Why I Forgive Jane the Virgin for Making a Writer Its Main Character
I’m happy to say that I’ve been publishing a lot of essays in various publications over the past couple of months! Readers might enjoy these:
“Suicide Contagion and the Risks of Literature,” which considers whether creative writers, like journalists, should refrain from using certain phrases when talking about suicide, was published in The Coil:
On a lighter note, “9 Fashionable Books That Make Clothes a Main Character,” a list that looks at how sartorial style functions in narratives like The Tale of Genji, The Neapolitan Novels, and The Collected Schizophrenias, ran in Electric Literature:
And if you want to find dark humor in psychotherapy, “Case Study of a Psychiatrist in the Freudian Style,” published by The Satirist, might make you feel better as it satirizes the Freudian case study and the power dynamics of prescription drug therapy:
And now for May’s essay . . .
I usually avoid movies and TV shows that feature a writer as the main character. There are exceptions. I love Wonder Boys and would argue that Michael Douglas gives his best performance in it. But most of the time, I find depictions of authors on screen boring and problematic. The main issue is that it’s hard to make the act of writing visually interesting. I spend at least twenty hours a week typing on my Dell XPS: Believe me, it’s not cinematic.
But in the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which is currently airing its final season after one of the best cliffhanger endings of all time at the close of Season Four, it works. Gina Rodriguez plays the irrepressible, eponymous character, who, after an accidental insemination and dozens of other telenovela-style twists and turns, has achieved her dream of publishing a book. The truth is, even if I couldn’t stand her protagonist, I’d still be a fan of the show, as there are other pleasures to keep me hooked. Since the pilot episode, I’ve had a crush on the gorgeous, talented Yael Grobglas, who plays lovable manipulator Petra as a screwball comedy heroine. So many of the other characters, like Jane’s compulsively self-promoting father and her devoutly religious but vulnerable grandmother, are complex and a joy to watch. And having spent my middle- and high-school years amidst the salmon-pink splendors of South Florida architecture, the Marbella—the posh, cupcake-colored Miami Beach hotel where much of the action is set—couldn’t help but make me smile with nostalgia.
But the fact is, the directors and writers, who include Rodriguez herself, have managed to make her identity and work as an author captivating. Part of this is due to how they dramatize her writing sessions. Emily Nussbaum has praised Jane for its “optical density,” and this density is key to its success in making literary labor visually appealing. The series is what would happen if Peter Greenaway decided to reset The Pillow Book in a supportive, extended Latinx family rather than within a transgressive Japanese-lit fantasy. Like the latter film, Jane the Virgin experiments with superimposing text over image in inventive ways and celebrates carnal pleasures. (But unlike the latter film, no one in Jane gets flayed after death—although corpses do occasionally get disturbed. The plot’s complicated.) What characters text and type is often layered on the screen; so are hashtags, intertitles, and the Spanish subtitles used for certain characters.
Another innovation that makes Jane’s vocation as a writer resonate thematically is the use of a narrator throughout the series. Theories concerning his identity abound—could it be Jane’s previously-thought-to-be-dead husband, Michael? But it’s a safe bet that whoever the narrator is, what he is presenting in each episode is an excerpt of Jane’s future book. Making the protagonist an author in a show that rests on metafictional conventions gives the whole narrative a tight, satisfying structure.
Above all, though, I enjoy Jane’s author character because the show’s writers permit her to fail and keep going. When Jane publishes her first novel, a historical romance inspired by the men in her life, it goes nowhere. I can relate, as can many authors who’ve published a first novel. The hard truth is that unless you are extremely lucky in your topic and timing, happen to be as insanely gifted as Zadie Smith, or have had an affair with Philip Roth, the sales of your first novel are probably going to disappoint. It’s hard for most writers to find an audience quickly. I imagine that anyone who’s tried to find a footing in a competitive field can’t help but empathize when Jane’s publisher drops her because she now has the “stench of failure” on her after one lackluster outing.
What follows is a moving scene with her current partner, Rafael. He has been, since the very first episode, the biggest supporter of her writing career—one of the reasons I like him, although, truth be told, I’m Team Michael; to me, Jane and Rafael are more engaging as characters when they’re with other people. But here he’s great, telling her to put aside the self-pity and write another book: “Yes, it’ll be hard, but it’s always been hard.” The showrunners could have cast Jane as a best-selling, award-winning author from the get-go. By having her move through setbacks and rewrites instead, they present a realistic, inspiring take on what it’s like to navigate both the creative and the business side of the literary word. (Realistic for the most part, that is—I had no idea Miami had so many book publishers.) They also demonstrate how essential it is for women to be encouraged by their partners.
There are still some rough patches. I’ve never heard any author in real life use the term “writer’s block,” but it seems like it becomes a plot point in every film or TV series with an author character, and Jane the Virgin offers no exception. Jane’s obsession with one bad review took up space in not one but two episodes, which struck me as over-the-top in a time when even Uber drivers are used to getting poor feedback. Once in a while, the brainstorming scenes, in which Jane sometimes cosplays as other characters to work out scenes, get a little tedious.
But then, so does writing. Maybe that’s part of the point.
Dream Girls Gotta Have Agency
Below is a link to my essay, “Dream Girls Gotta Have Agency,” which was recently
published in Electric Literature. This essay was so much fun to write
because it gave me a chance to draw on my graduate school training in
literature in English, Japanese, and Spanish. While it centers on the trope of
the sleeping beauty in literature, it ranges widely, touching on everything from
biases in mental health care to Kawabata’s fetish for female arms and fingers
and my experience as a bar hostess in Japan.
If you’re interested in the various texts I mention in the essay, here’s a reading list sure to intrigue:
Kawabata Yasunari, House of the Sleeping Beauties, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, Snow
Country, and “One Arm”.
Sidereal and surreal, these selections span decades in Kawabata’s career and, even in translation, convey the breadth
of his experiments with narrative and language.
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Last year’s sleeper hit. (Sorry.)
Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores.
As I write in the essay, this isn’t a book for the #MeToo era, so you might want to bypass it
and go directly to his masterworks, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.
Anne Sexton, “Briar Rose”.
This poem can be found in Transformations, a haunting collection of Grimm fairy tales retold as post-Freudian, modern-day
While you’re at it, you might rewatch Disney’s 1959 “Sleeping Beauty,” listen to
Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet, or reread the original tales by Charles Perrault and Giambattista Basile.
“Dream Girls Gotta Have Agency” was published in Electric Literature on March 12, 2019: https://electricliterature.com/dream-girls-just-wanna-have-agency-f7bd4a695243
How to Talk to Someone with a Chronic Illness
I don’t typically pen do-and-don’t lists, but in writing Chronic, I thought a lot about how we talk to sick people, particularly the blame and biases encoded in our words. That reflection inspired this list.
Don’t rush to tell her, “You lost so much weight! You look great!” If the person lost that weight due to serious illness, this compliment, while well-intentioned, sounds weird. Also, equating beauty with extreme thinness is always a bit perilous, no?
Don’t ask, “What did you do to get X disease?” That question sounds like you’re blaming the victim. “Do researchers know what causes it?” might work better.
Please don’t give ludicrous dietary advice or promise miracles if your friend changes her eating habits. You know, “I cut out gluten, and if you do it too, I bet your X will go away.” This one’s a particular pet peeve of mine.
Don’t ask, “Are you better yet?” There is no “yet” with a chronic disease. A more constructive formulation: “How do you feel now?” or “Is your disease currently under control?”
“You don’t look sick” is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, most people enjoy hearing that they look healthy, as our beauty ideals are tied up with “looking healthy.” But if you say this in the wrong tone, it can sound accusatory. Especially in the work place, where it might seem like you’re leveling a charge of malingering, please use with caution.
Don’t say, “At least you don’t have terminal cancer/other horrible disease.” Your friend already understands that in theory, things could be worse. Things could always be worse. But your friend doesn’t need to feel guilty for her concerns or anxieties.
Above all, though, don’t avoid your friend or loved one for fear of not saying the right thing. It’s better to try and stumble than to shun someone at the moment she needs you most.
If you know someone with the same disease who is thriving, please share the story. It can give your friend a lot of hope.
Do tell your friend she’s beautiful if she’s undergoing cosmetic changes like hair loss due to a disease. Focus on the positive. If she asks for advice, feel free to give it, but I wouldn’t start off with, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of hair. Why don’t you get a wig or scarf?”
Do ask, if you’re inviting her over to your house or out for dinner, “Is there anything you can’t eat?”
