Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs. Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available. The Bramford, old, black, and elephantine, is a warren of high-ceilinged apartments prized for their fireplaces and Victorian detail. Rosemary and Guy had been on its waiting list since their marriage but had finally given up…
It may or may not be a coincidence that Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s sly valentine to the lost world of mid-twentieth-century New York, entered my life at the same time as my growing awareness of the power and mystery of place. Already beginning to travel widely but not yet a fiction writer myself, I still remember the mild shock I felt on encountering environments so different from those I already knew that some of them barely seemed like places at all. Anyone living amid the regular, measured blocks of a city who encounters the scaleless, dreamlike spaces of the desert for the first time will know what I mean. My own transition from New York to Colorado’s Front Range wasn’t as drastic; still, it was a defining moment for me when I first hiked to the crest of the foothills, and suddenly, unexpectedly (don’t ask me why I didn’t expect it), that first vista of the Rockies stretched out panoramically before me. There it was, not a poem about mountains, not an Ansel Adams photograph or a travel poster, but the thing itself, forcing its presence on me through the crisp, clear air, twenty miles farther west. What mattered wasn’t merely discovering the mountains, startling as that was. There was also the awakening of the part of me that was capable of wanting them, the surprise of finding a piece of myself I had previously not even known existed.
I was not consciously considering any of this when Rosemary’s Baby became part of my inner geography. All I remember clearly is that, some time after my first reading, I began to see the plain facts of the city where the novel was set, and where I then lived, as things behind whose surfaces lurked evil secrets or twisted unexplainable mysteries. I felt almost a shiver of fear that such possibilities could exist alongside the tangible surfaces and spaces of city life: street signs, long, endless walls of high-rise apartment buildings on the avenues, textures of sidewalks or paint on fence rails, the juicy greenness of a park, the light from the sky or late afternoon sun falling on a facade. Perhaps, I thought, the city might contain these unspeakable things precisely because of the mundaneness of the details, the ordinariness I could see proving the horror I could not. In other words, I was hooked.
Looking back on that time, I think it was multiple re-readings, spurred on by this kind of enchantment, that allowed me to find the exceptional, intimate feeling for a certain kind of middle-class life in New York half a century ago that is the book’s triumph. For what lasts in Rosemary’s Baby is the precision of its middle-classness, the particular way it triangulates the physical and social landscape, the inner consciousness of mid-century New Yorkers who lived neither very high nor very low on the social scale.
Before going any further, though, I ought to admit what you doubtless already suspect: Rosemary’s Baby is a novel I love. Don’t you have books like that in your life, too? I mean the ones with cracked spines or yellowing pages that you’ve read half to death but cannot give up, the ones you reach for when all you want is the gratification of getting lost in a story, and that you could find on the bookshelf in the dark if need be. Once I would have dismissed that love as a guilty pleasure, like the taste for gummy bears, irrelevant to my “real” response to it, as if the sources of simple gratification were simple in themselves, easy to penetrate and understand. It was only those multiple re-readings and re-re-readings I spoke of, along with the slow passage of time, that let me pierce the novel’s calculated artlessness and perfect construction to find its beating heart. But I never would have found that heart if I hadn’t fallen in love with it and let the love carry me deep into the novel’s interior in ways mere admiration or literary analysis alone never would.
Consider all the implications welling up from the novel’s opening paragraph with its limpid, affectless language. Nothing in the writing advertises its presence as a literary “device,” yet anyone familiar with the events being described can sense a whole world unfolding. A few years too old to be classified as baby boomers, Rosemary and Guy emerge as upwardly mobile young moderns of the postwar era with all the values and attitudes of their set. They are clearly in love with the Bramford’s Victorian architecture, not as something they grew up with, but as playful nostalgia from an era they never knew, something they can live in, admire, luxuriate in, yet still feel some distance from and walk away from any time they want, a kind of contentless form. Perhaps they even take some secret pride in their ability to find beauty and value in what the generation before theirs would have regarded as an unfashionable mistake. But––and this is equally important––the privileged perspective isn’t the result of personal privilege that might have come from having money or social standing. The Woodhouses are simply one more anonymous couple who had to get in line, wait their turn, and nearly had to settle for the boring anonymity of a modern highrise on the east side.
That is a lot to reveal in these first three sentences, creating circumstances and expectations that will prove critical to the story as it unfolds. In that story, Rosemary and Guy move into the Bramford, which, unknown to them, is populated by a coven of latter-day witches. The first witches they meet seem like nothing more than the nice, elderly couple down the hall in 7A. Soon afterward, though, Guy, an obscure but ambitious young actor, learns their secret and eventually arranges to have Rosemary put under a spell and impregnated by Satan in return for a critical breakthrough role in his acting career. Only toward the end does Rosemary begin to recognize that each new development might be a conspiracy against her, or could be rationalized away with an innocent explanation. When another actor who snatched a crucial role away from Guy suddenly goes blind, letting Guy step in to replace him, she wonders if it was an accident or a witches’ spell. When Rosemary’s older friend, the children’s book author Edward “Hutch” Hutchins falls into a mysterious coma, was it because he began to suspect the sinister truth or did he just happen to fall ill? “You’re going to have your baby in four days, Idiot Girl,” she thinks near the end. “So you’re all tense and nutty and you’ve built up a whole lunatic persecution thing out of a bunch of completely unrelated coincidences. There are no real witches. There are no real spells.”
Told from the unsuspecting Rosemary’s viewpoint, the horrific truth about her pregnancy emerges gradually, through this smokescreen of realistic-seeming detail. Realism that isn’t real at all, of course, but carefully heightened with a flawless eye and ear for the exact level of Rosemary and Guy’s particular tastes and interests as minor figures in the “creative” and “artistic” subsector of the city’s middle class. Moving. Fixing up the apartment. Going to the theater or “a friend’s exhibit of metal constructions.” Rosemary and Guy meet Hutch for dinner at Klube’s, a small German restaurant on twenty-third street. Guy buys a shirt advertised in the New Yorker. Next-door neighbors Messrs. Dubin and Devore live in an apartment with red-and-gold-striped wallpaper and a black sideboard visible from the hall. Rosemary’s predicament acquires its scary credibility from this near-documentary treatment, allowing the author to flawlessly blur the lines between lived experience and fantasy until the very last scene. Yet this feeling seems to me so inward in its understanding of the key characters’ attitudes and needs, so delicate and sweetly precise, that at times it peels free of the function it serves for the thriller and takes on a life of its own, making Rosemary’s Baby read almost like a novel of manners.
And so, perhaps inadvertently, a second story emerges from beneath the thriller, one with an almost tender regard for the beliefs, tastes, and rituals of upper-middle-class life in the big city half a century ago, the dailiness of it, the familiar comforting humdrumness of shopping trips, errands, parties, the taste in furniture, clothes, art, wallpaper, restaurants, encounters on the street or apartment halls with friends and neighbors. Instead of the high life of The Great Gatsby or the grinding slum realism of Call It Sleep, we get Rosemary traveling to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses, “not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighborhood but simply because on that snappy bright-blue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders.” Hutch presents the Woodhouses with a teak ice bucket with an orange lining as a housewarming present. Rosemary wears a pair of burgundy silk lounging pajamas. Guy plays an LP of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. Rosemary sees Dubin or Devore (she isn’t sure which) carrying a suit swathed in cleaner’s plastic. Guy forgets to pick up his favorite dessert: a pumpkin pie from Horn and Hardart’s. Rosemary votes (Lindsay for Mayor). As these bits of cultural detritus accumulate, they begin to evoke a whole social horizon, of lives lived with a careful balance of cheerfulness and anxiety amid the small potatoes of middle-class hopes and disappointments. Guy’s acting ambitions may bring him success, even stardom, but he could just as easily wind up with a life of commercials and soap operas and affluent obscurity surrounded by a whole Bloomingdale’s worth of tasteful artifacts his half-success would bring. There’s pity and empathy and possibly some cruelty in that, something the author surely never intended.
Or perhaps he did. One of the mysteries, to me, of Rosemary’s Baby is exactly how aware Ira Levin was of the extent and depth of his imaginative dive. That he was aware I have no doubt; Levin has stated that he anchored his story in the reality of that place and time as a way of making himself believe his unbelievable story, which then made it possible to persuade his readers. But this does not have to mean anything as straightforward as mining his own life for material. Perhaps the need to make his story feel credible forced him ever deeper into the emotional logic of how his characters’ lives were performed and how they came to life physically in their urbane setting, bringing out possibilities he hadn’t anticipated. Regardless of its origins, the effect is a story written so close to its title character’s consciousness that it leaves the reader with only the smallest possible distance between Rosemary’s knowledge and understanding of the life she lives with Guy and the book’s portrayal of the same.
Why should this bring such freshness and tenderness to the story? I have a theory about Rosemary and the novel’s attitude toward her and the city where she lives. A refugee from a big, traditional, suffocatingly close family in the Midwest (“stupid Rosemary Reilly from Omaha”), Rosemary comes to New York without (apparently) anything more than a high-school education, a need to spread her wings, and guilt over the past she abandoned. Hungry for knowledge and freedom, but as yet unfocused, she initially bonds with her older friend, the children’s book author Hutch, who gives her “strong tea and talks about parents and children and one’s duty to oneself. She asked him questions that had been unspeakable in Catholic High; he sent her to a night course in philosophy at NYU. ‘I’ll make a duchess out of this cockney flower girl yet,’ he said, and Rosemary had had wit enough to say ‘Garn!’”
New York in the ’60s, then, turns out to be exactly what Rosemary thinks she needs, without ever quite resolving her relationship either to her adopted city or the one she left behind. She gets a job (as a secretary) at CBS, takes a sculpture class in addition to the philosophy course, goes on dates, lives in an apartment with two girls from Atlanta on lower Lexington Avenue. In other words, without significant education, breadth of experience, or the leisure to invest in any special interests or pursuits, lacking the drive or purpose that might push her toward a larger cause or goal, Rosemary, by the most natural of processes, becomes part of the vast army of unattached young women pursuing the big city’s endless charivari of things to do, groups to join, people to meet, opportunities for sensations, experiences and diversions they never knew back home. Can you hear Burt Bacharach’s music playing in the background yet? Eventually (we are not told how or when; this is all backstory) she meets Guy, the struggling young actor, so full of talent and potential and drive to succeed that it becomes fatally easy for Rosemary to abandon her own vague aspirations in favor of his intensely focused ones without noticing the deep difference between them. She has friends while he has contacts. She’s something of a homebody while he constantly makes the rounds of meetings and casting calls (“How was the meeting with Stanley Kubrick?” “Didn’t show, the fink.”). He calculates and strategizes, she often has a guilty conscience. Some of this behavior, occurring as it does, a few years before the flowering of the women’s movement, may strike new readers as overly passive or submissive. And yet because the story is fundamentally Rosemary’s, written almost claustrophobically close to her viewpoint, it’s her consciousness of her circumstances that becomes controlling, becomes the authentic one. Fashionable attitudes and pop irony may be the outward trappings of Rosemary’s mind, but deep down, in her secret heart, she’s as sincere as the real Victorians who once lived in her Victorian apartment.
Some authors might have made satire out of Rosemary’s halting steps toward sophistication, poking fun at her endless, rootless pursuit of the proper artisanal cheese, her interestingly creative friends, her apartment painted in the perfect shade of off-white (“The painters came on Wednesday the eighteenth; patched, spackled, primed, painted, and were gone on Friday the twentieth, leaving colors very much like Rosemary’s samples.”). This sort of comedy has been done so often that it’s now overfamilar, the accepted stance to take toward newly acquired manners. To his credit, Levin did not do that––could not have done it without an unacceptable loss of sympathy for his title character. Something in the artistic dilemma of needing to be true to Rosemary’s genuine desire for happiness, comfort, and love, but also true to the inauthenticity of her tastes creates the alchemy that makes the novel’s approach so exceptional and fresh. Consider, for example, the party Rosemary and Guy give for their friends in their beautifully refurbished apartment. It’s a critical moment in their lives, a chance to assert who they are and stake a claim to a certain social status before their peers (“‘Can I look around?’ Claudia asked. ‘If the rest of it’s as nice as this I’m going to cut my throat.’” A very mid-’60s thing to say).
And so, instead of laughing at Rosemary, we’re allowed to feel some pity, some understanding, as she makes garlic bread, wearing her loose brown hostess gown and her Vidal Sassoon haircut, serving her Chilean seafood casserole (“chupe”) while her hired bartender named Renato pours the drinks. Now it’s the moment after dinner when everyone is gently lubricated and relaxed; no one is trying to role-play or impress anyone any more. This scene is worth quoting at length. Read it not only for the spring-water transparency of the language, but also for the way details chime against details, so that the depth and completeness of Rosemary’s satisfaction acquire a kind of poignance.
Joan’s over-fifty date sat on the floor by her chair, talking up to her earnestly and fondling her feet and ankles. Elise talked to Pedro; he nodded, watching Mike and Allan across the room. Claudia began reading palms.
They were low on Scotch but everything else was holding up fine.
She served coffee, emptied ashtrays, and rinsed out glasses. Tiger and Carole Wendell helped her.
Later she sat in a bay with Hugh Dunstan, sipping coffee and watching fat wet snowflakes shear down, an endless army of them, with now and then an outrider striking one of the diamond panes and sliding and melting.
“Year after year I swear I’m going to leave the city,” Hugh Dunstan said; “get away from the crime and the noise and all the rest of it. And every year it snows or the New Yorker has a Bogart Festival and I’m still here.”
Rosemary smiled and watched the snow. “This is why I wanted this apartment,” she said. “To sit here and watch the snow, with the fire going.”
Hugh looked at her and said, “I’ll bet you still read Dickens.”
“Of course I do,” she said. “Nobody stops reading Dickens.”
Guy came looking for her. “Bob and Thea are leaving,” he said.
If there is such a thing as a poetry of upper-middle-class life, it must resemble this passage. Notice, among other things, the wonderfully evocative way the names of the characters themselves help establish the setting and period. Dee Bertillon. The Chens. Hugh and Elise Dunstan. Lou and Claudia Comfort. Jimmy and Tiger Haenigsen. Guy’s agent Allan Stone, who arrives with “a beautiful Negro model named Rain Morgan.” I wonder what Jimmy and Tiger do. Is he an editor at Newsweek, she a modern dancer? What kind of counternovel would their lives make? How do the other partiers react to Allan and Rain’s presence? Thinking about what Rosemary and Guy’s party might look like to Rain Morgan is almost a novel in itself. It is the heightened believability of such a scene, its faithful recreation, not just of physical locale, but the bond between place, mood, and attitude, that makes the horror story all the more shocking as it emerges and makes Rosemary’s growing suspicion of a conspiracy all the more pitiable.
