To the Last Be Human

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The earliest of the poems in Jorie Graham’s tetralogy [To] The Last [Be] Human were written at 373 parts per million of atmospheric CO2, and the most recent at 414 parts per million; that is to say, in the old calendar, 2002 and 2020 respectively. The body of work gathered here stands as an extraordinary lyric record of those eighteen calamitous years: a glittering, teeming Anthropocene journal, written from within the New Climatic Regime (as Bruno Latour names the present), rife with hope and raw with loss, lush and sparse, hard to parse and hugely powerful to experience.
Recently, Graham said that she has begun to imagine her poetry “as something that might be dug up from rubble in the future,” a message sent forward to “whatever or whomever comes next,” part of “a huge amalgam of leftover signals held together by chance.” This image of her poems existing as future relics, close-read by distant beings, recalls to me the research field of “nuclear semiotics” which flourished in the US in the early 1990s. In those years, as the issue of the long-term burial of mid- and high-level nuclear waste pressed with increasing urgency, the question emerged as to how to warn future generations of the great and durable radioactive danger that would lie below-ground. The US Department of Energy commissioned a “Human Interference Task Force” to devise a marker system which would deter intrusion for at least 10,000 years at the deep repositories for nuclear waste then under construction at Yucca Mountain in Nevada and Carlsbad in New Mexico. Among the proposals developed by the Task Force (none has yet been implemented) were “passive institutional controls” such as concrete pillars with jutting spikes; pictograms and petroglyphs conveying horror; and information chambers built of granite and reinforced concrete, carrying engraved warnings in numerous languages.
Graham’s poems are likewise turned to face our planet’s deep-time future, and their shadows are also cast by the long light of the will-have-been. But they are made of more durable materials than granite and concrete, they are very far from passive, and their tasks are of record as well as of warning: to preserve what it has felt like to be a human in these accelerated years when “the future / takes shape / too quickly,” when we are entering “a time / beyond belief.” They know, these poems, and what they tell is precise to their form. How they swarm, beautifully and bee-like! They settle upon surfaces of time and place and seethe there, their long lines susurrating together as tens of thousands of wings do, intensely, intricately. Sometimes they are made of ragged, hurting, hurtling, and body-fleeing language; other times they celebrate the sheer, shocking, heart-stopping gift of the given world, seeing light, tree, sea, skin, and star as a “whirling robe humming with firstness,” there to “greet you if you eye-up.” I have found myself speaking some of these poems aloud in order the better to enter them: sounding their humming, their murmuration, in the Earth’s air as well as the mind’s ear. I know not to mistake the pleasures of this poetry for presentist consolation, though; the situation has moved far beyond that: “Wind would be nice but / it’s only us shaking.”
The titles and tones of the four collections tell a story in their (ecological) succession. Sea Change: richness and strangeness; a phase-shift happening; quickening and deadness; the need, the obligation, to keep eyes open, pearl-less. Place: at once verb and noun; to locate what is lost and to reach sure footing, to ground a thing well; to find one’s place but also to be put in it. Fast: swift but so too stuck; fleet and fixed; steadfast but also bedfast and cragfast, unable to move up or down, on or back; caught in the torrent; made fast (secure), but thus also beyond adaptation or adjustment. And Runaway: a fugitive, a juggernaut; unfindable, unstoppable; faster than fast; also an order—flee! Get gone!
The subjects—though that is not quite the right word for what is contained here, what happens here—of the four collections also shift across their courses, mapping and tracking life and lives as they radiate, pulsate, and tangle. The tetralogy as a whole restlessly pries at the same ancient ethical question in its modern context: What has it been given us to do when we have been given a life to live?

Sea Change (2008) was written when Graham was resident in Normandy, where she experienced the canicule (heatwave) of 2003, the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. Rivers dried to their beds, crops failed, whole woodlands perished. France alone recorded nearly 15,000 deaths, Europe as a whole around 70,000. For two months, the continent glimpsed a future that—two decades on—the “temperate zones” already inhabit near-permanently: one of wildfires, brutal heat and drought, charred air, humans and creatures gasping for breath. I think of this collection as a meteorological journal, written at the point it became no longer possible to separate weather from climate. Many of the poems begin quietly, almost classically, with the calm field-note placements I associate first with T’ang and Sung dynasty verse: “Waning moon”; “After great rain.” “Summer solstice”; “Nearing dawn”; “Midwinter. Dead of.” From the first pages, though, nature is out of joint, displaced. A “new wind” blows: “Un- / natural says the news. Also the body says it.” A new tune plays: “We have other plans / for your summer is the tune. Also your winter.” Parts of these poems—with their long weaving lines, sending the shuttle back and back again across the loom of the page—almost yearn for the luxury of a lapse into nowness, the absolution of the utter instant. But this is understood to be an abrogation of responsibility; the lyric cannot love itself into evaporation in the time of “The Great Dying.” And so on the poems rush, faster and faster, tracing both damage and the “indrifting of us / into us,” barely a full stop present, but instead an ice-slide of dashes and ampersands. I tried to read “Futures” aloud, but I ran out of breath.
Place (2012) seems to fall between storms, in an uneasy lull that is both an aftermath and a prequel. Time in its pools is briefly more available here, allowing a sinking into the dreamlife not only of “the vast network of blooded things,” but also of vine, stone, grass, grain, hedgerow, bloodless but still animate. These inquiries can feel ceremonial and medieval (“On the Virtue of the Dead Tree”), recalling Aquinas and Julian of Norwich, and above all Hildegard of Bingen’s lush and nourishing meditations upon viriditas: greenness, growth towards truth. Always, though, these slower poems are pressed by what is imminent, “a slicing in which even the / blade is / audible.” An endnote to the original collection identifies the double-margin arrangement used by most of the poems (one left justified to the edge of the page, one left justified almost to its center) as a means of bringing the reader to “feel the vertiginous double-position in which we find ourselves, constantly looking back just as we are forced to try to see ahead.” Form, here, is forged by crisis. In the summer in which I wrote this foreword to Graham’s tetralogy, a heat-dome settled over the Pacific Northwest, destructive wildfires burned from Arctic Canada to Lake Tahoe, flash floods devastated Tennessee, and Hurricane Ida collapsed the power grid in New Orleans and drowned people in their New York basements. All of this in North America alone, in three months. Yet still power-wielders refuse to recognize that “apocalypse” is not an indefinitely deferrable singularity but an always-somewhere-present experience, unevenly distributed across the contour-lines of existing inequalities.
Fast (2017) opens in apparent stasis—“Manacled to a whelm.”—but within seconds is off on its headlong rush (“everything transitioning—unfolding—emptying”) that will hardly pause for the collection’s duration. Long poems here are set rigorously to the left-hand margin, hard justified for the hard-to-justify: “trawling-nets bycatch poison ghostfishing.” New forces and harrowings emerge: cancer, the death of a father, the decline of a mother, and all are set within the webwork of the wider illnesses—the new maladies of the soul, as Kristeva named them. Online surveillance and data-harvesting, the Syrian war, ecological devastation on land and at sea: “We are in systemicide.” But don’t cry(o): do something! New non-human voices speak through these lyrics, become strange attractors around which the language spins: the ocean floor, chatbots, the singing magnetic field of an MRI scanner. Mass surveillance, mass infection, mass injustice. A new punctuation mark appears here, too: the arrow, an em-dash tipped with an angle bracket. These arrows leave the reader trapped in a flow-diagram, compelled causally ever-onwards at speed, at weapon-point: this leads to that leads to this, burning off nuance, hastening us remorselessly into an end time that will be a surrender. Struggling against this piercing and disempowering teleology, though, are the out-of-time energies of love and compassion. A poem about Graham’s dying father, “The Mask Now,” contains one of the most affecting lines I know in the modern elegy. “He was a settler in that flesh, that I could see. / Not far from breaking camp.”
A beautiful becalmedness starts the still-point poem that opens Runaway (2020): “After the rain stops you can hear the rained-on.” What I take to be the chief task of the poems here is declared early: “trying to make sense of the normal, turn it to life, more life.” I hear an echo of Prior Walter’s rallying cry in Angels in America: “still bless me anyway. I want more life.” Kushner’s masterpiece arose out of the AIDS epidemic, Graham’s was published in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both share urgings against immiseration and extinction, towards love, kindness, and the kin-making powers of true empathy. We must be “unafraid to live in the raw wind,” writes Kushner, and a “raw wind” blows through all four of Graham’s volumes too, stirring soul, shivering skin, keeping us awake. The wind’s enemy is the depletion of life’s diversity, because in that diversity lies the vital replenishing possibilities of sympoesis, the epigenetic making-with that is the engine of life on Earth. Reduce the totality of life’s forms, and future creation is itself constrained: “I won’t live long / enough to see any of the new / dreams the hundreds of new kinds of suffering and weeds birds animals shouldering their / demise without possibility of re- / generation.”
“Emergence” is the term given in biology, systems theory, and beyond for the properties or behaviors of an entity that its parts do not on their own possess. Graham’s poetry is strongly emergent, its effects irreducible to the sum or difference of its components. It shoals, schools, flocks, builds, folds. It has life. To read these four twenty-first-century books together in a single volume is to experience vastly complex patterns forming and reforming in mind, eye, and ear. These poems sing within themselves, between one another, and across collections, and the song that joins them all is uttered simply in the first lines of the last poem of the last book:

