Edgar Allan Poe: Self-Help Guru

You may have read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Chances are you’ve read a little whether you’re a fan or not. Poe’s influence, as James Wood wrote of Flaubert, is “almost too familiar to be visible,” while Poe’s work is standard in school curricula across the U.S. and beyond. I still remember how, when I was living in Australia a few years ago and happened to be seated at a coworker’s kitchen table, her eight-year-old son burst in, gushing about “The Raven,” impressed that a poem, of all things, could be so scary.

Still, Poe’s work has its less-visited corners. Take “A Chapter of Suggestions,” an 1844 essay in which Poe set aside literary criticism to advance a different and, to my eye, more personal set of ideas. There is some profound shit in there. The first paragraph goes like this, no preamble:
In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch, when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality… All the important good resolutions which we keep—all startling, marked regenerations of character—are brought about at these crises of life.
A quick and dirty translation? Once or twice in our lifetimes, you and I will experience dissociative moments that allow us to glimpse our humanity beyond the idiosyncratic snags of our personalities. Understanding the self in fact requires transcending the self, however briefly. And such crises may lead to breakthroughs, epiphanies, moments of much-longed-for change. It’s like what people say now about eating shrooms.

Poe, we can be pretty sure, wasn’t writing under any psychedelic influence, but he did have his own experiences of anxiety, depression, and/or periodic breaks with reality. He wrote “A Chapter of Suggestions” for money, netting 50 cents a page when it was published in an 1845 gift book, which may have helped alleviate some of his anxiety, if only for a moment. The reason you and I might find it a funny, poignant reading experience today is because Poe’s “Suggestions” sound a lot like contemporary self-help. He veers through a series of disconnected paragraphs, rattling on about probability, the imagination, why disappointed artists may drink too much in midlife, and more. Here are his bugbears, weaknesses, obsessions, hopes—plus a little how-to, dusted with 19th-century pop science and transparent wish-thinking—in one place and under 2,000 words.

In paragraph four, he remarks how often our first grasp of an idea, our initial intuitive impression, turns out to be the most accurate. We know this from our childhood reading, Poe says. We encounter a poem as a kid and we love it. Later, we grow up only to scoff at the same poem. Then we reach yet another stage in which we return to our initial impression, the right one.

What’s startling now, even eerie, is how accurate Poe’s description of this process is for those of us who—like my coworker’s bowled-over son—loved “The Raven” as children, thrilling to its dark rhythms and atmosphere of glamorous doom. Later, as undergrads or grad students, we put that enthusiasm behind us, knowing without having to ask that, past a certain age, it’s not cool to like Poe. And then, once we’ve graduated, lost whatever grasp we ever gained of theory, and reentered civilian life, we recognize all over again how good “The Raven” really is, how effective and successful. Yes, it is a carefully calculated shot at reaching fame by satisfying popular taste, and that is precisely why it works.

Or take paragraph seven, in which Poe tells us that being a genius means attracting haters, “a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings,” but also that, crucially, not everyone who attracts haters is a genius:
All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable…Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled.
Clock the pettiness of detractors by the outsize nature of what they attack: Now that’s insightful.

Skipping to paragraph nine, Poe informs us that geniuses like getting drunk. It grows out of habits picked up in youth, he says, but later becomes more about somehow coping with the unfairness of existence: “The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity. . . a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.”

Readers familiar with Poe’s blog-like Marginalia series and his galaxy-brained prose-poem Eureka will spot familiar strains of thinking in this paragraph and the larger “Chapter.” There is Poe’s tendency to make grand pronouncements about the character of geniuses—something he got on a tear about with some frequency—and all of which, it should come as no surprise, might be applied directly to himself. Call it self-justification, but there might be more to it than that. It’s these moments when we get the keenest insight into Poe’s own turbulent and amazingly successful life—from the person who lived it. How to make sense of its devastating ups and downs, victories and reversals?

Well, he tells us. Such self-knowledge as he ever gained came from moments of profound crisis, as well as sidelong looks and returning to first impressions—or so we might conclude from reading the “Chapter.” And maybe we might now recognize that the same process gives us our best chance of attaining wisdom and self-knowledge in our own lives, too.

Elsewhere, Poe liked to present himself as a towering, one-take auteur. Think of “The Philosophy of Composition,” the essay in which he dubiously, maybe-kinda satirically claimed that he wrote “The Raven” according to some ultra-precise formula. Whereas in “A Chapter of Suggestions” he shows himself to be no stranger to the sorts of questions you and I ask our cracked ceilings at 4 a.m. He wondered about his own lurching, intermittent progress, about the faults and failings of his character—what the scholar Jerome McGann once listed as “his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies”—and whether these might sink him.

Maybe the most surprising thing about “A Chapter of Suggestions” is how, in the 177 years since its publication, and in contrast to the rest of Poe’s work, it’s received so little critical attention. If there’s a single paper dedicated to it in all of JSTOR, I haven’t found it. Burton R. Pollin, who wrote an introduction identifying its origins and genre, concluded that the essay might fall under “general philosophy,” alongside other species of vaguely high-minded magazine filler common in Poe’s era.

We might go a step further. Poe, it seems to me, was pondering the subject of personal growth. Where he landed was somewhere between Coleridge at his most aphoristic, metaphysical and self-justifying, and Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, who’s now in a psychedelic phase and who’s never really gotten credit, either, for the range of his thought.

Besides: lies, follies, hypocrisies? That’s most of us, if we’re honest. No wonder then that the ways we come to insight are so strange, glancing, sidelong. Or that we tend to second-guess our initial impressions, only later coming to realize, to know—and, of course, to rationalize. It’s weird to be human, even as we’re unable to compare it with, say, being a macaque or an orchid. We lurch from crisis to crisis, and what knowledge we ever arrive at is likely to surprise us. You can almost see Poe enacting this process in his essay. It makes me think that our childhood assessments of him were right all along: in his darkness, odd rhythms and peculiar wisdom, Poe really was cool. And still is.

Bonus Links:
Edgar Allan Poe Was a Broke-Ass Freelancer
Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?
Twenty-Five Ways to Roast a Raven: The Spiciest Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times

Image Credit: Flickr/Alvaro Tapia.

On Memory and Literature

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My grandmother’s older sister Pauline Stoops, a one-room school teacher born in 1903, had lived in a homestead filled with poetry, which sat on a bluff overlooking the wide and brown Mississippi, as it meandered southward through Hannibal, Missouri. Pauline’s task was to teach children aged six to seventeen in history, math, geography, and science; her students learned about the infernal compromise which admitted Missouri into the union as a slave state and they imagined when the Great Plains were a shallow and warm inland sea millions of years ago; they were taught the strange hieroglyphics of the quadratic equation and the correct whoosh of each cursive letter (and she prepared them oatmeal for lunch every day as well). Most of all, she loved teaching poetry — the gothic morbidities of Edgar Allen Poe and the sober patriotism of John Greenleaf Whittier, the aesthetic purple of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the mathematical perfection of Shakespeare. A woman whom when I knew her was given to extemporaneous recitations of memorized Walt Whitman. She lived in the Midwest for decades, until she followed the rest of her mother’s family eastward to Pennsylvania, her siblings having moved to Reading en masse during the Depression, tracing backwards a trail that had begun with distant relations. Still, Hannibal remained one of Pauline’s favorite places, in part because of its mythic role, this town where Mark Twain had imagined Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer playing as pirates along the riverbank.

“I had been to school most all the time and could spell and read and write just a little,” recounts the titular protagonist in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get any further than that if I was to live forever. I don’t take no stock in mathematics, anyway.” Huck’s estimation of poetry is slightly higher, even if he doesn’t read much. He recalls coming across some books while visiting the wealthy Grangerfords, including John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that was filled with statements that “was interesting, but tough” and another entitled Friendship’s Offering that was “full of beautiful stuff and poetry; but I didn’t read the poetry.” Had Huck been enrolled in in Mrs. Stoops’ classroom he would have learned verse from a slender book simply entitled One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement, compiled by anthologizer Roy Cook in 1916. When clearing out Pauline’s possessions with my grandma, we came across a 1920 edition of Cook’s volume, with favorite lines underlined and pages dog-eared, scraps of paper now a century old used as bookmarks. Cook’s anthology was incongruously printed by the Cable Piano Company of Chicago (conveniently located at the corner of Wabash and Jackson), and included advertisements for their Kingsbury and Conover models, to which they promise student progress even for those with only “a feeble trace of musical ability,” proving that in the United States Mammon can take pilgrimage to Parnassus.

The flyleaf announced that it was “no ordinary collection,” being both “convenient,” “authoritative,” and most humbly “adequate,” while emphasizing that at fifteen cents its purchase would “Save many a trip to the Public Library, or the purchase of a volume ten to twenty times its cost.” Some of the names are familiar — William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Rudyard Kipling (even if many are less than critically fashionable today). Others are decidedly less canonical — Francis William Bourdillon, Alexander Anderson, Edgar A. Guest (the last of whom wrote pablum like “You may fail, but you may conquer – / See it through!”). It goes without saying that One Hundred and One Poems with a Prose Supplement is overwhelmingly male and completely white. Regardless, there’s a charm to the book, from the antiquated Victorian sensibility to the huckster commercialism. Even more strange and moving was my grandmother’s reaction to this book bound with a brown hardcover made crooked by ten decades of heat and moisture, cold and entropy, the pages inside turned the texture of fall sweetgum and ash leaves as they drop into the Mississippi. When I mentioned Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, my grandmother (twenty years Pauline’s junior) began to perfectly recite from memory “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, /By the shining Big-Sea-Water,” going on for several stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s distinctive percussive trochaic tetrameter. No doubt she hadn’t read “The Song of Hiawatha” in decades, perhaps half-a-century, and yet the rhythm and meter came back to my grandmother as if she was the one looking at the book and not me.

My grandmother’s formal education ended at Centerville High School in Mystic, Iowa in 1938; I’ve been fortunate enough to go through graduate school and receive an advanced degree in literature. Of the two of us, only she had large portions of poetry memorized; I on the other hand have a head that’s full of references from The Simpsons. If I’m able to recall more than a quarter of a single Holy Sonnet by John Donne I’d be amazed, yet I have the entirety of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” memorized for some reason. Certainly, I have bits and pieces here and there, “Death be not proud” or “Batter my heart three-personed God” and so on, but when it comes to making such verse part of my bones and marrow, I find that I’m rather dehydrated. Memorization was once central to pedagogy, when it was argued that committing verse to instantaneous recall was a way of preserving cultural legacies, that it trained students in rhetoric, and that it was a means of building character. Something can seem pedantic about such poetry recitation; the provenance of fussy antiquarians, apt to start unspooling long reams of Robert Burns or Edward Lear in an unthinking cadence, readers who properly hit the scansion, but where the meaning comes out with the wrong emphasis. Still, such an estimation can’t help but leave the flavor of sour grapes on my tongue where poetry should be, and so the romanticism of the practice must be acknowledged. 