Finally, let me ask you to consider, once again, the complex relationship between the characters’ tastes and their identities. That complexity grows out of the fact that the characters are clearly proud of their advanced, fashionable tastes (and meant to be seen as such). And surely it is true that new tastes and attitudes can be liberating and if you believe in liberation, why shouldn’t this be a cause for pride? Yet tastes that are genuinely new also involve some form of risk. They might fail to catch on. Or if they do catch on they might create discomfort and enmity, threatening familiar practices and relationships. Such matters are not normally considered playful or fun.
It is in this context that the novel’s measured mixture of sophisticated tastes and utterly expected attitudes toward them becomes so funny, surprising, and perhaps shrewd, treating the characters’ appetites for Chilean seafood or Bogart films, not as rarefied and special, but as familiar, comforting contrivances by which the characters mutually reaffirm their identities. Re-read, if you would, Hugh Dunstan’s remarks in the party scene quoted above, in which he uses his surface exasperation with the city where he lives as a backhanded way to express his hopeless (and probably unexamined) affection for it. Though this is never stated, it’s easy to guess that his attitudes are probably unformed by any serious exposure to other experiences of place, making his cosmopolitanism oddly provincial. There is something deeply insightful about these layered, contrasting feelings.
The recent revival of interest in mid-century tastes may cause those who know Rosemary’s Baby only from the unusually faithful movie made from it in 1968 (with its meticulous production design), or know that era through such enterprises as Mad Men or “Design Within Reach,” to see my reading as nostalgia. This is a mistake. The author’s imaginative act may be evocative (and the passage of time may throw its documentary-like feel for its era into high relief), but nostalgia forms no part of it. Maybe I can explain it by comparing it to The Moviegoer, another novel about another lost world I also happen to love. This time it’s mid-century New Orleans that’s so powerfully summoned: the fading summer light, the electricity in the air before a Gulf coast storm, the smells of cooking or sewage, the humidity and flying bugs, the familiar prattle of family and friends ensconced in tight social circles. Though I have visited New Orleans multiple times, I’ve never been on intimate terms with it and cherish Walker Percy’s masterpiece partly for its power to completely realize and immerse me in something I know only from a distance. Perhaps place simply matters to me in ways I can’t explain, making me more than normally susceptible to works that make me feel the essence, the quiddity, of any locale at all. To reverse Gertrude Stein’s crack about Oakland, there is always a there there, and it was Ira Levin’s accomplishment to have intuited and captured a slice of his own particular thereness as few others have.
It is said that you never read a book the same way twice, but how do you re-read a place? I raise this because as surely as I know a new kind of self arose in Colorado, I also know the older, urban self never really disappeared; rather it lingered stubbornly to demarcate or irritate the new, making sure my Coloradoness would never be as absolute as my New Yorkness had once been. And I think if you can live with that, if you can accept the tension between different senses of place in yourself, maybe it’s a good thing if it deepens your awareness of the several movie sets in which your life is invested. So I wonder: is it possible that the things in Rosemary’s Baby are so starkly evoked to me because I read about them within sight the foothills preceding the Front Range, the evergreens dusted with a light coat of snow? What about that night course in philosophy at NYU? I never took one of those, yet I can still see book-carrying students, Rosemary among them, bustling in and out of the slightly dilapidated stone buildings a block or two off Washington Square. What of Rosemary’s bay window (in which I never sat), with those fat, wet snowflakes? I can picture the snow casting a soft, blurring blanket over the city’s sharp edges and dirty corners; I can see empty avenues with long lines of traffic lights turning red, then green, red, then green, to no avail. Can I imagine such things more easily, do I feel their absence/presence more sharply because I contemplate them from a tree-shaded street in Wisconsin at nine o’clock on a July evening? With flickering fireflies? And a motorboat’s dark shape gliding across the surface of a lake that just barely reflects the night sky?
By now I can no longer separate the novel’s way of realizing time and place from my own sense of what it means for a place to be a place at all. Perhaps I read and re-read that book because it taught me how a place can be. But it seems equally likely my growing understanding of place taught me how much Rosemary’s Baby has to offer in that regard.
The wooden fenceposts on both sides bow to weather
and halfway between earth
our line slackens,
brushing the coattails of one neglected
against a canvas of white.
What we’ve pinned to cloud
hoping to dry in time
clings to skin— grows harder
What is it we wear
when there is nothing left
but rigid names for impossible
From a frosted window,
we are dreaming a taught
for the wind to make dance
On December 19, 2008, 27-year-old climate activist Tim DeChristopher protested a federal auction of 116 parcels of public land, including remote wilderness areas near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah. The auction was arranged by the George W. Bush administration during its closing days in order to sell drilling rights to the oil and gas industry. While activists picketed with signs outside the federal auction house in Salt Lake City, DeChristopher entered the building and registered as a bidder, placing $1.8 million in bids on 14 land parcels before federal agents forcibly removed him and took him into custody. He was charged and convicted of two felony counts in July 2011: one for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act by “scheming to disrupt the auction” and a second for making false statements about his ability to purchase land.
Before DeChristopher’s sentencing, National Public Radio’s Alex Chadwick interviewed him as they travelled down the Green River in Eastern Utah—where I first heard about him. Chadwick reported that in prison, DeChristopher planned to write a book—a series of letters to his father, a retired energy industry executive, and the only family member absent at his trial. DeChristopher said of his father: “I think he comes from a genuine belief that we have a system that works and it has for him. You know, he came from a poor family and worked hard and studied hard and became an engineer. And, you know, moved up through the ranks and became secure and very comfortable. I guess I kind of view my father as a prototypical, comfortable liberal in America. And I feel like that’s the audience that I’m most drawn to addressing.”
I fear as we both grow older, we are becoming the same caricature. I think of Chris Cooper’s character in American Beauty, pointing at his morning newspaper and declaring, “This country is going straight to hell,” to his silent, indifferent family. Similarly, living in Western Pennsylvania—with its football machismo and casual misogyny and loud-mouthed, libertarian, everyone’s-a-jagoff ethos that continually make me confront the full extent to which I was raised within a privileged liberal bubble—I find myself constantly telling people we should “burn it all down.” Like you, I quote leftist blogs, get set off and turn self-righteous at the first mention of anything vaguely political: ALDI’s, the fact that bees are disappearing, something I construed as a comment about inequity in college sports (but actually wasn’t), because I was so profoundly bored watching the NCAA Championship. I tell whoever will listen that problem is capitalism and white men and that incrementalism is a crock: all the problems of our society are constitutive and that nothing short of total systemic overhaul—revolutionary change—will remedy them, so isn’t now the time to buy a gun, to take up arms against an oppressive government, because that’s what Karl Marx said, after all, to rally the proletariat so we can rise to the historical inevitably that will be the total destruction of class?
And then, like you, the next day, I hop in my used Honda Civic Hybrid, drive to Whole Foods to buy the good Chilean organic blueberries and donate—as we do every year—$5 to public radio, stopping to complain about how the arts are still under attack in America, thanks to the goddamn Republicans in Congress. Though neither of us really likes Obama. Or party politics at all. Mostly we’re just prone to screeds that elicit laughter and raised eyebrows. And then we go home. Even though we deeply believe what we believe.
Your lifelong imperative to me is to be educated. There is a significant part of me that is grateful for this. This is the part that recognizes almost every sacrifice you’ve made for me was in service of my becoming an educated person. This is the part that shares the beliefs on which you made those sacrifices: that education is the silver bullet, the highest intrinsic good. I occasionally tell the freshman composition students I tutor the etymology of the word—the Latin, educere, which means to bring forth or lead out, as from the darkness. I believe what Paulo Freire believes, that education is the only real defense against oppression, that it transforms the soul, that it makes people into authentic, freely acting people. I believe in Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia—that true human flourishing can only be reached through rational activity, by engaging our highest intellectual faculties.
There is another large part of me that questions the value and aims of education—at least of my education. This is the part that, at 26, after six years in Magnet school—required to read Howard Zinn at age 14, David Foster Wallace at 16, Michel Foucault at 18—four years of actual liberal arts college and one year of graduate school, feels like all I’m left with is nihilism. A sense that any philosophical or ethical system falls apart upon critical examination—and I’ve become an expert at tearing them down. I’ve also gained a great attunement to my own privilege—white, middle-class, heterosexual, thin and cisgender, which I learned about just last week—in even having the time or the words to talk about any of this. Ironically, these were the stated ends of my education: to cultivate critical thinking, to be in touch with privilege. Trying to make ethical choices in accordance with everything I’ve learned, I oscillate between total intellectual agnosticism, a skepticism so extreme that I doubt that any action matters, and an anger so deep about the way everything is constructed that I don’t think I can live.
In the more selfish moments, I wonder if this has barred me from certain conventional things, like happiness and love. One of the more lasting effects of studying second-wave feminism is that I don’t know how I will be able to live with—and certainly not marry—a man and truly believe the arrangement can be loving or equitable. And there are more quotidian things like me biting the head off of—I mean full-on screaming at—a guy friend in a bar for telling me to smile more. Everything suffers from my “critical awareness.” Have I doomed myself to a loveless life? But then the philosopher in me wonders: what is love? Does it exist? And what is happiness? Why should it be the standard by which I judge my life?
To be fair, you never supported my studying philosophy. This despite you handing me a book of “big ideas”—a Cliffs Notes-style intro to philosophy—at some impressionable age (fifth grade?). You asked me once why I chose philosophy at all, not just over the careerist majors like communications or economics, but over all the other humanities equally as frivolous to capital—English, sociology, psychology. Montaigne famously wrote that to study philosophy is to learn how to die. I think that’s what I wanted. I still want to learn how to die. Of course, he didn’t mean die in the sense of preparing yourself for the grim physical reality of death. He meant to learn to conceive of life as a continual dying. Really, Montaigne implies that learning how to die is learning how to live. Another after-effect of philosophy is that I contemplate death a lot—probably far more than is “healthy.” But in glimpsing how deficient I am at understanding and confronting it, I fear it now more than ever. And, by extension, I contemplate—and can critically analyze—my own inadequacy at living.
My dilemma, Dad, is this: my education has made me aware of these constant moral failures, and yet, has also made me see the insufficiency of any action. My college friends were all lifestylist vegans, protesting big agro and the fucked-up megacorporate farming system by gorging on soy milk and locally grown lentils and the occasional cage-free egg. While I was running our vegetarian co-op kitchen, I tried veganism out for four days before I got drunk, nearly fainted from having eaten nothing but black beans, and came to while gnawing on a block of goat cheese (which I have loved ever since). And then I thought: for whom? The 0.4% of the American population who identify as vegan? I’m sure they’ve brought the wheels of capitalism to a grinding halt—except that they’ve created a new, untapped market that will inevitably commodify their dissent. Look no further than the success of mass-produced Chik Patties and Veggie Dogs, owned by MorningStar Farms, a subsidy of Kellogg. We should burn the whole thing down.
Then there’s the Custerism problem. You know that I idolize the Weather Underground, the 1960s left-wing radical group known for bombing vacant government buildings and banks to incite a capitalist overthrow. (It’s gotten me in trouble in a post-9/11 world, by the way, to be overheard at the grocery store in the yogurt section saying, “This country could use some more domestic terrorism.”) Though the Weathermen espoused an anti-racist ideology, using some of the rhetoric of the Black Liberation Movement, the Black Panthers denounced their bombings as “Custerism”—opportunistic actions that serve no purpose beyond activists making a principled “last stand.” Fred Hampton, then deputy chairman of the Panther Party, said of the Underground’s actions, “It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take people into situations where they can be massacred and they call that revolution—and it’s nothing but child’s play. It’s folly.” I have great nostalgia for what the French call attentat—the single destructive political act that precipitates violent uprising, like the Black Hand’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand that began World War I. Historically, after 1776, America has had no taste for attentat. Emma Goldman, another hero of mine, and her anarchist boyfriend Alexander Berkman were disappointed that their attempt to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick (in whose university building I attend class in Pittsburgh) wouldn’t have resulted in revolution. Berkman was jailed—just like Tim DeChristopher. The economy collapses in 2008, renders my entire generation “lost” and throws the absurdities of capitalism into harsh relief, and my peers “occupy” the steps of Austin City Hall by having a yoga camp-out with pizza delivery. Maybe I should have brought them guns. A professor of mine told me that revolutions are not romantic events, that most of the time the people who die are bystanders who were just trying to get home—the sweet old guy selling flowers who probably didn’t give a damn about your ideals. And Americans just don’t go for this kind of thing anymore. And even if they did, coming from me it would just be Custerism.
I write this to you because I wonder if we can ever overcome what we are: prototypical comfortable liberals with radical pretensions. Or, as David Brooks called your generation after it settled down and had kids: bourgeois bohemians. I want to be a revolutionary, but I love Amazon Prime. I cried the only time I shot a gun—a Glock, on my 25th birthday. After I pulled myself together, I could barely handle the recoil. What I’ve actually become is an ornery nihilist with a crush on Leon Trotsky. I’ve stopped believing in ethics. I don’t think they can be coherent. I don’t believe in God. I don’t think there’s a reason why I’m here (do you?). You once told me that the definition of good is to push the world back from entropy. I don’t know how to do good in light of this.
I think in the end you’d be content to have me be happy and materially secure—and what parent wouldn’t? But you’ve also given me this damn contrarian spirit: the time I talked back to a teacher at 10 or 11, when Mom scolded me and you secretly congratulated me, keeping up appearances with a stern authoritarian face in the afterschool parent-teacher conference when I refused to apologize.
Tim DeChristopher told Rolling Stone that the problem with anyone born after Reagan took office is that we can’t envision a paradigm where corporations aren’t powerful and the people aren’t weak. He hoped his actions would show people “hints of shifting,” and that to continue to cause that shifting “sacrifice is necessary and effective… and something we can handle.” He wants his time in prison to be fulfilling and empowering for others—and also undermine the moral legitimacy of a government that would imprison “principled, honest people.” Is this youthful idealism? Is it revolutionary? Or is it Custerism?
I should get arrested. I should go to jail. If I can’t be him, how do I live? Would you still read my letters from prison?
A group of activist friends of mine protested mountaintop removal in West Virginia the year after I graduated college. These were the same friends to whom I used to foolishly loan my car and who got arrested a lot on principle. There were 15 or 20 of them—believers in direct action protest—who staged a sit-in at the McMansion of the CEO of a major coal company. They sat in his front yard all morning and all night with signs, calling to him to have a conscience, that he was raping the land and that it had to stop. I helped call the West Virginian Governor in protest simultaneously.