The earth saidremember me.The earth saiddon’t let go,
said it one daywhen I wasaccidentallylistening

Excerpted from [To] The Last [Be] Human. Used with permission of the publisher, Copper Canyon Press. 

“What Kind of Kid Would Do This?”: An Excerpt from Rita Cameron’s ‘The House Party’

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On Monday morning, Jake Tillman glanced at his watch and decided he had just enough time to stop for a decent coffee on the way to the office. He knew it would be the only one of the day—the coffee at the district attorney’s office was always cold, but still somehow managed to taste burned.

The day was already in full swing at the coffee shop in downtown New Falls. A group of men in their sixties, all fit if a bit paunchy in their matching spandex biking gear, clomped around in cycling shoes, taking their coffees outside for a postride chat. Inside there were half a dozen people in line, mostly moms in yoga pants with expensive strollers, sure to order complicated latte creations that would hold up the line. Nobody, aside from Jake, looked like they were on their way to work. How did people do it around here?

Coffee finally in hand, Jake swung his briefcase over his shoulder and walked the two blocks to the Hart County Courthouse, which housed the prosecutor’s offices. In a town of brick rowhouses and window flower boxes, the courthouse, with soaring concrete arches and a wall of glass, struck an odd contrast. But what was fresh in the sixties was fading now, and Jake always felt that the fluorescent lights and linoleum floor made his position as an assistant district attorney in a small, wealthy town seem dreary rather than dashing. During his days at law school down at Temple University, he’d imagined himself in an office with parquet floors and brass fixtures. Maybe even a bar cart. The reality of public service had turned out to be a little different.

After passing through the metal detectors in the lobby, Jake took the elevator to the second floor. He slid his key into the door, but the handle moved freely beneath his hand. Someone had beaten him in.

“Is that you, Jake?” called a raspy voice. Donna, assistant to the head district attorney, Hal Buckley, was sitting at her desk outside of Hal’s closed office door.

Jake looked at his watch. “Don’t tell me Hal’s here this early.” 

Donna glanced at the planner on her desk. “Hal has meetings off-site this morning. He won’t be in until after lunch.”

“Sounds like tennis and lunch at the club to me.”

Donna smiled. “It’s good to be the boss.”

“It certainly is.”

Donna glanced at the paper under Jake’s arm. “You’re not going to need that. The news came to you this morning. Jimmy’s waiting for you in your office.”

Jake perked up. “Something interesting?”

“I’ll let him tell you. He’s practically salivating.”

Jake went down the hall to his office, where every surface was covered in three-ring binders and case files filled with the usual small-town problems: drunk driving, petty theft, domestics. Detective

Jimmy Murray was sprawled on a chair in the middle of the mess. “Counselor,” he said, nodding.

“Detective. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? If you’ve got another DUI for me, you can add it to the pile.” He flicked his thumb at the stacks of documents.

“Oh, I got a few of those, and some drunk and disorderlies for you too; the usual Monday morning assortment. But that’s not why I’m here. You won’t believe this shit.” He tossed a slim folder onto Jake’s desk, but he launched into the story before Jake could open the file.

“So, Friday night, I get a call about a bunch of kids down by the river making a ruckus. Typical end of-the-school-year stuff—we break up parties down there every spring. I head down to River Road, throw on the sirens to smoke ’em out, and sure enough, a few kids start coming out of the woods, running for their cars.”

“High school students. What a collar.” Jake smirked.

“Hold on, hold on. So, we round up half a dozen kids—some of them were pretty wasted—and we start collecting ID’s. A couple of them I already know; a few have Jersey licenses. One dumbass was actually still holding a beer, so he gets an underage-drinking ticket, and we start calling parents. But basically it goes down like usual: the parents show up, we give a little lecture, and everyone goes home. Typical Friday night.”