Writing exists so that we don’t have to memorize, and yet there is something tremendously moving about recalling words decades after you first encountered them. Memorization’s consequence, writes Catherine Robson in Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, was that “these verses carried the potential to touch and alter the worlds of the huge numbers of people who took them to heart.” Books can burn, but as long as a poem endures in the consciousness of a person, they are in possession of a treasure.  “When the topic of verse memorization is raised today,” writes Robson, “the invocation is often couched within a lament.” Now we’re all possessors of personal supercomputers that can instantly connect us to whole libraries — there can seem little sense to make iambs and trochees part of one’s soul. Now the soul has been outsourced to our smartphones, and we’ve all become cyborgs, carrying our memories in our pockets rather than our brains. But such melancholy over forgetfulness has an incredibly long history. Socrates formulated the most trenchant of those critiques, with Plato noting in the Phaedrus that his teacher had once warned that people will “cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” Important to consider where Socrates places literature, for if it is “within” — like heart, brain, or spleen — rather than some dead thing discarded on inked reeds. According to Socrates, writing is idolatrous; the difference between memorization and actual literature is the equivalent to a painting and reality. Though it must be observed that the only reason we care who Socrates happens to be is because Plato wrote his words down.

Poetry most evokes literature’s first role as a vehicle of memory, because the tricks of prosody – alliteration and assonance; consonance and rhyme – endured because they’re amenable to quick recall. Not only do such attributes make it possible to memorize poetry, they facilitate its composition as well. For literature wasn’t first written on papyrus but rather in the mind, and that was the medium through which it was recorded for most of its immeasurably long history. Since the invention of writing, we’ve tended to think of composition as an issue of a solitary figure committing their ideas to the eternity of paper, but the works of antiquity were a collaborative affair. Albert Lord explains in his 1960 classic The Singer of Tales that “oral epic song is narrative poetry composed in a manner evolved over many generations by singers of tales who did not know how to write; it consists of the building of metrical lines and half lines by means of formulas and formulaic expressions and of the buildings of songs by the use of themes.” Lord had accompanied his adviser, the folklorist and classicist Milman Parry, to the Balkans in 1933 and then again in 1935, where they recorded the oral poetry of the largely illiterate Serbo-Croatian bards. They discovered that recitations were based in “formulas” that made remembering epics not only easier, but also made their performances largely improvisational, even if the contours of a narrative remained consistent. From their observations, Parry and Lord developed the “Oral-Formulaic Theory of Composition,” arguing the pre-literate epics could be mixed and matched in a live telling, by using only a relatively small number of rhetorical tropes, the atoms of spoken literature.

Some of these formulas — phrases like “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” for example — are familiar to any reader of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the two discovered that such utterances had a history in Balkans and the Peloponnesus that goes back millennia. There’s an important difference between relatively recent works like Virgil’s The Aeneid (albeit composed two millennia ago) and the epics of Homer that predate the former by at least eight centuries. When Virgil sat down to pen “I sing of arms and man,” he wasn’t actually singing. He was probably writing, while whoever it was — whether woman or man, women or men — that invoked “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” most likely did utter those words accompanied by a lyre. The Aeneid is a work of literacy, while those of Homer are of orality, which is to say it was composed through memory. Evocatively, there is some evidence that the name “Homer” isn’t a proper noun. It may be an archaic Greek verb, a rough translation being “to speak,” or better yet “to remember.” There were many homers, each of them remembering their own unique version of such tales, until they were forgotten into the inert volumes of written literature.  

Socrates’ fears aren’t without merit. Just as the ability to Google anything at any moment has made contemporary minds atrophied with relaxation, so too does literacy have an effect on recall. With no need to be skilled in remembering massive amounts of information, reading and writing made our minds surprisingly porous. From the Celtic fringe of Britain to the Indus Valley, from the Australian Outback to the Great Plains of North America, ethnographers recount the massive amounts of information which pre-literate peoples were capable of. Poets, priests, and shamans were able to memorize (and adapt when needed) long passages by deft manipulation of rhetorical trope and mnemonic device. When literacy was introduced in places, there was a marked cognitive decline in peoples’ ability to memorize things. For example, writing in the journal Australian Geography, linguist Nick Reid explains that the oral literature of the aboriginal Narrangga people contains narrative details which demonstrate an accurate understanding of the geography of York Peninsula some 12,500 years ago, before melting glaciers irrevocably altered the coastline. Three hundred generations of Narrangga have memorized and told tale of marshy lagoons which no longer exist, an uninterrupted chain of recitation going back an astounding thirteen millennia. Today, if every single copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest were to simultaneously vanish, who among us would be able to recreate those books?

It turns out that some folks have been able to train their minds to store massive amounts of language. Among pious Muslims, people designated as Hafiz have long been revered for their ability to memorize the 114 surahs of the holy Quran. Allah’s words are thus written into the heart of the reverential soul, so that language becomes as much a part of a person as the air which fills lungs or the blood which flows in veins. “One does not have to read long in Muslim texts,” writes William Graham in Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion, “to discover how the ring of the qur’anic text cadences the thinking, writing, and speaking of those who live with and by the Qur’an.” Still relatively common in the Islamic world, the process of memorizing not just Longfellow or a few fragments of T.S. Eliot, but rather an entire book, is still accomplished to a surprising degree. Then there are those who through some mysterious cognitive gift (or curse depending on perspective) possess eidetic memory, and have the ability to commit entire swaths of text to retrieval without the need for mnemonic devices or formulas. C.S. Lewis could supposedly quote from memory any particular line of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that he was asked about; similar claims have been made about critic Harold Bloom.

Prodigious recall need not only be the purview of otherworldly savants, as people have used similar methods as a Hafiz or a Narrangga to consume a book. Evangelical minister Tom Meyer, also known as the “Bible Memory Man,” has memorized twenty books of scripture, while actor John Bassinger used his stage-skills to memorize all six thousand lines of Paradise Lost, with an analysis some two decades later demonstrating that he was still able to recite the epic with some 88% accuracy. As elaborated on by Lois Parshley in Nautilus, Bassinger used personal associations of physical movement and spatial location to “deep encode” the poem, quoting him as saying that Milton is a “cathedral I carry around in my mind… a place that I can enter and walk around at will.” No other type of art is like this — you can remember what a painting looks like, you can envision a sculpture, but only music and literature can be preserved and carried with you, and the former requires skills beyond memorization. As a scholar I’ve been published in Milton Studies, but if Bassinger and I marooned on an island somewhere, or trapped in the unforgiving desert, only he would be in actual possession of Paradise Lost, while I sadly sputtered half-remembered epigrams about justifying the ways of God to man.

Bassinger, who claims that he still loses his car keys all the time, was able to memorize twelve books of Milton by associating certain lines with particular movements, so that the thrust of an elbow may be man’s first disobedience, the kick of a leg being better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. There is a commonsensical wisdom in understanding that memory has always been encoded in the body, so that our legs and arms think as surely as our brains do. Walter Ong explains in Orality and Literacy that “Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not… contrived in oral communication, but is natural and even inevitable.” Right now, I’m composing while stooped over, in the servile position of desk siting, with pain in my back and crick in my neck, but for the ancient bards of oral cultures the unspooling of literature would have been done through a sweep of the arms or the trot of a leg. Motion and memory being connected in a walk. Paradise Lost as committed by Bassinger was also a “cathedral,” a place that he could go to, and this is one of the most venerable means of being able to memorize massive amounts of writing. During the Renaissance, itinerant humanists used to teach the ars memoriae, a set of practical skills designed to hone memory. Chief among these tutors was the sixteenth-century Italian occultist, defrocked Dominican, and heretic Giordano Bruno, who took as students King Henry III of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (later he’d be burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, though for unrelated reasons).

Bruno used many different methodologies, including mnemonics, associations, and repetitions, but his preferred approach was something called the method of loci. “The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places,” writes Dame Frances Yates in The Art of Memory. “In order to form a series of places in memory… a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms, and parlors, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated.” In a strategy dating back to Cicero and Quintilian, Bruno taught that the “images by which the speech is to be remembered… are then placed in imagination on the memorial places which have been memorized in the building,” so that “as soon as the memory… requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians.” Bruno had his students build in their minds what are called “memory palaces,” architectural imaginings whereby a line of prose may be associated with an opulent oriental rug, a stanza of poetry with a blue Venetian vase upon a mantle, an entire chapter with a stone finishing room in some chateau; the candle sticks, fireplace kindling, cutlery, and tapestries each hinged to their own fragment of language, so that recall can be accessed through a simple stroll in the castle of your mind.

It all sounds very esoteric, but it actually works. Even today, competitive memorization enthusiasts (this is a real thing) use the same tricks that Bruno taught. Science journalist Joshua Foer recounts how these very same methods were instrumental in his winning the 2006 USA Memory Championship, storing poems in his mind by associating them with places as varied as Camden Yards and the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, so that he “carved each building up into loci that would serve as cubbyholes for my memories.” The method of loci is older than Bruno, than even Cicero and Quintilian, and from Camden Yards and the National Gallery to Stonehenge and the Nazca Lines, spatial organization has been a powerful tool. Archeologist Lynne Kelly claims that many Neolithic structures actually functioned as means for oral cultures to remember text, arguing in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture that “Circles or lines of stones or posts, ditches or mounds enclosing open space… serve as memory theaters beautifully.”

Literature is simultaneously vehicle, medium, preserver, and occasionally betrayer of memory. Just as our own recollections are more mosaic than mirror (gathered from small pieces that we’ve assembled as a narrative with varying degrees of success), so too does writing impose order on one thing after another. Far more than memorized lines, or associating stanzas with rooms, or any mnemonic trick, memory is the ether of identity, but it is fickle, changing, indeterminate, and unreliable. Fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, drama and essay — all are built with bricks of memory, but with a foundation set on wet sand. Memory is the half-recalled melody of a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood song played for your son while you last heard it decades ago; it’s the way that a certain laundry detergent smells like Glasgow in the fall and a particular deodorant as Boston in the cool summer; how the crack of the bat at PNC Park brings you back to Three Rivers Stadium, and Jagged Little Pill always exists in 1995. And memory is also what we forget. Our identities are simply an accumulation of memories — some the defining moments of our lives, some of them half-present and only to be retrieved later, and some constructed after the fact.

“And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoration of lime flowers which my aunt used to give me,” Marcel Proust writes in the most iconic scene of In Remembrance of Things Past, and “immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.” If novels are a means of excavating the foundations of memory, then Proust’s magnum opus is possibly more associated with how the deep recesses of the mind operate than any other fiction. A Proustian madeleine, signifying all the ways in which sensory experiences trigger visceral, almost hallucinatory memories, has become a mainstay, even while most have never read In Remembrance of Things Past. So universal is the phenomenon, the way in which the taste of Dr. Pepper can propel you back to your grandmother’s house, or Paul Simon’s Graceland can place you on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that Proust’s madeleine has become the totem of how memories remain preserved in tastes, sounds, smells. Incidentally, the olfactory bulb of the brain, which processes odors, is close to the hippocampus where memories are stored, so that Proust’s madeleine is a function of the cerebral cortex. Your madeleine need not be a delicately crumbed French cookie dissolving in tea, it could just as easily be a Gray’s Papaya waterdog, a Pat’s cheesesteak, or a Primanti Brother’s sandwich (all of those work for me). Proust’s understanding of memory is sophisticated, for while we may humor ourselves into thinking that our experiences are recalled with verisimilitude, the reality is that we shuffle and reshuffle the past, we embellish and delete, and what’s happened to us can return as easily as its disappeared. “The uncomfortable reality is that we remember in the same way that Proust wrote,” argues Jonah Lehrer in Proust was a Neuroscientist. “As long as we have memories to recall, the margins of those memories are being modified to fit what we know now.”