The CEO refused to call the police on them. He let them sit. A father, he came outside in the middle of the night and told them, “It’s ok, stay as long as you want. I used to do things like this too, once.”
We live in the forest because the trees are gone. All of our shade comes from elsewhere, and it cannot stay. We build our houses out of stumps, on stumps. We build roofs and chairs and beds. When there were trees, we could not bear to live here, but now that they have gone, we build and build. There are few of us. From a distance, you would not see a thing.
Our forest ends in grass to the north. To the south, it ends in gravel. To the west, past the wasteland, the city is a gray-brown band. We turn toward it. Hello? Hello? we say into the wind. Reception is spotty. Our hair blows into our mouths.
Yesterday, the grass drifted into our forest. Little by little, before we half noticed, it grew ankle deep. It is light green now, almost blond, every blade identical. We sneak kisses. In the evening, we uproot some and set it on our plates.
Our father says, Amen. He says, This is how kings have eaten. We say, No. Our teeth scrape the seeds. He says, Check your Bible. He smiles. We chew. We don’t have a Bible. Our father keeps his for himself.
We give birth in our stump houses. Because we give birth all at the same time, each of us hears only one woman’s noise. We rest. Our milk smells of grass. Our babies smell of grass and blood and infection. We take our babies outside in the wind to dry them and then again into the rain for bathing. Each of us holds her own baby. It’s how we know which one to bring inside.
Sally sold real estate. She found herself in tears. The market was bad. Her community performance art had become violent, like the snipping of Yoko Ono’s clothing if Yoko had performed “Cut Piece” with the early, guilty John. She was not allowed to ask questions. She returned to the stage every night to honor her semi-professional commitment; the protocols of firing and divorce did not apply. Every night, she waited for Krishna as all milkmaids wait for spiritually blue-skinned men. She met him and waited and met him again. She thought about the oil in her lamp, the milk in her cow, and the pitch in her sales. She thought about the oil in the war, the recombinant bovine growth hormone in the distended udder, and the sag in the pitch of the roof of the only house she had recently almost sold.
From the privacy of their cars, her clients lamented how fast, squalid, silly, faith-based, slipshod, pre-programmed, addicted, and tortured everything had become. They lamented not in so many words. They called for help. She considered her SUV, which was necessary to her business. She came to crave career change. She might have sold homepages instead of homes, but she feared eliciting the metaphysical blight that she wished on the men who were even now building Fisher-Price-castle monstrosities to compete with the stately, cozy, and classic existing homes that she was desperate to sell. Every day she drove by the builders’ employees as they dug to the lot lines and built in the holes. Meanwhile, her clients buried St. Josephs and wept after open houses, for reasons including their mortgages and the mysteries of existence. Her doctor prescribed the antibiotic that would be deployed against anthrax. Sally opened herself for the first time to the tender indifference of the world. If she gave up her art and her real estate license, she would be quit of everything.
Joanne Dominique Dwyer was born in Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. She has lived in New Mexico for most of her adult life. Dwyer has been published in various journals, such as The American Poetry Review, Conduit, The Florida Review, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, The New England Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly and others. She received a Rona Jaffe award and holds an MFA from Warren Wilson. Her first book of poems, Belle Laide, was published by Sarabande in 2013.
J. Dee Cochran: Belle Laide, your debut book of poems, celebrates wild associations and varying themes. And yet, the book feels very cohesive. Could you talk a bit about how the book came about and how the poems were ordered? Did you anticipate each poem coming together in one book as you were writing them?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I appreciate your saying that Belle Laide feels cohesive. I suppose it is because of the writing style and the repetitive obsessive themes. But the poems in Belle Laide were not penned collectively; they were not written with the thought of a book in mind. They were not construed consciously to become cohabitating members of a club or tribe, to live together communally sharing gardens and kitchen duty someday within the tenement walls of a book. They were written as urgent orphans eking out a living by foraging on roadside herbs in the Diaspora of both desiccated and jungle terrains, and in the overcrowded refugee camps of dream borderlands. Absolve me the playful overwriting and the melodrama – the key here is urgent – each poem was written in a moment or a day – and revised the next day and subsequent day and sometimes years. But at the moment of conception to write a poem, providing we are privileged, the impulse is always present on varying levels – to write or die. The writer feels this exigency to make poems or perish.
Writing that is truly worth reading – let’s say, more than once, is usually written by a writer for whom writing is a vocation, rather than an occupation. But what I wanted to comment on here is my use above of the word privileged. While great writing comes from the urgency of vocation (and not all of us writing from urgency are therefore great writers), I believe it is a privilege to have the time to write. So many of the world’s population are living in conditions in which there are no real opportunities to write; life is at a survival level of having the basic human needs met. So it feels a privilege to me that I have food, shelter, safety, and time in which to pacify the urgency and that my urgency is not one of quelling physical hunger, but creative and psychological hunger.
For me, writing poems is a way to make sense of what might simply be construed as nonsense. So often there is an overabundance of information and sensory stimulation circulating and pelleting down all around us, like the type of hail that cracks our windshields. I write to calm down the ecstasy-taking rave goers inside me. I write poems to convert the feelings coursing through the container of my body into something concrete.
It is difficult to make a statement and find any permanent or lasting truth in that statement. No sooner is something uttered, than the opposite arises, like a clown at a funeral to convince you life is not sad, but comedic – or the reverse. For example, I stated moments ago that I write to make random coursing feelings concrete. And immediately it occurs to ask, Can anything be concrete, especially a work of art such as a poem, which is created by an individual? And furthermore, is there any such entity as an individual? Meaning a poem is written by a certain someone and comes from within their field of feeling, their field of thought. But who among us has an original feeling or thought? We are so interwoven and interconnected; so full of incestuous relationships; so influenced by everything we have ever read and by the myriad molecules of ancestral and collective matter bombarding us relentlessly. So what makes any author seem/appear original? Does it just come down to the way we string the 26 letters of the alphabet together?
But I was speaking of the impossibility to make something concrete: actual, tangible, solid. The poem in its form on the page is a concrete thing. Its intangible quality comes through the limitless interpretations a poem elicits as read through the lens of the multifarious individual readers.
And to answer your question about ordering the poems in Belle Laide: sequencing was very difficult for me. Though I believe as we mature as writers, the more detached from our writing we become. That detachment allows us to cut loose the poems that are not up to snuff. At first the poems are all our precious beauties that we want to cling to, but we must fearlessly reject and send home the contestants that are not going to do well in all three categories: bathing suit, talent and evening gown. That detachment allows us to be better revisionists of our poems. It took me many, many tries to get Belle Laide in the shape that Sarabande Books received it.
J. Dee Cochran: This book is a crowded house of arresting personalities. Belle Laide offers cameos from Marvin Gaye, Freud, Carl Jung, St. Augustine, Nick Drake, Kahil Gibran’s Jesus, Don Quixote, Billie Holiday, St. Teresa, to name a few. The narrator also refers to lovers, a brother and son.
“No ideas but in things,” the now famous quote by William Carlos Williams, functions as a mantra for many contemporary poets. Could an alternative dictum, “No ideas but in people,” better suit the purposes of your poetry? In other words, would you be interested in writing poetry wherein no people appear? Does the idea of a person generate more meaning/analogy for you?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Yes, the book is crowded at times with people. I suppose they are some of the invited and uninvited rave dancers sharing my dance card or co-refugees sharing temporary tent space with me near the river. They make me excited to be part of the human race, and offer me a balm against the rash-inducing heat of the harsher aspects of our world. And those people in my poems make my imaginary life richer; make me feel like I do have a tribe I belong to. I am fascinated by people and their lives, especially the unusual life lived, either by choice or by circumstance, which brings them, and therefore all of us, into contact with the undercurrents of consciousness. Too much of our human existence is based on making money and getting errands done. It’s such a waste of the gift of life, not to celebrate and bring magic and mystery into the everyday. And it is through the imagined and literal lives of others that we learn empathic thought, and it is also how we come to know there are very little differences between any of us, despite all the othering we humans do, at the core, we are so similar.
So I don’t think I would be interested in writing poems without people in them. Though, even if a poem is devoid of human beings, the writer is always present in the poem.
Belle Laide)" width="200" height="309" class="alignright size-full wp-image-12017" title="Interview: Poet Joanne Dominique Dwyer (Belle Laide)">/em>)">J. Dee Cochran: What inspires you to write?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: Everything inspires me to write and language itself is a huge inspiration. For example, scanning your interview questions, I found these words: unfettered, indefinite, volatile and ruptured. I find them incredibly beautiful and provocative. They make me want to stop answering your questions and instead write a poem using those words.
I value storytelling more than I value prosody and craft, and narrative plays an important linking role in my associative poems, but it is rare that a story is the impetus for a poem. The story comes later; it unfolds and appears (and disappears), but the starting point is almost always a line, an image or a single word. I rarely have a set thematic, structural or even emotional idea of what I want to the poem to be at the start.
J. Dee Cochran: Do you have a motto?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I am not much of a motto person. Mottos are for politicians and those sure of themselves. I am rarely sure of myself. I am prone to mild-to-mid doses of the blues, and rather than walk under a ladder and brush up against it, causing a full bucket of Prussian Blue semi gloss paint to cascade down like a mudslide swathing the lizard that lives on the top of my head, and sauntering down the Neruda hills of my breasts and the wolf-sanctuary of my back, ribbed like a forest with a lost Gretel fleeing the witch, I am trying to alchemize depression with gratitude. Nobody is sick and nobody is dying – is something I am saying to myself lately and maybe that is a motto? I have been using it to counter any movement towards whining and self-pity. I have so much to be thankful for. And everywhere you look, if you really look, is rapturous splendor.
But if there were to appear a great god or goddess from the parting clouds, or a genie from an empty bottle of root beer to say to me, “You may have one and only one motto to use to empower you and get through the gophers eating the lettuce,” I would choose Do No Harm. It seems to me that I should repeat that like a mantra, especially when things get rough…
J. Dee Cochran: Several of the poems in Belle Laide are prefaced with quotes from notable writers or thinkers. The use of these epigraphs gives one the sense of how all thoughts/things are somehow connected, particularly in the cosmos of the written word. Before you entered a writing program, the structured community of writers and readers, how did your poetry writing develop? What first drew you to poetry?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What drew me first to poetry were emotions and song lyrics and books and renegade energy needing a path. I needed a vehicle to take my feelings for a ride in. I had the very common and essential human impulse to create and to turn thoughts and feelings and intuitions into art. That impulse is not always fostered and is often repressed. Also, most of us are devoid of a spiritual and ritualistic life that our ancestors had. For me, being in the wild both literally and metaphorically, through imagination, is a way of having ritual. It is a way of connecting spiritually to what it means to be a human being. Without some form of creativity and connection to our inner lives, we become zoo inhabitants in suits and gowns, having no awareness of the bars, but being terribly unhappy.
So I began writing in the manner of necessity for expression.
J. Dee Cochran: “…not all of us have been gifted with the erotica of answers.” That’s one of the amazing lines found in “Alchemy.” If privy to the world of answers, what question(s) would you ask? What keeps you in the space of unfettered wonder?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: What more could one want than to be in a state of unfettered wonder! It echoes of ecstasy. I much prefer and admire the question-asking person over the know-it-all.
J. Dee Cochran: What is the best advice you have received in reference to writing?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: I think the best advice I received was from my first writing teacher, Miriam Sagan, who said make peace with rejection.
J. Dee Cochran: Love and mercy are two prominent themes within the book. Interestingly, multiple poems start with love in the rhetorical mode, “If love is…” Mercy, on the other hand, is strongly declarative; there seems to be no “if” about it. I’m thinking of the lines, “Mercy is the combing of tangled hair/the sewing up of a split lip/ the staying of the execution.” Historically, poetry has treated love as a resident emotion, lasting forever, and mercy as a periodic installment of kindness. To consider the possibility of the reverse feels fresh.
In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant. Do you see your poems as love poems? Are you resistant to literature that suggests the narrator can easily define what love is?
Joanne Dominique Dwyer: You wrote “In Belle Laide, love is indefinite, volatile, ruptured and radiant.” That is so beautiful and I am honored by your take on the book and for your thoughtful, penetrating questions. Based on the “love poems” in the book, I think you nailed it – a very succinct (and succulent) way to describe how love is depicted in Belle Laide. This question about love versus mercy is the hardest for me. But, yes, absolutely, I see the poems as love poems – they were inspired by a relationship with a singular lover. And they contain all the infinite aspects of human love – meaning both the highs and the lows. Like the high of glue sniffing and the subsequent aftermath of being run over by a runaway shopping cart, because you are lying in the budding light of dawn in a PetSmart shopping lot after a night of sexy debauchery with an intoxicative inhalant. I do believe love is supreme, but maybe mercy is the superlative of supreme. Maybe it is harder to be merciful than it is to love. Maybe we love because it gratifies us, but the true test is can one be merciful – can one forgive, can one let go, can one give without receiving in return, can one let love be honored and respected and treated as of larger value than our individual egos, can one be kind, can one give up their seat on the bus of life for another, can one extricate oneself from consumerism and really share our wealth – have a little less so others can have a little more – can we just be a little more merciful all around?
I am the jaunty part of severed Siamese twins.
How motherly, the nun holding my everything
in her arms. How cruel, the one-way bus of music
spilling into my good ear & leaving its mute cloud
to pour out my bad one. They awarded me
the ear-trumpet, so I could hear the how’s & why’s
of your kind little sighs. Do I miss my half,
my copy, who twinned me & twined
down my spine? Yay & nay. Sometimes.
Yet, I don’t know one from one, the sign of sign.
Remind me, my face stares at dirt. Another
is pickled way inside the brine of night.
