A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad


I’d never been inside of
a prison until this past spring, when I received a grant to teach a creative
writing workshop at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall facility. This meant
driving every Tuesday morning for two months to Martinez, California, a sleepy
city to Oakland’s north, until I arrived at a squat, nondescript beige building
set off from the street by oak trees and a huge visitor parking lot that was
always full. Usually I parked on the street, which extended on into the
distance until it curved around into a residential neighborhood—California
ranches, two car garages, various shades of beige and gray. From the
neighborhood, not a single aspect of the prison was visible.

The strip mall parking
lot aside, the juvenile hall was an unassuming element of the neighborhood: it
featured a boxy modernist design, a pleasant little courtyard just out front,
and a sleek glass façade. If not for the signage indicating that I had indeed
stumbled upon a prison, I would have assumed I was walking into the local high
school, with its boxy Modernist structure, pleasant courtyard, and glass

The interior trashed that
illusion. When I arrived for a February meeting with prison authorities to
discuss the workshop’s logistics, a security guard barked at me from behind
bulletproof glass—rules required that I trade my driver’s license for a guest
badge. I felt a vague, animal discomfort about the exchange. The prison
librarian, a woman about my age whose easy smile and buoyant personality calmed
my nerves, arrived in the lobby and ushered me into the facility’s innards. The
prison revealed itself to be a seemingly endless labyrinth of identically spare
white cinderblock hallways leading to unmarked doors that opened up onto yet
more cinderblock hallways. There was little signage indicating what turns took
you where, but the librarian kept a quick pace. She whipped her away suddenly
around corners without much warning; I scampered after her. My shoes slipped about
on concrete floors so polished that I could almost see my reflection in them. I
wondered whether, if left to fend for myself, I’d ever find my way back out.
What would happen if a security guard caught me wandering the halls, if he
didn’t see my badge?

The librarian and I
chatted the entire way, about how excited the students were to meet me, how
relieved they were to encounter somebody new, how much they were looking
forward to writing. We approached one of the doors; the librarian stopped dead
in her tracks, but didn’t stop talking. I must have looked confused; “We have
to wait for the guards to open the door,” she explained. We stood for a few
seconds before a voice boomed from out of a speaker I could not find. “Tell him
to show his badge,” someone commanded. Startled, I lifted the badge from my
chest, offering it to a camera I knew was there but could not see.

We walked through, into
the prison’s center, and were immediately met by a group of boys, marching
slowly down yet another cinderblock hall. Something about their bodies—the
limited range and uniformity of their movements, the way they shuffled their
feet instead of lifting them from the ground, the way their heads bent so that
their faces were nearly parallel to the buffed concrete—was off. It took me a
few seconds to process what I was seeing: black and brown teenage boys being
marched single file by a CO, their hands and feet shackled to a single chain. They
appeared younger than I had imagined, their faces puffy with baby fat. Not a
single one of them looked older than 19, and when they lifted their heads,
their eyes met mine with a mix of hatred and shame.

That day, I left the
prison with sadness and doubt swirling in my gut.  What was my presence in that place and with
those boys meant to do? Was I just legitimizing the prison’s dehumanization of
black and brown youth? I had volunteered for the workshop out of some hazy
notion that I’d change how marginalized youth thought about their world, give
them the tools to represent their own lives via story. But the sight of those
shackles made my vision seem flimsy in comparison.

My experience in the prison sent me on a yearlong search for literature with the heft of reality—not of this reality, but another one, to remind myself that writing could conjure entirely worlds altogether different from the one I’d encountered in the prison. Before the first workshop session, I sent my students a poem—“Alternate Names for Black Boys,” a stand out from Danez Smith’s 2014 book [insert] boy, which I had read that spring upon the recommendation of an artist friend. Smith’s poetry feels religious in essence, in the way it insists that there has to be another world beyond this one, where black bodies are imprisoned, shot, choked out, electrocuted, subject to an endless series of horrors. There has to be another world, they insist, and we have to make it, together. In the poem “Poem Where I Be & You Just Might,” Smith writes: “God’s flaming eye, I stare into it always/Dying to blink, irises cracking like commandment stones.” Their language is incredibly visceral, urging the reader on to this bodily encounter with the divine—an encounter we can only begin to envision through communion with one another—moved me to tears when I first read [insert] boy. I’d hoped that my class, a gathering of black and brown boys, would find it an appropriate starting point for our workshop.

Smith sent me on a poetry bender, as I’m wont to do during the summers. Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death was my biggest summer obsession: it’s a patience-testing monster of a book that blends essay and poetry in order to rethink the prominence that music enjoys in African American studies. Smith is interested in how the tightknit relationship between a mostly male-dominated jazz canon constructs a strain of black studies that conflates “feeling black” with an immersion in black music. For her, this intellectual legacy forecloses some larger questions about blackness, and leads us to automatically associate any black music with radical black resistance. Her prose—audacious, often moving in two directions at once, infused with the ethos of the black vernacular, informed by hip hop culture but never succumbing to sentimentality about the music—is never less than riveting. Turning her attention to the rapper Future’s 2015 song “I Serve the Base”—an ode to being an unrepentant scumbag—Smith is decisive: undue commitment to music as an object of black study leads us to excuse a music that will serve “Whatever you want … for money, for a nihilistic, endlessly repetitive and narcotized kind of peace … the call to recede into the persona of whatever it is one serves.”

Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This was also impressive. It’s a poetry collection that manages to be simultaneously tender and incisively political. In “Electric Wizard,” she writes, “In which panel do I get to be Fred Moten or/Frantz Fanon, so that you can think my words are pretty too?//I want myself against everything/Stay there and be burned into the mind/Into the mind,” and I love the way that third line turns on a minute shift, from trenchant disdain for a world built on white supremacy into something like desire, the will to be “against everything,” as Mark Greif would have it, turning into the yearning for bodily proximity. For me, the collection’s incessant flitting between anger and sensuality destabilized what it means to undertake a radical politics, moving us away from a hardened antagonism and into something more receptive: an attention to the sensuality of black bodies, and all the ways they can be in the world.

I read plenty of good prose, too, that spoke to that sense of possibility. Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is a collection of short fiction so masterful that you can’t help but put the book down to marvel at the architecture of his language. Brinkley’s virtue is that he doesn’t settle for merely representing black life (a black Greek party soundtracked by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” for example); instead, he uses fiction as a space in which to reveal the sense of enchantment that undergirds black life. By the end of “No More Than a Bubble,” Brinkley managed to make me think so deeply about the series of performances known collectively as “black masculinity” that he made me reconsider what the short story form is capable of. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy performs similar alchemy, drawing our attention to the physical experience of black masculinity. Laymon asks us to think about what happens when black male bodies fail to mirror the images that the American cultural imaginary is always comparing us to. In doing so, he has also written an aesthetically gorgeous bildungsroman of the assorted tragedies, affections, and traditions that turned him into a writer.

There was so much more that I read and enjoyed this year. I’m a Californian, and it delighted me to no end to see an outpouring of literature by and about fellow Californians. There were a few highlights for me. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State is at once a hilarious examination of poor white culture in Northern California’s far flung rural counties, and a harrowing portrait of single motherhood. Kiesling’s juxtaposition of motherhood and an incipient political crisis seems to equate the governance of tantrum-throwing Californians with the raising of tantrum-throwing children. Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars is a vivid portrait of an urban community of immigrants. Wandering City Lights Books in San Francisco over the summer, I found a copy of Wanda Coleman’s Native in A Strange Land, a collection of prose poems and short stories about Los Angeles that evoke the loneliness, but also the enchantment, of being black in a city that has normalized alienation. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me reflect on my family’s scant presence in the state, such that I can’t think of California as a place that I’m from so much as a place that I ended up via a few historical aberrations: my maternal grandparents’ decisions to abandon Louisiana so they could become shipbuilders down at San Pedro.

More than anything else that I read this year, those two books made me appreciate the unlikeliness of my black life here in this golden state—the persistence and tenacity that preceded me and resulted in my being here at all. It’s a lesson that, after walking out of that prison, I needed to relearn.

