Literary Hub The best of the literary web Tue, 30 Jan 2024 01:50:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 80495929 Andrea Long Chu on Liking and Hating Tue, 30 Jan 2024 09:00:51 +0000

 The Critic and Her Publics is a live interview series that asks the best and most prominent critics working today to perform criticism on the spot, on an object they’ve never seen before. It’s a glimpse into brilliant minds at work, performing their thinking, taking risks, and making spontaneous judgments, which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. 

Subscribe to The Critic and Her Publics, available wherever you get your podcasts!


From the episode:

Merve Emre: A friend of mine described Andrea Long Chu’s approach to criticism as perfecting a rigorous negativity. We all know how deeply fun it can be to hate on something for long and intense periods of time, but as any good analyst or theorist of emotion might point out, there always exists a hard kernel of love in hate. It’s an abiding love for the sheer act of thinking that I always sense in Andrea’s work. She’s this year’s recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and the book critic at New York Magazine. Her book Females was published by Verso in 2019 and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. I’m sure many of you have read her blockbuster reviews of books by Maggie Nelson, Ottessa Moshfegh, and most recently Zadie Smith, as well as her essays on Phantom of the Opera and—my favorite—on the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. I’m very happy to have her as our inaugural guest. Welcome, Andrea.

Andrea Long Chu: Thank you for having me.

For a full transcript and details of the piece Andrea responded to, head over to the New York Review of Books [link]


Andrea Long Chu is a Pulitzer Prize–winning essayist and critic at New York magazine. Her book Females: an extended annotation of a lost play by Valerie Solanas was published by Verso in 2019 and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. Her writing has also appeared in n+1, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Bookforum, Boston Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4Columns, and Jewish Currents.


The Critic and Her Publics
Hosted by Merve Emre
Edited by Michele Moses
Music by Dani Lencioni
Art by Leanne Shapton
Sponsored by the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University, New York Review of Books, Lit Hub, and Knopf

]]> 0 232548
Wesley Morris on the Disappearing Middle Tue, 30 Jan 2024 08:55:02 +0000

Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.

Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries


Wesley Morris has served as critic at large at The New York Times since 2015, covering film, politics, and pop culture. He joins this week to discuss this year’s Academy Award nominations.

At the top, we discuss the omission of Greta Gerwig from the Best Director category, former Secretary Clinton on Barbie-gate, the ‘perversely effective’ nature of Killers of the Flower Moon, and the ways in which Bradley Cooper’s Maestro upends the traditional biopic. Wesley then reflects on his early adventures in moviegoing, the indie film boom of the late ‘90s, the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what the Best Picture nominations of 1988 can tell us about 2023’s slate, and the erosion of the ‘middle’ across film and culture.

In the back-half: Todd Haynes’ beguiling new film May December, Ava DuVernay’s Origin, the Academy’s fraught relationship to diversity, the function of Wesley’s work in 2024, and a reading of his moving, personal review about Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers.


Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!

From the episode: 

Sam Fragoso: What we’ve lost is the ‘middle’ of movies, the drama or comedy that has no great aspirations. It was not made to win or be nominated for awards. I want to try to unpack how—and why—we’re here. Do you see any parallels between the decline in film criticism with the decline in filmmaking? Did one precipitate the other?

Wesley Morris: Well, that’s a more complicated proposition, because the decline in film criticism is related to the decline of periodicals where film criticism thrived. I think the two things are related but not necessarily causal of each other. I do, however, think that in the last fifteen years, there’s been a sort of downgrading of what a review can do and should do. You know, there’s this tension between coming up with a review—liking something a lot, they love that—or really panning something. When I worked at The Boston Globe, for instance, we gave things stars. If I was like, “Killers of the Flower Moon: two stars” that would have superseded anything I would have necessarily wrote about it. That middle place, the middle of moviemaking is gone, a kind of mixed criticism… people have lost patience for that. That a movie can’t have things that work and don’t work. The disappearance of the middle— there are so many middles that have disappeared. Middle ground, middlebrow, middle class. There’s either, or. There’s very little room for not even debate and disagreement, but just complexity. I find it really interesting that none of the ten nominees on this Best Picture list include May December. Did you see that movie?

SF: I love it.

WM: Yeah, I did not the first time I saw it. Then I went and saw it again, and was like, “What was my problem?” I saw it the next day. That’s a movie that has so much going on. It’s so of a piece with where we are right now. It’s not telling you what it’s doing or how it’s feeling or what it even is. It’s like the weird touchless-ness of Todd Haynes, even though there is so much touching in this movie— the music is touching, the butterfly metaphors are touching you. His fingerprints are all over this thing, but it still feels like the hand guiding it is completely invisible and these characters are just doing whatever it is that they’ve been set on this earth to do. To sit down and talk about this movie and what is happening here… it is really deep and really satisfying to unpack it or argue with people about it. Like, I leave a movie and do not trust my response to it. And in the case of May December, I just went the next day and saw it again. It was like seeing something dead come to life right before your eyes. I found that expansion of my mind exhilarating.


Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.

]]> 0 232557
Held Mon, 29 Jan 2024 12:43:40 +0000

We know life is finite.Why should we believe death lasts forever?


The shadow of a bird moved across the hill; he could not see the bird.


Certain thoughts comforted him:

Desire permeates everything; nothing human can be cleansed of it.

We can only think about the unknown in terms of the known.

The speed of light cannot reference time. The past exists as a present moment.

Perhaps the most important things we know cannot be proven.

he did not believe that the mystery at the heart of things was amorphous or vague or a discrepancy, but a place in us for something absolutely precise. he did not believe in filling that space with religion or science, but in leaving it intact; like silence, or speechlessness, or duration.

Perhaps death was Lagrangian, perhaps it could be defined by the principle of stationary action.


Mist smouldered like cremation fires in the rain.


It was possible that the blast had taken his hearing. There were no trees to identify the wind, no wind, he thought, at all. Was it raining? John could see the air glistening, but he couldn’t feel it on his face.


The mist erased all it touched.


Through the curtain of his breath he saw a flash, a shout of light.


It was very cold.

Somewhere out there were his precious boots, his feet. He should get up and look for them.

When had he eaten last?

He was not hungry.


Memory seeping.


The snow fell, night and day, into the night again. silent streets; impossible to drive. They decided they would walk to each other across the city and meet in the middle.

The sky, even at ten o’clock at night, was porcelain, a pale solid from which the snow detached and fell.The cold was cleansing, a benediction.They would each leave at the same time and keep to their route, they would keep walking until they found each other.


In the distance, in the heavy snowfall, John saw fragments of her – elliptic, stroboscopic – Helena’s dark hat, her gloves. it was hard yet to tell how far away she was. he shook the snow from his hat so she might see him too.yes, she lifted her arms above her head to wave. only her hat and gloves and the powdery yellow blur of the street lamps were visible against the whiteness of sky and earth. he could barely feel his feet or his fingers, but the rest of him was warm, almost hot, from walking. he pulsed with the sight of her, the vestige of her. she was everything that mattered to him. he felt inviolable trust. They were close now but could not make their way any faster. somewhere between the library and the bank, they gripped each other as if they were the only two humans left in the world.


Her small ways known only to him. That Helena matched her socks to her scarf even when no one could see them in her boots. That she kept beside the bed, superstitiously unfinished, the novel she had been reading in the park the day they understood they would always be together. The paper-thin leather gloves she found in the pocket of the men’s tweed coat she bought from the jumble sale. her mother’s ring that she wore only when she wore a certain blouse. That she left her handbag at home and slipped a five-shilling note in her book when she went to the park to read. The boiled sweets tin she kept her foreign change in.


Helena carried the handbag he had bought for her on the hill road, soft brown leather, with a clasp in the shape of a flower. she wore the silk scarf she had found in the market, made hers now by her scent, autumn colours with a dark green border, and her tweed coat with velvet under the collar. how many times had he felt that velvet when he held open her coat for her. A finite number. Every pleasure in a day or a life, numbered. But pleasure was also countless, beyond itself – because it remained, even only in memory; and in your body, even when forgotten. Even the stain of pleasure and its taunting: loss. The finite as unmanageable as the infinite.


They walked to his flat and left their wet clothes at the door. no need to turn on the lights. The blinds were up, the room snow-lit. White dusk, impossible light. John was always surprised, he never stopped being astonished, at how little there was of her, she was tiny it seemed to him, and so gentle and fierce he couldn’t breathe. he had bought the scented powder she liked and he filled the tub. he added too much and the foam spilled over the steaming edge.‘A snowbank,’ she said.


The young soldier was lying only a few metres away. how long had the boy been staring? John wanted to call out to him, make a joke of it, but couldn’t find his voice.


Pinned to the ground, no weight upon him. Who would believe light could fell a man.

*John’s child-hand in his mother’s hand. The paper bag of chestnuts from the vendor with the brazier in front of the shops, too hot to hold without mittens. leaning against his mother’s heavy wool coat. her smooth handbag against his cheek. Peeling the brown paper skins of the chestnuts to the steaming meat. The tram squealing on the track. The edge of his mother’s apron escaping from the edge of her coat, the apron she forgot to take off, the apron she always wore. Trams, queues, the smells of fish and petrol. her softness against his hard childhood. her scent before he succumbed to sleep, the burnished warmth of her necklace as she leaned over to him. The lamp left on.


The inn had been built beside the rail tracks, next to the rural station, in a river valley. long ago, the inn and the valley had been a tourist destination, promoted by the train company for its view of the mountains, the wildflower meadows, the aromatic pines and betony. The rail tracks were shadowed by the slow river, like a mother struggling to keep up with her child, silver lines running the length of the vale.

Helena had been heading for the larger town beyond, but had fallen asleep. she could not stop herself from drifting off, succumbing as if drugged by the motion of the train. And when the train stopped at the last station before the town, she had, half asleep, misunderstood the conductor booming out the next stop and had grabbed her satchel and disembarked a station too early.

Beyond the dim lamp by the exit, it was dark – profound country darkness. she felt foolish and slightly afraid; the deserted platform, the locked waiting room. she was about to sit on the single cold bench and wait for daylight, when she heard laughter in the distance. later, she would tell him she heard singing, though John remembered no music at all. she stood at the exit, not wanting to leave the pitiful protection of that single dusty bulb in the station. But, leaning into the darkness, she saw, some distance away, the inviting pool of light of the inn.

Later, she would imbue the short walk in the darkness towards that corona of light – the endless fields of invisible grasses rustling in the dark – with the qualities of a dream; the inevitability of it, the foreknowledge.

Looking into the front window, helena saw a room enclosed in a time of its own. An inn of legend, of folklore – warmth and woodsmoke. Faded upholstered armchairs, scarred wooden tables and benches, stone floors, massive fireplace, with a store of logs to last the coldest winter, stacked from floor to ceiling, the self-perpetuating supply of a fairy tale, each log, she imagined, magically replacing itself over the centuries. John watched as she sat down nearby. it was, to him, an encounter of sudden intimacy in this public place; the angle of her head, her posture, her hands. he watched as a man – soused and staggering, every careful step an acknowledgement of the spinning earth and its axial tilt – fell into the vacant chair opposite her, giving helena a slow, marinated gaze until his head fell, heavy as a curling stone, and slid across the table. John and another onlooker jumped up to help at the same time and, between them, dragged the man to the back of the pub to sleep it off.When John returned, he found his own table taken by a couple who did not look up, already lost to the room around them.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Helena said, quickly gathering her coat and satchel, ‘please, take this table.’

He insisted she stay. With a great effort past shyness, she asked if he would care to sit with her. later she would tell him of the feeling that passed through her, inexplicable, momentary, not even a thought: that if he sat down she would be sharing a table with him for the rest of her life.


In the little window in the hallway, from the heat of the bath, they could see the snow falling.


The black lines of the trees reminded him of a winter field he’d once seen from the window of a train. And the black sea of evening, and the deep black bonnet and apron of his grandmother climbing up from the harbour, knitting all the while, leading their ancient donkey burdened with heavy baskets of crab. All the women in the village wore their tippie and carried their knitting easy to hand, under their arm or in their apron pocket, sleeves and sweater-fronts, filigree work, growing steadily over the course of the day. Each village with its own stitch; you could name a sailor’s home port by the pattern of his gansey, which contained a further signature – a deliberate error by which each knitter could identify her work. Was an error deliberately made still an error? Coastal knitters cast their stitches like a protective spell to keep their men safe and warm and dry, the oil in the wool repelling the rain and sea spray, armour passed down, father to son. They knitted shorter sleeves that did not need to be pushed out of the way of work. Dense worsted, faded by the salt wind. The ridge and furrow stitch, like the fields in march when they put in the potatoes. The moss stitch, the rope stitch, the honeycomb, the triple sea wave, the anchor; the hailstone stitch, the lightning, diamonds, ladders, chains, cables, squares, fishnets, arrows, flags, rigging. The noordwijk bramble stitch. The black and white socks of Terschelling (two white threads, a single black). The goedereede zigzag. The tree of life.The eye of god over the wearer’s heart. if a sailor lost his life at sea, before his body was committed to the deep, his gansey was removed and returned to his widow. if a fisherman washed ashore, he was carried home to his village, the stitch of his sweater as good as a map. And once restored to home port, his widow could claim his beloved body by a distinctive talisman – the deliberate error in a sleeve, a waistband, a cuff, a shoulder, the broken pattern as definitive as a signature on a document. The error was a message sent into darkness, the stitch of calamity and terror, a signal to the future, from wife to widow. The prayer that, wherever found, a man might be returned to his family and laid to rest. That the dead would not lie alone. The error of love that proved its perfection.


From Held by Anne Michaels. Used with permission of the publisher, Knopf. Copyright © 2024 by Anne Michaels.

