’t even get much money, but the police called their families, and the families came to jail. The other boy’s father was a doctor and so the other boy went home with his daddy. My cousin went to prison.
He went to the boys’ prison, where half of my cousins lived and learned their place in the world, because the goal of prison is to break you, and it did. When they came out of prison, which was called “the county farm,” they were criminals. They learned to be criminals, that criminal was what their essential nature was.
Both of my cousins had their earlobes slit. The violence that was visited on them, the beatings, were things that middle-class kids never experienced, so in the South they were almost black. Black boys might be shot, but my cousins were taken to prison, and they might die there. So, you learn to be careful, to hold your tongue, but you’re angry. You’re always angry, and it isn’t useful anger. It’s the kind of anger that will blow back on you and get you killed.
What was tragic is that the most respectable option for my boy cousins was to go into the Army, but none of them could go into the Army because all of them had been arrested, and once you have a record you’ve been defined. It marks you. You go to jail then to deeper and deeper jails into long-term prisons.
Guernica: You demonstrate the complexities of that anger through your characters.
Dorothy Allison: I remember reading a lot of writers from the thirties who were particularly expressive of class struggles I suppose because of the Communist movement. In particular I loved the stories and poems by Meridel Le Sueur, who had a way of writing about class that was human and outrageous and wonderful. I sort of took her as a model.
What seemed to me life-saving was that I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t put a candy-coated gloss on anything. In Bastard, for instance, there is a section where I give you a quick glimpse of Bone’s Uncle Earl, and she loves her Uncle Earl, and he is charming as a motherfucker, but there is one paragraph where I let you see how angry and dangerous he is. She asks him, “What do you do if…?” and he shows her the blade that he has palmed and is hiding in his hand, and she sees the look in his eyes and senses his power. That’s class. Trying to write with love and respect about people who even as you love them are destroying themselves and to try to write it accurately and with some of the grace of Meridel Le Sueur is the challenge. But you can’t write about this stuff and be boring. That would be a sin against God.
Guernica: You write that the working-class hero is “invariably male, righteously indignant, and inhumanly noble.” What defines a working-class heroine?
DorothyAllison: That’s much more complicated. When I was growing up the portraits I found of working-class people were always very animalistic. The characters were portrayed as violent, physically dangerous, not very bright, and unreasonably angry, as if there were no reason for their anger. When I write these characters I try to take you inside what it feels like to be treated with contempt and to have such a narrow range of possibilities out.
That no-way-out is really the difference between boys and girls in working-class culture, because a working-class boy could run, or could when I was growing up. He could go West and change his name and start a new life for himself, and I know boys in my family did that. There is nowhere a girl can go. The only runaway position is prostitution and that can kill you about as fast as a violent uncle or a crazy daddy.
I’ve got one cousin who went the other way, and me, and that’s also complicated to talk about, because we were really smart. To realize at an early age that you’re smarter than most of the people around you is scary. The only person I knew then who was smarter than me was my mama and she was so damaged that there wasn’t a lot she could do with it. But she used to tell me, “You can do anything.” Now that was not true, and I knew it wasn’t true, but I also knew that I was smart enough that there was a place I could go. The tragic cost of that is that it removes you from your own family.
Here’s something I’ve never gotten over. When I was in sixth grade they did I.Q. tests. In Greenville, South Carolina, just before we moved to Florida. I got the highest score in the school. They made me take the test over again, convinced I must have cheated, but I took it over and scored higher the second time. The message was “You’re not the kind of person who’s supposed to be scoring that high.” They had an assembly where they gathered everybody in the gym to recognize the high scorers. That they did this still horrifies me, but they put me up there with the boy who had the second highest score and they treated us as if we had the same score. So, the message is, “You might be bright but don’t get ahead of yourself.”
It was almost like I was a boy because I was being judged on intellect rather than the other standard for girls, which was to either marry well or to become a famously successful high-class whore. But the options for marrying well are limited, and if you’re as angry and damaged as most working-class girls are you’ll marry the first mean-assed boy who takes you up, so the next thing you know you have three babies and he’s broken your jaw. They always break your jaw.
Instead, I went off and won scholarships. I applied for scholarships at church and ladies’ circles. They’re always service organizations run by middle-class women who are generous and kind to the poor. You win those awards by being humble and grateful. Gratitude can eat the heart out of you, because the first thing you have to do is acknowledge that you aren’t as good as the people you’re begging help from. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of the very successful working-class kids who win scholarships drink themselves to death or shoot themselves in the head.
I know the damage. I can’t even talk about it, because you’re ashamed first because you had to beg and second because you had to treat your family very poorly. It’s hurtful, and you’re alone. When I go teach at small colleges I try to get the working-class kids to get together for a meeting, and I say, “Look, I’m older than you. You will graduate. You need to go back home and make peace with your family. If you move into these people’s world—with these people being the middle and upper class—you will always be one down unless you’ve got somebody at your back.”
It is very expensive, but it is a way out. I did it. I had one other cousin who did it. She became a pathologist. We were the only college graduates in my family. There weren’t that many high school graduates. I was the first person in my family; she was the second. By the time I was living in New York in my thirties there were six. The cost of growing up working class is an unacknowledged dam on society. We pretend we have an egalitarian society where you can move up if you work. Doesn’t mean shit if you go to the county farm or get pregnant at fifteen, and that’s mostly what happens.
Guernica: Is peacemaking something you did later?
Dorothy Allison: It is, and I was forced by circumstances. I don’t think I would have listened to anybody who would have told me.
Guernica: What circumstances?
Dorothy Allison: The point at which I was publishing and starting to win awards coincided with the work I was doing for the Lesbian Sex Mafia. I was in New York City and working on the Sex and the Scholar Conference at Columbia University. We got picketed by Women Against Pornography. There were six of us they targeted, and we were called Pimps for the Pornographers, because we were feminists writing about sexuality.
They went after us like dogs after the conference, which blew up and became a huge fight within the feminist movement. People I’d known for years would cross the street to avoid me. One of the other women who got caught in that horrific situation killed herself. All of the sudden I lost the family in the women’s community I’d been building for a decade, which had become a substitute for the family I’d essentially lost.
When that happened it coincided with my mother having a recurrence of cancer, so I went home to try to help take care of her. I was on the verge of collapse, but what I discovered is that when you do go home they’re ready. My sisters didn’t like that I was writing about poverty and incest, but they also couldn’t deny that it was the truth.
And I loved my mother. She had never walled herself off from me as I had walled myself off from her. I was ashamed of her. My waitress mother with her bleached blonde hair and her bright red lipstick and her high heels. The only books she read were murder mysteries. I wanted to be an intellectual and to have an intellectual mother, but instead I had my mom. There was a period of adjustment, but it rebirthed my sense of pride in being working class. In addition to the outrage and anger there is that sense that we, my people, my tribe are stronger and more resilient than anyone gives us credit for.
Guernica: You’ve said, “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.” How has contempt served you?
Dorothy Allison: Being despised is very hard to survive as a child, but once you don’t die [laughter] you gain a kind of resilience. And it generates in you a reverse contempt that undercuts it. But it can go bad. It can go sour. Remember that all of the ways you derive strength can cut the other way. It can wear you down. I’ve noticed that it happens about once a decade again where all of the sudden they start using that language of contempt, and I have to stand up to it all over again with a whole new generation with another vocabulary.
For me it’s complicated by the fact that they seem to coincide with periods where I’m struggling with my own spirituality. I couldn’t quite go back to the Baptist church, but I go to Quaker meetings. I have deeply complicated feelings about the concept of God, but I genuinely cannot believe that we are merely meat and electrical synapses. I believe in the spirit, and that has been a place of struggle, which is also about class because people say, “You just think that because you were raised with Pentecostal music.” Maybe, but you know gospel music won’t kill you. It’ll give you some places where you can derive strength that isn’t about hating yourself.
Guernica: Do you consider literature an alternate form of gospel?
Dorothy Allison: It’s all glory at a difference from the mundane, and the mundane is mere survival. Gospel music, like poetry, like great literature, is glory. I’m reaching for glory. I wanted to live forever. I still do, but I have a much more complicated relationship to death than when I was younger. I am more accepting now. I no longer have that overwhelming impulse to live forever, but that’s the impulse that makes art. That’s the secret desire—that and the desire to separate yourself from those who hold you in contempt, whether that’s your stepfather or your cousins or your church or people at the grammar school who made you take the I.Q. test again. You want to claim your right to be among not just the humans but among the best of them.
Guernica: Your first writing teacher, Bertha Harris, told you “literature is not made by good girls.”
Dorothy Allison: The idea that great literature is written by nasty girls told me that nasty girls and women are my aunts. They don’t act out of meanness purely for the sake of meanness; they give back what is given to them. When they’re given respect, they return respect. When they’re given contempt, they show you that the contempt is not justified. The wages of violence is violence, so I try to avoid violence but confrontation I believe in. Holding people accountable I believe in, and that’s nasty. It means telling the truth even when it costs you something, even when no one wants to hear it or talk about it. You have to honor your version of the truth and you have to really search for it and make characters that live up to that. A no bones about it, we’re in this together approach is what I honor. My aunts were paragons of it. They were also self-destructive and fell in love with the wrong people and didn’t necessarily protect their children, but they tried. I don’t believe in simple.
Guernica: There is a scene in Cavedweller when Cissy helps fellow spelunkers out of the cave where they’ve gotten lost and exhausted themselves. She keeps pulling while they curse her, which seems a distinctly working-class strength.
Dorothy Allison: Yes, and it comes from having some terrible experiences. You learn to trust yourself. A sense of humor also helps.
It was shocking to me—because I was always fascinated with the upper class and dated a lot of girls from the upper class—that they were just so ineffectual. If they get a flat tire they don’t know how to deal with it. If someone called them a name in the street they didn’t know how to respond. They didn’t really have a sense of themselves. They didn’t have resilience. I’ve seen in my own family and in my own life you can be pushed to the wall, take a deep breath and stand up anyway. I don’t think everybody learns that, so it’s one of the backhanded advantages of having been pushed to the wall so many times.