Hidden beneath me might simply be my double,
strung to a fig tree. But if you look closely,
just my tire swing, a dead yo-yo catching rain.
tablets click into sickly amber plastic like the urine they render so urgent in reverse. click (drop), click (drop), streams of static swishing sound heard on the off-air channels of anything analog. stay tuned. this pill is the hardest to swallow but easy to take. purging.
this one’s about purging. most medicinal, each coated dose of the past present and forever clears the Master Boot Record of dim plural protoplasms. what operating system are you running? hardware software hardware wetware. i wonder if chelsea1 was aware of the double entendre of ‘motherboard’. these petulant passétech metaphors are comforting. optimize. yes, just optimizing: efficiency, efficacy. the same way makeup optimizes your face and murmured subliminal suppositions optimize the way you respond nakedly to oblique sensation under weeping willows swaying under cinder blocks tethered to their branches with cable ties. you want to ease their concrete encumbrance, because then the branches won’t brush your increasingly sensitive skin and remind you of how poorly documented and advertised your software is, but you haven’t always had the strength to emit sledgehammers.
between the pills to make my body change and then stay the same and the nootropics to subtly sharpen what misogynist Cartesian duality would have as its diametric opposite and the also liver-straining ibuprofen much less needed now lies an oblong corpuscular truth. i’m a chemical girl in the popular parlance sense of the term: natural: all chemicals are natural, but say the word ‘chemical’ and instantly the average listener is furrowed and face to face with Frankensteinian form: hostile, manmade and decidedly sinthetic, artificially constructed in sterile laboratories and coming to intrude on the placid earthy conceptual lives and public bathrooms of nonexistent middle America. chemical language: (cis, trans), chemical customizations: (contra, replacement), chemical stigma: (contagious, symptomatic, deformation).
the omnipresence and importance of water is instantly recognizable, water pressure pumped through kidneys at an increased rate and eventually out the external elongated urethra cylindrically around which are my chemical connotations biased to bleary distortion. but phrase it ‘dihydrogen monoxide’ and vast furrowed majorities will vote to ban it. sole familiarity with monoxide is gaseous is poison: without that extra oxygen atom exhalation becomes suffocation, a sigh of relief becomes a desperate gasp for survival. and so otherwise inescapable desperation is framed as the hand that draws these pills daily to my muliebral mouth.
thesis and antithesis. this one’s about choices. they like to imagine squinting metonymies: this beige spearmint-flavored prescription as everything, that subtraction and suppression, blocking and covering and hiding, spinning a stifling pupa to initiate rebirth are the harrowed hallmarks of a conceptually generative process. femaleness: void. alternate: downgrade, that distended assumption pushing on the malignant custom we call transmisogyny2, propelling it forward and threatening to burst bombastic like a rubber-stamped chewing gum bubble in the mouth of someone trying far too hard to compensate for shoddy canceled cuteness:
***Why run an inferior version?***
always both implicit in the question and the answer. compatibility.
tech metaphors are especially comforting when they encase the bitter assumptions of others in fast-dissolvable gel capsules.
(it’s telling that the synonyms for ‘pubescent’ are temporally specific: teenage, juvenile. dictionaries don’t account for my body at all. thesauruses do with sordid substitutes selectively parsed from the banners of pornographic websites and the incidental lexicons of men so straight that their main exhilaration is a penchant for faux-Freudian novelty. don’t talk to me about pure invention and gorges unexplored and maps out of date by years when your cartography is contingent upon rose-wet caves and small hands and your friend coined the future name for the pornography flickering on the screens of your precious city in the subtitle of her dissertation.3)
this one’s about myth-making: reclaiming placement on the semiotic square4: i tire of traversing categorical axes involuntarily, pinballed into actants in the coveted plexiglas machine centered by the binary opposition man:::::::::::woman. my status is static still to me and static scrambled to willful warping, the antonym of dynamic and the static of TVs, radios, messages uncommunicated over morphing media. this one validates the antisubject—antiandrogenic, blocker, a chemical kernel of ~not. these milligrams confer less visible least tangled tangibility—no (re)growth of the hair or tissue variety, only the shrinkage of atrophy as technical equipment is repurposed into something equally possible from inception but spectacularly unanticipated. hacking. body hacking. personalizing what i did with so many constituent networks in high school.
technical metaphors are comforting. insinuation is a cozy bulls-eye. parts can be easily outlined and uneasily accessed through so. many. colorful. wires.
ultimately, though, it’s about defiance. yielding to X-Acto precision, proscribed, yet prescribed, trading prefab tears for anesthesia would render this one outmoded. human bodies are the only machines in which a structural reconfiguration in hardware directly improves specific program performance. and this is where the technical screen breaks down, the signifier rests stubbornly beautiful in my unblemished palm, and organic orchids grow from the over-tinkered shell of the eviscerated desktop chassis.
1. Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman and former US Army intelligence analyst recently sentenced to prison for mass-leaking confidential documents to Wikileaks. In her online chats with Adrian Lamo (the full transcripts of which were published online by Wired Magazine), she said “the CPU is not made for this motherboard” in a conversation about her gender and dysphoria.
2. Transmisogyny is a term coined and popularized by transfeminist activist-writer Julia Serano in her manifesto Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. It refers to the especially potent type of discrimination and oppression faced by trans women and gender-variant people who were coercively assigned male at birth, at the intersection of transphobia and traditional misogyny.
3. From Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty One Love Poems”. Adrienne Rich was a known associate and supporter of Janice Raymond, who wrote originally as a dissertation the infamous transmisogynist invective The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male.
4. Greimas’ semiotic square, a fundamental representation of the elementary structure of meaning and myths.
When I walked into the brewpub for our first date, she greeted me by throwing her arms around my neck, kissing me on the lips, and nuzzling her face against my beard. I said, when she finished, “It’s nice to meet you.”
It was our first face-to-face meeting, after a month of trading messages on a dating site. She’d seemed normal enough online—more than normal, desirable. How could you not want to date a girl who includes Tobias Wolff in the “Celebrity Crushes” section of her profile? But, I thought, I guess you can never tell. I followed her, warily, into the dining room, where she’d already found us a table.
“I brought you a present,” she said when we sat down, and she withdrew from her purse a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, which she had recommended to me several times in our messaging back and forth. It was the perfect icebreaker, and I wished I’d thought to do something like it myself. I’d been worried that, having said so much in our messages, we would have nothing to talk about in person, but then our beers arrived at the table and we were slipping easily into a passionate conversation about books.
Everything was going great until, after the waitress brought the checks, the girl looked at me from across the table and said, “I have a confession to make.”
“I’m not exactly who you think I am. I mean, well, I guess the best way to put it is: I’m your girlfriend from eight months in the future.”
“I’m from the future. There was this time fluke that sent me back to the beginning of our relationship. Where I come from, we had a really good thing going. I mean, we were really in love.”
“In love. I know this must put you in a terribly awkward spot, but I couldn’t bear to keep it from you. It’s just so…weird.”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re saying you travelled back from the future to date me? Like the plot in Terminator?”
“I’ve never seen Terminator.”
“Well that’s a deal breaker,” I said.
She slugged me in the arm. “You haven’t seen it either.”
It was true, I hadn’t.
“It was a time fluke. It won’t happen again. I’ve been reading up on them. They’re super rare. Has to do with solar flares and quantum entanglement.”
“Do they have flying cars in the future?”
“Now you’re just being stupid.”
We signed our checks.
“Okay, so what now?” I asked.
“Now you suggest we go get some ice cream.”
I was kind of craving ice cream, now that she mentioned it, but that must have been the power of suggestion. Sure, she seemed a little crazy, but there was something weirdly charming about her, too, something that made me want to see this date through to the end. I said, “Let’s get some ice cream.”
The next day I called her to set up a second date. The first date had just gone so well—we’d walked and talked for hours, and then when it was time to leave she’d asked, so nervously, “Do I get to see you again?” How could I say no? I told myself the time-travel thing must have been a joke I hadn’t gotten.
We met up, as we had before, in the town that was halfway between our two towns, this time at a Thai restaurant. I’d never had Thai food before, so she talked me through the menu dish by dish. “But get the drunken noodles,” she said. “That’s what you got the last time we were here. You love drunken noodles.”
And it turned out I did love them, albeit reluctantly. This time-travel thing was starting to make me feel hemmed in. I mean, I’ve never really believed that there’s some cosmic, meant-to-be, predestined other half out there, not for me or for anybody else. Love is a choice, a commitment two people make to each other, and with this girl I was beginning to feel like that decision had already been made for me. What had Alternate Future Me been thinking?
But I already knew what he had been thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: This girl was a catch. She was smarter than I was and almost as funny, beautiful to look at and beautiful on the inside, too, as cheesy as that sounds. I mean she had a fierce, passionate sincerity about the things that matter. Also she could play mini golf like a boss. When we got to the course, I made a bet with her, thinking I could impress her. “Winner buys ice cream,” I said.
“Okay, but I’m going to win. I’m from the future and I know these things.”
“You’re just trying to intimidate me,” I said.
But she wasn’t. She annihilated me. Five hole-in-ones and she landed her final putt right in the mouth of the hydraulic clam on the last hole, a shot that set off a buzzer and won her a free game.
“Not fair. You’re from the future,” I said as we headed to the ice cream counter. “Let me pay.”
“Nope. Your money’s no good here,” she said, brushing away the hand with which I held my wallet.
When we hugged good night, she got emotional. She said, “You once told me, on our six-month anniversary, that you finally understood why Baucus and Philemon asked to be turned into trees, that you were glad we were growing into each other.” She squeezed me. “I’m glad we’re still growing into each other.”
“I said that?” Wisps of her hair were clinging to my beard and tickling my face. I couldn’t figure out how to extricate myself.
“You did.” Her voice was getting quivery.
“Well if I said it, then I guess I must have meant it.”
“You did,” she sniffled, giving me one last squeeze, “and I’m sure that you will.”
The next night I called her up and said, “I was thinking, there’s a carnival in town. For our third date maybe we could go.”
She clicked her tongue. “No, that’s where we went for our last third date. You threw up on me on The Zipper. It was kind of a pivotal moment in the history of us, but it’s not one I’d like to relive.”
We went to the movies instead—or tried to, anyway, but instead got wonderfully lost on some back country roads and ended up lying on a blanket and just staring up at the stars. She told me about her nieces and nephews in Oregon, her “siblets,” she called them. She told me about how much they loved her and how, in the future, they loved me, too. “It’s so weird,” she said. “These kids, they just love me for no reason. Just because their mom is my sister.”
After that we lay in silence for a while, just holding hands and looking up, and we saw a shooting star. It was the first shooting star she’d ever seen.
When it was time to go home, she hooked my iPod up to the tape deck in my Explorer and played my favorite songs, now and then sliding in a favorite of her own that she knew I would like, and we cranked the volume and sang at the top of our lungs. I drove the back roads at breakneck speeds, the Explorer swaying as I took the turns, and she stuck both her hands through the sunroof. The fire flies were hovering over the fields, and it occurred to me as we sang that it was such a cliché to be in love in this way. It occurred to me that we both knew this and that neither of us cared. The wind was in our hair.
When we returned to the brewpub parking lot where we’d left her car, I killed the engine and we got out and hugged goodbye.
I said, “I think I could learn to love you.”
She said, “I think so, too.”
ARTIST STATEMENT by Rola Khayyat
My interest in the intersection between art and war developed out of a personal experience, which continued to shape and inform my academic and artistic sensibility. Growing up in the context of the Lebanese civil war, it naturally took some time before I could patch together aspects of my childish sensorium to compose a “memory” of war that I could identify and talk about. Driven by a desire to grasp what I came to understand to be the defining condition of my life-world, I developed a picture of war in the child’s imaginative laboratory. After the civil war ended in 1990 and my childhood imperceptibly receded into more distant territory, this “memory” of war that I had quilted from the fabric of experiences and stories began to take on a texture of its own, embodying and splicing with multiple perspectives and narratives at the same time that it quietly fell out of touch.
Beirut, a city that has been the site of perpetual war(s), is replete with a host of divisions – mental demarcations, ideas of religious and sectarian differences have long shaped our everyday urban practices in the city – from private spaces to public spaces. Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, and the ensuing sectarian strife that followed, the infamous ‘Green line’ which once divided (Christian) East Beirut from the largely (Muslim) West has proliferated into many smaller ‘green lines’ in the psyche of the Lebanese peoples. In a situation where the arena of private life is entirely mediated by confessional belonging, these ephemeral mental borderlines continue to shape everyday life in the post-war city. Lebanese citizens are invariably bound up with this intangible oscillation between presence and absence – the dialectic of remembrance and forgetting.
My work examines a number of material and immaterial borderlines that have come to define the contemporary geography of the city – in this particular case, Beirut and its peripheries – those that have been constructed along sectarian and religious lines, and others that remain subtle, always in flux. My inquiry into the dialectics of war and memory approaches the concept of religion and sect as an urban practice. I examine how these conceptions of religious and sectarian differences shape the urban spatial practice and experience in the city, creating a separate imaginary—mental maps with demarcations—within the fabric of a city. Through such an approach I am able to explore new dimensions on representation of war, time, memory and identity – a portrait of a city in constant flux, abandonment, reinvention and change.
Imagine there’s no heaven, and hell
is explained to us by the Quran
as the thing muddying our faces.
How would a hardened ego become sensitive
to the living breeze of divine grace?
It would avoid imagining the ethical incongruity
of an eternal heaven for the elect.
And it definitely wouldn’t picture those elected
dropping little wreaths onto the earth from paradise.
When Louis Desau asks How do I make this better?
tell him: Dress like fucking Demeter, and
make it clear that it’s Demeter when she searches
for Persephone and lets everything die.
Yesterday I was having lunch with Maggie
and the waitress arrived as I said
It’s complicated. France itself was great, and
I still love the culture
and want to master the language
even though I keep thinking of France
as where I was at when my father had his stroke.
The waitress took our orders before saying
I can totally relate. For me
heaven and hell are both the mid-90s.
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Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, So Different Now, Orphans, and Lost in Space, among others. He also oversees day to day operations of This Zine Will Change Your Life, directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his growing lifestyle empire.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
I think literature can change the way a reader lives in terms of the ways they seek the change in the world they desire. For example, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey is endlessly referenced by people who read it and decided their desire to impact environmental change just wasn’t hard core enough. That said, I think literature, and the arts in general, are more likely to trigger increased action around beliefs people already hold, as opposed to changing their actual positions. For example, see the reaction to Fahrenheit 911. I also think, however, what is more common, is that the right book, at the right time, can tap into a reader’s experience of joy, pain, love, or sadness in ways they may not have had access to previously, and those moments do change lives, because after that you can never quite close those doors again.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
Besides one of my own? Because my books make for good presents, really. Well, good presents and great paper weights. But the book I most recently remember giving someone was the quite terrific Fathermucker by Greg Olear, which I gave to my younger brother.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice has been don’t edit first drafts until you’re done. Get the words out, don’t get in the way of them, just write, start to finish, and don’t look back. You can edit later.
Which author do you re-read most frequently?
I may need to unpack this a bit.
I re-read much less frequently than I did when I was younger, but when I did I constantly re-read Jim Carroll, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and V.C. Andrews.