]]> 9 232036
Lit Hub Daily: January 29, 2024 Mon, 29 Jan 2024 11:30:40 +0000 TODAY: In 1845, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe is published in the New York Evening Mirror.  ]]> 8 232244 What Fiction Can Reveal About the Fragile Fabric of Our Societies Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:55:13 +0000

In 1999, when overnight I quit a good job to write The Devil That Danced on the Water, I did so in the grip of a fury. From the United Kingdom I had watched my paternal country of Sierra Leone, finally and after decades of oppression, erupt in a violence that had simmered too long.

For months my stepmother had lived with me in my London home as a refugee. Inside Sierra Leone a decade had passed in which no one had made contact with the remainder of my father’s family, who were caught behind rebel lines in the north of the country. When the government in Sierra Leone declared it was safe to return, I had put my stepmother on a plane home, a terrible mistake as it turned out.

Within weeks the rebel army of the RUF began what was intended as the final onslaught on Freetown. They called it “Operation No Living Thing.” On the telephone to my stepmother I heard the shells exploding nearby, the gunfire of the advancing rebel soldiers. All of this made me feel desperate and very afraid, but it was not the cause of my fury.

The fury came from listening to and watching the reports of the war by the Western press, who salivated over stories of mutilation, rape, child soldiers, forced marriage, and especially cannibalism, of which there were multiple accounts. What was missing was any apparent effort to understand or to report the causes of the war. There was no context, no history, no politics, just the senseless violence with which Africa had long been associated. I was then a reporter at BBC TV. My beat, though, was British politics and current affairs. The BBC was not the worst offender, by any means.

When I let it be known that I was from Sierra Leone, at least one correspondent sought my advice. Once I called in from home and corrected the pronunciation of Magburaka, where my father spent part of his childhood, while the presenter was on air. For another correspondent, I translated interviews with my people caught up in the January 6 invasion of Freetown. Still, even within the most responsible news organizations, there seemed to be little interest in the question of why this was happening.

Fiction allowed me to reach for a deeper, less literal kind of truth.

Elsewhere, the world went on with its business. Barely a soul asked after my family, even among those whom I considered my friends. Perhaps Sierra Leone seemed too remote a land to appear as more than an abstraction, or perhaps the absence of peril in the lives of most of my London friends resulted in a failure of imagination. I know now that my experience is shared by many people who endure war remotely, whether those people are returning combatants or refugees.

War in Sierra Leone had been turned into a spectacle without ever becoming a tragedy.

I have often been asked how long it took me to write The Devil That Danced on the Water and I have replied that it took me two years and a lifetime. Two years, because that was the duration of time in which I researched and wrote it, as the furies snapped at my heels. A lifetime, because sometimes you have to see enough of the world to begin to understand it.

In her Nobel Prize speech, published later as the essay “Witness: The Inward Testimony,” Nadine Gordimer describes the task of the writer as the “transformation of events, motives, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.” And it was this “meaning,” viewed through the lens of subsequent events and the shock of war, at which it took me twenty-five years to arrive.

Following publication of the book, I returned to Sierra Leone year upon year. I gave talks at the schools and universities. I remember the first young man, a student, who approached me to tell me that he had heard me speak at Fourah Bay College and had then gone to talk to his parents. “Are these things true?” he had wanted to know. And his parents had replied, “Yes, they are true.” Then the young man had asked them why they had never told him and his parents had replied, “Because we were afraid.” This is the silence of oppression.

From that time on many young people came up to me in the street, or in a restaurant or store, or else wrote to me. All told the same story as the first young man, a story that they had never known. The silence of a generation had been broken. In time the history books used to teach schoolchildren in Sierra Leone would be rewritten to include the events related in The Devil That Danced on the Water.

A ‘meaning’ I have derived from writing this book is that certain patterns of historical events, sometimes including but not limited to cowing people into silence and terrorized inaction, could be repeated anywhere. What had begun as a quest to discover the truth behind my father’s murder would grow into a twenty-year investigation into the causes and effects of civil conflict.

In 2017, by then teaching at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., I was invited to lunch with Hillary Clinton shortly after she had lost the election to Donald Trump. I was seated next to one of her advisers, who listened with interest as I described my writing and where it had led me. I told her what I had learned of the signs of incipient and growing authoritarianism: control of the press and judiciary, co-option of the loyalty of the police and the army, rise of militias, manipulation of elections.

There was one more element, most crucially: a transformational leader, someone both charismatic and deadly. In the case of Sierra Leone this had been Foday Sankoh. In Yugoslavia the ambitions of Slobodan Milošević had placed the country on the course to war. The woman appeared to be listening with a great deal of interest. So, I concluded, these were the reasons I was worried about the United States of America.

My companion looked at me and frowned, then she swatted the air with the back of her hand and pronounced: “Not in freedom-loving America!” I wonder what she thinks now. Even then, Donald Trump had begun to discredit the mainstream press and to promote his own ‘truth’ on social media. He was wooing the military by bringing generals into his administration and was seeking control of the judiciary by appointing federal judges at breakneck speed.

Four years after that conversation, on the day before the invasion of the Capitol on (coincidentally also) January 6, I sent a text to an American friend in London: “Are you ready for the coup?” I was only half joking. He would later ask me how I’d known, and all I could say is that I had spent a long time thinking about the ways in which a country strays from the path of peace.

In Sierra Leone in the 1980s, even as war raged in neighboring Liberia, people did not believe it could happen to us. We Sierra Leonians saw ourselves as essentially peace-loving, even if our leaders were venal. If anything, our problem was that we were too passive. But when things begin, they must begin somewhere. There is a schema, one that might be traced from the first flap of the butterfly’s wings to the hurricane.

On a noticeboard in my office, for a long time, I had taped a handwritten note to myself with the lines “Nonfiction reveals the lies, but only metaphor can reveal the truth,” which is true, I think, of a certain type of story. Two novels set in Sierra Leone followed The Devil That Danced on the Water. I continued to explore the themes of civil conflict in fiction.

Fiction allowed me to reach for a deeper, less literal kind of truth. Ancestor Stones took the reader back to pre-colonial times to examine the century-long antecedents of state collapse. The Memory of Love examined the immediate prelude and the aftermath to the war and the silence of censorship, of self-censorship, of trauma, but also of complicity. How did a generation account for their actions, or inaction, to the generation whom they had failed?

The road to conflict may be long or short. Sometimes countries find their way back. Certain events may tip a country finally into war, chief among them an economic crisis. In time, my attention moved out of Africa and turned to the former Yugoslavia for the reason that the war that led to the collapse of that union had been almost exactly contemporaneous with the war in Sierra Leone (Yugoslavia 1991–2001; Sierra Leone 1991–2002). Though just as savage, the Yugoslav conflict had been reported completely differently, with both causes and consequences analyzed in forensic detail.

The war in the former Yugoslavia encompassed several nations. I chose to concentrate on Croatia, because there were striking parallels between Croatia and Sierra Leone. The first is size: Sierra Leone is 22,000 square miles, Croatia 28,000. At the start of the wars in 1991, the population of each country was around 4 million. Both are coastal countries of outstanding natural beauty, with a chiefly peasant population and a rural economy supplemented by tourism. Then, of course, there is the key similarity, the one that drew me in the first place—both nations had endured decades of authoritarianism, followed by economic free fall and, finally, civil war.