Memory is the natural subject of all novels, since the author composes from the detritus of her own experience, but also because the form is (primarily) a genre of nostalgia, of ruminating in the past (even an ostensibly invented one). Some works are more explicitly concerned with memory, their authors reflecting on the malleability, plasticity, and endurance of memory. Consider Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, ruminating on the traumas of his school years, noting that we all live with the assumption that “memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.” Amnesia is the shadow version of memory, all remembrance haunted by that which we’ve forgotten. Kazuo Ishiguro’s parable of collective amnesia The Buried Giant imagines a post-Arthurian Britannia wherein “this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness,” so that it’s “queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” Jorge Luis Borges imagines the opposite scenario in his short story “Funes the Memorius,” detailing his friendship with a fictional Uruguayan boy who after a horse-riding accident is incapable of forgetting a single detail of his life. He can remember “ever crevice and every molding of the various houses.” What’s clear, despite Funes being “as monumental as bronze,” is that if remembering is the process of building a narrative for ourselves, then ironically it requires forgetting. Funes’ consciousness is nothing but hyper-detail, and with no means to cull based on significance or meaning, it all comes to him as an inchoate mass, so that he was “almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort.”

Between the cursed amnesiacs of Ishiguro and the damned hyperthymiac of Borges are Barnes’ aging characters, who like most of us remember some things, while finally forgetting most of what’s happened. Tellingly, a character like Tony Webster does something which comes the closest to writing — he preserves the notable stuff and deletes the rest. Funes is like an author who can’t bring himself to edit, and the Arthurian couple of Ishiguro’s tale are those who never put pen to paper in the first place. Leher argues that Proust “believed that our recollections were phony. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications,” for we are always in the process of editing and reediting our pasts, making up new narratives in a process of revision that only ends with death. This is to say that memory is basically a type of composition — it’s writing. From an assemblage of things which happen to us — anecdotes, occurrences, traumas, intimacies, dejections, ecstasies, and all the rest — we impose a certain order on the past; not that we necessarily invent memories (though that happens), but rather that we decide which memories are meaningful, we imbue them with significance, and then we structure them so that our lives take on the texture of a narrative. We’re able to say that had we not been in the Starbucks near Union Square that March day, we might never have met our partner, or if we hadn’t slept in and missed that job interview, we’d never have stayed in Chicago. “Nothing was more central to the formation of identity than the power of memory,” writes Oliver Sachs in The River of Consciousness, “nothing more guaranteed one’s continuity as an individual,” even as “memories are continually worked over and revised and that their essence, indeed, is recategorization.” We’re all roman a clef in the picaresque of our own minds, but bit characters in the novels written by others.

A century ago, the analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in The Analysis of Mind that there is no “logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into existence five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that ‘remembered’ a wholly unreal past.” Like most metaphysical speculation there’ something a bit sophomoric about this, though Russell admits as such when he writes that “I am not here suggesting that the non-existence of the past should be entertained as hypothesis,” only that speaking logically nobody can fully “disprove the hypothesis.” This is a more sophisticated version of something known as the “Omphalos Argument” — a cagey bit of philosophical book-keeping that had been entertained since the eighteenth-century — whereby evidence of the world’s “supposed” antiquity (fossils, geological strata, etc.) were seen as devilish hoaxes, and thus the relative youthfulness of the world’s age could be preserved alongside biblical inerrancy (the multisyllabic Greek word means “naval,” as in Eve and Adam’s bellybutton). The five-minute hypothesis was entertained as a means of thinking about radical skepticism, where not only all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are fictions, but our collective memories are a fantasy as well. Indeed, Russell is correct in a strictly logical sense; writing this at 4:52 P.M. on April 20th, 2021, and there is no way that I can rely on any outside evidence, or my own memories, or your memories, to deductively and conclusively prove with complete certainty that the universe wasn’t created at 4:47 P.M. on April 20th, 2021 (or by whatever calendar our manipulative robot-alien overlords count the hours, I suppose).

Where such a grotesque possibility errs is that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. In some ways, it’s already true; the past is no longer here and the future has yet to occur, we’ve always been just created in this eternal present (whatever time we might ascribe to it). To remember is to narrate, to re-remember is still to narrate, and to narrate is to create meaning. Memories are who we are — the fundamental particles of individuality. Literature then, is a type of cultural memory; a conscious thing whose neurons are words, and whose synapses are what authors do with those words. Writing is memory made manifest, a conduit for preserving our identity outside of the prison of our own skulls. A risk here, though. For memory fails all of us to varying degrees — some in a catastrophic way — but everyone is apt to forget most of what’s happened to them. “Memory allows you to have a sense of who you are and who you’ve been,” argues Lisa Genova in Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. Those neurological conditions which “ravage the hippocampus” are particularly psychically painful, with Genova writing that “If you’ve witnessed someone stripped bare of his or her personal history by Alzheimer’s disease, you know firsthand how essential memory is to the experience of being human.” To argue that our memories are ourselves is dangerous, for what happens when our past slips away from view? Pauline didn’t suffer from Alzheimer’s, though in her last years she was afflicted by dementia. I no longer remember what she looked like, exactly, this woman alive for both Kitty Hawk and the Apollo mission. I can no longer recall what her voice sounded like. What exists once our memories are deleted from us, when our narratives have unraveled? What remains after that deletion is something called the soul. When I dream about Pauline, I see and hear her perfectly.

Image: Pexels/Jordane Mathieu.

The Hunger Artist: Thoreau and the Irony of Performance Art

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After spending almost a year translating English professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, I was finally done. I thought I deserved some celebration, something fun, fiction perhaps. So, I took The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from my bookshelf and flipped to a random page: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. At first, I was disappointed at the serendipity. As a teenager, I had read the story twice in Chinese —it revolves around a weird man who starves to death for a performance—but I decided to go with the flow. This time, the story made me tremble. You may think I say this because my mind was still full of Thoreau, but it is true: “A Hunger Artist” is a portrait of Thoreau’s life.

Thoreau is now widely regarded as a nature writer and political activist, but a close look at both his life and works suggests an inherent performative quality. Take Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” two of his most famous pieces. He displayed his rejection of industrialization and materialism by living by the lake for two years, two months and two days; after being confined for one night in a Concord jail, he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” which embodied his resistance to slavery and the Mexican-American War. As Laura Dassow Walls beautifully puts it, Thoreau, known for his endeavors in “the experiment of life,” aspired “to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art.” However, this performance artist side also makes him controversial.

For example, during his Walden years, the practitioner of avowed self-sufficiency went back home every weekend for dinner, and his mother probably did his laundry. Hypocrite? Yes, that’s what Kathryn Schulz calls him in her famous 2015 New Yorker piece, “Pond Scum.” But I wonder if hypocrisy is avoidable in any public staging: any dramatized gesture might strike others as fake. The problem of performance is also far more complicated than that. With any expressive art form, something is always lost along the way; this results in a disparity between what the performers think of their acts and what the audience takes away from them.

Shortly before his suicide, David Foster Wallace wrote a short critique of Kafka’s humor in “Laughing with Kafka”: “Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.” It is Wallace’s style to drop bombs of recondite wisdom without further explanation. But he offers an interesting lens through which to view both the hunger artist and Thoreau: while they offer their lives as tragic, the audience always receives them as comic.

Both Kafka’s hunger artist and Thoreau, in their own ways, have very serious religious motivations. The fictional character is a fasting performer, and the climax of his show “was fixed by his impresario at forty days,” a loud echo of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s journey into the desert. In American Nonviolence: A History of an Idea, theology professor Ira Chernus argues, “Thoreau’s religious life, which was for him the sum total of his life, was a quest for direct experience of this spiritual process of ultimate reality.” To Thoreau, God’s “Higher Laws” manifest most strongly in nature, where he first saw the interconnectedness of all reality. For example, in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau was shaken by the image of innocent fishes thrown into the hydraulic machinery of the Billerica Dam. Soon, he saw similar power and injustice rampant in human society: slaves controlled by their owners; Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants; Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest. Thoreau’s various roles—spiritual seeker, writer, abolitionist, naturalist, and environmentalist—aligned with one another in his religious pursuit; he tried to live up to his moral ideals.

However, in a modern world, serious religious practices happen and stay in the church. In the public sphere, a secular audience tends to receive everything—religious performance included—as entertainment. Therefore, the more seriously the performers act, the more entertaining they become. As Kafka writes: “He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less.” Because nobody fasts anymore, only Kafka’s hunger artist knows that fasting is the easiest thing in the world. But even a simple message like this gets warped by the public’s skepticism.

The last thought in the quote—“some kind of cheat”—is the same accusation Schultz levels against Thoreau’s grand Walden show: he “kept going home for cookies and company.” (Note the secular word choice here.) Yet Thoreau is a bit different than Kafka’s performer. The reason Thoreau had to head back to Concord so often is perhaps more daunting, not more cheerful. As Walls explains in her biography, “Thoreau kept on taking jobs as the town handyman, just as he’d done for years—jobs on which he depended for his modest but still necessary income.” He did carpentry, painted houses, and built fences for a dollar a day. He didn’t live comfortably in his cabin, romanticizing his ascetic life as Schultz implies. Thoreau’s Walden years were as difficult as the rest of his early life. Evidence suggests that he didn’t even have a “loo” in his “lake house.” But in Thoreau’s time, even the poverty he wore as a badge seemed ridiculous to others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and close friend, tried to reason with Thoreau’s actions from a secular perspective, but he too ended up with contempt: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

Any human flaws and distress can often strike a humorous note in a secular context. Our laughter has a cruel nature; we take pleasure feeling superior to others. Take physical appearance, for example. Centuries ago, Aristotle had already identified the link between ugliness and comedy in Poetics: “Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists of some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster…” Charlie Chaplin was devastatingly handsome, but he knew that he needed a toothbrush mustache, a derby hat, and a duck-like gait to appear comical. In “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka adopted an “anti-hero” to add to the character’s absurdity. He looks “pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently.” He is so odd that the only suitable place for him is in a cage among the straws. Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a similar story. The protagonist—the supposed “angel”—is bald, toothless, and has “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked.” To match his appearance, he is shut in a chicken coop. Similarly, and unfortunately, Thoreau was born ugly. When the soon-to-be famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne came to live in Concord in 1842, he thought the 25-year-old Thoreau “a singular character…ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat macabre behavior Although Hawthorne would later claim that Thoreau’s ugliness suited his honest and agreeable character, I find his use of the expression “ugly as sin” very interesting. Today, the phrase has lost much of its religious connotation; at the time, however, Thoreau’s sorry appearance seemed to suggest some hidden, inner flaw. Not only because he lacked the charisma that naturally accompanies beauty, but because his failure to live up to God’s image seemed to contradict his self-portrait of a god-like, moral man.

Through performance, ugliness—among other human flaws—is received by the audience as otherness. (Consider, for example, our reaction to Chaplin’s characters: it is not that they look ugly—well, they do—but that they look odd, and thus hilarious.) Still, we must remember, as Aristotle says, that the strangeness must not “cause pain or disaster,” or else people won’t laugh. Wallace uses the phrase “entertainment as reassurance” to distinguish American humor (think about Tom and Jerry) from Kafka’s humor. Wallace suggests that Kafka’s jokes are unsettling and thus inaccessible to American college students. But I think the balance between eccentricity and comedy is present in Kafka’s stories; it is the audience, not Kafka, searching for “reassurance.”

From the very beginning, eccentricity offends people because it violates social norms. In “What Is to Be Done about the Problem of Creepy Men?,” her discussion about people’s judgment of “creepiness,” law scholar Heidi Matthews reminds us that our “gut” has more to do with “regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.” She has a point there, but I would argue that social norms are our primary source of security. So, to cope with the uncanniness of eccentricity in others, we try to explain their behaviors in a way that will solidify the validity of our social rules.