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A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad


For me, 2017 was the year that journalism nearly supplanted fiction as my reading life’s dominant genre. I started the year in a state of alarm at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Shortly after he took office, I resolved to be a good, engaged citizen after six years of dereliction. Throughout January and February, I attended rallies in the streets of Oakland and Berkeley and at San Francisco International Airport. I participated in phone banks on my weekends, and attended Indivisible meetings in the homes of well meaning Berkeley liberals who turned out to be vicious, tenant-hating NIMBYs. Galvanized by daily affronts to democracy, I called and wrote to senators from states I don’t live in, only to find out later that they probably never received my indignant messages. It wasn’t clear to me that the frenzy of my renewed civic commitment was having much of an impact, but as long as I was in motion, things felt good.

I brought the same zeal to my reading habits. Being a good citizen meant staying abreast of all the news, all the time. I woke up reading about the latest updates on the Steele Dossier, the travel ban, Sebastian Gorka’s strange ties to fringe right-wing Hungarian nationalist organizations, Nazi sympathizers threatening to descend on Berkeley’s campus, etc. I went to sleep reading about Trump’s failure to disclose his tax returns, Trump’s failure to properly divest from his business, Trump’s probable failure to know that Frederick Douglass is dead, etc. I read about the emoluments clause. I read about Sally Yates’s heroism. I read about climate change’s terrifying impact on our environment. I subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post, because Democracy Dies in Darkness and I wanted to set my modest graduate student earnings aflame for use as a torch. A stack of New Yorkers gradually replaced the books I usually keep at my bedside: fiction was out, its place usurped by the steady parade of shitty news.

As it turns out, a citizen can be too engaged. I couldn’t keep up the pace; by April, my energy had begun to flag. I ceased calling senators and attending rallies. My Indivisible group’s mournful rehearsals of Trump’s transgressions made the danger feel overwhelming in scale, and that enervated me, made the entire political situation seem impossibly daunting. I felt reactive, like a patient sitting atop a hospital bed with the President as my doctor, my leg jerking into action every time he applied the reflex hammer. Leaping into questionably effective action at every one of his offenses and policy outrages put me in a perpetual state of agitation. It was a lesson in how—and how not—to practice good citizenship.

My reading habits began to feel much the same. What was the yield of all that reading? My attempt at political engagement set my nerves on edge, but I can’t say that it produced a very clear picture of our political situation. Instead, I felt like I’d sidled up to a painting and pressed my nose into the canvas, looking so closely that my eyes could only make out abstract blotches of color and disarticulated units of meaning. My mind felt receptive, but to the wrong things: the flotsam of current events—gossip, conspiracy theories, giddy coronations of errant tax documents as the smoking gun that would trigger imminent impeachment—buffeted my brain. Even worse, the nation’s combative mood seemed to affect our entire intellectual discourse: faced with actual Nazis in the White House and on our college campuses, people seemed less willing to embrace the spirit of inquiry. And so, if I wasn’t stomping through the mental murk of “breaking news,” then I was consuming doctrinaire hot takes on racial appropriation in art and why the concept of free speech was obsolete. Inquiry seemed less important than taking a stand.

It all got to be too much. Feeling recessed, I plotted an escape from the news’ daily assault. I wanted to return to literature, to fiction and poetry and essays that rewarded slow reading, to pieces that were attentive to the subtleties of race, class, gender, and sexuality but bereft of any agenda other than prompting careful attention and intellectual curiosity. Teju Cole’s monumental Blind Spot was exactly what I needed: an exercise in the right kinds of close attention. It asks us how art might help us compensate for our inability to perceive the world fully. How we can attain a complete—or at the very least, a more complete—sense of the world that we move in? Cole’s photographs and lyrical essays on quotidian sights open up a window into an almost religious realm, one where we become sensitive to the evidence of things not seen.

Cole’s erudite playfulness reminded me what’s possible when a writer looses language from the demands of argument. With that in mind, I resolved to read more poetry as a corrective to my journalism binge. I returned to Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems, and wondered why no one’s bothered to edit a collected edition of her work. Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed and Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies were thoughtful—and often hilarious—investigations of what blackness might mean outside of identity’s strictures. Friends brought Bay Area poet Tongo Eisen-Martin’s 2015 book Someone’s Dead Already to my attention, and I was glad to find that this fall City Lights published a new collection of his, Heaven Is All Goodbyes, this year. Eisen-Martin writes with the urgency of a man possessed: by history, by politics, by the dead. When you read his poetry—or, better yet, hear him recite it, oftentimes from memory—it’s hard not to believe that language can set off a revolution. His work peers around the current moment to glimpse those things and people we too often ignore, asking what lessons we can learn from that which society has cast off. That said, he can write some stark summaries of our political situation: “Today I watch capitalism walk on water/And people play dead/So that they can be part of a miracle;” “A politician raises his hand and the crowd shows it’s teeth/an oligarch raises his hand little girls are not safe outside.”

In an attempt to understand the histories that have led Californians to what sometimes feels like the precipice of an apocalypse, I also went on a nonfiction binge. I returned to Mike Davis’s classics City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear for a materialist history of our housing and environmental crises. Kevin Starr’s more hopeful, but no less incisive, volumes Endangered Dreams and Coast of Dreams (sensing a theme?) are magisterial in their sweep. Jerald Podair’s City of Dreams was a riveting history of Dodgers Stadium and its central role in Los Angeles’s history. Kellie Jones’s South of Pico taught me about a black Los Angeles arts culture whose extent I was not aware of. Her book also does a great job illustrating how the birth and death of minority arts cultures in California are always bound up in the question of what kind of cities Los Angeles and San Francisco want to be.

My reformed reading habits often mean that I’m not aware of the latest developments in our nation’s dismal political drama. When people ask me if I’ve seen the news about Trump’s Russia ties, or impeachment votes, or the latest neo-Nazi rally, I have to admit my ignorance. At first, this state of being recessed made me feel like a bad citizen. When friends chided me for shirking my responsibilities, I meekly accepted their criticism. But now I feel like I see things more fully from my isolated perch; I feel ready to re-enter the world with a sense of perspective and priority.

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The Internet Was Built as a Weapon: The Millions Interviews Jarett Kobek

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Jarett Kobek’s writing resists categorization. It swerves between fiction, personal nonfiction, and cultural critique in a fashion whose closest antecedent is probably the New Narrative prose of writers like Kevin Killian. Novels like 2013’s BTW toggle between modes: the novel rhapsodizes over Los Angeles in lyrical prose that evokes the city’s ephemeral quality, but lyricism is the velvet glove in which Kobek cloaks his acerbic wit. With 2016’s I Hate the Internet, Kobek cast off the lyricism in favor of trenchant social criticism that seemed capable of sparking class warfare. Kobek’s focus on technology continues with this year’s Soft & Cuddly, but this time he foregoes fiction altogether in favor a tale of neoliberalism’s collision with early video game culture. Using the controversy 1987 video game “Soft & Cuddly” — which was developed by teenager John George Jones — as a case study, Kobek unfurls a story of society’s panic over representations of violence and a youth-based subculture whose only goal is to undercut that society’s social mores.  I spoke with Kobek about thinking of the Internet as a weapon, social media’s role in the 2016 election, the aesthetics of male adolescence, and seriality in fiction.

The Millions: The last time I saw you was at that City Lights reading…

Jarett Kobek: Yeah, you were there for me being Bernie Bro’d. I feel like everyone who was there should have a reunion at some point, we all went through something.

TM: Especially after the election — like, the bro ended up being right about Twitter.

JK: Yeah, ultimately he was right about Twitter. He just had the wrong candidate.

TM: I wonder, in light of the election, if your thoughts on the nature of the Internet, but especially Twitter, have shifted at all.

JK: The underlying critique of all this stuff just making money for people hasn’t shifted, but I think it’s impossible to look at Trump’s rise and feel like we haven’t lived through a profound shift in the way politics is conducted. For all the hand-wringing that accompanies every election cycle over sinking to new partisan lows or how politics used to have dignity, I do think that what Trump essentially did was adopt the emotional and intellectual frequency of the Internet flame war, and turn it into presidential politics. Turns out it works very well!