I have friends from the former Yugoslavia and we talked about our similar experiences. I was interested, too, in the differences. The war in Sierra Leone had never gone down ethnic or nationalist lines, despite the misreporting of the war as “tribal.”

In contrast the war in Yugoslavia had indeed been fought along viciously exploited ethnic divides. The war in Sierra Leone had begun after thirty years of exploitation of people and resources by a corrupt regime; it had been a slow burn. The war in Yugoslavia had been, comparatively, fast burning. A friend who had reported there commented: “The reason those wars kicked off so fast was because every man had a gun and knew how to use it.” This helped answer my question about speed. Men in Yugoslavia had been obliged to do military service, making for a supply of trained citizens who could be recruited into the militias that characterized that war. A nation in which guns are easily available is a tinderbox relative to one in which people have little access to high-powered weaponry.

In the end most of us develop the characteristics that help us overcome the bad things that have happened.

My friend’s remark led me to understand something else, too. The war in the former Yugoslavia became a sniper’s war. Civilians were shot and killed by the thousands in cities under siege by men in the surrounding hills. Yugoslavia was a nation of hunters; Sierra Leone is a nation of farmers. The war in Sierra Leone had been characterized by amputations: the rebel army hacked off people’s limbs. When people go to war they pick up the weapon at hand, be it a machete or a rifle.

As time went by I became interested in the ways in which a population survives the aftermath of a civil conflict, when you must continue to live side by side with your enemy (as in the case of Sierra Leone) or with the knowledge of what you have done to them (as in the case of the former Yugoslavia, where communities were ‘ethnically cleansed’ in the form of mass deportation and murder).

In The Memory of Love, two of my main characters are trauma specialists, and in the years of writing those books I spent many hundreds of hours talking to victims and those who try to help them. Early in my research, a Sierra Leonian psychiatrist had remarked to me, “These people will be all right, you know.” He was talking about the mental health of most of the population over the medium to long term. He thought that trauma diagnoses were being applied too widely and too quickly, in particular by Western aid workers.

His views echoed those of the French psychologist Boris Cyrulnik. Cyrulnik lost his parents in the Holocaust and worked professionally with many survivors of genocide. He challenged the orthodoxy that pain necessarily equals trauma. Instead, he argued that emotional vulnerability could be transformed into emotional strength. He called this ‘resilience.’

In May of 2014, I received an email from a woman asking if she might put me in touch with a former political detainee from Sudan. Sudan was then under the rule of the longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir. In 2013, Ezekiel (the name he used) and three other men had been arrested and charged with treason. They were held in custody at the National Security Headquarters, where on many days they heard rifles being fired within the compound, which they feared were the sounds of prisoners being executed.

One day a guard gave the prisoners each a copy of The Devil That Danced on the Water with the order to read it. The men did as they were instructed, but they also took to discussing the book among themselves. They saw the obvious parallels between their story and that of my father, and they concluded that both the book and the gunfire were part of a process of psychological intimidation. “They were trying to tell us that the same fate awaited us as had awaited your father.” But far from inviting despair, the book “had the opposite effect.” It renewed the strength of their convictions. They promised that, when and if they were ever released, they would find the author of this book and tell her about the inspiration they had derived from it.

Following the collapse of the government case against them, Ezekiel fled into exile. Soon afterwards he began his search for me. Omar al-Bashir, the dictator, would eventually be unseated in a popular uprising in 2019.

A positive temperament, an inclination to humor, the passage of time, being surrounded by people who care but do not “catastrophize” and by a society that does not turn every adversity into an existential question (why me?) but accepts that sometimes “shit happens”—all these factors help. In the end most of us develop the characteristics that help us overcome the bad things that have happened. Thus, my twenty-year enquiry into the causes and effects of civil conflict ended with a novel called Happiness.

To write a memoir is to live in the minds of readers as the person you were in the pages of the book, all of which leads me to a question readers often ask me. What happened to the members of my family after the events in the book were over? Here is the answer. In my father’s last will, written shortly before he was executed, he stated the wish that we children should be reunited with our mother. An international search for her took place, about which we, the children, were kept mostly in ignorance until one day we were summoned before a lawyer and asked if we remembered anything at all about our grandparents in Aberdeen. Anything at all, he said, perhaps the part of town where they lived? To which we replied: “Gran and Grandad live at 38 Gairn Terrace.” And so our mother, who was living in Zambia with her husband, the New Zealander, was found.

My mother is now in her eighties and retired in New Zealand. My brother and sister both have families of their own. Morlai, along with my husband, Simon, and myself, established a primary school in Rogbonko, a village founded by my grandfather where my father was born. Immediately following the war and the years of missed schooling, not a single child was able to read or write. Today Rogbonko Village School boasts university graduates among its alumni. And as for my stepmother, Yabome, she has lived quietly and contentedly in Sierra Leone ever since.


From The Devil That Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (20th Anniversary Edition) by Aminatta Forna. Copyright © 2023. Available from Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.

]]> 15 232219
On Book Hoarding and the Perilous Paradox of Clutter Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:54:49 +0000

To reach his books, my father had to exit our home, down the small one-step cement porch, under the mulberry tree that left purple splotches on our dirt driveway, and walk to the side of our house that was three different colors from all the peeling paint, everything chipped anemic blues and grays.

There, behind the cover of trees and unruly vegetation, he’d lift the tiny, unreliable plastic tabs on the small rectangular window and heave himself into the room that was filled to the ceiling with books. At just under six-foot-five, his frame was long but he was thin enough to maneuver his way in. Sometimes he would reach down from the window to pull me into the wreckage that housed his most precious possessions.

The room, which we dubbed The Book Room, was inaccessible from the inside, the door unworkable since too many books blocked its movement in any direction. In that room, I looked at books—was nearly consumed by books, most musty with the particular smell of antiques and moisture, filth tainting any treasure—but I didn’t have the space to read them. I could barely breathe.


What I remember most about childhood are the things I saw. My face, too short for the medicine cabinet mirror, wasn’t burned into my memory as vividly as the books or the laundry baskets that were stuffed to the brim with miscellaneous items and scattered around the living room or the piano that was unplayable because it was covered with clothing or the worthless knick-knacks strewn around.

Books weren’t the only thing that made our house full. Both of my parents had a hard time letting things go. Poverty—that fear of never knowing when they’d be able to purchase another one of whatever thing it was—was only one reason why.

We had some paths throughout the house, these curved walkways around items piled high. The entryway to the home was kept clear so anyone looking in wouldn’t know our secret.


My father published a book about ventriloquism in his twenties. By IQ standards, he is probably a genius but he had a variety of issues that prevented him from publishing and eventually writing new material at all. Even his voracious reading dwindled. Like the turn of fate with Beethoven going deaf, my father struggled with his vision for as long as I can remember, having various surgeries throughout my childhood.

Both of my parents had a hard time letting things go. Poverty—that fear of never knowing when they’d be able to purchase another one of whatever thing it was—was only one reason why.