Consider the media coverage of any appalling crime. The first thing journalists do is to seek out explanations for the macabre behavior, which is usually when the family shit comes in. We are satisfied with the fact that the perpetrator was, for example, abused by his father in his childhood. We feel safe because, as long as we prescribe family values to our children, they won’t grow into psychopaths. Wallace, in the same essay on Kafka’s humor, mentions some of the tropes Kafka plays on in “A Hunger Artist.” The word “anorexia” shares the same etymological root with the Greek word for “longing.” Therefore, we can read the protagonist’s strange behavior as “starved for attention or love-starved.” We don’t know whether or not he fasts in order to build connections with people; yet when we believe that he does, we are not troubled by his strange conduct.

Then, to further strengthen our wounded sense of security, we emphasize the otherness of the “other” even more. When someone commits a horrifying crime, the newspapers are eager to interview his classmates, teachers, neighbors, and even those who only had chance encounters with him; they are searching for any possible hints to the nature of his otherness. Therefore, as readers, we feel relieved that we can always detect those signs in a potential criminal and thus avoid danger. Also, because the odd—as the word and its synonyms suggest—are rare, once we lock them up, we will be fine. Once we feel secure, we can devour their eccentricity with pleasure in the same way we relish celebrity gossip.

It is no coincidence that the stories mentioned above—“A Hunger Artist” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”—both apply metaphors of confinement: the cage and chicken coop. We keep distinct boundaries between us and the other; as long as these boundaries are in place, freak shows are amusing. Yet, the most disturbing moment comes when the eccentric claim they are no different than us, that they abide by social norms, and that we should see ourselves in them. Towards the end of Kafka’s story, the hunger artist confesses he is a normal person:
“Are you still fasting?” asked the overseer, “when on earth do you mean to stop?” “Forgive me, everybody,” whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. “Of course,” said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.
This is the moment when we lose our laughter. The artist hints at a possibility that any of us could become him as simple as that. But Kafka is still able to maintain the comedy by showing people’s desperation in clinging to their safety nets. In the story, the way people forget the strange artist is by buttressing his otherness. After his death, a panther is put into the cage to replace him. Unlike the pathetic fasting performer, the animal is full of life and shows no nostalgia about his freedom. The ending achieves two things. First, it erases people’s sad memories by offering something completely different. Second, it reassures people of otherness. For example, if someone should mention the hunger artist again, people can point at the animal cage, suggesting the late performer was not even human.

There is a similar tension between Thoreau’s lifelong performance and his spectators. Many readers, though they admire him, find his self-righteous and didactic tone unbearable. (Consider this quote in the opening chapter of Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”) I tend to view these “teachings” as his confessions; I can even imagine him speaking in the same voice of the hunger artist: I have to live a principled life, I can’t help it…I couldn’t find an existing ethical lifestyle.

Thoreau, like Kafka’s hunger artist, was addicted to confessing. He admitted his hypocrisy. He fussed about human nature. Take his attitude toward eating meat: when he was with friends, he ate whatever was served. But alone in the woods, he interrogated himself about the ethics of eating animals. “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” He also groaned about the immoral modern world of which he was a part. After he took to natural science, he questioned its ethics: “The inhumanity of science concerns me as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species—I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” When land surveying finally brought him steady income at the age of 32, he found himself becoming an accomplice in destroying his beloved nature. The forest he had surveyed just a year ago was clear-cut and subdivided into fifty-two house lots by its owner. “Trade curses everything it handles,” Thoreau remarked. His reaction resonated with his antipathy towards commerce back in his Harvard years: materialism, he said in a debate, “enslaves us, turns us into brutes. To be human is to cast off these material desires and walk forth, freely, into paradise.” Ironically, even his most honest gesture to fight against immorality seems suspicious and hence quixotic. “You all know,” he warned his neighbors in his first public speech in Concord, “the lecturer who speaks against money is being paid for his words—and that’s the lesson you remember.”

Thoreau’s words are disturbing to us because they reveal our hypocrisy. We don’t want to be plagued by moral quandaries every minute of our lives. In truth—like the aforementioned fictional characters—Thoreau “lived in a cage” throughout his performance career, as he spent much of his time in isolation. On the one hand, he never joined any political organization. His faith in individualism was consistent with his faith in moral freedom promised by God. Thoreau was cautious to avoid any coercion and believed “shared religious or moral values will enhance community only if they are adopted voluntarily.” On the other hand, the public was eager to paint his heroic singularity into eccentricity. After that work was done, his audience could proudly conclude that Thoreau’s solitude led to his isolation; it was his personal fault, and the spectators were let off the hook. “Poor Thoreau,” Schulz derides him in her New Yorker article. “He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity.” Schulz’s criticism was typical during Thoreau’s lifetime. After Thoreau’s imprisonment, Emerson defended his own adherence to the social norm—paying tax—by scolding his young friend: “Your true quarrel is with the state of Man.” When people laughed at Thoreau’s quirkiness, they successfully simplified and silenced his message. That is why, in her same-titled essay “Civil Disobedience,” Hanna Arendt doubts Thoreau’s politics by quoting scholar Nicholas W. Puner: “Civil disobedience practiced by a single individual is unlikely to have much effect. He will be regarded as an eccentric more interesting to observe than to oppress.”

For Wallace, the central comedy of Kafka’s work is the horrific struggle that Kafka’s characters undergo to establish and confirm their human selves. Wallace’s view reminds me of Albert Camus’s final analysis on Sisyphus in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whereas one can only speculate about the heart of Kafka’s characters or Sisyphus, Thoreau exuded joy and hope. Since the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850, he had been grilling himself with this dreadful query: “I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?” But Thoreau never let himself wallow in despair. In a journal entry that would later appear in the ending of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau captured a silver lining in nature: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” As Walls argues, rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” those pure, fragrant flowers symbolize Thoreau’s belief in the “purity and courage” that will be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity.”

Though Thoreau and Kafka’s characters may experience a similarly absurd reality during their lifetimes, their afterlives are as different as night and day. The characters in Kafka’s fiction are often trapped in time. The hunger artist has to repeat the 40-day performance over and over again. Gregor, in The Metamorphosis, is first urged by human time and then tormented by bug-time. In the eponymous short story, Kafka’s Poseidon is burdened with endless paperwork and never gets to see the oceans. (Yes, another tragedy turned comedy!) The only thing that saves them from the labyrinth of time is death—which, then again, leads to nothingness, meaninglessness, and the irredeemable. In contrast, as Walls shows in her biography, Thoreau was able to believe in “the constant slow work of creation” by enlarging the scale of time:
It was easy to see destruction, which is sudden and spectacular: everyone hears the crash of a falling tree. But who hears the growth of a tree, the constant slow work of creation? “Nature is slow but sure.” She wins the race by perseverance; she knows that seeds have many uses, not just to reproduce their kind. “If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, never fear! She has more years to come.” Here was his [Thoreau’s] solution to the baffling waste of the white oak crop: what made no sense on a human scale could be understood by lengthening the measure of time to the scale of the planet. The man who was running out of time now thought as if he had all the time, literally, in the world.
Consequently, Thoreau’s death transcends him into a living soul in his books—pure and bodiless—the state he longed for when he was alive. Over time and space, he himself facilitates creation in the way he favored: he inspires his readers to grow voluntarily, freely, and deliberately. Among them, probably two of the most famous Thoreauvian readers are Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Roughly a century after Thoreau’s death, both Gandhi and Dr. King put Thoreau’s philosophy into practice. In India and the United States, officers resigned their posts, jails were filled with conscious objectors, and the “machinery” of the unjust system was “clogged.” Through his seemingly ineffective political struggle, Thoreau was able to elevate those that came after him to a different point in that struggle.

While people today still find themselves stuck in absurd, Kafkaesque situations, we mustn’t deny the slow but sure progress of human civilization: the abolition of slavery, the creation of the national park service, women’s suffrage, the end of segregation—just to name some of the most visible examples in the United States. Indeed, as Thoreau once wrote in a letter to Harry Blake, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, “It is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature.” Despite all the voyeurism, blasphemy, and suppression, Thoreau’s life of performance art is truly an immense and reverent joy.

Protagonists

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This essay is excerpted from the author’s memoir-in-progress, The Vulgar American.

In May of 2019, I’d been living in the U.K. for four months, and suddenly I was hearing a lot less frequently from my mom. She wasn’t feeling well. She was often at the doctors. She was losing weight. Having trouble keeping food down. They kept prescribing her things for stomach ulcers and sending her home.

But nothing about your diet has changed, I said.

I took a lot of Advil the other day, she said.

You always take Advil.

I know, but this was a lot. And with wine.

I don’t think so, Mom. I knew that when she said wine, she meant one glass, two at most. Are you stressed about something?

No, she said.

Then it doesn’t make sense.

*

I was taught that an easy way to write fiction was to create a character who wants something. And then to place obstacles in front of that character. And watch them overcome those obstacles

Every time I tried to write fiction this way, I failed.

Sometimes I didn’t understand a person wanting something that wasn’t achievable. Sometimes I didn’t understand an obstacle that could be overcome.

The obstacles life threw at me were disasters that couldn’t be faced or overcome or fixed. They stopped me. They stopped me and on the other side of obstacles like that, I no longer wanted the things I wanted before.

And what was it that I wanted? I wanted to go to grad school, so I applied to many and went to the one program that offered me a full ride (both times). I wanted to go to Canada, so I applied to grad school again, and I didn’t get in, so my family didn’t get to go. I had to want something else, something new, because the things I wanted had clear paths and clear dead ends.

Was I supposed to dream bigger? Was I supposed to dream more abstractly? Was I supposed to be pining after someone or something unlikely? Was I supposed to, in the end, surprise myself?

*

When I wrote Naamah, she didn’t want anything. She was set on a path by her husband and had to make the best of it.

As her author, I offered her things, escapes, gifts, friendships, lovers—the opposite of obstacles. I could never have sat down to the page and offered that woman obstacles, forced them on her.

I felt like No-Face in Spirited Away, holding out handfuls of gold to Chihiro, making a gentle noise, uh, uh.

And as I was not offering gold or greed, as I was not judging her, ever, Naamah took her time and considered her gifts, and often gently refused them, just as Chihiro had.

*

A woman often cannot want.

*

A woman makes do.

A woman makes do well, but that is not to be confused with a woman who is happy.

*

I often considered the happiness of a woman who wants and pursues. But I did not write about that woman because I had never met a woman like that.

*

When my mother was getting sick, I was running out of my medicine. The doctors in the U.K. gave me the exact prescriptions as I’d had before, but when I went to the pharmacy, the Trazadone wasn’t there.

What do you mean?

We don’t have it.

Yes. I understand that. When will you have it?

We don’t know.

I stopped myself from asking What do you mean? again. Instead I said, What do I do?

We’ll call you when we have it.

But you don’t know when that will be?

No.

No. I said it to myself.

*

The day I found out my mother’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, I walked into my doctor’s practice and said I needed grief counseling. They made me the appointment to discuss that with my doctor for 10 minutes.

*

I’m changing so many words to Americanize my language. I went to my surgery. They made an appointment for me to see my GP. I lived in a flat. My son went to primary school. Next he would go to secondary school. I said ground floor to get around not saying first floor. And so on. And so on.

I was living a life I almost recognized in a language I almost recognized. The new words and appropriate contexts weren’t hard to learn, and yet they made everything seem slightly off, like Britain was the other side of a shimmering field that separated two parallel universes, and the big differences were in the healthcare system and the thing I missed most was Target.

*

I learned how to sleep without the Trazadone. I didn’t fall asleep immediately anymore, but it happened. Perhaps because my first response to my mother’s sickness was that I was much more prone to sleep. At night. During the day. Anytime no one needed anything of me.

I no longer needed anything of myself. Not to eat or write or amuse myself or feel purpose. Nothing.

I’d tell myself that I’d enjoy going to see a movie, and then I’d sleep in the theater. I was like the old man in the back row. I should have sat next to him. My snoring woke me up.

At another point in my life, I would have been embarrassed. Not then.

*

I was most awake from 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm—the hours between when my son came home from school and my husband came home from work. For three hours every day I was alive and brimming and engaged. That was what I could handle.

And those hours brought me joy.

I was living for those hours and those hours made me understand what I was living for and what life was and what I wanted more of, the most of. Though this is more about what happened after she died, and not about early that summer when she got sick.

*

My mother read more than anyone I knew. More than any English teacher, more than any writer, more than any student of writing. She read the Booker Prize winner every year and then she’d read the finalists and then she’d go back and read the winners from the ‘70s when she got bored.

She’d fall in love with an author and read every book they’d ever written. I remember when she did this with Atwood, and I fell in love with the dust jacket of The Blind Assassin with its thick paper and gold lettering. I was 16.

She’d read all the classics—everything by Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway. And she’d read the less literary, too. She knew when to give me The Clan of the Cave Bear. When to give me The Thorn Birds. When to give me The Fountainhead.

And when I wanted literary: The Source, Mila 18, Marjorie Morningstar. My whole reading life was guided by her. Often I’d already read the books assigned in English class a few years before at her recommendation. The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men.

She didn’t mind when I didn’t like something—like For Whom the Bell Tolls. She gave me the next book. Sometimes we read a breakout hit one right after the other. She’d finish and then the copy would become mine. This is how we read the Best American Short Stories collection every year, too.

She was honest and frank about the books and their shortcomings, but she always read them to the end. She could always find something to admire.

When she got sick she couldn’t read, and she didn’t want to talk about books either. We were both thinking it. I was bringing up books she would never get to read.

*

I didn’t think about whether my mother was a woman who wanted things unless she asked me to.

Do you think I should have been a teacher? she asked.

I don’t know. You loved teaching.

This was after she retired. She had taken more and more classes about different art forms since then. Sculpture, upholstery, basket-weaving.

I think I should have been an artist. or I think I could have been an artist. or Do you think I should have been an artist?

Artists don’t make much money. It’s not a good life.

She knew when I spoke like this, I was speaking about my own life, but she didn’t comment on that part of what I was saying, that underlying simmer.

I think I could have, she said.

*

When I was very young, I realized my mother hadn’t done things because she had had me. She often talked about the travel she had thought she would do. I cried.

Why are you crying? she asked me.

I tried to explain that I’d kept her from what she wanted. I’d changed her. I’d held her up. I’d stopped her.

No, she said. Well, yes, she said. Of course you did, she said. But because I wanted you to. Because I wanted you.

It wasn’t easy to explain for either of us.

*

My mother didn’t say—Don’t worry. We can still do those things. Or I can still do those things.

I swore to myself that when I had a child, I would still do everything I wanted to do. I would strap him to me and take him with me and off we would go.

It was a naïve way to think about life and children and wants. But it helped me to have the child I wanted, and then keep living.

*

I also thought about my mother differently after that, as if she had submitted to her life. Given in and given up.

That, too, was naïve.

She had shaped her life. She had filled it with the things she wanted—her children—and then provided for us. And she’d done it better than I ever could.

And when we got older she traveled and made art and had her musings about her what-ifs.

Life is long and different parts of it capture us, and that can look like resignation, but it’s the impositions of the things we want, and the needs of those things change, and life changes again. And if you never felt resigned to it, then you weren’t. You were waiting.

Naamah, and all the women in my books, are apologies to my mother, for misunderstanding.

*

How did you teach a life like that to fiction writers? How did you teach a woman’s life?

Was the craft of fiction around desire and obstacle taught by men and for men, for men protagonists and men readers? Was fiction part of the patriarchy? Was the craft of fiction part of the patriarchy?

The answers were all yes, and the answers were always surprising only because I had never thought of the questions before.

*

The pharmacy called two months later and said they had my Trazadone.

I don’t want it, I said. Even though I did want it. I wanted it badly. But I didn’t want to come to rely on it again, and then be told I could not have it.

My whole life was a reminder of everything I had come to rely on that was no longer mine to have.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Intimate Strangers: Reading Airport Essays During a Pandemic

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1.On a flight from Tijuana to Mexico City, I sat next to a woman who told me in Spanish that she was scared of flying, and grabbed my hand when the plane leapt. When the plane touched down she hugged me.

On a flight from D.C. to San Diego, I sat next to a college student who noticed that I was feverish. When I returned to my seat after throwing up in the lavatory sink, he handed me a fleece blanket monogrammed with his university logo.

On a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I sat next to a woman who confessed she was flying home to sell the house she’d lived in for decades. Her husband had just died, and she needed to downsize. They were high school sweethearts; he had been her date to the homecoming dance. She tilted her phone screen toward me to show me a photo: it was them at the dance, him in a white jacket and her in a knee-length dress, rounded like a bell. When I glanced up from her phone, I saw her eyes had grown wet.

Why am I telling you about these interactions? Because lately, I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite. For more than a year we’ve avoided brushing up against others, holding our breath when it becomes necessary to squeeze by someone at the grocery store, turning our head while reaching over them for tortillas. The pandemic has rendered other people’s bodies not just inconvenient but dangerous, suspect.

2.A few months ago, nostalgic for the days of flying nonchalantly with strangers, I looked up some of my favorite airport essays to re-read. I hoped that they would help me articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B.

I started with Pico Iyer’s 1995 travelogue about the Los Angeles airport, “Where Worlds Collide,” a piece I first read in a college creative writing course. At the time, I was a Californian living in New England, and even Iyer’s dreary descriptions of LAX—“a surprisingly shabby and hollowed-out kind of place”—made me homesick. In order to gather the raw materials for this essay, Iyer haunted LAX for a week, noting its inequalities and inconsistencies, ironies and images. But what interested me most when I returned to the essay was the way he put words to something I hadn’t quite articulated: the heightened attention we experience during travel.

Iyer calls this “an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.” This altered consciousness, in my experience, usually takes one of two forms. In the first, we become the sleepwalkers Iyer refers to. We move from security to gate to boarding line to seat in a haze, propelled forward by the surge of other passengers and the loudspeaker’s muffled instructions. Alternatively, this sense of displacement can heighten our attention to our surroundings. In the absence of our daily stimuli—emails on a computer screen, a toddler asking for a snack, a red light at the intersection—our attention is loosed to roam freely.

Travel in general (think of the crowd of tourists pressing toward a sculpture in a museum) and public transportation in particular (think of the subway at rush hour) enforce a proximity to strangers that I don’t experience anywhere else in my life. The displacement of air travel, a “strange statelessness,” means we are confronted with each other in a transparent way. These public spaces afford an anonymous intimacy; I can watch people, press close to them, see them without the scaffolding of job or car or routine. But this noticing has to do with more than just proximity, otherwise I’d miss standing crammed up against other people at the DMV. This state of consciousness also sharpens our awareness of our surroundings. Displaced from our daily environments, our attention zeroes in on novelty. Because of this increased capacity for noticing, we tend to see the bodies around us with more than a passing glance. I remember standing on the Athens metro in late winter and watching a woman’s eyes flick along the passing landscape. The morning light turned her irises gold, the pupils stuttering with the scenery that flashed by in frames through the window.

In the no man’s land of public travel, Iyer writes, “people are at the far edge of themselves in airports, ready to break down or through. You see strangers pouring out their life stories to strangers here, or making new life stories with other strangers.” In other words, the conversations and interactions I’ve shared with seatmates aren’t unusual, because the limbo-like space we share invites us to see each other with a rare kind of attention. Pair that with the intensified emotions we experience while flying (something psychologists chalk up to air pressure, altitude, dehydration, and loss of control), and I begin to understand why airports make us porous to each other.

This porousness makes tenderness possible. It’s why my fraternity seatmate handed me his blanket, why the elderly woman shared her grief, and why I listened. The poet Ross Gay calls this kind of public tenderness “caretaking.” In The Book of Delights—a collection of “essayettes” that chronicles daily delights, sometimes set in airports—he admires the particular kindness that exists between strangers. “In almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.”

3.

I like the idea that increased attention plus proximity equals tenderness between strangers, and often it does. But public caretaking is not uncomplicated. In “Layover Story,” from her collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison considers the complexities of sharing spaces with those we don’t know.

During a layover in Houston, Jamison is thrust into proximity with a “difficult woman.” This woman has many needs: she needs help with her bags, help lobbying for an earlier shuttle ride to the airport, help navigating the boarding process with an injured leg. With few other distractions, Jamison watches her. What else is there to pay attention to in a salmon-pink hotel in Houston, in a shuttle bus, in the dull monotony of the airport shuffle from security to gate to boarding to seat? Jamison tries out a few different stories about the woman: that she is implacable, a difficult tourist; then later, that she is a victim, worthy of pity and generosity. The narratives are a way to pass the time and to feel generous. Over the course of the essay, Jamison imposes and then revises these stories: “First she was a tyrant, then a saint, and finally just a tourist, dancing.” The story she is left with is the least interesting of the bunch—woman hurts her leg dancing in Cancun—but it is constructed from acts of attention.

On the flight, Jamison is stuck next to a man who wants to talk. Initially, he bores her. She has already given her attention to the difficult woman and has little left over for a seatmate. But then he surprises her with complexity: a military history in Iraq and a duffel bag full of shells for his daughter, who will offer them as homes to her pet hermit crabs. As they talk, Jamison tries to craft a narrative out of his anecdotes. As with the difficult woman, she fails to get tidy storylines to stick. “I’m trying to run the meaning-making logic over this one too: we have the big and the small; we have more than we can use. But it doesn’t yield; Houston all over again.” Instead she settles for attention: for listening to and seeing the man. She asks questions about the hermit crabs. She is afforded brief glimpses of another person’s world: “His endlessness is something I receive in finite anecdotes: big desert skies, a little girl poking crabs…I forgot, for a moment, that his life—like everyone else’s—holds more than I could ever possibly see.”

This gets at something I love about traveling through public spaces: that it is monotonous and dull and sometimes thrilling, because it occasionally opens a window into other lives and the universes those lives contain. In “Layover Story,” both Jamison’s interactions end in a form of public caretaking. Two seatmates listen to each other. Two passengers travel together from hotel to airport to train station. No one is a martyr and no one is a hero, but—through proximity and an attentive gaze—Jamison catches flashes of other people’s infinitude.

Maybe this is, in the end, why I’ve been reading about airports. In reading, as in traveling, I want to be transported—not physically, but into a deeper engagement with the world and the people around me. Absent of the kind of traveling I’d like to do, reading has been its own kind of portal. Iyer and Jamison shuttle me back into the world of public travel, which can be both boring or luminous depending on my capacity to give attention to strangers. In airports and airplanes we can and do mostly ignore one another, seeing other bodies as inconveniences to be pressed up against or squeezed past in line. But tenderness becomes possible too. “This is how we light the stars, again and again,” writes Jamison, “by showing up with our ordinary, difficult bodies when other ordinary, difficult bodies might need us.”

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Taking Refuge in How: On Toni Morrison’s First Three Novels

I love reading writers’ works in chronological order. Especially with great novelists, it’s so satisfying to see the seeds of later masterpieces in early works. What I often notice is that writers experiment widely with different genres, styles, and narrative perspectives as they work to find a unique voice at the start of their career. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s first three novels, for example, include an epistolary social critique, a surrealist nightmare, and a Dickensian bildungsroman.

Reading Toni Morrison’s books, I’m finding a stark contrast. She does not leap from one kind of story to something radically different, like a pendulum trying to find equilibrium. Morrison’s voice shines through from the beginning. Her books contain vastly different plots and characters, but they all bear the marks of her imagination, style, and insight.

In Timothy Greenfields-Sanders’s powerful 2019 documentary about Morrison, The Pieces I Am, the interviewees frequently described Morrison as expanding her canvas with each work. I decided to read through all her novels and, after finishing the first three, I already understand what they meant. These early works do not merely anticipate masterpieces to come; they are masterpieces in their own right. Examining just how each novel expands on what came before is an inspiring and, frankly, humbling experience. And it all begins with The Bluest Eye.

1.
In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison traces the novel back to a haunting conversation from her childhood. One of her friends confided that she wanted blue eyes, a wish that disturbed Morrison because, “Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.” “Twenty years later.” Morrison reflects, “ I was still wondering about how one learns that.” The Bluest Eye directly responds to the systemic oppression that informed her friend’s desire by “peck[ing] away at the gaze that condemned her.”

Morrison demonstrates a keen understanding of what a novel can accomplish in just the first few pages of The Bluest Eye. In essence, the opening functions as an outline of every major plot point to come. By beginning this way Morrison spoils the ending to her own story, revealing the ultimate fate of the novel’s central character, Pecola Breedlove. But this isn’t a story whose power relies on maintaining suspense. It cannot be spoiled because it is not about what happened. It is not even about why things happened the way they did because, as the unknown narrator of the prologue tells us, “why is difficult to handle.” Instead, we “must take refuge in how.”

This elevation of how over why is a defining feature not only of The Bluest Eye, but of Morrison’s subsequent two novels. She does not make it easy for us by giving us straightforward answers or even straightforward questions. Instead we simply inhabit and perceive Morrison’s richly developed world through the eyes of characters as real as any person you could meet. This is something that can only be accomplished through fiction.

Her ability to effortlessly transport us from one consciousness to another (and often from one time period to another) allows us to simultaneously perceive everything that happens from a variety of viewpoints. This does not mean we always agree or even sympathize with the characters. But Morrison does not give us the comfort of seeing any of them as villains. She is too good a writer for readers to be left not understanding anyone. The true enemies, in any case, resist easy forms or definitions. Like the insidious gaze that filled Morrison’s friend with shame, they pollute the characters’ world through systems of oppression no single person is responsible for creating.

This identification of the true villain as something systemic and pervasive is made explicit at the end of a scene where three Black girls, Celia, Frieda, and Pecola, and a white girl named Maureen Peal get into an argument. Maureen eventually storms off and declares, “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly…!” Celia is enraged, but admits that, “all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”

This scene exemplifies another one of Morrison’s strengths: her ability to write scenes that could function as powerful short stories entirely separate from the novel. In part this is due to Morrison’s tendency to switch perspectives with each chapter. She switches between time periods as well. The beginning of one chapter might take place decades before or after the last one ended. But The Bluest Eye never feels like a short story collection passing itself off as a novel. The further into the story you get, the more you see how Morrison weaves each episode together into a potent, deeply affecting whole. Morrison achieves this in many subtle ways, but one obvious method is by having each incident shape the life of one particular character, Pecola.

Earlier I called Pecola the central character of The Bluest Eye as opposed to the main one. That is because it’s hard to think of her as a main anything. Pecola is always on the receiving end of other characters’ neglect, abuse, or attempts at love. She is only allowed a chance to speak for herself at the very end, and by this point her psyche is so fractured that we end up with more of a hallucinatory dialogue than a clear perspective. Even the title emphasizes not Pecola herself but something she does not and will never have. The Bluest Eye is not so much about Pecola than about how others’ choices drive her inexorably towards tragedy.

Pecola is frequently a recurring background character while someone else narrates, but she is invariably the one who suffers most. One devastating instance comes when Celia and Frieda visit Pecola at the house where Mrs. Breedlove, her mother, works as a maid. The scene ends with Pecola being beaten by her mother after the girls accidentally knock over a pie Mrs. Breedlove made, dirtying the floor she had just cleaned in the process. What compounds the emotional toll of this moment is the presence of Mrs. Breedlove’s employer’s white daughter. The toddler is horrified when these three girls she has never met before ruin the delicious pie meant for her. Mrs. Breedlove responds by gently comforting the white child right after beating her own. She does not even acknowledge Pecola as her own daughter. The racial dynamics at play here are as complex as they are heartbreaking, illustrating Morrison’s wisdom in thoroughly telling us how and leaving the trickier why for us to contemplate on our own.

The Bluest Eye demonstrates Morrison’s already impressive command over her craft, especially through her use of different styles. She would eventually demonstrate these same strengths with her third novel, Song of Solomon. In between the two lays Sula.

2.
When considering Sula, Dostoevsky once again provides a useful contrast. In one of his letters, he told a friend that after writing about a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, he wanted to portray a purely innocent man in his next novel, The Idiot. Whether Morrison consciously saw Sula as the “opposite” of The Bluest Eye, the central figures at least are indeed polar opposites. The Bluest Eye, as mentioned earlier, refers to Pecola by way of by emphasizing what she does not have. The title Sula foregrounds the character Sula Peace, who looms over everything and everyone in the novel, even when she isn’t present. If The Bluest Eye is about how others’ choices impact Pecola, Sula is about how Sula’s choices impact others.

This is more than just the story of a different kind of character, however. First, it arguably has two central figures, Sula and her friend, the far less independent Nel Wright. But second, and more importantly, this is a story about a community as much as the people living in it. The first three lines make this clear beyond any doubt:

In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the alley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

 Both of Morrison’s first two novels open by looking back at something lost. In The Bluest Eye, it is an innocent time that disappeared after Pecola’s trauma. In Sula, Morrison prioritizes the loss of a place. And while places cannot literally die, there is something funereal about a place with a name being erased for the sake of a golf course and bland suburbs that undoubtedly looks like a thousand others. In both cases, an identity has been destroyed.

The interrelatedness of the Bottom’s inhabitants is made clear again and again. No major event affects just one person. Large crowds are often involved or at least present when such events occur. Generations also influence the lives of old and young alike. By the end of the novel, we have witnessed three generations whose triumphs and tragedies ineluctably shape those around them, even if the full ramifications of one action do not come until decades after. As strange as it may sound, I found myself thinking of Icelandic sagas. The plots of both Sula and these ancient narratives are deeply influenced by communities and the legacies of generations past. The actions of distant ancestors are so great that the titular hero sometimes doesn’t appear until a third of the way through the saga. Notably, Sula is not mentioned until around page 30 and it takes another 30 pages for Sula to take any action of her own in a novel named Sula.

Sula faces isolation more than once, but remains forever tied to her friend Nel. Both actually begin in an isolated state, which is why, “Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers…they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”

The characters complement each other in a way only opposites could. Nel is far more insecure, lacks the courage to ever leave the Bottom, and eventually surrenders to the kind of life expected of her. This comes as no surprise, since “Her parents had succeeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or splutter she had.” She is infected by a trace of racial self-loathing, too, though in this case it appears in the form of language. Nel has family who speak Creole, but when Nel asks about the language, her mother curtly replies, “I don’t talk Creole,” adding, “And neither do you.”\

Sula, on the other hand, is a force of nature her entire life. Unlike Nel, or anyone else in the Bottom, she has the audacity to leave. She passes through over half a dozen cities before returning home to find herself a dreaded larger-than-life figure. She is believed to possess supernatural powers. There are also rumors that she slept with white men, something the people of the Bottom consider unforgivable. But no one is more affected by Sula’s return than Nel, whose ordered world is soon plunged into chaos.

Sula certainly expands on The Bluest Eye. But that expansion is nothing compared to what came next.

3.
Song of Solomon is a neutron star of a novel. It contains so many riveting characters, so many rich family histories, so any folktales and songs, and so many pieces of U.S. history yet manages to be less than four hundred pages.

The novel begins with an insurance salesman deciding to fly from the top of a North Carolina hospital to Lake Superior. Spoiler: he fails. The birth of the main character of Song of Solomon, Milkman Dead, coincides with the salesman’s suicide. “Milkman” is actually a nickname that derives from an early scene that highlights how his mother clings to her son in the face of a loveless marriage and the absence of her beloved father. His actual name is Macon Dead III. “Macon” and “Dead,” derive from an indifferent white man who misunderstands Macon’s grandfather shortly after slavery ends.

The next two thirds of the novel exhibit all of Morrison’s by now trademark strengths. We move from one time and consciousness to another, which lets us learn about each of Milkman’s family members. Their incongruous perceptions of each other put the reader in the role of a detective. Milkman, however, is undoubtedly the protagonist, and is the first one I worried I would not like. He initially seems to function purely as a way for us to get to know others because there is not much to know about him. He is aimless, lacks any ambition, and has a limited conception of the world, unlike his politically-informed friend, Guitar. The contrast between the two men calls to mind the differences between Nel and Sula.

Then we reach Part II and everything changes. The story becomes a literal search for buried treasure that in turn expands into a quest for his family’s history. Previously Milkman only experienced his family’s past through memories that may or may not be trusted. Now he goes to the actual places where these stories happened. It is a deeply satisfying twist in three ways. First, it builds on what we learned in Part I in unexpected ways. Second, Milkman does not simply gather up facts about his ancestors. He must piece together stories and folktales and the songs, including the “song of Solomon” to discover a deeply personal truth. And third, Milkman’s quest for a sense of belonging becomes symbolic of an entire people searching for their roots.

History has never been so present in Morrison’s early works. The murder of Emmett Till is directly referenced, as is Malcolm X, and the horrors faced by Black Americans are brought up time and again, including in a particularly fascinating dialogue about the secretive Seven Days organization between Milkman and Guitar. Morrison has never ignored the brutal realities of racism and the terror white people inflict on Black lives. There are multiple scenes in her first two novels that involve white people that are unbearably tense, even in situations that seem relatively safe for the characters. For example, in The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s father is, as a young man, forced to have sex with a girl in front of white men. It’s clear his life is in danger if he does not perform for them. In Sula, Nel and her mother accidentally get onto a white’s only section of a train. They hurry out, but not before they are noticed. This second example seems to have less dramatic stakes, but the depressing fact is that any time a white character appears, we as readers know they can do anything, no matter how vile, with total impunity.

Song of Solomon is different. The first two novels included occasional intrusions into Black worlds (worlds that are, of course, shaped by the United States’ virulent racism). The toxic reality of racism feels more pervasive in this third novel, something that the characters must contend with constantly. It is also addressed more directly and philosophically by characters than before, who consequently take drastically different paths in life. This unfortunately results in divisions among family and friends, the most painful of which occurs between Milkman and Guitar. But the divide between these two men does not come about by betrayal, as with Nel and Sula. Rather, it is a gradual process, accelerated by a misunderstanding with fatal consequences.