The thing is, if you’re the annoying person in the flame war, someone else has to be putting forth the reasonable, well-crafted argument about some issue. And all your response has to be is, “You’re a bag of dicks.” Then you watch them slowly collapse in response trying to figure out how to respond to this thing. But of course you can’t respond to someone calling you a bag of dicks without looking like a bag of dicks, and that’s what Trump did to all of his opponents. It’s bizarre seeing the Internet crawl into presidential level politics and be effective.

TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt after the election, especially Origins of Totalitarianism, and she describes how totalitarian politics thrives on the suspension of the reality effect. It’s weird to think that that dynamic has always been embedded in the Internet, and that it might be an inherently totalitarian space.

JK: Yeah, what’s always struck me as weird is that not that long ago, there was a lot of rhetoric around the Internet as an instrument of peace, and if not as peace, then the expansion of human rights. But the thing is, basically it was built as a weapon. It was built by the Department of Defense to facilitate communication in the event of a war, to have this really decentralized network that allowed you to launch weapons. I think something about the decision in how that architecture was designed has really facilitated the moment that we’re in now. I tend to think that technology never escapes its genesis, and those engineering decisions made in response to the ideologies of the creators just persist. So there’s this way in which you can look at the underlying architecture of the Internet, which did not prioritize a specific type of communication, so that data could go in any direction as growing into what we have now: any idiot can say any bullshit, and it will have the same priority as things that are true, or things that are just.

So, it comes out of this moment, and it comes out of decisions made decades ago. So I do think there’s a weirdly authoritarian impulse embedded in the Internet.

TM: So did Trump just actualize something that was always lurking in the Internet?

JK: Yeah, I think that’s right.

TM: Let’s talk about the book. When did you start writing Soft & Cuddly?

JK: I started thinking about it about a year and a half ago, and I thought it’d be an interesting article, because there was something so strange about the game. but I couldn’t figure out what the article would be. I started to do more research into it, and then Boss Fight Books had an open call for pitches in May 2015. These people seemed like they might be willing to make a mistake on something that’s much different from what they usually do. Then I started writing in the fall of 2015, because I had the sense that I Hate the Internet was going to eat a lot of my time. I turned in a draft, and it was like the worst thing I’d ever written.

TM: So you were writing it simultaneously with I Hate the Internet?

JK: I Hate the Internet was done in October 2015, and Soft & Cuddly was written in snatches of time while I Hate the Internet was exploding.

TM: I want to get back to the stylistic connections between those two books, but can you say more about where the interest in writing about a video game came from?

JK: There was a really interesting moment when people had personal computers, a hobbyist moment when people could get a computer and tinker with it. My father was this guy who just bought a Commodore 64 in the early ‘80s and was immediately entranced with it, so my childhood was watching this Turkish immigrant chain smoke while programming this computer. I have an enormous fondness for that moment.

The second thing is, there’s something about the game “Soft and Cuddly” and its predecessor, “Go to Hell,” that I find really fascinating. There are these cultural moments, every once in a while, these moments of openness when for some reason a 15-year-old is able to exist in something like a professional context, and their work is just incredibly weird — because they’re 15! “Soft and Cuddly” looks like someone’s high school notebook from 1990, like someone’s drawing of Metallica logos come to life. There’s something really fascinating about how unpolished and immature that stuff is when it enters the wider world.

I didn’t write about this in the book, but when the underground comics scene was really happening in the Bay Area, there was this one kid that was hanging around named Rory Haze who did a handful of comics, and his work is just crazy. They were publishing a maladjusted 17-year-old! There’s something about those moments that I find endlessly fascinating, and “Soft and Cuddly” was one of the few times that happened with video games. Activision was like, yeah, why would we not publish a game by a 15-year-old? And then there was this controversy that grew up around the game, so that was interesting to write about as well.

TM: Those moments when these teen boys can exist in that professional capacity — are they moments when those boys are reflecting a sentiment in society that no one else is seeing. Are these boys cutting against Thatcherite social mores in a way that might only be possible for a teenager to do?

JK: One of the many tragedies of the teenage boy is the ability to see things in the world that are horrible, and to want to stand in opposition to them, while simultaneously embodying those tendencies. No one has ever accused teenage boys of being hallmarks of progressive thought. So you have this really weird crudeness that, because of that tension, that push and pull, is weirdly fascinating. I think you can see the opposition to the thing percolating up through its representation, like it’s trying to think through the circumstances they’re surrounded by.

TM: That makes me think, you describe the creator of “Soft and Cuddly” as being a “writer,” but narrative and plot aren’t really these games’ strong suit, at least not in the way that we recognize in literary fiction. Oftentimes, these games’ stories were written by the publisher. So what is he a writer of? Is he writing an attempt to think through his circumstances, or is something else going on?

JK: That’s a really good question! But I actually don’t know. It’s difficult — one of the things about this book that’s been really weird is that the creator, Jones, has been very supportive of the project, but there’s always this tension: I’m describing something that he did as a teenager. It’s awkward to say this stuff because I’m describing a human being who is 30 years older than the character I’m describing in the book. I can’t say much about motivation.

TM: If video games aren’t doing narrative or plot very well, then what do you think they’re providing? What’s the aesthetic pay off?

JK: Well, I think that’s hard to answer, but I think there are different functions. There’s been a very long argument about whether or not video games are art, and I think they clearly can be. I don’t think they often are, but they can be. That describes most cultural products. Most films and books aren’t art, they’re just products people put together. But I think where video games really can move into what we call for lack of a better word “art” is by putting us in the mindset of a totally different person. It’s a visitation into another’s person’s subjectivity that is relatively unprecedented. One of the things with video games that is only starting to become apparent is, like every other cultural product, the way to figure out if something is art is whether its appeal extends across decades. With something like “Soft and Cuddly,” people have been very interested in the game as time has gone on, and it’s inspired derivative works, including my book. That’s not something that you get with most of these games. No one really knows what the parameters are for determining whether or not a game is art, but you can start to see those parameters forming. You start to see it in the fact that people are still thinking about these games, which no one played at the time but which continue to inspire thought.

The more I dig into the history of this game, the stranger it got. I had no idea that these derivative works existed, but as I did my research, they kept popping up. This game that no one played somehow managed to inspire all of this stuff, and my book is one of those iterative works.

TM: Near the end of the book, a reproduced interview with British politician and novelist Jeffery Archer makes an assertion that playing video games is more dangerous than simply watching violent television, because it makes you “powerful.” What kind of power do you think he’s talking about?

JK: I do think there’s a certain power to it, but it’s the power of a certain kind of…there’s something weirdly liberating about the stupidity of the teenage boy’s notebook. There’s something hilariously freeing about seeing this thing come to life. I don’t think that’s the power he’s talking about! I suspect that because he was and is a very dark person, that power is something else. It probably says more about him than anything else—that’s a man who chased power his entire life, and maybe he could only see the game through this power of acquired political power, at the expense of anything else this experience might present us.

TM: I’m intrigued by the structure of the book, because it moves from doing case studies of life under a “postmodern” Thatcherite government, to the FalklandS War, to anthropological chapters on computer programming. It reminded me of both BTW and I Hate the Internet because there’s a sense of this roving consciousness weaving these strands together into a hybrid cultural history, narrative, and polemic. This occurs in all your books—what about that mixture of registers appeals to you?

JK: It’s funny, because it’s not even appealing so much as unavoidable. It’s something I developed unintentionally, and it’s something I keep returning to. In the case of Soft & Cuddly, when I conceived of the book, it wasn’t supposed to be like that—

TM: What was it going to be originally?