He often talked about the Twilight Zone episode featuring the man who survives what is essentially the apocalypse. The man collects all the books he wants, but right at the end, he breaks his glasses. Sometimes, my father would take off his glasses and hold the book up to his face, squinting mere inches away.

But even when when reading became almost impossible, his passion for books and collections never ceased. It often felt like being around books was enough.


The problem with stuff was how paradoxical it was for our family. We had so much stuff but yet we never really had anything. We had a bare fridge and I longed for toys of my own, not just broken yard sale finds. I liked Pringles because the plastic lid doubled as a miniature frisbee, which felt like a free toy. Because everything was saved, we couldn’t find things that we actually wanted or needed. The daily task of finding socks for six people was nearly impossible.

My childhood home was ultimately condemned and has since been demolished. A little plot of green land, cleared of most of the trees, sits clean now. During the pandemic, the land was for sale for less than five thousand dollars. I wanted to buy it, a way of reclaiming the past. I could plant a community garden, I told my family. I wanted to take the mess that became nothingness and turn it into something beautiful. The tangibility cyclical, things blooming, dying. I wanted to attract butterflies. I didn’t want to make the land into a metaphor—I wanted to turn something real into a symbol.

Buying this land felt like the perfect way to heal—but no one else thought it was a good idea. I think someone bought it eventually, though for now, it still sits empty.


When I was in middle school, I moved into my brother’s home, which was always nice and tidy. I had the necessities but didn’t have a lot of possessions. That remained the same for most of my adulthood, since I moved frequently. Friends or acquaintances would comment on the things missing in my apartment. (“Don’t you want more rugs?” “Where’s the rest of your furniture?” “Why don’t you hang something on your walls?” “You should decorate like HGTV.” “Surely this can’t be all you own, right?”) But I liked being able to see so much of the floor.

Now, more immersed in trappings of the middle class, I have things—too many things and too many books. I have six bookcases and piles of books stacked against the wall. On Zoom, I’m asked if my bookcase background is real.

There are so many things that I longed for, and the truth is, money can probably never heal that. I can never buy my past self the dolls I wanted at age eight or the toy I wanted for kindergarten show-and-tell.

I have worked in fast food and I have worked as a senior government official. I have had months with multiple viral pieces published and years when I’ve had nothing published. Throughout these different extremes in my life, I’ve had times where I wanted to buy something so badly while knowing there was no possible way to ever make that a reality and on the other hand, I’ve been able to make impulse purchases without regret.

Sometimes, the idea of an object is more exciting than the object itself. The truth is, I was happiest when I had less. Clutter, even valuable clutter, creates stress. Books, even ones I desperately want to read, still have to have a limit. Because truly, the more I buy, the less I read.

My favorite times with books were when I read them in the library, the books unowned and simply borrowed, my mind reading the pages of the stories that stay with me even now, my mind joining the minds of others, my experience based not on the physical copy of the book at all but the words that burn into me and the emotions that followed.

]]> 10 232441
Playing the Dozens: On the Joys and Functions of Sh*t Talk Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:54:36 +0000

In the early moments of a 1998 playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there was a brief stoppage in play as the referees untangled a special-teams skirmish. Somewhere off camera, reigning NFL MVP and future (alleged) welfare fraudster Brett Favre was idling near Bucs defensive lineman Warren Sapp. He turned to Sapp and asked offhandedly, “How much do you weigh?”

A disruptive force on defense, Sapp wasn’t used to quarterbacks engaging him in conversation, much less questioning his girth. And so, while he answered Favre—“Three-oh-seven Friday”—it wasn’t until the next whistle that he really responded.

“It dawned on me,” Sapp says. “I said, ‘What? You think you can outrun me?’”

Favre: “Oh, I’ll outrun your big ass.”

Sapp liked what he was hearing. He shouted back, “Don’t worry. I’ll give you a chance to prove it.”

Favre and Sapp continued barking at each other the rest of that day and pretty much every other time they played. After a Sapp sack on Favre—which he would do eleven times over the course of his career—the quarterback turned to see who had dragged him to the turf. “Who you think it is?” Sapp asked. The two jawed so much that Favre’s teammates would literally forbid him from talking to Sapp.

“As good as he was as a player, he was equally as good as a talker, and if you were not careful, you would get caught up in that,” per Favre.

Favre wasn’t the only one to hold that opinion. In a 2006 Sports Illustrated piece about trash talk in football, multiple players singled out Sapp as best in class, while the New York Times dubbed him “one of the great blabbermouths in the game.” But if you ask Sapp about this reputation—and I did—he’ll tell you it’s off the mark. “I really wasn’t that big of a trash-talker,” he says. “I just got into conversations with certain dudes.”

It’s not that he denies talking; he just doesn’t think of it as trash. Todd Boyd would agree with this sentiment. As the University of Southern California professor and chair for the study of race and popular culture explains, “I mean, talking trash—it sounds disposable. The metaphor is disposable.”

Says Sapp, “Call it the dozens. Or call it shit talking. That’s all it is.”

As a kid, Sapp learned to engage in verbal combat both at home, where he was the youngest of six siblings, and in the neighborhood, where he would pedal the bike he asked his mom for every December—as either a birthday or Christmas gift—to wherever his friends were hanging out, where he knew they’d be talking shit. “That was our entertainment. That was our fun,” he says. “When we got together, we talked about each other.”

According to the activist H. Rap Brown, who changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the dozens served as linguistic training for many Black youth, too. As he writes in his 1969 memoir: “Hell, we exercised our minds by playing the Dozens.”And: “We played the Dozens for recreation, like white folks played Scrabble.”

If you didn’t grow up with it, perhaps the easiest way to understand the dozens is to think about the game as the exchange of your-mama jokes—combatants trying to one-up (and even upset) each other, while vying for verbal and creative supremacy via any vulgar means necessary. Usually, this would transpire before an inciting crowd of observers who served to heighten the accolades of success and deepen the humiliation of defeat. But the dozens isn’t so easily defined—neither in format nor content.

According to some accounts, the dozens can be traced to the early days of the United States, when it was played by enslaved people, while Elijah Wald, in his deeply academic book on the subject, Talking ’Bout Your Mama: The Dozens, Snaps, and the Deep Roots of Rap, makes the case that the game has African roots.

As an informal pastime played in schoolyards, on front stoops, and in barrooms, the dozens can claim no unifying theory. It’s always evolving, defined by its participants, informed by context, and infused with local flavor. For many, the dozens is known by other names—like joning, slipping, capping, bagging, or snapping—and individual experiences with the game can be equally varied.

For some, like Sapp, the dozens is an activity undergirded by affection and bonhomie. It is a prosocial endeavor—a bonding ritual—even if there are a few sharp edges. As Steve Jones Jr., the basketball coach and son of ABA star Steve Jones, describes it to me, talking shit was his dad’s “love language.” Todd Boyd can relate.

“My parents talked shit, like regularly. Like every day. It doesn’t get any closer than that,” he says. “After a while, that’s the normal mode of discourse. That’s how Black people talk. Black people I grew up around, anyway.” This dynamic would speak to what are known as “joking relationships,” which were defined by the pioneering social anthropologist Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown as consisting of “a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism,” in which intimacy can masquerade as hostility. In which, in other words, insults aren’t to be taken personally.

