Essays

A Matter of Survival: On the Value of Fashion in Literature

Years ago, a professor warned me about having too many clothing descriptions in one of my stories. He thought that the mention of brand names and particular cuts of skirts might end up only attracting a younger audience. He asked me who I was writing for. I didn’t really have an answer. I remember feeling a little misunderstood because I was an adult who liked to see clothing represented in books. I thought a lot about that conversation recently while rereading Sister Souljah’s novel The Coldest Winter Ever. In the book, Winter Santiaga, a spoiled and savvy teenager, reluctantly moves with her family out of Brooklyn. Her father is arrested soon after—Winter’s two sisters are put in foster care, Winter’s mother gets hooked on drugs, and Winter hustles to stay alive. She uses her knowledge of Chanel and Gucci to understand people. Early on, her attire unites her with her family at a symbol of high status. Her outfit choices later evolve into a performative act of class when she faces money troubles. As I noticed the power of labels in that story, I started thinking more seriously about the work that fashion and labels do in literature. The relevance of Souljah’s book—considered part of the genre of “urban fiction” or “street literature”—among audiences of different ages and cultures suggests that having a designer-obsessed lead character does not actually limit the scope of the genre. Are issues of gender and race the reasons that fashion is often viewed as an inherently immature topic in the literary sphere? Designer shoes and clothes may inspire younger protagonists, but divorcing fashion from femininity would take away something that women have mastered, in spite of its oppressive underpinnings. I don’t mean to say that dressing up to meet the standards imposed on women is revolutionary, but it plays a major role in navigating a patriarchal world. Katja Horvat writes about the connection between writers' fashion lives and their use of fashion in their writing in “Fashion & Literature.” By looking at people like Virginia Woolf, Horvat finds ways that writers intersect with designers, especially in terms of skill and interest in character building. She explains that “both fashion and literature occupy a fetish for fantasy inside the minds of so many people.” The element of fantasy is an important aspect, too, for many characters' understandings of their fictional world (read more about memorable clothes in books at The Millions here). Looking a certain way directly affects how they get treated by other characters and, therefore, the story. For Winter, understanding fashion is a way to learn about other people, but it’s also an important aspect of her identity. She uses designer clothing to remain socially relevant after losing her bankroll to the prison industrial complex. When she’s in a group home with only $350 and a party to attend, she goes shopping. The day of, “I laid my three hundred dollars on the counter at Saks Fifth Avenue. I walked out with a designer shopping bag with one Calvin Klein slip dress inside…I kept telling myself, This is an investment. This is an investment.” She knows that access to rich men requires her to look expensive. The mantra in her head shows that she is not being bad with money by buying clothing; she’s strategic in her spending. In Ashley & JaQuavis’s The Cartel, another work in the street literature genre, access to designer clothes takes on a different role. The main characters can all afford the fanciest stuff, and many specifics are written into the narrative, reinforcing a fantasy element of vicarious wealth that also drives the use of fashion in literature. Like Winter, Sophie Kinsella’s protagonist, Becky, in her humorous novel Confessions of a Shopaholic also loves fashion, as suggested in the title, but can’t afford any of it. There is much less at stake for Becky than for Winter, but Becky also sees the world through designer names, including herself. She explains, “I’m wearing my black skirt from French Connection, and a plain white T-shirt from Knockerbox, and a little angora cardigan which I got from M&S but looks like it might be Agnés B. And my new square-toes shoes from Hobbs.” She explains, “it’s a habit of mine, itemizing all the clothes I’m wearing, as though for a fashion page,” that she learns from fashion magazines at a young age. Becky thinks of herself as the model in this scenario. Even as she struggles (and hides) from one bill to the next, she thrives off of the possibility that she will be remembered for certain outfits. With every new piece that she desires, she imagines that people will call her “the girl with the [fill in the blank].” This character is jaded, but there’s something purposeful in her extravagant purchases. As with Souljah’s novel, the act of cataloging clothing by brands creates a sense of intimacy among women characters and readers. In Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris, a work of literary fiction, the narrator analyses clothing to understand nationhood. Before getting an au pair position, she writes: I sat still for a moment before picking up a pen and pad and calculating what I could do with either thousand francs. First thing, I would buy myself a pair of shoes from one of the hops near place de l’Odeon. High-gloss Italian leather pumps, sleep Japanese creations that looked like miniature cars, stiff English riding boots. I would be practical but not too, something very simple, very French. Then I would not be afraid to enter Les Deux Magots, where Wright sometimes met Baldwin for drinks and conversation. The right shoes would give me a certain confidence. It’s not just that she needs a new pair of shoes. She justifies the purchase as a tool to explore the city like other black American writers have. She is well versed in brand names and styles; knowing what “very French” shoes look like allows her to spend her money in a meaningful way. The rest of her trip to Paris continues to rely upon her understanding of clothes. It’s how she learns about access, definitely, but it’s also how she learns about her role in the world: I am wearing a long-sleeved, knee-length blue sundress, which is covered by my heavy coat from the flea market. I do not feel particularly American, but any Frenchman can tell because I am wearing white socks and black leather running shoes and carrying a black canvas backpack slung over my right shoulder like an ordinary tourist. Ifemelu, of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel Americanah, similarly considers her transnational experiences through the lens of clothing. Ifemelu, the ever-practical observer, pays close attention to race, hair, and clothes throughout the novel. As she gives away her clothing when she finally gets her visa, “the first thing they [her friends] all reached for was her orange dress, her favorite dress, a gift from Aunty Uju; the A-line flair and neck-to-hem zipper had always made her feel both glamorous and dangerous.” When she goes shopping in America and sees a new friend pick out a “shapeless” dress, she worries “whether she, too, would come to share Ginika’s taste for shapeless dresses, whether this was what America did to you.” Her exploration of the concept of America continues to be based on fashion as she gets involved in blogging. One of her blog posts explains: I bought a dress from a vintage shop on eBay the other day, made in 1960, in perfect shape, and I wear it a lot. When the original owner wore it, black Americans could not vote because they were black. (And maybe the original owner was one of those women, in the famous sepia photographs, standing by in hordes outside schools shouting ‘Ape!’ at young black children).” Wearing American clothing, especially second-hand, becomes an intellectual experience for Ifemelu. This dress has historical value because it symbolizes white aggression. Her understanding of American politics becomes more literal when the narrator says, “still, there was, in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for…it was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.” What gets lost in the assumption that fashion labels and concepts are immature is the female gaze. I don’t think my professor’s comments necessarily came out of malice, but constant self-surveillance is gendered and racialized, so the politics of this topic require serious inspection. Watching the mannerisms and physical appearance of oneself and others interchangeably is a complex part of being a woman, and made more complex for women of color. What seems superficial to some is survival for others. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

The Steady, Irresistible Call of Instagram’s Rare-Book Dealers

For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself teetering dangerously on the edge of a new and almost certainly expensive obsession with rare books. Blame Instagram. As social-media platforms go, Instagram is the flashiest, the least reliant on text, and by far the most brazenly commercial, where it’s an open secret that every account past a certain audience threshold has long since been infiltrated by product placements and corporate-engineered hashtags. None of which is an obvious match for the literary world. But that all changed for me when I came across a group of rare-book dealers who use the platform not just to show off their wares, but also to sell them directly to their followers. In the process, these young turks are bringing one of the most inaccessible corners of the book world into the digital public square—and tempting me with $100 siren calls every time I open the damn app. “The networking I’ve achieved through Instagram has been incredible. Way more than half of my sales are through there now,” says Jordan Brodeur, a mail carrier by day and book dealer by night (where he goes by the handle @sunlitcaverarebooks). Brodeur signed up for Instagram in late 2016, after selling for several years through eBay. He was also the first such dealer I fell for—his photos well composed, his titles well curated, and each post complemented by a dash of personality in the caption. So when I found out that we both live in the same northern Canadian city, I hopped in the car immediately to go see his collection in person. Brodeur first got the collector’s bug when he spotted an unannounced first edition of Hemingway’s Men Without Women at a bookstore in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He loved the thrill of finding something valuable hidden in plain sight, and from then on kept chasing the dragon, teaching himself the ins and outs of the trade (and its attendant lingo) as he went. He turned to selling once he realized he couldn’t afford to hold onto every rare book he came across. And that meant going online. Like a lot of analog industries, most rare-book dealers didn’t take to the Internet immediately. Ebay was the first place where rare books could really flourish online, but traditional dealers still held off, more comfortable selling through the mail, via catalogues, or in person at specialized fairs and brick-and-mortar shops. That landscape is shifting, though—especially in the retail world. “Rare-book stores are kind of rare these days,” says Kevin Sell, a bookseller and grad student in St. Paul, Minn., who goes by @rarebooksleuth on Instagram. “No one really goes into a rare-book store and browses for $500 books. Typically, the person who’s buying a rare book knows what they want. So they will look online, and find the best copy in the best condition at the best price.” Instagram turns out to be particularly attractive to dealers like Sell and Brodeur. For one thing, it’s a free space to show off their wares (Amazon and eBay, by contrast, both take significant commissions on each item sold through their sites). There are also none of the barriers to entry that used to be standard for aspiring dealers—as Brodeur puts it, “apprenticing with some old codger who had you sweeping the floors eight hours a day.” And the built-in community element offers a continuous point of contact that other sites can’t match: once a user has found and followed an Instagram seller they like, they will automatically see every new post that dealer makes (well, in theory, anyway, non-chronological timelines be damned). And those followers might not even be collectors. Like me, they might just enjoy looking at pictures of pretty books. Brodeur is not unaware of the possibility that his feed might be a gateway drug. “I have a lot of followers who don’t collect rare books, but see these posts and wish they did,” he says. “My mercenary intentions are not to get likes from people. They’re to get engagement from people who will actually buy books.” At the same time, he’s a hardcore reader at heart who loves to talk about his favourite authors. Instagram, then, is a way for him to scratch both itches: to talk about how much he loves William T. Vollmann (a particular favorite among the literary Instagram crowd), and to flip a signed first edition of The Rainbow Stories at the same time. Age is a factor here, too. Sell and Brodeur are both 31, literal decades younger than your average rare-book dealer. They are naturally more comfortable with social media than someone who still prefers the charming inefficiencies of mail-order catalogues. Youth can be a double-edged sword, though; many of Brodeur’s followers are also young enough that they can’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a single book. “The exceptions,” he adds, “are always notable.” Even though the Instagram community is still in its early stages, dealers are starting to jump in with both feet. Like Brodeur, Sell lists his books other places—eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks, Facebook, and at his own website. But Instagram is in a class of its own. “People are so much more friendly there,” Sell says. If, for instance, he were to list a copy of Atlas Shrugged on Facebook, he can already imagine the 100-comment firefight it would degenerate into. Whereas on Instagram, “it’s people who can appreciate the book for what it is: a monumental intellectual work that has a lasting influence today—with a really cool dust jacket.” “Unbelievably friendly,” Brodeur agrees about the Instagram crowd. “Just so nice. I’ll post a book that’s a big deal for me, and everyone’s just so excited about it.” As a hobbyist, Brodeur lists about 150 titles in total and sells on average a couple of books per week. For Sell, a comparatively seasoned dealer who’s been on Instagram since 2015 (and who later convinced Brodeur to join the site), those numbers jump to 300 and 10 to 20, respectively. Both, however, are chalking up more and more of their sales to Instagram. And both say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many new friends, fellow aficionados, and potential future customers they’ve met along the way. Of all the ways Instagram might change the rare-book game, none is more important, as far as I’m concerned, than the way that Sell, Brodeur, and their peers have demystified what can seem from the outside like a dusty, impenetrable trade. “My goal in life is to do something that’s considered pretentious, but not do it in a snotty way,” Brodeur says. “Just be a good guy. C’mon. You don’t have to be a snob.” OK, I’m convinced. Now, about that first edition of The Rainbow Stories… is it still available?
Essays