Song of Solomon begins with one man falling and ends with another learning to fly. But this spoils nothing. Like The Bluest Eye and Sula, this is a story about how. And that how is beautiful.

4.
These three novels are a testament to Morrison’s selflessness as a writer. The Bluest Eye alone is proof of this. Not only was it a reckoning with the cruel gaze that made her friend doubt her own inherent beauty. Morrison also explains in The Pieces I Am that she wanted to write specifically for a Black audience. She felt even writers like Frederick Douglass ultimately had a white audience in mind. Her novels would be different so that her readers would know someone was speaking to them. Furthermore, they would take place in worlds that were not defined by the white gaze or any white person’s preconceptions. Her novels’ worlds would be outside the white gaze entirely. The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon show an author with a commanding, distinctive voice, even as Morrison also gives voice to generations of Black Americans who struggle even today to be heard at all.

As a white man, I know I am not the audience Morrison imagined. But I am grateful for all I’ve learned from reading these three novels. They have exposed me to perspectives and ideas I never would have discovered otherwise. Researching them has also led me to other great writers I undoubtedly have just as much to learn from.

And best of all, I still have eight more Morrison novels to read.

Revisiting an Unchanged Venice

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I’ve always suspected that us devoted book lovers need books for deeper reasons than just entertainment or information. Speaking from experience, readers who’ve devoured books from childhood onward have found a coping mechanism between those covers. Books give us a way to escape, but even more, they can set us down in a private space of retreat and maybe even safety. In the same way that Lucy enters the wardrobe and finds snowy, magical Narnia, we enter a book and find a landscape that gives us rest from the intensity of our individual surroundings. And if readers use books in this way, then devoted book lovers who become writers have a similar, second escape route because our settings—and even the act of writing itself can provide a haven.

Last year, all of our settings were intense. Here in the Seattle area, we had a jump start on the fear and confusion the pandemic brought. My beautiful hometown of Kirkland, Wash., and my whole beloved Seattle area, was the hot zone for the coronavirus. To find our vibrant, lake-filled, mountainous, science-and-tech-smart city at the center of something so frightening was shocking, and it was surreal to witness the rest of the U.S. going about life as usual as schools shut down and grocery store shelves emptied and as our major corporations firmly sent workers home.

At the time, I was midway through the writing of One Great Lie, my novel about a young writer who travels to Venice for a summer writing program taught by a charismatic male author, and a woman who’s forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance. Every time I write a novel, I make decisions about settings, of course—what’s best for the story itself, which backdrop will best add another layer of mood or meaning. But I also think about where I might want to go, where I want to spend the year or so it takes to write a book. I’ve spent that year on islands in the San Juans, in cliffside houses on the Pacific Ocean, at a divorce ranch in the Nevada Desert, on the hidden South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia. I’ve spent a year making my way across the country on foot, mile by mile, word by word, page by page. This time, though, I wanted to travel to one of my favorite cities: Venice. That enchanting, shabby, and surreal island of sinking villas and winding streets. I wanted its atmosphere and history to seep deeply into my story, and to give it the rich patina of 500 years of art and power, tragedy and resilience.

Oddly enough, or maybe not oddly at all if you’re writing about Venice, ancient plagues had already made their way into the book. The summer writing program my character visits takes place at a villa on La Calamita, a fictional private island in the Venetian Lagoon based on the very real “plague island” called La Poveglia, which served as a plague quarantine area during the many pandemics in the 14th through 18th centuries. Also, my characters experience two very real festivals that still take place to celebrate the end of those plagues. At the same time that we in the Seattle area were locking down, we were also seeing scenes of Italians in quarantine singing from their balconies, eerily empty piazzas, and quiet, yet unusually clear Venetian canals. So, when I delved back into my book, it was with both a bittersweet connection and a sense of retreat into the past, in more ways than one.

The book was already a love letter to the city, with its romance and mystery and its watery, drowning magic, but now my love for the city and for Italy itself felt more alive and insistent, as I witnessed that resilience I was writing about. And that retreat into the past was more alive, too, as, on the eve of its 1,600th birthday, Venice was once again experiencing a pandemic. Venice, the city that also gave us the word quarantena, quarantine, for the 40 days sailors were required to spend in isolation to avoid spreading the plague.

But disappearing into that book with its enticing, foreign location was also a straight-up, glorious retreat into my own visits there. When you write, when you get into your setting as completely as you should in order to convey it to readers, you’ll feel that sun, and taste that food, and notice the gold light of the late afternoon as you set the words on the page. In those intense and stressful days, stuck at home, confined and afraid, I was transported to that the spectacular, flickering stage-set that is Venice. I walked those narrow cobblestone streets, crossed over canal bridges, and peered into shop windows. I ate cicchetti in the Cantina do Mori, and drank teeny cups of strong espresso at an outdoor cafe. I sped across the lagoon in a speedboat, had a picnic on a plateau with a view of the Euganean Hills, and walked into the cold foyer of San Zaccaria, and then down the stone steps into the water-filled crypt. I indulged in all the things us book lovers adore and that this city offers in abundance, too: ancient manuscripts, a palatial and centuries-old library, and an utterly magical bookstore: the charming Libreria Acqua Alta, with its volumes upon volumes stored in boats and bathtubs to protect them during the seasonal floods.

This is the power of books, both reading them and writing them. The power of creativity and imagination and the written word to help you both understand your world and escape it. To provide entertainment and information, yes, but even better, connection and context, retreat and rest, and even a sense of safety when the world doesn’t feel very safe. Immersed in all of those lush details, you can catch your breath and even be consoled. Deep in the smells and sights and sounds of a curiously yet reassuringly unchanged Venice, I could hear its stories. Old stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. New stories of plagues, and struggle, and art against impossible odds, resilience. Just as it is when you are there in person, Italy, and Venice itself, was a feast for the senses and a tonic for the spirit. Those timeless buildings, the water flowing for centuries, all of the words—written on ancient manuscripts, typed on pages, sung from a balcony—were reminders of an ageless truth: human beings have suffered, but human beings have endured.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond 20 Drafts

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I am in good company to have written more than 20 drafts of a novel. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Compared to nonfiction, a novel may require more drafts and take longer to get right. Writing a novel is a unique challenge, rather like birthing a brainchild: each book is different and needs as long as it takes.

Before publishing my debut novel, Living Treasures, I had gone through so many revisions that I asked myself “What’s there left to revise?” Then, a published friend encouraged me: “You have to get through this, or you won’t get published.” She had written 27 drafts before publishing her debut. It was like a rite of passage to push through the last revision and be greeted at the finishing line of a marathon. My second book, My Old Faithful, a linked story collection, won the Juniper Prize. The stories were previously published in the literary journals. So the manuscript was pretty clean, and I just had some line edits. The toil of revision—like labor pains—is conveniently forgotten so I can go on writing another book.

My third novel, My Good Son, won the UNO Publishing Lab Prize. I was beyond honored. The book was read and commented on by students from The Publishing Laboratory. My dear editor, Chelsey Shannon, with her thorough diligence and incredible acuity, compiled the extensive editorial feedback: 5,500-plus comments via track changes and 13 pages of global comments. To be fair, two pages were praise. But there were also 11 pages of single-spaced constructive criticism. Some of the notes were line edits, but others were mini essays. It was overwhelming—and not just the sheer volume, but how the feedback took the story apart, tuned the timing of plot points, brought out the themes, and rounded up the symbolism, which made it seem like a battle plan.

I found the rewrite a tremendous challenge. Every time I changed a gesture or line of dialogue, it shifted a host of meanings and the relationship dynamics: who is hiding what from whom and for what reason? I found it hard to gauge my progress. Was I making it better or worse? I seemed to be making minute changes. Why did it feel so much more difficult than earlier drafts, when I built a world from the ground up?

It took me a while to understand that there are different stages of writing and revision. Early drafts are like building a house. The first draft is like scaffolding: prepare the construction site and pour foundation. Then, complete the rough framing: install the floors, walls, and roof. This is exciting physical work that makes me feel strong. Pretty soon I have the skeleton of a house that looks like a promising story.

The subsequent drafts complete that house: install plumbing, insulation, complete drywall, interior and exterior fixtures, and paint. This is less dramatic than the scaffolding but still feels very productive. After a great deal of hard work, I have built a new house for readers to visit.

Until this point, I have worked in relative isolation. The story and characters have emerged from my subconscious. I am more of a medium than a judge of my material. That is why the writing is so energizing and revelatory. I fall in love with my characters and their world, laugh and cry with them because they open me up to a broader spectrum of human emotions. The story is more than my own experience; it is everything in life that prepares me to understand, feel, and imagine.

After however-many drafts, my manuscript is accepted for publication. From there, it goes on a different journey. A book is a commodity and exists in an economic system that relies on readers to exchange money for goods. A book keeps readers invested for the five, six, 10 hours it takes to be read. The stakes are raised; now there is a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.

When an editor accepts my manuscript, they have a vision for the book and a target audience. The development edit turns my manuscript into something ready for public consumption. As the editor breathes life into my creation, the manuscript is transformed on its journey into the world.

Now I look at the development edit like performing surgery. I cut open the body, repair the soft tissue, make it work. It is minute work. I work in an operating room, under a microscope, for long hours. Finally I sew up the wound and wait.

Another kind of labor requires greater precision and different perspectives. I examine the story, somewhat like a judge, from the readers’ and critics’ point of view, and ask difficult moral questions, which didn’t trouble me during the early stages of writing. Now that time has come. I must undertake the role of both a medium and judge. When I see an editorial comment that confounds me, I need to slow down and listen to my characters. Let the material saturate me like before, and remember why I wrote this story. If the world and characters are true and strong, they will tell me what to do.

I cannot make the readers happy by pandering to them. Readers are compelled by characters that are distinct and surprising. If the characters are tamed—in other words, if I flinch or back down—I risk losing my story. Instead, I should keep my characters strong and push them harder: allow them to act true and with autonomy. Only when they are strong enough to rebel against me, will they convince and move the readers like real human beings.

Bonus Links:
Unconventional Revision: MFA vs. Therapy
Fifteen Poets on Revision

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

The Case for ‘War and Peace’ and Rereading

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I was 26 and planning for a wedding when Colin Powell made his speech at the United Nations about the supposedly incontrovertible need to invade Iraq. The most famous pitch for war in our time. I can’t be certain, but I believe this historical moment was what led me soon after to visit Shakespeare & Co and purchase a paperback of War and Peace, that infamously long, infamously antiwar Russian novel. Now seems as good a time as any, I said to anyone who’d listen.

Two months later, Baghdad fell; and a month after that President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier that had returned from the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, I was still planning for my wedding, and now I was also carrying War and Peace to and from the office daily.

“It’s amazing,” I said to a co-worker who asked how the book was. “But it’s taking longer than an actual war to read.”

Even then, the joke was more callous than funny; and it became less and less funny as the occupation of Iraq wore on, and weeks led to months, then years of violence, bloodshed and turmoil. According to the reading log that I keep, the actual number of books I read over the course of the eight year conflict in Iraq is 319, including War and Peace. This feels somehow both better and worse.

As the years pass, my recollection of the books I’ve read becomes, shall we say, more and more imperfect. I cannot tell you anything about John Fante’s Ask the Dust except that I read it in March 2009 and thought it was great. I remember the warm feeling I had for Alice Munro’s Runaway while reading it in 2006, but can I tell you the plot of any story in it? A character’s name? A single scene? No, no, and no. I’m stunned to learn that I have ever read Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake. I made a note in my reading log that I thought it was excellent, the highest rating in the system that I use. Excellent? I’m sure it was. Just not excellent enough to remember.