JK: I thought it would be much more straightforward in that it’d focus on John George Jones, the history of the game, etc. There was going to be a lot of information about how the game was created, its reception, and its afterlife. It was very linear. It turned out that the research I did for the book was useless. No one really remembered the games or had any information on the aspects of the game that interested me. There was a limit to the amount of useful information I could collect. But where the research did pay off was in the contemporary press accounts. I found this really remarkable article, where I got the Jeffrey Archer thing from, where British video games creator Mel Croucher did this round table with a who’s who of the British establishment. It’s crazy to think that they’re talking about a video game released on a system that no one was even using at the time the game came out. The more I try to get away from cultural context, the more it bleeds into my stories. The game’s social context just kind of bubbled up to the surface. That very quickly became the clear structure, because the other stuff just wasn’t that interesting.

TM: What are you working on now?

JK: I’ve got a book coming out through Viking at the end of the summer, in August. I just got their edits, and I’m also writing another book that is shaping up to be profoundly disturbing…we’ll see how it goes. The novel with Viking is a prequel to I Hate the Internet, written before I Hate the Internet. It’s Adeline and Baby in New York in the ‘90s. When I started writing the Internet, I thought there was something fascinating about the idea of Adeline, whom I’d conceived of as a Gen X in the decaying remnants of punk New York, having to deal with the Internet, and being thrust two decades forward. So much of my publication history is weird and out-of-joint because the book that was originally written is being published after its sequel.

TM: How did that happen?

JK: No one wanted to publish me! This is the hilarious back story to all of this. I wrote this story in 2012, and its been revised since, but I could not get anyone to look at it. It’s a very long book, so that precluded getting it published by an indie press because of cost and logistics. With Internet, it was the same story — it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to it. So when the book came out and became successful, much to everyone’s surprise, I had this other manuscript. In this process, because foreign rights offers started to come in, I had to get an agent to negotiate contracts in other countries. The agent read the manuscript and sent it out to major publishers, and Viking ended up with it. But it’s very strange, as is everything with me, a little out of order and all over the place.

TM: Is that a validation of independent publishing for you?

JK: Yeah, definitely! The virtue of having Viking do this book, other than not being able to do it on an independent press, is that I don’t have to deal with micromanaging every aspect of marketing and publishing another book. But if you do that, it can work out. So Internet’s success is a validation of this idea that you don’t need mainstream resources at your disposal to get these books out into the world.

TM: It’s funny — I’m in the Bay Area, and so when Internet came out it was everywhere when it came out, just because of the nature of people’s disdain for tech culture. But the book also blew up in part because of the Internet, right? How do you feel about that?

JK: Everyone who’s doing this has to make a series of moral compromises, and the question these compromises center around is, How big of an audience do you want to have? There’s a way to get your work out there that is legitimate, valid, and enviable, where your ethics aren’t compromised — but the reality of that is that you sell to 500 people. Having been published in small presses prior to this, I came to the conclusion that the problem as I see it with that model is that you end up communicating with people who are very similar to yourself. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue back and forth. So I made this decision that I would try to go as wide as possible. In so doing, you have to embrace the Internet, because that’s where the conversation is occurring. So you find yourself in bed with Amazon.

TM: Something really intrigues me about your work—you know, I read Internet after I found BTW in Skylight Books, and it was funny to me that Adeline is actually a minor character in BTW. I’m intrigued by the role that seriality plays in your writing. Why do you return to these characters and this world so often?

JK: The short answer is that I’m lazy! But the longer answer is that when you live with these characters — and with Adeline in particular — you end up learning something new about them as you write about them. So when I finished the Viking manuscript, I put it aside. Then I was revising BTW, there was a hole in the middle because I excised a chapter. I thought, why not have Adeline return? There was no reason I couldn’t have her return, so she did! I found it to be really interesting to think about. So when I started doing Internet, I had recourse to her again.

The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve begun to think that it might be a solution to the serious novel in our moment. It’s really hard to ask casual readers to pick up a one-off novel. A lot of the casual readers are adults who grew up reading Harry Potter, books that were multi-volume series. That’s actually what people want to read! They want to feel like each book counts beyond itself, and that there is some overlap or connection, some depth and weight beyond the individual book. That’s why people read 10,000 pages by George R.R. Martin, because even if it gets strange and incomprehensible by the last book, there’s still the weight of the characters growing through time, and you can’t get that through a one-off novel…

TM: It’s a common thing to video games and science fiction novels, right? This idea of world building?

JK: Right, and it used to be something that mainstream literary writers did all the time. It’s fallen out of fashion, but Salinger, Updike, and Vonnegut did it. When you think about works that have become inescapable fixtures of the post-war 20th century, so many of them featured reoccurring characters. So it seems to me that there’s something worthwhile that we can return to, and I don’t know why it’s fallen out of favor.

TM: I’ve been thinking about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which is very entertaining for a novel about slavery and Jim Crow. But part of what makes the book so riveting is that every chapter takes you to a new decade and a new character, but every chapter is rooted in a world that she’s built, so that past characters continue to appear. That episodic dynamic is intriguing, and it’s something that’s key to the American literary heritage.

JK: Yeah, and it’s very odd that it’s receded into genre fiction. It really used to be a fixture of the culture.

TM: It feels like the pretentiousness of literary fiction strangling itself. God forbid literary fiction resembles George R.R. Martin…

JK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that sounds about right.

Thinking Another Person’s Thoughts: The Millions Interviews Brit Bennett

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Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers (Riverhead Books) tells the story of a religious African-American community in Oceanside, San Diego, and the emotional fallout that ripples through the community when young Nadia Turner decides to seek an abortion. The novel, which examines black women’s interiorities with rare insight, became a New York Times bestseller upon its release last fall. Bennett’s good fortune continued earlier this month when actor and producer Kerry Washington (of Scandal and Confirmation fame) announced that she is working with the author to produce a film adaptation. I spoke with Bennett about adapting the film, the importance of the novel in telling black stories, and the politics of representing abortion.

The Millions: Congratulations on the film adaptation! I’ve just been thinking about what might have to change in order to turn the novel into a successful film. What does cinema demand of the story that the novel doesn’t, and as you work on the screenplay, what changes do you think you’ll have to make to satisfy those demands?

Brit Bennett: Well, I’ve never written a screenplay before so this entire process is new to me. The biggest change I’m anticipating is that the story has to become more visual. I’m generally a pretty scenic writer, so I think that will lend itself well to film. But I’ll have to think about aspects of the book like the narrative voice, for example, and how to translate that to the screen.

TM: So much of the drama in The Mothers depends upon the tension you build not just through dramatic irony, but through the slow unearthing of your characters’ psychologies. It’s an unearthing that seems peculiar to the novel, since it gives you the time, space, and language to explore your characters. Do you worry about that not quite translating to the screen?

BB: I think my biggest concern is finding ways to translate character interiority onto the screen. But I think about a film like Moonlight that conveys a character who actually speaks very little yet the viewer still understands who he is and what he wants. It’s a quiet film that relies little on actual dialogue, but there’s still interiority. So it feels like a big challenge but also an exciting one. I’m looking forward to learning a new form and a new way to think about storytelling.

TM: Speaking of next projects — you’re writing about the black South for your next book, and that’s a very different context for writing about blackness. What does setting a novel in Southern California lend you when you’re writing on the black experience? Does your approach change when you think about black Southern California?

BB: The setting has been one aspect of the book that readers — particularly white readers — have been startled by. I think focusing on a black community in a Southern California beach town has been very novel to readers. That’s interesting to me, because I grew up in Oceanside. I grew up 15 minutes from the beach, and I had friends of all races — this was not anything unique to me. But people expect black stories to exist in the South or urban North. I wasn’t aware of that when I wrote the book, so I didn’t write with that in mind, or anticipating it as a conversation I’d be having with readers.

Oceanside is a beach town, a military town, so there’s a lot of racial diversity and a lot of people who are constantly coming and going. I never thought that was interesting until I went to college. I’d tell people about wildfire season and people would go, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah we would get a week off from school, we were so excited!” I went to college in the Bay Area, so aspects of life like that weren’t familiar to people in every part of California, and certainly not to people in other regions of the country. I think for me, I wanted to write about where I came from, and I was thinking about the experiences of black people as diverse, whether that’s geographical diversity or something else. People’s shock over the setting says more about what people expect from a black story than about anything I’ve written.

TM: How does setting it in a beach town subvert what people expect from a black story?

BB: My working theory on this is that what people expect from a black story is a racism-driven plot. I gather that, and my book is a story that is inflected by race, but the plot points don’t hinge on racism. That’s one way I which my book upends expectations. People think because it’s about a religious community it must be set in Mississippi…

TM: Not knowing that we have Baptist churches in Southern California too…

BB: Right! So there’s that sense. People think that San Diego is just beaches and golf courses, but Oceanside is known as the blight of the county. So I was interested in the aspects of the place that weren’t just beautiful beaches and golf courses.

Then, California in general is a place where so many people come from elsewhere — it’s a bunch of communities of transplants. So this assembling of black identity, or any racial identity, is about mixtures of people from the rest of the country ending up in this place. What gets made from that?

TM: This makes me think, part of what’s so special about a black SoCal story is that it might seem unhinged from some of the histories that haunt black communities in cities like Chicago, for example. Not to paint California as a post-racial society, of course, but how does that inform your writing?

BB: I think that’s true — there’s a newness to the black California narrative. These are not communities where generations of your family lived. For some people that’s true, but my mom’s from Louisiana, my dad’s mom is from Arkansas, and because of that there is this sense that we’re dealing with a new history. We’re also dealing with the mythology of the West as this new frontier, which the Second Great Migration bolstered, with people leaving the South for defense jobs. So there are these stories that aren’t as cemented as stories from Chicago, for example, or the American South. There’s a potential freshness from writing about black California, particularly black SoCal. When I was writing the book, I had a professor who said they’d never read a book on black San Diego — and I hadn’t, either!

TM: You seem a little surprised by people’s reactions to how the novel represents blackness. How much has your perspective on the novel changed since it came out? Have you discovered new things about it that you didn’t expect to know by reading reviews and doing interviews?

BB: I’ve thought a lot about process since I’ve been going around talking about the book. Process wasn’t something that I thought about very deliberately when I was writing, but now that people ask me about it, I have perspective on why I made certain choices.

I’ve mostly reflected on the lack of certain types of stories. I’ve had young black women tell me that this is the first book they’ve encountered that portrayed young black women with emotional depth. I’m glad people are responding that way, but that also makes me deeply sad. I had that feeling when I read The Turner House, for example, and it’s strange that these are such remarkable experiences. It’s sad that there’s something unique about depicting black girls who have interior lives. I think that’s telling of the state of literature. That’s not to say that I’m the only person who does this, but the fact that there are so few of us bums me out. Showing black people with complex emotional lives in the contemporary moment, not during slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement…the fact that this is unique reveals a lack of certain types of stories in the literary world.

That’s been the most shocking thing to me, but I’m also excited to be writing in a moment when black writers in all media are challenging the idea of a single black narrative. Whether its Moonlight, Insecure, or Atlanta, or books like The Turner House, black people are writing about the diversity of their experiences, and I’m glad audiences are responding well.

TM: I’m so glad you mentioned Moonlight, Atlanta, and Insecure. Obviously there’s a place for the novel and the narrative essay in telling our stories, but so much of the work of telling black stories these days is being done on television, or film, or in music. In a media environment where there are so many venues to tell black stories, what makes the novel special?

BB: Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television — I watch probably way too much — but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news.

TM: You mentioned earlier that we’re in a cultural moment where our stories our proliferating, and it seems like maybe that was a moment peculiar to Obama’s America. Something about his presence created the space to tell those stories, and even though it was an era of racial strife, it also set up new horizons for black storytellers. What changes now that Trump is in office, for you?

BB: That’s a really good question. It’s complicated for me, because on the one hand the best writers write towards the moment they find themselves in. Burying your head in the sand and pretending we’re not living in this moment will not serve your fiction.

That being said, I resent the idea that what I write has to be a response to a person who resents me so deeply. I rankle at this idea that I need to spend my mental and emotional space writing in reaction to Trump. There are ways in which the moment we’re in will filter into our work. I was thinking about this because the book I’m working on is in a lot of ways an Obama-era novel, because it’s about fluctuating identities, multiculturalism, a lot of these questions that seemed so pressing these past eight years. When I think about it, it feels like a response to Obama rather than to Trump or Trumpism. I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project.

To write about black characters is to assert black humanity. By doing that, you’re pushing back against the forces of white supremacy, which have existed before Trump and will continue to exist long after him. I don’t what else engaging Trump would look like, but I guess we’ll have four years to see.

TM: Hopefully less than that.

BB: Lord willing.

TM: Part of what I enjoyed about the book is the fact that it does the unfortunately extraordinary thing of portraying black women’s interior lives. But I also enjoyed the fact that you do a great job of portraying a masculine vulnerability, and subverting the stereotypes of black masculinity that permeate our culture. How conscious were you, while writing the novel, of subverting these images that trap black men and women?

BB: It’s something I was definitely conscious of. In the case of Nadia and her mother, I was thinking about the “strong black woman,” which is often meant as a compliment. People have applauded me for being strong, and it’s something that I am deeply skeptical of. What happens when black women are weak or vulnerable?

As far as black masculinity, it was important to me to create black male characters that are complex and have interior lives, which they’re not afforded in our culture. Particularly, Luke was someone I wanted to humanize. Originally, he was a character who would abandon this girl he got pregnant—that was it. But I started to think of him as a character that reacts to this unwanted pregnancy in a way people would not expect a young man of any color, but particularly a young black man, to react. I wanted him to feel vulnerable, to feel these things people wouldn’t expect him to feel, and that he often couldn’t express to anyone.

TM: Let’s talk about the abortion. Many of the reviews and profiles I’ve read have portrayed it as something that doesn’t dominate the novel, and to many critics it seems revolutionary that you can have this abortion, and then move on from it in short order. It’s similar to how people praised Obvious Child. But it seems more complex than that: the event happens and they move on, but the abortion’s emotional impact permeates the novel. How do you think about the tension between the liberation modeled in portraying the abortion, but also the lingering psychic and emotional impact?

BB: Narratively, abortions are often depicted as events that will end a person’s life, or just a background detail. Politics or anything aside, both of those options were boring to me as narrative choices. I wanted to think about Nadia as a character who made a choice that didn’t dictate her life, and freed her to live her life. But at the same time, I wanted it to have implications and some type of emotional resonance. I didn’t want to write a story about damage, but I also didn’t want her to never think of it again.

Of course on a personal level, those are perfectly fine ways to feel. But from a storytelling point of view, they’re not interesting. I wanted to move towards what was complex, so that was a story where she made the right choice for her at the time, but continued to think about what her life would have been like if she had chosen differently. She feels that she made the right decision, but regrets that she was in the position to make the decision in the first place.

TM: The complexity of human emotion here supersedes politics.

BB: Right.

TM: How do you feel about people appropriating The Mothers as a pro-choice advocacy novel? Of course there’s no problem with that, but the actual novel is more complex. How do you feel about people reducing the complexity of Nadia’s story?

BB: It just shows how insufficient “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are as political positions. They’re useful categories, but they’re oversimplified and flattened. They don’t reflect how complexly people actually feel about this topic. I had a few people criticize the book because they thought it was pro-life! The fact that Nadia still thought about the abortion signaled regret, which must mean the book is pro-life. The fact that you have to diminish the unwieldy aspects of actual life in order to fit into one of two categories is unfortunate.

What’s been really interesting to me, in going out and talking to people about the book, is getting to see how complexly people actually feel about this issue. It’s very different from the polarization we’re presented with when we discuss it politically. I’ve had people — men and women — talk to me about their experiences with abortion. I’ve had people tell me that their mom is pro-life, but she likes the book because Luke shows regret. People find different characters to identify with politically or emotionally, and that’s gratifying; I set out to write a book where characters have complex feelings, feelings that are representative of the American public. I wanted to represent that complexity, so when I see people trying to put the novel into a camp…that’s fine if that’s the way you choose to read, but it’s not the way that I want to read. It’s boring to me.

TM: What does that say to you about how political partisanship has changed how we process nuance?

BB: It’s one of those things…I understand that for something to be politically viable, you have to simplify it. If you are for reproductive choice, or believe that abortion should be illegal, it’s useful to have two camps. If your answer is, “It’s complicated,” you can’t advance an agenda. What’s been revealing to me is that in a moment when reproductive rights are under attack at the state level, if you write a book where a character has an abortion and continues to think about it, people react to it as a pro-life message, just because exactly that sentiment gets manipulated and weaponized politically. So I have people on the left who conflate Nadia’s regret with a pro-life political maneuver. Reproductive rights are under so much attack that people have a knee jerk reaction to anything that resembles a pro-life argument. That’s revealed a lot to me about the state of our political discourse: any nuance can be mistaken for a completely separate political position. But that’s the good thing about literature as opposed to politics. Literature lets us live in nuance, in that discomfort. I think there are a lot of things in this book that will make people uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing. I like reading books that challenge my beliefs, that make me uncomfortable intellectually and politically. I hope other people can have that experience too.

TM: I doubt there was ever any period in American history when nuance was a political virtue, but it seems like we’re in a moment when nuance is just beyond the pale.

BB: Well there’s a way in which, because the Trump side is so against nuance that responding with nuance almost seems counterproductive. I worry about that too — replicating the thing that you oppose politically. But when there’s one side that just disregards facts, how do you respond to that with a nuanced, reasoned argument, if you can’t agree on what’s objectively true? Then perhaps nuance only muddies the water. But who wants to be part of a discourse that has no place for that nuance?

TM: It seems like you perform a similar complexity when it comes to racial politics, if there are racial politics in this book. You’re invested in providing these characters with a certain amount of nuance around racial identities, and you portray a situation where race isn’t the organizing principle of these characters’ lives. There’s that one moment when Luke’s mother tells him that reckless black boys are dead black boys, and that’s a moment when anti-blackness comes to the fore. But then it recedes, and the drama around the abortion surmounts it. I know you were working on the novel while simultaneously writing your essays on Black Lives Matter. How do you toggle between those two modes, between politically inflected nonfiction and literary fiction? Do you see them as being two different modes?

BB: Yeah, in a sense, but I approach them the same way: opening with a question that’s interesting to me. I never want to know how I feel about something, because if you do that, it’s boring. I always want to sit down and think. I wrote the [Paris Review] essay on American Girl dolls, in particular Addy, the black girl who is a slave. As I got older, I thought that was kind of weird! Wow, I was playing with a doll that was a slave, what does that mean? That doesn’t mean Addy was bad or good — it’s just a question. I always want to write from a place of trying to figure something out.

I also want to write with empathy. That’s one reason why I’ve not written anything about Trump. I was in Houston, and this woman asked me if I had an empathetic thought about Donald Trump. I really had nothing! I was just like, I cannot…I have nothing to say about this person. That’s why I have not addressed him, because my feelings about him are very flat. Maybe over time they’ll gain some complexity. I don’t foresee that, but maybe. But I always want to write with empathy.

The thing with nonfiction is that you have to make your thinking clearer. With fiction, you can make a lot of leaps between ideas, and your readers are willing to meet you there. With nonfiction, you have to be more explicit, to show your work and thinking.

TM: I was really impressed with how you deal with the lingering racial fear or pain that’s always in the vicinity of black life, even if it doesn’t structure blackness at all times. Was it difficult to address that fear without giving it pride of place in the novel? Were you afraid of making it too prominent?

BB: Something that I began to think about further on was that I was writing a novel about a woman who decides not to be a mother to a black child, in a time when we’re discussing Black Lives Matter, and the precariousness of black youth. So that was on my mind, but…I never want to downplay the institutional and emotional impact of racism on lives of color, but I reject the idea that racism dictates your every action and thought. The idea that all your interiority is dedicated to thinking about white racism…there’s something so insulting about the idea that my life revolves around whiteness. It doesn’t! I think about race a lot, but it’s not as if you walk down the street and a burning cross falls on you. The sense that that is what it means to be black is often something that white people think — that all black people do is think about white people. I reject that as a reality. It’s not real, and it’s politically troubling.

That’s one thing I love about Toni Morrison: she’s not interested in writing about white people. She writes about black communities, and whiteness will linger or influence the story, but her characters are thinking about other black people, their own problems, their own lives. That notion of decentering whiteness from a narrative was important to me and felt realistic to how I experience life as a black woman. That was something I kept in mind while writing. The fact that that’s surprising says a lot about how people think black people experience the world.

TM: There’s a moment in I Am Not Your Negro when Baldwin proclaims, “I am not a nigger,” and he makes it very clear that the outsized image that white people assume they have in black people’s minds is more about the outsized image that we have in the white mind…

BB: Right, 100 percent…

TM: I wonder if you feel like that has an effect on how people have received your book? Is part of the surprise you’ve hinted at about white people encountering black people who live in a multiethnic society, but who aren’t always focused on white supremacy?

BB: Absolutely — there were moments when we were editing the book when I got to the part when Nadia is at a “white people party.” And you know what I mean when I say that…a lot of black people will know what I mean when I say it’s a “white people party.” That was something that my editor pushed back against. For me that wasn’t a comment about racism. That was a way to describe the make up of the party: who’s at the party, what the vibe is…

TM: Do they have a keg or not…

BB: Yeah! To me that was a detail about the world she was in. One of my best friends grew up around Irvine, and he was like, yeah, we went to the white people party at the beach! That’s what you do when you go to a beach town. Invoking race raised questions for my editor on the role of racism in that scene; but to me it was just a way of describing a party, because when you’re a black person you immediately recognize who’s in that room with you. You walk in and you notice that everyone is white — that doesn’t affect the scene, it doesn’t affect what happens between Nadia and Luke, and it doesn’t affect the choice that she makes. But it does affect her perception, because that’s how you experience race and the world in general when you move in a black body. I think that feels real about how we experience the world, but that doesn’t give race or white supremacy a larger role than it actually occupies.

TM: It’s about racial categories as describing certain cultural differences, but not determining how one behaves with other people.

BB: Right. I think often white people will assume that if you invoke race, it has to be connected to racism. If I’m telling someone a story and I say a black dude walked in, a friend might think that the guy’s being black means something racist is going on. But no, it doesn’t mean that at all! People live in raced bodies, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that. Especially if a character is white, because if a character is not raced, then I know readers will assume that character is white. So it’s important to me to race characters, even if it doesn’t affect the plot in any tangible way. So yeah, we live in raced bodies, and race is something that we notice as we move through the world, especially people of color, in a way that maybe white people don’t notice as much unless they’re in a space with non-white people. So it’s important to name and see race. Otherwise, in the absence of a racial description will be a stand in for universal humanity, which gets read as whiteness. I don’t like that absence.

TM: Then maybe the discomfort around naming race for white readers or viewers is about disturbing that universality?

BB: I think that’s part of it. Within the framework of whiteness, there are few ways to talk about race that aren’t associated with hatred. Within a black context, you can express racial pride because it’s pride that arises in conflict with white supremacy. There are people who would disagree with that and say that being proud to be black is racist, and…fine. But the idea of racial pride for black people has arisen in a very different context than white racial pride. I think that if you invoke race, white people will associate it with hate, because within a white context that’s usually what it means. There’s not really a pleasant way of evoking whiteness. In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says that whiteness is a metaphor for power — we don’t have a framework for invoking whiteness that isn’t a way of wielding power. So I think that for white readers, the red flag of racism gets raised because that’s the only way they can think of race within a white context.

TM: I was struck by your description of the novel as a way to practice empathy, because it seems that so much of your novel is about how people struggle to develop empathy and intimate bonds. The Greek chorus of the church mothers is ground zero for demonstrating that struggle — you have women who should be omniscient, but never really have a perspective on or empathy for Nadia’s mother’s mental illness. How important was this chorus to you as a way to explore the limits of empathy?

BB: As far as empathy goes, so much of the novel is about gossip, which in a lot of ways is antithetical to empathy. We’re at our least empathetic when we’re gossiping, because we’re reducing people to a story, and we’re not that interested in what they were thinking or feeling. We’re only interested in them as a narrative device. So the mothers are definitely guilty of that.

I’m also interested in the way of how generations are guilty of speaking past one another instead of speaking to each other. That’s something that happens a lot as the mothers discuss the younger characters — instead of connecting with them or helping them, they often judge, in the same way that the younger characters often dismiss the mothers. So I’m interested in the way that people try to create bonds but often fail — it’s just one of the facts of being alive. We often fail to connect with people even though we want to. In the case of Nadia and Aubrey, for example, those girls are close friends who keep huge secrets from one another. That’s a sad thing, but that’s the way we create connections between ourselves.

A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad


Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year — what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? — I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought.

You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle.

I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting.

In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes — Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to — what else? — restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes.

It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation.

In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity.

Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate — currently at four volumes and counting — hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations.

There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others.

Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed.

To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics — far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for.

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Pressing Closer: On Brit Bennett’s ‘The Mothers’


Much like the Southern Californian communities in which it takes place, Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers (Riverhead Books), is deceptively buoyant. Reading through it for the first time, readers are likely to find themselves seduced by its prose. Its surface is serene and appealing, carried forward by a brisk narrative. But like Southern California, this novel’s pleasant surface begins to ripple the more you linger over it, eventually giving way to something far more nuanced and disturbing than its façade let on.

The Mothers follows Nadia Turner in the aftermath of her mother Elise’s suicide and her father Robert’s subsequent depression. Nadia seeks comfort in Luke Sheppard’s bed, and she eventually becomes pregnant by the preacher’s son. Fearing that she might reprise the tragedy of her mother’s life — Elise Turner mothered Nadia at a similarly young age — she aborts the child under the impression that she and Luke are the only ones who know what she’s done.

Unbeknownst to her, Luke’s parents — who run Upper Room, the church to which Nadia and her father belong — provided the money for the abortion. The rest of the novel traces the paths Luke and Nadia’s young lives take as they mature, suffer heartbreaks, and go on to build new lives as adults. Still, no matter how far from home they travel, or how much they strain to construct new homes, their decision’s consequences echo through their lives, organizing their stories in ways they perceive only dimly. Though Luke marries Nadia’s friend Aubrey Evans, and Nadia finds success at the University of Michigan, the pressure of their shared secret compounds until the lives they’ve built threaten to collapse beneath it.

This novel’s narrative is sparse, turning on this secret and not much else. The power and pleasure of Bennett’s writing lies in her prose style’s clarifying precision. Her knack for capturing concrete aspects of life in Southern California — more specifically, an African-American California — is especially gratifying, giving life to a region too often represented in broad strokes, and a culture too often overlooked. Bennett evokes a sense of place via a sparing economy. In her Southern California, scorching wildfires arrive with seasonal regularity a la Joan Didion; black kids party with sandy-haired white skaters at claustrophobic kickbacks where received notions of contemporary race relations scarcely seem to apply; and a peculiar Californian brand of inequality persists, the kind that enables a city to encompass idyllic beaches on the one hand and bulletproofed fast food restaurants on the other.

Ultimately, though, The Mothers is not a regional novel; it’s more interested in its characters’ internal lives than where they live. Bennett illuminates their psychologies with the same delicate sense of economy, probing for the ways that their experiences produce complex emotional states only a fraction of which are known to one another — or even to themselves. Bennett’s characters struggle to know one another while navigating a morass of regret, bitterness, and desire; the result is a drama of feeling that explores how trauma shapes the contours of our lives and delineates the limits to our intimacy.

In one poignant scene, as Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship begins to bud in the abortion’s aftermath, Nadia conducts what she thinks is a harmless inquiry into Aubrey’s sexual history:

‘Just don’t expect [sex] to be all beautiful and romantic. It’s gonna be awkward as hell.’
‘Why does it have to be awkward?’
‘Because – look, has any guy ever seen you naked?’
Now Aubrey opened her eyes. ‘What?’ she said.
‘I mean, what’s the furthest you’ve ever gone?’
‘I don’t know. Kissing, I guess.’
‘Jesus Christ. You’ve never even let a guy feel you up?’
Aubrey shut her eyes again. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Can we talk about something else?’
For Nadia, this is just gentle ribbing. What she never learns is that Aubrey has suffered a sexual abuse at her stepfather’s hands, abuse that has made it difficult to trust other people with her body. Others (including Luke, her eventual husband) repeat the mistake throughout the novel, mistaking Aubrey’s discomfort with talking about her body for Christian prudishness. They repeatedly create an insurmountable obstacle to intimacy that none of them can even begin to perceive. Elise Turner’s suicide reinforces this, emphasizing for Nadia that she could never access the regrets that haunted her mother’s life, and therefore never knew her mother at all.

So it’s hard not to read this novel’s title and central conceit as a jab at the notion of intimacy itself. The titular Mothers of Upper Room church narrate Nadia’s story, framing her life as the sum total of church gossip. They pass summary judgment on Nadia and her mother from their position of would-be omniscience, but what Bennett ultimately highlights is the poverty of their knowledge. Encountering an emotionally disturbed Elise in the church one morning, they laugh the incident away, already greedy for the gossip that the incident affords: “Oh, wait til we told the ladies at bingo about this. Elise Turner, asleep in the church like an ordinary bum. They would have a field day with that one.”

This is not to say that the novel doesn’t gesture towards issues of wider societal import. After all, Bennett’s incisive essays on racial injustice, buoyed up by outrage over anti-black police violence, are what brought her to prominence. I’ve been trying my best to avoid Donald Trump for the last month, but this book arrives in the atmosphere of generalized traumatization and misogyny that his presidential campaign has engendered. It’s difficult not to read Aubrey’s suffering as an important attempt to narrate not just the political but also the personal repercussions of such violence, how it can scar an individual for life. The massive reality TV show that is this presidential campaign threatens to obscure that knowledge, and I find myself grateful to Bennett for reminding us.

Elsewhere, we find black mothers instructing their sons to avoid recklessness: “Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless…Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” Later in the novel, Robert Turner remembers the lessons of his father: “Black boys are target practice…My pops told me, you better learn to shoot before these white men shoot you, and I did.” Bennett even takes time to probe the impoverished emotional lives that men lead. When Luke tries to discuss his pain over Nadia’s abortion to his friend CJ, all CJ can muster is jock bravado. “Well shit,” he says, “You got lucky, homie.”

Ultimately, though, this novel’s heart lies in the struggle to move beyond the impasse Bennett so skillfully illustrates, and how that struggle so often backfires. After confronting Luke about the abortion, Nadia goes to Aubrey for comfort. Under the guise of teaching Nadia how to shoot pool, Aubrey embraces her:

She patiently guided her through the basics, then stood behind her to correct her stance. Aubrey’s hair tickled the back of her neck as she guided her hand back for her first stroke. Nadia wanted to feel the soft, constant pressure of another person’s touch. She wanted Aubrey to hold her, even if it was a fake embrace.

“Can you show me again?” she said.

This moment’s queer overtones speak not so much to sexual desire as the wish for a closeness that our normal conceptions of friendship and romance cannot comprehend. Reading this passage, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of the scene where Lily Briscoe wraps arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s legs:

Sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsey would never know the reason for that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public.

Facing this impasse, all Lily can do is press closer and hope. It’s a lesson Brit Bennett has absorbed.

Frank Ocean and the Black Male Body


R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me
-Frank Ocean, “Nikes”

That looks like a bad dude …
-A Tulsa police officer, on the body of Terence Crutcher
I can’t stop thinking about the video footage shot from above the highway where Terence Crutcher died in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you watch the footage, you’ll see the 40-year-old man walk away from officers with his hands up before Officer Betty Shelby shoots him dead. But what we see isn’t what echoes for me — it’s what we hear. If you listen you’ll hear one of two officers in the helicopter (one of whom was Officer David Shelby, husband to Betty Shelby) authorize Crutcher’s death moments before Crutcher crumples to the ground. Pronouncing, “That” — this is a human being he’s referring to — “looks like a bad dude,” he renders Crutcher a threat in the absence of any evidence outside his body.