Notes on the Art of Rhetoric

Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure The bastion of sensation. Do not waver Into language. Do not waver in it.         —Seamus Heaney, “Lightenings” 1. For most of us, rhetoric boils down to what you learned in high school when the teacher drew a triangle on the chalkboard and wrote logos, ethos, pathos. “These are the three appeals to the audience,” the teacher said. Reason, character, emotion. “A composition will try to include all three of these for best effect,” you may’ve heard. But these three alone aren’t rhetoric. Instead, consider adding Kenneth Burke’s idea of “identification” from A Rhetoric of Motives, that states “[y]ou persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Prince Hamlet is a prime rhetorician in the Burkean sense. (Actually, William Shakespeare was the rhetorician, but I’m being generous.) After speaking to his father’s ghost, Hamlet confides to Horatio: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on;” antic, as in, grotesque; meaning, Hamlet’s fixing his words and actions to fit the ass-backwards scene in his home. Because “time is out of joint” in Elsinore. And Hamlet, too, will be out of joint if he doesn’t persuade those around him he’s mad. Oddly, Hamlet will persuade everyone he’s nuts, but it will be against their common sense, against his prior character, and against what passes for royal emotion among his kin. That is a type of persuasion. What Hamlet reminds us of in his “antic disposition” is the strong ability to forget what we identify with; that we overlook or push away the strange or skewed because we’re worried it will remind us of a slice of ourselves. So we approach unlikeness with curiosity like nattering Polonius. Or we approach unlikeness with parental concern like cautious Claudius and Gertrude. But there are few who approach Hamlet fully identifying as Burke suggests. If anyone, it’s the players who arrive mid-way through. With respect to rhetoric, the question to ask isn’t: “What does it say about Hamlet that he acts mad?” Rather, the question should be: “What does it say about everyone else such that Hamlet thinks he’ll identify with and persuade others by acting mad?” Rhetoric, then, is for uncertain situations, where there is no known outcome. (Who knows about King Hamlet’s murder? Why are people ignoring it if they do? What should Hamlet do when he finds out who’s guilty?) Which is why rhetoric is frequently (and classically) broken down into judicial (parents deciding punishment, judges, lawyers, etc.), epideictic (entertainments, best man speeches, TED talks), and deliberative (in short: most political situations). None are cleanly removed from the others. Almost all of these combine at particular moments in life, especially as Hamlet (surely a student of classical rhetoric at the University of Wittenberg) felt played by his one-time turncoat pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. HAMLET: …why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil? GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly. HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe? GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot. HAMLET: I pray you. GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot. HAMLET: I do beseech you. GUILDENSTERN: I know no touch of it, my lord. HAMLET: ‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops. GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill. HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me. They engage in deliberation, they entertain with metaphor, imagery, and jokes (epideictic), and finally Hamlet passes judgment (“Call me what instrument you will…you cannot play upon me”). The idea here is that we are inherently suspicious of those who may try to charm us with honeyed words when we’re not sure of their intentions. (Or, in Hamlet’s case, even when we are very sure of their intentions.) But that’s exactly how the art of rhetoric can be useful—when there is indecision and a way forward needs to be born. And despite what you read and hear, rhetoric isn’t one thing. It’s both the art of persuasive language, and it’s also the whole set of tropes, schemes, and figures that make up how and what we write and speak. So, for example, Hamlet’s use of anaphora, the repetition of “you would,” prodding Guildenstern and his intentions—it is just a basic rhetorical device. But, how do rhetorical devices do what they do? Why do they do what they do? Rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has addressed how figures and tropes work as lines of argument in her book Rhetorical Figures in Science. Fahnestock says that it may seem unusual, but readers can identify certain rhetorical figures with “forms of argument or reasons” that traditionally were the “topics”--or topoi--of classical rhetorical education. Moreover, Fahnestock’s point is that this action, i.e. the use of argumentative lines, still exists, but that we may not be fully aware of it. In fact, we may even shun it. 2. Rhetoric is complicated. Say you’ve read a CNN article about Donald Trump’s use of a rhetorical device known as paralipsis, also known as apophasis. Or say you read James Fallows’s “When Trump Meets Hillary” in The Atlantic. In it, Fallows anticipated the first debate at Hofstra with all the rhetorical elements a viewer should look out for in the then-Republican nominee’s language (simplicity, ignorance, dominance). Or perhaps you meanderingly googled “Trump” over lunch, or you just happen to see that nasty, nasty word—rhetoric—pop up all over your news feed during this Season of Political Discontent. The word itself—rhetoric—has a long pejorative tail that wags the dog. When we read “X’s negative rhetoric” or “Y’s demogogic rhetoric” or anyone’s being “merely rhetorical,” the implicit disgust in those claims is far from understood and what’s been old and useful is turned sour for lack of reflection. This is because while “rhetoric” can generally mean “the way one uses words” or a particular set of syntactical moves one can make with language, it definitely doesn’t mean, especially to those of us who study it, “inherently deceitful language.” Sure, fine, you may say. But why care about it? Rhetoric is persuasion, and persuasion is seduction. And seduction, in human language, is syntactical. If you find yourself agreeing with that, and you don’t like it, then you’re standing next to Plato and his famous distrust of rhetoric. In the dialogue Gorgias (named after the Greek sophist), Plato has his mentor and mouthpiece Socrates grill Gorgias for details about just what it is that Gorgias could be said to do. If Gorgias is a successful orator, what does that entail? SOCRATES: …What is it that oratory is the knowledge of? GORGIAS: Speech. SOCRATES: What sort of speech, Gorgias? The kind which tells the sick how they must live in order to get well? GORGIAS: No. SOCRATES: Then oratory is not concerned with every kind of speech? GORGIAS: Certainly not. SOCRATES: But you would say that it makes men good at speaking? GORGIAS: Yes. SOCRATES: And presumably good at thinking about the subjects on which it teaches them to speak? GORGIAS: Of course. Plato has Socrates corner his interlocutor into a conundrum. Gorgias obviously can’t admit to teaching people to be doctors if he himself has no knowledge of medicine. So how can a student of Gorgias be “good at thinking” about it? Just because a person may have the vocabulary of a discipline doesn’t mean she automatically can claim the know-how. If this is Plato’s definition of rhetoric—the conflating of knowing-that-something-is-the-case with knowing-how-something-is-the-case—then we’re shading into the realm of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit. From his Frankfurt’s 2006 monograph On Bullshit: Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. It may be used for rhetorical purposes, it may even use rhetorical tropes and schemes, but still—bullshit just isn’t rhetoric. Famously, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric was “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion.” A pretty sanguine take on the concept, the one most readily to generate agreement from those who study it. What it seems was most important for Aristotle was the acknowledgement and understanding of the persuasive technique used; to see and recognize the means and choosing of the rhetorical device for the situation. So one aim is to know that Hamlet uses anacoluthon in his dealings with Polonius because the irruption of one disconnected thought after another will mimic madness. Or when Herman Melville writes in Moby-Dick: “There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness” he’s using anadiplosis, and exploiting the repetition of “woe” at the end of the first phrase and the beginning of the second because woe is the strange relation yoking wisdom and madness. The syntax of the sentence creates the conditions for possibility. Because rhetorical devices are lines of argument. 3. Rhetoric isn’t going anywhere. It’s us who’re going away. Ideally, then, we would all have a Pauline in our brains. Pauline is the name of “a qube,” an implanted quantum computer in the head of Swan, the main character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312. Besides being designed for informative conversation, Pauline studies rhetoric, and she points out her owner’s patterns in language and argument, or lack thereof. Pauline finds rhetoric “a useful analytic tool.” Yet she finds anaphora “one of the weakest rhetorical devices, really nothing more than redundancy.” And later, when Pauline starts to riff too far on tropes, she declares: “One could also argue that the classical system of rhetoric is a false taxonomy, a kind of fetishism…” Later in the novel, she points out anacoenesis, synchoresis, and her owner’s use of sarcasm and aporia. All of these instances are used to try and explain and make plain Swan’s attempts at poor persuasion. If we had a Pauline in our noggins, maybe we’d be better off. Maybe we’d just be constantly irritated by the recognition of all the ways we talk to each other and try to persuade and move one another. The point, it seems, is to know how you’re doing the persuading. Or with what means. From all I can tell, Aristotle wanted to stop people ignorantly persuading each other and unwitting groping within language and push them toward a knowing body of information. And this is what decidedly makes someone like Donald Trump—or, really, anyone like him—not a good rhetorician. He’s an illusion of an orator. A two-dimensional man. He’s a pilaster, not a column. Not an oracle, but a mountebank. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that “no man can speak well who is not good himself.” How outdated that might seem to us now, but how badly we should want it. Shouting down an opponent isn’t rhetoric, it’s bullying and stupidity. Responding with comments just to trip up a debate isn’t a rhetorical strategy, it’s a plan built on exhaustion. It’s argument for argument’s sake, also known as eristic. We do a disservice to the art of rhetoric and those who can actually debate and discuss and persuade in the public sphere and among intimates with an attention to the warp and woof of language when we prize the word “rhetoric” from its moorings and set it loose into a sea of bullshit. So yes, rhetoric is old. But it’s also current. And according to science fiction, it’s still with us 300 years into our future. If we pay attention to rhetoric and the lines of argument in its tropes, we can avoid misnaming it. Instead of knowing that language persuades, we can know how language persuades. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Objects of Fear and Worship: The Evolution of Aliens in Literature