I’m always conscious of having been the child I was. The defining moment of my childhood wasn’t having been beaten or raped, but of fighting with my sisters over who had to sleep next to the door. That’s a degree and caliber of shame that is bone-deep. I will never be able to forgive myself for it. I was the oldest girl and the biggest, and I’d already been raped and I’d already been beaten, and I knew I could survive it. My sisters were both younger and more fragile, but there were nights when I just couldn’t do it, and because I was bigger and meaner I would not be by the door.
I’m about to be sixty-eight years old. That started when I was six, that consciousness of responsibility and shame is always present. It’s in my writing always. When I give you my characters, there’s always somewhere where they’re not heroic. They’ve always got some place where they failed themselves or the ones they love.
Guernica: But what a standard to hold yourself to at six!
Dorothy Allison: Well, being raised in the Baptist church will give you a high standard, but you don’t think that way as a six year old. You think of yourself as strong. You don’t think of yourself as destroyed until you are destroyed. I can’t even tell you how many times we fought over who would be near the door. It may have only been only once, but it was enough to have marked me, to discover in myself that I was that terrified and desperate.
Guernica: Did you all ever talk about it later?
Dorothy Allison: No. Only in the most coded and abbreviated ways. There are things you cannot say and survive them. And so much of it is unspeakable. I don’t want to discuss the specifics of what my stepfather did to me, and I don’t want to know the specifics of what he did to my sisters. I know that one of them had a child because of it, and that is enough to know. There’s so much shame built into it. The defining aspect of class is shame.
Guernica: Do you agree, then, with Nancy Isenberg who in her book White Trash: The 400-Year-Old History of Class in America says Bastard Out of Carolina is an illustration of how “shame keeps the class system in place”?
Dorothy Allison: I believe so, but academic language denatures the constant struggle for survival.
Guernica: Isenberg says a key tension of the book is Daddy Glen’s embarrassment that he is the one member of his middle-class family who doesn’t amount to anything.
Dorothy Allison: She’s good at what she does, and I’ve read her book. It’s a good book, but that’s the perspective of a middle-class person. That’s not why he’s violent—I don’t think. I think he wants to be part of this genuinely loving and supportive family. Even though the Boatwrights are also an incredibly violent family, they have a core of love and support that he lusts after and hungers after more than he wants Anney and more than he wants sex. He wants to be part of something like that, and he’s not. I see that as the defining tension of the book. When he marries into it but is still not a part of it, that’s why he feels he has the permission to do what he does. He feels justified because he is so angry. He’s not loved the way he wants to be loved by anybody. Even though Anney loves him with her whole heart. Even though she leaves her child for him. That man cannot be loved enough to cure what’s wrong with him. But that’s the reading from a working-class perspective. It’s quite different.
Guernica: Why distinguish between middle and working class when the top 10 percent of America’s wealthiest families hold 85 percent of the nation’s wealth?
Dorothy Allison: I often conflate the upper and middle class, although they aren’t the same. It’s just that we have almost no access to the upper class, so we really can’t impact them in any..
In the final years of his life, after he had been forced to retire from a struggling janitorial supply business, my father hiked one to two days per week. Although he lived in the San Fernando Valley, he drove his green Chrysler Town and Country minivan to the Santa Monica Mountains or east to the San Gabriel Mountains for his half- to full-day treks with an ice-cold canteen and roasted nuts in plastic bags for snacks.
He didn’t have any fancy hiking gear, and usually wore athletic shoes, khakis, and a cotton dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves. Fully immersed in his own life, which read like selfishness to some, he was not a man who invested in or paid attention to gimmicks.
Sometime in the 1980s, he left us. He disappeared for almost a year, returning when I was about seven years old to finalize my parents’ divorce.
After the divorce, he spent time with my sister and me on Sundays. He would often take us to the mountains for four- to seven-mile hikes, and in these landscapes of dry brush, scrub oak, and uneven dirt surfaces, which seemed torturous and treacherous at times, as we scampered across rivers on loose rocks, my father was perhaps, although quiet for most of the hike, teaching us something about himself.
In nature, we never fought, we never argued or brought up the things that hurt us, because together, we had the elements to contend with at all times—the steep hills to climb, the narrow passes at the edge of a cliff that dropped down into a creek raging below, the poison oak that we had to be careful around, swerving to avoid.
So instead of the feelings, the thoughts that kept us up at night, and silently at each other’s throats, we had nature—beautiful and foreboding, spectacular and wild—to overcome, to distract us during those hours.
But nature, or rather the desire to be within it, maybe even to conquer the fear of it, killed my father in the end. In 2004, at the age of 66, he lost control of his car after hiking with one of his best friends, driving off the side of a mountain, plunging into what must have felt like the most terrific abyss—branches breaking and glass shattering.
Nature had finally consumed him.
A few years before he died, I wrote an oral history of my father for an introductory Asian American Studies class in college, which was the first time I had ever engaged with him directly about his past. He never talked much about his family, unlike my mother, who had also fled what is now North Korea during the war, and sometimes told dark stories about what she remembered, colored by the fact that she was both highly-imaginative and only four years old at the time.
My father expressed a mix of nervousness and even a little glee as the subject of my writing. He always considered me to a be a good writer, even encouraged me to pursue journalism, which, at the time, could provide a stable income.
Unlike my mother, who had suffered much trauma during the war, but didn’t lose any of her immediate family members, my father, who was about 13 at the time, lost his mother, two sisters, and a brother, separated from them when he and just his father had escaped their home.
He never knew what had happened to his family, if they had survived at all, and seemed to exist in a steady, unnerving state of pessimism, a haunting—occasionally manifesting itself in bouts of rage—and a real fear of anything North Korean. His fear must’ve been directed at both the actual government—its cruelties and human rights violations—and the feelings he might have in his homeland, where his family was either dead, or continued to live without him.
I’m not sure what would’ve been a sadder reality for him, and maybe even he didn’t know.
At some point during our session, I had asked him if he wanted to visit North Korea.
Instead of mentioning his family, he told me that he dreamed of one day hiking Mt. Baekdu, a 9,000-foot active volcano on the Chinese-North Korean border, the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula, which he seemed to think was the most beautiful place on earth.
His eyes, normally dark and sullen, lit up like a small child’s, thinking about the beauty of Mr. Baekdu’s great caldera filled with the deep clear waters of Heaven Lake, the lush forests, the pounding of the waterfalls, and the wildflowers that still, despite war and our deaths, sway.
After reading the news on Twitter, anxiously staring at any photo I could find of the historic inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, 2018, I texted my mom, who I text more often than call these days because I can use Google Translate, which helps us communicate more complex ideas and feelings.
Despite living in Los Angeles for over forty years, my mother’s English is still limited since she spends most of her time in Koreatown, where Korean Americans can still survive—shop at the supermarket, buy a cellphone, call a taxi—in their own language. I, on the other hand, do not speak much Korean because I spent so little time with my family in Korea and Canada, and my mother, who worked sixty to eighty hours per week, didn’t have the energy to force us to use the language while we were being raised in an education system that demanded English.
With Google Translate’s help, I texted: “What do you think about Korean summit?”
She responded: “I do not think it is the end of the war. He has to meet with the President of the United States.”
I couldn’t quite understand her logic (What does POTUS have to do with this?), or if Google had even translated her words correctly, so in my confusion, I wrote back in English: “So is this good?”
She still hasn’t responded.
The possibility of Korean reunification overwhelms me, as it must overwhelm my mother, who had for years, possibly her entire life, never believed or even thought about how 25 million Koreans could ever 1. live in and 2. be free from the grip of a brutal dictatorship.
The division of the country itself is something, even after sixty years, that I continue to struggle to process, so how can I comprehend what reunification might mean?
How could thousands of years of culture and language be separated by a war, a border, 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, that allows no permeability? And how do people and countries in power, including the United States, profit, or actually benefit from such an arbitrary and cruel division? For most of my life, I have thought of North Korea as the rogue uncle that makes the rest of the family feel good about itself, or the uncle that is often the scapegoat for an entire region’s dysfunctions, or the uncle that we wish just didn’t exist somehow. North Korea has been both a reflection of who we, Americans, don’t want to be, and a mirror for who we actually are, what our wars actually do to people and countries, what and whom our wars leave behind.
Because North and South Korea’s separate existences continue to confound, the concept of an actual reunification presents an enormously complex and layered set of thoughts, fears, and emotions that Google, or perhaps any language, could never translate. If war could end between the two Koreas, what would this mean for the border? Would it become more permeable, and how? Could we end the border entirely? As my father’s daughter, I wonder not only if I could find my family despite what little information I have, but if we could love each other despite how severe the differences in our lives have been. I fear that I wouldn’t have the capacity for the heartbreak if we could not.
Maybe I could visit Heaven Lake.
Perhaps, when I hike today, as I try to do once per week where I live, close to the hills in Oakland, California, on dusty trails amongst oak trees and monkeyflowers, orange poppies nodding, I, like my father, am training myself for the impossible, confronting the treachery of those heights, and living a life that rushes towards the sublime.
When I asked my father about visiting North Korea, he couldn’t say what it would mean to see or not see his family. All he could think about was Mt. Baekdu, and perhaps, in those treks together through those woods, that’s what he was preparing himself for, that’s what he was preparing us for—a future we could never imagine in a present that we somehow endure.
"Pink Bathroom," from Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. Credit: Lorie Shaull
Death is the grand finale—and if it is also a beginning we don’t know it. It is the end not only of living but of dying, too. If there is another world, death is the entrance, the bridge between the soul within and the soul without. Body and not body. Kafka wrote an entry in the Blue Octavo Notebooks: Dread of night. Dread of not-night. Death is night and not night. Death is a worry even before life begins. We dread our own death and we dread losing those we love. We create art, fantasies, babies in order to ward death off. We even dread mass or singular losses of the human race. Of strangers. Death as a result of illness. Of violence. Death as Tragedy. Death as the start of rot. Death as emptiness and lack of reciprocal feelings. Till death do us part. Death as what separates us in life. “Tis like the distance on the look of death.” Death as the fear of surviving. Death as container. Death as shroud. Death as nakedness.
I used to have nightmares of my body exposed for my whole family to examine and identify on the autopsy table. To think it would not be me receiving the results. Morgue from the French verb “to stare.” Death as costume. Death as reason to live. Death as memory. Death as sex. Death as genderless. Death comes differently to children. To those of us who have children, who were and are ever children. Death is always wed to chance, and by wed I do mean they love and tire of each other, eternally. The chance of outlasting, of beating the odds, of healing, of faking out, of coming back. It is, until the very last rattle and breath, the possibility of haunting.
“Promise not to haunt me,” I tell my mother in a dream, when I am sixteen and she has broken her hip, refusing joint replacement then blood transfusion. Before we go to sleep I am spoon-feeding her lentils then peeling my father fruit in silence as if it is now my duty. To love him. To thank him for loving her enough to make me. “Promise not to haunt me,” I say in the dream. The only dream where I can hear my own voice as in an echo-y elevator. “I promise,” she says. I already regret it, this promise of the unconscious, and she is not dead yet. The same night: dream of my mother’s hair falling out. My father is bald. Now my mother is balding. This was before I knew toxic treatments could kill hair follicles and be a sign of sickness and of hope. My mother’s dream-balding is merely an embarrassment. It forces me to confront her head, the fact that her mind is her own. She will not ever let me know it. “What do you think,” she asks, and whether or not she listens or understands me, she does defer. She assumes I know better. The beginning of the wish to escape my own brain. The beginning of death as possibility. Of pressure.
One could argue death is the most finite and most infinite experience. It is finite for the body, infinite for the soul/mind/consciousness, if you believe in such a thing. Religions generally imagine some kind of judgment around the end—heaven and hell, peace from pain. Medicine generally imagines death as happening once although death is still a concept—moreover a word—that is culturally defined. And so it is possible for the vital organs to stop long enough for someone to be pronounced dead and then revived. Babies have almost been buried, then finally cried. Babies can be born dead-apparent, blue or colorless, not yet breathing. There are monitors to show me the contractions I am no longer feeling, but I feel them first and push. When he came out, the nurses said sorry to me before I understood they meant they were about to rough him up. I remember fearing their apology about my purple thingy son I thought would die the whole time he was inside me, but was he technically then alive? Fifty percent chance of losing when bleeding in the first trimester, fifty percent separation of placenta.
When I hemorrhaged clots and they swore me to stillness in the second trimester, when his heart decelerated during labor and they moved me vigorously: “What are the chances?” I asked. The doctor had long white hair and a bad case of laryngitis, but she managed at the moment to speak. “If you do jumping jacks you can bet you’ll lose it.” I thought it would be impossible to get up off the table. What is the difference between a jumping jack and stepping down. A jumping jack and getting up. I was just starting to show when the blood turned bright. Eight weeks later, without a shower, I gave a kind visitor twenty minutes to shave the matting off my head. Do not jolt me, do not attempt to comb. “Next time tell me and I’ll braid it!” She seemed insulted I had let myself go. “Of course I will.” On behalf of Beauty. Next time I know I am capable of killing a life I created I will stay motionless on one side but first I will ask a deft stranger to Purell her hands and braid my hair. Maybe I will ask her to braid my whole body so in its twist I can go nowhere.
Imagine sleeping without fear. Fear of the bloody dream. Fear of breathing heavy. Of hiccups. Of coughing. Of rolling. Of pressing. Of hips. Fear of the true dream. Fear of germ and gentle touch. Fear of emotion. Of constipation. Of loud noises. Of pets jumping. Of allergic reactions. Of orgasm. Of bad news. Of good news. Of conflict with mothers. Of names of doctors. Of ultrasounds. Of contractions. Of lack of heartbeats. Of salt and sugars. Of nurses with periods. Of teachers. Of dead friends. And phone calls.
If death is vague and endless, what can we do about it? Here is where the elegy is overrated. Likewise the funeral and memorial. Here is where we need the miniature. It is the mechanism of morbidity. It contains the unbearable. Imagines the unimaginable. It allows us to hold and be held. A dollhouse. A diorama. We like lockets with tiny emblems of the dead and gone. Think hair for a Victorian. Think a tiny mirror or vial of perfume. It is the powder compact that lets us focus on a close-up feature of our face. Think a cell phone, tiny buttons, hand-sized screen. The word cell—it goes beyond mobility and the transportation of sound. It is about size, the towers dividing a city into cells, our smallest unit. The nucleus, the center of each of our smallest units as in the nuclear family, is also what we try to recreate and what we live in fear of losing unless we live in fear also of being lost to it. Babies are miniature humans but also not, they are not proportional to adults. Likewise the fetus.
The first miniature that appears when there is a death almost universally is the tear. Crying is not something I do at funerals. If there’s a witness I leave my tears at home. When it comes, the tear is not just a stream of bodily salt water. They are precise drops that one can feel press out of the tear duct and down onto the cheek, along the course of gravity. This small glistening globe of water is a miniature of loss. First it manifests: a product of the body, a representative of one’s emotion for what’s lost. Then it moves, it threatens to blur vision, erase make-up, delineate a new pain on the face. Dry, chap, and disappear, losing its globular and miniature integrity. The tear like all forms of water, like its magnificent counterpart the sea, comes and goes. And the act of crying too is Loss in waves. It starts and stops. It can’t go on forever. The eyes dry out. The mind swerves. The body collapses, sleeps, must eat, take phone calls, put the flowers in a vase. I have read that underneath a microscope, the tear reveals its source: tear of joy, of sorrow, of physical pain. I would like a microscope, (preferably also invisible) so I could learn, without sharing the news with any of my living loves, what my eye water just became.
I cry most days. And like Dickinson’s supposed person, I find the tear a supposed, a member of my complex feeling, not unlike a model train set or a diorama. I have written about Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, dioramas of murder, and what fascinates me most may be that her meticulous attention to a jar of tomatoes in a kitchen suicide (and the pie just out of the oven) are the only source of sadness in the scene. The bodies are grotesque but perfect. It is the detail in the background, a wallpaper fleur-de-lis, that is most forensic and makes me shiver. Without science we would have nothing to disbelieve. Without the tools to measure there would be no way to lose. Without the tools to measure, by which I mean their failure to measure, there would be no way to grieve.
What is suicide but a rejection of the pact of death, and therefore a rejection of life? What is suicide but the art of saying Mine? What is suicide but the decision to be early and be late? What is suicide but an aesthetic preference? There used to be an art of dying, a nineteenth-century deathbed scene, a priest who gave last rites, a way to close the eyes and fold the hands, a way to point the feet, a privacy with audience. A miniature, too, invites the voyeur to move its parts, arrange an object like a life.
We must make death new, make little morbid spaces for us to live our own last rituals pre-emptively. The premature is not unlike the posthumous. Both are a surprise—according to Merriam-Webster, “the unexpected seizure of a place.” A funeral procession is like a televised news banner, a ticker tape, a tiny field of lowly ants being burned by some big boy’s magnifying glass held up to the glamorous sun. While the child apprehends the power of the distant cosmic, it is also true that he never loved or worshipped the roots, the ants, the tendril grass—whatever was living underneath his feet—until destroying it. We must play god and ghost. Holy vessel and empty self. Push: hold your breath. We must procreate sometimes to remember that life comes out of death, that sacrifice is physical, that growth is not just temporal.
Have you ever changed the memory card from one phone to another or pulled apart a babushka doll with pride, then felt the tiny thing between your fingers slip into its place? Discovering the smallest part. It is disappointing and aggrandizing. To hold a bit of sea lace, delicate, to lose oneself in Agnes Martin’s grid or recognize the statuary beside the mummy houses not just the organs but the Ka, the spirit of the dead. Why would the spirit want to go on in something smaller than its source? How is it so many cultures saw talismans as surrogates, not metaphors? Or maybe a metaphor is a miniature, truer than its abstract mother. Or else it is morbidity, maybe death itself, that can lead us back to that reverence for the small. Not just the small but the miniaturized, which indelibly recalls the larger, the original. The miniature is the meeting ground of belittling and awe. We enter a house but lose track of it. We exit a mother’s body but lose track of it. We enter a world and destroy it. We can’t even see it spin and couldn’t discern whether it was round or flat for ages. We exit our own body. We can’t even call it death without our mouths.
In Old English, death meant the cause and process of dying. In the singular, it had the same sense of closure as it does today, but in the Old English plural, death meant ghosts, the essence that goes on. Even the word miniature has a meaning we have lost track of, narrowed down. Etymologically the word comes from minium, a reddish coloring (not unlike the cheeks of the asphyxiated housewife doll in a Nutshell) used to decorate first and title pages of manuscripts. The word was closely related to illuminated manuscripts. Because these decorations were smaller than other paintings, the word came to refer more generally to size. The miniature is not just something smaller, it is something more intricate, more colorful, something that illuminates.
Death was not just the end but the ongoing; Miniature was not just the shrunken but the elaborated. Sometimes the word helps us expand its meaning. A paradox: sometimes the sign is more important that what it says, what we think it says. We live among oracles. We misinterpret. The material helps us comprehend the metaphysical. Another paradox. Sometimes a metaphor makes the thing more real. Dickinson has a simile “the nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” The microscopic interior becomes the grand container, the cold holder of the dead. This is the particular numbness of grief. The metaphor gives numbness a sensation of cold stone, of heavy substance.