Of course, that kind of list is cheating, and I’m sorry about that.
Today, there are so many books I want to read, and much less time to do so, so while I try to read everything I can by authors like Raymond Carver or Andre Dubus, as opposed to say re-reading them, I am more likely to read the writers I know and love personally, who find ways to keep getting published, and force me to be a completist.
So, I’m not re-reading them per se, but I am do try to read everything they write, and those authors include Scott McClanahan, Jason Fisk, Joseph Peterson, Paula Bomer, Mel Bosworth, Barry Graham, Lindsay Hunter, Tom Williams, all small-press wonders, with some of them no longer so small at all.
Which is more cheating. And more sorry on my part.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
I’m not much for sentences, or lines, remembering them anyway. I’m more about the feeling I associate with books, but as cliche as it sounds, and as embarrassed as I am to write it, there may be no greater line than this one from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
“We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.”
I remember that line was on the cover of the edition I received as a gift, and not unlike the first time I read The Basketball Diaries my brain sort of exploded when I read it.
How do people write like that? So electric and real time? And do they actually live like that? Because if so, sign me up.
Describe your writing routine.
Quite boring. I compulsively focus on writing for at least 30 minutes per day every day, wherever I am, and whatever I am doing, on whatever piece of work is important to me that day, nothing precious, no perfect time of day, or place, just write, and if I don’t get to write, I don’t beat myself up, okay, I do, but only for a little while, and then I get re-focused on making time the next day, and then the one after that.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
Yes, and while I can go either way with that, I generally do like to listen to music, and I usually prefer music that is punchy, and sparse, and fast, something like the Ramones, the Beastie Boys, X, Be Your Own Pet, and Jay Z. But there are also songs I will find which fit the mood of a particular book when I’m working on it, and that song can influence the title, “Orphans,” for example, by Beck, which became the title of my last novel, and in those cases I will also play that song again and again the entire time I’m working on that book. With my new collection Lost in Space, I fixated on “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, and though it didn’t work its way into the title or text, the rhythm and aspirations seemed right on.
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Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
Good question, I love bookstores as much as anything in the physical world. Does that sound dramatic? Don’t answer that. Please. But Shakespeare and Company in Paris may be the greatest thing ever created by man, and St. Marks Bookshop in New York City, as well as, Books Inc. in San Francisco, are places I spent a lot of time lingering in when I lived in those cities. I am also partial to The Book Cellar and Quimby’s here in Chicago. All of that said however, my first bookstore remains my favorite: Fat Cat Books in Johnson City, NY, a town next to one where I grew-up. Books. Comic books. National Lampoon. Heavy Metal. Everything you could possibly want or need. At the age of 13 anyway.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
“Whoa, seriously? Did you lose a bet? And can I take a picture of you? Because my kids are not going to believe this. Oh, and can we hug? Not in a weird way or anything. It’s just that I think I’m in love with you.”
I think something to that effect is likely.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I get very excited about bars where writers hung out, which is very cliche as well, so sorry about that too. But before I started writing I was always on the look out for those bars, Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, and the White Horse Tavern in New York City, and I was always hoping to somehow channel, or even steal, some of the writerly energy I assumed still loomed there. I suppose I would like to keep that trend going, and so I will pick the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans where I will be for work, and a reading, later this month.
Do you own an e-reader?
No, so no, no interest. As a writer, I think they’re great if people use them to read books. and my books in particular. As a reader, I want an actual book to hold. That said, when I travel for work and there are like five novels weighing down my backpack, and the dude next to me on the plane pulls out an e-reader, I do question everything I hold dear for a moment.
Is Facebook good for you?
If you are an author and treat it as a marketing platform, yes, anything that gets your work out there is good. For everything else, I think it’s mostly benign if you use it in small doses, and primarily limit yourself to re-connecting with former high school boyfriends or girlfriends for possible illicit assignations. Not that I do that, I’ve just heard it might be a thing among other people.
What about Amazon?
Is that the website where they sell all that stuff? I’ve heard of it, and it’s clearly bad for small business, independent bookstores especially, so, not great, and yet, as an author, moving books is wonderful, much better than one hand clapping for sure, and Amazon definitely encourages that, the moving books part that is, not the silence.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
I’m not sure any job was particularly helpful, but being a high school athlete, a runner and wrestler, and even a competitive college ultimate frisbee player, stop laughing please, was certainly helpful. To be competitive and on, all of the time, involves discipline and schedule, a lot of super-focused manic intensity, and the need to ignore outside distractions, all of which is huge for writing.
What is one of your vices?
I’m all compulsion and mania. I’ve never learned moderation, which if not an actual vice, is certainly an embarrassment, which itself may be a vice, because I cannot escape it, and barely try to do so.
What is one of your prejudices?
I’m not sure if this is a full-on prejudice, but I am a sucker for attractive people, men or women, it’s terrible, and that’s not to say I act negatively, or with prejudice, towards someone who is not, I sure hope I don’t, but attractiveness, in looks and personality, awesome skin, all of that, and cool, I love cool, can at least temporarily sway me, fairly easily, and in pretty much any direction said person would like me to lean.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
It has been a very good year for books, but some of my favorites include We The Animals by Justin Torres, maybe my favorite, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children by Dave Newman, The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair, MEATY by Samantha Irby, A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst by Hosho McCreesh, Tomorrowland by Joseph Bates, Wheatyard by Pete Anderson, Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan, The Last Good Halloween by Giano Cromley, and Made to Break by D. Foy.
I’m terrible at this kind of question, the naming just one thing of anything question, but if I must, I would like to say moist because I have no idea why so many people hate it, moist makes me think of sex, brownies, and old houses, which are all good things, right? That said, I don’t love that word, just the idea of it, so instead I will say fuck, for sure, there is no word better than that.
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Chicago native Charles Blackstone, one of Newcity‘s Lit 50 in 2012 and 2013, is the author of the novels Vintage Attraction (Pegasus Books, 2013) and The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc Books and Low Fidelity Press, 2005). He is also co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction (University of Texas Press, 2008). His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology, Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. Blackstone has written essays for Chicago Sun-Times and The Millions. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. Blackstone is managing editor of Bookslut, an internationally acclaimed book review publication and blog.
His interview setting: A wine bar in Chicago. Think: modern, sleek lines.
His drink: A sparkling rosé from France.
Alison Barker is a writer, educator and critic who currently lives in New Orleans.
Her interview context: her living room in a New Orleans shotgun, surrounded by brand-new Ikea furniture.
Her drink: A white wine, from Stamata, Greece.
Vintage Attraction is a love story and an exploration of wines—Greek wines in particular—alongside an uplifting tale of career rejuvenation. Peter Hapworth, a creative but demoralized English college adjunct meets Izzy, master wine sommelier and local restaurant celebrity, after seeing her on television and firing off a whimsical, late-night email to her—introducing himself as, among other things, a “conceptualist.” Peter has a knack for imagining restaurants based on a few sensory details and a unifying theme—usually scribbled on a cocktail napkin or the back of a takeout box. Between Chicago wine bars and Greek wineries, Peter and Izzy must navigate the first months of love, complete with miscommunications, the occasional hangover, career pitfalls, and a sizeable mortgage in one of Chicago’s transitional neighborhoods.
Alison Barker: First things first: What are we drinking? I’m having a white from Stamata, which I’ve learned is near Athens, way south of where Peter and Izzy spent most of their time, right? I want to say…lots of texture. But I’m no wine expert.
Charles Blackstone: I ended up with a sparkling rosé—from France.
AB: Wow! Is it sunny there in Chicago?
CB: It wasn’t too bad today…there’s the promise of spring. So, this fits the occasion, I think.
AB: So far I am reminded of crusty bread and pineapple, maybe with the skin not totally or tidily cut off it, as I drink this. Like, something a little bit sharp might jab. And that’s like today. Overcast, rain predicted for the end of week’s Mardi Gras parades…happy, but there are dirty puddles to step in.
CB: I do terribly with crusty bread. I’m always injuring my mouth—and then complaining about it. People know to serve me very soft things. And more or less at room temperature.
AB: Now that we have wine in hand, you in Chicago, me in New Orleans, let’s start this way: what is one aspect of Vintage Attraction that you’d like a reviewer or an interview to focus a bit on?
CB: I feel like point of view isn’t discussed much, and I think it’s an important component of this one…And it’s an issue that very much ties to the process of bookhood, one could argue.
AB: Yes! As you know, I was really struck by Peter’s “conceptualism” and how it’s used to develop his character, his relationship with Izzy, and the plot. I found myself wondering where this conceptualizing—and the need for it—comes from in this character’s life. And who he’s talking to.
CB: I kind of knew early on that this character would think in terms of concepts. The entire thing came out of a sort of misguided pickup approach from grad school. I’d go on dates, or just meet girls I wanted to date, and start in with these “concepts.” Actually, one from the book. The Quiet Cafe. That was one I had thought up before I got to Boulder, and so had mentioned on a (number of) date(s). I don’t think it got me very far, in terms of courtship, but it led to an interesting character component, so I guess it wasn’t a complete failure.
I had a good concept the other night. These occur to me, occasionally, in the voice of the character. This one was for a dry cleaners run by Yiddish-speaking, old-world Jews: Laundreck. I thought of another good one recently. And I was like, “Where was this when I was drafting?” But now it’s gone. Probably for the best.
AB: This was one of my favorite elements of the book. Peter’s conceptualizing serves as a creative outlet for him, and it’s also something that Izzy understands and loves about him. It really propels the narrative.
In terms of Peter’s use of it, he does bring them out when he’s trying to mesmerize, but also I think when he’s comfortable, no? Or escape.
And his relationship with Izzy is the first time it is recognized as a strength and we get to watch him recognize it as such.
CB: I think definitely a source of escape, a way of finding comfort in the uncomfortable aspects of his life. And also I was interested in what might become of a guy with big literary dreams (as in, goes to grad school) that doesn’t get to do anything “creative” with his life following that period of time. So that’s one place it comes from. But, yeah, Izzy is the first person he goes out with who gets it, or at least wants to, and so I think that’s a moment of connection for them.
AB: The way it provides him and Izzy with constant access to his imagination, and the way he uses it to provide commentary and order to his surroundings reminded me of “curiosity cabinets.” Kunstkammers, Wikipedia tells me they were also called. In Renaissance and Victorian times, I think they were largely oddities arranged in tiny, attractive boxes, but I like the way Peter will decide on a theme and focus food and drink for a hypothetical restaurant and do a little world creation the way that framing any group of objects gives them their own context. Wikipedia also told me that they were sometimes referred to as “memory theaters,” and I felt really moved by that term, and I think it resonates with Peter’s stunted dreams you describe just now, and lack of outlet.
CB: I’ve had a lot of characters in the past that live solely in memory, in the past, and I think Hapworth could definitely have been one of those characters, if he hadn’t been catapulted into the life that moves faster than the speed of reminiscence.
AB: Yes. What else is there, indeed. A friend once commented about his girlfriend: “I don’t know where her inner fantasy life is, and sometimes I think she’s with me to try to learn how to access hers.”
CB: I think that’s how people do—or should—connect, by way of their inner lives. What else is there? Even if it’s not sustainable, it’s still important.
AB: In VA, you take the time to have us fully inhabit a headspace, as you did with The Week You Weren’t Here. How did you decide on both TWYWH and VA narration? Did either undergo a narrative shift during revision?
CB: TWYWH was always that way. When I stumbled on the voice and the narration, that’s how it looked and sounded. That is, mostly. There’s minimal punctuation in the finished book, and there was a lot less than minimal in the early drafts. But then VA, I guess I started that way, but then switched over. One reason is: Barry Hannah. He said—to paraphrase—that you could get away with a difficult voice in the first person, in a way that people wouldn’t be as quick to accept in a third. I had some early readers who were stumbling over what amounted to a very—I don’t know, singular—sort of voice in the third person. There was a danger that people might read that as the narrator, or as me, but really I always just saw it as Hapworth’s consciousness, the same as a first person.
AB: Yes. I think I see. Do you think that the shift to first person was about giving the story to outside readers as “story” instead of performing Peter’s headspace?
CB: I felt like in both points of view it was still very much a story outside of the head.
AB: Which is what, I think to me, makes it move and work as “mainstream” fiction as well or whatever the kids are calling it these days—and maybe what keeps it moving when the alternative as you suggested earlier is wading in reminiscing for him. Yes, I was actually torn about Peter and thinking—I mean, how I conceived of his thinking. I am not sure I would call it neurotic. I see that he comes from a context of neurosis, and his early college memories reflect that he felt a part of his culture.
CB:I sometimes worried that Hapworth didn’t think about things enough. But he still gets read as a neurotic, so I must have succeeded.
I think another thing that gets overlooked–to go back to your much earlier question–is that Peter and Izzy really don’t know each other that well. Or haven’t spent much time together. And yet they are kind of roped into this life together. And I think that state governs a lot of the choices. Stylistic, in the narrative, or even actual choices, in terms of action, on the character level.
AB: Yes. I marked so many places where Peter talked about how he saw something or someone through new eyes, mediated through a new set of circumstances or, in the case of Izzy, first through seeing her on her television program Vintage Attraction, and then, as he actually puts is, “newly contextualized” through marriage. So academic and cerebral. Physical context is super important to him in order to make meaning of a situation based on how much time he spends describing interiors.
CB: That’s an important concept, I think. How you see something when newly contextualized. Or re-contextualized. That makes people uncomfortable.
People who believe in, and have faith in, the master narrative. The omniscient. Like nothing could be subjective. I don’t think it really works like that off the page, so I’m reluctant to present that on the page.
AB: Ah. I see. And you’re commenting on that with Peter because Peter’s master narrative is that he collects data in every new context in similar ways, maybe?
CB: I think so. I just think he’s not going to be this person to say, oh, here’s something unpleasant, and now I’m going to do [whatever it is people do when faced with unpleasantness]. But that’s not me, either. And the same is true of Izzy, I think. Some readers have reacted to the “sudden change” in the plot after Izzy and Peter get married. Is this a spoiler alert? I guess from the prologue you know things get sticky. Anyway, I’ve heard some complaints.
AB: You mean how neither one of them addressed the overwhelming speed with which they committed, and stopped communicating once suspicion took over Peter, and Izzy withdrew emotionally? And then when they went to Greece despite serious doubts about their relationship?