Dreamers and readers have always been fascinated with the idea of the otherworldly, the extraterrestrial, the alien. So long as we have been telling stories, those stories have contained life beyond what is seen—be they gods, monsters, or, for the purposes of this essay, aliens. Some have argued that the scientist Johannes Kepler's work of fiction—Somnium—published in 1634 is the first work of science fiction that features an alien. In it, a boy named Duracotus is magically transported to the moon by a demon. There is life on the moon and it is described in a scientific manner (apparently—I haven’t read the book). My earliest encounter with an otherworldly lifeform was in The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales by the bishop Francis Godwin, published 1638. Godwin begins his tale with a suggestion that a voyage to the moon would be the equivalent of the early explorations into what is now the U.S. A man of means gains favor with a Spanish Duke by committing robbery and murder. A series of unfortunate events leads him to create a flying machine powered by creatures bred to counter the earth’s magnetic field and he finds himself on the moon. The moon people are true aliens—giants. Micromégas by Voltaire, published in 1752, has pretty much no plot but almost certainly features the first aliens from beyond the moon; indeed, the solar system. They are also the narrators. Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. This planet is, Voltaire describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. Micromégas is, therefore, "twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe," or about 20,000 feet tall. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but maybe laying down warnings. However, Voltaire notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons. Astronomers did not discover Phobos and Deimos until 1877. In this short story, there are also giant aliens on Saturn. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance, for example). 1847 saw the publication fo the intriguing Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation, Edited by J. L. Riddell. M.D. Riddell was American doctor, and this was a story published in a pamphlet that claimed to collect letters received by Riddell from a former student. Despite getting to the moon, Lindsay reports that there aren’t any aliens to be found; the story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars. The hunt for aliens is not always successful, but the idea of finding life on other worlds, planets beyond the gaze of humanity, was gaining traction by that time. It wasn’t until The War Of The Worlds (1897) and H.G. Wells that non-humanoid aliens finally made contact. We all know the story. Martians invade earth, or rather, the southeast of England. We all know the subtext: British colonialism. But what Wells did was extraordinary. He thought about the evolution of intelligent creatures on the red planet. As a species, Homo sapiens tends to revolt against real animals that don’t operate in the expected manner: spiders, crabs, octopus. Wells used that to instill additional horror into the alien invasion. Would “the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” have occurred of the Martians looked like you and me? Meanwhile, Mars was the planet of choice for many new science-fiction authors, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs populated his planet with a range of different aliens. Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars (1912). Burroughs was addressing race via the use of aliens on Mars: there are green Tharks—a nomadic warrior tribe; the princess is a red Martian; there are brutal, mindless white apes. A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay features a made-up planet (Tormance) orbiting the real Arcturus, which is a double star system, consisting of stars Branchspell and Alppain Olaf Stapledon created an entire universe in Star Maker, published in 1937. In it, the narrator is transported out of his body and tours the universe, exploring alien civilizations. One key alien concept explored is a non-humanoid symbiotic species. He pitched his aliens to have evolved in the same manner as life on Earth. Concepts such as collective consciousness are explored, maybe taking the concept of the insect hive-mind to its logical conclusion. Writers make up new species of intelligent life, why not make up who new planets? It is alleged that C.S. Lewis decided to write Out of the Silent Planet (1938) after reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, but must surely also owe a debt Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Lewis describes a convoluted process in which the protagonist ends up on a planet known as Malacandra. Lewis introduces three distinct intelligent species: the sorns are slender and humanoid and are the scientists and thinkers; the hrossa resemble overstretched otters—and have their love of water—they are poets and musicians; and the pfifltriggi are the builders, looking like insectile frogs. Lewis split characteristics into species in a similar manner to Burrourghs, but like Stapledon made some of them non-humanoid. By then, the idea that human-shaped creatures were the pinnacle of evolution was waning within science fiction. As science and understanding of the natural world advanced and Homo sapiens were accepted as just animals, science-fiction writers seemed to feel more freedom of imagination. Lewis was of course very religious and, as with Stapledon, the question of aliens as religious figures is addressed. A species called Eldila control life in the universe, and appear as vague shafts of light. They are Lewis’s angels. By now, science-fiction books contained a plethora of alien species, all exploring similar ideas of evolution, religion, consciousness, and humanity’s place in the universe. As humans use and abuse our planet, would superior alien species use and abuse us? E.E. "Doc" Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1946) features a hyper-intelligence with no material existence. Childhood's End (1953) from the great Arthur C. Clarke features aliens that have benevolently overseen human evolution but have the appearance of Satan. Humans are at war with an intelligent insect species with a super-intelligent queen in Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein. Science fiction is a common disguise for philosophy. Solaris, published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem, is a treatise on memory and communication. Lem, picking up on some of the ideas of his predecessors that aliens need not be human-shaped or have minds like ours, developed the idea of a sentient ocean. The planet Solaris is studied by scientists, but the planet is studying them back. In less than a century, aliens have evolved from Wells’s trilateral brains to intelligent planets. Whereas the likes of Lewis extrapolated what science knew of biology and evolution, Lem let his imagination run riot; science be damned; they adhere to their own internal logic, even if it is beyond what we believe is possible today. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert features giant sandworms and the complex ecology of a desert planet. The aliens, from Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. LeGuin are "ambisexual;" having no fixed sex. From the same year, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain sees the aliens as crystalline micro-organisms with no DNA. Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven takes imagination and biology to a new level. By now, aliens are all over popular culture, from so-called "real-life" alien abductions to classic science-fiction films such as Children of the Damned and TV series such as Dr. Who. Over the course of the Ringworld novels, Niven develops very definite biology, sociology, political life, and, of course, appearance of his aliens. The Pierson's Puppeteers are 3-legged and 2-headed creatures. The brain isn’t in the heads, however. Meanwhile, the kzin are cat-like humanoids with a rich warrior-based history. In the majority of science fiction, aliens and humans interact. The aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are almost beyond comprehension. Known as Tralfamadorians, they exist out of time, witnessing time the way we witness distance. They also keep humans in a zoo. In Roadside Picnic (1971) by the Russians Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, we don’t meet the aliens, only their detritus. They visited the Earth some time ago and left behind objects that have had a curious effect on anyone who goes into the Zones. The intelligent aliens in Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke are so unknowable, they don’t even feature—only their space craft and a few non-sentient species and some plants are featured. Meanwhile, the alien Vogons in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams are patently so dumb it is hard to imagine them developing space flight in the first place. Contrast them with Adams’s mice, the hyper-intelligent superbeings that built Earth in the first place. By the late 1970s, once Star Wars entered popular culture, aliens had truly exploded into the cultural consciousness. They continued to work as robust allegories for issues such as cultural suppression, the understanding of language, capitalism, food production, anything the author wanted to tackle. In Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), empire and evolution are the topics: a benevolent galactic empire accelerates the evolution of a humanoid species. Lessing plots the story so that the natives have a degenerative disease, giving her licence to examine religion, power, and imperialism. Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons has similar themes, only with humans as the galactic dominant species. Simmons introduces the time-traveling Shrike, a fierce half-mechanical, half-organic, four-armed alien. It is both an object of fear and worship. Mary Doria Russell has two intelligent species and a religious expedition in her remarkable The Sparrow (1996)—cultural and religious clashes are examined and their consequences are brutal. The aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) look like humans and live in Scotland. However, they pick up hitchhikers so they can be processed and sent back to their home world for a huge meat-producing corporation. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) also has an alien that takes on human form so he can work in an English university. From Haig’s "human," to Becky Chambers’s multi-species crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) to Nnedi Okorafor’s jellyfish-like aliens in her Binti series, extra-terrestrials—be they energy, gaseous, insectoids, planetoids, immaterial or microscopic—tackle every aspect of science fiction in every conceivable way. The aliens are here to stay. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Essays

In Defense of Third Person

“I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” – W. G. Sebald That this is the age of first person seems undeniable.  Essay and memoir are—have been for some time—culturally ascendant, with the lines between fiction and essay increasingly blurred (I’ve written about this here).  In its less exalted form, first person dominates our national discourse in many guises:  the tell-all, the blog post, the reality confessional booth, the carefully curated social media account, the reckless tweets of our demented president.  We are surrounded by a multitude of first person narratives, vying for our time and attention, and we respond to them, in our work, and increasingly in our art, in first person. My impression, as a writer and teacher, is that over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a paradigmatic move toward first person as the default mode of storytelling.  In a workshop of 20 student pieces, I’m now surprised if more than a third are written in third person.  When I flip open a story collection or literary magazine, my eye expects to settle on a paragraph liberally girded with that little pillar of self. Anecdotal evidence tends to support this suspicion.  A completely random example:  six of the last 10 National Book Award winners have been first-person narratives; of the 55 previous NBA winners stretching from 2005 to 1950 (Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm), the tally is 40 to 15 in favor of third person.  This is, of course, completely anecdotal and almost certainly statistical noise, to a degree.  Still, it’s suggestive.  As recently as 10 years ago, creative nonfiction specialist jobs barely existed at the university and graduate MFA level; last year, there were more creative nonfiction job openings than comparable tenure track positions for poets.  Essay and memoir classes have sprung up everywhere.  Whether this trend is significant and whether it will continue are debatable; that it is a trend, seems less so. It worries me that we may be slowly losing the cultural ability or inclination to tell stories in third person.  Why does this matter?  Because, I believe, third-person narration is the greatest artistic tool humans have devised to tell the story of what it means to be human. In How Fiction Works, James Wood cites Sebald, decrying third person as obsolete following the horrors of World War II.  Wood comments, “For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.”  The general argument, as advanced by Sebald, and more recently, by writers like David Shields and Will Self, seems to go:  Flaubertian third-person omniscient narration is a jerry-rigged, mechanistic anachronism blithely ignorant of the historical context that renders it obsolete; far from “realism,” it is almost wholly artificial, beginning in the first place with the artifice of a narrator and extending through the sleight-of-hand known as free indirect discourse (crudely put:  the blending of narrator and character perceptions).  First person narration, the corollary would go, is more immediate and less contrived.  It is authentic. Most people seem to agree.  These critical interpretations both reinforce and describe a more popular apprehension of first-person narrative—that it is the most direct and natural form of storytelling.  In creative writing classes, teachers will often advise students to employ first person with more overtly raw or emotional material, operating on the rationale that first person has an implicit honesty third does not.  Sebald’s quote—as to the inherent (and therefore inherently truthful) uncertainty of the essayistic perspective—is simply a more sophisticated version of this position, what we might call the naturalistic view of first person. First person, however, contains a contrivance central to its character that third person does not: audience.  In first person, someone is addressing someone else, but absent narrative framing to position these someones—a la Holden Caulfield directing his speech to a ghostly doctor—we find ourselves in an inherently ambiguous space: to whom, exactly, is this person talking, and why?  The uncertainty of this space, I would argue, is largely filled, intentionally or not, by the voice of the narrator, its presence and authority.  Even if this narrator declaims her own uncertainty, she declaims it with certainty, and she declaims it toward an imagined audience, in a speaker/listener relationship.  There are no competing voices, no opportunity for the objective telescoping of third person, and so the reader essentially become a jurist listening to a lawyer’s closing argument. In this sense, all first-person narration is unreliable, or placeable on a continuum of unreliability.  It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel—LolitaThe Good Soldier, Tristram Shandy—make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration.  The best examples of the form lean as heavily as possible on first person’s audience-related pretenses.  Third-person narration, in contrast, contains no similar inherent claim to authority, and therefore tends toward a version of the world that is more essentially descriptive in character.  A third-person narrative, whether in the form of a short story or War and Peace, is a thing to be inspected by the reader.  It is, in a sense, a closed system, a ship in bottle, and the reader can hold it up to the light to see how closely it resembles a real ship.  If it does, part of the reading experience is to imagine it as the real thing; but it can be assumed, in a kind of contract on the part of intelligent writers and readers, that the shipbuilder is not pretending his model is fit for actual seafaring. In other words, the existence of a third-person narrator—that artificial authority Sebald found intolerable—signals the act of storytelling, and in doing so, encodes a structural uncertainty that first person lacks.  Third-person narrators no longer walk onstage and deliver monologues, a la Jane Austen, but we still understand them to be devices in service of telling a story—a contrivance that announces itself as such.  They are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness.  Compared to the explicit machinery of third-person narration, first person’s artifice seems covert, a clandestine operation.  This is not necessarily an argument against first-person narration—in able hands, this concealment can be a means of exposing greater truths about the subject of the writing or its writer—but it is an argument against the proposition that first person is somehow more transparent or “honest” than third. The other common objection to third-person narration, and by proxy an argument for first person, also concerns the artificiality of the third person narrator, not in artistic but rather, experiential terms.  This is the second prong of the naturalist argument: it isn’t a thing that exists.  No one walks into a room and thinks of themselves, “he walked into a room.”  Also, no one simply watches other people walk into a room without being aware of their own frame of reference.  And this is true:  close third person, via free-indirect discourse, models human consciousness with an intimacy that strives toward first person’s access to a character’s thoughts and emotions.  Why then, the argument goes, not dispense with this clumsy intermediary and go right to the source? Counterintuitively, third person achieves an effect, both in spite of and because of its narrator, that is more “realistic” than first.  While no one walks into a room and thinks, “he walks into a room,” it can be asserted with even greater force that no one walks into a room and thinks, “I walk into a room.”  No one, that is, who isn’t an imbecile or robot—not characters who figure heavily in the canon of great fictional protagonists.  The experience of being a human is, in fact, an experience of dual consciousness.  Human beings are social creatures, and human existence is an endless negotiation of the immediate, subjective perspective, and the greater objective context.  We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it:  who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it’s worth taking it from them.  In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people’s minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness—their motives and feelings.  The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator.  The apparatus of third-person narration, while wholly artificial, ironically enables the most authentic depiction of the quagmire of personhood. Irony is key here, in both cause and effect.  Third person’s scaffolding of multiple, competing levels of awareness is inherently, structurally ironic; the effect created by these slightly ill-fitting beams and joists, as the demands of narrative push and pull them against each other, is a large-scale, resonant irony.  Writing about the ability of narrative to convey humanity’s huge profligacy of type, Adelle Waldman, in a New Yorker piece from 2014, quotes Leo Tolstoy’s depiction of Vronsky: He was particularly fortunate in that he had a code of rules which defined without question what should and should not be done.  The code covered only a very small number of contingencies, but, on the other hand, the rules were never in doubt, and Vronsky, who never thought of infringing them, had never had a moment’s hesitation about what he ought to do.  The rules laid it down most categorically that a cardsharper had to be paid, but a tailor had not; that one must not tell a lie to a man, but might to a woman, that one must not deceive anyone but one may a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, etc. She says, “If someone like Vronsky were to give an account of his moral code, it would not, we can be sure, read in precisely these terms.”  This is true but neglects an important aspect of this rendering of Vronsky’s moral code, for we see at once in this passage a social view of Vronsky’s hypocrisy that shades toward a self-awareness of his own hypocrisy.  This shading—the ironic bounce of the repeated “never,” and the pompous “most categorically”—both enact Vronsky’s pompous hypocrisy and suggest a shiver of cognitive dissonance, of unease, that seems to come from Vronsky himself.  The point is debatable—maybe Tolstoy is just calling Count Vronsky an asshole—but in a general sense, the ironic space that third person carves out creates a productive ambiguity that deepens character the same way these little ironies of the self, the simultaneity of objective and subjective, deepen human existence the more a person is aware of them.  In this case, they suggest a Count Vronsky who is not only an asshole, but also, perhaps, very slightly aware of his own assholishness, as most assholes are.  It at least implies that possibility—a complex position unavailable to first person, in which a Vronsky POV would essentially either cop to his own hypocrisy, or strategically introduce it through unwitting revelation in the usual reliable unreliable method. As a thought experiment, try to imagine Ulysses written in the first person, the dueling solitary consciousnesses of Stephen and Bloom.  We are, of course, embedded deep in Bloom's and Stephens’s minds, but we are embedded there, via virtuoso free-indirect discourse rather than first-person.  It is surprising, in a way, that Ulysses was not written in first—after all, here we have the summit of stream-of-consciousness narrative, with an emotional and associative immediacy that has informed 100 years of writing all the way to the essayists of the moment.  Not only this, but the fracturing of consciousness and Dublin’s social institutions as represented in the book are (as we understand, in a somewhat trite though probably accurate sense) a cultural response the First World War; per Sebald, we would expect such a narrative to dispense with the puppetry of third-person narration.  So why not in first?  What would be lost? Among other things, it would more or less be simply a record of human confusion.  It would be an exhaustive, exhausting trek through Dublin, unremitting in its assault on our senses.  Ulysses is already exhausting enough in this regard, but many of the moments of relief are moments of perspectival shift:  the wider view of Stephen in the classroom, for example, or the anti-Semitic Citizen throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees the pub, righteous and triumphant.  These, and similar moments allowed by the omniscient narration, crucially allow in other people, complicating the dominant note of mental claustrophobia.  I say crucially, because the novel is not, ultimately, about mental claustrophobia, about being trapped in oneself; it is about the opposite, about the inevitability and value of social connection.  A Ulysses in first would represent, in spite of its erudition and catholicity of reference, essentially a shriveling worldview, rather than the enlarging one it offers.  HCE:  Here Comes Everybody. All of which is to say that the current critical and cultural movement away from third-person narration should be taken seriously, and to some extent—as much as such a thing is possible—resisted.  Matters of taste come and go, and it may seem silly to imagine third-person narration disappearing.  After all, it has persisted in its current form for going on 300 years.  But many pinnacles of high art recede and disappear in the face of changing norms.  It was probably similarly hard for the 19th- century art lover to imagine classical portraiture and Renaissance brushwork disappearing.  David Shields and similar critics may be dismissed as extreme, but they give voice to a larger cultural impulse, the enthronement of unmediated personal experience and feeling (as though such a thing were possible, even if desirable) as the height of written expression.  Reviewing Meghan Daum’s essay collection, The Unspeakable, Roxane Gay writes, “When it comes to the personal essay, we want so much and there is something cannibalistic about our desire. We want essayists to splay themselves bare. We want to see how much they are willing to bleed for us.”  The promotion of this kind of writing is, in turn, a collective response to larger cultural currents, among them the still shockingly recent advent of the Internet and reality television.  In this context, it is not hard to imagine omniscient third person, with its many registers of complex irony and representation, becoming the truly outmoded art form that Sebald and others would like it to be, an ornate artifact of a slower and more explicable age. And it’s true that in a very real sense, third person is not the narrative mode of our time.  A Henry James novel is essentially the anti-tweet.  Its aesthetic roots are in a more contemplative era, an era with fewer distractions and, simultaneously, more incentive to consider one’s place in the larger social context of a world that was rapidly expanding.  Now that the world has expanded to its seeming limits, we see an urge to put the blinders on and retreat into the relative safety of personal narrative.  This impulse should be resisted.  We need to engage with our world and one another, making use of the most sensitive instruments of understanding we have at our disposal. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature

When, in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s, book critic Sam Sacks critiqued the state of contemporary war fiction in a review called “First Person Shooters,” the subtitle made his position clear: “What’s missing in contemporary war fiction.” Pay attention to that last bit. Sacks wasn’t asking a question, he was writing a prescription: Escape the “cul-de-sac of personal experience” or risk “settling into the patterns of complacency that smoothed the path to the Terror Wars in the first place.”  However, if he had punctuated with a question mark, the answer would have been less hyperbolic, and a bit obvious: diversity. This problem is not fresh to contemporary war literature. In the Spring 1997 issue of African American Review, Jeff Loeb cited alarming statistics from Sandra Wittman’s 1989 bibliography Writing About Vietnam: African-Americans accounted for just six of nearly 600 novels, four poetry collections, and four of almost 400 memoirs written about the Vietnam War. To sum up, African-Americans wrote roughly one percent of Vietnam’s literary record.  By contrast, African-Americans made up 12.6 percent of the American force in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969[1]. Not much has changed since Wittman and Loeb first sounded the alarms. LaSalle University’s collection of Vietnam War multimedia—LaSalle and Texas Tech possess the most comprehensive collections I’m aware of—lists 8,053 entries, but categorizes only six under the subject matter search “African American Veteran Biography.” Just two are memoirs you can hold in your hands. Multimedia and Loeb’s essay comprise the rest of the entries. I used to think that the reason I could only point out one Vietnam book by a African-American vet—the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa—was due to my ignorance of what I imagined to be a wealth of African-American-produced war literature. The truth has proven far more uncomfortable. In his critique, Sam Sacks can be forgiven for another thinly-veiled jab at MFA-produced writing and its effect on the literature of The Forever War, versus focusing on its lack of diversity. He’s a critic after all, forever tilting at the windmill of The Secret Sauce. Hell, I laud him for paying attention in the first place. Forever War literature rarely appears in widely circulated book reviews. [2] Nonetheless, the subject of identity is important ground to tread in any consideration of contemporary war literature; especially now, as identity-related brushfires have sprung up across the country. A little research reveals that the genre came of age against a backdrop of identity-related controversy. Twelve years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was up against Philip Roth and some guy named Larry for the 1987 National Book Award. When Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann's Vietnam War novel, was announced, the literati were flabbergasted. Michiko Kakutani began her column the next day with the breathless “What happened?” and 48 authors signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review that alleged something short of racism on the part of the National Book Award judges for passing Morrison over in favor of the white Larry Heinemann.[3] While its rare successes have been far less contentious, contemporary war literature since Vietnam hasn’t changed too much: mostly white and male. Under the categorization “Books: History: Military: Afghan War: Memoir,” Amazon spit a list of 177 back at me, a number which decreased by a handful after I ruled out the puzzling inclusions of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and a book by the 19th-century Frenchman Stendhal. So far as I could tell, there were 10 authors of color.[4] Peruse the virtual stacks for a book about The Forever War, and the odds are solid that what ends up in your checkout cart will have been written by a white guy or gal. Expanding an identity-based evaluation of contemporary war literature to gender provides some cause for optimism. But for every Rule Number Two, Heidi Squier Kraft’s Iraq memoir, there are a dozen memoirs, novels, and collections by male veterans. It’s a trend that extends to even the essays and reviews that consider war literature. In consult with Rutgers University Professor of English and retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Molin, I assembled a list of 17. It isn’t all-inclusive, but women have written only a fraction of them, and fewer of those women were veterans. If there is an empirical evaluation of readily available contemporary war writing, critical or creative, it’s hard to argue that it is not largely written by men. In my experience, you have to go looking for work by women veterans, and all indications point to literary writers who are taking their time to perfect their craft through shorter work. An essay by Katherine Schifani, an Air Force veteran of Iraq, won literary journal The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Prize, and Marine Corps veteran Teresa Fazio’s short story “Float” won Consequence Magazine’s 2016 Fiction Prize. I know of at least five women veterans who are at work on their service-related memoirs, and most are around a decade removed from their time in the military. I look forward to the day I open their well-wrought books. The lack of women’s veteran narratives might have something to do with what’s considered a “traditional” war story: the old blood-and-guts combat book. And despite women having engaged in combat during The Forever War, combat job specialties—infantry and special operations, namely— remained closed to women until 2016. Earlier this year, Task & Purpose broke the news that a woman was due to report to the storied 75th Ranger Regiment as the first female special operator in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s simply a matter of time until women like her pen memoirs of their war experiences; until an armchair historian thrills to the tales of a female Navy SEAL a la Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. By contrast, plenty of Americans of color have served in combat specialties during The Forever War. So while the combat exclusion might explain the lack of women’s books, the reasoning falls short with regards to the lack of diverse narratives. As of 2015, the Department of Defense was 41 percent non-white. Expecting to see author demographics fall cleanly in line with such a statistic is a tad simple, but it’s fair to ask why so few veterans of color publish books. Drew Pham, a Vietnamese American Army officer and Afghanistan combat vet, believes it’s a matter of “privilege and access.” In an email exchange, he wrote, “the arts are a luxury. If you aren't raised with much exposure to that world, it seems like the distant domain of the social elite.” He noted that unlike many of his fellow officers, he “needed the Army to attend college.” In other words, if college is just something you do along your way to a commission in the service, then you might have come from a place that could afford to expose you to the arts. Conversely, if the only way you’re going to college is because you got a military scholarship, you come from a background of necessity. And while all writers, myself included, tend to think of our work as “necessary,”Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid for a reason. Pham, now clear of the military and an editor of the online journal The Wrath-Bearing Tree, went on to say that the remedy is representation: If marginal[ized] people don't see themselves represented, then the literary world seems inaccessible to them. For my part, seeing another Vietnamese-American writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen win the Pulitzer made me think that I could make a life out of writing fiction. The veteran writing community is small and tight-knit, and as a community we have to make a concerted effort to lift up marginalized voices rather than reproduce the biases—however unintentional—that dominate society. Mary Doyle, on the other hand, was told to “reflect the angst of being black” by her white MFA workshop cohorts, as she put it in a phone interview. “I couldn’t relate,” Doyle said, citing that trying to adopt the feedback gave her an inauthentic feeling. She ended up leaving her MFA program for financial reasons, but noted that her awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author began then. A black woman who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1979, Doyle served 17 years in military public affairs before embarking on a 21-year-and-counting career as an Army civilian employee. During that time, she’s co-authored the memoirs of two black women veterans, and written a series of mystery novels featuring a black protagonist named Master Sgt. Lauren Harper. Doyle threw in the towel with mainstream publication after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing, and now self-publishes. Doyle seemed as puzzled as I over the lack of diversity in contemporary war literature. However, she was also quick to point out that the current political moment is bound to generate words on the page in one way or another from people of color. I also think it will be the kind of thing publishers will find in their comfort zone...the racial divide, the conflict that comes from speaking out in the voice of the other. It's what they always want and what they expect. So hopefully, the lack of diversity we see in military writing will get an injection of new voices...now that racism, white supremacy and all the other topics that go along with that are so prevalent...again. This makes sense to me, a layman when it comes to the murky world of what books get published. But my gut warns me that even timely subject matter might not be enough. In 2015, Lee & Low, “the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the United States” according to their website, conducted a survey of the publishing industry based on data from eight review journals and 34 publishers. Including their own staff, Lee & Low sent out 13,237 surveys, and 3,415 returned complete. The data: 79 percent white, 88 percent straight, 92 percent non-disabled, 78 percent women. I’d like to have seen more data on the books published by some of the surveyed publishers just to get that last nail in the coffin, but selection bias seems firmly at play when it comes to race and books. And if it is, the odds will ever be against the veteran writer of color so long as the publishing industry continues to look like this. Until conditions change, we’ll have to widen our gaze and do a little digging.  Brian Castner, a veteran and author of two books of war nonfiction, noted that Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley both served in WWII, but neither wrote about their military experiences outright[5]. For a more contemporary example, he noted Wes Moore, a black Army veteran and author of the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, and I was surprised to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo was once a Marine Corps Reservist. None would argue any of these black writers should have written military-themed books. But it won’t stop me from wishing they had. A high school English teacher who can afford one Vietnam book on the syllabus will fall back on the familiar, not the obscure. It will be The Things They Carried, not Dien Cai Dau; A Rumor of War, and not the oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods. What we read is what we buy; the bought books make the lists, and before long, the canon conceives itself. And until the canon becomes more inclusive, its narrative will remain singular and simplistic. Facing issues of class and race, it becomes clear that there are no bromides to remedy The Forever War’s literary lack of diversity. But one can hope that as Pham and Doyle indicated, increased consciousness in tandem with current events might spur a growing production of gender-, race-, and ethnically-diversified voices within the military writing community. One can hope that we might draw lessons from the Vietnam War’s legacy of near-erasure of non-white experiences; that the growth of veterans writing workshops and anthologies will represent to future generations a more complete picture of The Forever War. The grim reality is that The Forever War shows no indication of ending anytime soon, a fact that Sacks chooses rather niftily to ignore when concluding his thesis against a backdrop comprised of the literature of previous wars. The war my generation began has become the next generation’s to conclude. If there is a perverse truth to the current state of affairs in contemporary war literature, it is this: there appears to be plenty of time left on the clock for the canon to grow.   [1] According to the 2004 version of The Oxford Companion to Military History [2] I am aware of only two other well-heeled critical surveys: George Packer’s “Home Fires” in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani’s “Home Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill A Bookshelf.” Kakutani was one of the few book critics to regularly review contemporary war books. [3] Professor Joseph Darda’s essay in Contemporary Literature, “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness After Vietnam,” made me aware of the controversy. [4] The Amazon results included works by non-U.S. authors. [5] Ellison’s early drafts of The Invisible Man prominently figured the recovered journal of a dead Merchant Marine named Leroy.  Ellison, like Jack Kerouac, served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two. Image Credit: Army.mil.
Essays