Do help her to face the future with optimism. Comments like “Your life will be really hard” are never productive. It’s more generous to say something like, “You’re a really strong person, and I admire how you face your illness.”
Do understand that many chronic diseases have periods of remission and flares. If your friend enjoys a long period of remission, you may be surprised if she eventually gets sick again. You may even feel a sense of frustration—at life, the disease, or even her. And that’s fine as long as you keep it to yourself.
Do express love, support, and empathy—always. This is the best way to make your friend feel better.
The Hidden Foreigner
I recently became a permanent resident of Canada. For the past year and half, I’ve lived in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island—meaning that 97% of my non-Canadian friends and relatives think I live in Vancouver, despite my many protestations to the contrary.
Recently, I bumped into a man in a local store and apologized. He pointed out that this self-reflexive politeness was what made us Canadians. It struck me that this man would have no way of telling, based on casual observation, that I wasn’t one of his people. My infiltration of Canada is stealthy, given that I am a Caucasian of Eastern European extraction and look similar to most people here. In fact, because I have to avoid direct UV rays due to a diagnosis of systemic lupus, I am even paler than the average Canadian. Which is saying something.
This seamless blending with the native population is a new sensation for me. So far, I’ve lived a decade of my life outside of the United States. Half of that time was in Japan, where everyone knew—at a glance, or after hearing a word or two of my decent but distinctly non-native Japanese on the phone—that I wasn’t one of them. Many gaijin in Japan make a career out of their difference. Some give themselves ill-advised monikers like “the blue-eyed samurai,” while I put myself through the first two years of grad school by hostessing and modeling in Japan.
When I spent time in Poland on a Fulbright grant, the situation was more complicated. On first inspection, people recognized me as one of the pack. I am ethnically Polish, on both sides of my family, and my nose and cheekbones give good Slav. But as soon as Poles addressed me, my ineptitude with their tongue-busting language blew my cover.
It’s different in Canada. Here I’m unobtrusive. I understand what a privilege this is, based on what is happening to asylum-seekers in the U.S. and elsewhere and the fact that Canada, for all its liberal principles and good intentions, is not immune to racism. Islamophobia takes no break here, and the police in certain provinces have a reputation for being hard on non-white suspects that seems mild only compared to American police brutality.
I do feel at ease in this country. Still, I’m starting to understand that being at ease and a sense of belonging are two different things. This raises a bigger question: Did I ever truly belong in the U.S.?
Since childhood, I wanted to travel far away. I disliked that I’d been born ten minutes before midnight on the Fourth of July, because the bombastic patriotism of that holiday didn’t sit well with me. But if I’d been born in Canada, I would likely have found fault with it too.
What I like is that I have to consciously learn to be a citizen of my new country. I have to approach it from the outside, like a textbook or a test. In fact, there will be a literal test, when I apply to be a citizen in two years’ time and have to sit for an essay exam. With my background in academia, studying citizenship makes sense to me.
Yet if I can learn Canada, could I have learned—could I still learn—to be a better-belonging American too? And if so, is it only because I now live outside of it?
The answer to both questions: maybe.
Right now, Canada seems almost perfect to me. The country has universal health care. As someone with a serious, chronic medical condition, this is a pearl beyond price to me, as it would be to so many people. Discourse seems more genteel as well. Death threats from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum are less common here than in the United States. Certainly, a lot of people dislike Trudeau, but from what I’ve seen on social media and in conversation, they tend to air their grievances with fewer personal attacks.
But similar to how we have a limited amount of serotonin in our bodies, so that a hit of Ecstasy can sponge it up and leave us drooping for days, I suspect we have a fixed amount of good will for any one place at any given time. After you move to a country that is not your homeland, and once the honeymoon period is over, the drop in esteem and patience with local customs and peccadilloes is precipitous. Meanwhile, as time grows longer shadows, nostalgia for the country one abandoned builds.
After all my wandering and misdirection, I now wonder if we can maintain a big-hearted perspective on a country while we dwell within it. Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.” This beautiful statement is among the truest I know, but it doesn’t have to be the only truth.
Over the past six and a half years, I’ve spent a total of ten days in the country of my birth, all of them in my beloved California. While I wasn’t born there, it is the state I name when people ask me where I’m from. Part of that is due to my political and socio-cultural affinities with the state. After all, I’m liberal-minded; I like to stay fit; I reach for stylish clothes but don’t own hairspray and routinely forget to wear a bra. But it’s more because so much of the current me springs from that state’s slingshot, which cups the rest of the country in its curve and sends its dreams and delusions whizzing across. Each night, its lunar crescent looks on as all the states before it turn into sleep.
I miss it. In the essay in which Solnit writes the sentence above, she soulfully evokes San Francisco, in whose harbor I stormed for twelve years, and as she does my longing melds with hers. California is my lost land that constantly returns me to myself by reminding me of my huge capacity for love, the gold rush of my spirit.
Why can’t I feel this appreciation for a country while I am under its protection? One answer is that we learn through distance, in terms of both space and time. I think this is unavoidable. And exponential: I’m not twice as self-aware as I was at half my current age, but dozens of times more blessed and cursed in my self-knowledge.
Perhaps, though, we can carve out a space within the garden of our current home, a glassed greenhouse in which we can grow to love its suns and clouds. Perhaps we can learn to more deeply belong wherever we are, no matter where we came from, and—no small matter at this moment—encourage others to do the same.
A Committed Dancer
Vaslav Nijinsky was diagnosed with schizophrenia and involuntarily committed to a mental asylum in 1919. He spent the remaining three decades of his life in and out of institutions.
In the early months of 1919, as his psychotic break became impossible for those around him to ignore, Nijinsky kept a diary. He filled it with drawings of eyes and repetitive, rhythmic passages, like this one in which he obsesses over his former lover and boss Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes: “Diaghilev thinks he is the God of art. I think I am God. I want to challenge Diaghilev to a duel so that the whole world will see. I want to prove that all Diaghilev’s art is sheer nonsense. If people help me, I will help them to understand Diaghilev. I worked with Diaghilev for five years without respite. I know all his tricks and habits. I was Diaghilev.”
What might his diary have looked like twenty years later?
Dance is the only activity of the body that doesn’t result in its violation. Eating, bathing, and the physical duties of marriage all sacrifice the body’s dignity. Eating or bathing while married, under the eyes of one’s wife and keeper, is particularly degrading. I do not like eating or bathing in front of my wife.
Without looking up from drawing my eyes, I know she is watching me. Watching and judging, the Red Cross nurse. She is red-haired beneath her Red Cross wimple. In her Red Cross wimple she studies me while I eat. The surveillance of one who has never watched a great ballet and learned to submit, humbled, to the spectacle before her. Her gaze appraises too coldly.
If she were carrying red roses beneath her red hair, I would run from her. I can’t stand red roses. So like beaded blood. I would run from red roses.
I peer closely at her. At certain moments she is familiar, her eyes like Romola’s or those of my brother, the crazy one. My brother was the one dancing the mad scene, ever since 1902. He terrifies me like a broken leg, a butchered foot. I have eyes on the backs of my ankles and they search for him. I search for him to make sure he is not, though dead, creeping close.
After an adolescent infatuation with ballet, I moved on to modern dance. I flirted with Graham and release techniques, had a one-night stand with the style of Isadora Duncan (silly, but I loved the filmy dresses), and enjoyed my longest affair with butoh, an avant-garde form conceived in Japan. I took classes, danced in amateur productions, and attended as many performances as I could.
I was enchanted by revivals of The Rite of Spring, originally choreographed by Nijinsky, and Les Noces, by his talented sister Bronislava Nijinska. Both boast raw energy and revolutionary movement, and even today, The Rite of Spring is startling in its violence. Dancers don’t try to hide their efforts in the piece. By the end, you feel like you are watching someone dance herself to death.
If I was drawn to butoh partly because of the stark difference between my own cultural background and the one that produced it, I was intrigued by Nijinksy because of what we shared: an eagerness to embrace both Western and Eastern influences, a struggle with mental illness, and a connection to Poland. Both sides of my family come from Poland, while Nijinsky was born in Kiev to parents who were ethnically Polish. Although he couldn’t speak the language well, he self-identified as Polish throughout his life.
I empathized with his longing to break down artistic forms while his own mind experimented with deconstruction, again and again and again.
Fokine loved to make me dance a slave. So did the other one. Diaghilev, the master and the devil. The doctors here remind me of him. They remind me of Diaghilev. They costume themselves as genial peddlers but they crack the whip over all of us. We are their beasts of burden. Like with Diaghilev.
The kindliest was the one at the Burghölzli, back when I thought all this would pass. Men without words would come entr’acte to whisk away the setting of a sanatorium and replace it with drawing room furniture and frou frou. Or better yet, a stage. A stage upon a stage upon another and another. I would never lose my way from it again. I would dance until death. (The sacrifice in The Rite of Spring is not the maiden danced to death but the dance itself, which expires when she does.)
The man at the Burghölzli once asked me why I drew eyes. He asked like he wanted to know and would accept whatever answer I gave. There was a piece of paper between us, rustling like tulle as I made it see. While I drew an oval to pair with its mate, I whispered to him, “They called me Japonczyk.”
“What does that mean?”
I put down the pencil and dragged my right forefinger across the lid of my right eye and upward, as if my finger were a stroke of makeup. “They said I looked Japanese. My eyes. In Russia. We were at war.”
I think his choice of words a poem to honor mine, so I just nod. He understands. His words show he understands. “But I was Polish. Though it’s too hard to speak. The language is hard. Everyone speaking Russian. Cannot trust language. Only eyes, because with eyes you see the body. And the body is always dancing.”
On the same day that Nijinsky started his diary—January 19, 1919—he gave an improvised and agitated performance. In the course of it, he shouted, “Now I will dance you the war . . .The war which you did not prevent.” He was presumably referencing World War I, but it was World War II that almost killed him.
We know now that the Nazis targeted, along with the Jews, other groups: homosexuals, Romani, Polish Catholics, and the mentally ill. The reality of these victims was driven home for me when I conducted research in Poland for a historical novel based on my family’s activities in the Polish Resistance during World War II. My family is Polish Catholic on both sides, although my father’s ancestors were Sephardic Jews forced out of Spain by the Inquisition, who ended up changing religion and nationality through intermarriage over the centuries. Several first cousins, twice removed, utilized their backgrounds as competitive skiers to escort people out of occupied Poland via the Tatra Mountains. One was caught and shot in the woods. Another was caught and sent to Ravensbrück, but she survived. A third was caught and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape from his Krakòw prison and hide out for the rest of the war in Hungary.
Even Catholic Poles who weren’t involved in the resistance were seen by Hitler as just an eventual slave race. Soon after the September Campaign, the Germans shut down educational institutions in Poland, because they thought it necessary for Poles to know just three things: how to count to 500, how to write their own names, and that God had commanded Poles to serve Germans.
Hitler’s plans for and acts against people suffering from mental retardation, physical deformities, and serious mental disorders like schizophrenia were far more barbaric. It is estimated that Hitler sterilized or killed around a quarter of a million schizophrenics and killed about the same number of psychiatric patients in total, all as part of the eugenics movement that cropped up earlier in the century. One eugenics-themed tract from 1920 was titled “Permission for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life” and advocated the eradication of the mentally ill and mentally handicapped. On September 1, 1939—the day his armies invaded Poland—Hitler initiated Aktion T-4, his program to kill mental patients using such theories as justification. He insisted that the term “euthanasia”/euthanasie be used for these murders.
Nijinsky escaped death during the wartime liquidation of his asylum due to the timely intervention of a staff member, who warned his wife that he needed to leave it.
The doctor looks at me and asks, “Do you see yourself dancing when you close your eyes?”
“I never see anything else,” I said, eyes wide.
That was not true. Or maybe it was true then but it’s not true now. It is not true that I never see anything else. I have more dreams now, both sleeping and awake, and all kinds of things in them interrupt my dancing. Something must be interrupting my dancing because I’ve been planning performances for years. Outfitting myself for ballets like a girl being dressed for a fairy-tale ball. But they never happen. My dances never happen.
Could this be the ballet, this madhouse choreography of wandering in circles and being gazed upon? The movement phrases are not that interesting. They are not interesting, yet the doctors and nurses and my wife stare at me as if I were poised en pointe, horns growing out of my head like a faun.
The red-haired Red Cross nurse promises me I will perform in public again.
“When?” I ask, just to have something to say. I say it even though there is no point in debating what to stage with someone who wouldn’t understand the finer points of my planned program. She would not even understand how many rose petals should adorn my costume.
“Soon. When it’s safe.” I’ve heard whispers of trouble and threats but the doctors and nurses speak only in riddles. I worry for the safety of my Poland, my Russia. “Maybe you’ll perform in Paris again.”
I turn my feet inward at this mention of the scene of my greatest triumphs and most notorious failure. “My wife will take me home?” I turn inward.
The nurse thinks I mean the transient addresses at which I occasionally sojourn with my wife and daughters, before being committed once again. She thinks I mean with my wife. But I mean something else.
Nijinsky proved that there is an intricate relationship between creativity and mental instability, although I’m tired of the mad genius cliché, which posits that the best artists are crazy and their gifts the direct result of their mental disorders. Although I am not a genius, I can say that in my experience, one’s work usually falters during periods of despair or other extreme psychological disruption; the relationship is not so much causal as conditional, reciprocal. My writing was not a result but a casualty of my depression, anxiety, and other ills—when the latter peaked, I couldn’t write, and the less I wrote, the more depressed and desperate I became. This is why Nijinsky’s diary is invaluable: As dance critic Joan Acocella pointed out, many artists have gone insane, but few great ones have actually kept a diary as they descended into psychosis.
It is true that a mind battered by major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another serious mental condition might be seeded by a vulnerability, sensitivity, and tendency toward collapsing boundaries that could indeed be useful in making radical art. In such minds, synthesis and dissolution tango in one another’s arms. Yet in chronicling the lives of creative geniuses such as Nijinsky, it seems like we are often trying to pit sense-making against madness, hoping against hope that there is some meaning in or compensation for the latter. We try to romanticize what is, simply and nearly always, dreadful pain.
We know that in Nijinsky’s case, he started to disintegrate after the breakdown of his relationship with Diaghilev, when he tried to run various ballet companies of his own and was able to devote less time to his dance. We can’t say whether he might have stayed his deterioration if he had continued to dance more unencumbered. It’s also impossible to judge what effect, if any, his brief commitment to diary-writing had on the progression of his disease, and how much art was in it no one knows.
I wouldn’t write in this journal if I could dance in front of others. I would much rather dance in front of others than write. Still, by writing things down, maybe I can hide from my jailers. Maybe I can keep something secret and within. Maybe, because the body is blessed with many hiding places.
Someone once told me that in Japanese, the words for “foot” and “leg” are the same. This might seem strange to other people, I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem strange to me. For me the vagueness is beside the point, because words in any language pale in comparison to the body’s own specificity. When I dance, I know something deep inside my fingers and toes, my joints and tendons, that I only know then and at no other time. Walking down the street, words like “femur” and “fibula” might be useful, but when I’m dancing Bluebird or Vayou, language dissolves. Language is replaced by inevitability, by the chase. A person once hunted bounds headlong into a chase that never ends.
Except it ends here in the asylum. Here it ends and ends, and the body in which I once ran and leapt and thundered betrays me before others’ eyes. My body betrays me. My best option now is to lie as still as possible, like an animal trying to trick a hungry predator.
One day I am napping in my room. I wake suddenly, as if accosted by an advancing army or the rise of light.
The red-haired Red Cross nurse is in my room, dancing. The red-haired Red Cross nurse is naked beneath her wimple.
“Come join me,” she says, beckoning, with a smile on her face I’ve never seen her wear while watching me.
I stretch out my body beneath the sheets. It is heavier than ever before. I think that there are limits. I think that time may win. Madness is nothing next to the conductor’s wand of the passing years.
“I’d prefer just to watch you,” I tell her, closing my eyes.
Top Ten Favorite Metaphors of 2018, Part II
Plus My Ten Favorite Books of the Year
Once again, in no particular order, some of the images and passages that thrilled my blood this year:
- “But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents had fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay.” – Mohsin Hamid, writing about Marin and the South Bay in Exit West
- “And no, it is not fate, I said, because Google watches over us like God . . . How is democracy supposed to work if you get only what you’ve already searched for and if you are what you search, and you never feel alone or you always do, since you never get the chance to meet the others, who are not like you, and that’s how it is with the search, you come across like-minded people, God googles our paths, so that we stay put in our grooves, I always meet people who are looking for the same thing I am, I said, and that is why we, too, have met here, and the old man said, This is the very meaning of fate. He was obviously further along in exegesis than I.” – Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther
This book is so fucking brilliant that I might hate the author if I didn’t love literature so much. This passage reads like a mating of W. G. Sebald and Rachel Cusk, but the book is entirely on its own terms.