CB: This may be what’s unusual about the story. I think some had an issue with Izzy’s “abrupt” change. I hasten to say it’s abrupt, because, thanks to the limited POV, we have no idea how long she’s had a problem or whatever; we only know what he perceives. But also in Peter’s passive acceptance of it. These aren’t things that strike me as odd. And I’m more intrigued by what readers have a problem with. Perhaps this is the point of fiction. To identify what it is that troubles ourselves and each other. Because it’s a mirror, right? So, if people don’t like how things are going, if the actions don’t conform to preconceived ideas about how characters (people) in fiction (life) should conform, maybe that tells us something about who we really are.
AB: I read it as a reaction to the overwhelming stress of those changes they jumped into. Pulling away because your whole identity has just been submerged in a union. I thought it was good discomfort—and it was tension that was needed—and that was how Peter was going to experience disharmony and disillusionment anyway–because look at how he handled the disillusionment of his job.
CB: That’s what I saw, too! The reaction to the stress of it all. And also here we have stress within a seemingly pleasant, happy event, which is interesting.
All of this. Yes. I wish everyone read like you did. Like you do.
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AB: Well, there you also have the sort of messages we take to heart about courtship—it’s important to be independent, but it’s important to hurry to make things official so you stand powerfully as a unit and extinguish ambiguity. It felt right to me because Peter kind of gloms on to an idea or a person like most of us do. We are supposed to “date” (says someone) for a period of time and Izzy and he both make fun of the idea of jumping into things too soon, but on the other hand that’s what feelings kind of make us do. But then they had to start to really get to know each other. And as with every love, it’s really quite terrifying.
CB: I think I wanted characters that rejected that sort of accepted protocol. How you meet, how long you remain skeptical, when you submit to love, or at least the idea of love. I also like characters that take chances.
AB: I think he also really wants a best friend. Which he finds in her. How do you set your characters up to take chances? With Peter, it was his email that got the ball rolling—and it was his strength, his writing, that enabled him to take that risk?
CB: I think so. That ties into this whole he-has-a-dormant-skill thing. He must have written well, at least decently, at some point. And thanks to teaching and everything, he’s lost sight of it. Except for when he emails. And that best friend thing, definitely. They’re very much people who exist in the world surrounded by people but still very much alone. I think that helps them connect.
AB: Yes. Emails can be used as cabinets of curiosities. And I like that their relationship starts with a risk because his creativity is his way of taking a risk—he creates a persona in his email to her. How hard would it have been for Peter’s ego to leave teaching for a job that has no “credit” in the academy before he met Izzy? She re-contextualizes what his skills are.
CB: He never would have! And she would have never thought about getting away from the restaurant life. These people (like most people) need people to be their catalysts. And yes, I think they both re-contextualize each other’s skills.
He thinks he’s not a writer. She thinks she’s just a TV personality sort. And through each other, they see there’s more.
AB: Speaking of contexts, I feel like the physical space of college teaching accounted for the most vivid scene work in the book—maybe with the scenes Greece a close second—but that could be because I am familiar with the teaching grind, and how over-familiarity with hierarchies that oppress us can whittle away at a creative mind.
CB: This was a major thing I was after exploring with this character. And something the journalists give very short shrift. (To use a Hapworthian phrase.) Maybe they can’t relate. Or won’t admit to being able to relate.
AB: The department party and the classroom scene(s) were very real and very demoralizing and I’ve been there.
CB: Those bacon-wrapped scallops are very real.
AB: Ha! My experience is more with stale bagels and wizened carrot sticks. I like how you made the caricatures of the fellow teachers, who are also trapped but loveable, like T. Stoddard, part of a colorful community who reappear a bit in the wine shop later. It is T. Stoddard who comes by later to check out Peter’s new wine shop, right?
CB: Well, I think the bagels and carrots are what adjuncts subsist on throughout the semesters, but once or twice a year this party–mainly, I think, to impress the grad students—goes on and it’s all here’s how the other half lives for a couple of hours. But it’s an illusion, since there really is no fancy living in academia for anyone. Maybe just for department chairs and vice-provosts. Yeah, T. Stoddard and The Pregnant Lady come to the store.
AB: Yes. I like that that moment helps shift the tone about these fellow instructors–they were part of what sort of tortured Peter in the way that they were his reality before, and like all jobs we hate, once we leave, we see that the people at that place are just people, some of them are trapped like we were, and some have decided to stay. And in a way, aside from the worrisome drinking problem, the T. Stoddards of the world—the former coworkers—could benefit from seeing the Peters of the world leaving.
CB: Hapworth doesn’t really have any friends. An occupational hazard when being a transient in a transitory profession, I suppose. And so, yeah, I like how in spite of himself, in spite of themselves, there are connections. People just hang onto these jobs. Nobody knows why. I made it a semester after grad school—and then one a few semesters later, but that was continuing ed—teaching like this and I knew I’d had enough.
AB: Would you mind telling me about your experience in the adjunct world?
CB: After applying to all the tenure-track jobs everywhere toward the end of grad school, and then getting rejected from all of them, I started to lower my expectations. And I continued to lower them. I came back to Chicago, took a couple of classes. I wasn’t really equipped to teach developmental reading and composition at a community college, and slogged through that for a while. I knew I couldn’t live that way for long. There was a lot of driving involved. The comp class met on Saturdays at 8:30 in the morning, and I wasn’t much of a morning person at the time. Residual grad student life, I suppose.
But I’d actually had published a novel during this time. It was in its first UK publication, so a tiny little thing, but it seemed like it could be helpful. Then a tenure track job at the community college came online, and I was pretty well liked among the faculty, I thought, and so put in an application. I probably wouldn’t have gotten an interview if it weren’t for the book, which I dumbly only told them about after submitting. They were impressed, though. But I didn’t really have any experience, and they were looking to fill certain hiring quotas—one of the faculty on the search committee told me this at one point—so it didn’t matter what skills I had or who liked me. I think after that, I knew I’d have to find something else to do. I was a little more realistic about everything than Hapworth is.
AB: I really appreciated the humor and despondency of adjuncting in the book. And because, as I think you mentioned with his creative emails, Peter is not using his creativity a bunch, it is used in a curdled, snarky way in his over-the-top descriptions of characters he works with. The situation calls for very specific pigeonholes, and everyone just sort of burrows into one nearest them in terms who they “are” in the adjunct terrain.
CB: I think what keeps Hapworth attached to this go-nowhere existence is the fact that it does, at least on a very basic level, involve language, which was something that meant something to him at one point and that has endured. The world doesn’t care about words and ideas, and I think he’s mostly aware of that fact, and yet he still does.
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AB: Teaching can be a way to stay in the unformed stage of creativity—you are always re-framing how “to begin” with language with every new student or class—and I think you can get some vicarious inspiration or hope from that, but also some inaction on your own projects.
CB: It’s addictive, maybe. But less dangerous than zip lining.
AB: Yes. Except for fomenting resentment, which eventually would create a T. Stoddard maybe. Peter really cares about words, and delights himself with his vocabulary. At one point in a sex scene he says he “obviated her bra.” At first I wasn’t sure to whom he spoke. But now I think it’s to himself.
CB: I call it dialect. I remember people sounding this way in the department. I remember sounding this way.
AB: That makes sense. His narration is based on the dialect of other adjuncts?
CB: Yeah. He speaks, and thinks, in academic. And they speak to each other this way.
AB: So in some ways, to keep his joy, he needs to be outside of the machine that works with language—and just be with a partner who lets him follow his joy.
CB: I’m reminded of coming across Joel Chandler Harris as a kid and wanting to correct Uncle Remus.
AB: Ha. Whereas I tried to imitate Uncle Remus. And my playground aide’s facial tic. Another story.
CB: Well, I think it’s probably exaggerated for literary effect. Yet, I think it’s plausible, because on some level the grad students and adjuncts wrote and spoke well officially, but then would, like, drink cheap beer and have pronoun-antecedent disagreement in their off-hours.
AB: I see sort of a cannibalistic quality in your medium being what you teach and what you express yourself with. I recognized all of it.
CB: What about Trainspotting? Nobody reads these books and charges the author with, I don’t know, being a Scottish heroin addict. But I think how that book gets away with it is because of the omniscient voice that comes through in Standard English. I went a more Andy Kaufman approach to this comedy.
AB: Maybe, as you’ve suggested I think earlier, the dialect is uncomfortably close to what many of us wade in every day? The relationship between Peter and Berkal was very realistic and it’s clear he’s that one who has illogical and unending energy to fight for the scraps of adjuncthood. And hasn’t hit a wall yet.
CB: He’s still a grad student. The romance will fade if he ever finishes his dissertation. Though he’s not completely deluded. Deluded enough to still try to ingratiate himself to the department head and tenured professors.
AB: A recent Salon article by Edward McClelland was really resonant for me regarding jobs that require advanced education—and it’s one reason why I delighted in your satire of the adjunct ecosystem. He reports a certain “class consciousness” that prevents unionizing that, along with the state of universities, could be applied to the adjunct’s plight. The academy has its own hierarchy, and being a part of it makes you a part of the intelligentsia, which confers status. Oftentimes adjuncts don’t acknowledge themselves as working class or poverty level because our idea of class is linked to education status a lot.
CB: That’s interesting, about the intellectual reasons to stay in a profession that has no financial rewards. I remember in that semester of community college teaching going to a Halloween party and telling someone I “taught college English.” I liked being able to say that.
AB: I understand it took you four years to write. Did you ever lose faith that you’d finish? I love that I don’t feel anguish or painstaking coming through in the prose like I do other books. It’s a fully inhabited world and a generous escape—and that is amazing to me that you could plunge into it so frequently for so long to get it done. What is your best place to write?
CB: I thought about giving up on it several times. It wasn’t that I couldn’t finish—there always was a draft that had a beginning, middle, and an end—but I just wasn’t happy with the results for a long time. But back to the writing process, without being immersed in a project, the best writing environments are pretty much wasted on me. Though who’s to say what the best environment is.
Faulkner wrote on his security guard third shift. Cheever went down to the boiler room every morning. Home is good for me, since often I get to have a pug on my lap. But having a lap pug can sometimes slow the process, since he’ll claim one hand for himself and then I’m left to type with just one hand.
Some of my favorite scenes from Hapworth I first came up with at a table at Starbucks. A Starbucks that no longer exists, which is disappointing, should that location have been lucky.
There’s this character that I’ve known for a long time, and I’d like to work with her again. She first appeared in a novel manuscript I wrote twenty years ago. I was in high school at the time, but for some reason tried to write the novel’s trio of POV characters as college students. Knowing, even at that idealistic age, that the thing was probably more apprentice exercise than viable manuscript, I put the finished draft away and had no plans to look back.
AB: That takes a lot of strength.
CB: Well, in grad school, I dug it up and revised it and turned it into my thesis. Though it made it past my committee, and I was able to graduate, it still was pretty unpublishable, as I’d spend the next three or four years of revisions discovering. Even when I took the characters out of college and put them in high school (the time when any of the real-life experiences I was drawing from actually took place, including the year the story was set, 1994). The problem was really that the story was too much a product of my earliest influences. The thing read like Less Than Zero meets Reality Bites. Then, about four years ago, I was in between drafts of VA, and I thought I’d pick up the female lead, the strongest character, again. This time I made her in her early thirties and took out the other POV characters (though one and one who vaguely resembles the other make appearances). Still, though, I think I was too close to the voice and aesthetics and perspective of Hapworth and VA. So, I got three-fourths of the way through that draft and set it aside.
AB: I love that you acknowledged a need for breathing room, just as a close relationship needs at times.
CB: What I think I’d like to do now is figure out a way to invoke both drafts, maybe through alternating chapters set in 1994 and 2014, and see if I can figure out what story there is to tell. It’s been hard to really sit down and work with it, since I’ve been chiefly occupied by promoting and everything, but now that that’s starting to wind down (at least until the paperback comes out this fall), I feel like I’m finally ready to begin—at least begin thinking about it.
AB: I look forward to reading the fruits of that labor. Thank you for this conversation about character and the mind of Hapworth.
CB: My pleasure. Let’s talk again soon!
Mont Blanc casts its shadows on the heavens. I never knew that mountains eclipse one another, eager to steal the sun. They all do it; even the smallest, most bullied peak throws its weight on the lowly clouds. Nothing is sovereign; everything in this heavy landscape leans on everything else.
Alpine clouds carry the chill of mountains on their blue backs. They float so low I could shepherd them with the hook of my arm. I could tie a flock to our van and float across the Alps into France.
Each cliffside switchback disorients the clock; it is light, it is dark, it is light again, all in twenty minutes. Day breaks and mends twenty times in five square miles, it seems. There is no dawn here, no gradual rising of the sun from east to west. Daylight comes in a blink as the sun rolls over a crest from east to west. At noon a mountain’s twin vales, like open palms, fill with warmth and the clouds shrug their shadows. Just as quickly the sun rolls into western valleys; a stuck stone, and eastern clouds assume the blue.
Daylight strobes but the mountains are steadfast and predictable in their terrors. On these sublime and chilling spines I need to weigh my importance against small things. To the cosmos in my purse I am a mountain casting shadows. My lip gloss, the post card from Pompeii of a nude statue about to fuck a headless woman carved from a mountain’s shoulder. My purse is their whole world. Their whole safe world. This van is our whole world when I avert my gaze from the window. This notebook. This pen is all that exists. This thought.
My thought is a mandala, a mantra. A round thing turning over and over in my mind. A focus for my eyes and my breath. It’s as close as I come to prayer. All around, steeples rise from peaks as if the mountain were sharpened to a single point of consciousness. Even the chill feels sacred, tastes sacred, and winds its wind around the heart. This is where people climb peaks, stand on their toes, and nudge god. There must be a church for every villager. They must inhabit the sacred space like a second body, a carapace, and feel closer, louder, stronger. Church bells hold conversations with god and mountains shudder.
We veer on a slip of switchback and I clutch my comforts closer; a sprig of rosemary from Provence, mother of pearl spoon, a whole candied nectarine from the Italian Riviera like a translucent sun with syrupy skin. Petrarch’s Canzoniere, splayed as if to balance itself. Petrarch who had trouble ascending Mount Ventoux, who held his “sweet little volume” of St. Augustine’s Confessions ever tighter.
Sweet little comforts.
Like the bird’s nest on the dashboard spiraling ever into itself, and stronger for it. Warm things, like this coffee cup and this journal I just spilled it on as we bumped over a crag of ice. The coffee’s small pool of warmth in my lap. The warmth reminds me of southern Italy, of ripe figs hanging at mouth-level. Of olive oil sprinkled on my hands, arms, and legs, and over my bread; liquid gold squeezed form trees not much taller than I am. Trees I lorded myself over. A dinner table lit on fire wick by wick, to illumine our feasting. I can comprehend a universe of fruit and fire, a life measured in mouthfuls and handfuls. I can weave my soul around it and throw my magnificent shadow over all else.
even though I remember clearly the blossoms
on the crooked apple tree each spring, and how I
finally was tall enough my eighth year to reach the low
branch and swing myself up into the crook next to the trunk,
the rough bark chilly, rough, and damp against my backbone, white
petals edged with pink that worked their way into the spine
of my new book, Little House on the Prairie, how the leaves couldn’t
hide me from your gaze out the kitchen window, and that meant
I would be called down and into the house before the book
All of this a lie, because you can’t remember the apple tree,
so it was never there, and I was never there, and
and I am just like my father, a liar who remembers things
that never happened, never were, in those spans of years
that were as unremarkable to you as the pressed apple blossoms
that tumbled from the pages of that yellowed, musty book
when I pulled it off the shelf.
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.
“There will be people who’ll cross the street to avoid you because you’re black,” my mother would tell me when I was younger, in every conversation or argument about race we ever had.
“Don’t be a nigger,” my older sister once told me, as she sat with a friend doing high school Sociology homework. If she was in high school then I must have been five at the youngest, nine at the oldest—I think I had asked her whether or not I should be wearing a du-rag.
“Nigger,” writes H.G. Bissinger in Friday Night Lights, a book about a high school football team in a small Texas town. “The word poured out in Odessa as easily as the torrents of rain that ran down the streets after an occasional storm, as common a part of the vernacular as ‘ol’ boy’ or ‘bless his ‘ittle’ biddy heart’ or ‘awl bidness’ or ‘I sure did enjoy visitin’ with you’ or ‘God dang.’”
Bissinger, having just left an editorial position at the Philadelphia Inquirer, decided he would follow alongside Permian High School’s Panthers throughout their 1988 season. We learn that the team goes undefeated, then loses the state championship. Bissinger gives the book the subtitle “A Town, A Team, and A Dream.”
On “nigger,” he later writes: “People who used the word didn’t seem troubled by it. They didn’t whisper it, or look chagrined after they said it. In their minds it didn’t imply anything, didn’t indicate they were racist, didn’t necessarily mean that they disliked blacks at all. Instead, as several in Odessa explained it, there were actually two races of blacks. There were the hardworking ones who were easy to get along with and didn’t try to cut corners and melded in quite nicely. They deserved the title black. They deserved the respect of fellow whites.
“And then there were the loud ones, the lazy ones, the ones who stole or lived off welfare or spent their whole lives trying to get by without a lick of work, who every time they were challenged to do something claimed that they were the helpless victims of white racism. They didn’t deserve to be called black, because they weren’t.”
Though Bissinger’s book takes place in Texas, 1988, I never saw much of a difference growing up in the eighties and nineties between Odessa and my hometown of Normal, Illinois. The word “nigger” wasn’t a part of the vernacular in Normal, but I could feel the difference between “the hardworking ones” and “the lazy ones,” “the quiet ones” and “the loud ones,” and the way that everyone saw them. I knew my sister and my parents didn’t want me to be one of the loud ones. And they surely didn’t want me to be lazy.
“One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer,” writes James Baldwin, “is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed.”
But Baldwin, much like my parents, couldn’t foresee the change in eras. I’ll never know what it’s like to fear bombings at my church or to be the parent of an Emmett Till. I’ll never have the exact same fears my parents projected because I am a baby of a post-whatever generation. And while Baldwin acquainted himself with the Negro “problem,” he never saw it evolve into an Oreo phenomenon.
When my parents met, in 1969, Blacks had only been allowed to live in Illinois State University’s dorms for twenty years.
I’ve asked my mother what it was like to be black, in Normal, in 1969. “Well,” she said, “when you went to the store they followed you around all the time thinking you were gonna steal something. And the police would follow you around. It was hard to get a job, but it was harder for men to get a job than it was women. And they wouldn’t want to rent an apartment to a man but they’d rent one to a woman. But, I mean, overall it wasn’t that bad.”
I interpret “it wasn’t that bad” as meaning it wasn’t Mississippi. Wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t Texas or even Louisiana, where my grandparents had come from. My mother herself wasn’t born and raised in the South—she was born in Waukegan, Illinois, to a family of stragglers from the Great Migration. She moved to Normal to study Physical Education at Illinois State University. There she met my father. Started a family. Raised the four of us in a town of 129,000 people. My father was studying Political Science and Communications, and when my oldest sister was born my parents decided not to finish college.
“Most black people at ISU,” my mother says, “their major was Communications. I think because. . . . Well, for the black men, if you were an athlete you took Communications—I don’t know if it was because it was easy or not. Almost all of them had Communications majors.”
“You had to carry a B-average to be a Communications major,” my father contends. “I thought most of them had Sociology majors. It was the most popular major for black people. Unwed mothers and stuff. I mean, that’s the culture we came from. That’s why most of them were Sociology majors.”
“The culture we came from” being one of unwed mothers does stir a curiosity in me, makes me wonder about my grandparents’ generation and the children they bore without present fathers. This is supposed to make sense to me, I think. That black fathers are not present. That they flee.
My mother eventually switched her major from P.E. to English. She said it was easier, that it required fewer credits to graduate. But after she and my father had my sister it didn’t matter anymore, because she just needed a job.
My parents met while pursuing their education, in a program for Blacks and Hispanics called the High Potential Students Program. My mother worked for the program, kept records and was a typist, and my father was a student.
They met at the same university on whose campus I spent my time growing up, riding my bike and rollerblading through the Quad as I got to know my town on my own throughout junior high and high school. Looking back, I understand it must have been strange for college students to see children on campus while walking from class to class, but this place was a part of my town, I thought, and they were only visitors. I had as much a right to this campus as they did, reinforced by my love for the environment. I’d fallen for the campus architecture—the music building built like a miniature castle, the enormous five or so story library—and for the professors with their ties and briefcases (so different from my parents wearing blouses and khakis and sweaters to work), and I know that a part of my development began right there, within an idyllic portrait of my childhood filled with patches of grass and students much older than myself.
This environment more than any other probably formed a worldview for me. Different from my father’s Chicago streets and my mother’s suburban parks, the college campus was a bubble, a place engineered for superficial equality. I would learn that the campus wasn’t like my junior high school, where too-cheap jeans meant pauperized parentage or where a faction of Hip-Hop fans, mostly black, sat at one lunch table while another table of students, myself included, talked about rock and Top 40 songs. I first observed a real division in my life in junior high, where two types of black children split themselves up in the lunchroom and I was clearly the type to sit with my white friends. There was no rap music for me, no after-school basketball. I was accused of being an Oreo.
The education of a Black American on how to be a Black American begins in the home, then spreads itself through experience and literature and misfortune and luck. Whether it was my parents’ intention or not, my home education left me without a sense of Black Pride and instead instilled only fear. Until my twenties I grew up thinking I didn’t want to be black—I just wanted to be a person, someone color-neutral. As a boy I understood that people were different but couldn’t understand why anyone made a big deal of it: I had found it strange, still find it strange the way race can be created simply by recognizing it.
My reluctance comes, I think, from the fact that I am black and that I’ll always be perceived as black. I can’t fight this with anyone, nor would I want to—the visible recognition of myself as a minority is already ever-present, and it would be a futile fight. But I suppose it’s also true that I’m an Oreo, harnessing a kind of white sentimentality within my black body; I used to wonder when I was younger if this was how I made friends—because I didn’t fit a stereotype I wondered if the other children fought or shed their own reluctance in befriending me. The children I grew up with were mostly white, a few of them some kind of Asian or Hispanic, and only the children of my parents’ friends black. And what of my friends’ parents, I wondered—how many of them cared that their daughter or son had a black friend? Why would people cross the street to avoid an identity that wasn’t my choice? Would someone sitting next to me on a bus move their seat because I’m black? As a child, was I supposed to cry when someone called me nigger (or sometimes Micah McNigger)? And if I didn’t cry, if I wasn’t upset, would that make me a bad black person? What does it mean to be a good black person? Is it the same as being a good Russian or a good American, loving vodka or baseball signs of loyalty? “The American image of the Negro lives also in the Negro’s heart; and when he has surrendered to this image life has no other possible reality” (Baldwin).
These questions and more were all I could think about as a child and as a teen, struggling to find something to define in myself in a town where the only clear definitions of race looked like a picture of 1988′s Odessa, where there were two very clear distinctions of Black people. Had I grown up somewhere other than Normal, or had I grown up poor, perhaps I would have come to understand in a much different manner the ways race and class work. But these things are sometimes subtle to a child, and though I knew how my town viewed and talked about class I was only just figuring out where to begin with race.
My education in the classroom has been a different story. The most seminal racial texts I can remember encountering are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, and both in college and in graduate school James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son.
Baldwin called America a “country devoted to the death of the paradox.” Here I am, his paradox, my own American Psychology combining the politics, aspirations, and convictions of those whites around me as a child with this Black paranoia—a potential riff on Du Bois’s “two warring ideals in one dark body.” My ideals have been at war. Adulthood has had me concede, Tipping the King in my childhood and teenage ambition to be raceless.
I react, mostly, to Baldwin’s essays “Many Thousands Gone” and “The Harlem Ghetto.” His critical breakdown of the Negro in America in contrast to Richard Wright’s Native Son (in “Many Thousands Gone”) and to the New York Jew (in “The Harlem Ghetto”) helps explain some of the plights of those of us in marginalia; but overall, the pieces are temporal failures.
“Many Thousands Gone” itself, on the surface, is not a failure, as it was written with all the knowledge one can have of one’s own era; however the writing (the our and us and we presumably belonging to the white American) should have essayed to predict, from Baldwin’s Afro-American-European vantage the possible trajectories of the Black American. “He is a social and not a personal or human problem,” Baldwin writes, and our goal with social problems should be to anticipate their solutions throughout the hours.
If the Black American were a social problem, are people like me the solution? Because we—the blacks who’ve railed against stereotype—exist, I wonder if we’re looking at the end of Baldwin’s thesis:
“. . . the Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality, the distortion and debasement of his own experience, surrendering those forces which reduce the person to anonymity and which make themselves manifest all over the darkening world.”
We are not solely talking here about the Educated Black, the presumed outlier of our history containing the faces of those like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but rather those more like Will Smith or Bill Cosby, trailblazers for what Baldwin seemed not to foresee: a new black whiteness.
In Grantland‘s 2011 article “The Rise of the NBA Nerd,” Wesley Morris writes that “21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane.” Families on television like the Bankses in the nineties’ The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the Huxtables in the earlier The Cosby Show gave the country a new kind of Black American: educated, well-off, and far distanced from any inkling of culture-perceived niggerness, from the qualities of the Black American we’re mostly wary of confronting. These characters were almost everything I wanted to become when I was younger, their erasure from conventional blackness a beacon for those of us not fitting in with convention in the first place.
“The Negro in America can only acquiesce in the obliteration of his own personality.”
There is nothing in this world that I’m more afraid of being than a man who is testicular, aggressive, and black. And in fact, all of my performances are the result of either my Black or my masculinity-related paranoia, and my acquiescence isn’t so much a way of “passing” in America but rather in avoiding a fear of my potential self. “Black people are unnerving,” writes video essayist John Bresland, “because they’re paranoid. They see racism everywhere, even where it isn’t.” I’d like to raise my hand here, to own up to this paranoia, to worrying out of some infantile fear about where racism actually exists, even though I believe racism is sometimes much less about the process of othering than it is a compulsion to love those like ourselves—isn’t hatred, after all, usually in defense of something we love? And “although the two can be confused,” writes Bresland’s wife, the essayist Eula Biss, “our urge to love our own, or those we have come to understand as our own, is, it seems, much more powerful than our urge to segregate ourselves.”
But I haven’t even loved “my own.” Outside of my family I’ve managed to remain close to no other black people, and I have no excuse aside from my hometown being Normal, IL. Which is not to say that this is a real excuse: it’s more of a reason spurned by my discomfit towards the subtleties of race in my hometown.
I can’t confess to obliterating anything black about myself, either, because I never saw it as being there in the first place. Race wasn’t an issue in daycare, where I was the only black child in my class; nor in Kindergarten where I was the only black yet again and, I think, things remained this way until second grade or so. By the time I was meeting other black children in my classrooms, I had already come to understand that I was different. And that my parents and my sisters were different—we acted differently and spoke differently. I remember noting how the other black kids at school sounded when they spoke. I can remember asking my father once when I was about five how, when I answered the phone, I could tell whether or not the person on the other end was black. I wish I could remember his answer.
I wonder what he means when Baldwin uses a word as strong as “obliteration.” It implies a scale, implies that when there is a scale for whiteness it is only applied to minorities and that being less black or less Asian or less Hispanic means becoming more white and not option C or D. To obliterate seems, to me, as if it should mean getting rid of the -ness altogether, becoming instead something unidentifiable. Baldwin did write, later in “The Harlem Ghetto,” that “the American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible.” And that Americanness rather than Blackness or Asianness or Whiteness means anonymity. But perhaps I come up short of understanding. If this is what it means to be an American, it doesn’t seem that Baldwin thinks this a bad thing.
“. . . the distortion and debasement of his own experience.”
In “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin writes: “It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting. A Negro learns to gauge precisely what reaction the alien person facing him desires, and he produces it with disarming alertness.” He maintains consistency in his theses—he seems to believe, through and through, that the Black American can never really be himself if he wishes to get along in the white world, but shares no specifics of how he should “be himself,” as a part of a unified blackness. I don’t believe that I, myself, have so much performed anti-blackness as I have had to learn, from a young age, about the qualities of blackness from family, friends, and other schoolchildren, and then adapt to this learning. These things are socially learned, aren’t they? We’re natural in our actions and expressions until someone guides us in another direction, saying things like don’t be a nigger or discretion is the better part of valor.
Once, my younger sister, Morgan, and I were swimming at a Four Seasons and asked my father if we could stay longer. I was in the hallway next to my father, and I could see the pool from the other side of a looking glass while I pleaded with him to give us more time. He gave me the OK and I rushed through the hallway, through the locker room, and back out onto the pool deck to let Morgan know we could stay. Censoring my excitement and obeying the safety rules, I stopped running once I reached the pool deck. To make up for this I yelled across the entire pool to Morgan, who was floating in the shallow end of the water in perfect view of my father. We can stay! Dad says we can stay! And merely seconds later, before I could even jump back in, I saw my father motion with his index finger to come to him, out of the pool, immediately. A cold face had said all he’d needed to say.
After we dried off and grabbed our things we walked out to the truck, myself immensely sad and confused at my father’s seemingly mercurial decision-making. He remained silent until we began the drive back, and at this I quivered. I always quivered at his silence. He told us, shortly after the truck left the parking lot, that had I not let the entire pool know our business we would have been able to stay. That I needed to learn discretion.
Now, I can sometimes see the looks on people’s faces when black children are loud in public. It’s a sure look of disapproval, perhaps not toward the children themselves but toward the assumed negligence of the parent(s). Children yell, yes, and they play and scream and laugh gutturally, but it’s the heightened volume of children talking that gets adults’ ears perked. Where did he learn that? Why do they talk about such things?
When a child speaks loudly everyone in range listens, and one can only hope the child has something delightful to say.
The problem with the social decorum of black children playing is that their loudness comes off as a shortcoming—as a thing all right for only non-black children to display. Adults cringe, I cringe, at some of the things these children say and we probably therefore do degrade the image of this child (and on this point, Baldwin and I agree). Perhaps, in public, this was always on my father’s mind—perhaps he was always worried about playground talk of sex or money or the things we saw on television, a clear reflection of his sentiments as a parent.
“. . . surrendering to those forces which reduce the person to anonymity.”
What if I’ve desired anonymity? What if it wasn’t a forced thing? There’s been a lot said in history about the forced anonymity of women and the forced anonymity of gays, while the other side of the coin suggests a desired anonymity of peoples like Jews and Blacks and those of biracial ethnicity. And if Baldwin is right about America’s melting-potness, then I want to know more about this desired anonymity.
Desired anonymity, I think, is not necessarily a point of surrender. In October 2011, The Harvard Crimson ran Zoe Weinberg’s “Raceless Like Me,” an article laying out a spectrum for students at Harvard University who wish to push the boundaries of racial identity to do so. At one end: the raceless, at the other, the racially transcendent, and somewhere in the middle the aracial. The difference is that “racial transcendence,” coined by Harvard’s Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, comes off as both lofty and naïve, in danger of being confused with color-blindness, which “advocates ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds. Color-blindness implies that racism can be solved passively.”
“Racelessness,” Weinberg writes, “is far more complex, because people who transcend race ‘are actually aware of how race negatively affects the daily existence of people of color. They have very likely experienced discrimination, yet they respond by understanding those situations as part of a broad societal problem: one in which they are deeply embedded, but not one that leads to their subscription to racial identity,’” according to Rockquemore.
If I see black as a description and not as an identity, then I believe I spoke aptly earlier when talking about my youthful wish to be raceless. Though aracial may fit for someone with more than one concretized heritage, raceless seems to be the word for those of us making thought-out decisions about our identities. But the potential roadblock with this is that I don’t have more than one concretized heritage: I could speak to you about the variety of my family names or my Creole great-grandfather or my half-German great-grandmother, but it’s not something I can grasp the way one can grasp having one black and one white parent. In essence, at the bottom of this issue is my jealousy toward the bi- and multiracial, as the status quo affords them the allowance of checking the raceless box.
A lot was unearthed in the Crimson‘s interviews with students, ranging from from biracial students literally checking the black box because they wanted to bring statistical awareness to inequalities, to those who check it because “it is so overwhelmingly in your favor to identify by race if you’re a minority,” as stated by student Anjali R. Itzkowitz. “You would be a fool to say you’re raceless if you’re black.”
The boldest question it poses: “if we know race is a social construct, at what point do we begin the process of deconstruction?” This is the question Baldwin didn’t ask and should have. My answer, at least at this point, is within our personal relationships. And I’m a hypocrite, because I let my friends talk about how “white” I am without correcting them—but if I did things right I would start with them. Just like talking about romantic attraction began with them and talks about our parents’ money began with them. In my social development and snowballing realizations, everyday talk, not haute scholarship, is where the deconstruction should have begun.
Writing about a subject like race is difficult not because the topic is hefty, but because I have so many biases toward it. I’d very much like not to be lumped in with writers considered to have made notable contributions to Black and African-American Literature because I’m not writing about a Black experience—I’m not writing as a black man. Please remove me from the discourse, because I don’t represent anyone but myself.
However, the other hurdle in representing myself within marginalia is that some readers, inevitably, will feel I represent them as well. It always seems a danger to write about the othered group without fear of misrepresentation, which makes me even further want to avoid labels. What I want is a slight inverse of one of James Baldwin’s own wishes: I want to be a good man and an honest writer.
Being an honest writer means to me that I cover all my bases, that I stick to the facts as I know them and, when necessary, scrutinize the little things. As writers it isn’t our job to worry about fact-checking our memories, but there are certainly other things that need to be corroborated—the clinically biographical facts I want to extract in my writing, the names of streets on which I’ve lived, the things that, without showing my research, would have me admit to laziness—here, I’m doing my damnedest to be sure I’ve checked up on the crucial bits.
It’s necessary for me to make sense of the ways I’ve read the world throughout my experiences, and to ensure that as I’ve moved through life I haven’t brushed the wrong experiences off. “An author is not to write all he can,” writes John Dryden, “but only all he ought.” And I ought—need—for the sake of my own sanity, to begin evaluating my decisions and my experiences.
One day at recess, Hermann, a boy with a dark mullet who licked his lips beet-red, called me a nigger. It was the first time I had ever been called a nigger. I told on him not because I was hurt or upset, but because I wanted to see what would happen to him. I enjoyed the eye-widening of the recess supervisor when I told him what had happened, and I knew he’d move quickly to find this boy and bring him to justice.
I don’t know, nor do I think I ever knew what happened to Hermann that day, as he was dragged away by the arm by one of our lead supervisors near the end of recess. But I discovered power in a word—power that, at seven or eight, I knew I was using the way he had wanted to. I had turned his dominance back onto him.
I still wonder about that power. I wonder whether, had I felt less racially neutral, I would’ve made far different decisions, far different observations. I wonder if, had I felt a little blacker, whatever that might mean, recess would have ended the same way.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Fall has risen from the earth
like Lazarus. The dogwood in the backyard
remembers its flowers. The sky’s throat is raw
with wood smoke and small regrets.
I have slept beneath quilts in third floor
apartments. I have scribbled endings
on tables with chopsticks and pretended
there is still time for funerals and baptisms.
Let winter come. Let the water freeze
dark and opaque. I will find
new reasons to wait
in the persistent whiteness of snow.
He undresses the apple’s heart
with a knife. His hands
are knowledgeable, palming the meat
without slipping. Slowly
a pile of red skin grows on the table,
like snow or eyelashes unattached
to a wish. I watch, scraping
a thumb along my own knife idly
as if trying to peel the whorls from it cell
by cell. He finishes
and cubes what is left, then
gathers it into the pot with the rest of the apple chunks
browning with oxidation. I
am not used to seeing him
so gentle, his fingers so careful.
I am used to seeing these fingers grip shovels
and beer bottles, hammers and leather belts.
Now he adds water, sugar, a pinch
of cinnamon, takes the pot
to the stove. In an hour, we
will eat applesauce with silver
spoons, slurp it too hot in the backyard
until it cools with the setting sun. We will stand
beneath the trees whose swollen fruit
we coaxed into sweetness, and he
will charge his hands with a new
task, cradling his bowl like
a bird’s nest, his tongue licking sugar from his knuckles
until they are slick and shining.
This is the little island where I crashed my bike in the moonlight outside of a WWII bunker by the Thames. It didn’t look like this when we were there, of course – it was night already so I couldn’t take pictures. I couldn’t even see with my own eyes. From 8 pm until after midnight we rode along footpaths - torches in hand - from pasture to pasture, through forest paths, through dozens of ”kissing” gates, cycling past sheep-fleecing fences and branches claimed with woolen flags. My bicycle chain blurred beneath me like prayer beads. We rumbled over roots, ducked under branches, and threw moon-long shadows on our laughter.
We followed a path toward the river, surprised by an abandoned cement bunker from WWII. Anyone could be living in there, hiding in there. I sped up past its black windows and rode blind over a fallen tree, lurched, and landed in a bed of stinging nettles with my bike on top of me tangled in my legs. Everything fell from my pockets: my ID, my wallet, my phone, everything. I spread the nettle, feeling for familiar shapes with my eyes closed.
I was certain the malevolent presence in the bunker would be looming over me when I stumbled to my feet but luckily my friend was standing sentry. Pockets full again, we flew from the forest in shock, the bikes’ shocks delightful from ditches to hills to corrugations of dried mud – we flew so fast, we might’ve lost our bodies, might’ve spilled from their empty pockets – back to the field, the middle of the field, far from the forest’s hem, so we could see anything approaching us from my leafy imagination.
I didn’t notice till then the thousand nettle stings rising like pearls on my wrists; burning bracelets that he kissed and rubbed dock leaves, folk remedies and wives’ tales on. The island was ours; each kissing gate and the kisses inside of them, each water trough, every animal call, root, rock, dock leaf and bunker. Even the moon.
Back at the cottage we began exploring the topography of my body, another adventure: twigs in my hair, calves striped red and skirt smudged in tones of meadows and earths, juice of healing greens along my blistered wrists. The forest underlined me, accentuated me, painted me. I feel alive in this little village at 1 am, this unknown village whose dark places left their signatures all over my body, whose kisses still hum around my wrists.
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Noah Cicero is the author of several novels, including The Human War (2003), The Condemned (2006), Burning Babies (2006), Treatise (2008), The Insurgent (2010), Best Behavior (2011), and most recently Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. (2013). His stories have appeared in many journals, including Identity Theory (read “Waiting for Coffee”). A native of Youngstown, Ohio, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he may or may not be snowed in on a mountain.
In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?
Literature changes the way you perceive reality, it gives multiple meanings to every situation. If you just read one book, say the Bible or Koran, or if you just watch sitcom television, your reality is very limited, you have very few ways to interpret situations. But I believe if you read a lot, your mind learns the ability to play different games or see different options in every situation that non-readers might not see. The funniest moments I’ve had with literature, have been not understanding a book, but then like five years later entering into a new experience and then it hits you, “Oh, that was what the author was talking about.” The delayed epiphanies are the best.
What was the last book you gave as a present?
The Elephant Vanishes by Murakami.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
A professor told me when I was 20 that I needed to make concrete images. That I needed to focus on language that lacked abstractions, something the reader could create in their own minds. This, for me, has always been interesting, because there is a duality in creating an image every author must contend with, especially when someone reads it from a foreign country. For example, my first novel The Human War had people living in a trailer park. In Ohio there are very nice trailer parks and very shitty ones, but it doesn’t mean you are terribly poor, which I think a lot of Americans know. But some people in England imagined Pikeys living in caravans, and had a completely different image of my characters.
Which author do you reread most frequently?
To be honest, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. But I don’t think I read it for its writing, because I don’t think my style resembles his, I view it as my personal bible or work of philosophy. I’ve traveled to 40 states and crisscrossed America over 10 times in a car, and been to five other countries. Traveling to me and living an isolated kind of dreamy life, is very relevant to me. And it is almost like I read it, to remind myself of who I am and what made me start writing in the first place.
What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?
“Something is taking its course” from Beckett’s Endgame.
Describe your writing routine.
I wake up, shower, dress, go to the local coffee shop and buy a large coffee. Then I go home and write till the coffee is done, which takes an hour an half to two hours. I usually can write five pages in that time. Which adds up over the course of several months. I usually only write in the morning.
Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?
I like to listen to long songs with little focus on the lyrics, so I don’t have to flip to YouTube a lot and the words don’t interrupt my thoughts. My playlist probably sounds really uncool: Achilles Last Stand by Led Zeppelin. Master of Puppets, Orion, One by Metallica. Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.
Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?
A used bookstore in Moab, Utah. All along the coast of Maine there are like twenty awesome used bookstores.
If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?
That has never happened to me, but when I was working at The Grand Canyon at the ice cream parlor someone asked me if I was Noah Cicero, I said yes, and then I had a small panic attack. The line at the ice cream parlor was really long, so we only talked for a minute.
What literary landmark would you most like to visit?
I think running with the bulls thing in Spain, so I could pretend I was in The Sun Also Rises.Best Behavior)" width="307" height="475" class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-11907" title="Author Q&A;: Noah Cicero (Best Behavior)">/em>)">
Is Facebook good for you?
Facebook is good to sell books and keep fans updated. But on a personal IRL level, no, it fucks up my life. Here are some reasons, I think most people who have some micro internet fame can agree with:
1. You post something about your book or an article you like: people from the lit world get into a small debate about it, which is cool, then somebody you went to high school with who you never interact with comments something about ‘jews’ destroying America. So you have to patrol that.
2. Somebody sees your name in an article, they friend you, then you write something and they troll you. THEY wanted to be your friend, not the other way around. So they ask to be your friend and then they troll you. What?
3. Your break up with someone, and even if you defriend them, all their friends are now your friend, and they tag your ex, and omg. Currently, I’m in the middle of the Oregon forest, and I still can’t get out of Ohio.
4. People on a weekly basis ask me to read their novels or blurb their books. I don’t sell more than a thousand copies a year, I can’t help anyone.
What about Amazon?
Amazon is the only thing that saves me.
What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?
What is one of your vices?
What is one of your prejudices?
That all Republican males are secretly homosexual.
Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?
Lives of the Saints, 1Q84, Zen Koans
“Binoculars” pronounced with a British accent.
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“Loneliness is a state of lack, a longing, and though that can be acutely painful it’s also interesting. I do think that reading helps, maybe more than any other art form, in that it gives you this extraordinarily privileged access to the interior. It shows the reader other people also experience shameful, difficult feelings, which in itself makes one less lonely.” – The Myth Of The Alcoholic Writer: An Interview With Olivia Laing by Michele Filgate at Buzzfeed
“Everything is possible for the writer. There isn’t anything anyone can tell you that you can’t do, and there is no such thing as ‘getting away with’ anything. There’s no one to tell you what you can or can’t do. You’re only limited by the fences you allow yourself to build around yourself, for whatever reason, including fidelity to some idea about literature someone else imposed upon you some time long ago or five minutes ago.” – TO RAGE AGAINST MEANINGLESSNESS: Praying Drunk author Kyle Minor interviewed by Matt Bell at The Believer
We’re currently reading Chris Abani’s new novel The Secret History of Las Vegas. Mark Athitakis reviews the thriller for The Washington Post: “It’s a grim book, but one that contains the giddy, sour pleasures of the bleakest crime fiction, and the Nigerian-born Abani cannily makes his Sin City a signifier of the larger world’s degradations.”
Abandoned liquor store photo by Joseph Novak.