“And?”

“And I go home and crawl into bed with my wife, take the kids to Soccer Tots in the morning, and I don’t think about it again all weekend. Until six this morning. That’s when we get a call from a contractor working on that new house going up by the river. You seen it? It’s the all-glass one, looks like a spaceship. Anyway, the contractor goes over to open up the house for the painters, and finds the place completely trashed. He calls it in as vandalism, and Officer Cruz and I go down to check it out. Guess where it is? Less than a quarter mile from where we found those kids on Friday night.”

Murray took out a digital camera, and Jake leaned in to look as he pulled up photos on the grainy screen. The first one showed a kitchen, or what was left of it. The doors were torn off the cabinets, the fixtures were gone, and the walls had been punched through and tagged with looping swirls of spray paint. The next picture showed a wooden deck with a charred hole in the center. Murray scrolled through pictures of broken windows, pools of water, and cigarette burns in the floor. The last picture showed a toilet, broken in half and lying on its side on the deck.

“It looks like they have plumbing issues,” Jake said, taking the camera to look closer. “Among other things.”

Murray winced. “We completely fucking missed it. By the time the contractor got there, the whole place was flooded from the faucets running all weekend. We counted a dozen broken glass doors, walls all punched in, and piss everywhere. I’ve seen squats down in the city that looked better. The chief is pleased as hell, of course.”

Jake was still scrolling through the photos. “They really did a number on this place. And you’re sure it was kids? Where are the owners?”

“They haven’t moved in yet. The contractor is calling them. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from them shortly.”

“You really think kids did this?” Jake asked again. “It’s pretty extreme.”

“I’m not ruling anything out, but the whole place stunk like beer. They tore a mirror off the wall; looked like cocaine residue all over it. We’ll send it to the lab. If adults around here are throwing this kind of party, we’ve got bigger problems than just this house. But it was most likely high school students. They must have gotten all jacked up and lost their fucking minds. Anyway, I’m on the hook for missing it on Friday night. Chief said I had to bring it down to you, make sure we do it all by the book, since we’re dealing with teenagers here. Everyone I sent home on Friday night was eighteen or under. And these aren’t punks. These are rich kids, or most of them are, anyway. When the parents realize that there are going to be charges, they’ll lawyer up.”

Jake glanced down at the picture of the wrecked kitchen. “What kind of kid would do this?”

Murray laughed. “I’m sure you got into your share of trouble when you were that age.”

Jake shook his head, thinking of his own teenage years in a working-class part of Philly: Catholic school, a part-time job after class instead of sports, and always the vague suspicion that somewhere else people were probably having more fun than he was. “Not too much,” he said. “Maybe a little drinking in parking lots and basements, that sort of thing. This seems different. But maybe I’m just getting old.” He shook his head. “So, what’s the plan?”

“First I’ll check back in with officers who are still on-site, see what they turned up at the house. Then I’m gonna follow up with the kids we caught on Friday. Get the real story and see who else was there.”

Jake opened the file folder Murray had given him and flipped through until he came to photocopies of the tickets that Murray had given out on Friday night, scanning the names to see if any of them were part of the regular rotation. “William O’Connor. We know him?”

“You’re thinking of his brother, Sean O’Connor III, goes by the name Trip. He’s been through here for possession and a few other things. He was on the road too, actually. But he’s twenty-one, so I just sent him home.”

“And William?”

“Never seen him before.”

“Following in his brother’s footsteps,” Jake said. “Let’s start there. Pull Trip O’Connor’s record. We can probably put some pressure on him, if he’s looking at distribution to minors. He won’t want to take the fall for this if half the high school was there.”

“With any luck, I’ll have this all wrapped up by the end of the week, and the chief will forget I ever missed it.”

From The House Party by Rita Cameron, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2022 by Rita Cameron. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Lydia Millet on Loving the Rocky Horror Novel

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It was in sixth grade that I discovered The Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Novel. During recess a thin, lonely girl named Carrie was hunched in a corner of the playground reading it with rapt attention. An avid reader myself, I was curious and went over to her. I hadn’t heard of the movie. We were way too young to get in, of course.
I was fascinated. The book’s black cover bore the iconic red, dripping-blood letters. It had stills from the film slapped together in bulletin-board style, with dialogue and lyrics. Pictures of Janet in a bra and Frank N. Furter in a sparkly black corset and lush, black-lined lips. You could follow along as you listened to the soundtrack.
Before then it had mostly been Narnia for me. And other children’s classics. We didn’t have a TV, so I wasn’t much of a pop-culture kid.
I don’t know how I got my own copy. I only know I read it into rags. It was Frank N. Furter who compelled me most. Even now, when Tim Curry pops up in some small role in a newer movie, I can’t help wishing I could slap that thick, extravagant makeup right back on him. His face—an interesting face, admittedly—looks naked without it.
How I learned the music I don’t know either, because I didn’t have a Walkman till high school and the only record I owned was Supertramp: Breakfast in America. I have a terrible long-term memory, so I also don’t know when I first saw the movie—by then the book had been a beloved substitute for years. Yet to this day I know all the Rocky Horror songs by heart.
That dog-eared, faded paperback with unglued pages sticking out languished in my childhood bedroom when I went off to college. After graduation I picked it up and moved it with me. To Los Angeles, North Carolina, New York.
A year ago my 14-year-old daughter saw the teen-oriented remake. It was weird and campy, she said. Made no sense. Still, she liked the music. I hurried to fetch the book to show her, but it was nowhere on my shelves.
I must have become ashamed of it at some point, I realized. That was typically why I got rid of old possessions, in my late twenties. Putting away childish things. I cursed my twenty-something self.
I wanted it back. And that’s the thing about lost books—those that aren’t rare, at least. In the world of digital commerce, copies are easily acquired. A replacement wouldn’t be my book. But it would serve.
When the replacement arrived, my daughter glanced at it in passing, shrugged, and said she’d already seen the movie. The original, as well as the remake. The work of a few clicks, $3.99. She hadn’t bothered to ask for permission: it was a given.
Thanks, she said, but she didn’t need to look at the book.
Excerpt from Lost Objects: 50 Stories About the Things We Miss and Why They Matter, available July 26 from Hat & Beard Press. Illustration by Berta Vallo, a Budapest-born illustrator and graphic designer based in London. Her work has attracted clients such as the BBC, Vice, Bloomsbury Publishing, Financial Times, and Stansted Airport, among many others; and it was featured in Taschen’s The Illustrator: 100 Best From Around the World (2019). Visit bertavallo.com, or follow her via Instagram: @bertavallo.