- “She’s surprised she can see it all so clearly—for the first time in her life. She must be starting to get old, because it seems like it’s in old age that you begin to hear from those little nooks in the brain that have the records of everything that ever happened. She’d never had time to think about those types of things, the days gone by; the past was like a smudged streak. Now the movie slows and reveals details—capacious is the human brain. Hers had preserved even her little brown purse, prewar, which had originally belonged to her mother, with soft sides made out of rubber-lined material, with a beautiful metal clasp that looked like a jewel. On the inside it was smooth and cool to the touch; when you reached inside, it seemed like a dead offshoot of time had gotten stuck there.” – Olga Tokarczuk, Flights
There are so many moments of random beauty in this hybrid novel/short story collection/sustained philosophical meditation; this is just one.
- “Greece’s archipelagos looked as if California had been hammered, shattered like glass and scattered across the blue, a blue so perfect that it appeared that not only water but the sky, too, was breaking along the new shores. It was easy to imagine how these coast-shards assembled to a history and a country, to a mythology; the idea of a nation composed not so much of land as of its edges.” – Mark Vanhoenacker, Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot
Full disclosure: Mark was a dear friend of mine at Amherst College. I always knew he loved flying and words. We used to get drunk together in the woods and read poetry, and he talked about becoming a pilot. But what I didn’t know was that his future writing would recall both Gaston Bachelard and animator Miyazaki Hayao (two of my favorites). I loved his gorgeous book. That it made me want to fly, when I have a pretty severe fear of flying that I’ve had to overcome again and again to make the journeys of my life, is testament to its magic.
- “Air brings all these hundreds of years of sound from temples, forests, and cities to the needles, roots, and trunk of the Yamaki pine. The tree inhales and stills the air’s fibrillating breath, holding it in wood, like a kami. Each year’s growth jackets the previous, capturing in layered derma precise molecular signatures of the atmosphere, timbered memories. Wood emerges from relationship with air, catalyzed by the flesh of electrons through membranes. Atmosphere and plant make each other: plant as a temporary crystallization of carbon, air as a product of 400 million years of forest breath. Neither tree not air has a narrative, a telos of its own, for neither is its own.” – David George Haskell, The Song of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors. “Timbered memories.” Wow.
- “This was the moment Naomi had been praying for through all these months, the moment of certainty and reunion, when death was supposed to settle for a few moments on her palm, like a squawking, flapping bird suddenly made still.” – Richard Lloyd Parry, Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone
- “Some days, going from one book to another, preoccupied with thoughts that were of no real importance, I would feel a rare moment of serenity: all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.” – Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
- “Her particular wish is to be schooled by the choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), who, with her benign severity, her floor-length dresses, and her waterfall of hair, looks like Martha Graham grafted onto a weeping willow.” – Anthony Lane, reviewing the film, Suspiria
Lane references a dancer known for severity and fluidity to evoke an actress known for severity and fluidity as she depicts a dancer. I love it.
- “I had been happy, happy enough, but now I often found myself uttering a spontaneous prayer that went, simply: She is here, still here. It was as if a rushing river had routed itself through my house, which was pervaded now by a freshwater scent and the awareness of something lavish, natural, and breathtaking always moving nearby.” – George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
Gorgeous evocation of the joy of a newlywed man. I could have drawn from nearly any passage in this book, which revolutionizes the historical novel, so I took something from the very beginning to save time.
- “Austria looks like a slightly aroused aging phallus.” –Katja Petrowskaja, Maybe Esther
Because I feel a strange compulsion to end these lists on the priapic (two for two now). I call it symmetry, but read into it what you will.
My Top Ten Favorite Books Read in 2018
What strikes me is that many of these books are about movement—travel, flights, transit, migration. At a moment in my life in which I’m setting down roots geographically yet traversing wild terrain in my creative practice, I suppose that being drawn to such books makes sense. Besides, all great books take us to places we’ve never been before.
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (ingenious and moving)
Flights, Olga Tokarczuk (a tricky hybrid that works, thanks in part to a dazzling translation)
Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (revelatory and operatic, so fitting it’s being turned into an opera)
Transit, Rachel Cusk (a reckoning with fiction, oral history, narrative, and characterization)
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (great historical fiction)
Maybe Esther, Katja Petrowskaja (as thrilling as curiosity itself)
Ghosts of the Tsunami, Richard Lloyd Parry (heartrending)
Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit (necessary)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li (cerebral and brave)
Skyfaring, Mark Vanhoenacker (dreamy)
What Poland’s Flying University Can Teach Us about Teaching in the Trump Era
The day after Trump was elected, I taught a class on creative writing at the International College of Liberal Arts in Kofu, Japan. While none of my students was American, most felt devastated by the outcome. We talked about what might change. At the time, I was concerned about racism, immigration policies, and health care. But I couldn’t see what should have been obvious to me: that the ascension of the far right, in America and elsewhere, would have consequences for education.
No matter what your field, the Trump administration’s louche relationship with truth and language impacts your classroom, as both are repeatedly denigrated by the leader of the free world and his associates. Phrases like “alternative facts” and “fake news,” to describe The New York Times and CNN, are not Orwellian conceits or examples of Derridean hijinks but things we now hear regularly from the administration. Because we must rely on language, as perilous a minefield as it is, to construct a dialogue in the classroom, this has been the most shocking seismic disturbance within education since the election. In addition, I have always assumed that if my students look up sources for research papers, they will be given facts rather than propaganda, lies, or racist cant; this assumption now seems quaint. Finally, we have to navigate bitter partisanship among our students like never before.
So what do we do? Personally, I’ve started looking to Poland’s underground education network for wisdom and perspective. Known as Uniwersytet Latający, or “the flying university,” its first iteration took wing in the late-nineteenth century, when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary and teaching Polish in schools was forbidden in Warsaw and some other cities. Like today’s online degree programs, it had no fixed address. In Varsovian living rooms, the professors of the flying university educated Maria Salomea Skłodowska, better known to the world as Marie Curie. Curie, along with the thousands of other female students in the system, would have been ineligible to receive any official education elsewhere in Poland at that time.
Soon after Hitler invaded Poland, the flying university took off again, this time with flights across the country. As the Nazis viewed Catholic Poles as a near-future source of slave labor and had already earmarked a far worse fate for Polish Jews, there was no reason for the native population to be given more than a rudimentary education, so most schools were shut down. For their purposes, Poles needed to know only three things: how to count to 500, how to write their own names, and that God had commanded Poles to serve Germans. Under this new regime, writing was deemed superfluous—and worse, potentially subversive—and would no longer be taught.
The wartime reprisal of the flying university was known as the Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska, or TON, which can be translated as “secret teaching organization.” Because the first round of killings after the September invasion targeted members of the intelligentsia, many professors from Warsaw and other cities fled to the country, with the result that the floating classrooms of the TON elevated education standards in many regions. Meanwhile, in city hospitals, medical students covertly continued their studies by working as orderlies. By the war’s end, the TON had issued several hundred doctoral and medical degrees and thousands of college degrees.
Resistance and education were inextricably linked inside the TON’s classrooms. Many of the older students were active in what eventually became known, after several name changes, as the Armia Krajowa, or Polish resistance. Some of them studied German because they needed to know how to read signs for sabotage missions. But for all resistance fighters, the classrooms—which constantly changed location, as they had during the nineteenth century, so the teachers and students could avoid arrest or worse—offered one of the few opportunities for free exchange of information in an occupied country where churches and universities were shuttered and large congregations forbidden.
I studied the TON while I was conducting research under the auspices of a Fulbright grant and the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin (KUL). KUL was one of the few universities in Poland to remain open several months into the war, possibly because the Germans confused it with a seminary. After closing down briefly as soon as the city was seized in mid-September 1939, the faculty voted on whether or not to continue teaching and chose to do so, despite the risks involved.
Apart from taking inspiration from these professors and students who refused to relinquish their vocations and educations under the threat of arrest, torture, and death, I believe we may retrieve other lessons relevant to the period we find ourselves in now. For one thing, the flying university is a vivid illustration of how liberal education has the potential to restore faith in and through the power of a denigrated language. Liberal education today also demands a profound reengagement with a native language that is currently disparaged by the established powers. In this case, that language is not Polish but the language of rigor, facts, and critical thinking.