What’s a Library to Do? On Homelessness and Public Spaces

[caption id="attachment_98349" align="aligncenter" width="570"] The Central Library building in downtown St. Louis.[/caption] 1. Russell had a long beard that at least one librarian likened to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. Every day he showed up to the Central Library building in downtown St. Louis, and because he always wore the same clothes, bearing the logo of the city’s former NFL team, the staff privately nicknamed him “Rams Jacket.” It was increasingly becoming a problem that hundreds of people like Russell, who spent their nights at the homeless shelter across the street, would spend their days in the library. But Russell was, according to one librarian who worked at Central at the time, “the most regular of the regulars.” He always sat in the exact same room, at the same table, in the same chair. He usually read quietly, and when not reading, he napped sitting with the book propped up in front of him. He was in many ways the ideal library patron. However, Russell slept at a shelter where a different person used every bed each night, the linens changed only once a week. He became afflicted with bed bugs. He suffered from painful, suppurating sores. Homeless people spending time in and around public libraries are nothing unusual in metropolitan areas. It has been written about before, widely. But at this central library in St. Louis, the city system’s crown jewel, a conundrum that exists all over the country was heightened to a rare degree. A library is supposed to be a place for all people. But how does the library keep its doors open to all? The New Life Evangelistic Center, where Russell slept, was a controversial homeless shelter. Run by a reverend and sometimes-third party mayoral candidate named Larry Rice, the shelter took in as many as 300 people every night, and every morning at six, these people were told to leave for the day. No one denied Rice provided people in need a place to sleep, but critics say he offered very little else in terms of rehabilitation, mental health, or employment counseling. A cross emblazoned on the side of the NLEC is so large it spans nearly two of the building’s five stories. [caption id="attachment_98350" align="aligncenter" width="570"] The New Life Evangelistic Center.[/caption] Across the street, however, the Central Library where Russell spent his days had undergone a $70 million renovation. Its floors perfectly reflect the sunlight shining in through massive stained glass windows. Frescoes adorn the high ceilings. Footsteps and low voices echo in exactly the right hallowed way. The building itself is more than a century old, designed by the architect of the Woolworth building in Manhattan with construction funded by Andrew Carnegie. Canonical names are etched around the rim of its granite exterior: Goethe, Milton, Racine. Between the Central Library and the NLEC sits tiny Lucas Gardens Park, where many people who slept the previous night in the shelter waited out the days. If you’d visited the area as recently as this spring you would have noticed the crowd congregated there, people who seemed to have everything they own clutched in their hand or stored in bags at their feet. At times there were so many people in the park that it looked as if an event were about to begin. Unable to use the NLEC’s facilities during the day, many of its residents used the library’s bathrooms, water fountains, and air conditioning, which meant that, according to one former librarian, the Central Library was a “de facto day shelter with hundreds of people.” A series of Board of Public Service hearings were held to determine if the NLEC was a detriment to its neighborhood, and at these hearings representatives from Central testified that it was common in the library’s Great Hall for every chair to be occupied by someone experiencing homelessness. This deterred research, fewer people checked out books, and parents were hesitant to bring their children. The library’s executive director testified that Central Library was more and more, “used not as a public library but as a shelter, a place to keep warm, a place to keep cool, a place to sit, a place to meet.” Due to the volume of people outside, some library staff were escorted to and from their cars at the beginning and end of their shifts. Representatives from the library stated that Central employed a full-time custodian whose entire job was to, “constantly walk the perimeter of the building, cleaning up large amounts of blankets, clothing, food containers and trash, as well as urine, feces, vomit, and drug paraphernalia.” This custodian removed human feces “virtually every day.” Yet in February of this year, the NLEC organized a press conference at which half a dozen people who used NLEC services spoke out against the Central Library. From the local CBS affiliate’s coverage of the press conference: “I go in there to do job searches. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, all of our computers is booked up for now. Come back later,'” Brian Foster says. “So when I come back later, it’s always ‘Come back, come back.'” Others claim they have been asked to leave because they smell or look homeless. “If you smell or you look like you haven’t changed your clothes and you truly are homeless on the street, they will not let you in,” Megan Ferguson says. “The police will put you out. There’s actual police in there that will put you out.” Eric Lundgren, a former librarian at Central who told me about Russell, said that while he was at the library he felt having a social worker on staff would have been a big step in the right direction. In theory, a social worker could not only have worked with library patrons, but also trained library staff in how to best help those patrons in distress or in need of social service-type assistance. When I asked a librarian working behind the front desk if he and his coworkers received any such training, he referred me to the library’s PR representative. When I put the question to them, they never replied. Lundgren himself had eventually spoken with Russell and asked if he had somewhere he could go for medical and hygiene help. During the interaction, Russell was coherent, non-confrontational, and cool. The next time he came into the library his head was shaved, he was clean, wearing a new white T-shirt and red sweat pants. But soon after that, Russell stopped showing up. Another regular from the NLEC said that one night Russell arrived at the shelter for the evening check in and was “completely terrified.” He’d urinated on himself. He was turned away that night, and no one there had seen him since. Lundgren told me that for him Russell’s story epitomized his feelings about both his own (former) employer and the shelter next door. "There was a big $70 million investment in the renovation,” he said. “And certainly some of the library's leadership felt that NLEC folks were discouraging other patrons from visiting, bringing their kids downtown. This is a real concern. Central Library is a stunning building, a shared asset that everyone should be able to enjoy safely. It's an extremely difficult and complex problem, balancing the safety of the library on the one hand with the acknowledgment on the other that the homeless and marginalized are real patrons, too." As for the shelter next door, he added: “The NLEC seemed that they were willing to provide beds and shelter for a lot of people. They imposed a surface religiosity on them, but when it came to the deeper, more difficult problem of actually caring for them and helping them out of their predicament, they really fell short.” The NLEC didn’t have a social worker on staff. They provided little if anything by way of job training and had no system in place to connect people to long-term housing A person in need of a place to sleep could stay for only fourteen nights, and, according to a St. Louis Magazine profile of Rice, the shelter allowed people to exchange labor for room and board beyond those two weeks. Those who opted for these extended stays and who were receiving government benefits were asked to forfeit a portion of that money to the NLEC. The story described people who stayed at the NLEC later testifying against it, saying they had possessions stolen while there, that they witnessed drug dealing within the building. The library’s executive director testified alongside them, saying the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood. These hearings happened in 2013, and the shelter’s hotel license wasn’t revoked until 2015. At that time, according to a St. Louis City press release, the NLEC began operating, “without any permit of any kind to occupy the property.” It wasn’t until April of this year that the NLEC’s hotel license was revoked for the final time, effectively ending its shelter services. Four years between the 2013 hearing and the shelter’s closing, and in that time hundreds of people were going from the shelter to the library and back again every day. A $70 million library. A converted, five story YWCA with 300 beds. For those dividing their time between the two, the library and the NLEC must have seemed in many ways considerably less than the sum of their parts. 2. Faye Abram, a social work professor recently retired from St. Louis University, says that it helps to bear in mind that even though homeless people don’t have a home, they still have a home base. In this particular case, she says, the Central Library didn’t attract the homeless so much as it was located within the community of the homeless. The NLEC was next door, and about five blocks north is a Catholic Charity-run center offering support for people experiencing homelessness. Resources for utility assistance and pro bono legal services are also within a few blocks. “The library was part of their community,” Abram said. “And the library because of its generally open policies and liberal hours was like a safe space.” Abram, who was asked to testify at the hearings related to the NLEC, says she never perceived the Central Library as an institution asking itself what it should do to be more responsive to the needs of homeless people in the area. But, she said, she isn’t sure that is a fair burden to put on the library. It’s asking the library to do more than what libraries are typically asked to do. “The library had some legitimate concerns,” Abram said. “There was undo pressure on it with the overflow that was coming from the NLEC. But the only thing that’s going to relieve that pressure and allow homeless patrons to use the library as it should be used is to allow them to be able to have other spaces where they can shower and sleep and change clothes. It doesn’t help to close down a place like the NLEC; if anything it puts more pressure on the library.” In general, Abram says, closing a shelter is only going to relocate the problem rather than mend it. St. Louis’s total homeless population numbers near 1,800, and shutting down the NLEC as a shelter only shifts the hundreds of people who slept there to different communities elsewhere. Absent a systemic remedy, Abram said, “You can take care of the problem in one place, but it’s just going to crop up somewhere else.” On a recent summer morning the Lucas Gardens Park was nearly empty. On the front steps of Central, a public safety officer who works the library beat told me that the area has gotten a little “better” after the NLEC’s closure. Still he said he sees more “craziness” in one day than other people in his line of work see in a 40-hour week. People offer each other drugs in the library bathroom. Another morning, I spoke to a young man about a block away who said he stayed in the area. I asked him if he ever used the library. "You got an ID?" he asked. I nodded. "Then they'll let you use a computer," he said. "They're cool." 3. So what is a library to do? According to Nicole Cooke, author of Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals, more and more libraries, particularly ones in large well-funded systems, are adding social workers to their staff. Cooke, who teaches future librarians as a professor in the University of Illinois library science program, says that social work and librarianship are both “very public facing and service-oriented professions.” However there are fundamental differences between the two, and communities can’t assign to librarians all that social workers are tasked to do. “But the key,” Cooke said, “is to figure out how make that a little more institutionalized, to make it the rule rather than the exception.” Cooke pointed to libraries in San Francisco that have coordinated with a mobile shower facility that parks outside various branch locations, which provide the necessary water hook up. Abram mentioned that some libraries allow people moving into areas to use the local branch address as their home address until they are settled. At a library in Philadelphia, librarians have been trained to administer Narcan in the case that someone in or near the library overdoses on opioids. In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a reporter chronicled the story of one librarian who helped save the lives of three overdose victims in as many shifts. “But my students and I talk a lot about being ready, willing, and able to serve all patrons in librarianship,” Cooke said. “A library at any given time could have multiple diverse marginalized populations, including homeless patrons, and it becomes challenging to prioritize and really adequately serve all of them.” In St. Louis, before the NLEC closed, it may have seemed like that shelter and the Central Library were in opposition. Rice organized a press conference against the library. Library representatives testified at a city hearing that the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood. But framing the story as an institutional squabble misses the bigger picture in which, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, nearly one out of every 100 Americans will spend a night out on the streets this year. Both the library and the NLEC helped the homeless in their own—sometimes highly flawed—ways. It’s easy to ask why they fell short, but why was it left to them in the first place? Photos courtesy of the author.
Essays