Some, for example, have cast the game as a means of negotiating social status, a puberty or initiation ritual, an in-group signifier, or a mechanism of survival. These all speak to a kind of testing—a challenge being presented.

But just as play fighting can become the real thing, the dozens can be a dangerous game: sometimes people get hurt. “It is a risky pleasure,” as Zora Neale Hurston put it. In 1939, the white American psychologist and sociologist John Dollard was the first person to give the dozens serious academic attention in his paper “The Dozens: Dialect of Insult.” He noted that “the themes about which joking is allowed seem to be those most condemned by our social order in other contexts.”

Dollard saw the game not just as idle entertainment, but also as serving a utilitarian function for Black folks living in an openly racist society, specifically as “a valve for aggression” that would have otherwise and rightly been directed at white people, which would also have likely led to violent consequence.

Various other ideas and theories about the functionality of the dozens have emerged over the years, though Wald asserts that “all are interesting as much for what they reveal about the explainers as what they tell us about the game.” But while there may be no authoritative account—and while the meaning of the game to one person can be in direct contradiction with what it means to another—the explanations are instructive.

Some, for example, have cast the game as a means of negotiating social status, a puberty or initiation ritual, an in-group signifier, or a mechanism of survival. These all speak to a kind of testing—a challenge being presented.

This last functionality, in particular, has gained traction with many. In 1970, the psychologist Joseph White writes in Ebony “that the brothers and sisters use the dozens as a game to teach them how to keep cool and think fast under pressure.”

The following year, in their book The Jesus Bag, psychiatrists William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs describe the dozens as “a highly evolved instrument of survival” that introduces Black youth “to the humiliations which will become so intimate a part of their life.” They write, “In the deepest sense, the essence of the dozens lies not in the insults but in the response of the victim.”

Nigerian poet, scholar, and journalist Onwuchekwa Jemie—who links the dozens to similar West African traditions—describes this learned stoicism as a kind of immunization process: “It is as if the system is inoculated with virtual (verbally imagined) strains of the virus.”

But to gain true inoculation, one’s immune response has to be put to the test. And in that sense, the goal of the game is to not just best an opponent, but to get them to lose their cool. It’s why H. Rap Brown described the dozens as “a mean game,” wherein “what you try to do is totally destroy somebody else with words.” He continued: “The real aim of the Dozens was to get a dude so mad that he’d cry or get mad enough to fight.”

As Dollard writes in 1939, “it is good technique to attack the other fellow at his weak point, if that be found” and that “the one who fights first tends to be viewed as the ‘weaker kidder.’” Warren Sapp can barely imagine his childhood duels devolving into fisticuffs: “No, you throw a punch and nobody is going to hang out with you. You soft-skinned bastard.”

And yet violence was always a possible outcome with the dozens. Any insult contains an implicit and necessary threat, a violation—it’s what gives the insult its power—and if you’re going to disparage someone, especially by “getting close to dangerous truths in comical ways,” as Wald puts it, that invites retaliation, verbal or otherwise.

But even more than that, the dozens could be deployed at times with the explicit intention to hurt or to escalate an encounter to physical conflict. That distinction may not always be clear. As Jemie writes, the dozens is “always ambiguous and double edged. Always, it could be used either to amuse or abuse.” Many who understood the dozens for its bloody potential felt it was best avoided altogether, per Wald. At least one Mississippi establishment even hung a sign to that effect in the late 1920s: If you want to play the dozens, go home.

Others opted out simply because they didn’t want to get their feelings hurt.

Soft-skinned bastards.


Excerpted from Trash Talk by Rafi Kohan. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

]]> 7 232445
Collaboration, Not Competition: How Betty Smith Helped Her Fellow Writers Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:54:24 +0000

“I have long felt the need of someone to take hold where I begin to fall down. I know of course that no one can breathe the breath of life into a dead thing, but I have more favorable reviews, letters, etc. on all my work than most writers collect in a lifetime, yet something has been lacking. Either through laziness, lack of technique, skill or whatnot, I’m aways failing by a hair.”

These were the words of Jay Sigmund, a successful Grand Rapids, Iowa, insurance executive by day—and poet and writer in his spare time. Sigmund was explaining his writing struggles in one of several letters he mailed to Betty Smith in 1936-1937. Smith would become famous for her bestselling novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943.

But at the time, Smith was a Yale Drama School-educated, struggling playwright, and single mother of two, living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the Works Projects Administration had assigned her to work as a play reader for the Federal Theatre Project. Both writers were in difficult stretches of their lives—yet holding fast to their writing ambitions; both would gain substantially from the connection they forged.

There was good reason for Sigmund to feel comfortable revealing his insecurities to Smith, for she had disclosed her own rejections and jilted dreams: “Like you, I have been disappointed so many times, as far as writing is concerned” Smith wrote to Sigmund, “So many times, has a book, or a play come right up to the verge of success and then dropped through the vagaries of producer or publisher. So I shall hope for everything… and expect nothing. I have found this to be a good working philosophy.”

In the same letter, in place of a curriculum vitae, she recounted the major chapters of her life: her education and jobs­­­—even an explanation of her husband’s livelihood. In the next paragraph, Smith added, “I no longer have a husband. The above material was given so that there would be no break in the, I suppose, story of my life.”

In Jay Sigmund, Smith had caught a reflection of herself, and it wasn’t entirely flattering.

These facts of her life included financial struggles. The primary caregiver and provider for her daughters, Smith was constantly seeking paid work. She was upfront with Sigmund about her methods: “I earn perhaps five hundred dollars a year by a six week’s concerted drive of writing for the pulp magazines, mostly confession and love story magazines. I only do this when I need money terribly.” For the same reason, Smith had placed an advertisement in Writer’s Digest announcing her editing services.

Sigmund had seen the ad, and it had rekindled his hope in a writing dream. He’d already realized a few of his writing dreams, having published his poetry and some short fiction, both of which caught the attention of famous writers, including Carl Sandburg and Sherwood Anderson. But with Smith, Sigmund ventured into new territory: playwriting.

Their initial correspondence has the fumbling feeling of first dates. “I saw your little ad in the Writer’s Digest,” Sigmund wrote in his first letter. “I do not know whether you will be interested any in me or whether you have something that will interest me but as a starting place I am submitting three one-act play manuscripts so that you can judge whether or not there is any meeting of minds of the service you have to offer.”

Practical and frank in her correspondence, Smith wasn’t one to waste her time or money. “I received your three plays by mail and what is it you wish me to do with them?” she wrote to Sigmund. Explaining her menu of services and fees, Smith told him, “I shall not do anything with your plays until I hear from you. Let me know whether you want them criticized or returned and if the latter, please send postage.”

Sigmund mailed his $2.00 along with his request for which of the plays he wanted Smith to read.