Thinking about the classes of the TON and the larger context of language in occupied Poland has also curbed one of my own worst tendencies—namely, my lack of interest in understanding those who champion far-right viewpoints. In occupied Poland, the embattled native people were supposed to address their tormentors in German, but since many didn’t know the language, they were often harassed or beaten for being unable to communicate when stopped and questioned. Despite this treatment, some German-speaking Poles refused to speak the language of their invaders as a matter of principle. The Polish phrase, Nie rozumiem—“I don’t understand”—became an apophatic poem of resistance. However, in the classroom, I don’t think a Nie-rozumiem tactic gets you anywhere. We have to try to understand what is motivating the ideologies we find ugly, what fears fuel the torch-lit rallies.
These lessons from the past have also made me realize that it’s useless—and dangerous—to kid ourselves. Education has always been political. An enterprise so closely entwined with language, power, and conflicting ideals about selfhood and good citizenship could not be otherwise. I have read right-wing columnists bemoaning the “politicization” of university classrooms these days. I want to tell them that this is nothing new and will never change. And should it? Of course we should not care—nor ask—for whom our students vote. I wouldn’t even have brought up Trump the day after the election, but my students could focus on nothing else until we discussed the elephant that was in the room and soon to be in the Oval Office. But if higher education is tantamount to instruction of the “whole person,” as liberal arts institutions like to claim, we should care if our students want to hurt someone based on gender orientation, race, nationality, immigration status, or religion.
Finally, while it’s hard to reconcile recent events in Poland, like the Amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Resemblance, with a country that once fought heroically for its own enlightenment, both the classes of the TON and Poland’s move to the far right testify, in different ways, to the fact that historical memory is one of the foundations of and among the best justifications for liberal education. We have to encourage students to connect with sources and authors who document, as truthfully as they can, the debacles of the past and present.
Education always entails the risk that teachers will cross boundaries or inject too much of their subjective opinions. But it’s far riskier, in the long run, to relax the principles of engagement and resistance that turn teaching and learning into an experience akin to early-days, ear-splitting, gut-punching flight.
The Pain and Beauty of Watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown
“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal, but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”
Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”
When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on traditional news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful could commit suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I had long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain functionality after heroin addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.
Yet on some level, I do understand other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock came because Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they share tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of screwed.
I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his Parts Unknown episodes. Throughout August, I watched all 64 segments currently on Netflix. (This chunk represents only two-thirds of the series.) I watched them to enjoy them, but I also viewed them to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. Gradually, I accepted that all I could hope to understand is our inability to understand his suicide.
In the wake of his death, many of Bourdain’s offhand remarks in Parts Unknown chill and harrow. In “Rome,” in which he is guided by girlfriend Asia Argento, he inhales a prosciutto dish and declares, “I want to die here . . . I may yet.” (Eating was always a petite mort for Tony.) In “Paraguay,” he searches for an ancestor lost there in the mid-nineteenth century. In the process he admits that he’s lonely, because at 58, he has already lived a year longer than his father and is perhaps the longest-living male Bourdain ever; he died about four years later, just shy of 62. In the first-season episode, “Quebec,” he surveys a hipster restaurant in which young chefs cook on a simple four-range stove and remarks, “I couldn’t have cooked on that without wanting to kill everyone in sight and then hang myself from the nearest beam.”
That one hurts the most.
In hindsight, his mental struggles weren’t always handled gracefully in the series. In “Tangier”, he dramatizes William S. Burrough’s heroin addiction, tapping on a typewriter and voicing Burroughs’ words as we’re treated to a montage of drug-related paraphernalia. Throughout most of this episode, Bourdain acts like someone who’s never been high on anything pretending to be high, even though we know he was once high for years. Similarly, the one episode I found distasteful was “Buenos Aires.” Watching the tongue-in-cheek montage in which Bourdain visits a local psychotherapist, I bristled. Given his struggles with addiction and mental health—about which he was very open during his life—this sequence came off as condescending and insincere.
This condescension is belied by his profound understanding of loss, which is evidenced over and over in other segments. For instance, in “Detroit,” Bourdain elegizes its loss of grandeur, the collapse of its dream. In this episode, I was able to see through his eyes, and for the first time, how rapturously beautiful this city once was. And I can’t help but conclude that Bourdain understood urban disaster because he was so familiar with its emotional variety.
Bourdain was a bon vivant. I contrast the bon vivant with the figure of the flâneur made famous by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur embodies detachment, strolling through and ironically surveying the urban wonderland. By contrast, the bon vivant digs right in—and shares with others. This is what Bourdain did throughout his peripatetic travels. You feel like you are sitting down at each and every table with him, no matter where in the world he goes.
Yet he was far more vulnerable than we might expect such a bon vivant to be. I often felt a stab of protectiveness when I observed Bourdain’s Karloffian gait, his legs too long and thin for his body. He was the wounded poet-chef, his heart trailing on his rolled-up sleeves. I sensed that Bourdain was someone for whom sanity became a vocation. But that’s different than it being a predisposition, and much harder to maintain.
You can tell he thought he was okay. Or at least he pretended to be, either for himself or the cameras, or both. In “Massachusetts,” he examines the opioid crisis in a rural town in western Massachusetts, shocked at how the drug has swallowed up huge swaths of middle-class America. Sitting in on a group meeting of recovering opioid addicts, he says that he hopes to one day tell his daughter the truth: that her father screwed up but made it. I wonder if he knew that his contract with sanity was starting to fray even then. Or maybe it disintegrated much later, all at once.
Still, there are many moments of pure joy in the series, which Tony imparts to the viewer with little mediation. Witnessing the bounty of familial love and cover bands during the wet Christmas season in “Manila.” Listening to the sublime singer Youssou N’Dour, a frequent Peter Gabriel collaborator, at a Dakar restaurant in “Senegal.” Eating moss and fresh flowers at Noma in “Copenhagen.” Riding a toy-like train up into the Himalayas with adorably squealing schoolchildren in “Punjab.” And as a lifelong lover of dance, I can assure you that the belly dance in “Istanbul” is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
In “Hanoi,” when Obama tells him, hesitating just a bit, that things will turn out okay, you wish he’d been right. That they did turn out okay—for the United States as a country, and above all for Tony.
The more segments I watched, the more I grieved that Bourdain couldn’t have known what we all felt watching him. How he reminded us that an embrace of life and a fascination with death often trip along each other’s edges.
In “Marseille,” he ribbed his friend, the lovable chef Éric Ripert, by predicting that his next life would be a nightmare. (This sequence becomes all the more poignant when one knows that Ripert was destined to bear witness to Tony’s death; he was traveling with Bourdain and grew concerned when he didn’t show up for breakfast on that fateful morning.) Ripert, who is a practicing Buddhist, replies that he’s living the good life because of the karma he’s built up. Yet Bourdain’s existence attests to the fact that extremely privileged external circumstances, however attained, do not exempt us from suffering.
Over the course of many hours with him, I decided that what was most heartbreaking was that he died alone. On the coast of Grenada, he tells a friend who joins him in an outdoor spread of food and wine, “When my time comes, I pretty much want to die at a table like this.” In “Lyon,” the death wish tunnels further inward: He expresses the longing to die like the chicken he just ate, surrounded by foie gras, truffles, and fine wine. Unlike Ripert, Tony didn’t believe in reincarnation. He seemed to feel that the good life was all we know we have, so we should enjoy it right up to the end.
Maybe he did. The night before, he savored a good meal with his friend Éric in a charming French town. Maybe that is as close to a death with truffles and foie gras as any of us will get. Still, it feels like he got cheated. And because we survivors don’t know why he left us so abruptly, we feel cheated too.
But great cuisine is a cheat in itself. Michelin-starred meals represent a taut act of control that tries to mask the extreme messiness of life. Three times a day, we descend on food, charged with desperation. When we slow down for a special meal, we consume it, but what we are really trying to internalize is a sense of order. A stroke of the clock, a closed passage of this life, in the form of satisfied hunger. If we can master this need as art, we can pretend that we have mastered life. But we never, ever can.
Bourdain proved this by dying amidst the art of food and the pretense of design. He proved that meals punctuate rather than transcend our humanity. Maybe what is so discomfiting is that Bourdain’s suicide speaks to the limitations of food and thus culture. It shows that our most civilized orchestrations can’t console completely for the brutality of human lives.
His body of work also testifies to the fact that we can never understand anything completely, whether it is a country, a culture, or another human being. In this sense, the “Tokyo” episode seems important for trying to understand Bourdain. I got lost in that city so many times. I’m not sure I was ever found there. That’s what makes it unique among cities: It is not a closed circuit. You can get lost in and leave it without ever finding closure or even sense. Bourdain says of Tokyo, “Every chef I know wants to die here. . .because we, all of us, understand that we don’t understand anything about Japan.” Tony revealed and reveled in the numinous power not just of great cuisine, but of not knowing. Of wandering confused through the BDSM-fueled underside of Tokyo. Of landing in a country like South Africa and being floored by how little you grasp of its past and present.