Panel Mania: ‘Made In Korea’

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Jeremy Holt and artist George Schall’s new graphic novel Made In Korea outlines a near-future world in which childless couples can purchase a sophisticated robotic kid powered by AI and designed by its Korean manufacturer to age and develop along human lines.

Bill and Suelynn, an interracial couple (Bill is white; Suelynn is Chinese–American), have purchased Jesse, a nine-year-old female proxy or robot-child, whose software has been secretly manipulated by a rogue developer. The parents (and the robot-child) are soon forced to contend with Jesse’s unforeseen prodigious abilities, as well as the challenges the robot-child faces adapting to flaws inherent in human social relationships.

In this 10-page excerpt, readers encounter the rogue developer while Bill and Suelynn receive and boot up their new (and secretly hacked) AI-driven robot-child.

Made In Korea by Jeremy Holt and George Schall is out now from Image Comics.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Enter The Blue’

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Commissioned by the celebrated jazz recording label Blue Note Records, Dave Chisholm’s new graphic novel Enter The Blue is a whimsical tribute to the origin of the record company and its long and distinguished history recording many of the most influential and iconoclastic jazz musicians—in particular, African American jazz innovators of the 20th Century.
Blue Note Records was founded in 1939 in New York City by Alfred Lion, later joined by his friend, photographer Francis Wolff, two German-Jewish immigrants who launched the record label as a tribute to the Black American music that captivated and inspired them as young men.
Over the course of its history, Blue Note Records has been the first label to record many of the most advanced Black musicians of the time; from such New Orleans-style musicians as Sydney Bechet and Bunk Johnson to the 1940s avant-garde bebop of Charley Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonius Monk, and so on through the years right up to the present day.
In Enter The Blue, Chisholm, author of the 2020 graphic bio Chasin’ the Bird, has created a fantasy origin story about Lion and Wolff and the founding of Blue Note. It’s the story of Jessie Choi, a young contemporary female jazz trumpeter, whose mentor Jimmy Hightower, an older jazz bass player, passes out on the bandstand and goes into a coma. Through an encounter with Sherm, an oddball jazz fan, Choi learns about a mysterious state of mind called “the Blue,” a metaphysical realm filled with the musical ghosts of jazz history, where Hightower has been trapped in a paranormal coma-state.
In this 12-page excerpt, Choi and her friend Erin visit Sherm’s apartment where he showcases classic jazz albums to learn about “The Blue” and search for a way to bring Hightower back into the world. Enter the Blue by Dave Chisholm will be published this month by Z2 Comics.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Plundered: An Introductory Excerpt from McSweeney’s #65

America has endured five hundred years of plundering. Exactly five hundred years ago, after almost two years of relentless warfare, the largest city in America fell to European dominion. The great Tenochtitlán—now the historic center of Mexico City—was seized in 1521 by Hernán Cortés and his men, who had disembarked on Mexican shores following a rumor, spread by Christopher Columbus almost three decades earlier, of abundant stores of gold in the “new” continent. Before the Spaniards attacked Tenochtitlán, the Mexica emperor Moctezuma had given Cortés a map drawn on a piece of nequen, detailing all the rivers running north of the city where gold dust was regularly collected. Once he was sure there was gold in the region, Cortés proceeded to invade Tenochtitlán, imprison Moctezuma, and sack the Mexica treasury.

Similarly, in 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his men ambushed and held for ransom the Inca ruler Atahualpa, who controlled modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and parts of Chile, Colombia, and Argentina. To buy his freedom, Atahualpa filled one large room with golden artifacts and two with silver. Metals had been crafted in the region for at least three thousand years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, so by the time Pizarro arrived, the Incas were making highly complex artwork with gold, such as miniature gardens that simulated earth with gold granules, gold figures of men, llamas, and corn stalks. Oblivious to their craftsmanship, Pizarro’s men melted the artifacts that Atahualpa surrendered, cast them into neat rectangular bars, and sent them back to Spain. Atahualpa, in return, was not granted his freedom. He was tortured, forcibly converted to Catholicism, baptized “Francisco” after the conqueror, and publicly strangled.

The stories continue. There is Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who in 1540 led an expedition to modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, feverishly looking for the (non-existent) “Seven Cities of Gold.” There is Nuño de Guzmán and his nephew Diego de Guzmán, voracious slave raiders, who instituted a system of slave trade across Mexico in the 1520s. Nuño de Guzmán later tortured the Tarascan leader Tangaxuan II to get him to reveal the supposed secret locations of stores of gold in what is now Michoacán. There was no gold, and Tangaxuan II was dragged by a horse through the streets and burned alive in 1530. He also was baptized “Francisco” before being killed

Always gold, always what they wanted back in Spain was gold. And if not gold, then silver. Between 1500 and 1650, the Spaniards extracted 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from America. In return, they brought a mixed bag: smallpox, horses, the Spanish language, Catholicism, Cervantes, guns. They brought a new economy too: one based on mining, indentured servitude, and slavery on a scale never before seen on the continent. Between 1525 and the late 1800s, more than 5 million Indigenous Americans and more than 12.5 million Africans were enslaved—in mines and, later, in agriculture.

When it was no longer silver or gold, it was sugar. Columbus had brought sugar to the Caribbean, to what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the plant, a grass, grew quick and bountifully. Sugar—or “white gold,” as it was called—was highly coveted in Europe, and the increasing demand led to a rapid mass systematization of indentured servitude and to the consolidation of slavery across the continent. This system expanded in successive waves as new crops joined the market, and schooners, galleys, and naval ships triangled across the Atlantic—between Africa and America, and from America to Europe. After sugar came tobacco, coffee, cacao, and cotton. As Eduardo Galeano writes in Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, a book that is fifty years old yet still entirely current: “The more coveted by the global market, the larger the misfortune that a product brings to the Latin American people who, with their sacrifice, have to produce it.” Indeed, now that avocados have become the “green gold” Mexico exports to the United States, generating nearly three billion dollars in revenue per year, farmers in the state of Michoacán are being murdered, extorted, or displaced by drug cartels, often in concert with government officials and international captains of industry, secure in their impunity.

Across America, from the northern prairies to the southern pampas, land was grabbed, claimed, and partitioned into brutal ways of producing: latifundios, ingenios, haciendas, plantations. And later partitioned, also, into ruthless ways of belonging and excluding: settlements, reservations, and later, in the cities, favelas, solares, tugurios, projects. During the colonial period in America, the particular ways in which European powers usurped land, settled it (such a dainty word for such a violent act), and managed it differed in detail but not in essence. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Spanish all enslaved and exploited in order to extract whatever the land yielded.