Surprising herself and Sigmund, Smith enjoyed his script more than she expected. It was a “natural comedy,” Smith assured Sigmund. She explained that “the play has its faults but they are so minor, merely little odds and ends of technique. The main thing; the thing that cannot be taught is there.” Smith made Sigmund an unusual offer “which might not meet your approval.” What she really wanted, she wrote, was to collaborate with him, “that is to take your play and re-write it as co-author rather than hired writer.” Smith believed that after revising his draft, she could sell it by drawing on her playwriting connections. They would share the proceeds, fifty-fifty.

The offer delighted Sigmund. What had felt like a dead-end in playwriting, now seemed like it just might sail through. In his response, typed on his Cedar Rapids Life Insurance Company stationary, Sigmund disclosed more about his situation: “You may guess that my role has been a rather lonely one. From the letterhead you can see that I am a business man, but I have been writing poetry and short stories for years and have published several volumes of each.”

Sigmund’s life was not actually lonely in the conventional way. That is to say that he led an entirely conventional life: married with children and a profession in which he excelled. Sigmund was fully engaged in the civic and cultural life of Cedar Rapids; he was a friend to painter Grant Wood and to poet Paul Engle, who would establish the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. But Sigmund had difficulty when he reached the revising stage of a piece. And until Smith’s services, Sigmund had not known where to find the support he needed.

Perhaps his relationship with Smith was helped by its epistolary nature. Sigmund never had to watch the expression on Smith’s face as she read his work or as she told him her feelings about his writing. Sigmund felt free within the confessional of their correspondence to reveal, for instance, that “If I had a little more faith in my work and would get a little more wrought up over failure it would probably be a good thing, but I’ve had so much joy in my work that nothing else mattered much.” Now, Sigmund admitted to Smith, he was more interested in publication, because he was beginning to think about “permanent preservation” for some of his writings. With Smith’s co-authorship, Sigmund was able to sell a few of his plays.

Less than six months later, Sigmund would accidentally kill himself during a hunting trip.

Sigmund’s son wrote to Betty after his father’s death, not realizing it would be “the hardest letter which I should be called on to write,” for Smith was “so very kind to my father, and helped him so much in his hobby of writing.” Sigmund Jr. asked Smith, “Can you realize the importance which he placed in your kind judgment, and also the fine spirit of cooperation which you lent to make his writing life easier?” The “fine spirit of cooperation” is not usually what writers are known for contributing to the world, but it likely made a big difference in the lives of these two writers.

Having helped another writer up, it was easier to believe she could lift herself up, too.

Sigmund and Smith never met in-person. But their exchanges benefited both writers: Smith revised Sigmund’s plays and helped him sell a few; Smith received much-needed income. Her confidence was bolstered, too. Here was a male writer, a decade older than Smith, who had already achieved success in other genres, trying to find his way in playwriting. Both writers were a little less lonely for the correspondence. Both received some of the feedback for which they hungered, but was so difficult to find.

A few years after Sigmund’s death, Smith began drafting A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the novel which ultimately brought Smith fortune and fame and allowed her to establish herself as a writer. Although she was proud of having supported her daughters and herself through her writing even before she sold the novel, Smith had spent those years struggling. “I’d be so glad to concentrate all my abilities, experiences and education on one thing,” she explained to Sigmund in 1937 of her desire to focus on one major writing project “I work hard at even these odds and ends and it would be nice work hard for some one purpose.”

In her late forties as her first novel was about to be published, Smith seemed to be looking out onto the horizon of possibilities. Playwrighting had been the great dream of Smith’s life for so long—and she had been relatively successful, at least in terms of selling plays and winning prizes. But the money was not sufficient to keep her from feeling like she was always scrambling for work. Novels seemed to offer a more secure path. They would remain her primary genre, with three more following A Tree Grows.

When publication of A Tree Grows was imminent, but her publishers were contemplating a delay, Smith urged them to move as quickly as possible and to enter her novel in the appropriate prizes. “With so many good men writers tied up in in the War,” Smith pointed out, “I’d never again have so good a chance in competition.” Timing was crucial. Smith was determined not to lose her chance. As she explained to Harper & Row: “I’d like to have the beginnings of an established place in American novel writing so that I could sail on or I’d like to know definitely otherwise so that I could then console myself with a four hundred dollar a week movie job.” Hollywood was calling. But Smith viewed film writing jobs as a second choice.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was a way for Smith to finally declare herself a particular kind of writer: a novelist. But it wasn’t only that. It was her chance to make something of herself after so many years of feeling she was not fully succeeding. A few years earlier, in Jay Sigmund, Smith had caught a reflection of herself, and it wasn’t entirely flattering: a middle-aged writer still trying to really make it. Sigmund had written to her that he knew what it felt like to be a writer always failing by a hair. And Smith had understood him. But she did not want to live there anymore. And the possibility of sailing on into her future as a novelist was now so close at hand, she could practically touch it. Having helped another writer up, it was easier to believe she could lift herself up, too.

]]> 8 232222
No Safe Place to Grieve: The Trauma of Muslim Americans Living Under Surveillance Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:53:57 +0000

I’ve spent the last few months promoting a novel about young Muslim Americans coming of age in a post-9/11 Brooklyn. At every bookstore, radio interview, or university lecture hall, someone will ask me about the research I had to do for the book. I tell them about the NYPD police reports I read—these bizarre, chilling records of a massive law enforcement surveillance program targeting Arabs and Muslims in New York City. The reports are filled with awkward euphemisms to half-heartedly obscure the truth that they were spying on us for no other reason than we are Arabs or Muslims.

I explain what it was like to comb through these documents, to be riveted by them, to feel the pervading menace they so successfully instill. An undercover or an informant walks into an Arab-owned cafe and records the number of chairs inside, for example.

At this point in the book talk, I make a joke: “Oh, watch out for the Muslim chairs!” This always gets a laugh. The takeaway for audiences always seems to be: What a time that was! I can’t believe that happened. I’m glad it’s over. 

I’m not laughing now.

For the past four months, Palestinians have been begging the world to see a child as a child, a journalist as a journalist, a hospital as a hospital. I’m faced with the ugly realization that those decades of war against Arab and Muslim bodies have not ended. Part of that war is not only dehumanizing us so we can be killed en masse abroad, but also criminalizing us so we can be silenced at home.

To speak now about Palestine, especially for brown and Black people in America, is to knowingly put a target on your back.

To speak now about Palestine, especially for brown and Black people in America, is to knowingly put a target on your back. To code yourself as a threat, a barbarian, a terrorist, and an antisemite. To publicly grieve the lives lost is to submit yourself to a massive surveillance machine that will monitor your social media posts, your emails, your charitable donations, your friendships.

When I spoke to audiences about my book before October 7th, I urged them not to think of surveillance of Muslims and Arabs as a problem of the past. I reminded them how much better surveillance technology is now than it was in the years right after 9/11, and how the same methods used on Arabs and Muslims then are now being used to target Black Lives Matter or environmental activists.

But I think a small part of me did believe that perhaps things had gotten a bit better—that as the American public turned against the War on Terror, heard the lies about WMDs, wanted American troops out, that maybe Muslims and Arabs would no longer be so easy to use as a sort of global boogeyman.