Above all, he demonstrated that the darkest continent is the one inside of us. In “Thailand,” he makes an offhand remark, during a well-earned hangover, that his doctor says everything he loves is killing him. But the deeper, graver truth is that none of us knows what will kill us. And if we attempt to die by our own hand, the reason we do it is not obvious to ourselves, much less to others. I speak from experience.
A table companion in “Brazil,” over poisonous blowfish, assures him, “We were not born to die.” But the truth is that Tony, like all of us, was by nature born to die. It’s just that he was also born to enjoy himself to the fullest and to publicly express the tension between an acceptance of (and even a yearning for) death and a lust for life. His epitaph could be drawn from the words he speaks at the end of “Mexico”: “As I have come to know from my own life, drugs, even drug addiction, can be a survivable event. Death is not.”
In “Minas Gerais,” set in interior Brazil, Bourdain remarks that he doesn’t believe in a legacy. Whether he believed in it or not, though, he has one. Tony taught all of us that mental illness is not predicated on nor eased by career success or anything else that can be controlled. Like the spines in Brazilian fruit that cut your tongue to shreds, it’s the demon within.
My Top Ten Parts Unknown Episodes (in no particular order):
- Copenhagen – Foraged food as high art
- Detroit – Until I watched this segment, I didn’t know what a beautiful city it had been
- Hanoi – Two words: Barack Obama
- Punjab – A magical train ride into the Himalayas
- Houston – A glorious fuck-you to the Trump Administration, this episode spotlights how immigrants have transformed the food and culture of this city
- Sichuan with Éric Ripert – Watching Tony mess with his friend Eric is delightful
- Beirut – An incredible place
- Quebec – If you’ve ever dreamt of shaving truffles onto your food while shivering in an ice fishing cabin and drinking the best wine in the world, this episode is for you. Come to think of it, this entire series is for you.
- Tbilisi – Sexy locals and the irrepressible Zamir Gotta.
- Rome – A window into Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento, who has had a very hard year, plus some stunning fascist architecture
A Book Lover’s Synesthesia
My favorite books fill my mouth.
Lolita is Tang and crème brûlée, America and Old Europe duking it out on the tongue.
The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, consumes things not meant to be eaten: exotic birds, predators nearly extinct.
Love in the Time of Cholera is eggplant, of course—lost love as real, regal, and bitter as aubergines.
Nightwood is darkest chocolate, kept in a Joseph Cornell box chilled by Marie Taglioni’s ice cubes.
Don Quixote’s fanciful avocado dish should be downed with xocolati.
Absalom, Absalom piques with warm biscuits, blue cheese, and a strangling shot of absinthe.
The Tale of Genji is a meal parceled into small, exquisite servings, a tray of intricate delights.
The Alexandrian Quartet’s bloody steak demands to be inhaled along with Chateau Margaux, while the diner drops her veils.
Proust can only be strawberries soaked in ether.
The Dream of the Red Chamber is pungent soup served by an acrobat in a jeweled, crimson bowl.
As they say in Japan, gochisō sama deshita—I have been feasted. And I have, ever since I learned to read.
Melania Trump: The First Lady as Courtesan, Troll, or Radical?
August 1, 2018
A friend recently remarked that she finds Melania Trump’s style old-fashioned. I disagreed. Yes, Melania references earlier first ladies with her fashion choices—most famously Jackie Kennedy, in her powder-blue Ralph Lauren at the inauguration—but citing earlier archetypes can be progressive, even radical, if done the right way. Still, her comment got me thinking, and I realized that there is one time-honored archetype Melania fulfills, through dress and behavior, above all others. She is the first among first ladies to embrace the centuries-old archetype of the courtesan.
Let me be clear about what I am saying. I am not calling Melania a whore. I don’t think “whore” is necessarily an insult, and when used to denote a sex worker, it’s a statement of fact. But the fact is, Melanie is not a sex worker. I would never even call her a gold digger. While it’s hard to imagine a woman marrying Donald Trump for anything but his money—she certainly doesn’t do it for the conversation or proximity to orthographic acumen—the truth is that we don’t know why she did it. Nor is it any of our business.
In any case, what I mean here by the term “courtesan” has nothing to do with sex. In graduate school I studied demimonde literature, specifically that of Japan, which has a robust tradition of plays, stories, novels, poems, and essays (not to mention non-literary art) about geisha and their kin. The courtesan in demimonde literature functions as a gateway to a specific space: one of license, beauty, and careful orchestration. No gesture or word is left to chance within her sphere. Wildness and control are cultivated side by side, as if erotic encounters were ikebana displays. While the courtesan may be highly sensual, she embodies something disembodied as well—the power of suggestion. She is fantasy in female form.
Recently, Melania disappeared for weeks, shortly after the flawless execution of her first state dinner. Few things could have been more courtesan-like—both the expert entertainment and the vanishing. She delivered a perfect evening and left everyone wanting more. Liane de Pougy and Cléo de Mérode, two of the most glittering courtesans of the Belle Époque, would have been envious.
We don’t know much about Mrs. Trump. In fact, she seems determined to remain unknowable, to dodge and confound. Still, let’s consider what we do know. She has spirit. In June, when Rudolph Giuliani trumpeted that Melania didn’t believe the claims made by Stormy Daniels, the first lady’s communications director clarified that there was no way he could claim that, having never spoken with the first lady about this (or any other) subject. We know that she has a sense of humor, at least when in the company of witty men like Barack Obama. We know she has some integrity, calling out her husband’s policy of snatching children from their parents at the border. She even appears to troll Donald on this and other issues. After she had spoken out against his policy, how else were we supposed to interpret the now-infamous message on her jacket, except as a dig? And we know that she values her privacy. Even her fashion choices speak to this, as she armors herself with coats and thick belts, a lexicon of fashion-as-self-defense reminiscent of Cersei Lannister’s thick robes and metal waist corsets.
This aversion to public exposure may seem strange, given that she was once a model. But exposure in carefully composed and Photoshopped images is very different from exposure in real life. You can control the conditions under which you model: who you pose for, to some extent what you show. You can’t control what is seen and shown if you are one of the most scrutinized people in the world, your every move tallied and interpreted.
So perhaps Melania tries to hide. But in hiding she still conveys meaning, willingly or not. She becomes the obscured woman, the mystery. And mystery almost always invites desire and speculation. In her case there is a double obscuring: Melania is unknowable to us, but you get the sense that even her husband doesn’t know her. Her glamorously narrowed eyes are the pinhole through which we can glimpse her camera obscura, but nothing more. Still, are we viewing the image upside down?
If anything, it may be the more traditional role of first lady—the helpmate who is constantly at her husband’s side or off performing the official duties he doesn’t deign to do—that has a scent of courtesanry about it. That isn’t a bad thing, up to a point. But perhaps Melania is ushering in a new era, in which a wife is not defined by her husband’s job, status, affairs, or other misbehaviors. In the past, we have seen too many first ladies criticized for their husband’s peccadilloes. Melania, however, is never blamed for Donald’s bad conduct. Part of that is no doubt due to our Trump-gonna-Trump resignation. (Who could stop him from doing what he wants?) But it’s progress since the Bill Clinton era nonetheless.
Beyond this moral separation between her and her husband, Melania refuses to go along with what is expected of her, excusing herself from the public eye when she feels the need to do so, whether for the sake of herself or her son. And while I prefer to think the message on her jacket, which understandably infuriated many people, was a jab at her husband’s cruelty, I don’t know for sure. If it was an ill-timed announcement of disinterest in the plight of others, maybe even this gesture could be considered radical, if a little sad. First ladies are expected to care; anything else, up until this point, has been unimaginable. Maybe Melania doesn’t want to play the role of nurturer either.
Still, in this rejection of a role forced upon her, Melania Trump may be a surprising feminist, but I will argue that she is one. This is not to say that other first ladies weren’t; the United States has been blessed with many strong first ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle. Melania’s resistance is of a more subtle tint but may turn out to be no less monumental. At a moment when we are being stripped of our privacy with ever greater impunity, her insistence on privacy cannot help but frustrate and fascinate. Yet perhaps it can teach us all valuable lessons about the preservation of the self in an age of exhibition and instability. In this way, and like many great courtesans from history and literature, she references a more genteel past while hinting toward an unknowable and troubling future.