But I remember War and Peace. Maybe because I spent so long, well, reading War and Peace. I carried the still-like-new 1,386-page book daily to the subway station at 23rd Street, where I caught the downtown 6. One snowy morning, I was hustling to catch a train and slipped on ice near the subway entrance. I stayed vertical but the book tumbled down the steps; picking it up, I found an appalling tear in the cover. After the spill, I was angry with myself for weeks.

Sometime that spring, I recall sleepily reading a chapter about a grand oak tree while snug in bed at my future in-laws’ home. Later, also while at their house in Pennsylvania, I read a chapter about a romantic sled ride by a pair of young lovers. But the names of those lovers escapes me. Unless, maybe, was it, Kitty? And Levin? After scouring the steamer trunk of my memory, I searched online for answers. Turns out, I’m half right. Tolstoy created a Kitty and a Levin – but he put them in Anna Karenina. There is only one character from War and Peace whose name I recall with certainty: Prince Andrey, a majestic presence whom I liked from the start, even though I also felt like I should not like him. That’s the secret witchery of Tolstoy: he conjures sympathies for any and every kind of person.

Of the plot, I can tell you there is a war. Napoleon appears. Lives are made and ruined. And that’s all I remember. Yet, I know that I loved the book. I still think of it as a book that moved me, that taught me so much about what is possible in building a novel. The details have been worn away, but the impression remains. Reading War and Peace was a personal event, one of those watershed experiences that I enjoyed both for what it was and for how it was the fulfillment of something I had long wanted to do: a notch on the bedpost of my personal reading adventures.

For all my adult life I have tried to read far and wide, or at least far and wide for me. Certainly the complete arc of my reading list would underwhelm true doyennes of world literature. But I have done my best to wander the planet in search of understanding, perspective, and experiences that extend beyond the Midwestern town where I began. This pursuit has led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fanciful Macondo and Nabokov’s spectral Zembla; from the South Seas of Robert Louis Stevenson to the Harlem of James Baldwin; from Australia (The Transit of Venus),to Argentina (Labyrinths) and beyond (The Left Hand of Darkness).

This reading journey made me the person I am. Gave me perspective. Helped me to understand the narrative of my own life. And now at midlife I am beginning to see how the record of this intellectual travel fades. Does the inevitable forgetfulness make the work done less valuable in the long run? Do I need a certain level of constant recall to validate that it was all time well spent? I know the answer is no. But it’s still disturbing to see that even with books that I think I remember very well, what I can recall unaided is being steadily reduced to mere impressions or a few sharp vignettes, like the cherished memory of a beloved summer in childhood, a time when you know you were happy but it’s increasingly hard to explain precisely why.

In June of the first year of the Iraq War, I finished reading War and Peace while lying on the sofa in the den of the apartment where my future wife and I were living. Our first home together. She was asleep down the hall. She was still my fiancée, still a promise of a life to be, and not yet the mother of our two children. So much was unwritten, unknown, a future that I know now but couldn’t know, couldn’t fathom then. I remember the last chapter was a long slog through dull philosophizing, but I was determined to finish, and after 1 a.m, I did. The living room windows were open because the night was warm and taxi cabs and late night revelers were still making noise outside on Lexington Avenue. I wanted to tell someone I was done, but there was no one to tell. I rubbed my eyes and thought, My God, where do you go after that? Not just as a writer, but as a reader?

I could reread War and Peace, but I couldn’t get back to that moment at the end, no matter how much I tried. As an adult I haven’t reread many books. On the rare occasion when I do, it is with the craftsman’s curiosity to see how a particular book worked. I paged through Never Let Me Go a couple years ago to clock how Ishiguro handles his gradual reveals. Last year, I reread much of The Unbearable Lightness of Being because I was convinced it had hidden parallels to a Sheila Heiti novel. Will I ever read all of War and Peace again? Unlikely. But I was also once pretty convinced the Iraq War was necessary, and also that the war was more or less over shortly after it began. Certainties change with time; maybe I will begin to reread more.

Recently, I went looking for the copy of War and Peace I carried around for months. I’ve moved four times since I read it, and it has had a place on a bookshelf in each apartment. Taking it off the shelf, I looked for the rip on the cover, the mark after I dropped it on the stairs long ago. But there was no rip on the cover of this book. How could this be? Turning over the book in my hands, I was confused until I found a jagged hangnail on the spine. Then I remembered: yes, this is the damage from that fall. My memory was correct in spirit, but the details I had stored up in my heart were troublingly wrong. A minor failure of recall. But still, a stumble. Another one. Flipping through the pages, I stopped at page 613 and read:

“The prince had greatly aged during the war. He had begun to show unmistakable signs of failing powers, sudden attacks of drowsiness, and forgetfulness of events nearest in time, and exact memory of remote incidents, and a childlike vanity in playing the part of leader of the Moscow opposition.”

Everything I love about Tolstoy is right there: the crumbling grandeur of a proud man, the insistent life force in the long strands of clauses that keep reaching, and the prose’s uncanny ability to capture the particular and the universal all at once. Indeed, this is how it is, as you age; you hold fast to what you know, sometimes so much so that the relentless newness of the world strikes and slides off you.

Wars go on and on, without fail. As the invidious Judge Holden says in Blood Meridian: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures.” Meanwhile, the individual mind and the reading journey last only so long, mere decades at best, sometimes far less.

Bonus Links:
The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading
Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo
Collision Courses and Castration Anxiety: Rereading John Irving
Kafka on the Go: Rereading ‘The Metamorphosis’
Mistaking Solipsism for Intimacy: On Rereading Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’

This Story Sucks: What I Learned Teaching LGBTQ Studies

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On my classroom’s back wall, cartoon unicorns distinguish gender from sex and sexuality. Lil Nas X muses on the success of “Old Town Road:” “wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”

Above a pink triangle, the words I see you. Below it: & I love you.

When I tell men on Grindr that I teach LGBTQ Studies, they either express surprise that my high school offers it, play up a fetish (“I wish you’d been my teacher”), or assume I work at a fancy private school.

In fact, I teach (English, mostly) in one of the poorest public school districts in Massachusetts. I can trace the elective’s origin back to our teachers union. In 2017, the bargaining team strategized about how best to pull the conservative district left. Clear-eyed about our leverage, we chose not to lay a bunch of thorny demands out on the table. Instead, we pruned them. We proposed committees. Years later, the labor-management committee focused on diversity and equity successfully added LGBTQ Studies to the high school’s curriculum.

The inaugural class was small, only a dozen or so students, nearly all of them self-identifying with some letter in the acronym. We started with a bar riot (Stonewall, 1969) and ended with a nightclub massacre (Pulse, 2016). As the semester went on, I loved to see which figures and flash points in queer history resonated with my students.

Curly-haired and lewd, Jason wasn’t easily impressed. But when we listened to Sylvia Rivera recount her story of Stonewall in the documentary Out Rage ’69, he said, surprised by her coarse vernacular, “She sounds like us.” I smiled. “You mean you sound like her.”

One of the lesbians in class fell in love with Audre Lorde. Struck by the excerpt we read of “The Uses of Anger,” Michaela asked her mom to buy her a collection of Lorde’s poetry. She then sped through Zami and Sister Outsider.

After cheering on Damon and Angel in the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, students went home and binged the series.

And they got chills reading James Merrill’s concrete poem “Christmas Tree,” written at the end of his life before he died of AIDS complications. “Yo, I’m so dumb,” Jaliyah said to us, stunned that anyone could write a poem about a tree that was also a poem about a man, about how they both die, both become “needles and bone” in the end.

That’s a generous montage, though. If I’m honest, I often worried I was getting more out of the class than my students were.

Maybe I should blame the generational gap. There was only one half-out kid in my millennial high school. I spent close to a decade in the closet—from eighth grade (2004), when the word gay began to torment me, until my senior year of college (2013), when I finally came out. In between, I kept my distance from queer people, let alone queer history and culture. I slept with a gay man before I made friends with one. Now out as an adult, I still had a lot to learn, and I was hungry to learn it.

As I connected historical events to one another across time and teased out the movement’s tensions between assimilation and liberation, I reaffirmed my own present-tense identity, politics, and community. Excavating stories of a radical past—from the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to ACT UP—clarified an inheritance of queer resistance, an orientation toward solidarity, direct action, and supporting those with the least to lose in our fight to win the world we all deserve.

I wanted this for my students, too. I wanted the class to whistle and pop, for every student to walk away from it on fire for the movement. It was a big ask. Unlike the guys I try to impress online, my Gen Z students mostly took the class for granted.

Some students failed the class. One slept through it. In their defense, the course was far from perfect. It was only my first attempt, after all.

It didn’t help that we started before 8 a.m. Students would show up late with Dunkin’ and pay closer attention to their iced coffees than to the YA novels they’d each chosen for independent reading. (Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl stands out as one exception, a page-turner about a trans girl starting at a new school.)

Our classroom also invited gossip about their queer relationships in ways that most did not, a distraction I could hardly begrudge them. Trista mooned over her girlfriend. Lana, a potty-mouthed trans girl, serialized her entanglement with a pair of brothers. They whispered, they shrieked, they slapped each other’s twiggy arms in disbelief.

One particularly memorable Monday, Jason told us his boyfriend had cheated on him over the weekend. He was steamed. As we tried to read from Adrienne Rich’s admittedly dense “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that morning, he wrote in the margin, “This story sucks.” (To Jason’s credit, that more or less perfectly distills Rich’s argument about heterosexuality.)

In the end, I got over myself. I came to feel grateful for my students’ chill—even a little jealous. Is it too naïve to suggest we’ve come at least that far?

Still, I’m glossing. A majority of my students shared stories of childhood trauma, of brutal secrets and countless slights. It’s gotten better—but only to a point, and considerably more so for some than for others. No amount of glitter can cover up the unabated violence against queer and trans people, particularly of color. My students, for example, voted to raise money for the Trevor Project in order to address the persistently disproportionate rates of LGBTQ suicide and homelessness. I know they’d be horrified by the wave of anti-trans bills currently crashing down on state legislatures.

I just wish you could’ve seen them: unapologetic, unbowed, and—like all teenagers in class—easily off-task and gloriously bored.

I didn’t scold them, then. I chose not to play the role of elder (I’m 29, but age is elastic with teenagers, especially with gay boys like Jason, who thought I was ancient) intent on making the next generation feel painfully indebted for the basic dignity and rights they enjoy. They shouldn’t have to live stuck in a past when we existed only in the shadows, locked away in our closets.

What I did was write them a letter. As we said our goodbyes at the end of the semester, I encouraged them to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of queer and trans ancestors who hid, who loved, who threw bricks, who were murdered, who tore up dance floors, who lost families and chose new ones.

That to choose a family is to want to make them proud.

The message landed, I think—at least somewhat, at least for some of them. I know because I asked them to write me back.

In her letter, Michaela called our class her “home.” Many of them did. “This is like family,” she wrote. She also quoted Audre Lorde, whose work she now reads most mornings to motivate herself out of bed: “Your silence will not protect you.” Michaela promised to always speak up.

Lana, however, was brief. She ripped a page out of her notebook and scribbled across it, “Your the gayest teacher ive ever had and thats great for you.” A bubble hovered above the i, fit to burst.

Image Credit: Pixabay