Now, I’m forced to reckon with the crushing reality that nothing has changed. Because if we’ve learned one thing in these last two decades of the War on Terror, it’s that Arabs and Muslims are like a contagion. We must be surveilled and penned in; we must be stopped. Because what we have might catch.

The sensation of being watched is something I have carried around with me for years, trailing me like a shadow. To walk around in a state of perpetual paranoia, to speak and to simultaneously imagine your words being played back to you from a tape recorder. To imagine yourself moving through the world like a red dot on a surveillance map.

The main characters of my novel, two teenage sisters, also often feel watched and spend much of the book trying to escape that feeling—by being invisible, by transforming so radically that they will be unrecognizable, or by attempting to flee outside the radius of their surveillance. As teenage girls, there is the “ordinary” and universal form of being watched: they must exist under a patriarchal gaze. They are watched by men on the streets, by their older brother, by boyfriends, by neighbors.

But there is also another form of watching they must contend with: the invisible eye of the state. The girls often cannot see who is watching them. They are told there might be either informants or terrorists in their community, but they cannot tell who is who and which is more dangerous.

I often think about how those girls would feel if they were on a college campus today. We are now witnessing a robust build-up of surveillance programs designed to spy on Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who even vaguely supports Palestine. Officially, these programs are to combat antisemitism and support for terrorism on college campuses, but it’s not hard to imagine how this is going to go because it’s happened before.

I’m remembering the NYPD undercover who went on a 2008 whitewater rafting trip with Muslim students from City College. I’m remembering how in 2009 the NYPD set up a safe house near student housing at Rutgers University, and how when the superintendent of the building entered the apartment one day, he called the police because he thought it was a terrorist cell. I’m remembering my own college friends—how we would paste blank, unreadable smiles onto our faces whenever anyone new came around.

At a recent book event, a young man approached me from the audience and told me that he was one of the lead plaintiffs in a 2013 ACLU lawsuit against the NYPD. It was Asad Dandia. I recognized his name instantly, because I read about how an undercover cop befriended him when he was an undergraduate, claiming he wanted Asad’s help to become a better Muslim. Who will be the next Asad, I wonder now.

At another book event at a university, I met a young woman who told me a story about a man who often appeared and asked her and her friends odd questions. He had appeared again just that morning when he sat down next to her on the bus. “I’ve always thought he might be a—” she said, knowing I could fill in the blank. “Do you think I’m crazy?” she asked. “No,” I said. “No, I don’t.”

The idea our governments have asked us to subscribe to is that all Muslims and Arabs (there’s not much point in distinguishing between them) are latent terrorists, as if we all have a ticking time bomb in our chests, just waiting to go off. As I witness the deaths of thirty thousand Palestinians, live-streamed from the phone in my palm, which is also a tracking device, I do feel an awakening in my body, and I wonder if the politicians are perhaps onto something.

I wander past my car in parking lots, forgetting where I’m going. I cry uncontrollably and without warning in the grocery store. I recently left a meeting with my boss about my professional goals and ran straight into the bathroom, kneeling over the toilet and dry heaving great gasps of nothing.

My therapist tells me these are physical manifestations of trauma. “What trauma?” I ask her. My children are not being bombed in their beds. I have water. I have food. And yet my body is remembering something it has felt before. You can’t grow up watching people who look like you, talk like you, and have names like yours die across your various screens without it changing you. To watch them die on a massive scale—a staggering, nameless, faceless death—and to listen to the world’s cheers of approval, or perhaps even worse, the roar of its silence, without something cracking inside of you.

You cannot feel any sense of certainty when you exist in a constant state of gaslighting, of wondering and doubting whether you are considered an enemy by your own country, by your own college, or employer. I feel it most as a lump in the throat, like I have swallowed something that has almost, but not quite, choked the life out of me.

The idea our governments have asked us to subscribe to is that all Muslims and Arabs (there’s not much point in distinguishing between them) are latent terrorists, as if we all have a ticking time bomb in our chests, just waiting to go off.

At a virtual support group for Arabs and Palestinian Americans, I heard others describe similar symptoms. Taking a sip from a glass of water brings one woman to tears. Another breaks down in Costco when her child picks up a treat and asks if she can have it. Several describe walking around in a mental fog. One person says it sounds like he has white noise blasting between his ears. We go to work. We pick up our children from daycare. We cook dinner.

“It feels like I’m fine and like I’m dying inside,” someone says. “It feels like I’m screaming, but no one can hear me,” another one says. At one point in the meeting, an unidentified “Zoom user” pops up onto our screens. The group falls silent.

I eye the black square at the bottom left corner of my screen like it might shoot me through my laptop. We dry our eyes. No one will cry in front of the black box. “Identify yourself,” we ask it. We wait for the host to remove the user.

But it’s not the same after that. There are no safe places to grieve. More than seventy percent of the dwellings in Gaza have already been destroyed. The premature babies at Al-Nasr hospital were left to rot in their cribs. And we, the American Arabs, the American Muslims, scream into the void.


Between Two Moons - Abdel Gawad, Aisha

Between Two Moons by Aisha Abdel Gawad is available via Doubleday.

]]> 7 232213
Ilyon Woo on Not Trying to Force It Mon, 29 Jan 2024 09:01:50 +0000

First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.

In this episode, Mitzi talks to Ilyon Woo about her latest book, Master Slave Husband Wife.

Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!

From the episode:

Mitzi Rapkin: So, a work like this that you’ve been thinking about for 20 years before you start writing it– and I don’t know how long it took you to actually write it – and now it’s out in the world and outside of you. Is there one thing that you’ll take away from this?

Ilyon Woo: A takeaway? That’s a really good question. You know, the one thing I keep thinking about is just in terms of the creative process – have you seen Sesame Street where there’s a character named Don Music?  He plays these songs on the piano and Kermit the Frog introduces him and he says, you know, here we are in the studio of Don Music and he’s in the process of writing this incredible song, it is going to be hit.  And Don Music is starting to write a song, which is obviously Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, but he gets stuck, because he can’t rhyme something or it loses a word, and he’s like, I’ll never get it. I’ll never get it. And he bangs his whole head and his hands and his face on the piano. For me being a pianist’s daughter, this seemed like the ultimate, you know, I mean, you just don’t bang a piano, right? So, there was that. But there was also that frustration that I could empathize with when you’re trying to do something, and it just doesn’t work. You just want to throw everything down. Maybe my takeaway as an artist is how even if you keep banging your head on the piano that eventually, I can find my way writing my way out of this. And usually, I found that when I got to that wanting to bang my head on the piano phase, it was because I didn’t know enough. It was because I was trying to force something when I wasn’t ready to get there. And if I could pull back for a moment and do a little more research around it, then something would pop open. And luckily, I have my own real life Kermit, my writing partner, Rachel Kousser, who would, you know, pat me on the back and also say, Isn’t it time to like peel your face and fingers on that keyboard?


Ilyon Woo is the is the New York Times best-selling author of Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom, one of the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2023” and People Magazine’s “Top Ten Books of 2023. Woo is also the author of The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times.  Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and The New York Times.  She has a PhD in English from Columbia University.

]]> 8 232511