My Ten Favorite Metaphors of 2018 (So Far)
July 1, 2018
I love a juicy metaphor, and a great extended one can send me reeling. In my own writing, I rely heavily on their transformative power. In The Seductions of Sick, my memoir, metaphors link the tale of Rumpelstiltskin with hair loss and obsessive-compulsive disorder, while in Snow Queens, my historical novel, shells, clocks, and tulips are used to render the rip-roaring ephemera of the female orgasm.
In my recent reading, I have been treated to delicious, startling, poignant, twisted metaphors from contemporary writers like Leslie Jamison, Elif Batuman, Jesmyn Ward, Rachel Cusk, and Carmen Maria Machado. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite ten metaphors from my reading this year—so far. (It’s only July, after all.) I include similes as well as metaphors.
Of course, these metaphors, through my selection, do not just illuminate the thing being described but my own interests and investments. That said, please don’t read too much into #10.
- “My desire to be wanted was like something physically gushing out of me—need need need—and it disgusted me, this broken spigot I’d become.” Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath
With this image, Jamison articulated what was, for many years, my experience of need and desire.
- “He deliberately outlined and then marked once more the edges around each move, like a cop drawing a chalk line around a body.” Zadie Smith, writing about Michael Jackson’s dancing in Feel Free
I agree with Smith that there is a connection between dance/kinesis and writing, but the fact is that dance remains stubbornly hard to write about. I love that she does it so beautifully in an essay on the oblique connections between the two arts.
- “From the top of the escalators, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned.” Elif Batuman, The Idiot
Best description of Filene’s Basement EVER. Batuman teases out the strangeness of a place I took for granted as a middle-class child growing up in Boston, before making it familiar once again through metaphor. Figurative language: It wrestles with the unknown and the known, a fight-to-the-near-death that ends in a leap of faith.
- “People weren’t forever having to explain themselves here: a city was a decipherable interface, a sort of lexicon of human behavior that did half the work of decoding the mystery of the self, so that you could effectively communicate through a kind of shorthand.” Rachel Cusk, Transit
This sentence and its images are shorthand themselves for the themes of interconnectivity and isolation, belonging and rejection, that are interwoven throughout Cusk’s daring novel.
- “Its six legs prop its shield-shaped body up in the air, as if they were pallbearers at the funeral of a Knight Templar.” Kathryn Schulz, “When Twenty-Six Thousand Stinkbugs Invade Your Home,” The New Yorker, March 18, 2018
This funny, gorgeous, and surprising description of the brown marmorated stinkbug is representative of Schulz’s whole essay—one of my favorite essays of the year so far. She is also refreshingly honest about the limits of metaphor and analogy, writing that “the smell produced by a stinkbug is dusty, fetid, lingering, and analogy-proof. A stinkbug smells, unhappily for us all, like a stinkbug.”
- “Many love stories are like the shells of hermit crabs, though others are more like the chambered nautiluses, whose architecture grows with the inhabitant and whose abandoned smaller chambers are lighter than water and let them float in the sea.” Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
- “Virginia lingers another moment beside the dead bird in its circle of roses. It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death.” Michael Cunningham, The Hours
In truth, I read this one years ago, but I was inspired to seek out the exact quote because given my lupus and its imperative of sun avoidance, I wear a lot of hats and have had millinery on the brain.
- “Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.” Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
So too this searing novel.
- “(If you are reading this story out loud, force a listener to reveal a devastating secret, then open the nearest window to the street and scream it as loudly as you are able.)” Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Much of Machado’s book is about appropriation and violation of the female body, and how art and storytelling cannot repair damage done. While this aside—one of many in “The Husband Stitch,” the first and best story in the collection—does not contain a classic metaphor, it asks us to experience events of the story somatically, to perform and internalize its violence through a metaphoric jump.
- “A tube of lipstick all extended.” Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
This metaphor is used to describe a dog’s erection. It will stick in your head. Sorry.
Event Dress: The Royal Wedding and Emphatic Presence
June 1, 2018
I have to confess: I couldn’t wait to see who designed Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. The week before the wedding had been rough. I’d had to scramble to finish a rewrite I’d promised my agent, my rheumatologist was concerned about my heart and had ordered several tests for it, and on Friday there was another school shooting in the U.S. I just wanted to see something faultless. Something shamelessly pretty.
I couldn’t give a fig about the royal family, even if Harry and his bride do make an adorable couple. To me, the idea of being whisked off to Windsor Castle to be scrutinized every day for the rest of your life is less fairy tale than jail sentence, and the wedding veil is the gauze to dress the wounds. But what gauze!
I lost hours looking up the betting odds on who would design the wedding dress. Two of my favorite designers, Erdem and Roland Mouret, were thought to be top contenders. I had been convinced that the former would be the chosen one; after all, Erdem Moralioglu is a talented British-Canadian whose lacework is exquisite and whose prints of blurred flowers look like a wet dream from Monet’s final years. By Friday the rumor was that Stella McCartney had prevailed, although it would turn out that she had only designed the ivory halter-neck dress Meghan wore to the post-nuptial reception. When I woke and saw that Clare Waight Kelly of Givenchy was the winner, all seemed right with the world. Meghan is a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, her effortless chic and low chignons balanced by the gamine charm of her freckles. Plus, I’m a sucker for three-quarter sleeves. Wrists should be celebrated.
The guests’ outfits were just as delightful. If a royal wedding is good for one thing, it’s for supporting great millinery houses. Three words on the invitation, Hats are encouraged, turned the event into a vivid fantasy of floating, technicolored nests. The term, “fascinator,” can refer either to a person who fascinates or an ornament on the head, and at this event, many of the latter were concocted by Irish Philip Treacy and British Stephen Jones. Both inject the avant-garde into the beau monde, which is fitting, for when it comes to hats, there is already a series of straddlings involved: between the past and the future; between the demure and the risqué; and above all, between the body and the space adjacent. Treacy’s and Jones’ toppers are the haptic sense in visual form.
Treacy, whose hats often look like birds in flight, found no better model than gorgeous Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, the supreme fascinator du jour in both senses. Arriving in a structured suit by old-guard bad-girl Vivienne Westwood, she was clad head to toe in lavender so delicate the fading lilacs went green with envy. The outfit’s pièce de résistance was the floral burst clinging to the underside of her curving hat. One of Treacy’s signature moves is to adorn the underside rather than topside of the hat with a small adornment—a sexy gesture of undressing, not unlike the back-of-the-neck décolletage of a geisha’s kimono. What could be more erotic than this hint of what is underneath? Maybe one other thing: the reticulated face of a beautiful woman like Chopra, her veil and sunlight hopscotching across it.
Aside from Chopra, Amal Clooney wowed, as she always does. (Does anyone even notice George anymore?) Her Stella McCartney dress and veiled Stephen Jones hat in a matching color boasted the best shade of mustard since Michelle Williams stunned at the 2006 Oscars. Lady Kitty Spencer was a huntress on the Riviera in her forest-green Dolce and Gabbana dress and feathered hat by Treacy, Karen Spencer gained nearly a foot with the help of a gravity-defying candied violet, and Gina Torres was topped with the perfect shade of peach.
Why do I find comfort in these event hats and dresses? It’s not because they are part of an aristocratic ceremony. Although I adore fashion, I am a proponent of income equality and have never been particularly aspirational. To me, one of the cool things about luxury clothes and accessories is that they have become more accessible over the past decade or two, mostly because of eBay and discount websites like Outnet and Yoox. For those who aren’t wealthy, acquisition is a merry chase, a skill to take pride in.
One of my choicest acquisitions was a white, bias-cut mermaid dress made in the 1990s by John Galliano. He described the process of cutting such gowns on the bias as “like working with liquid, mercurial oil.” The sleek dress was soft as the sin of its daringly draped bodice, and its modest train could be gathered up, with the help of a hidden button, to form a bustle. I vied for it before Galliano’s fall from grace due to an anti-Semitic tirade, so the last-minute, early-hours bidding was fierce. I felt like I had accomplished something by winning it, at a time when I needed wins.
I wore the mermaid gown to a masked ball in San Francisco and to attend the San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House. A snapshot from the latter has not faded from my mind’s album. I had let the train down. It looked cheeky hitched up, like a stage curtain pulled back, about to reveal, but I was drinking champagne at intermission and wanted it to breathe behind me. A well-dressed elderly woman and her male companion walk by me and utter a compliment. I feel a part of the surroundings, part of the show. To me, dressing up for the ballet, opera, and theater indicates respect, a way of merging with the event in some small way.