As European power began to wane and the former colonies gained independence, a new power took hold, reproducing many of the old mechanisms and systems. As early as 1891, in his seminal essay “Our América,” José Martí heralded the arrival of the United States as the new colonizing force that would take the seat left empty by the European powers. Referring to “our América,” or the Latin portion of the continent, he writes: “The hour is near when she will be approached by an enterprising and forceful nation that will demand intimate relations with her, though it does not know her and disdains her.” And, of course, he was right. In 1898, the United States took over Cuba; the following year it took over Puerto Rico and still has not let go; 1899 also marked the founding of the United Fruit Company, the still-existing corporation (now Chiquita) through which the category of the “banana republic” came into being. (To the Latin American ear, the liberality with which the term banana republic is still dispensed by news anchors, politicians, and journalists in the United States is, to say the least, ironic: they seem to disdain the mess they themselves created.)

The United Fruit Company monopolized not only the fruit trade in Central America but also the management of basic services in the region: the electricity, post office, telegraph, telephone, railroads, and maritime routes. It took control, as well, of the political administration of the countries themselves, meddling in all domestic affairs. Neruda writes in Canto General (as translated by Jack Schmitt): “When the trumpet sounded / everything was prepared on earth, / and Jehovah gave the world / to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, / Ford Motors, and other corporations. / The United Fruit Company / reserved for itself the most juicy piece, / the central coast of my world.” Meanwhile, the plundering continued north of the Rio Bravo as well: treaties regarding Indigenous lands were routinely ignored; residential schools stole children from their families as part of a “civilizing” project. And then there was the concatenation of horrors known as the Jim Crow laws (and their less codified afterlives).

The US stronghold in Central America continued through the twentieth century, with administrations successively funding military dictatorships and civil wars. There was, for example, the 1954 coup d’état against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala—backed by the CIA at the urging of the United Fruit Company—which destabilized democracy in the country and led to thirty-six years of civil war and genocide that took more than two hundred thousand lives, predominantly of Mayan peoples. In this same period, from 1979 to 1992, the Carter and Reagan administrations funded a long and ruthless civil war in El Salvador, during which the military-led government relentlessly massacred left-wing opposition groups and civilians alike. Around one-fifth of the population of El Salvador had to flee the country. The aftershocks of these interventions come, still today, in waves of displaced adults and children who now seek asylum in the United States, and upon arrival are locked up in camps, shelters, detention centers, and cages.

US interventions did not stop at the Panama Canal but extended into the Southern Cone. One of the most well-known instances is the US-backed Chilean coup d’état against Salvador Allende, who had nationalized US-owned copper mines in Chile. Aided by the CIA, on September 11, 1973, Chilean troops seized the seat of government, Allende took his own life as the soldiers stormed his office, and Augusto Pinochet began a vicious dictatorship that would loom over Chile for the next seventeen years. The coup was part of a broader series of military interventions in the region known as Operation Condor, which, under cover of Cold War scare tactics, sought to eliminate those leaders who were not inclined to offer favorable terms for US trade with their nations, or who, heaven forbid, resisted the privatization of their natural resources.

This issue features works that explore these forms of past and present colonial violence and that look at the effects of this violence on both the land and bodies across America. At the same time, they reveal diverse forms of resistance. They dig below the surface of deserts and decadent nightclubs, explore the questionable cultural politics of museums and theme parks, and take us into prisons of both body and mind. After Karen Tei Yamashita and Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira’s bracing reboot of the Brazilian modernist Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto” (which gleefully gnawed on the bones of the European canon), we’re transported to the Musée du Quai Branly, where we find Gabriela Wiener (translated by Gabriela Jauregui) examining her reflection in a glass case that houses the cultural patrimony stolen from her native Peru by her own great-grandfather. The institutional space of the museum is also central to Laia Jufresa’s short story “Colorscape,” which drops the reader into the middle of a performance art piece about state violence and forced disappearance in Latin America. Carlos Manuel Álvarez (translated by Julia Sanches) writes a firsthand account of a recent hunger strike in Cuba, addressing the government’s marginalization and persecution of Black and Brown bodies, while Sophie Braxton, in “Flat Earth Society,” explores the psychology of alienation as it relates to both labor and human connections in the southern United States.

Shifting gears, we get a dizzying dog’s-eye view of the historical layers of Mexico City/Tenochtitlán in Gabriela Jauregui’s “The Island,” and then follow the Pan-American Highway through the bone-riddled sands of the Peruvian desert in Julia Wong Kcomt’s “Chimbote Highway” (translated by Jennifer Shyue), before watching the Mexican countryside quake and split open in Brenda Lozano’s “A Volcano Is Born” (translated by Heather Cleary). In each of these texts—as in Mahogany L. Browne’s incandescent “Reft of a Nation,” the poem at both the sequential and the ethical center of the collection—the fires of the earth and the injustices it has witnessed refuse to be contained.

Next, Samanta Schweblin’s “An Unlucky Man” (translated by Megan McDowell) and Sabrina Helen Li’s “Worldly Wonders” explore different forms of strength under conditions of vulnerability; in the first, a little girl navigates both a family crisis and an intimate crisis of her own; in the second, a young woman’s body is exoticized and infantilized for public consumption at a nationality-themed amusement park. The next pair of stories introduces us to two men displaced by very different circumstances, trying to rebuild their lives: the narrator of Edmundo Paz Soldán’s “El Señor de La Palma” (translated by Jenna Tang) finds himself embroiled in a cult (or is it just a pyramid scheme?) as he flees the dubious legalities of his own past, while the protagonist of Nimmi Gowrinathan’s “One Man and His Island” is a refugee trying to cultivate Sri Lanka in a tiny corner of Los Angeles.

And then there are the bodies bound: MJ Bond draws a bright, pain-streaked line between the body in transition and the molecular structures of glass and obsidian; in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” C. T. Mexica takes us inside prison walls that cannot keep the mind from soaring, while a letter from Claudina Domingo reminds us that the mind itself can also be a prison. Also in the issue’s letters, Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil reminds us of the importance of recognizing non-Western conceptions of the natural world and our relationship with it; Karla Cornejo Villavicencio asserts her right not to reproduce; and Lia García (La Novia Sirena) shares a lyrical reflection on bodies labeled and persecuted as monstrous, and why we should consider the cockroach.