These words echo for me because in the footage their effect approaches something like magic. The officer observes, and moments later Crutcher is dead. It’s too perfect — much too perfect — an illustration of how preconceptions about black people begin with the visual, with assumptions about our bodies: how we move through space, the way we cast our eyes at others, our affect, and on and on. It’s too perfect an illustration of how assumptions emanating from the visual field produce physical ramifications, how they structure and are structured by racist fictions about what our bodies mean.

There are three covers for Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, all of which present black men flinching from our vision into various anonymities. One shows us a man disappearing behind weed smoke’s dense haze; the second presents another man (perhaps Ocean himself) ensconced in a motorcycle helmet’s hermetic safety. The third interests me most: it depicts the crooner standing in front of spotless white tile. He’s shirtless, so that we get to peer in on his slender, muscular body, but his hair is dyed green in a Stroop-inspired taunt. He obscures his face with a bandaged hand, beneath which you can make out his furrowed brow, suggestive of a grimace or weeping. Meanwhile, his hand, upper body, and forehead are beaded with water or perspiration.

Of all Blonde’s covers, this one most recalls the album’s original title, Boys Don’t Cry. Ocean dropped that title upon the album’s release, but when I look at this image of him soaked and covering his grief like Masaccio’s Adam leaving the Garden, I can’t help but hear that former title’s echo. It draws our attention to the precarious relationship between the normative gender assumptions that shape our conceptions of masculinity, and the reality of emotional vulnerability that those notions elide. Ocean’s obscured visage bespeaks the tension between the image of the black male body — a cluster of signifiers to which so many meanings attach that we hardly see it at all — and the emotional intricacy underlying these ossified stereotypes.

Amidst another cycle of renewed attention to police violence against black bodies, I’ve come to think that Ocean’s cover suggests possibilities for more nuanced portrayals of black masculinity and emotion than those that currently pervade our national consciousness. Every death of a police-shooting victim underlines the state of hypervisibility in which the black body exists. For black men, this means that a certain fiction is always preceding our bodies, walking ahead of us into rooms, intimidating people on sidewalks, and speaking for us before we can open our mouths.

As Nicole Fleetwood observes in Troubling Vision, this fiction imbues us “with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality.” I take Fleetwood to mean that in America’s cultural imagination, the black male body always signifies as an existential threat, one characterized by predatory violence, hyper-sexuality, and overwhelming physical force. This will be true no matter what we do to attenuate the nervous unease that crowds us. We’re always already hollowed out, reduced to receptacles in which the nation’s most basic fears circulate.

Blonde’s cover short-circuits these assumptions, creates a tear in the visual field that unsettles received notions that black masculinity is legible, easy reading for whoever might chance upon it. Consider his green hair: it employs the Stroop effect to taunt us via a textual-visual misdirect so that seeing and reading are sundered from one another. (In another slight at legibility, the album title is stylized as “blond” on the cover, though the official title is Blonde.) Ocean’s hair reshuffles our expectations before we hear a note of music, demanding that we dedicate renewed attention to an image we thought we knew. It’s an emphatic reassertion, a warning that with Ocean, what you see will not be what you get.

Then there’s that hand, raised to hide an emotional turmoil that, according to the script, shouldn’t exist at all. In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks writes that in order to compensate for the structural violence wielded against them, black men are taught “to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable” and thus adopt a “cool pose” (emphasis mine). This is a masculinist posture that rejects emotional vulnerability — and interiority in general — as inimical to manhood. Hip-hop’s visual codes and genre conventions often reinforce this posture, with the effect of embracing and heightening the fictions foisted upon us by white supremacy’s image repertoire. In Hip-Hop Wars, Tricia Rose argues that contemporary rap’s calling cards have become “distorted, antisocial, self-destructive, and violent portrayals of black masculinity” along with rampant misogyny and homophobia. The cool pose instantiates the representational straitjacket against which black men struggle.

I’m not certain that I can accept hooks and Rose’s assertions uncritically, but that’s for another essay. But if we receive them as true, Ocean’s cover flouts the cool pose in favor of emotional vulnerability, insisting on depth in the face of a dyad that reduces black men to surface. Ocean’s damaged hand is raised in an attempt to enact the earlier album title’s dictum — boys don’t cry, remember? — but it’s a futile act; the gesture only displaces his grief so that his tears reappear in the visual field as the moisture beading his body, each tear a tear in his cool pose. Here, feeling and vulnerability are irreducible no matter what pose we might strike in order to hide it. Call it a new law: the Conservation of Feeling. This hand also blocks us, creates an opacity to stump a presumed transparency. The overall effect is a reinsertion of interiority into a body that had been hollowed.

How does this sound?

On Blonde, what we hear is a struggle between the masculinist conventions of contemporary hip-hop and Ocean’s assertion of a queered black masculinity, two images of black manhood jockeying for position in one aural space. It’s a drama not unlike the one Ocean presents on the album cover, and if you listen you’ll hear the tears in hip-hop’s cool pose. Take the first track on the album, “Nikes”:
These bitches want Nikes
They looking for a check
Tell ‘em it ain’t likely
Said she need a ring like Carmelo
Must be on that white like Othello
Ocean cycles through some of contemporary hip-hop’s most enduring tropes with impressive dexterity: he plays a vigilantly unattached bachelor weary of commitment and manipulative women, works in references to cocaine and sneakers, and name checks an NBA star. It’s a masterful display of Ocean’s facility with the genre’s conventions after a four-year absence, and like most good hip-hop these days, the verse is deeply boring but also hilarious in the way that Ocean breathes life into tired tropes via inspired wordplay. (Will there be a better couplet written this year than “Said she need a ring like Carmelo/Must be on that white like Othello”? Probably not.) The verse also initiates the album in a moment of dissonance: after seeing Ocean embrace queerness not just as an identity but also as a political orientation, it is jarring to hear him turn to the cool pose’s rhetoric.

But this rhetoric’s cool surface has a conspicuous tear in its fabric. After all, Ocean sings the song’s first three minutes through a distorted filter, sounding as if he inhaled helium before running his vocals through autotune. At times he howls and whoops rather than sings, and if we didn’t know who the singer was, it would be impossible to assign Ocean a gender.  Reverb doubles his voice, heightening its alien quality. A lone, woozy synth that approximates a Theremin runs the song’s length; behind the synth, constant vibrato makes the song’s bass line sound weirdly distended. It sounds like we’ve been stranded in some unfamiliar space. The queer quality of this defamiliarization becomes apparent in the song’s video, which features shots of Ocean sporting eyeliner, suggestively palming a gearshift, and pantomiming fellatio.

Later, he stands alone on a stage, garbed in a white jumpsuit, eyes closed in private reverie, glitter sprinkled upon his face.

Ocean shows us a queer black male body, conspicuous in its refusal to be forced into the kind of hypervisibility that allowed police officers to condemn Terence Crutcher as a “bad dude” on sight. The effect is a defamiliarization of those familiar tropes associated with a toxic masculinity.

This is why I find the beginning of “Nikes” ’ second verse so compelling. Leaving behind the cool pose, Ocean mourns for some fallen black men: A$AP Yams, the New York producer who passed away earlier this year; Pimp C, the Texas rapper whose ghost has haunted hip-hop this year; and Trayvon Martin. When I first heard Trayvon’s name mentioned in company of Yams and Pimp C, I was confused. What did he have to do with these two artists who performed a certain vision of the black male body?

But now I see that including Trayvon in that pantheon constitutes a refusal and an expansion: black masculinity can look like Yams and Pimp C, yes. It can also look like the face of this boy, whose body was read as thuggish and dangerous for no other reason than his blackness. By inserting Trayvon Martin into this list, Ocean asserts the elasticity of black maleness. If Trayvon looks like Ocean, then he also embodies the alterity Ocean foregrounds in this song and video, the possibility of “otherwise,” as Ashon Crawley might say. When that lyric arrives in the video, Ocean holds the ubiquitous self-portrait of Trayvon staring out from beneath a white hood. This image circulated relentlessly in the aftermath of his murder, and public as it has become, we might be tempted into thinking that we know it. Ocean demands that we look again.