For once, I am looking at my figure in my dream dress but not judging it from the outside. I see myself standing tall. This lack of judgment and pride of presence are rare for me. Surviving trauma has left me with a frequent desire to shrink, collapse, disappear. But in this one instance, at least, I am emphatically present in that body-hugging white chrysalis. What I experience in that moment—of living and reflection—is not quite joie de vivre, but rather the realization that, Yes, I am still alive. After all the pain and wanting to die, the show still goes on. The Galliano gown is not the cause of that realization, but it allowed it.
Looking through the photo galleries of royal wedding guests, it occurred to me that what we seek in event dresses and statement hats is such an emphatic presence. Too often, women have to skulk through the world, dreading attention, predators, censure. Fearing to take up room, to stand out, to talk loudly. Sixteen-foot-long wedding veils, along with statement dresses and the frivolous hats that coordinate with them, defy that fear and claim the space—lots and lots of space.
Which we deserve.
Riverdale is Burning
Riverdale makes no excuses for its excess. The CW’s much hyphenated, gorgeously shot murder-mystery-slash-steamy-teen-drama-slash-mob-war-meets-occasional-musical leaves no cinematic, literary, or pop-cultural reference unturned. Its characters are references in themselves, drawn from the Archie Comics. Each episode is named after a famous movie—often genre fare or noir, but arthouse flicks like There Will Be Blood are thrown in for good measure. Its characters may date from the 1940s, but their dialogue is shameless post-Buffy, post-Juno quip-speak.
For example, when we first meet Veronica Lodge—the raven-haired, reformed rich bitch who just moved to town—she announces that she is “Riverdale’s own Blue Jasmine,” even though that comment makes little sense in context. She is the daughter of a silky, omnipotent man with mafia ties who is (briefly) jailed, but she is not the architect of his downfall. Camila Mendes as Veronica seems determined to make herself sexy by spitting out allusion after allusion, willing herself into vixenhood not through gesture, embodiment, or overall affect but through witticisms and put-downs that are just broad enough to be appreciated by most of the audience. If I had a bitcoin for every time she or her mother mouthed, “Well, it’s not the Met ball,” I’d be richer than the Lodges. At least Veronica does prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, why you need to wear a push-up bra when rescuing someone from an asylum run by scary nuns who dabble in conversion theory.
But then there’s my favorite character, Cheryl—or as she reminds us, “Cheryl Bombshell.” And boy, is she. She looks like Jessica Chastain’s little sister if she were forever stealing her older sibling’s clothes and trying to outdo her by wearing as few of them as possible at any given time. I would apologize for finding her and Lili Reinhart’s “dark Betty” hot, but true to the genre of teen TV, all the actresses are in their 20s, except for the honey-voiced Ashleigh Murray, who plays Josie; she’s thirty. Cheryl has Rita Hayworth’s curving red hair and racehorse legs but, at least initially, no time for sex. “Get your Sapphic, serpent hands off me!” is one of the best lines from her perfectly plump mouth. She does eventually embrace her inner Sappho with the very girl that line rebuffed, falling for the tough Southsider Toni. I’m thrilled for them both. It goes without saying that the two share their first kiss in the above-mentioned Gothic asylum.
Cheryl reminds me of someone, and then I realize why I am in love with the whole production. Cheryl is the Audrey Horne of 2018—over-ripe, precocious, sleuthing and scheming, but innocent at heart. And Riverdale is the newest iteration of the spooky small town Twin Peaks dreamed into being.
The Twin Peaks connection is no surprise, even apart from the fact that Riverdale’s creator has admitted its influence, for the cast of Riverdale is itself a throwback to teen movies, television shows, and idols of the late-1980s through mid-1990s. We have bad boy Skeet Ulrich, the imitable and constipated-looking Luke Perry (no wonder they made him a heroin addict on 90210), and Molly Ringwald. Ringwald, whose acting style has always been an exercise in the key of peeved, can only be the mother of Archie, the angriest young man on the show, and maybe the most inexplicably angry young man ever. Middle-aged women who were little overachievers will know Robin Givens not just as the ex-wife of Mike Tyson but as one of the stars of Head of the Class, the favorite program of every female who suffered through a public-school gifted program in the 80s. Above all, there’s Mädchen Amick, whom I have worshipped since the day when, barely out of her own teens, she slid a gun between her breasts to tempt Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks. Amick, as Betty’s mother, is a force of nature. She needs to be if she is to battle her way through the storm of archetypes she is supposed to embody: the maternal harridan, the star reporter, the woman with a past, the put-upon wife (her husband is two-timing her with Cheryl’s mom, who in Season Two inexplicably turns into a courtesan to rival Nana), the Madonna yearning for her lost child, and the shrew with a heart of gold.
Undeniably, it is Twin Peaks with which this show shares the most DNA—not 90210 or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And not The X-Files, although like it, Riverdale has stoked local fervor by being filmed in Vancouver. I can’t wait until one of the cast marries Téa Leoni and demands that the show be relocated to L.A.) Like David Lynch’s masterwork, Riverdale feeds on the old-fashioned, mid-twentieth-century cinematic tropes. Archie and the gang are the proper-noun analogs for the kids from the wrong side of the tracks and the saddle-shoed femme fatales around which Lynch built his addictive murder mystery. And I use the word, feeds, purposefully: Riverdale does not draw from source material, or reframe it. It feasts, and it eats well.
Then why do I feel a bit nauseated while watching it? Twin Peaks—both the original series and Twin Peaks: The Return—are among my favorite works of art of any genre, despite the flaws and indulgences in both. Maybe it’s simply down to the joie de vivre with which Lynch films women. Whether he is capturing Bérénice Marlohe showing off her Louboutins or Audrey swaying dreamily by the jukebox, he loves what he fetishizes.
I’m not sure the same is true of Riverdale. But no matter. I love the fetishized girl-women of Riverdale enough for all of us. Fitting that they are based on comics, because these characters are gleeful cartoons, heightened like each and every day of one’s teen years. Riverdale stages the adolescent rites of passage as high camp, sex and love and family throw-downs served over ice cream sundaes at the malt shop. If Twin Peaks was the soap opera recast as horror film, Riverdale is the teen drama as drag show. And it’s fabulous.
Ten Great Books about the Holocaust
Created in Honor of Yom Hashoah
In no particular order, here are ten works that testify to the importance of finding words when there supposedly are none—which is to say, when there are no simple ones, yet many things that need to be said.
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Only a few of the elements in The Periodic Table—one of the best creative nonfiction books of the twentieth century—relate to the Holocaust. Still, when I assigned it to my students in Japan and watched them struggle to situate the Lager, I realized that Levi’s descriptions of Auschwitz are perhaps most powerful when they are part of an evocation of the larger world in which we all live, love, and make meaning.
Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife
Sensuous and often joyful, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of the couple who hid Jews in the empty cages of their Warsaw zoo after the Nazis seized or shot the animals. Reading it makes you want to be a better caretaker of all the creatures around you.
Irme Kertesz, Fatelessness
Perfectly capturing the arbitrary nature of cruelty, this book, written by a Jewish survivor from Budapest, takes on special resonance following the Hungarian elections, and their embrace of xenophobia, this past weekend.
David Grossman, See Under: Love
The Israeli author imagines, among other things, an alternative life for the work of Bruno Schulz, the magical Polish writer who was murdered in the Holocaust. Grossman wanted to write a book that trembled on the shelf; he did. Difficult, like so many things worth loving.
Elie Wiesel, Night
The book’s final, chilling image is fitting, because reading it is like looking into a mirror and seeing, reflected back at you, a history you despise but have to own.
D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel
Its protagonist is murdered at Babi Yar after struggling to reclaim her life through psychoanalysis with Freud. Magnificent, with an opening fever dream that is one of the strangest and most spectacular sequences in modern literature.
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz
A testament to the power of traces, the persistence and dysfunction of memory, and the way our histories, though embodied, may refuse to be known. It haunts like the photograph of a beautiful stranger.
The Collected Poems of Nelly Sachs
Sachs is remarkable because she tried to reconcile Majdanek and Hiroshima in the space of one poem, and because her work collapses the space between inner demons and external horrors.
Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus
A student of mine said of Maus, “I loved the love story.” I realized she was right, because Maus contains several great ones. And I love the scene between the author and his psychiatrist: “On the other hand, he SAID it.” An essential work of art.
“Death Fugue,” Paul Celan
Okay, this one isn’t a book. Just go to YouTube and listen to Celan reading “Death Fugue” in German. His voice breaks down at the end, exhausted—the purest expression of the poem and of atrocity’s waste.
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