Plunging Into the Infinite: How Literature Captures the Essence of Chess

1. If stories teach us what it means to be human, then it’s no surprise that chess crops up again and again in literature. After all, people from all over the world have been playing this game for thousands of years. The game has a profound hold on our collective imagination? What about chess commands our respect as “the immortal game” or “the royal game,” whereas most of its peers are seen as harmless time-wasters? The most obvious explanation why fiction is so replete with chess players is that, at their core, chess and stories are about the same thing—conflict. And it is a particular kind of conflict that is utterly devoid of chance. Whether a king is playing against a beggar or a nuclear physicist against a kindergartener, all that matters are the choices you make. Chess is somewhat underserved by artistic mediums outside of literature. Often, it is used as a blunt metaphor for a literal conflict, like when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty discuss the moves they’ve made in the battle on and off the board, or when Professor X and Magneto play chess in at least three X-Men films, all the while discussing the real conflict at hand. It probably doesn’t get more overt than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where a man plays a game of chess in which his life is on the line, and his opponent is Death. Fiction, on the other hand, has the unparalleled ability to grant us insight into a character's psyche. It is therefore uniquely qualified to explore the nature of chess itself. And while not every story that involves chess does this successfully, there are a select few that triumph in a way that works of another medium never could. That’s because the greatest chess stories understand that trying to master chess is like trying to master the infinite, and the psychological consequences can be transcendent or terrifying. 2. Chess is often associated with reason and, by extension, with intelligence, especially of the mathematical variety.  Flip through any chess book, with symbols like O-O and Qxa1, and it certainly seems that chess has the same sharp, crystalline beauty of mathematical proofs. The standard way of writing out chess moves currently used is even called algebraic notation. On top of all this, machines have been able to play chess since the '90s, beating world champions along the way. So where does emotion fit in? Chess itself might be nothing but logic and order, but it can invite a kind of madness. The painter Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp grew obsessed with the game, writing in a 1919 letter that, “I play day and night, and nothing interests me more than finding the right move…I like painting less and less.” During his honeymoon, he spent almost all his time playing chess (shockingly, the marriage didn’t last). Later, he called himself a “victim of chess.” He also said that “it has all the beauty of art—and much more,” and that chess was not only a sport, but “a violent” one. In a similar vein, Albert Einstein famously said, “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” Vladimir Nabokov was deeply intrigued by the game, publishing his own chess problems in the aptly named Poems and Problems. He also wrote his famous The Luzhin Defense. And given that the story meticulously details how chess drives his protagonist insane, Nabokov clearly understood that chess could have its…downsides. The mental strain, of these and so many other players, professional and amateur alike, is a direct consequence of the infinite aspect of chess. Consider, for a moment, what it takes for someone to become a great chess player, how he or she must memorize and master a stupendous number of strategies and learn to recognize innumerable patterns, all while knowing that it’s impossible to ever learn every possibility. Perfection is forever out of reach. Stefan Zweig understood the vast spectrum of effects chess could have on players, from the ennobling to the destructive. Nowhere is the full range of chess’s impact on individual minds better explored than in his final work, Chess Story. 3. One of the reasons Chess Story can be enjoyed by any reader, regardless of whether they love chess or have never played a single game, is that the story itself sees the game through three distinct perspectives—that of an outsider, a genius, and an amateur. The outsider is the narrator, who knows how to play and is intrigued by the game, but doesn’t play often and only for fun when he does. The real heart of the novella is the conflict between the genius and the amateur, the world champion Mirko Czentovic and the mysterious Dr. B. Czentovic is unstoppable, easily dispatching all opponents. Yet he is also, bluntly, an idiot. He has little education and behaves in a childish, even boorish way around others. There is something supernatural, even magical about how Czentovic absorbs the game as a child after simply watching others play. In contrast, Dr. B.’s skill is won through nearly a year of studying and playing the game every single day. This is only possible because Dr. B. is one of the many victims of the Nazis who, rather than being condemned to a concentration camp, was instead condemned to total isolation. As a number of real people were under the Third Reich, he is locked in a hotel room and kept there with nothing to do and no one to talk to. He is totally alone, unable to even tell whether it is night or day. He is kept alive through food and drinks provided by a guard, but the guard never communicates with him. Now and then Nazi soldiers drag him out of his room to interrogate him with the questions to which he has no answers. Then, just when this inhuman isolation is starting to destroy him, Dr. B manages to steal a book from a soldier’s coat. He is initially disappointed when he sees it’s a book of chess games, but with nothing else to do, he quickly throws himself into studying the game purely as a way of escaping his small, unchanging, torturous world. But the world inside his mind grows torturous as well, as he succumbs to what he calls “chess poisoning.” Like an intellectual virus, chess eats away at him. He’s driven to a mental breakdown after, having mastered all the games notated in his book, he begins to play against himself. The effort it takes to divide his consciousness as he plays games purely in his mind is too much, and it almost drives him into permanent madness. Almost. Luckily, Dr. B is released from the hotel thanks to the efforts of a compassionate doctor. He wisely stays away from the game until he feels compelled to help the narrator, who is playing against Czentovic on a cruise. The unbearably tense climax occurs when Dr. B plays against Czentovic one-on-one, the amateur who studied the game purely as a way of keeping sane—although eventually it drove him mad--and the genius whose ability seems otherworldly, a result of intuition or instinct. Zweig makes chess absolutely absorbing and thrilling for any reader. But it is undeniable that Chess Story doesn’t paint an altogether positive view of the game, considering that one character is essentially a victim of the game, to again borrow Duchamp’s words. While there are multiple novels in the vein of Zweig’s novella, one story provides an opposite view. In Ah Cheng’s The Chess Master, a player’s experience with the infinite doesn’t plunge him into madness; rather, it raises him to the sublime. 4. In the introduction to the bilingual edition, Professor Ngai Ling-tun of the East Asian Languages and Literature Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison relates the story of how The Chess Master supposedly came to be. Apparently, Cheng—a painter and autodidact—loved to tell stories and people loved to listen to them. One of those stories so enthralled them that they urged him to write it down. Cheng didn’t think the written version was as good as the oral one, but it was good enough to earn it a prominent and beloved place in the canon of Chinese literature. At first, The Chess Master seems similar to Zweig’s Chess Story. Both are concise stories that begin with a traveling narrator who is only mildly interested in chess and who meets a character who is uneducated yet highly skilled at the game. In Zweig’s story, that person is Czentovic. In Cheng’s story, it is Wang Yisheng, a young orphan who is able to temporarily escape the poverty and desperation of his life through chess. In Cheng’s novel, the backdrop is Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution—the narrator and Yisheng meet because they are both high school students compelled to go to work at a state farm in the countryside. The differences end there. Chinese chess—called Xiangqi—is actually played differently than the chess familiar to most Americans and Europeans, with different pieces, different rules, and a different board. Second, while chess in Zweig’s novella is isolating, chess in Cheng’s novella allows the lonely Yisheng to form deep friendships. At the end of Cheng’s novella, Yisheng plays nine players simultaneously. He has no board in front of him. He doesn’t even look at the players. They merely tell him their moves and he tells them his. One by one he defeats his opponents until the only person left is the winner of an important chess tournament. Yisheng is certainly strained mentally by the games, but he does not careen toward a breakdown like Dr. B. Instead, chess raises him to a higher spiritual plane (Taoism is brought up a number of times; Cheng frequently injects his stories with Taoist elements). In the end, the game does not conclude with a winner or loser; Yisheng graciously agrees to a draw so that his elderly opponent—who says he has renewed hope for the future of chess in China because of Yisheng—can save face. Aside from the story being more uplifting—basically an underdog story—the fact that it ends in a draw is crucial. It illustrates that Cheng does not see chess as a metaphor for war. Far from it—chess is presented as a harmonious collaboration composed of moves and pieces, reason and imagination. The game is a work of art, not of conflict. 5. It’s useful to see Zweig's and Cheng’s stories at opposite ends of a spectrum of chess literature, with madness at one extreme, and serenity on the other. Perhaps the rewards of chess mirror those of literature, with infinite possibilities, and infinite rewards. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

How I Finished My Novel by Moving to Berlin, Playing Pokémon Go, and Walking a Dog Named Lenny