And yet we use the miniature to instruct children: a wooden dollhouse, a baby doll, as if the miniature can guide our growing up. As if we are training children for a larger scale they can apply this learning to, this aesthetic attention, this routine empathy. No, holding babies is not like holding dolls. No, living in houses is not like opening and shutting the windows of a toy house. The scale is altogether off if you literalize the analogy. A child does not fit inside a shoebox diorama. The miniature is always art because the miniature trains us for what we cannot live, which is to have perspective beyond our own, the chance to hold a whole world at once. To feel the omniscience of a god, and simultaneously, his safe distance from mortality. To death, we let others go. We have to see the world without our selves. Dollhouses do not teach us how to live. They let us pretend there is a world without us. They end up on a shelf or in the attic with spiders that fit right in, those meticulous webs. And then one day we lose ourselves as well.
Gnomes and fairies are imaginary miniatures, supernatural beings based on the natural world, critters and insects. They know better and know us better than we can. We use them to teach children right from wrong, how to cope with loss (of teeth). Their power contradicts their size. Let’s call it wisdom. Wisdom is the byproduct of imagination and impossibility. They can contain us all, the experience of being human, because we can contain them, their figures, in our minds. I want to learn from someone small enough to not exist. I want to learn from someone who has been around long enough to not exist, and if they don’t exist they can know us more totally, no? I think the desire to know and be known by the dead (and the genie) comes from exactly that same plea in my dream of my mother. The plea to know the other’s mind—or to not know it as closely as possible. “Promise not to haunt me.” We all dread losing the ones we love. We beg them not to go even if we never possessed them in the way we wanted to. Even if we let them down or let them die alone, or lonelier. We beg them never to come back in anything but body even if exactly what we long for is spirit-wise, their genius, and what we fear losing most is what we never had.
A toy gun is a miniature of a violent weapon. A clean weapon. A symbol of a symbol that should never be more than that. Unlike knives and such, guns keep their distance, they rarely get wounded back, covered in blood. They don’t require strength, but sometimes require exquisite precision—or the opposite, a kind of elated carelessness. Think of a child. Bullets seem miniature to me: heavy compounded metal, but they are small versions of nothing. They make holes. A gun is a miniature of Power, because power by definition means “the capacity to produce an effect or undergo an effect.” In the March for our Lives we are fighting for that power back. Guns, as we know from Dickinson, have “the power to kill without the power to die.” We must take control. We must take responsibility. Guns kill people and we are the killers.
After giving birth, my swollen nipples felt similarly metonymic, out of my agency. They were dark miniature mothers, foreign nurturers that drew out my childishness, my own helplessness, and transformed it into something literal and nutrient-rich. They gave my son milk. But I was his mother. A newborn can see only as clearly as the nipple, only as far as the face from the breast. This is a miniature vision, a segregate world in which what moves between the bodies is emotion. In which love is whatever subtle, ever-changing response.
Because my mother had twelve miscarriages before she had me, I was prescribed tiny pearl-like suppositories of progesterone before conception. Pills are medicine in miniature, poisons to save rather than kill us. A bottle of pills is toxic. We baby-proof our cabinets. But each pill, a daily tablet, swallowed with a sip of water can restore our bodies to their proper function. What else in miniature form is life-saving? Candles as opposed to fires. Small print. A hummingbird. Eyelashes. A pocketknife. For good or ill, it is Queen Mab who midwifes dreams with her cricket-bone whip. Is incorporating death in small doses also healthier, death in miniature? When I gave birth I chose to be numbed below the waist. A needle was placed in my epidural space. Needles even at their most intimidating can draw things into and out of us because they are miniature. I felt mine painfully, between contractions, in order that I might feel nothing. They help us not die and help us die.
We keep coins in our pockets even though they are heavier than our phones. We like pockets because they fit our hands and not much else. A miniature unlike the afterlife has limits, but like the afterlife it is so safe there is no such thing as safety. Dolls and angels don’t get raped or buy insurance. We tuck our baby teeth under pillows for fairies when we lose them. So that someone who cares might keep them. Someone who can exist unnoticed, someone who flies and is small. Someone who is willing to barter in the miniature: a toy, a silver dollar. The miniature is always useless and currency. In the case of baby teeth, they’re not much smaller than the teeth we hope to keep. Maybe we treasure them for this reason: they stay baby. We keep ashtrays and little dishes to make small things like keys and change and tickets feel more at home.
Jasper Johns has a painting titled Painting Bitten by a Man. It is to my mind a miniature though some might disagree. Maybe the Ur-miniature because it is exactly the size of the artist’s bite but feels like something both magnified and shrunken, without the other features of the face. In this somber encaustic with a central bite-mark, we have the miniature doing all of its work at once: it keeps the painting in process, the wax wet. It forces the painting to be done and undone, entered and ruined. It is a form of expression and consumption, hunger and aggression, desire and hollowness. It makes art get beyond itself, the beautiful. It makes the human art. It is an entrance and exit into our bodies, a communion of artist and viewer, an offering and a threat. A disruption of perfection. A primitive communication. It is a way to keep the frame awake, alive, unfinished like the Greek statues, whose eyes were originally colored in. The painting reminds me of a gravestone, a death stele. The epitaph, a bite. What is a bite? A small part taken away and the act of taking it. A scream silenced by the waxy medium, a deadness subverted by a living appetite. The miniature allows the artifact to better encase its meaning—and alter it. It manifests emotion better than the life-sized. Scale has to be distorted, function disabled in order to expand Meaning. A communion wafer, an eyelash blown with wishes, a nano-chip.
I don’t want my child to be my miniature—I like discovering each day how much of a stranger he is. As I get to know him, I am also re-inventing both of us. The always-wanted child is no longer a possibility or metaphor but another life that will end in death even if it all goes perfectly. Sometimes I need to breathe though. Sometimes I need to walk outside to get away from his miniature chair with miniature fork and spoon and pile of toys, mini upon mini. The occasional gigantic stuffed animal for him to climb. Right now it’s all about things that go, wheeled modes of transportation, vroom, and balls. They come in different scales, the mini car he can be pushed around in, the mini cars he can mouth and roll down the hall with his own hands. Maybe the idea is that he can understand different functions at different levels. How to steer something. How to let go. Transportation that gets us nowhere.
One of the sweet and frustrating things that happened the other day was watching him try to climb a couch with one ball in each hand. He wouldn’t let go. He deliberately picks up balls as if to prepare for climbing—why would he want his hands occupied, an obvious obstruction to a task he’s perfectly big and strong enough to carry out? Well, there I go again thinking of the ball, the primal form of our planet. And while the world, as Atlas knew, was heavy to uphold, only in miniature can multiple worlds—whatever fits in our hands—be held at once and even help us overcome this world.
Grammar school, class V. By Augustine H. Folsom. From the collections of the Boston Public Library.
I used to teach a class to architecture students in which we read an essay called “Welcome to the Banquet.” The general premise is that when you enter the field of architecture, when you’re heading out into the world, you pick a table at which to sit, a group of thinkers with whom to engage. The essay is written by a female architect, but there is no mention of asking permission to sidle up to any of these tables once you choose. There is no caveat about the ones at which you may or may not be allowed. This feels, to me, like a glaring oversight. I’ve been thinking, lately, my whole life maybe, about who gets to sit down and at what cost.
More specifically, most recently, I’ve been thinking about the role of white women at the table. We have almost always been invited. We’ve been present, to look pretty, to offer counsel; perhaps, a hand squeezed under the table when a voice is raised too loud.
We’ve always had a place, but that place is constantly in conflict with itself. We’re there but why and to what purpose; we’re there, but we’ve seldom had sufficient power to feel sure we’ll get to stay. There’s a certain safety in that and also a certain danger, a presumption of value that often goes unproven, a level of culpability that can, perhaps, be easily dismissed. We are other, insofar as we are sometimes less than, but we are also there. We’ve also been given space.
In Morgan Jerkins’ essay about Emma Cline’s novel The Girls, but more largely about novels about bored white girls who enact violence on themselves, she writes:
These white female characters have everything: family, money, friends, and societal reinforcement that they are better than the rest. And yet, they still want to ruin themselves, and the writers often do not explain why. Is it the danger that their whiteness does not afford them? Is there this subconscious awareness of their privilege that causes them to try to step outside of it so that they can be seen more as individuals than as parts of white hegemonic structures? I can only interrogate. But in my position as a black female reader, I pour into stories and leave them feeling more stupefied than full, wondering if boredom in literature is another form of white privilege—one that women of color cannot access as society’s direct adversaries. Therefore, they need to struggle in a multitude of ways that serve as a background for further intersectional study. For white female characters, I am not so sure: their destruction is described as one of their own volition.
As a white female writer, I’ve thought often about this essay since I read it. I’ve thought about it not only because I wrote a book about a young privileged white girl who seeks out self-destruction for no good reason; I’ve also thought about it because I was one of those girls. Jerkins says, “It is a destruction in which a world wants them to exist, a world in which they are the standard for beauty, purity, and innocence, and they reject that world by disappearing. For women of color, it is the opposite, and that makes all the difference.” I read this part and I was confused by the dissonance I felt. She’s so very right, I thought at first. But then I thought, I’ve never felt that the world wants me, or that I might be a standard of any kind of purity or beauty; but also, I knew I’d had all sorts of space and safety that is a privilege that I haven’t thought about.
Of course, my privilege has not always felt like privilege. It’s hard to know what you don’t know until you learn. It’s hard to know what you don’t know when it’s not been given the space and time to be said. My destruction did not feel self-made when it took place. But that does not mean that it’s not my obligation as a writer to consider where it came from. That does not mean I should not try to make those who do not see or understand where it might have come from see and understand. That does not mean my desire at moments to disappear myself is not, inadvertently or not, in conversation with others’ desperate, sometimes life-threatening, need to be seen.
I spend most of my days teaching black and brown kids. The other day we went on a field trip to an especially white space. We were walking around—a gaggle of thirty-odd 16-year-olds plus three teachers. I was one of only two white people in our group. The looks we got, of horror. It was midday on a Wednesday, and the only people besides us there were old and white. It is possible it was just the fact of us that upset them, teenagers, talking, laughing, knocking up against one another in large groups. It was also possible some of the reactions had something to do with our kids’ race.