The pieces selected for this issue draw on diverse traditions and aesthetics, and more than half are translations. By placing these authors from different latitudes within the same pages, it becomes obvious that neatly defining American identities is an impossible and absurd task. As Natalie Díaz said in an interview for The Rumpus in 2020, identity is often weaponized, particularly in the United States, “as a thing to pin us down and hold us still… I am imagining ways to become unpinnable.” The unpinnable cannot be extracted; it cannot be plundered, swallowed, homogenized, commodified.

Among the many questions we discussed as we worked with these texts, one kept coming up: What to do with the accent in América? Such an apparently trivial thing—a small typographical mark—but one that carries so much political weight. Should we keep the diacritic as it appears in Spanish, offering a visual reminder to the reader that America is not a country but a continent1? Or should we “translate” América by removing the accent, and in doing so challenge the Anglophone reader in the United States to pause and look at this familiar word anew?

We went back and forth with the translators. We went back and forth among ourselves. We turned once again to Martí’s “Our América” and to its translator, Esther Allen. When we asked her to share the thought process behind her choice to keep the diacritic, she responded:
In the Penguin Classics anthology I did of Martí’s selected writings, there’s a version of “Our America” without the accent mark; at that point I didn’t think one was needed. The essay itself makes it pretty damn clear what he’s talking about, even specifying the region’s geo- graphic boundaries in the final paragraph: “del Bravo a Magallanes.” When I redid the translation for the website of the Centro de Estudios Martianos in Havana a few years ago, though, I really felt it was necessary to include the accent because I’ve seen all too often how the word America leads to misreadings—many deliberate—as monolingual Anglophones assume it is synonymous with the United States and can only mean the United States.
In other words: América is not America is not the Americas. Sometimes an accent can be a geopolitical statement. There isn’t one right way to approach this question of the accent, and there shouldn’t be, just as there should be no pinnable, all-encompassing approach to what America is, no trans-historical shortcut for addressing cultural specificity. While the diacritic was essential to translating Martí’s text at a certain moment and continues to generate important conversations, at this moment and in this context, we chose the more naked America. Our goal in selecting texts from across this vast expanse and uniting them under this rubric is to reclaim and redistribute the name America, fraught provenance and all, and to assert the plurality contained within its singular as a constellation rather than a consolidation.
An excerpt from McSweeney’s Issue #65 by Valeria Luiselli and Heather Cleary, reprinted with permission from McSweeney’s Books.

‘Cairo Circles’: Featured Fiction from Doma Mahmoud

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In our latest edition of featured fiction, curated by our own Carolyn Quimby, we present an excerpt from Doma Mahmoud’s debut novel, Cairo Circles.

The book—which examines class and wealth in modern Cairo and the Egyptian diaspora—was hailed by Booklist, which called the book an “enthralling debut…Mahmoud explores the intricacies of Cairo’s social dynamics and how powerful family relations, societal judgment, and class can be despite physical and socioeconomic distance. His dynamic storytelling will keep readers engaged throughout.”

Outside Cairo International Airport, four taxi drivers approached me and began with “Welcome, welcome home,” and “The city has lit up,” and “What a sweet face you’ve brought us,” before they offered to carry my suitcase and argued among one another about who would take me home. I rebelled against their unsophisticated system and demanded to ride with the oldest man, who was losing ground in the dispute. I figured he would be the most likely to let me sit in silence until I arrived home, but as we waited in line to exit the parking lot, he asked me where I had returned from, and it turned out he had numerous opinions to share about America.

“It’s all their fault,” he said. “They burned Iraq to ashes, thinking that they could spill that much blood and get away with it. But that’s not how the world works, is it? They’re lucky they haven’t had more attacks. Do you know, my son, what it means to have a foreign man come into your land, kill your neighbors and relatives, and imprison you in your own jails? They will suffer the consequences for decades. It’s good you came back to your country.”

I performed a smile. “There’s a lot of kind people there, you know. And to attack innocent civilians is just wrong.”

He looked offended. “Of course it’s wrong. Do you not know the chapter from the Quran, ‘The Disbelievers’?”

“I do,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t recite it.

“In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate. Say, Disbelievers. I do not worship what you worship. I will never worship what you worship. You will never worship what I worship. You have your religion and I have mine.”

“Ameen.”

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Attack only when attacked.”

“Yes.”

“Of course it’s wrong,” the man said again. “These same terrorists kill their own Muslim brothers in Iraq. On the day of days, they will meet God, who will hand them the worst punishment.”

“Right.”

“But so will the Americans.”

I sighed. On a regular day, I would have spent the rest of the journey trying to explain to the driver, regardless of how stubborn he was, that there were millions of Americans who accepted and loved Muslims as their fellow citizens, and that their main intention was to get by, not to wage war against Islam. I would have emphasized that for every million men who believed that America was at war with Islam, one man would be successfully convinced to sacrifice his life for that war. But now my own cousin had become that man, that fool, and I didn’t have the will to argue with the driver. 

I lit a cigarette as we made it out of the airport and onto Salah Salem Street. On the surface, Cairo was a shock to the unaccustomed eye. Buildings originally painted in different colors were covered with so much dust that they had evolved into similar shades of grim. Drivers swerved in and out of lanes with no regard to order, honking every few seconds for no reason, as if to contribute to the mandatory peep peep peep that never ceased. Vendors whipped at the legs of malnourished horses so their carts could be dragged faster. Stray dogs and cats scavenged for food around the piles of trash that were dumped every mile or two on the sides of the road. 

I usually began to appreciate Cairo’s aesthetic within a few days of my return. Instead of being agonized by the constant honking, I would enjoy the sha’abe music blasting from the speakers of different cars and maybe even clap along to the tablas. Instead of being disturbed by the children who begged, the scars and zits and despair on their faces, I would notice the luckier children behind them, doing tricks with their bicycles on the sidewalks. Instead of fixating on the restrictions of religion, I would see just how profound it was that, five times a day, every day, millions of people gathered to pray and meditate together. This, however, was far from a regular homecoming, and I feared I was at risk of losing whatever affection I had for my hometown.

At a stoplight, a man with no legs dragged his torso through the spaces between the cars and asked me for change. I stuck my arm out the window and gave him a five-dollar bill. “You have to get it exchanged at the serafa,” I said. “It’s worth thirty pounds.” He kissed it, tapped it on his forehead, and then looked up at God. 

There was no traffic on the 6th of October Highway, an unusual occurrence that punched my chest with anxiety. We would be downtown in minutes, and I would have to withstand what could be weeks of family arguments, breakdowns, and mourning without being able to have a single drink. 

As we drove through Zamalek, I thought of what would happen if Amir was identified by someone who knew him as my cousin. It would be one of the relevant topics of conversation for weeks to come. Did you watch the game last night? Did you go see that movie? Oh, you know that terrorist on the news, the one who shot up the train? Well, that’s Sheero’s cousin. What would it do to my reputation here in Cairo? Would people assume I came from a family of fanatics? Would any respectable man ever let me marry his daughter? I already came from an inferior lineage. My grandfather hadn’t been a basha with European blood; he had been a businessman, and a peasant too. He had never learned how to eat with a fork and knife and could speak only one language. Now, my cousin had become a terrorist, a murderer, and not only would people claim to know someone who knew him, but my high school friends would remember meeting him, the day my mother forced me to take him out on his birthday.

An excerpt from the novel Cairo Circles by Doma Mahmoud, reprinted with permission from Unnamed Press.

Panel Mania: ‘The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book’

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Originally published in 2010 in black and white, Arsenal Pulp will issue a revised and expanded edition of The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book, written and drawn by Gord Hill, who has added nearly 60 pages of new material and redrew much of the book.

Hill is a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation and has worked in support of Indigenous peoples for years. The revised edition begins in the 15th century, with the Spanish invaders and Christopher Columbus, and continues into the present day, with current battles around the Dakota Access pipeline.

The book documents the horrific suffering inflicted on Indigenous people as well as their relentless resistance, resilience, and determination to retain their land, languages, and sovereignty.

This seven-page excerpt documents the 1990 Oka Crisis, a 77-day armed standoff with Canadian police and military in the Mohawk territories of the Kahnawake and Kanesatake near Montreal.

The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book: Revised and Expanded by Gord Hill publishes on Oct. 26 from Arsenal Pulp.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Panel Mania: ‘Run: Book One’

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Picking up where the late Rep. John Lewis’s acclaimed graphic memoir March ended, his new memoir, Run, opens as the Watts uprising breaks out, the 1965 Voting Rights Act becomes law, and the impact of Black Nationalism, Pan Africanism, the Vietnam war, and the anti-apartheid movement create new challenges to the tenets of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement and to young Lewis’s leadership of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Run invokes a new phase in the movement’s struggle against Jim Crow segregation and for Black voting rights, depicting the continuing racist violence directed at activists, as well as local segregationist acts of anti-Black voter suppression—such as closing polling places in Black neighborhoods—which seem eerily similar to our contemporary political conflicts over voting.

In this short excerpt, Lewis reflects on growing political factions within the ranks of the Black Civil Rights Movement and acknowledges the global nature of the Black liberation movement. The excerpt also includes L. Fury’s character designs and early sketches.

Excerpt provided by Abrams ComicArts from Run: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with illustrations by Nate Powell and L. Fury © John Lewis and Andrew Aydin.

Bonus Links:
Difficult History: On John Lewis’s March

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Porochista Khakpour on Stephen Dixon: An Excerpt from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63

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Life versus art. This was the concept that hovered around our heads, us young aspiring writers in the then second-best writing program in the country (Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars). The question was fashionable at the time. You could be the writer who had discipline and craft and skills, or you could be the writer who really lived, whose adventures were the anecdotes that made up intricate plots, whose characters were based on a cast so real they were called “larger-than-life.” Our program was split between those camps, and the question—if it was a question, even—was never resolved. I recall regularly staying out all night with my set of loud, messy, rebellious types, while other students were back in their apartments by dinnertime. We found this amusing but easy to understand: They were in the camp that chose art; we had chosen life. Different roads, that was all.

“Where the hell would you get an idea like that? Dichotomies? When, ever? I mean, really, you are asking where do I stand?” my most beloved professor and mentor, Stephen Dixon, asked me in his office one day when I brought up this idea of the two camps, thinking I was really onto something. But his face quickly let me know that was not the case.

“You’re kidding, right?” he went on.

“Yes,” I lied sweetly with a tight smile.

“Good,” he grumbled. It always felt like there was an invisible cigarette he was taking a long drag off of between his fingers. Dixon was constantly teetering into exasperation but never so much that it felt like resentment, thank goodness.

The last time I saw Stephen Dixon was seventeen years ago, back when I was a student, and I don’t even remember the exact moment. I had no idea he was going to retire just four years after I left. I think I imagined him existing forever in exactly that form, as our forever mentor, sighing and groaning and rolling his eyes, somehow always still lovingly. Did we have a proper goodbye, even? The night before our graduation, a group of the worst troublemakers in our cohort and I, plus my visiting hometown best friend, all piled into someone’s run-down station wagon and drove to Atlantic City after hours of drinking at a pub in the heart of Baltimore. I think we made it there around 4:00 a.m., and all I remember is how awful the dawn light felt, how we drank even more, how someone threw up outside the station wagon window, how I made out with a friend while squished in the middle seat on the way home, and how we got back in time for short, ugly naps just before the graduation ceremony. Did he see me then? Or was our most memorable meeting the last, weeks before graduation, when I went to his office just after unsuccessfully attempting suicide among the tulips of Guilford Park, when the pressures of my thesis were becoming too much, especially when paired with addiction and mental illness? In that meeting he tore an orange in two parts with his bare hands and handed me half, and I ate it along with him right into that jagged wet wild, a face full of orange juice and pulp and tears, as I asked him what road to take in life. He was not put off by the question and didn’t hesitate to answer it: he thought I was a novelist, not a short story writer; that I should go back to New York and not teach but do real stuff, like drive a cab or tend bar. Like he had. Eventually I should publish books (in the end he published thirty-five books and over seven hundred stories, which he felt any of us could do with some discipline), get married, have kids—all like he had. Life. Art.

It sounded okay. In the end, I did teach and I did not get married or have kids. But I published. And maybe he knew it, maybe he did not. I can’t remember seeing him in the audience when I returned to campus in 2008 to give a reading to the Writing Seminars after my first novel’s debut. The second time I was back on campus to read was in November 2019, just under twenty-four hours after his death.

There are few humans I loved more than Stephen Dixon. Not only was he the model of a writer for me, but he was also the model of a human. Art, life. Not only did we learn so much as his students, but we learned as his readers. And that’s something everyone should be glad to hear, because he left a tremendous body of work. Anyone can access him in this way, which he would argue was his most genuine form of connection—he was his writing, more than any writer I have ever encountered.

He wrote daily, often a story a day. How? He didn’t have to choose a camp. Life was art, and he included it all, unfiltered—the line between fiction and nonfiction was irrelevant. We knew all about his wife and daughters, his home office, his bed and bathroom, his garage and car, the women he slept with in his twenties, the run-ins big and small that made him who he was. It’s rare to read the writing of a man that gets this personal, but that was the reality with Steve. He would line-edit your stories so much that you assumed syntax and diction were his only concerns, but then in conference he’d have you bawling into the guts of an orange, confessing suicidal ideation, only to match your stories of adversity with his own.

You always knew you were okay, because he was around. And I guess that’s maybe why I never got back in touch. I thought he’d always be around. Besides, he let us know how much he hated email. He was always brutally honest, and that honesty was a bit terrifying. He made it clear that teaching, giving readings, being interviewed, going to the grocery store, parking his car, answering the phone—all of it was a nuisance, as it interrupted his one purpose: to have writing time. Only time with his wife and daughters took priority over writing.

I still feel intimidated just reading his stories again, sensing his irritation with a reader who can’t keep up with his spiraling logic in the twists and tangles of his neuroses, not unlike his constant infuriation at agents and editors and at the endless politics of mainstream publishing. Steve never had time for things like that, though he made all the time in the world for others.

He loved underdogs, for example, and ultimately I think that is how he learned to love himself. I was an underdog, too, and he saw that in me. He was the only reason I survived that year. And his sheet of carefully composed, typewritten line-edits of my story “Spectacle,” which I wrote in my final weeks in his workshop, was what led me to write my first novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects—which kept basically the same story line but converted into what he thought was its rightful form. Steve had seen me get brutalized one too many times in class workshops—I was one of the only non–Ivy League students, one of the youngest too—and he always found a way to rescue my stories from the class’s default of pure assault. I’ll never quite know if it was because of that protectiveness or because the story was actually good that he encouraged “Spectacle.”

Does it really matter? I can imagine him asking.

No, I can imagine myself lying.

I was invited to speak at his memorial, where I met his daughters, both as smart and lovely and interesting as I had imagined. It was on February 27, 2020, in the final weeks of normalcy before most of the country would be in pandemic lockdown. The Murmrr Ballroom, in Brooklyn, was packed with oddballs, and it had a funny psychedelic sheen to its lighting. In all my photos of the audience, every white-haired person appears like a blue-haired Dr. Seuss character. We laughed more than I thought we would laugh that night. The stories everyone told were uproarious and irreverent—you felt that his life, just like his art, involved a very lively cast.

A few weeks later, I spoke on the phone for hours with an author who is writing his biography, and I laughed and cried through so many memories. Just weeks later, I received a package in the mail: a half dozen hardcover editions of books Dixon authored, from his personal library. The biographer was assisting the family in cleaning out his office. I held the books tight; traced their jackets for dust; even, like a character in a bad melodrama, sniffed the pages in case they could take me back to him for a moment—and then I placed them in the order they had come in and piled them by my desk. The books have become an altar of sorts: a totem I face every single day, every single writing day.

He would have noticed that to me “a day” now equals “a writing day,” and maybe that would have made him prouder than anything. That was all him, after all.

When I received the stories that appear in this issue, I was touched to see that they were scans of typewritten pages in PDF form, a few with typos, even, which felt triumphant to spot (line-editing the line-edit king!), precious in their raw humanness. The stories, unsurprisingly, were stunning. The subjects also felt so familiar, so in keeping with the concerns of the Dixon canon: writer finishing a story, man meeting a future wife, New York City flashbacks, Maryland suburbia, the burdens and joys of being the father of daughters, a wife’s passing, aging, small talk and the negotiations of everyday life, the body’s failures (pills, catheters, hospitals, hospice), everyday urban sustenance (sandwiches, coffee, wine, fried oysters, smoked salmon, fish burgers). And there were the classic Dixonian themes: shame, tenderness, anxiety, intimacy, frustration, love, loss. And there was that trademark Dixon sound: long, winding sentences that operate like arteries for every anxiety imaginable, together creating a pulsing network of honest internal monologues. It felt so good to turn those pages and to be so deep in his head and to find that place a familiar one, to know that at the end of his life he was still at one with his art.

And then the pages stopped. It happened in that premature dark of November 2019, in my office in Queens, with just the sounds of the city—subways, cabs, birds, the hum and rattle of pipes—filling in where he left off. I wanted so badly for there be more (and somehow I suspect there must be, that there has to be more to come). But the way his words, his precise and passionate art, bled from the page right into the exterior landscape of my life, so many realities removed, reminded me: When you really live, and when you really tackle that life in your art, the pages never quite end. The narration might drop out, but the story is still in motion. If done right, the border blurs, the boundaries of life and of art fade into each other—your breath exists alongside your characters’; the sounds of your city overlay the sounds of the protagonist’s city; the distractions nagging at the corners of your consciousness are suddenly incorporated into the psyche of an ingenue cliffhanging. There is no real finale, since the world continues long after we’re gone. Dixon’s storytelling was like a house that’s larger on the inside than on the outside. When I finished these stories, I was left with a similar sense: that we are all just players in a story he wrote long ago, which has a life now past his own. And just like in his book Interstate, when the father dies in the final pages of the first section and the story continues without the father’s close third point of view, here we are, left with the roles he has written for us.

It makes sense that in this batch of stories, one is called “Finding an Ending” and begins: “I can’t seem to finish the story I’ve been writing.” If that isn’t an author who knows death is on the way, I don’t know what is. Another, “The Lost One,” begins: “Good morning, my dearie. Sleep well?” And the answer is “I want to go home.” And to double down on the Dixonian flourishes, he pushes it deeper: “You don’t understand. Or you’re not listening. I want to go home because I want to die there.” By the time we get to “Oh My Darling”—I won’t spoil the central dilemma there—we know Dixon’s fixation is on the idea of decline. He’s not dealing with decline generally, but his own degeneration after a long, colorful life, and only with the recognition that the world around him will continue its spins of colorful lives when he’s gone. In these stories there is nothing nostalgic, sentimental, or fever-pitched—the emotional frequencies he sometimes favored—and the obsessive register is there still, but it’s muted and almost revels in the mundane. Life, as cliché as it is to say, does indeed go on, these pages seem to say—and so does art, no matter who comes and goes. The stories get told no matter which storytellers enter or exit.

The altar of his books faces me each day, daring me to create something lasting like that. I don’t know if I will, but at least I know I was taught how to.

Excerpted from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #63. Published with permission from McSweeney’s and Porochista Khakpour. All Rights Reserved.