In the summer of 2016, I decided to escape Montreal for six weeks to live in a makeshift room in a pantry at my friends’ apartment in Berlin. My only goal in traveling to Germany was to use this period of my life as a sort of pseudo-artist residency to finish the last draft of my second novel, which I had been working on for almost three years. I knew the book’s last chapter wasn’t working and needed to be rewritten, but I now felt a kind of nausea whenever I opened the Word document that contained my novel. I had, I knew, been staring at the same words for way too long. Shouldn’t I be done writing you by now? I thought, yelling at the Word document in my head. Why aren’t you done being written? Do I have to do everything around here? Traveling to a foreign country to stare at the same words, I thought, might help make them feel new to me. I arrived in the city late at night, and felt destroyed by jet lag. Since I don’t speak German, navigating the public transport system was confusing at first, as every word in German looked to me like a different misspelling of the word “skateboard.” Trying to figure out if the bus I was sitting on was heading in the right direction, I began to feel more empathy for my Anglophone friends in Montreal, who have to function in life without being able to read signs in French. Looking out the window, I started wondering what kind of person I would become in Berlin, what effect this new environment would have on me. Then I noticed a completely normal Subway restaurant next to a Starbucks on a street corner and it felt like the brands were trying to communicate some sort of profoundly depressing message to me, something like, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to change anything, you can live here exactly like you would in North America, just give us your money, we’re familiar and safe.” No matter where I travelled, it always felt like capitalism was tracking me like the NSA. An hour later, I sat in my friends’ living room and we chatted for a while, trying to catch up. I hadn’t seen them in almost a year. Pete was working an office job he didn’t like, while Sabrina was making money by running an online magazine and dogsitting strangers’ dogs via a website called Pawshake. They were married, partly for citizenship reasons and partly because they wanted to be, and had started thinking about moving back to America. This would cost money, so in theory, renting out their spare room to a friend for a few weeks made sense. In practice, I wasn’t sure how living together in close quarters for more than a month was going to go. Though Sabrina and I had been friends for about four years, we had never lived in the same city, and usually saw each other only once or twice per year, in short, intense bursts. That night, I slept on an air mattress for 13 consecutive hours. Waking up, I was dizzy and had difficulty remembering how to walk. I felt like I had just stepped out of a time capsule, like I wasn’t even sure what year it was. I went to a laundromat with Sabrina and we walked by the Landwehr Canal, where people were sitting in the grass near the water, talking, drinking, and playing music. We talked about our lives and Sabrina mentioned that living near the canal kind of felt like “living inside a music festival.” Though we chatted online semi-regularly, I realized, listening to her, that I actually didn’t know much about her life anymore. Traveling here, my assumption had been that I was going to spend time with an old friend, but now that we were interacting face-to-face, I couldn’t help feeling as if something was off, as if we didn’t connect the same way we used to. Were we still friends? Or had we become, at some point, just strangers with an Internet connection? Back at the apartment, I grabbed my laptop and went by myself to a café located nearby. I didn’t know how to say “thank you” in German, so when the employee gave me back my change, I just nodded like some sort of mysterious cowboy. Checking my email, I saw that I had received a message from an editor I had worked with in the past asking if I might be interested in writing an essay about Pokémon Go, which had just been released for smartphones and seemed to be everywhere that summer, like a collective hallucination. Even Pete had mentioned playing the game the night before. Writing a brand new essay from scratch sounded more promising than working on a seemingly doomed, seemingly unfixable novel, so I told the editor that I might have time for a mandate like this and that I would install the app on my phone and see if I could come up with a pitch for him. I knew that Pokémon Go used geolocation, so I thought that maybe the game could encourage me to explore Berlin by introducing an element of randomness into my thought process. One problem I often have in life is that I tend to function like some sort of risk-averse automaton. I’ll walk down the same streets a lot, develop a routine I like, and then follow it most days without bothering to consider new options. I wanted to see if Pokémon Go could work as a kind of therapy by sending me to obscure locations, rewarding me for doing the opposite of what my inner monologue would normally tell me to do. Pokémon Go begins the same way the original Game Boy titles do, by asking the player to choose from one of three starting monsters. Since Pokémon Go, unlike the rest of the series, was technically set in the real world, I decided to select Bulbasaur, the plant monster, as he seemed to me like the one least likely to survive global warming. Playing, I immediately ran into an obvious problem, which was that I didn’t have data on my phone while in Europe, meaning I would only be able to catch monsters when a Wi-Fi signal was nearby. Though playing Pokémon Go in this manner didn’t make for a very smooth game experience, it was actually not a bad way to absorb my new surroundings. Instead of staring at my phone, I was constantly scanning the horizon, looking for any kind of business that offered free Wi-Fi. I would walk around, spot a McDonalds or something in the distance, take out my phone, stand outside the restaurant, accept the terms of service for the Wi-Fi, open the app, endure the ugly loading screen, catch a Rattata, leave, walk two blocks up to an independent café, log into their Wi-Fi, catch a Pidgey, etc. Moving from one corporate Wi-Fi signal to the next almost felt like a physical reenactment of what the Internet has become, the sensation of always being beholden to various corporate masters, of constantly having to enter blood pacts with suspicious companies like Google, Facebook, or Amazon in exchange for free services. In the days that followed, I caught a few more monsters, tried and failed to become a gym leader, became best friends with a nearby Thai restaurant that had a surprisingly potent, entirely unprotected Wi-Fi signal. My sleep schedule was still all over the place, so one morning, I woke up at five and couldn’t fall back asleep. I decided to go out, walk somewhere random, hoping, maybe, to find new monsters. I didn’t capture anything, but I did discover weird streets, new architecture, different nooks and crannies of Berlin that I might have missed otherwise. It’s working, I thought. Pokémon Go is doing what I was hoping it would do, motivating me to explore and walk in random directions. I felt entertained by my own disorientation, started loving getting lost. Meanwhile, at Pete and Sabrina’s apartment, I quickly began to feel third wheel-like. While Pete and I were getting along well, the situation with Sabrina didn’t improve, but didn’t deteriorate either, just stayed at about the same level of awkward. When people are uncomfortable around me, I tend to want to make things better, but only end up being uncomfortable back, which doesn’t help anything. Well, if she wants to be alone, at least I am really good at that, leaving people alone, I thought. Besides Sabrina and Pete, I didn’t know many people in Berlin, so I started spending my days away from the apartment, mostly by myself. I continued exploring the city by playing Pokémon Go, but my opinion of the game soured over the course of a few days. Pokémon Go, it turned out, wasn’t a video game carefully developed by Nintendo, but a dumb, greedy smartphone app rushed to market by a company named Niantic. While the 3-D monsters in Pokémon Go looked aesthetically pleasing, they also felt emotionally hollow, like seeing Mickey Mouse at Disney World and realizing that it’s not actually Mickey, it’s just some guy in a costume. I didn’t like how the only way to play Pokémon Go, it seemed, was to capture everything in sight like some sort of megalomaniac trophy hunter. The monsters in the game didn’t even act like wild creatures. Instead, it was almost like they were deliberately trying to be captured. Playing, I would get a temporary high for capturing a new monster, then the feeling would go away and I would feel nothing again, so I would look for a new monster to capture. The game would praise me for it, then it would open my inventory to show me all the other monsters I still hadn’t caught. The app wanted me to feel good, but also incomplete. The more time I spent with Pokémon Go, the more I felt like I wasn’t really catching monsters, but capturing my own nostalgia instead. Why did I need to catch any of you again? Be free! Live your life! I already have enough problems as it is. Though the marketing for the Pokémon series has always emphasized capturing as many monsters as possible, the original Game Boy games, for me, were never about ownership. Growing up, I didn’t like collecting for the sake of collecting, catching a creature just to store it in my inventory and then never taking it out for battle, forgetting that it even exists. What I liked instead was having a small group of monsters that I cared about and developed an emotional bond with through training. My goal wasn’t to “catch ’em all,” but to capture what I needed and leave the rest alone. This aspect of my personality, preferring simplicity, is still present in my adult self. In general, I tend to prefer to live with little and not get encumbered with things. I move around a lot, maybe twice per year on average, and everything I own could probably fit into a car. I’ve arranged my life like I am some sort of runaway bride, like I could decide at any time to set it on fire and randomly move to another country, like Japan. This aspect of my personality was probably what had allowed me to travel to Berlin in the first place. After deciding that I didn’t want to write an essay about a morally bankrupt smartphone app, I deleted Pokémon Go from my phone, then immediately felt relieved to know it was gone from my life. Maybe happiness wasn’t capturing 151 Pokémon after all, I thought. Maybe happiness was giving up what you want. With nothing better to do, I went back to my novel, tiptoeing around the real problems, replacing one word with a different synonym and hoping that would somehow mean I was done. No, still not done, I thought. Shit. Then I gave up again, started watching documentaries on YouTube about the Berlin Wall and people hiding inside secret compartments in cars to escape East Germany. I pictured myself hiding inside a secret compartment to escape my novel, relocating elsewhere, maybe starting a brand new book under a new pen name. Since things weren’t getting better with Sabrina, I considered finding a room to sublet somewhere else for the rest of my stay in Berlin, but then I received an email from her letting me know that she and Pete would be leaving for about 10 days to go visit family and asking if I might be interested in dogsitting while they were gone. She had a Pawshake client who needed an emergency dogsitter while they were away and Sabrina had told her client that maybe I could do it. I said yes, as taking care of dogs is probably my second greatest skill in life, after leaving people alone. While Sabrina and Pete were gone, I connected with Sabrina’s Pawshake client and started taking care of her dog, a 13-year-old, tired-looking rescue named Lenny, who was shy and apprehensive and didn’t like being petted on the head. “Don’t worry, we can be friends,” I said, trying to reassure him. “I am shy and sensitive, too.” I started to miss exploring Berlin through Pokémon Go, so I decided to use Lenny in the same way, letting the dog choose our destination when we went on walks. One afternoon, a dog being walked without a leash came up to Lenny and tried to say hi to him, which didn’t draw a positive response. Lenny barked, reacted angrily, then the other dog’s owner yelled at me in German because my dog had gotten into an argument with his. I tried to say something back, but couldn’t remember which language I was supposed to be speaking, so the first half of my sentence came out in English and the second half came out in French. Then I realized neither language would help. But my dog was on a leash, why are you yelling at me? I thought. Put your dog on a leash. Is there some sort of cultural context I don’t get here? Is this normal? Getting yelled at was at least useful in that it provided a temporary jolt. Later that day, I went back to my novel, determined to make something happen. What would Lenny do? I thought. What would Pokémon Go do? Then it dawned on me that maybe the best thing that could happen would be for me to feel lost inside my novel again, just like I had felt lost at the very beginning. I went through the text and decided to deliberately break as many things as I could, including entire dialog exchanges and carefully constructed, house-of-cards-like sentences. I felt like I was using the Pokémon Charmander’s flamethrower ability, setting my paragraphs on fire to force my novel to react. In the span of two days, 7,000 words disappeared and were replaced by 2,500 new ones. What I knew about my novel became what I thought I knew about it. I only half-know what I am doing, I thought. It didn’t matter. I was enjoying the process of writing again. Around the same time, my life in Berlin, just like that, began to pick up and became more social. I went to shows where Montreal bands were playing, met new people, discovered a park with a high ratio of weed dealers per square foot, kind of like walking around in Pokémon and encountering Rattatas every few steps, spent a day near a lake with a makeshift group of friends, visited bookstores and went to readings, where a lot of writers, like me, spoke and wrote in English as a second language. In Montreal, I was used to being surrounded by native English speakers, but here, in Berlin, my inability to pronounce various words properly didn’t stand out as much, which felt nice. Pete and Sabrina returned from their travels around the same time as Lenny’s owner. A week later, with only six or so days left in Berlin, I managed to finish a new draft of my novel, then immediately started thinking about my life back in Montreal. Before leaving, I had surrendered my apartment, so I was going back with no place to stay, no job, and very little money in my bank account. I didn’t even have an essay about Pokémon Go to sell to an online magazine. I was looking for a new direction in life, and felt tempted to read my Facebook ads like they were tea leaves, interpreting an ad about a nice couch like some sort of prophecy telling me that the path forward was to move in with my girlfriend when I got back home. Even though I had finished my novel, it wouldn’t actually be published for at least another year or so, so what would I do in Montreal until then? Get a depressing full-time job? Start a YouTube channel where I rant about materialism and Pokémon Go? Launch a thriving dogsitting business hoping the universe would somehow reunite me with Lenny? I had no idea, but now feeling lost in my own life no longer seemed like a problem. It felt like a secret power. Image Credit: Flickr/Farley Santos.
Essays