An older (white) woman, picking up her grandson to take him quickly to another room, glared at us. Why are they here? She said to no one. I glared back at her. If she hadn’t been holding a small child I might have chased her down. One of my kids whispered, but loud enough she clearly meant for me to hear her, Ms. Strong’s going to hit a bitch. I laughed and put my arm around her, walking toward another room to look at model trains and rainforest plants.
I was the only one in our group who looked angry. Maybe because our kids are teenagers and they are too self-centered. They were too busy taking selfies. Too busy flirting. Too busy being relieved not to be in class. But maybe also, already, they were just used to the world not being happy to have them in the room with them. Maybe they were just already inured to white people and their anger. Maybe I was the only person who felt safe enough inside that space to direct my anger out.
White women have had it better than almost anyone. We’ve had it better than everyone but white men. We’ve had it just good enough, that it is easier, less scary, to just play along. We’ve had it good enough, that, right now, we feel capable of anger without as much fear for how we might be punished later on.
There is a novel, many novels, whole worlds in which the only action undertaken by the white woman is as listener, is as seer, is internalized. Perhaps what has not been taken into account in writing about this is the fact of this being a privilege; perhaps what has less often been taken into account is the, sometimes inadvertent, outward violence this might cause.
Richard Rodriguez says in his essay, “The Third Man,” that what he envies most about whiteness is the blankness, the “arrogance and confidence,” to be anything. “I grew up wanting to be white,” he says. “That is, to the extent of wanting to be colorless and to feel complete freedom of movement.”
James Baldwin said of Giovanni’s Room, a book peopled completely by white people, concerned largely with what were then perceived as aberrant views of sexuality, ‘‘I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it,’’ he said.
Whiteness gives a character space to be or not be whatever they want both in fiction and outside of it. But how to address the costs of that freedom, those who are less free. How to acknowledge all that our silence has left out.
We’ve been reading theory lately in one of the classes I teach. I assigned an essay titled “Monster Culture,” which I’ve taught for years, which I have used before to scare overly confident undergrads with its density. The first couple of days I talked too much. I was trying to unpack and explain the concepts and the abstractions. The text argues all the various ways in which societies’ others are monsterized.
The kids got it though, impressively quickly, they got it, so I asked them to locate monsters in the wider world for their homework. This wasn’t hard for them. They presented witches and insanity in Ghana. One kid talked about Frankenstein. The conversation turned quickly to police violence, then to colorism. Some of us got teary. I was quiet, most of the class, only jumping in to make sure a student’s point had been heard or needed clarification. It was not, I understood quite clearly, my turn to talk.
There’s this feeling right now, that we all must take to our corners: mothers, women, people of color. We are what we are. We can only write about this. We are what we are and we all read about what we’ve already been. We like books, by consensus, online. Auto-fiction. We write books about people just like us.
There is value to this, surely. I do not know my students’ experience. I will never know it fully. They do not know mine. But looking at it everyday, engaging with and acknowledging our difference, as well as our sameness, feels imperative to accomplishing anything of worth right now.
My students didn’t Google me until October. I’m one of their older teachers. I’m married and a mom. When they found my book they dropped it casually in conversation as if they’d caught me doing something. I hadn’t told them I had a novel out. I’ve gotten better, over years of teaching, at creating boundaries; the fact of making sure that we accomplish what we’ve come to accomplish, often feels too urgent to waste any time talking about me. They brought the book up a couple of times and I reddened and told them I didn’t want to talk about it. They made a few more jokes, could we Hold Still a little longer, Ms. Strong? You want to write a book about me next time? We moved on.
A week later, one of my colleagues sent me an email saying, I didn’t know you were a writer. He ran the school reading room and one of my students had ordered my book to be kept on the shelves. She is a sweet, kind kid and a smart reader. For a couple of weeks she carried my book from class to class. I could never look directly at it. She never brought it up with me, though we are close and talk often outside of class.
My book is about a rich white lady and her self-immolating daughter. I’m proud of my book, but I don’t imagine my student found much in it with which she could relate. Of course, she might have, in that she is a person, a female, someone who tries and fails to love other people, of course she could have in that she is a thinking feeling person who can empathize with and relate to other lives, but I didn’t write a book that I’d be excited to assign to her or her classmates in an academic setting. I didn’t write a book that I’d be excited, as a teacher, to use as an example of what books might do for or mean to her.
I have always thought it is the necessity of fiction to hold a thumb on one specific bruise as firmly and as surely as one can until anyone who’s ever had a bruise or thumb can feel it. It is perhaps just as much the job of fiction to at least acknowledge all the gashes, all the deaths and absence, all the skin that is not bruised around that one.
To be a blank as a white woman, to both have the ability to appear and the impulse to disappear still feels to me like a worthwhile space to explore in fiction. It is a space to which I feel deeply attached. But considering the implications of that blankness, its bluntness and its impact outside the individual, the ways in which it can silence, is as imperative as examining the thing itself.
We need diverse books, says everybody. We need a diverse world. More than ever it seems imperative for the people who write fiction, as well as those who put it out, to reconsider what our job is and how we might be better at it, how we might both acknowledge our individual experience of violence while also acknowledging we’re a part of something else.
In Leslie Jamison’s essay about the Women’s March, she talks about the strangeness of just being a body. Just being a body being perhaps one of the great quandaries of women, of all colors, throughout time. But in the case of the march, in the case of moving now toward making space for other bodies, Jamison explores how just being a body can be a sort of power when that body is knocking up against others’. “The point of participating in large-scale collective action isn’t glory. It’s something close to the opposite: being a body among bodies. It’s about submerging yourself, becoming part of something too large to see the edges of.” This is as useful a way as any to describe how I’ve come to think of fiction writing. We are a part of a larger conversation. If you can see the end and the beginning, think yours is the only voice that matters, I’d argue you’re doing it wrong. I’d argue you’re not working hard enough.
Being one among many is a kind of power, this is true in protest, and it’s true in art. When many of us have been taught, both by the industry we are a part of and by our culture, that the only way to assert any kind of power is to stand out, what might it look like to re-consider writing as bodies among many, what might it look like to spend as much time looking out? Where might we situate the ‘I,’ to interrogate and celebrate it, while making space for all the other ‘I’s to have their say?
The following is an excerpt from Gå Bara: Min Flykt från Somalia till Sverige (Keep Moving: My Journey from Somalia to Sweden), by Abdi Elmi and Linn Bursell (Stockholm, Ordfront, 2016), here translated for the first time. The excerpt details Elmi’s childhood and youth in Somalia, followed by his journey from Sudan to Libya through the Sahara.
I grew up in Mogadishu, a name that makes everyone think of war. Who was at war at any one time varied, but their identities never made much difference to those of us who lived there. War was ordinary, habitual; we’d grown familiar with it. We handled it as best we could. When we were seven or eight years old, we played warlords with sticks as weapons. When I was thirteen, my classmates died as soldiers. We grew up to the sounds of gunshots. At night, in the dark, my siblings and I would lie in bed, listening, guessing which kinds of guns were firing. AK-47, BM-21, antitank rifle. Each had its own sound: the AK-47 a hard patter, the antitank rifle a heavy, lonely bang. The BM 21 multiple rockets, which could shatter a whole house. Sometimes the gunshot sounds were distant; sometimes they were close. We were always afraid.
I have never experienced peace in my homeland. Somalia is a wonderful place: Mogadishu is sunshine and turquoise seas and beautiful white beaches. Tourists should be flooding in. All my life I have wished, intensely, to see what Somalia would be like without war.
I was born in 1994. Three years earlier, in 1991, president Siad Barre was removed from power. To the rest of the world, he is known as a ruthless dictator. He assumed power in 1969 through a military coup, then ruled the country with an iron fist. But during the chaos that was Mogadishu in the 1990s, he became a symbol for a time when there was security and order, when the roads were passable, when hospitals and schools functioned. All the old folks around me liked to reminisce about Barre’s era. Things were bad, back then. But now they were worse.
The Somalia in which I was born was run by warlords. The warlords were like gangsters; they had weapons; they drank and did drugs. They shot people whenever they wanted to; they raped and beat up innocent people; women could barely leave the house. Then there were the clan conflicts. In the rest of Somalia, the clans are scattered across a wide territory. In Mogadishu, the clans live side by side; we are neighbors, which caused bloody conflicts every day. There was no government or president in control of the country; there was no justice system to speak of. Outside forces made a few attempts to establish order. In 2000, a provisional government was created, supported by the UN. But Ethiopia did not like this, so they intervened and helped foment a Somali alliance opposed to the government. To avoid further conflict, a new government was created, this time composed of different clan leaders from all over Somalia. It was called a transitional government. From the start they had great difficulty cooperating; too many conflicts already existed between them. The clans blamed all the problems in the country on each other. And the warlords only got stronger.
This was my world growing up. It was what it was. My family was very important to me: my father, my mother and my younger siblings Abdifatah, Hamdi, Samsam and Adbikah. I remember a constant stress. We were always on our guard. My mother and father were afraid; they didn’t want me to go far. My friends and I tried to find pockets of calm, places where we could play and live. The sea was close, and we played on the beach, too small for anyone to bother us. There was war all around us, but we were just kids: we played anyway. We played at being adults, at being warlords; we swam, we watched football, we joked and we laughed. We went to the movies. We sat in the dark as movie after movie rolled up on screen; you only had to pay once, then you could watch as many movies as you liked. Our favorites were the Bollywood movies from India, dubbed with Somali voices; they were long, action-packed and the hero was always strong. When we grow up, we will be just like them, we would whisper to each other. We, too, will be heroes one day.
The warlords sat there in the dark as well. I suppose they thought they were heroes already. At the movies, though, they didn’t care about us, and we weren’t afraid of them. Everyone just watched the screen. There, a drama was being played out that everyone could understand. The reality that existed outside the movie theater was much less easy to grasp.
For my parents, whether my siblings and I would go to school or not was never a question. Father was a teacher himself and believed passionately in education. But most of the children who lived on our street did not go to school. They were impressed by the fact that I did. Often, when they had questions, I was the one they would ask.
“Abdi, you go to school, you should know this!” They would say.
Sometimes conflicts between the warlords’ militias ranged close to our school. Then it closed; it could stay closed for days.
My father said that the violence was stealing our dreams from us. Our future. A child who only sees and thinks about violence will end up as a soldier. He didn’t want me to be a soldier. Neither for the warlords nor, later, for the government or Al-Shabaab. But I was never to speak of such things outside of our own house.
Then they will shoot me, he said.
That was enough. I kept quiet. My father trusted me, and I trusted my father.
In 2006, Mogadishu was taken over by a group called the Islamic Court Union. The ICU was an alliance of all the independent courts in the country, and it was trying to create order out of all the chaos. All of a sudden, you could put the warlords on trial when they killed someone. The ICU quickly took over all of the warlords’ territories; the warlords weren’t used to resistance. Some fled the country; others abruptly became devout, started growing out their beards, asking for forgiveness for their sins and attending the mosque. Soon the ICU controlled all of Mogadishu.
It felt unreal. People weren’t being robbed as soon as they left their homes. We could go outside at night, everyone could: women, men, children. We dared dream about the future: new dreams, new hope. I had never experienced anything like it. A new era was starting in Somalia, a good era. We were going to create a better country. I was full of hope. Nothing could go wrong.
The same year the ICU took control of Mogadishu, Ethiopia sent in thousands of soldiers to drive the ICU out of the city, together with the UN-backed transitional government. Most people in Mogadishu didn’t want to give in; they didn’t want a return to the chaos of the past. The ICU gave people weapons and told them they were going to be heroes. They told us we had permission from Allah to go to war. That if we killed Ethiopian soldiers it was not haram – a sin – as killing otherwise is. It was self-defense. That’s what they said. Suddenly, there were lots of young volunteer soldiers. And the period of calm was gone.
The war intensified. It had been easy for the ICU to get rid of the unorganized warlords, but the Ethiopian army was a different story. Soldiers died; young boys died, anyone who came within the line of fire died. The euphoric feeling of change and hope went up in smoke. It was horrible. There were food shortages; health care was even worse than it had been before.
My school changed. All the teachers talked about now was the war, how important it was for all of us to volunteer, so that we would win. They told us that we had to defend our country. “Are you ready?” They asked. “Are you ready to be heroes?”
Many of my classmates got caught up in the excitement; they, too, wanted to be admired; they wanted to be great men. I wasn’t really sure what I thought. I agreed with what my teachers said about the Ethiopian forces; I had seen for myself how they shot people in the streets, how they bombed whole neighborhoods with MB-21s. I thought they should leave us alone, and give the ICU a chance. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out and wage war. Not really. I was only fourteen.
Shortly thereafter, the fighting became so intense the school had to close; all the students moved back home. But things were hardly better there. I was no longer a child, or at least no longer regarded as one. I was fourteen, which meant I was no longer safe. Al Shabaab had begun as just a small youth group within the ICU but grown stronger. Then there was the government, the Ethiopians – it was as if there were thousands of eyes, all around me, watching my every movement. One day I was on my way to the store when a few government soldiers approached me. They aimed their rifles straight at me, into my face. This wasn’t unusual; I’d had guns aimed at me for as long as I could remember, so I wasn’t afraid, just tired and annoyed. The government soldiers didn’t inspire as much respect as Al-Shabaab. Their uniforms were worn, and for the most part, they were old and untrained.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Where do you live?”
“Over there,” I said, and pointed at our house.
“We know who you are; we know you’re in Al-Shabaab,” they said.
“No, I’m not, I’m not in anything. I’m just me,” I said.
They patted me down, trying to find a gun, weapons. They searched my pockets, too, found the money I was supposed to have gone shopping for. About half a dollar that my father had given me. The man who found the money grinned and put it in his pocket.
“Are you taking my money? If you’re government, aren’t you supposed to protect me? Instead of steal from me?”
I was so tired of them that I didn’t have the energy to be afraid. They didn’t do anything; they didn’t help anyone. They just ruined things. How was anyone supposed to have faith in the government? How were young people supposed to believe they were a better alternative to Al-Shabaab?
“Oh, get on with you,” they said, finally. Apparently they’d decided I wasn’t dangerous.
I started walking. Then I heard gunshots. I turned around quickly, just for a second. But it was enough: it was Al-Shabaab, attacking the government soldiers. I ran, as fast as I could. Was it because they’d seen what had happened? Were these old friends of mine?
I couldn’t live like this. I had to choose. Except every choice was impossible. The next day Al-Shabaab soldiers approached me and asked me why I hadn’t joined up yet.
“My mother is sick,” I lied. “I have to take care of her.”
They shook their heads, thought I was weak, a coward. This didn’t bother me, but I knew they would just keep asking. And I didn’t know what to do to get them to leave me alone.
The Ethiopian forces fired rockets and grenades at us all the time. Airplanes attacked us at night. The front line of the war was right in the middle of the city. We slept outside, in the yard in front of our house so it wouldn’t collapse on top of us if it got hit. I was terrified all the time. What if we died? My siblings were so small. Samsam cried quietly. We huddled together, listening. A rocket could go off at any moment.
One night, a house in our neighborhood was hit by rockets. A family lived there, with two children. We knew them. My mother went there the next day, searching for the family in the ruins. She was weeping when she came home. She told us there were no bodies left to take care of. They’d scattered into too many different pieces, spread out, torn apart. She said it was impossible to see who the broken limbs had belonged to. My throat closed, from grief and fear. I knew it could just as easily have been us.
There were dead bodies everywhere, all across the city. No one dared take care of them; there were snipers hidden on all the roofs; they shot at anyone who tried. Bodies remained in the streets for a long time.
Our fears for the future grew and grew. Things only seemed to be getting worse. From Siad Barre to the warlords to this? Why did change never lead to things getting better? We had longed for peace. Now the city reeked of dead bodies.
It is impossible to describe. My city, my homeland. The only place I had ever known.
We couldn’t stay. My father didn’t want to leave; he was scared of what would happen to our house; what if it was gone when we came back? But my mother told him the house didn’t matter. We mattered; our souls mattered. What good was a house if we weren’t alive?
So we left. We knew we could borrow a house right outside a village called Lafoole. There are only a few houses there; the people are very poor. But it was more peaceful there, and my uncle sent us meat and milk so we’d manage for a while. I tried to find the calm I always used to feel when I was in the countryside, visiting my uncle. But it wouldn’t come. I felt hunted. Every time I saw a car approach the village my heart started hammering.
My father didn’t think I could stay in Lafoole. It was a temporary solution only. Not even the countryside was safe anytmore. This wasn’t a war we could hide from.
And Al-Shabaab soldiers came, even to Lafoole. They knew me from school; they talked to me, told me I had to choose a side. They were everywhere now. My father didn’t know what to do to protect me. He was too old for them to care about, my siblings were too young. But me? The soldiers knew me. They’d managed to get my classmates to join; they wanted to get me too. They wouldn’t give up. If I wasn’t with them, I was against them.
My father did not want a letter from Al-Shabaab, saying congratulations, your son has entered Paradise. He wanted his son to live. He realized there were no more options left to us.
And so, one night, my mother and father decided that I was going to Europe. Europe was safe. There were no wars in Europe. That was about all we knew, but it was enough. I could have a real life in Europe; I could go to school, be a child, become an adult – an adult with options. My father talked to my uncle and he agreed to help. He sold three camels so I could have money for the trip. My other uncle, who lived in Nairobi, agreed to help with money along the way. After that, there was nothing to do but go. I just decided; I couldn’t think about what I was leaving behind. I was fourteen years old.
* * *
When we have been a month in Khartoum the smuggler is finally satisfied that there are enough of us to make the trip worthwhile. He says we will travel in a car called a Land Cruiser. It is fast and can drive through sand; the military uses it. In Somalia we call it an Abdi Bile, after a Somali track star who set the world record at 1500 meters in the 1987 World Cup. The smuggler says that in the Land Cruiser it will take us four days to get through the Sahara. That sounds good; it sounds as if we will make it. Four days isn’t impossible.
I borrow a telephone and call my father’s shop in Lafoole. Oday-Bile, a friend of my father’s, answers. My father is not there. Oday-Bile asks how I’m doing. I say I am mostly all right, that I’ll be okay. But I am about to travel through the Sahara. I ask him to tell my father that I will call in four days. After I arrive. If I don’t call, then I probably didn’t make it.
Oday-Bile promises to do so. “Abdi,” he says, “your father is very worried about you. He thinks about you all the time.”
“I think about him as well,” I say. “Tell him I will be all right, tell him I trust the people who are driving us and that I will be traveling in a Land Cruiser. It will be fine. It won’t take that much time.”
I hang up, the longing to hear my father’s voice so strong that I feel as if I’m breaking apart, but I don’t know if I could have managed to sound calm and confident if I’d talked to him.
We can’t drive at night, because then the airplanes from the Sudanese army can see us. As soon as they see car-lights they send the military into the desert. We can only travel during the day. At night, the cars stop and people gather in small groups and make food.
The first night I can’t sleep. You’re supposed to lie directly on the sand, but it’s cold at night in the desert. I lie down and stare at the sky. Above are thousands of stars and sometimes an airplane. Perhaps it’s the army, perhaps it’s tourists going on vacation. They don’t see us, I think. They don’t know we exist. We are completely alone.
I can’t fall asleep. I’m afraid that if I do, the car will leave without me. I have heard that it happens. Many of the others separate themselves from the group, sleep next to a stone or beneath a tree, to get some shade by the time the sun goes up. But this can be dangerous. The smugglers only yell for us once. Then they leave. Later we will all start to sleep in front of the cars so that we wake up if they start.
The desert is frightening. There are no houses. A few solitary trees in the beginning. Then nothing. Only sand. The sand blows around us and sticks in our mouths and throats and eyes. It is difficult to breathe properly. It is very, very warm during the day, over fifty degrees Celcius. We drink a lot of water, you have to in order to make it. Some pour water over their heads to cool down. We think the journey will take four days. The water will only last for four days.
Suddenly a boy falls out of the car, it happens quickly, there’s nothing to hold on to. He falls. We call, tell them to stop. They do, after a while. They are irritated and at first don’t want to turn around, but we say we refuse to go on, we aren’t going to go on, we have to turn around, otherwise the boy is going to die. So they turn around, finally. And we find him. They yell at him, “Why did you fall? Sit still! Sharpen up!” They beat him with a wooden bat. The boy is quiet, takes the beating without attempting to defend himself. At least he seems grateful the car returned. Later he tells me that he jumped. He didn’t go any further into the Sahara. Now he’s in pain because of the beating. Why do they treat us like this, beating us? I don’t understand it.
We travel and travel and only see sand. I have never seen a landscape like this. Now there are no trees at all. The sand dunes are endless. But suddenly we stop.
“Get out of the cars, all of you!” The drivers say.
We don’t understand what is happening but we know we have to obey, so we jump off, landing softly in the burning sand. Everything is quiet for a moment. Then we hear the sound of car motors. Other cars arrive, old worn trucks that can barely get across the sand. They must have waited for us somewhere. The trucks have two floors, rickety benches to sit on. The men who’ve driven us this far slam the car doors shut and leave. They’re going back to Khartoum – I guess to collect the next group of migrants. Now the journey will no longer take four days. We only have food for four days. We only have water for four days. Someone tries to protest but they’re told to shut up.
Now we’re truly terrified – but there are no alternatives. I have no options: I can’t stay here. I can’t refuse. Everyone else is thinking the same thing: we have no options. So we continue. We climb up into the trucks. The smugglers paw at the women, laughing and grabbing them roughly, pinching their thighs. The women try to avoid them, but they also have to get up into the trucks as quickly as possible, avoid angering the smugglers and risk getting left behind. Someone tries to tell the smugglers no, but then one of them raises his gun. A warning.
There is nothing we can say, absolutely nothing. One after another we all get up on the trucks. We try to hold on to each other so we won’t fall off when the trucks start. We sit very close together. I close my eyes and think, soon this will be over, soon I will open my eyes and see a wholly different reality lie before me.
After a few days we are stopped by a militia group in the desert called the Janjaweed. They capture us and demand fifty dollars from each person. Not everyone has the money. They rape several of the women, both those who can pay and those who can’t. To the men, it doesn’t matter. They say they seldom see women in the desert and now they want them. They tell an older woman who cannot pay that they’re going to kill her.
The woman tells them, calmly, “You can’t kill me, only God can kill me. Only God decides over my life.”
They tell her to kneel. She does as they say, again telling them that they cannot kill her.
Then one of them shoots at her. Everyone closes their eyes. The woman screams. But he fired just above her head. A false execution. Then he laughs. “Of course we can kill you,” he says. “We can do whatever we want.”
They use their guns like toys, as if it’s all a joke, and harmless.
We’ve been stingy with the food so that it’s lasted us ten days, but we’ve had to eat most of it during the time they’ve kept us prisoner. They’ve given us nothing to eat or drink.
Then, in the end, they just let us go. When we start driving once again, the food is almost gone.
I sit next to a man called Abderahman. We start to talk; he talks for a long time about his family. For five days he sits in front of me. It is nice, despite all the horror; I feel safe with him. He tells me that he worked in southern Sudan for three years. He sends all his money home to his family in Somalia; all the money they have comes from him. Then he wasn’t allowed to keep his job. That’s why he wants to get to Europe. He wants to get a job. Maybe his family can join him. That’s the dream.
“We have lost our country,” he says. “My family is hungry, that is why I have to travel through the Sahara. Because of the war. It’s like committing suicide, but I do it for them, I have to do it for them. All they have is me.”
He has problems with his heart, too, he says. We are hungry and thirsty. The food is gone and so is the water. Abderahman begins to look tired; he seems sick; he just lies down. When he is awake he begs for water. But there isn’t any. Someone goes up to the drivers and asks for water; they still have water. They take out their guns and shoot at him.
We leave early each morning. I sleep in the car. It is easiest that way; time passes more quickly if you sleep when you can. When I wake up, Abderahman is lying on his side, completely still. On the floor. At first, I think he is just sleeping, but something looks wrong. I wait; he has to sleep; he is so tired. His heart needs rest; it needs to beat long, slow, safe beats. Perhaps he’s dreaming about his family. I refuse to think anything else.
Then another man wakes up. He sees Abderahman. He jumps down and feels for his pulse. A moment passes. He shakes him. Another moment passes. I don’t know how long that moment was.
“How is he?” I yell.
“He’s dead.” The man sits up, looks around; maybe he’s wondering what he should do.
My six-year-old is perched on the rungs of a ladder in the backyard, a grin on his face, one loose tooth. His hair is glowing, just like cactus spines do in the golden desert light. He’s helping my dad to unfurl the yellow tongue of a tape measure. For weeks, they have been carefully documenting the death of an octopus agave.
One day, the agave shot up a pink stalk, which grew at the remarkable rate of six inches each day until it was fourteen feet tall. It transformed then, burst open into thousands of yellow flowers. The agave blooms just once in its entire life—up to a decade for the octopus agave, and longer for other types—and then it promptly dies. But the process is simultaneously death and self-propagation, for when the flowers slough off, they are replaced by tiny clones of the mother plant.
To make a story from the desert is not unlike the work of the agave. Something must transform. Flowers must burst from unexpected places. There must be sugar or pheromone or even blood left for the swooping bats, the packrats, the reader. It must catch us off guard, spit us out like a seed.
When writing the desert, my recipe is this: Write the heat and caliche and pigweed. The radio static and the country bar. The yipping of coyotes on a cold night. Write neon sunsets over wide streets and the smell of creosote, plucked from the stem and made into salve. Write cactus fruit spilling out their seed, and a monsoon circling the city like a dog. Make poetry from sand and lizard bones. Old bedsprings abandoned in the arroyo. A child on a ladder, measuring a dying agave in the evening light.
The writers in this issue know the desert as nuanced and extreme—both muse and deathtrap, shapeshifter and tomb, a walking meditation and a political bargaining chip. The people you will find in the desert are just as complicated. Some are already home, anchored by a long root sunk below the brush and dirt. Others come and go, trading the desert for places with fog and maple trees and snow. Still others are forced—by climate, or war, or men in air-conditioned rooms making laws—to traverse the desert in a cruel migratory roulette.
The writers in this issue ask and answer: Is the desert empty? Or is it full—and of what? The Egyptian desert that Basma Abdel Aziz describes is “full of enormous contradictions.” Its “silence is louder than any sound.” After setting out to write about an oppressive regime and “top-level political activity” in her country, she’s warned by colleagues against publishing for fear of retaliation—“Writing has become dangerous now”—and Aziz is forced to change course. She writes, “Since the smooth yellow began transforming in many pictures into crimson red, sand soaked with lakes of blood, I have lost my desire and appetite for the desert in general.”
“The first thing to leave you in the desert is time,” writes Claire Vaye Watkins, of the Lake Tecopa hot springs near her home in Death Valley. She recalls neighbors stripping nude to soak in the water, to heal maladies with mud and steam. “If it’s buoyancy you’re after, come to the hot springs, float free, for once, and do it daily. Let your bigness rise in brackish water.”
From Turkana County, Kenya, Nanjala Nyabola reports on the country’s eighteen-month drought, “arguably the most political drought” in its recent history. Amid a newly reorganized political landscape and a complicated web of aid organizations, the conditions of the dry spell have intensified. As more and more livestock have perished, rural Kenyans fear for their future. Nyabola writes, “When the goats start dying, a hard year is on its way.”
Will Atkins travels through China’s Gobi Desert and weaves his own account with the stories of desert explorers, missionaries, and conquerers who traveled, documented, and bloodied the region over centuries. And Anna Badkhen spends months in retreat on a ranch in West Texas, where residents and corporations battle over precious natural resources, and history is extracted and erased by machines. Of the desert, she writes, “A kind of nostalgia saturates the idea of it, turns all this imagined emptiness into a landscape of desire—from the Latin desidero: to feel the want of, to regret. This landscape mirages, shows you what you want to see: deliverance, supernatural feats, at least an epiphany.”
In an excerpt from a memoir by Abdi Elmi, co-authored by Linn Bursell and translated here from the Swedish for the first time by Gabriella Ekman, a fourteen-year-old Elmi is sent to Europe to escape the warlords terrorizing his country of Somalia. Of the harrowing journey through the Sahara Desert, led by smugglers, he writes, “It is like prison: the strong take from the weak. Everyone is desperate. But it isn’t certain that the strong are the ones who’ll survive. People wonder how I survive, why I am not screaming after water. But there is nothing strange about this. I cannot scream. There is sand in my throat.”
Kimi Eisele reminds that the body is a landscape as real as the one around us—uterine fibroids as obstructionist as miles of cactus and rocks. A place in the Sonoran Desert, “between a saguaro, an ocotillo, and a barrel cactus,” becomes the burial site for a miscarriage. She writes, “The baby stayed in the desert. I myself stayed in darkness for a long time.”
Teresa Krug interviews engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the creator of the “ice stupa” as an innovative solution to water scarcity—and a future of climate migration—in the Himalayan desert. And Anna Brones examines the term “food desert” with food justice activist and community organizer Karen Washington. Replace that term with “food apartheid,” says Washington, which includes conversations about race, faith, and economics, and “the real conversation can begin.”
Guernica’s special issue also features a conversation between Lauren Markham and former Border Patrol officer Francisco Cantú on borderlands and their debut books; fiction by Cari Luna and Gabriel Urza; poetry by Gabriel Dozal and Julio Serrano Echeverría; an interview with Dutch artist Lotte Geeven, who is building a machine to make sand from around the world sing; a Mormon pioneer trek undertaken by sexually frustrated teens in period costumes; some magnificent original art and photography; and more.
The house he built and the animals that died there
We moved to Nye County, Nevada, when I was six years old. My stepfather built our house himself on the edge of BLM, on the rim of a dry lake bed surrounded by mountains, with a well and a basement. We had to heat our bathwater on the stove, shake the sheets for centipedes, check under the table for snakes, stamp our feet in the basement for scorpions. My stepfather’s friend Gordon, who lived with us for a time in the basement, caught a tarantula in a jar. Animals often found a way to die at our house. Ground squirrels drowned in the horses’ water barrel. Mice died in the attic. Feral dog packs prowled the desert and littered our yard with bones. Once, a snake crawled into the swamp cooler and decorated our walls with snake and half-dissolved bird. Sometimes I came home from school to a decapitated chicken hanging feet first from the shed.
The light that burned
My mother’s father had worked at the test site. He was an ironworker. He raised her like a son, taught her how to train horses, how to survive in the desert, took her riding on the back of his motorcycle. He was a hard man, but he was a good man. When I would go to him after a bath, he would haul me into his lap, take a sniff of my toweled hair, and announce, You stink! He worked at the test site in the 1950s. Back then, clouds bloomed from the land like jellyfish: ghosts of a vanished sea. He and his team wore radiation badges to measure their weekly exposure. The badges were flawed. One by one, they all got cancer and died, including my grandfather. Soon after, my mother married my stepfather.
Sometimes I procrastinated the evening feed until I had to find my way by touch and starlight. In this way, by accident, I fed my own horse a flake of moldy hay—the blush of mold undetectable in the dark—and so caused her gut to fall silent with colic. My mother stayed up all night walking her back and forth, back and forth, but the mare died anyway. Before we could haul her body to the town pit, her stomach swelled where she lay, lifting her stiff legs skyward. My mother’s own beloved mare wasted away, despite all the surgeries my mother paid for and couldn’t afford. Tootie broke a leg in her corral. It was a holiday so the vet would not come to our house, but instructed my mother to draw a line from each ear to the corner of the eye opposite, and to shoot where the lines made an X. Janie colicked. Fancy twisted a gut giving birth. Her orphaned foal, Pookha, a gift to me from my mother, trapped her head in the fence and broke her own neck.
Not a horse
Gordon died in our basement, drunk and drowning in his own vomit on the stained mattress he slept on.
The wires that trapped us
My stepfather had fought in the Vietnam war. His troop had been doused with Agent Orange. I woke him by poking him from a safe distance with a broom. He hated me, and he grew to hate my mother, but he wouldn’t let her go. He stole and pawned her jewelry. He spent months on the couch, while my mother was a groundskeeper, was a cashier, was a janitor. He took his pants off and lounged in sagging briefs, his testicles spilling out the leg holes. He watched me through the crack of my bedroom door, which had no lock. He walked into the bathroom as I sat on the toilet. He called me a whore. He called me a cunt. Once, when my mother was at work, he hallucinated, screaming and spitting into my face. He dragged my little brothers off in his truck, and when he came home a long time later, my brothers ran into my bedroom with white faces. I blocked my door with a dresser. I heard his rumbling voice say, I don’t know if I should just shoot the bitch or her mother, too. The sheriff said that without proof of physical harm, there was nothing he could do. The attorney said that if she left him, she would have to pay alimony and share custody, leaving my brothers alone with him and his guns.
She gave up. He slept in the living room, on a couch stained by his body. We lived our lives in my mother’s bedroom, her door between him and us, his slow tread creaking the floor at the other end of the house.
Cats and cats and cats
Often, stray cats found their way to us. Or were dumped on our property. Or were left in a box on the side of the road. When the queens came into heat, we locked them in the tack shed to wail their erotic yowls while toms prowled outside, singing replies. Still the cats multiplied. My brothers and I searched the property for kittens, dragging them out from beneath the shed, from inside the woodpile, our fingers flinching at imagined black widows, scorpions, centipedes, emerging with a fury of fuzz, needle teeth puncturing our thumbs. Sometimes the queens gave birth under my bed, eyes dilated, purring in agony; the kittens sliding out in banded membranes, umbilical attached to a dark, wet sack. Once a queen went mad, abandoned her kittens to die in the heat; and once I found a litter of them my stepfather had tossed in the burn barrel, lacquered in birth fluids, a stone of dried blood glistening from one kitten’s nostril.
What he loved
Oddly, he loved geese, and kept his own flock, weeping when one vanished to coyotes or the lurking feral dogs. My stepfather loved geese, but he hated cats. Especially mine, a gray tabby who slept curled on my chest. If my stepfather saw my cat, he kicked him. If he found my cat on his couch, he sat on him, or dropkicked my cat across the room. After the last time, I found my cat underneath my bed, in the birthing cave, only his back legs visible.
What I did to repay
In my life, I have rarely been brave. But that night, I left the gate to my stepfather’s geese pen open after the evening feed, and in the morning, drifts of white feathers covered the yard. He wept like a child.
Strange things and beautiful things
But there was also the time I startled a desert fox from a tangle of sage. Her wide, swift ears, her bottlebrush tail, her wary, intelligent eyes regarding mine.
There was digging for clay after a rare rain and sculpting it into white, chalky horses, speckled with grit.
There was the family of jackrabbits, their kits venturing out in the early dawn while I fed the horses, balls of fluff the size of my palm.
There was the nest of gentle black ants that lived in the gravel of our driveway, their sleek jaws clasping eucalyptus leaves, passing into and out of my shadow as I squatted to watch.
There were the stars at night: a thick scatter of gems, layers upon layers of them, the Milky Way a bright band of smoke.
There were the mountains.
There were the shadows of mountains, striping the clay flats.
There was the silence like two palms pressed over my ears.
There was the time I found an entire horse or cow skeleton laid neatly on top of the shed roof. When I asked my brothers what it was doing there, they looked at me patiently and said, We found it in the desert, as if that answered my question.
There was the winter morning when I went outside to feed and found the dry lake filled to the brim with fog.
There was the abandoned gourd patch my mother and I discovered on a wandering desert walk—out in the clay flats, in the middle of nowhere, a splintered fence enclosing a mesquite grove, wrapped with rusted barbed wire. Inside: a hidden room, slivers of shade, a carpet of dry leaves, the husks of vines and gourds light as feathers, rattling with seeds.
There was the fact that in spite of all of it, in spite of him, my brothers grew into good men, and kind.
You can grow used to anything
At one point, twenty-two cats lived in my bedroom. Their feces dotted the floor from wall to wall, their urine soaked the carpet. I emptied the litter box in the desert, dug new dirt to refill it. Sometimes the litter stirred with maggots. But all night a blanket of cats covered me, their chins on my chest, their hearts thundering against my ear. I peed in their box to avoid the bathroom.
I went into the desert to shit, though. Holding it in for days, sneaking out with my pockets stuffed with toilet paper, squatting in a mesquite grove, watching the house through a screen of branches. The stiff yellow brush scratching my skin as I hovered, thighs burning. Afterward, I buried my dung like a cat.
Sometimes I came home from school and found my mother had cleaned my room for me: clean sheets on the bed, the floor cleared of filth, the litter box fresh, all stench aired away. Sometimes she left a small gift behind on my bed: A scotch-tape dispenser. Plastic barrettes. Scented erasers. Tiny treasures as comforting as a blanket of cats.
A terrible beauty
I have a book of archival photographs of mushroom clouds. I’ve watched the black and white film of an empty house in the test zone, tattered away by wind and blinding light. Is it wrong that I find them compelling and beautiful?
Memory can’t be trusted
Years later, my mother would tell me that Gordon never died in our basement. That he had moved away and passed on somewhere else. What else have I misremembered?
But the bare, stained mattress he had slept on was true.
Some evidence of care
Long after I had fled, my stepfather heard voices telling him to murder my mother and brothers. He installed locks on the bedroom doors and told my family to lock them at night. He would then tie himself to my great-grandmother’s scratched mahogany coffee table.
The other desert
By then I was living in Qatar, alone in a high-rise flat with cold tile floors and blue-tinted windows overlooking the sea. The sea was dense with silt and jellyfish.
When I came home to visit, my stepfather and I ignored each other. He still slept on the same filthy couch. The pain had moved from his spine to his legs. He would sleep like this: kneeling on the floor in front of the couch, arms crossed and head resting on his arms. I slept in my mother’s bed, her back warm against mine.
The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act
The house and the basement were cluttered with dust and water-stained paperbacks and tubs of old toys and broken furniture and dessicated mouse scat. But in those depths my mother kept records of her father’s illness. She sent them to the government. She expected nothing.
They gave her $100,000. How much is a life worth? How much is a father, a grandfather, worth? But it bought her a house. A house that was brand new, and hers.
The other sea
I went skinny-dipping once in my life. It was at night, on a tidal flat shore deep in the empty Qatari desert, behind vast dunes of sand. The water was warm as spit, dense, and shallow, and as I swam, phosphorescence trailed my bare limbs so they were lit from below, pale and blue and luminous.
Everything wears away
My mother and brothers moved out. My stepfather died soon after, old, alone, and unloved, surrounded by filth in his cat-stained lair. He had arranged some friends to squat there free of rent in exchange for looking after him, but instead they stole his tools and his cash, and left him to die untended.
I went there, after, to the old house. I didn’t go inside. The yard was full of weeds and garbage, abandoned piles of scrap, the fallen shells of horse corrals. I didn’t go inside the house, but I went into the lake bed, following my old nostalgic paths.
I found the gourd patch flattened, shards of beer bottles and bullet casings littering the dirt. Along the rim of the lake, new houses crowded what had once been empty desert. The town had grown and moved on in my absence. The evening stars now blank, erased by heedless light.