Write What You Know? Identity Politics and Fiction

1. No novel has entranced me this year like the French author Mathias Énard’s Compass, short-listed for the 2017 Booker Prize. Énard, a writer with tremendous empathy for his characters, both as individuals, and also as contextualized individuals embedded within contemporary geopolitical conflicts—the book is dedicated on the last page “to the Syrian people”—writes what ostensibly seems a didactic treatise on the world of orientalist academics. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist whose dreamscape and memories over the course of one sleepless night populate the entirety of the text while taking us through both Eastern and Western lands: Vienna, where Franz lies on a sickbed in the present, to Aleppo, Tehran, Damascus, Paris, and Istanbul, to which Énard pays special attention as the historic "conduit" between Europe and Asia. As Franz dreams restlessly about the woman he loves— another orientalist scholar, Sarah, a historian, whose polyglot prodigiousness on all things worldly and otherworldly pays homage to all forms of scholarship—Compass emerges as both a technical and scholarly feat as well as a love letter to the "Orient" and a rebuke to the fiction of its otherness. In amusingly familiar academic segues we can see, through Franz, what Sarah might write about: a fanciful article entitled “On the Cosmopolitan Fates of Magical Objects,”  Franz imagines (probably accurately) as a title for an article that Sarah would write to show “how these objects are the result of successive shared efforts…that Orient and Occident never appear separately, that they are always intermingled, present in each other, and that these words—Orient, Occident—have no more heuristic value than the unreachable destinations they designate.” Énard’s brilliance is as self-evident as it is comical: Where else but in the idiosyncratic exchanges of academics could we ruminate on such grand ideas through the study of genie lamps and flying carpets? Through Franz’s one-night journey through memory, we meet quirky Egyptologists, composers, writers, archaeologists, philosophers, even charlatans; many of whose stories, whether they physically featured in Franz’s life or not, peter out in a tale of heartbreaking fits and starts. Franz and Sarah’s own story is, predictably, no less sad. I have been in awe of Énard’s gifts since Street of Thieves, during which I marveled at the empathy with which he treated his Moroccan protagonist, Lakhdar, a young man who travels from Tangier to Tarifa and finally, Barcelona, haunted by an Islamist bombing he had minor involvement in and his excommunication from his family, but assuaged by his love for literature and art: Ibn Battuta and Naguib Mahfouz, the familiar beauties of Tangier and the exotic newness of Barcelona. In Compass, Énard ostensibly faces less of a challenge writing a protagonist with whom he shares at least some cultural sensibilities (although obsessed as Franz is with the appropriation of Oriental music on European composers from Franz Liszt to Hector Berlioz to Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom get several fascinating pages of description, we shouldn’t minimize the author’s feat: to my knowledge Énard is not an ethnomusicologist), even as the ghost of Edward Said hangs insistently over the orientalist scholars’ cerebral quibbling. Books like these give me an unerring hope in the human capacity to reach out to an unknown self and try, with meticulous research, observation, erudition, but principally with empathy, to understand a self distinct from one’s own. When I first began to read Compass, I had just begun writing another short story of my own: the first that didn’t include subcontinental Muslim characters. I struggled with the sweep and ambition of the story I wanted to write—one that would have to pass through many generations of an interracial family to plumb the effects of environmental disaster—the Dust Bowl for instance—to demonstrate the ephemeral nature of intergenerational memory. I settled on a four-monologue, play-like structure for the story: one for each generation. I spent months reading first-hand accounts, history texts, longform stories about the impacts and memories of natural disasters. I used my historiographical research in environmental history to think about the people in books as people I could try to know. I read books that described catastrophes: starting off with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I remembered as a ruthless story of tenant farmers trapped in economic hardship and poverty as the Dust Bowl reared its ugly head; as crops failed and harsh drought swept over the prairie. When I finally had a draft I could consider complete, I gave it to my first reader—my most generous reader. She returned it with the terse comment that I should “write what I know.” What had I done wrong? Had I failed in my research? The details were all correct, I was confident about that. Had I failed to do justice to the two white characters from whose perspective I wrote the first two monologues? Or to the two mixed-race black characters in the last two monologues? Had I failed to empathize? I went back to the drawing board, trying to convince myself to jettison the story entirely. But the logic of writing solely what I knew was unconvicing. How can I reconcile myself to writing stories about people solely from my cultural background when the stories I want to write have a different sweep, a distinct subject matter that requires me to understand characters outside of my lived experience? That is what I have always seen as the point of literature: its capacity for universality. 2. As it turns out, this isn’t unfamiliar ground for writers today. Rachel Cusk, recently profiled in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, had her first book published at 26. She now deems her early work as inferior. Thurman takes Cusk’s disillusionment as a reflexive turn away from the earliest iterations of herself because she managed “to upend the plot of her own life—to break up her family, then to lose her house and her bearings.” Cusk is now married for the third time; about her book Aftermath, a painterly if perplexing memoir about the dissolution of Cusk’s marriage with Adrian Clarke, Thurman argues that Clarke “haunts the text like a ghost.” Thurman wonders: Why doesn’t Aftermath explain why the marriage dissolved? “This was partly for the children’s sake,” Cusk says. But Aftermath met with some cruel reviews, after which Cusk seemed to change course. She says of her trajectory: “There seems to be some problem about my identity. But no one can find it, because it’s not there—I have lost all interest in having a self. Being a person has always meant getting blamed for it.” Profiling writers of fiction, mining their lives for clues to explain the eccentricities and artfulness, or perhaps even artifice inside the work themselves—not just thematically but as a direct analog for a protagonist or an entire plot—has become a bit of a trope. Ever since Lena Dunham burst on to the scene, the justification of using autobiographies as the principal quarry from which to mine stories from the vantage point of the writer (what is essentially primary research for the literary critic) has become increasingly more ubiquitous. But of course, you don’t need to have a degree in literary criticism to know that the tradition is far older than Dunham. One could argue it is steeped in the pursuit of the Great American Novel itself: in the specificities of Philip Roth’s Newark Jewish oeuvre, or Norman Mailer’s racially-charged machismo, or as literary critics rigorously argue, on any work of fiction anywhere and any time. But a certain timbre of particularity, coincident with the rise of the personal essay, has most certainly become more central and self-aware in literature of late: specific questions about which characters represent the author and whether plots actually occurred in the author’s real life pop up in interviews when they were once considered gauche to ask a novelist. A recent interview between writers Chelsea Martin and Juliet Escoria finds them talking about “self-serving writing,” work inspired by autobiography, as if it represented the pinnacle of truth-telling. Escoria talks intimately about her book Juliet the Maniac, contending that she doesn’t really “understand the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction.” There’s more than a whiff of writers being far too hard on themselves. The problem is why contemporary literary trends motivate young writers to believe that their own personal histories are the only histories they can plumb with any believable depth: a belief that visibly flails when confronted with the Enlightenment origins of humanistic “imaginative” capacities that can be traced to at least as far back as Denis Diderot. As Jean le Rond d’Alembert demonstrates in his Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, for Diderot painting, sculpture ,and architecture were deemed at the head of knowledge known as “Imitation,” but it was poetry and music that demonstrated imagination: that the skill demonstrated “by the warmth, the movement, and the life it is capable of giving, it seems rather to create than to portray them.” This creation was rarely conceived merely as reproduction, nor has it been for a very long time. After all, with writers like Leila Guerriero and Joan Didion, as Daniela Serrano so powerfully writes, the compulsion is reversed: it is not looking at yourself that is the most uncomfortable, but at other people. There can be no doubt, however, that "identity"—with all the limitations and deliverances the word connotes—has become so powerful in popular culture, that the imaginative arts, across different mediums, have found themselves in a bit of a bind. Dunham, when criticized about the whiteness of Girls, claimed that she wanted “to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.” In Sofia Coppola’s recent remake of the Civil War-set, Don Siegel movie The Beguiled, she shifted the perspective from that of the male interloper’s to the women in the cloistered Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, but crucially she also excised the role of a slave character—one that was present both in Thomas Cullinan’s original book, which served as the source material for both films, and in the first film, where she was played by Mae Mercer. Coppola received her share of outrage for "whitewashing," an accusation she deflected the way Dunham did: by essentially arguing that she didn’t wish to take an important subject lightly the way the original source material did; instead, by focusing on what she knew best. But if the dogged discoverers of Elena Ferrante’s true identity are to be believed, Ferrante didn’t know much about the poverty of Lila and Elena’s Neapolitan upbringing either. Has lived experience supplanted all other forms of knowledge as the sole true source of authenticity? As an avid Ferrante fan, I take umbrage with such a reading: I could care less about her true identity—and if she hasn’t truly lived it, then the Neapolitan novels merely display a capacity for virtuosic observation and insight. 3. But if this is truly an impasse, the contemporary moment in fiction, then it is a problem we must contend with. Arguably we are already contending with it, although perhaps with less success than one would hope. Lionel Shriver told an audience at a writer’s festival last year that, “Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are 'allowed”'to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.” As Sarah Schulman reported, Viet Thanh Nguyen responded in the L.A. Times by saying: “It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division.” Nguyen makes a compelling point: we can use this schism to our advantage, but only if we understand the baggage that attends literary, cultural, and political history. Personally, I found Coppola’s version of The Beguiled captivating—with a particularly heartbreaking performance by Kirsten Dunst with a depth almost entirely missing from the earlier incarnation—just as I find much to admire in Dunham’s writing on Girls. But both come saddled with a crucial lack of ambition and not, as they had ostensibly hoped, racial sensitivity. Wouldn’t The Beguiled be all the more interesting if Coppola had extended her nuanced portrayals to a black female character? If it weren’t so illustrative of the loaded identitarian schism at the heart of leftist politics, it would make for the perfect right-wing conspiracy: not only have well-meaning liberals become too PC, they are now roundly dismissed as blinkered by the same folks whose ire they hoped to deflect in the first place. It goes without saying that the problem doesn’t operate solely at the level of the artist herself. Somehow the gambit has been working, arguably with a deep historical legacy, to widen gaps between artists and audiences, with publishers eager to pander to particular readers depending on the artist. It is by now a cliché that many novels written by women are designed to look like romance novels. On the covers of her books being targeted to specifically to female audiences, Margaret Atwood, in an interview in 2015, mentioned that “there were probably some quite disappointed readers.” Atwood’s interviewer Jessica Stites responded that she couldn’t get her friends to start reading the Neapolitan novels because the first book has a wedding dress on it. Meanwhile, author Nnedi Okorafor wrote a book with a female Muslim protagonist, only for her publisher to suggest a cover with a white female figure on it.  One wonders: How could publishers be failing so much to adapt? Surely this is not what Nguyen had in mind. Indeed, if writers are to be brave they must truly go there, and like any writer for any story, do meticulous research. But that may not be enough: one hopes writers have the capacity to publish in a world less maladapted to receive their work as well. How did we find ourselves here in the first place? Surely writers never decided in closed-door meetings that the social scientific and humanistic academic emphasis on Culture with a capital c would bleed into fiction to such a degree that writers would begin to parse identities into little parcels, keeping only those they could hold ground on; seeing the act of storytelling itself as one circumscribed by the belonging of a identitarian category. Far more likely is that for writers this is a passive process, one driven by our politics (and/or publishers), by reading the expectations of audiences or anticipating outrage, fears, and concerns that are exacerbated by the near-monopoly in fiction of white authors. Surely writers writ large know there is something reductive about using our own lives as not only the canvases for our art, but of art itself. The argument, or perhaps merely a passive trend riding on a form of herd mentality, seems to dictate that the craft itself has become one’s calling card. Which is to say: not only has the liminal space between identity and individuality been overcome, but storytelling has crashed right through its center, obviating the need for anything else. Why should a story need anything more than an identity? Why shouldn’t Kumail Nanjiani plumb the comedic depths of his own lived trajectory the same way Lena Dunham, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and countless others do? There can be no prescriptive answer on this question that is not simultaneously political. But I suspect that there comes a point when the regurgitated version of one person’s life, especially when that person belongs to a minority group, begins to feel tired: a genre as trope; Oriental fiction with veils on the covers. The ruse being played here is that there is no more a sense of a story without an identity preserved through the complex Venn diagrams one inhabits (or fails to); no universality, no totality: merely a small set of interlocking bricks that hold together the walls of our perception of the world. A place where Plato’s Cave is now color-coded, numbered and charted—hierarchies everywhere, opportunities only to move up or down or sideways like chess pieces. And now that the Cave is so stratified, why feel the need to leave it and see it as it is? How can one tell a story, any story, about any form of universal phenomenon if the response one instinctively pre-empts is: How could you know anything about that? This should have been written by a white gender non-conforming person who grew up without money or the awareness of privilege but nonetheless took advantage of it and grew to believe in less humane economic precepts than she/he/they would have had they not been white. It underlies an inherent paralysis, not too different from the paralysis Amitav Ghosh describes for storytelling which is failing to grapple with climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Climate is not identity or racial politics, however, regardless of how closely their consequences are intertwined, but the concept of paralysis, I suspect, prevents talented artists like Sofia Coppola from stretching the bounds of their own ambitions; and more dangerously than for the minority writer it becomes a convenient alibi for the white artist’s conception of believability. But as with most things, it is a double-edged sword. How can we disregard the critique of the white writer who considers himself (often himself) objective enough to take on any character, a critique which has only become more prominent because marginalized writers have pushed it up in discourse after decades of unrewarded work? Today, at least, it is acknowledged in some circles that not only do minority writers deserve a pulpit, but that storytelling in turn requires minority writers (although certainly not a standard held up nearly enough). Still, it requires a peculiar moment in contemporary culture when certain white male writers can comically (and of course also infuriatingly) decry that their jobs are harder as white men than if they were minorities. In that way, storytelling as with most things bears a truly striking institutional likeness—to the extent that the enterprise of writing and publishing is an institution—to our current politics. Regardless, the argument of constriction applies to minority writers too—identitarian thought has bled into the wholesome creed of “write what you know.” We have erected walls for ourselves that are both comforting in the way that occupying a niche gives a writer and claustrophobic in the sense of wells running dry, new writers providing old stories that are tired reflections of the works of older writers. Nowhere in my experience is this more true than in fiction from my native South Asia, where the timbre of even the most lauded works by Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid, and Kamila Shamsie has acquired a quality of permanence most subcontinental writers cannot help but emulate in the sprint for awards success. Interestingly, the most incisive critics of Roy have recently pointed out the utter lack of tonal difference between her abundant nonfiction and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: where non-fiction can afford to proselytize, fiction ceases to breathe when crafted in the same mold. Again, however, publishers erect roadblocks in the name of pandering to certain audiences. From a Pakistani perspective, it is all to easy for me to envision publishers who expect me to deal with Islamophobia or terrorism on some level in all my writing, even if apropos of nothing. And thus: in reifying the fictions of identity (the baseline fact most left-leaning writers can agree on), we have elevated almighty Culture, enforced monopolies of singular identities and mashed them all up. No longer can storytelling be ambitious in the fashion of Doris Lessing (who admittedly dabbled in both very autobiographical and very non-autobiographical work, the height of the latter reached in her sublime Canopus in Argos space fiction). Instead, every story would serve itself best as another iteration of your own personal diagram, chipping away at your own identity slowly, painstakingly, even dully over the decades like Philip Roth, but surely not like Mathias Énard: there would no imagination, only personal research. No external perception, only introspection. 4. With this conversation raging in my head as a writer of color, it’s fascinating sometimes to dissect my own responses to my work. Had my first reader got it right—was she letting me off the hook by telling me to write what I knew because the story didn’t hold up to the literary standards she knew I aspired to? Very possibly. I didn’t let the story go, however. I doubled down, and worked even harder at it. But even more intriguing to me than the cases where I double down are those where I have chosen to let go. When my first work of fiction was published, at The Rumpus, my editor told me that the website had commissioned an artist to illustrate my story. I couldn’t wait, both for the story, and for the art it would sit alongside. When the story was published, I was astonished. The style of the art was sparse and completely appropriate to the story: three drawings in all. But curiously, the second illustration, inspired by a pivotal scene where my male Pakistani protagonist has a brief exchange with a friend’s grandmother, looked suspiciously Western. There was a reference to chai in the text, but scant other details. I remember instinctively thinking: there’s no way the grandmother would look like that. A Pakistani grandmother would be wearing a loose dupatta, along with a shalwar kameez—a long tunic and loose trousers. I thought about it for a long time. Ultimately, I decided that there was something about that drawing that captured other specificities—the posture of the grandmother, her spirit—that moved me. I concluded that it was great as it was. The artist had read my story and decided to interpret it the best way she could, and despite the initial skepticism it aroused in me, I liked the idea of the illustration reading my work as something transcendent, something neither here nor there but everywhere: maybe, something even universal. The day after the story came out, I contacted the artist: one of her works hangs on my bedroom wall, a reminder both of my resistance and release and of the artist’s intended or unintended attempt to universalize my work. I don’t wish to ask. Why should I? No matter how much specificity we try to achieve, we will always fall short. After all, as the (white, male) writer Mark Greif tells us, “your life has to be your own: no one else can live it for you, as you can’t enter anyone else’s life to know it feels.” Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures.