Editor's Comments

In which the editors alternately opine on speculations relevant to the issue at hand.
—Robin and Leila

One day in 1972, a strange steel object appeared in the city center of Cardiff, Wales. Cranes had lifted it onto the city street the night before. Black, resembling a large hammer, or the dark mine shaft of a tunnel, the sculpture was impressive, sleek as a wet seal. It was a masterful work of modern sculpture and as such, completely foreign to most residents living in Cardiff at that time.

The next day, people gathered on the street to look. Some came down after seeing it on the television news, others were just passing by. Without identifying the sculpture as art, Garth Evans wandered with a tape recorder collecting the responses of people on the street. Evans used the tape once as part of a sculpture that was shown in an open air exhibition in Holland Park in 1973, then the tape was put in storage where it remained for the next forty years.  

“What is it? “

“What is it?” The voices in the scratchy pitted tape begin to ask. “What’s it for?” “Does it have a purpose?” “Is it made of steel?” Soon, they are all weighing in.

“There’s not much beauty in it. I can’t see no beauty in it at all.”

“What I want to know is…”

“Pictures, that’s what it needs—scenes of Cardiff…”

“Looks like a lamp post to me.”

“It’s just black.”

“Nothing to take my eye.”

“Big dirty girder.”

Meanwhile, voices of children spill like water. They have climbed up and are running along its long straight back. While the adults become more and more upset about their failure to find something familiar in the sculpture, the children love it for that same reason. “What’s it for?” one elfish voice pipes up. “I dunno… I want a hundred more!”

Cardiff 1972Photo (1).jpg

What history teaches. I have been thinking intensively about the implied question of these 3 words for the past five years; first as I set out to transform this archival tape into a theatrical script, then as I worked with two different directors to stage this script as a play, first in New York City in 2017, then in Cardiff, Wales this past fall. Initially I had thought of the project as a fantastic literary challenge—just how far could I use the archival tape as a site for speculation, pushing it toward drama as a theatrical script while honoring the real? But once I began working on the project, I realized that the stories behind it were huge, involving not just a 3-ton steel sculpture, the public’s rejection of it, and an artists’ quest to gain information about the impact of his public work. Every voice on the tape in one way or another told the story of the coal mining history of south Wales, which even today—though mainly hidden from sight, the mines closed years ago—reverberates in Cardiff as a deep sadness and complicated source of pride. 

From those first lines on, the tape completely engrossed me. I felt like I was listening to a Beckett play, absurd and dark and funny, yet deeply sad. Not all of the voices were that of stark rejection, but they swelled into a communal stance of outrage; as if a Greek chorus were in the wings, shrieking don’t wake me up, don’t wake me up.

In keeping with the constraints of verbatim theater, I selected and re-arranged the order of voices on the tape. At times I had voices repeat and overlap, at other times I pulled out words and repeated them for effect, but I did not change any of the actual words people spoke or add new ones. The fun was in selecting and pacing the voices so that they spoke to one another and created a sense of thematic movement. At its heart the tape is about fear and about how quickly fear leads us to “other” what we do not understand. And there was anger, that secret claw.

The challenge was setting the story in motion. I found the answer to this in a photograph of the sculpture with 5 children playing on it. By speculating into that photograph, I imagined one of the children in the photograph looking back at the sculpture forty years later, remembering the day they climbed on it. To push the connection between public art and cultural commentary in the Cardiff production, we added a video montage which featured news footage, music and photographs from the 70’s.

I was nervous about how the play would be received in Cardiff, the literal home of the tape. Would it seem authentic, or be perceived as condescending or worse yet, somehow forced? But something interesting happened. The play had done well in New York City, but in Wales, audiences were deeply enthusiastic. They identified directly and in some way already claimed the story. This was their history, complicated as it was; it was their public sculpture, their rejection of it, their city.

The play was timed to run the same week the historic sculpture was due to arrive back in Cardiff. After being lost to the world (quite literally, but that is another story, how exactly do you lose a 3-ton sculpture?) for over forty years, after a stupendous inter-continental effort involving the artist, the Cardiff community, a crowd-funding campaign, and the heroic efforts of the Art Director of Chapter, an influential community art center in Cardiff, the sculpture was restored and transported back to Cardiff. What had once been an object of controversy, of communal rejection, had gone through the metaphysics of time. History’s alchemy had transformed the sculpture from a great dark beast of otherness to an icon of home, the repository of shared memories and heritage.

On this note, I introduce our new issue, What History Teaches, which offers twelve works varied and spectacular, each one opening up new questions, even as they answer them through content, style, and form. What history teaches or doesn’t teach, or tries to teach, or ignores, or subverts completely. Perhaps Jorge Luis Borges said it best:

Centuries and centuries and only in the present do things happen. 

Leila Philip
October 15, 2019

Image Copyright: Garth Evans, 1972

Of Curses and Beauty: The Memoirs of Mario Praz

by Robin Hemley

Speculative Book Reviews

Writers are sometimes advised to write the book they'd most like to read.  We invite you to write the book review of a book of speculative nonfiction you wish was out there, or a book that was never written but could have been, or a lost book of which there is scant evidence, or a book to be written in a hundred years. We invite you to consider the aesthetic qualities of this book and to use the opportunity of your review to push, adhere to, or reconsider the boundaries of speculation in nonfiction, as you see them. We see these reviews as furthering the conversation this journal seeks to encourage. We invite you to have fun. The limit is the limit of your speculation. Traditional reviews of nonfiction books that utilize speculation are also welcome.

We hope to publish several each issue.  Typically, we imagine these reviews to be no longer than 1000 words.  We'll be accepting reviews starting with our next submission period.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 277 pp.)

 “Every person I’ve known in my life, and I’d venture to include as well, all those on earth I have not been acquainted with, carry with them a curse.  My good fortune is in having known from an early age, the manifestation if not the exact reasons for my curse. The vast assemblage of humanity, by contrast, know very little of their own particular curses and spend the better part of their lives attempting to untangle curse from blessing, much like the unfortunate protagonist of James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” the curse in his case being that he let his life slip by unacted upon.” 

So might begin this curious and ultimately moving memoir by the Italian Art historian and Literary critic, Mario Praz. An unvarnished and overt memoir would have been painful and/or too mundane for him to write, as he had previously written one of the most eccentric memoirs ever written, The House of Life, a memoir told through the possessions with which he filled his apartment in Rome. But if he had been coaxed to write another memoir, perhaps he would have found a little fascination with the attitude of others towards him, that nearly everyone in Italian society considered him portava iella, a jinx.  Known by some as “L’Anglista,” for his vast knowledge of English literature, he was most famous in academic circles worldwide for his 1933 groundbreaking study of Romanticism, “The Romantic Agony,” and for his exquisite sense of interior design, as demonstrated in his work, " An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration from Pompeii to Art Nouveau."  But in Rome, among friends, foes, and acquaintances, he was known as L’Innominabile” “the Unmentionable,” an irredeemable carrier of misfortune whose presence always brought some measure of disaster. When Maria Callas lost her voice during a performance at the Teatro dell’Opera of Bellini’s Norma, she found grim satisfaction upon learning that Professor Praz had been in the audience.  If he approached an acquaintance at a restaurant or café, as he did once the famous Zambrano sisters, Maria and Ariceli, they’d cower quietly, in direct opposition to their vibrant natures, until he moved on. 

How much did this perception weigh on him: otherwise sane and intelligent people certain he carried evil with him, all because of a congenital limp ( a sure sign of the devil)?  How did the almost gothic fascination others had with accursedness determine his scholarly fascination with the Romantics whom he blasted as immoral and decadent in their obsessions with beauty and horror. Or conversely, his own appreciation of beautiful exteriors?  Beginning his Romantic Agony with a chapter on Medusa, how much did he see himself reflected in her, his own ability to alter the life of anyone in his presence?  An Anxiety with no possibility of escape is the main theme of the Gothic tales, he wrote.  Describing these anxieties and resisting them was in some fashion his life’s work.  In surrounding himself with beautiful objects that carried memories of his life for him, he created one memoir.  In writing about the Romantics and their free-floating anxieties that sought expression in the supernatural, he wrote in a sense another “covert autobiography” (as John Russell called The House of Life in an article in The New York Times shortly after Praz’ death in 1982). 

The missing fork of this trident of memoirs is the one he might have written perhaps titled, The Anxiety Catcher or The Unmentionable: A Memoir or Of Curses and Beauty.   

Let’s say this curious book exists, though only in manuscript form, typed a year before Praz’ death. If you go looking for this book you might or might not find it, but you will certainly find him, or at least one branch of his autobiography at the Mario Praz Museum, brimming with the furnishings and books that soothed his restless and often lonely existence.  Perhaps hidden in a secret compartment of a burnished cherrywood desk with ebony accents on the third floor of the Palazzo Primoli, Of Curses and Beauty is kept, admired and reread by the museum’s docents, but otherwise kept under wraps, the true nature of Mario Praz jealously guarded. While we are unable at this juncture to properly review it, we eagerly await its discovery and eventual publication.  

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

by Leila Philip

Speculative Book Reviews

Writers are sometimes advised to write the book they'd most like to read.  We invite you to write the book review of a book of speculative nonfiction you wish was out there, or a book that was never written but could have been, or a lost book of which there is scant evidence, or a book to be written in a hundred years. We invite you to consider the aesthetic qualities of this book and to use the opportunity of your review to push, adhere to, or reconsider the boundaries of speculation in nonfiction, as you see them. We see these reviews as furthering the conversation this journal seeks to encourage. We invite you to have fun. The limit is the limit of your speculation. Traditional reviews of nonfiction books that utilize speculation are also welcome.

We hope to publish several each issue.  Typically, we imagine these reviews to be no longer than 1000 words.  We'll be accepting reviews starting with our next submission period.

I can only speculate as to the title of this book, but I can assure you it is spectacular.[1] Specere, from the Latin, means to look and this book looks in ways that surprise, disrupt and disarm even the most begrudging of readers. The experience is like hang gliding, which I have never done, but sometimes speculate about doing. Last month when hiking up a cliff above the Oregon coast, I looked out and saw two flying things almost intersecting no more than fifteen feet out from the edge of the cliff; a bald eagle and a woman in a harness strapped like a cocoon beneath a wide green sail. She was hang gliding as easy as you please with her rippling canopy holding her in the wind. Below were jagged teeth of rock, the deadly surf roiling in, but she made graceful swoops so close to the mountain’s edge that If I had held a long pole, I could have touched her. The eagle, whose wingspan was dizzyingly wide, almost as long as the hang glider, was hunting. I could seen the keen pointed head as it lifted and fell, then the great wings also turning as easy as you please in the currents of wind. Below the waves crashed and swelled, crashed and swelled. The person I was hiking with remarked that on land you can only see 10 miles out into open ocean even on the clearest day due to the curving of the earth. He was an experienced sailor. But where we stood, almost at the crest of the cliff, he figured we were looking out a good fifty miles. Nothing but silver sheen, as if all the energy of the world was swirling in a snow globe to which someone had given a grand shake.

That feeling of being at the edge of the world, above a crashing ocean, watching a human sailing by, held by invisible rhythms of wind while a bald eagle turns in widening gyres -- that is how I would describe the experience of reading this book.

Stylistically, this book is indebted to Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who believed six impossible things before breakfast[2]. We can speculate all day about what Lewis Carroll meant by this (and of course the hookah pipe), but this aesthetic applied to literature is wonderful to consider. My book takes a White Queen approach to language, with imaginings that leap so high they take flight.  While it is not comfortable to even speculate about the White Queen, grown obese with her own authority, flying anywhere, take her approach into language and the results are marvelous. The language in this book is made up of sentences that again and again do impossible things before breakfast. Yes!

In terms of literary genres, this book relies quite surprisingly upon the dynamics of a drab and little remarked upon genre, the parable. Specifically it makes use of the tale of the Blind Men and An Elephant, drawing upon our expectations only to turn them quite wonderfully upside down. By the time we finish we know we are in a version of Alice’s wonderland where no means yes and yes means no, and size is a matter of timing and perspective. In the classic tale of the Blind Men and An Elephant, a group of blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and attempt to describe what they see.[3] The first one, touching only the ears, says an elephant is a waving fan. The second one, touching only the trunk, (tickled as a matter of fact during his encounter by the elephant conducting his own investigation) says it is a snake. The third one, grasping only the bristly tail says it is a rope, while the fourth, feeling the hard legs announces it must be a pillar. The fifth, who feels the tusk, says the thing called an elephant is hard and smooth like a spear.  The conventional lesson of this tale is about our human tendency to claim absolute truth based on our limited experience.  Because we can only take in the world through our own circumscribed lens, we cannot see the whole picture.

This book asks us to reconsider this tale in light of speculation. How wonderfully inventive and unhindered each blind man is in his perception, how deeply and completely he trusts the idiosyncratic way he views the elephant. And finally, how definitively he creates an entirely new being through his individual act of speculation. Through the power of his speculations, an ordinary elephant (of course there is no such thing as an ordinary elephant, but never mind) becomes a fan, a snake, a pillar, a rope, a spear. There is no limit to the fabulous here and each version of speculation works because it is grounded in the real. No lazy slouches in this story, the men touch and feel with precision the little bit of elephant they have to work with. Their failure is not in their flawed perceptions, but in the limitations of their access. They work hard at observing through their hands, poking that elephant with their pinky finger, the lightest touch, only to come away stating that they have encountered a watermelon. These men engage the elephant with senses open and deduce through their senses, mostly touch, but also sound, smell and taste, the grit of empirical fact. Then, the moment of wonder, each runs those perceptions through the whirligig of his imagination.  Voila, a rope, a fan, a rock a snake, a spear where before there was only elephant.        


[1] Hands off. I am working on this book. I speculate as to when it will be finished.

[2] "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."      – Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

[3]  The parable of the Blind Men and An Elephant originated in the ancient Indian Subcontinent. In contemporary physics it is considered an apt analogy for wave-particle duality.

Shifting Borders: Race, Class, and Speculative Placemaking

by Rachel Toliver

Now is the time to take imaginaries very seriously. Now is the time to realize that the imaginary wall invoked in a campaign could very well be the single defining feature of our national future. 

Part One: Imaginary Maps

Ohio might seem like an imaginary place to you—a mystical land that appears every four years, when there’s a presidential election, and then disappears again. But I can assure you that Ohio does exist; I’ve been there, and in fact I own a house there.

My husband and I bought a house on the Southside of Columbus Ohio. We paid $28,000. Even in Ohio dollars, it was the house that you’d get for $28,000. To call it a fixer-upper was optimistic. The man who’d sold it to us had been an unrepentant slumlord. But we loved the neighborhood: its wide streets and grassy lots, the sunflowers heavy in the August heat.

A few days after closing on the house, I was talking to an acquaintance at a party.

“Where’s your new house?” the acquaintance asked. I told him the cross streets.

“Oh,” the acquaintance said. “We call it the death zone over there.”

There are plenty of things a person can say about someone else’s new house. I’ve heard that “congratulations” is customary. Maybe a polite “Oh, good for you.”

“You’re moving to the death zone” is… a bit less traditional.

And the person who feels good about saying you’re moving to the death zone also feels comfortable explaining in more detail why you’re moving to the death zone. “There’s nothing but police helicopters and stabbings on that side of Parsons,” he said.

I should explain. That zip code, 43206, is bisected by a street called Parsons Avenue. On one side of Parsons Avenue is a wealthy neighborhood called German Village.


Figure 1 (3).png

Figure 1: Southside Map  

In German Village there’s the smell of fine coffee, the smell of boxwood hedges. The historic brick homes have historic slate roofs. The alleyways are winding, cobblestoned. The yards aren’t yards, they’re landscaping.

The acquaintance, that guy from the party, lived in German Village.

Or, here’s another way of mapping German Village—we’ll call this an empirical method. According to the 2010 census:

German Village had 3,094 white residents.

It had 74 black residents.

Average income in German Village was $78,000.

The other side of Parsons Avenue is the neighborhood called the Southside, where my husband and I had just bought a house. There, in what the acquaintance had called the death zone, tribes of stray cats catch crickets. My neighbor Mike made too much salmon on his grill, so he brought a few pieces over to us, steaming on paper plates. Our other neighbor Scott said he’d look out for us, and he did. One day, in the house, I knocked a lamp over with my bike. I was running late and crying and yelling. Suddenly, Scott’s face was pressed against our window screen. “Are you OK?” he asked. Scott was clearly ready to fight the asshole in my house. Of course, the asshole in my house was me, sweating, sweeping up the mess, my glasses sliding down my nose. 

On the Southside, morning glories throng fences. It’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived.

Aside from all that, this is what the census has to say about the Southside.

It had 1,829 white residents,

784 black residents,

and an average yearly income of $31,000.

I’m very interested in maps; in fact, my manuscript in progress, Here, was first called My Cartographies. The death zone seemed like a sort of map—an imaginary map, created by the acquaintance, who lived only a few blocks from where I lived. In fact, I learned, the acquaintance had hardly ever been across Parsons Avenue, to the place that he called the death zone. And why would he cross that street—when, as he said, there’s nothing but shootings and police helicopters, over there?

My point is this. One geographic space can be imagined as two quite opposite things. I see the acquaintance’s map, and I see my own. The census makes a third map. And I want to write about all those Southside maps at once, superimposed upon each other.  

But what does all this have to do with that paradoxical term, Speculative Nonfiction?

In preparing to write this, I googled the words “speculative nonfiction,” in every possible combination, compulsively. And I was delighted to find a new online journal, actually called Speculative Nonfiction, which launched at last year’s NonfictioNOW conference. In the manifesto for the journal, founders Robin Hemley and Leila Philip write:  

Must an essay, as a subset of nonfiction, entertain “thing-ness” or the empirical world at all? Or is the truth of an essay sometimes the speculative endeavor itself? A “Speculative Essay” concerns itself with the figurative over the literal, ambiguity over knowing, meditation over reportage. For some writers, in all manner of nonfiction subgenres… facts as such matter for the ways they open paths to speculation.

Maps and census stats are things that hold their thing-ness, in the empirical world. On the Southside, Parsons Avenue was a fact. It was a North-South artery, a relentless migraine of traffic. But the more I speculated about Parsons Avenue, the more blurry and porous it seemed. Was it really a boundary, or was it figurative? Was it a metaphor, paved and useful for keeping the death zone in its place? Without Parsons Avenue, how would quaint little German Village be contained? Parsons Avenue was real—its asphalt, its stilted trees. But was its meaning an imagined thing?

I became obsessed with the death zone. How, I wondered, does one neighborhood get imagined as a utopia, while another neighborhood, literally on the other side of a street, get imagined as a dystopia? To figure that out, I had to do some time traveling. 

One of the tropes of time travel is “the branch in the road.” I’ll take that famous literary text, Back to the Future, as an example. In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox, aka Marty McFly, is sent back to 1955. Marty’s branch in the road occurs when he saves his father from a car crash. Marty’s mother falls in love with him and suddenly—what the heck?—Marty is literally being erased from existence. Shenanigans ensue, and eventually Marty lands back in 1985, in full corporeal form. He’s only there for a moment, before he flashes to the far-off future year of 2015.

Back to the Future teaches us many things. But one of the things it teaches is that, from the perspective of the past, the present is the future.

So, in the history of the Southside, there are a few significant branches in the road—places where certain futures were pursued, where others were closed off. I’m sourcing here from Sheila Jasanoff, a professor of law and public policy at Harvard University. Jasanoff writes that “imagination… [unites] members of a social community in shared perceptions of futures that should or should not be realized.” The “futures that are realized”—those particular branches in the road—become known as public policy, or history, or “just the way it had to be.” But, Jasanoff argues, the branch that we see as “just the way it had to be” is actually just one of many possible futures, all of which are, in their own way, equally imaginary.

Here is the map that brought about one particular Southside future. It was created, in 1936, by the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation, a federal agency.


Figure 2 (3).png

Figure 2: Redlining Map

It’s a map that was replicated across America, so you’ve probably seen something like this before. It’s commonly acknowledged, now, that these maps are a rendering of our national racist imagination—bounded and color coded, made tangible as public policy. If you lived in a yellow or red swath, your neighborhood was considered “declining for mortgage” or “highest risk for mortgage.” The US government wouldn’t back your loan, the banks would deny you. You couldn’t build equity or wealth. Your neighborhood would languish, and then the languishing would be blamed on your own moral turpitude.

No physical geography distinguished these red and yellow blocks from the areas that were coded green—for “most desirable for mortgage”—or blue—for “still desirable for mortgage.” There was nothing inherently risky about this land, no sinkholes or bad earth. And the “declining for mortgage” designation didn’t come from the houses themselves, from shoddy foundations or subpar mortar. In fact, those charming German Village houses, with their peaked slate roofs, were in a yellow block: declining for mortgage.  

These neighborhoods were cut off from financial stability because of the people living there: African-American families, immigrants, and low-income white workers from Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky.

It’s easier to run a highway through a neighborhood that’s “highest risk for mortgage,” so in the early 60’s, the city ran a trench across the landscape, leveling houses to build highway 70. Those highways, along with governmental mortgage subsidies and tax breaks, motivated middle-class white residents to move farther east, to the city’s affluent edges, and eventually even farther out, to gated communities and deed-restricted suburbs.

In 1960, an imaginary called the German Village Society came into being. German Village was thought of as an enclave: all those cobblestones, all those alleyways, right there in the city. German Village was charming; it was historic and it was European.

But it wouldn’t be an enclave if there weren’t an eastern border. It was also around this time that Parsons Avenue became a feeder street for the highway. It had been a place for strolling and shopping, for seeing and being seen. But in the early 60’s it started to become what it is now: all oil-leak and auto-body shops, grey itch of exhaust. In other words: a perfect border.

I’d like to relocate from these Southside imaginaries for a moment, to situate my thinking in the larger literary context. I’ve sourced many of these ideas from the sociologist, educator, poet and cultural organizer, Eve L. Ewing. Ewing is an academic at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. And an acclaimed poet. And the force behind Marvel comics’ Ironheart. And the author of the nonfiction book/ethnography/manifesto Ghosts in the Schoolyard.

She also describes herself as a “black girl from space via Chicago.” Place is, to put it mildly, extremely important to Ewing. Her interests might seem divergent, but she says that everything she does is “really part of one big project: helping to dream, and build, a better version of what she calls her ‘beautiful, hideous, deeply flawed, lovely, violent, endearing maligned, beloved hometown’” of Chicago.

As a guest on the podcast VS, hosted by poets Franny Choi and Danez Smith, Ewing said:

I think poetry… is very instructive in imagining impossibilities and rendering them possible. The book I have coming out next year [Electric Arches] is kind of about that, is using poetry to imagine alternative timelines of history or alternative dimensions…

My unofficial tagline for the book is True Stories From the Past and Future. So a lot of the book is retelling versions of the past or telling versions of the future or the present as though they were true. Something I say all the time in readings is—before I read a poem I’ll be like, “this is a true story.” All my poems are true stories. And then I’ll read something that is like demonstrably not quote unquote true. But to me it is, right, or it becomes so in the telling.  

Now, there are two things I want to be explicit about. The first is this. Almost all of the writers I’m referring to are people of color. This is not a coincidence.

For people of color and Native people living in America, in the year 2019, and in all the years before this, speculation is not just a cool idea. This is true also for queer people and disabled people, as well as other oppressed people. Despair is real. Existential and bodily threats are real. The act of envisioning alternative pasts, presents and futures is literally a way, for some people, of seeing a way forward, and therefore—I am not being hyperbolic—of staying alive. (I’m drawing here from the literary/cultural/aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism, and from ways that Ewing and others have characterized this movement.)

There are white writers engaging in the work of “retelling versions of the past or telling versions of the future.” However, since my own manuscript focuses on landscapes of race and class, I tend to read the writers who are confronting those issues. As a white woman, I think of my own work as marginal to, and maybe overlapping with, but not situated within, the speculative work done by some of the writers I will name.  

And I’d like to name, here, three other writers whose work has informed my thoughts.  

Carmen Maria Machado is a queer, Latinx writer. Her forthcoming memoir, In the Dream House, uses elements of genre fiction to, as she says in an interview, “engage with and unpack a narrative of abuse.” Machado says that in this memoir she uses genre tropes—the gothic, erotica, Sci-Fi—as extended metaphors, and as a “way in” to difficult autobiographical subject matter.

In her book Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, Susanne Antonetta creates porous spaces that contain physicality, and lines of heredity, and contaminated New Jersey landscapes. Of her grandfather from Barbados, she writes “because we watched him draw his world out of chaos, or his children did, they learned his physics—creation through erasure, landscape of litter and syncope, where solid things could… disappear.” Writing about her experience of being bipolar, Antonetta superimposes synapses on bogs and rivulets. And of speculative nonfiction, Antonetta says “We are constantly inserting ourselves into our landscapes, imagining what our presence means to what in our lives is cradling but inarticulate.”  

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz tribe. Most of our seen world has been colonized, Washuta says, so the act of writing into the unseen world is an anti-colonial act. Washuta has also characterized the speculative as a way of righting historical wrongs, pushing against colonial narratives. Knowledge is not always empirical—especially when empiricism has been weaponized by the colonizer.

This brings me to the second point I want to make explicit about speculative nonfiction: without deep research, deep speculation isn’t possible. In order to speculate about what didn’t happen, one has to know a lot about what did. All of these writers are dedicated researchers. The Columbian writer Lina Ferreira, whose work draws on mythology and cosmic speculation, once said she reads an average of one book for every paragraph she writes. Elissa Washuta’s fantastic essay “White City” is a comprehensive, multi-layered account of Seattle’s topography—rhetorical, geographic, emotional, spiritual, historical. In this essay, an unnamed water monster and Washuta’s own doppleganger are no less real than the landscapes of Lake Washington and Madison Park Beach. Speculative nonfiction is not just a flight of fancy. It’s months, or years, in library stacks and archives, in obscure books and on the internet.

And you have no idea how long I spent scouring digital photos, looking for pictures of Parsons Avenue soda fountains, trying to uncover all the proposed routes for Highway 70, Googling things like “highway Southside Columbus Ohio total destruction.”

Every node of research has its branches of speculation. When I look at this map, I think—what if red meant not “highest risk for mortgage” but “reparation zone”? What if yellow meant “put the best schools here”? And what if the portion of the $48-million bond package that in 1956 was dedicated to Columbus expressways had instead been used to upgrade the Livingston Avenue trolley line—to make it, in perpetuity, the most beautiful and efficient trolley corridor in all of America? What if cars had been banned from Parsons Avenue; what if Parsons had been made into a greenway? What if Schottenstein’s department store still stood on Parsons; how many people would have jobs there?  

And if it seems like my speculation is idle, consider this: back in 1956, an author in Commentary magazine argued

It is really not Utopian to expect that minorities will increasingly be given fair access to improved housing on a large scale, and will moreover be accorded a certain amount of preferential treatment to compensate for past inequalities.

Sixty years ago, this author was certain that the future would hold a correction of housing inequality. In a speculative space, that branch in the road can exist somewhere, even if it’s a future that our country chose not to actualize.

In this speculative version of the Southside, these parallel imaginaries can share space with the imaginaries that came to fruition—those particular imaginaries that became fact, and those facts that looked like utopias for some people, but like dystopias for others.

Part Two: Future Museums

When I was growing up in 1990s Philadelphia, some kids in my neighborhood would yell “white girl” at me from their porches. I lived in an old stone house surrounded by yew trees. I also lived in a mostly African-American community. Walking from the H bus, I slunk my neck into my collar, pushed my hands into my pockets. I wore floppy hats with bulbous felt flowers—partially to hide under, partially—I hate to admit this—because I found them fashionable.  

What would’ve happened if, instead of hunching and scuttling, I’d looked up and waved? What if my neighbors were calling me “white girl” in order to say hello? After all, they didn’t know my name—just as I didn’t know their names. I went to a private Quaker school, Greene Street Friends. Most of the kids in my neighborhood went to the public school, Pickett. We spent our days apart, and I spent my afternoons trying to get into the house before someone called me “white girl.”  

For many years, I carried that name—white girl—with me. It was the world’s tiniest complaint, inked on the world’s tiniest slip of paper. White girl, as a container, held so many things for me. It was my street cred, when I was in college drinking beers with white people who’d grown up in suburbs. Sometimes the white girl anecdote was a prelude to whatever I had to say—“about race.” It wasn’t because I saw myself as a victim of reverse racism, but it was maybe, at times, part of an “all lives matter” type of conversation. It never occurred to me, the way that phrase had echoed through my life. “White girl” was also the poetry prizes I’d won, because my work addressed “universal themes.” It was the time I was “the right sort of person” for an internship. It was the private liberal arts college I went to, the teaching jobs I’d been hired for, right there on the spot.

I thought back to that, to being called white girl on my block, when I read these words from James Baldwin:

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.  

I’d read Baldwin’s fiction early, but came to his essays late. I was 35; after years of working as a public-school teacher, I’d gone back to school for my MFA. Reading Baldwin, everything shifted. I’d been called white girl on the street, I’d lived in diverse communities all my life, I’d taught in a Philadelphia high school that had literally been named the most diverse high school in America. But it took me a long time to really learn that whiteness wasn’t a natural state, that whiteness wasn’t the default. It had never occurred to me that whiteness could be looked at, as an object. I’d always thought it was whiteness doing the looking.

And everything shifted again in November of 2016, when I was sitting in an Ohio bar, watching the map change: grey to pink to red, it was really happening, and then Van Jones said This was a white lash. Toni Morrison reminded the nation, shortly after the election, that

Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.

Her words, for me, reframed the phrase “identity politics.” The identity politics that define our country, that had—at least in part—driven the election, are the identity politics of whiteness.

But: how to write about it? I thought of Zora Neale Hurston’s famous line: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” But: how to write about that background? How to write about a white girl, standing in front of it? 

These questions resulted in my essay “The Whiteness Museum.” This essay speculates: in a post-whiteness world, how would we look back on the idea of whiteness? Let’s say that, in this speculative world, there are still white people. But the idea of whiteness is a thing of the past. Gone are the network of associations that have built up around it, the things whiteness has animated and the things that have animated it. 

Remember, this is a speculative world. Anything is possible.

So… What’s in the Whiteness Museum? Here’s one description of the museum itself:

Maybe there’s nothing in the museum. The museum encloses emptiness: emptiness, invisible and filling everything. People—by this I mean white people—protest the museum of whiteness. This isn’t what we thought it would be, they say. They walk through those empty rooms. Where are all the displays? Where are the glorious suits of armor? The illuminated manuscripts? The maps? The emptiness is a sort of agoraphobia. The walls fall away. In the museum of whiteness there’s no gravity; the floor gets confused with the ceiling. A white person, in those empty rooms, is a mote of dust, floating.

That’s just one view of the whiteness museum, though. The essay is written in sections, taking the reader on a tour of the museum. Each section functions like a room. And so—I’ll give you the abbreviated tour—the whiteness museum contains the following:

A rest stop in Sidling Hills PA, shortly after the 2016 election.

Movies about plucky white teachers, who teach “city kids”—black and brown kids—the importance of respecting themselves.

Summer camp, where my cabin divided along race lines and, despite where I’d come from, I joined the white girls.

The term “Becky.”

A discussion—in an entirely white writing workshop—about the future of art in the age of Trump.

To leave the speculative space of the Whiteness Museum for a moment: I mentioned before that everything shifted for me, reading James Baldwin, and that everything shifted a second time after the election. Everything shifted a third time at a panel I attended in 2018—a panel that was dedicated, actually, to speculative nonfiction.

The nonfiction writer Kiese Laymon began his portion of the panel speaking of Baldwin’s prophetic vision: Baldwin’s speculative revelation, his warning about the “fire next time.” The room was packed; I was sitting on the floor, nodding emphatically. I’d admired Laymon for many years, and was thrilled to hear him speak—about Baldwin, no less! Laymon paused for a moment. Then he said—I’m quoting approximately, relying on notes—that Baldwin was writing toward an audience of “conscious white folks”—the conscious white folks who find the suffering of black folks titillating. (With the phrase “conscious white folks,” I slunk a little lower toward the carpet.) Laymon said that in his own work—particularly his most recent book, Heavy—he wanted to write toward a particular vulnerable Southern black reader. He was writing Heavy, specifically, to his mother. And I have to note that this project, in itself, feels like an act of speculation. Laymon, in that talk, said that conscious white people are the engines of the publishing industry; black communities did not control the material conditions of his book’s production and reception. And yet: in the process of writing, he wrote as if he could write a book where his mother—and by extension Southern black families and black communities—could be the only audience.

In a Paris Review interview, Laymon says that, for black writers, centering whiteness

makes us ignore the contours of our own imagination and our experiences. And I understand—it’s America. Everything is a big gumbo. But for me, I think it makes it harder for us to imagine because we’re literally told that if we imagine out of the box, white people are going to get us. (Emphasis mine.)  

This is what I want to imagine: a world where the work of writing about, and interrogating, whiteness falls on white writers. Which brings me to this: there’s one more exhibit in the whiteness museum, one that I didn’t mention. In the essay, I write:

You’ll find me in my particular enclosure. I am thinking—thinking really hard. You can watch me; I’m staring in the one-way mirror. I grew up in a black neighborhood. Maybe that’s on my display label: This One Says I Grew Up In A Black Neighborhood. Circa 1980; circa 2003; circa 2018. Watch me watching myself in that mirror. Watch as I examine a pimple on my chin. Watch me scratch it. Watch me try to rub away the blood.

This essay would not work if an abstraction of “whiteness” were its sole focus, the only object of study in the figurative museum. So, throughout the essay, I turn the gaze back to myself, the ways I’ve participated in whiteness, the ways I’m complicit.

Laymon speaks about being trapped in a box—a box where he ignores the contours of his own imagination, his own experiences. What if, instead of writing about “race,” white writers looked at the box itself? What if we speculated about how that box was constructed—and how it can be deconstructed?

Part Three: Alternative Facts, or, Shifting Borders

In 2016—during what we were then naively calling an ugly election season—I traveled, on my MFA program’s dime, to the verdant East Coast woods for a summer writer’s conference. The person running my workshop was not a literary nonfiction writer. He was a journalist and curmudgeon and contrarian, and he mixed a stiff drink that he named after himself, but which in actuality was just vodka-soda. He and I got along surprisingly well, considering he thought that writers “like me” were responsible for the rise of Trump. His was the roughest workshop critique I’ve ever endured. Subjective retelling, lyric language, non-fact-checkable claims and the phrase “I don’t know” were all anathema to him. In 2015, Kellyanne Conway had not yet invoked the now-infamous “alternative facts.” I’m sure if this teacher were to hear “speculative nonfiction,” he’d lambast the phrase for being complicit with the Trumpian “death of truth.”

So, is it? In response, I have four quick points.

First, speculative nonfiction is not speculative journalism. It’s not Alex Jones, whose campaign of anti-facts is now being spun as “performance art.” It’s not the pundits, on the right but also on the left, whose hot takes are now being marketed as the evening news. I don’t claim to be a journalist, and no one would read my nonfiction as if it were journalism. Most of the writers that I’d place in the tradition of speculative nonfiction deploy very clear signaling devices when they’re moving into the realm of speculation. Susanne Antonetta says: “unanchored speculation that the reader can’t see in terms of that speculative movement gets into the area of cross-genre or hybrid work, incorporating fiction.” A writer needs to be transparent with their reader—this is a speculative world, and this is how I made it. That transparency is not evident in the alternative facts that we see coming out of the media. And it’s certainly not evident in the alternative facts that we see coming out of the White House, where falsifications are side-stepped or met with partisan defensiveness.

Second, speculative nonfiction is not ahistorical. In his book Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, David Shields quotes Jeet Heer as saying that, in contemporary America,

The visual has triumphed over the literary, fragmented sound bites have replaced linear thinking, nostalgia has replaced historical consciousness, simulacra are indistinguishable from reality, an aesthetic of pastiche and kitsch has replaced modernism’s striving for purity, and a shared culture of vulgarity papers over intensifying class disparities. In virtually every detail, Trump seems like the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.

And at first glance, speculative nonfiction might seem to fit into the frivolous circus of our current age, as it’s described by Heer. But think back to the redlining map, all the imaginaries that could have been implemented, as opposed to the racist and classist imaginary that was implemented. This act, of looking at the entire network of historical imaginaries, is actually a broadening of historical narratives. It doesn't allow space for nostalgia to replace historical consciousness; instead, in its reinvention of the past, speculation is the antithesis of nostalgia. Speculative nonfiction is also the opposite of the fragmentation that Heer invokes; if anything, it’s a move toward hyper-connection. It might not be a linear model, but it builds on linearity; it is, in a way, hyper-linear.

Third, I think it’s more important than ever to realize what Sheila Jasanoff describes as the power of imaginaries to make policy. Jasanoff says:

It often falls to legislatures, courts, the media, or other institutions of power to elevate some imagined futures above others, according them a dominant position for policy purposes. Imaginaries… encode… visions of… how life ought, or ought not, to be lived; in this respect they express a society’s shared understandings of good and evil.

I’ve never written anything about Trump’s wall; I don’t even know how I’d start to write about Trump’s wall. It feels too insidiously smooth. As it has no logic, it has no logical holes. It is a hermetic thing, of one piece with imaginary ideas: about race, about safety, about nation. The wall is an expression of, as Jasanoff puts it, our “society’s shared understandings of good and evil.” But to call something an imaginary is not to deny its power. We live in a time when ideas about the Other—ideas about crime and who is criminal—are writing our national policy. Of course, it’s imperative to push back against these imaginaries with facts. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer crimes than American-born people. But it’s becoming more and more evident that the facts of one “camp” won’t change the minds of the other “camp,” especially as greater chasms are growing between our various camps’ sources of knowledge. Jasanoff writes that imaginaries, in addition to expressing ideas about good and evil, “encode visions of how life ought and ought not to be lived.” Speculative representations of the wall could serve to draw readers’ attention to all the ideas that prop up the wall—these ideas about good and evil, about how we might live in this American age. What if, instead of making the wall invisible, we render it more concrete—so that its exact shape and makeup and foundation are evident? It’s easy to call the wall ridiculous, a made-up solution for a manufactured problem. But I think, actually, we should be doing the opposite. Now is the time to take imaginaries very seriously. Now is the time to realize that the imaginary wall invoked in a campaign could very well be the single defining feature of our national future.

Fourth, speculation is a capacious space, one that opens up access to prosperity. I say this with an immediate caveat. There is no space where, for example, racism and anti-racism can co-exist. But it’s possible, I think, to imagine futures where one group’s utopia does not necessarily have to be another group’s dystopia. I am thinking in particular of the idea that the status of poor white Americans is threatened by people of color and immigrants, rather than being threatened by the wealthy. This is a persistent and pernicious American imaginary. Known as the “racial bribe,” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, describes the inception of this imaginary: “Deliberately and strategically, the planter class [the upper class of colonial America] extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that great practitioner of radical speculation, was dreaming in the years before his assassination of a “Poor People’s Movement.” Again, in Alexander’s words, Dr. King, shortly before his death, “envisioned bringing to Washington D.C., thousands of the nation’s disadvantaged blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans to demand jobs and income—the right to live.”          

And I’ll end with this. I’d mentioned, before, the amazing podcast VS. Its hosts, Franny Choi and Danez Smith, are poets who are working in the speculative tradition that I’d mentioned before. They’re both people of color, and like Eve Ewing they are trying to imagine alternative Americas—Americas where they can not only survive, but thrive. Two years after Choi and Smith interviewed Eve Ewing, Choi and Smith held their first retrospective episode, called RE-VS. In that episode they did their own time-travel, reflecting on the past two years. It happened that the original episode—the one Choi and Smith were thinking back to—was recorded merely weeks after the 2016 election. So in the 2018 RE-VS episode, Choi and Smith were thinking back to their 2016 crisis state, and reevaluating the election from a fresh perspective. If you don’t know Danez Smith’s work—and I’m focusing on Smith here because I’ll be quoting them—their most recent book is Don’t Call Us Dead, which was a National Book Award finalist. Smith is queer and black and HIV-positive. So—and they mention this in the episode—some of their despair at the 2016 election was because, quite literally, changes made to the Affordable Care Act could potentially kill them. Keep that in mind as I read what Smith has to say about speculation and empathy:

Poetry helps me extend empathy toward my enemies… The apocalypse we’re talking about is a conservative apocalypse, this huge, right-wing swing. And it makes me have to be considerate for these people that I want to beat up…  

What about speculative nonfiction? what about speculative confessional? Imagining not our worlds with these things tinkered with but really just imagining ourselves… It’s being speculative about—how can I move through the world? It’s reimagining the magical ways in which I can care. And being patient with the feelings of this person that I consider my enemy. Are we enemies? What is our common wound? What made us make different decisions off of that?...  

How can I imagine my enemy in my utopia? Is that possible? I want it to be possible. I want to think that there is room in utopia for the people that currently make a dystopic world for myself and the people that I love.

To be absolutely clear, I do not advocate in any way that the oppressed should be required to empathize with their oppressors. This is one poet, speaking only for their own lived experience. But the fact that Danez Smith was able to even entertain the idea of “extending empathy toward [their] oppressors” was revelatory for me. I paused in the midst of whatever chore I was doing, struck by Smith’s words.  

Because the truth is: I’m someone who has way less to lose from the Trump administration, and it’s difficult for me to imagine empathizing with those I consider the enemy. Smith is a person whose life is literally at stake right now. And listening to their thoughts, more than anything, made me wonder about the borders I’ve constructed. These are interior borders, barriers to what Smith calls “the magical ways in which I can care.” And really I’d like to think that those interior borders can move. That they can shift outward, making more room, containing more space, and then—even more, and even more.  

This essay was adapted from a lecture given at Hugo House in Seattle, Washington, May 2019.


Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York, The New Press, 2010.

Antonetta, Susanne. Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir. Washington, Counterpoint, 2001.

Baldwin, James. “Letter from a Region in My Mind.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 Nov. 1962, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind. Accessed 1 May 2019.

“Census 2010/12.” Engaging Columbus, Engaging Columbus, 11 May 2017, engagingcolumbus.owu.edu/census-2010/. Accessed 26 April 2019. 

Choi, Franny and Danez Smith, hosts.“Eve Ewing Vs. the Apocalypse .” VS, Poetry Foundation, 15 June 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/142242/eve-ewing-vs-the-apocalypse. Accessed 20 April 2019.

Choi, Franny and Danez Smith, hosts.“ReVS with Eve Ewing: Apocalypse Now.” VS, Poetry Foundation, 20 Nov. 2018, www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/148508/revs-with-eve-ewing-apocalypse-now. Accessed 20 April 2019.

Hemley, Robin, and Leila Philip. “Manifesto.” Speculative Nonfiction, Speculative Nonfiction, 2018, www.speculativenonfiction.org/manifesto. Accessed 20 April 2019.

Jasanoff, Sheila. “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity.” Dreamscapes of Modernity, edited by Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, University of Chicago, 2015. 

Kaplan, Benjamin. “Forbidden Neighbors: A Study of Prejudice in Housing, by Charles Abrams.” Commentary, Jan. 1956, www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/forbidden-neighbors-a-study-of-prejudice-in-housing-by-charles-abrams/. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Laymon, Kiese. Interview by Abigail Bereola. “A Reckoning Is Different than a Tell-All: An Interview with Kiese Laymon.” The Paris Review, 18 Oct. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/10/18/a-reckoning-is-different-than-a-tell-all-an-interview-with-kiese-laymon/. Accessed 1 May 2019.

Morrison, Toni. “Making America White Again.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 14 Nov. 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/21/making-america-white-again. Accessed 26 April 2019.

“Redlining.” Engaging Columbus, Engaging Columbus, 28 Feb. 2017, engagingcolumbus.owu.edu/redlining/. Accessed 20 April 2019.

Samatar, Sofia, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, Carmen Maria Machado and Matthew Cheney. “Why Adding Monsters and Fairies to a Memoir Can Make It Even More Real.” Electric Literature, 22 Feb. 2018, electricliterature.com/why-adding-monsters-and-fairies-to-a-memoir-can-make-it-even-more-real/. Accessed 26 April 2019.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Eve Ewing Blasts From Chicago to Space, With a Boost from Marvel.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/21/arts/eve-ewing-chicago-marvel-comics.html. Accessed 26 April 2019.

Shields, David. Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. Brooklyn, Thought Catalogue Books, 2018.

Washuta, Elissa. “White City.” The Offing, 2 Mar. 2017, theoffingmag.com/here-you-are/white-city/. Accessed 26 April 2019.

Rachel Toliver.jpg

Rachel Toliver’s fiction, nonfiction and craft essays have appeared in Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, West Branch, TriQuarterly, Puerto Del Sol, The New Republic, and Brevity. Her short story, “Legion,” was the winner of American Literary Review’s 2017 fiction contest, and her essay, “My Cartographies,” was a Best American Essays 2018 Notable Essay. A winner of the 2017 AWP Intro Journals Project, she holds an MFA in nonfiction from Ohio State University.

The First Cut

by Chip Colwell

The science of archaeology is in some sense always speculative nonfiction. It requires its practitioners to peel back layers of dirt and find history somehow in pieces of broken bones, scattered fragments of stone.

For humans, eating a dead buffalo is no easy task. Our hands aren’t strong enough to tear apart buffalo skin, which is so thick it is nearly bulletproof. Our teeth can’t saw through its dense muscles. Snapping tendons? Forget it. Breaking bones for marrow? No way. But the animals are loaded with nutrients, fats, easy calories. Buffalo are good eating—if only you can figure out how to eat one. 

Millions of years ago, a very ancient ancestor of ours solved this puzzle. Most immediately, the discovery resulted in a good meal. More distantly, it changed the fate of our species and the future of our planet.

Only recently has this historical moment come into view. Although still hazy, we can look to the savanna of Ethiopia and imagine a family of lions devouring a buffalo-like animal along a riverbank. The prey lies prone on its back, not quite dead. Three lions pin the animal down with their massive claws. Their heads nod in jerks as they rip off chunks of muscle amid streams of dark blood.

At the river’s edge, a large troop of human-like creatures hides among reeds. They watch and wait. As soon as the lion at the buffalo’s neck suffocates it, the humanish tribe bursts out towards the lions screaming and fanning their arms. Some pick up round cobblestones and hurl them at the roaring lions. The battle wears on. As the sun nestles towards the horizon, the lions finally grow weary and abandon their feast.

The hungry scavengers hover over the buffalo. Some struggle to tear off the slivers of meat left hanging from the lion’s half-finished meal. Others imitate the lions, eating with their faces in the carcass. But one female pauses and looks down.

A cobble that had been thrown is lying on the ground, almost as if it had been waiting to be seen. The rock is half-broken. One side is rounded. The other side has been broken into a flat, sharp edge. She picks it up—fitting just right in the hand—and lifts it to the dead buffalo. When she moves the blade against the flesh, blood seeps from a deep groove. The first cut. The stone seesaws back and forth, and a slice of red meat peels off. Her fingers slip the chunk into the mouth, the velvety tissue enveloping her hungry tongue.

Or something like that. Whenever or however the first cut happened, it would come to reshape the ways in which our human ancestors behaved, imagined, and evolved. The first cut—the first tool—changed everything.

In 2010, archaeologists announced the discovery of bones in Ethiopia from several animals—one buffalo-sized, one impala-sized—that bore the remnants of cut marks, deep V-shaped lines incised into the skeletal fragments. Although researchers didn’t find any tools in association with the bones, the cut marks indicated that sharp stones had been used to butcher the animals. This meal took place 3.39 million years ago.

The date was breathtaking. It pushed back the first known evidence of tool use by 800,000 years. Even more significantly, it meant that the first tool users were not from the genus Homo—our branch of the human family tree—but instead came from the more distant hominin genus Australopithecus. Scientists hypothesized that Australopithecines—creatures very much like the famous fossil Lucy discovered in 1974—scavenged animals and butchered them with sharp rocks that happened to be lying around. This was a monumental find, because it points to both when ancient ancestors on our lineage began to see dead animals as food (Chimps and other known apes don’t see carcasses as dinner), and when they began to use stones as tools to make a meal.

The seeds of toolmaking are deeply buried among our animal instincts. A dizzying array of creatures use the world’s raw materials for survival. Birds gather straw, leaves, twigs, and more to weave their nest homes. Beavers build dams. Elephants use branches to swat flies. Otters place a clam on one flat stone and smash it with another stone to reveal its hidden salty muscle.

But within a million years of the discovery of stone tools, our more direct ancestors in the genus Homo began to go far beyond using raw materials to merely subsist. Instead of simply picking up stones with naturally sharp edges, one of our ancestors figured out that she or he could bang one stone against another in a particular way, thereby controlling the breakage in order to craft an instrument of one’s desire. By 2.5 million years ago, ancestors in the Homo line had created what archaeologists today call the Oldowan Toolkit—named for where these tools were first found, in the stark desert of Oldavai Gorge, Tanzania. The toolkit consisted of three key components: a stone core (the raw material that’s the basis of the small knives to be made), a hammer stone (used to strike the core and break off a flake), and the sharp stone flakes (the resulting tool, which could be used to cut and scrape).

These tools were not merely things. They also hint at a deeper intelligence that enabled the genesis of us. Studies have shown the areas of the brain that light up when creating stone tools are the same areas that are used for language. As Oldowan technologies developed, the tools became more symmetrical, evenly weighted, and sophisticated. Some scholars even suggest that these tools can be considered the world’s first art. Symbolic thought, complex planning, and beauty are all contained within utensils that were first engineered to turn animal flesh into feasts.

Beyond the conceptual, tools had a real biological impact as well. Experimental research shows that cutting up meat before digesting it makes it easier on the teeth and allows the body to extract more nutrients. More calories enabled the development of bigger brains.

Stone tools were the fountainhead of a kind of feedback loop: The pre-human mind could now make tools, which in turn would help our ancestors survive and thrive, and thus would allow their minds to further advance. These tools are not just the material reflections of the human imagination: They are the means by which humans could reimagine the world.

The science of archaeology is in some sense always speculative nonfiction. It requires its practitioners to peel back layers of dirt and find history somehow in pieces of broken bones, scattered fragments of stone. This is accomplished by using scientific tools to recreate long lost scenes, like trying to reproduce Michelangelo’s David, if it had never been seen before, from a scrap of a book vaguely describing it. The evidence is often so tenuous, interpretation of past people and their lives is inevitably a creative act. In other words, archaeology can always only imagine the shape of antiquity from the unknowable mists of time.

BW_Chip Colwell.jpg

Chip Colwell curates the anthropology collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and is the founding editor-in-chief of the digital magazine SAPIENS. He has published 11 books, most recently Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture, which the Wall Street Journal called “a careful and intelligent chronicle” and won the 2019 National Council on Public History Book Award. His essays have been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Atlas Obscura, and other corners of the Internet.

Ann; "Death and the Maiden"

by David Lazar

I don't want to take my medicine, not because I don't have anything to learn, but because the enormity of what I have to learn overwhelms me, and makes me question whether my project in an essay is to do anything other than try to undo the tangle of false motives, justifications, and blurred visions that represent themselves to me as memory. 

When OJ Simpson was leading the police on the errant chase on that freeway in L.A., I was in Madison Square Garden in New York, at the famous Knicks playoff game where the monitors switched to the chase, to our astonishment, but it didn’t register as surreally or wildly as it might have otherwise because I had been in the middle of telling my brother about Ann.

I was a young professor, thirty-seven, and she was an older doctoral student, thirty-four, and we had fallen for each other, and I thought it was going to be a big deal, in the way you know that someone is going to come into your life and the tectonics are going to change. I thought she might just be the girl for me, excuse the language, and was all aquiver in telling my brother the news, must have felt, I suppose in thinking back on it now, rather certain about my feelings, and about it, which is to say the prospects of where this new thing was headed.

Ann killed herself about a year and a half ago. The details are vague, because no one seems terribly willing to yield them up. She had attempted suicide a few years before, slitting her wrists, but she was discovered or didn’t quite go through with it—I’m not quite remembering which. It was serious enough for hospitalization—terrible, terrible, but not life-threatening, at least not the cuts.

She had been on a downward trajectory for years.

I haven’t been able to quite stop thinking about her, or to quite think about her since I heard about her death: the once promising career, writing about Virginia Woolf, that heavy eastern Kentucky accent, laden with irony and graceful goodwill. Her extraordinary recklessness. Her generosity. A bit like Zelda Fitzgerald gone in self-immolation. She was manic-depressive, as probably was Zelda. She looked a bit like Zelda, gamine and dark-eyed. When I say I haven’t been able to quite think about her I mean that as much as she comes into my mind a kind of creaturely sharp pain accompanies the thought of her, and I jump away as though I had lain my hand on a hot stove.

Twenty years ago, an affair du coeur between a professor and a graduate student not her or his own was not much of a deal in many places. In some places, geographical outposts, even encouraged. Younger, post-internet readers perhaps won’t quite understand the human urgencies of being alone and being isolated among rolling hills and aging colleagues in the earlier days of academe. To this sector of audience, the emotional premise of my memory might seem politically nauseating. What can I say except I understand, times change, etc. People communed where possible, even when the tincture of taboo tinted the edges of relation. They still do.

We met furtively at first, after a series of notes she had sent me towards the end of a seminar. We did meet, I must stress, after the seminar ended. But, and I suppose this is among the reasons I turn to writing these things, to see what repressed details show their hoary heads, I remember now that she was actually separated, and moving towards a divorce from her third husband. But they hadn’t actually, which is to say formally, made plans to divorce yet. That, no doubt, was part of our film noirish meetings in back alleys and cheap motels. It was one thing to date an available graduate student of one’s own age. Quite another to be perceived (albeit wrongly) as a homewrecker, sharpest edge of a triangle.

We decided to go for a road trip. We would go to Louisville, Kentucky, to see George Carlin, and stay in the Brown Hotel. What could be more alluring: how could I refuse a hotel whose history contains Lily Pons, Al Jolson, Marie of Romania, and Joan Crawford? I was hooked. I remember nothing of the drive there. And I do remember George Carlin then (this would have been around 1995) as harsh, funny, brilliant. I loved all his phases, even his dark, more existentially accusatory last phase. The drive back from Louisville to Athens, Ohio, was kaleidoscopically strange. Ann talked, virtually without pause, for the entire ten hours. I remember trying, at various times, to get a word, a question, a pithy aside in, to virtually no avail. She was the Louisville Southern Railroad and nothing was going to derail her. At the end of ten completely confusing hours, I felt like my head was going to explode; we finally made it back to my house in Ohio. Ann crashed, badly. Inconsolable, on my bed, she could only speak about the blackness of the world and how miserably unnecessary most things in life were.

Well, the virtue of love, one supposes, is sympathy. I didn’t bail as she told me that she was bipolar, since of course that was beyond her control, and she had been the person I had fallen for, which the scary blip in the car didn’t seem to have altered. But a second item concerned me more: she had been prescribed lithium, but didn’t want to take it because she put on weight on lithium. As she put it in her eastern Kentucky accent, “Honey, it makes my stomach all poochy.” I never liked that last word; it sounded like she had a small dachshund in there.

This (1995) was before the flood of memoirs, articles, etc…about bipolarity, so I was only vaguely aware of what it meant. I imagine I looked it up. I know we talked about it quite a bit, Ann and me. I also know that she was adamant about not treating it clinically, despite her own misgivings about doing so. Like many manic-depressives, she was more than a little addicted to her mania, despite the price she paid with her depression. I have hundreds of pages of letters that she wrote to me—this was still the era of physical correspondence, and Ann was both intellectually and emotionally engaged with the epistle, Woolf’s, Millay’s, her own, and would pour out letter after letter to me, really lovely missives, at first, before, over the three years we spent together, they turned, first melancholy, then accusatory, occasionally incoherent, at times, rarely, strange, spooky. While never explicitly self-threatening, there was a just-wasn’t-made-for-these-times, shouldn’t-be-here note she would hit, which would give me chills. When we would reconcile, she would laugh it all off: “Honey, don’t make too much of it.”

It’s almost too painful to admit this, but I had a glimmer that she was dead from Facebook. This was about two years ago, and she and I hadn’t spoken for about a year, but had thrown a few messages back and forth about how we were overdue, as though we were desultory library books that someone had forgotten to levy fines on. A post on her webpage had struck a valedictory note that gave me pause, and there hadn’t been any other posts for a long time. I’ll tell you exactly what I did: I went to Google, and typed in Ann ______ obituary and it came right up, the details of her death, the service in Ashland, Kentucky, at the Lazar funeral home. I really did think I had snapped for a moment. Then, what’s a Lazar doing in Ashland, Kentucky. As they say, as we say, you can’t write this stuff. But more to the point, there was that sudden feeling that something is missing in the world that you suspected had been missing in the world. It isn’t quite confirmation; it’s more like a very sudden and ruthless sense that your teenaged angst-ridden feeling that absolutely nothing mattered was completely to the point. A feeling of nothingness, absolute degree zero.

Things started to fall apart between us rather quickly. Rather than take her lithium, Ann self-medicated with drinking. And, I’ll tell you, I joined the party. We drank like the proverbial fishes. There were wonderful nights. Lots of sex, lots of talk. Lots of music and dancing. But also: lots of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. After a while, I think we refined bitter repartee down to the point where Albee had nothing on us. We even had the missing child, since I very much wanted one, and she couldn’t have one, and refused to consider the idea of adopting one. And what would any relationship purgatory be without a parade of others. I think Ann knew, fairly early, that her instability was difficult for me to hold onto. So, like any R(r)omantic, she went all out to make things impossible.

Polymorphous Ann, in a state you’d kiss a telephone pole, while looking over your shoulder to see if I were witnessing it in sorrow or pain. Can you imagine the scenes? Have you versions of your own? They were intense and recriminatory and full of a sense of the inevitable. I remember trudging off to a party one night after a particularly cute ronde of accusations, whose against whose escapes me, but we were determined to socialize in the way that younger people think that socializing while miserable is part of some dark gospel of experience. Our general dark economy of failure and heartbreak meant that I could usually get the better of her (though just) through daggers of insinuation and insult, whereas she would always one-up me through behavioral outrageousness. In short, no matter what I would say to try to let some of the blood drain from my wounds (and in the process from her heart) she could do something to wound me further, deeper, more painfully. At this particular party (which could have been Anyparty) no sooner did I have my coat off, reaching, rather desperately, for my first drink of the night—there, I should specify—than I noted one of my colleague’s arms around her, stroking her back, her head leaning towards or into him. Feeling my gaze, the point, of course, she turned and gave me one of those looks, or rather, not one of, because I think of it as distinctly hers, so heartbreaking was it, so incapable was I of responding to it at the time, a look that would have done Henry James proud, part hopeful, and part self-loathing, part pleading and part lower grade spite. In the spirit of sinking to the occasion, I shrugged a shoulder and turned away, walked off. Is there such a thing as having the final gesture? What’s final, after all? I suppose when I spotted them making out in his car later that night I might have asked the same question.

Writing this makes me queasy, I hope for obvious reasons. Not because I care particularly about giving details about my own brazen bad behavior. Well, brazen? I was in the middle of an insoluble dilemma, seeing a wild, wonderful woman who wouldn’t control her demons, her mischemistry. If ever anyone I’ve known had a sense of determinism, a fatalistic sense that things were going to go badly, it was Ann. In this, however, or the way she carried this, she was very nouvelle vague-ish, very light on the we’re all damned so let’s all have a damn good time. She managed to pull it off because she meant it, because she was sincere. It didn’t come across as a superficial quality, her carpe diem. And I’m not reading backwards from her death. I’m reading backwards from a closely remembered sense that her death was waiting up ahead, not very far up ahead, for her to be cast in its light. She was a post mortem avant la lettre, but with a kind of wicked gaiety. It you’ve never been around anyone who created that kind of dark vortex, of wit and energy, of the world as our own small apocalypses just waiting to collapse on us, of the contradictory pressures of having to actually succeed at something colliding with a sense of the utter temporal meaninglessness of trying to do much of anything, you may have some sense of the cosmic charge of their pull, why that hand of theirs reaching out of the whirlpool seems more attractive as a way to be pulled in than as a moral imperative to save the drowning, though that, too, is listed on your day’s list of things to do. But when they hand you your glass of bourbon and sit in your lap and say, “So, honey, let’s talk about us, and Orlando, and the end of the world,” you’re hard-pressed not to set your stopwatch to Finis. This was her effect on me, a sense of not caring about consequence or time. It was liberating and horrifying, destructive, intense.

We really liked each other. We were quite hot for each other. After some dark night of the relational soul, when things were said that never should have been thought, and one of us had threatened to leave for our cars, after three or seven martinis or shots of Jack Daniels—rather vain threat, or was it, those were the days when I still might have done something that stupid—she would break the tension with a sexual tease, some honey-dripped request to scratch her back, or she would merely start laughing, which would infect my infected rage, and break it.

One time she came with me back to New York, a family visit, and we planned a day walking around the city, museums and such. She wore high black heels, which I suggested was a bad idea. “Honey, I can’t walk around New York in anything less than stylish shoes.” By the end of the day, she couldn’t walk, feet cramped, I, well I was younger and full of reasons to be pissed off. You can be angry about anything if you’re tending toward anger with someone. Nothing much will make you angry if you don’t want to be angry. Oh, the delightful perquisites of age. I was annoyed as she walked barefoot down 6th Avenue toward Penn Station, an image I now find equally winsome, delightful, heartbreaking. My own inability, at the time, to be charmed, though I haven’t the slightest doubt I wanted to be and wouldn’t let myself, is beyond unnerving. And you can’t reminisce apologetically with her. But to whom am I speaking, other than a sentimentally guilty conscience.

One year I gathered my family in Ohio for Thanksgiving, the only time we’ve been together for the holiday in the thirty-five years since my mother’s death. This overweighs the story from the outset, but that was my experience. I cooked everything, for fifteen people. I should have known trouble lay ahead. I mean, how many movies had I seen? My father and his wife arrived first and a freak snowstorm hit. They decided to walk in the picturesque paths near my house; except that five feet away from the house, my father’s wife slipped and broke her wrist. Emergency room. Weekend in pain.

Ann arrived with a good head start on being pickled. That part’s ok—I drink during the holidays. Sometimes I think the best thing about the holidays is an excuse for having a drink in the afternoon. Sometimes I don’t need an excuse for having a drink in the afternoon, but during the holidays it’s like a free pass. But Ann started hitting the bourbon hard after that. My most vivid memory of the day was of being in the kitchen, adjacent to the dining room, where everyone had started gathering, and cracking the door to see what was up. Ann was sitting astraddle a chair, skirt hitched up, and I caught her saying, to my father, REALLY LOUDLY, “I don’t see the problem with my dating a Jew.”

I closed the door and grabbed a bottle myself. The only other thing I remember is getting her a ride home early, and a slightly wounded expression she gave me—kind of toasted, sardonic and hurt.

Why am I writing about Ann? Why am I thinking about Ann? Guilt is a privilege of the living. And it’s certainly one of my defaults, one of the feels I leap towards, or is it crawl into, whenever pressed, even when or perhaps especially when the pressing is internal. An old familiar, and yes, in some ways an easy one. I’ve always argued that going towards darker feelings too quickly, too easily, is just as sentimental as Hallmark brightness. Why do I feel so automatically guilty about Ann, why for example in this essay, while mentioning her wildness, her mania, skimming over what became a kind of tic towards betrayal (“I only fuck you over because I love you so much, and I’m afraid I can’t really have you”) do I feel like I betrayed her, that I’m somehow responsible for the hole I feel in the world, the absence of her, even though we were not so much in touch.

It isn’t that we were not so much in touch. Nor do I think I’m suffering from the delusion that I could have “saved” her, though I may be in a bit of denial about that. After we broke up, I had one of my scariest dreams ever. I was in my house, with the woman I was going to marry (rather quickly), and later divorce (rather belatedly), and dreamed that Ann was something like a witch, or perhaps a daemon, a very powerful and dark spirit who was trying to break into, or gain entry into, the house. The entire house was surrounded by the suffocating air of her presence, and the door was creaking at her hot breath, which would melt the locks. Should she enter, terrible things would happen. That’s what so awful about the dream, the lack of specificity—terrible, terrible things would happen, like I had never experienced before, and all would become horror, and loss.

Just as the door was giving way, I woke up. And the house was quiet, and the woman next to me was quietly sleeping. Ann was miles away, in her bed. The woman next to me would cause me much more harm than the figure in my dreams.

But Ann figured for me…as a loss of control. I have managed, barely, to keep things together through the years of my adult life—doing all the things one needs to do. And I think the face I show to the world is a very functional one. Yet I frequently feel as though I were a breath away from losing it, and I’ve wondered all my adult life what it would be like to let all caution, all responsibility, all care for self and public esteem go. I seem to have gravitated frequently to people who were very irresponsible. My dear friend Tony, dead this spring of a heart attack—and he just a month younger than I—spent much of the last thirty years wearing down his body with vodka. First he was just drinking a lot. Then he was married with kids and was passing out in the street. There were interventions, rehabs, and he couldn’t keep a job or finish his degree and he just kept falling and falling and breaking things and turning his insides into a stew. And he died alone of a heart attack in a motel in Vermont a few months ago. He called me drunk all the time. He called all his friends drunk all the time. We stopped taking the calls because who had the time to hear Tony go on and on and not listen to a word you’d said. But he’d sober up and we’d talk and I’d see him when I went to New York, at his apartment on 9th St.

Once I tried to surprise him on New Year’s Eve. The doorman shook his head and waved me in. Tony’s doorway was ajar and I found him naked on the floor, moaning like Caliban, looking like Caliban, bloated and dirty. I got him covered and over to the sofa. We talked for a bit. And I said, “Tony, you have to clean up.” That was it. As messed up as he was, he threw me out.

But we talked a few days later. When you know someone for decades, it’s like that.

Have I been a flaneur of some of my own darkest impulses with some of my friends and a woman I’ve loved, being close enough to my own worst case scenarios to feel their hot breath, while watching others take the heat? That, too, would be too hard on myself, and thus too easy, though it’s also not completely untrue as my own psychic précis.

After Ann and I moved into a post-relationship but still who knows what’s going on state, I was in a rather dark place. I may have left a lot of bottles at her place, but I hardly left the bottle. Trying not to hit something in the road (like a projection of her face over Myrna Loy’s? Or a vision of her walking into a room with her cheekbones flaring?) I flipped my car three times and almost died. I was on my way to a liaison with another woman, but I had them call her and my best friend from the hospital. Apparently, I do have a bit of a problem with guilt. When the doctor came to sew up the cut over my eye, I told him not to use any anesthesia (I was still in shock). They all looked at me like I was mad.

Occasionally, after a cooling down period, while I still lived in Ohio, I would meet Ann for lunch. And then she moved back to Kentucky, too distracted to keep working on the PhD, got a job at a high school, was fired. We talked on the phone occasionally. She was funny, incredibly sweet, every time sounding a little more broken. She’d always say that her craziness with me was her biggest regret, which was, I think, supposed to make me feel better, but somehow always made me feel worse.

Ann, I think, felt the sting of her lost promise. As I and a few of the people who loved her do. But disappointing oneself is worse than anything else. She fled to Florida, was seeing a considerably older physician, in whose bathroom, apparently, she attempted to cut her wrists. She survived that, with a sense of ignominy added on to everything else.

She would always ask about my son, and with a genuine interest and sweetness that always made me think of her insistence that she didn’t want children. But then I have to remind myself that there is a difference between not wanting children and thinking oneself incapable of raising them. Most of the people I know who are choosing childlessness are doing so because they simply do not want children, a perfectly respectable choice, if one inimical to my own essential emotional character. If anything in my life has given me consistent joy and satisfaction, it’s childrearing. I’ve, arguably, been a bit of a washout at relationships, at least romantic relationships. But I seem to be pretty good at the parenting thing.

Ann, however, thought herself an impossible mother. I forget that. And I think at the time of our relationship I fused or confused that with some hostility to kids. Absurd. She was lovely with kids. But in her imagination she would have ended up the crazy mother, incapable of caring for her charge, or charges. Who knows which of our decisions are sane, self-knowing appraisals of our shortcomings, and which are self-rationalizing justifications of what we really want? Half the time they overlap. Or as Yogi Berra might say, “half the time they’re seventy-five percent the same thing.”

We talked, but then there were gaps. I’m sure you have your own versions of this. Friendship, relational sinkholes where people you care about still manage to disappear, drop away for periods of time as you attend to your children, your books, your winter clothes and your mortgages. It was during a fall, a winter when I was listlessly trying to get in touch with her when I found out that there would be no more getting in touch with her. This is a new category of social experience, the Facebook memento mori, and it makes me queasy I must say, the way pages linger on after death like newspaper stories from the past that people can make continual addenda to, but why . . . I understand the argument that they remain as monuments of a sort, although I think of a rather desultory sort. An editor of mine lingers on in my contacts after death, as do Ann and one or two others, their pages a form of accidental literary cryogenics.

Someone had written something on Ann’s page about not forgetting her. That’s what sent me racing to the obituaries, marked with my own name.

I’ve been listening to “Death and the Maiden” as I write this. I listen to Schubert a reasonable amount, the Winterreise, the Impromptus…and I was reminded of how much I loved the Quintet in D minor recently when I was watching Crimes and Misdemeanors with my son. It’s so muscular in its tragic overtones, and so unrelenting in its oceanic grief, its continually enlarging beauty of unknowing that signifies the end, which is the end of music. The motif began as early as 1517, in Hans Baldung Grien’s “Death and the Maiden,” a mournful young woman pulled by her hair by the skeleton of doom, and then there are countless variations through the Renaissance, in the Romantic era . . . One of my favorites is Adolf Hering’s “Death and the Maiden” (1900), in which the scantily clad fin de siècle nymph is in a swoon, about to be romantically devoured by the black shrouded figure, the Ur-mourner who devours what he wants, Death as Dracula, an obvious connection, turning our fears of dissolution into, ironically, a gothic nightmare of endless life. Talk about displacement.

Speaking of displacement, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, the difficult woman, the troubled woman, is killed by Martin Landau, the Jewish man, to the strains of “Death and the Maiden.” Unlike the character of Judas, I haven’t killed anyone, but ironically, while Judas realizes that he can shake off his burden of guilt in a Godless world, continue with his life, his family, I find my own sense of guilt less labile, more burdensome. The older I get, the less interested I find myself in changing feelings that, even if harrowing, are still somehow true to my essential nature, or some part of a series of experiences that jive with my sense of emotional necessity. One could say I want to keep feeling them because feeling them seems emotionally right, even if neurotic in a classic sense, and thus truer to me. Does this classify them as “sentimental” according to my earlier definition? Perhaps.

I feel responsible for Ann’s death, as though if she hadn’t met me she would have been better off. Yes, who can possibly know this kind of thing? Who can rewind and untangle the currents of necessity and self-determination? Who can predict the pitiless fortunes or absurd graces of those who come into and out of our orbits? Who can keep friends and lovers alive when they won’t take their medicine or won’t put down their bottles? Who can forgive in just the right measure, and with transcendent language? Seriously, tell me—I mean it. I’m easy to find. I spend half my days sitting around waiting for a knock on the door, someone standing there with a paper full of accusations. They would always all be just.

This essay first appeared in Bellingham Review.

I might amend "What History Teaches" to "If History Teaches," at least in my own case. If memory serves. What history teaches. Part of me resists the pedagogical impulse: I don't want to take my medicine, not because I don't have anything to learn, but because the enormity of what I have to learn overwhelms me, and makes me question whether my project in an essay is to do anything other than try to undo the tangle of false motives, justifications, and blurred visions that represent themselves to me as memory. Well, I suppose that's allowing myself to be taught, a kind of sentimental self-education. But as often as not, I find myself in confusion, Gibboned or Toynbeed into exhaustion. Personal history isn't subtle; it's the hand on the hot burner. That's why I always write in past tense.

David Lazar.jpg

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms; Who's Afraid of Helen of Troy; After Montaigne; Truth in Nonfiction; Essaying the Essay; Powder Tow; and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. He created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. Lazar is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its eighteenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

On Breaking Up

by Leora Fridman

In the speculative I draw on what I see to make what I haven't seen, whether this is performed by following the language in and through a set of my own obsessions, by following the thread of writers who've written in the world I'm writing into, or by believing toward something until a set of threads can make it true.

to become a ruin, to ruin by becoming —Sarah Ahmed 

My favorite thing about my worst breakup was how far gone I got.

Mostly wary and noncommittal through my early 20s, I’d floated through the ends of relationships or executed them coolly myself. I was a daughter of a proper second-wave feminist with a bad-ass career and no tolerance for ditsy, dependent women—something I’ve been afraid of being since as long as I can remember. I cherished independence from a young age, always split the check, never depended on boyfriends for emotional solace or any forms of support. Even with my close friends, I was careful to need very little, to make it clear that I could take care of myself. I always had a plan: for my semester, my evening, my source of income after college. I had a tight grip on all of it, and no one was going to interfere.

But at the tail end of college I finally got swept. Noah, a man I’d been flirt-friends with for years, but pretended always I wanted nothing from. That last week of college we found ourselves both single at the same time. We danced closer and closer together one night at a party and later that same night, in my sweaty bed, agreed we’d partner for life.

Then we graduated. A few months of hot summer together and I got on a plane for a planned year many time-zones away, which led into long distance months of pining and Skyping and planning our future. We wrote poems about the Skype gaze, the romance of distance, the ethics of sustaining a relationship that felt impossible. We were play-arguing over Gchat about whether Boulder, Colorado was too white a place to raise our children when I realized how far gone I was. I reeled, suddenly not in control.

“You’re the first to really win me over,” I told him, and his smile stretched in the Skype window.

At the end of that year the first thing I did was go to him. Just off the 8-hour plane ride, I wasted no time getting on a 2-hour bus ride to his town. And stepping down from the Greyhound to his face, I could tell right away that something wasn’t right. He didn’t clutch me. His smile was small. Instead of the magic reconnection we’d fantasized about all year, the sudden ingathering of sparks sharpened by distance, he was withdrawn, withholding, and I had to quickly pull back into myself so as not to pool against him in the car. 

Still, I thought, maybe this is awkwardness from so much build up, from not seeing each other for so long—surely we would spend the rest of our lives together and just look back on this moment as a short skid before landing. I asked him careful questions about his home and job, but he answered slowly and held his body back.

Once we arrived at his house, he sat a few feet away from me on the couch and announced officially that his feelings had changed. He was over me, he said. Having fantasized about this reunion and been fed his love letters all year, I froze. I stared into his face as he spoke and nodded distantly.

“I understand,” I said. “Totally, I get it.” What I knew to say, an automatic reaction. Trained well, I knew how to react politely, how to listen empathically, but as soon as he stopped talking, my body didn’t know what to do. Without the future I’d fixated on having with him, I didn’t physically know how to move. So instead, I collapsed. I slid to the floor below him on the couch. The cheap rug against my legs, looking up at the underside of his chin. Though a moment earlier I’d tried to keep it together, something about being down below made me ready, for the first time, to beg. I reached up for his limp hand. 

“But remember, Boulder,” I said. “We are the only people who know us. You can’t give that up.” He finally smiled then, benevolent above me, and unwrapped my fingers from his.

“Oh,” he said, placing my hand on the couch pillow, “I get that’s how you feel, but it’s not how I feel.” Suddenly he was the temperate facilitator, his firm palm.

“But you promised when I got home we would—” my face began to heat, “you said we’d plan—how brave it would be to try—” He shook his head.  

“You need time,” he said, “let’s just go to bed.” Parental, he pulled me up from the floor.

“But we—but we—”  I sputtered. He guided me by the waist to the bed, sat down on the opposite side of it, and turned his back. I remember the clock on his side: it was very late already, and I threw myself across the bed toward him and its red light.

“Touch me,” I said, “you’ll remember.” Because I remembered: I curled my body toward him, thinking I might find him again if I could just get enough of our skins against one another.

“Please, Noah,” I choked—I was weeping by then, and curled tighter against the wall of his back as he twisted away. I began to bang on his skin with my fists.

This was a new kind of crying that I was doing. Emptying myself, his lack of response pulling only more from my insides. Here it all welled and I bashed, a supplicant, against his silence.

Eventually he tired of this, left the bed and said he’d take the couch.

“Please, just tonight,” I said, watching someone I’d slept naked beside pulling on grey sweatpants. He patted my head and whispered, “I’m always happy to be your friend,” as if that was what I’d been begging for, and closed the door behind him.

I continued, though, to sob, loud enough so he could hear me from the living room, keening sounds from my chest surprising even me, as though releasing an animal. I couldn’t stop. Or, didn’t want to, as over that night I began to sense—there was something here I was enjoying.

“I’m excited by the power of sex to turn a woman into a beast,” writes Dodie Bellamy[1], and the further I sunk into damp beastliness, a bravery rose in me, an appeal to the groveling.  

In the morning I kept at it, staying naked, posing in the sun across the counter as he looked away toward the coffee pot, this man who once couldn’t take a piss without an arm around me. He padded over to my backpack and handed me my own sweatshirt.  

“You’ll be ok,” he said. “You can always call me.”

I refused the sweatshirt, and sat stubbornly, my butt cold on the dirty linoleum. Face bloated and legs weak from sleeplessness, I felt a concrete core in me, a stone resolute to sink.

He locked the bathroom door to take a shit, and we never kissed again. Eventually I gave in and dressed myself.

There’s something here for me, I remember thinking in the miserable silent car ride with him after, there’s something here I want. And not just him, but the sinking itself. Yes, I wept much of the month after that, but also wrote in emails to friends of the beast I’d felt swell in me that I didn’t want to let go, the weird power I’d had flailing against his back.

“Running into the brick wall,” my friend Bari called it, “once you do it, it becomes very hard to stop.” Because, I began to see, I liked it. I liked watching my anxious grip on power loosen, the restrained, disciplined part of me die off and open to something else.

“Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego),” writes Julia Kristeva[2], “it’s an alchemy that transforms death drive in a start of life, of new significance.” That night, begging Noah, I began to learn of this resurrection— scraped along his rug, his bed, his couch, I left a self behind, a self who was attached to control and containment. I made a joke to a friend about my Christ moment, called it “my resurrection” the first morning I felt able to meet her for coffee. But the metaphor ended well: as a Jew mostly unfamiliar with the symbols and rituals of Christ, I began to see something in prostration.


Lately I’ve been reading medieval female Christian mystics. For a lot of reasons, but the way they lie down is one. I mean lie down as in prostrate, as in give over control. These women have no power in the patriarchal Christian church of the time, though they may gain it through prostration.

Here’s what I mean: tracing across the stories of several Western European women who became known as mystics in the Middle Ages, it becomes clear that their narratives revolve around debasement before G-d, becoming a tool in G-d’s hands, etc. The English mystic Margery Kempe took this so far as to stop all sexual interactions with her husband so as to have “deeper intimacy” and (what her visions depicted as) “marital relations” with G-d.  

Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, wrote often of commands she received from G-d. When she restrained herself from speaking these commands to others (passing on G-d’s will, as she phrased it), she is said to have experienced immense physical pain in her body. Her pains are recorded as part of what led to her eventual recognition as a mystic: the pains as G-d’s way of indicating that she should speak on G-d’s behalf. Though her woman’s voice wasn’t welcome in the larger Catholic Church, when she frames it as the voice of G-d coming through her, she was allowed it.

“But I am always filled with a trembling fear, as I do not know for certain of any single capacity in me,” she writes, “Yet I stretch out my hands to G-d, so that, like a feather which lacks all weight and strength and flies through the wind, I may be borne up by him.”[3] Scholars observe that her purported lack of significance and willingness to give herself over is what convinced church authorities that she was speaking the word of G-d, and worthy of beatification.

So prostration becomes power. In both Hildegard and Kempe’s cases, as with others, the mystic’s relationship with divinity creates more capacity than the mystic believes or states herself to have on her own—spiritually, intellectually, and also economically.

Scholar Elizabeth Spearing studies the texts and lives of these women. Of Christine the Astonishing, raised in a cow-herding family in Belgium, Spearing writes, “a woman who three or four centuries later would have been burned as a witch, who nowadays might have been on medication, in an institution, or even living rough, in the Middle Ages moved from cows to castle, an honored and valued member of her community.”[4]

The witch hunts of Europe were still to come, as was later carceral institutionalization of people deemed mentally ill, but already in this time period we had the narrative of women as irrational emotional beings who should be kept out of important decisions and positions of power. What’s fascinating here is that by pegging this “irrationality” to a male-dominated idea of G-d, mystics like Christine were able to subvert the suppression of their voices.

Over her lifetime Christine came to be positioned as a famous and valuable asset to her town. Spearing writes,

It has to be remembered when reading works which celebrate the lives and miracles of holy people that the local community and their clergy and religious houses stood to gain not only spiritually but also financially from the presence of such a figure in their midst, dead or alive. A well-known saint or relic could and did bring large numbers of pilgrims in search of help for their bodies and souls, and often a good holiday. Their money helped the local economy and church coffers.

Christine the Astonishing came to hold economic value through her purported debasement—her manic periods of living in trees and rivers, her wild raving in conversation with the voice of G-d. Instead of being considered crazy or dangerous, she was championed as a self given up to power.  


In a recording of her life written by a male priest on her behalf, Margery Kempe is said to have prayed: “If it were your will, Lord, I would for your Love, and for the magnifying of your name, be chopped up as small as meat for the pot.”[5] To be made into something meaty: I think of Noah here, his name biblically prescient, the first man to pull me open. I think of throwing my flushed skin toward him, how I got to be made into meat in that moment, and didn’t even need his agreement to do so. The way he turned his back, actually, was what it made it possible for me to let go of a version of myself.  

Alicia Ostriker on Sylvia Plath: “Of course I too wanted annihilation.”[6]  

I don’t aspire to be burned at the stake or stick my head in the oven, but I do like to lose myself, go liquid in the face of power.

Speaking of liquid, my favorite part about Christine the Astonishing: Once, she’d run away from town in order to avoid being chained to a post by those who considered her possessed by the devil. She was starving in the forest, but is said to have begun to give forth breast milk spontaneously, which she then survived on for 9 days before returning home. This event was recorded as a miracle and a sign from G-d that she should remain alive.

But this didn’t last long. She freaked people out a lot. After she climbed to the church rafters screaming and batting at the birds living there, she was bound to a stake by her family and said to have been fed “like a dog with nothing but a little bread and water.” She became quite “feeble and faint” in this state, and another miracle occurred: “her maidenly breasts began to flow with a liquid which was the sweetest oil; and she took it and spread it on her bread to flavor it, and used it as a soup and as an ointment, anointing the wounds of her festering limbs with it.”

Christine’s captors wept and let her go.

Note the beastliness of this, how her female-ness in its capacity to nurture children becomes, G-d-like, a closed loop in which she can nurture, feed, survive upon herself. The scholar Spearing, again:

Their gender meant that by definition these women were weak; many of them suffered from lengthy periods of illness, and yet they found ways to turn their weakness into strength. They were able to manipulate their families, their confessors and other bystanders into serving them, they gained status and influence in their communities, they founded religious houses and reproved and advised people at every level of society.

As a white Jewish woman brought up to survive on independence and self-control, I’m compelled by this example of a different kind of power: weakness as subversive strength, vulnerability as an opening toward something much greater than patriarchal power. I read Hildegard, Christine and Kempe as permission.

Permission to consider prostration a choice, that I might be able to interact with men—even, occasionally, be hurt by them—and still retain power. That instead of attempting only withdrawn control, I could play fully on the stage of power dynamics, and survive.


The first time I related to Jesus was at his birthplace. Twenty-two and newly traveling on my own, I’d gone with friends to cross the border from Israel to the Palestinian territories, to spend Christmas in the in the church of the Nativity. The womb-like church air fell around us, fogging the globe lights and chandeliers, throngs tugging us in the line toward the altar.

As we neared it the crowd pushed from behind, the smell of sweat, frankincense and myrrh thickening everything. I remember points of red light and candles, and staying extra close to Dave, the man who had already turned his body toward me, although no words had passed between us about our mutual static. A press of five Jews toward the altar of baby Jesus, we didn’t bow or make prayer hands in front of it, though we did take the taper candles offered and place them in front of a Jesus statue, where they quickly melted against the others inside a large urn filled with sand.

I probably wasn’t supposed to, but I took a few photos there. One of the photos is mostly filled with the marble of the altar and hands reaching, the light toward the metal star said to be the precise spot of Jesus’ birth. In the corner of the photo, light shines onto the edge of Dave’s sleeve and a piece of his neck. 

Later I’d place my palm on this neck. Later we all five piled onto one big bed in our coats, in a cold, bare, hostel on a bare mattress. Once everyone else fell asleep around us, he and I pulled closer, and I could feel his stare in the dark. I placed my hand to his neck so he would know: the sweat of my palm the first acknowledgement. We kissed furtively in the dark that way, between everyone else’s elbows.

I think that’s how it happened, or that’s how I remember it. The sweat, the cold, a sudden flash of fear knowing I’d given something over to him by meeting his lips—the oldest story about sex, giving it up. The wordlessness of us wrapping together as it crept toward Christmas morning and bells began to ring, and we all rustled apart.

He and I did not make eye contact for the rest of the day. It snowed on the streets, and for all of us that day was the first time—ever—that we danced joyously to Christmas music. I danced with everyone but him, though there was a riptide now, a hallway between us that I knew I’d have to walk down.

“Intimacy builds worlds,” writes Lauren Berlant, “it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation.”

We had set out to be friends, Dave and I, and we had set out to Bethlehem to “discover Jesus,” as we’d called it, hoping to understand something about devotion and Christ. But those between-elbow kisses, and more later, in Jerusalem, where he was studying Jewish thought. Where he would give me very intense eye contact while telling me I was the most special woman he’d ever met. 

This fixation on exceptionalism—to be like no one else—made sense for someone as fascinated with the study of religion as he was. Not to mention our millennial births, our precious liberal arts educations, manic pixie dream girls, etc. For so many reasons, it was the best thing he could do to call me most special, to place me on a pedestal of self-contained remarkableness.

And when after a few months he ended it, saying I was the most exciting relationship he’d ever had but “the timing” was off, I would feel first frustration but then a softening, a mud puddle sliding from the pedestal. For a short relationship it didn’t feel appropriate to mourn hard, but I found myself picking at it, writing him longer emails than needed, asking for more and more explanation of why he didn’t want me anymore.

“Is it play acting or possibly perversion?” asks Kristeva about the draw to hold on to abjection—abject, from the Latin, that specific combination staying with the piteous, sinking into a position of debasement, to keep oneself re-jected, thrown away.

Kristeva argues that abjection is more than a perversion or roleplay. It is “better than that,” she writes, “a yearning after meaning together with its absorption, ingestion, digestion, and rejection.” It is the desire to stay fully with an experience, including its downsides, to fully process an experience and be changed by it. For me: to take in what was made by that kiss on Christmas Eve and to see the way it altered me, then us, and then just me again. Instead of needing to hold my particular specialness, to perceive myself as overwhelmingly malleable, remade.

I think of Boris Pasternak writing Olga Freidenberg of their long-term, on-again-off-again always-confusing relationship: “You can never understand how you yourself, expanding, entered into me as a distant, distant debt.”[7]

This debt is one of possibility: a relation with the other that expands one’s insides. This is how I felt that night pounding on Noah, and how I felt hearing soon after our breakup that Dave had said to many other women how they were the most special, the most unusual, how’d he’d never felt this way…versions of that same line, and for years.

I felt debased initially, made small, manipulated. But also, in sharing this experience came a power: shared knowledge with other former partners of his, an absorption into a larger known narrative about romantic manipulation. A kind of knowledge I couldn’t have gained if he had been honest with me—met me eye to eye.

Margery Kempe writes that she “gave thanks and praise to our Lord Jesus Christ for the high grace and mercy that he showed to her, unworthy wretch.” More than ten years later, I’m ready to thank Dave for the way I felt pressed down. Because it took me someplace bigger, where I didn’t want to be put on that pedestal, most special. To a place where I could understand myself as part of an extremely common experience, a broad, open landscape.

“If we are to have a sense of the other that is not projective or selfish,” writes Luce Irigaray, “we have to attain an intuition of the infinite.”[8] As in Noah’s bed, when a sense of loss coursed through me so large, my sadness suddenly infinite, not exclusively my own.

And as in a few months later when I met Emma, a willowy-tall woman I watched carefully fold herself into the passenger’s seat of my car. I didn’t know Emma yet, but a friend hosting a mid-summer potluck had asked me to pick her up on my way there. Emma had a slow smile and active hands, and was gracefully accepting when I quickly got us lost on what should have been a fifteen-minute drive. Eventually I U-turned and we spent our first hour together in traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike: plenty of time to get into our recent break-ups.

“He said I wasn’t ready for him, not mature enough.” She slid her hands under her thighs and rocked slightly. “But at the same time he’s flirting with this other woman who’s even younger than me.” She shook her head. “I guess it’s just not actually about me.” I nodded vigorously. By the time we arrived at the potluck, we were bonded for life. Before we went in, we bowed our heads together in my parked car, our hands clutched together over the emergency brake. 

In that moment my breakup served a larger utility: It connected me to Emma, and, later, to others—a “distant debt” that by its very yawning open made room for new connections, other functions—as in Berlant: “intimacy creates spaces and usurps places.” Places, new worlds that established their foundation because of the “distant debt” before them.  


I’m tired of looking at the woman broken-up-with as pathetic. I’m tired of a story that stops there. I’m tired of a white feminism that insists on self-sufficiency and cuts itself off from engagement with risk and interdependent forms of power.  

For those of us white women who already hold so much control, I’m interested in a playful, even perverse sense of power, that sometimes means giving something up in order to play the game, knowing perhaps that it’s a long game, even a historical one.

I think here of Francesca Lisette, a poet and mystic (astrologer and tarot reader) herself, who argues for what she calls “revolutionary tenderness,” which, she writes, “signifies ‘the negation of negation.’” What does this mean? Lisette argues for a kind of caring politics which, rather than attack or blame another, seeks to offer care and inclusion with its revolutionary framework.

“In reaching for an affective politics,” she writes, “I ask that we make ourselves sociologically weaker.” This is the negation of the negation—the sense that by making oneself weaker (or, from Irigaray, “more porous”), one allows more to occur and thus negates the initial stance of weakness.

As a cis-white woman who relates with mostly cis-white men, I am trained well to be angry when I am manipulated or my voice suppressed. But I am excited by what else can happen around a knowledge of these patterns. I am excited by swimming around male power, playing with what it wants to do to me and turning it into something I want, splashing it back or, as poet Philip Metres writes, “Not drowning, but flailing up. 

Poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn writes, “Lisette calls for an active revaluing of the gendered position of tenderness, for a tenderness that escapes its patriarchal value.” The tender: the sore spot where one has been hurt before and could be hurt again easily. In regards to heartbreak, I think of a tenderness that escapes male power by being peremptorily motivated to accept the debased position.

I think again of how Christine the Astonishing had oil spring from her breasts: she (literally) expresses an over-the top capacity to nurture via a traditionally (dis-empowered) female role of breastfeeding, but in that same act gains her freedom, power over and from the structures of the Church and of her village. 

Audre Lorde writes: “The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.”[9] When she feeds on the oil of her own breasts, Christine the Astonishing invokes the erotic and simultaneously dashes the patriarchal hope: that which is expressed from her breasts is not for the survival of another, but solely for her own. Pressed down upon, she does not break—she gives in for the expression of a new form.


[1] Scott, Gail, Glück, Robert & Roy, Camille. (Eds.). (2004). Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Toronto, Canada: Coach House Books.

[2] Kristeva, Julia. (1982) Powers of Horror. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[3] Dronke, Peter. (1984) Women Writers of the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Spearing, Elizabeth (2002) Medieval Writings on Female Spirituality. New York, NY: Penguin.

[5] Kempe, Margery. (1985) The Book of Margery Kempe. New York, NY: Penguin.

[6] Ostriker, Alicia. (1983) Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

[7] Freidenberg, Olga & Pasternak, Boris (1982). The correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg 1910-1954. London, UK: Secker & Warburg.

[8] Irigaray, Luce. (1982) An Ethics of Sexual Difference. London, UK: A & C Black.

[9] Lorde, Audre. (1978) The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Brooklyn, N.Y: Out & Out Books.

For me the speculative is the connective, the relational—the insistence on drawing together: of historic and contemporary, or contemporary between genres and settings and contradiction. What's speculative to me is the imagination engaged: participating fully and performing what adrienne maree brown references when she says that all organizing is science fiction. In the speculative I draw on what I see to make what I haven't seen, whether this is performed by following the language in and through a set of my own obsessions, by following the thread of writers who've written in the world I'm writing into, or by believing toward something until a set of threads can make it true. I write speculatively here in this essay in the sense that I am speculating toward the ethics of the submissive, of the abject, of the head held high while down. I am obsessed with thinking about giving in, but giving in as a full and responsible political agent. A friend recently introduced me to Jared Sexton, who says: "So the powers that be are within us not in the sense that they are internalized and thus need to be externalized like you eliminate impurities—there are no purities or impurities—but rather in the sense that they constitute us, and so any move against them is a move against ourselves. How do you move against yourself? It is like trying to relax." This is speculation, to me: trying to relax, with no illusion that pure relaxation is possible.

Leora Fridman.jpg

Leora Fridman is author of My Fault, selected by Eileen Myles for the Cleveland State University Press First Book Prize, in addition to other books of prose, poetry and translation. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Millions, Open Space, Art Practical, and the New York Times. She’s currently based in Mexico City, where she is a 2019–2020 Fulbright research fellow to Mexico. More at leorafridman.com.


by Daniel Schonning

The speculative essay, as far as I hope to use it, insists itself into spaces otherwise barred from the craft.

Last year, the United States dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on Afghanistan. It was the largest non-nuclear device ever used in combat. Its technical name was GBU-43/B, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb—the latter being the result of some weapon developer’s clumsy lexical acrobatics to reach the acronym M-O-A-B. Pope Francis said of the weapon, “I was ashamed when I heard the name… A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?”


The ones that named the bomb were American men, but they think of “mother” in much the way Arab mothers do. In Cairo or Amman, you can hear them call their children Mama. Mama because they speak to absence: Mama as in qelb Mama, mother’s heart; Mama as in hayaa Mama, mother’s life. Mama because they speak to an audience that hears what they mean, that can feel their way through the web of their absent words to arrive at the same place. Mama because, by saying nothing, they say all of it at once.

The men that made “MOAB” were speaking to absence, too; “mother” as in “motherfucker,” as in “mother look at me,” “mother never was.” This, too, all at once.

What is going on?


The Enola Gay is likely the most infamous military plane in history. It carried the atom bomb to Hiroshima—the next step up from MOAB. At least 75,000 people died instantly when the bomb struck and at least another 75,000 died in the twenty-four hours to follow. Think of the mothers. All that absence.

Paul Tibbets was the man tasked with flying the plane. Enola Gay was his mother’s name.




Decades after the event, Paul Tibbets gave an interview about the moments following the explosion. “…as I look up there the whole sky is lit up in the prettiest blues and pinks I've ever seen in my life. It was just great.

“…I tell people I tasted it. When I was a child, if you had a cavity in your tooth, the dentist put some mixture of some cotton and lead into your teeth and pounded them in with a hammer. I learned that if I had a spoon of ice-cream and touched one of those teeth, I got this electrolysis and I got the taste of lead out of it. And I knew right away what it was.”

One day, Enola Gay Tibbets must have settled her child into the rear seat of the driver’s-side of her car and taken him to the dentist, stopping at intersections and waving to neighbors along the way. Sometime after, she must have bought him ice cream. What flavor was it? Did they laugh?

It was just great.

The bomb was called “Little Boy.”


My grandfather, Gunnar Schonning Sr., was serving in the battle of Okinawa just before “Little Boy” dropped. My father relayed the story to me in an e-mail, with a link to a collection of declassified Navy documents:

9.24.2016; “grandpa gunnar”

I happened to be looking for things in the past and came upon this.
You may already have seen it, for all I know. I may have, too.
It is about the USS Halligan that was sunk in World War II at Okinawa. Grandpa Gunnar was on this ship.
He is listed in the roster. Both before the sinking and after (as wounded). The official account of the men in the boiler room-forward (where grandpa was) is not in line with his account. I am most certain that his account was the true one as the official account makes the survival of these men appear orderly and accountable.
What also interests me is the officer who was sickened by the deck of the ship that was strewn with the body parts of so many men.
I remember grandpa when he got drunk (seldom but usually on Christmas Eve when there was a shop party at work and when we were due at his hateful parents’ house for dinner). He would be in that engine room and then on the deck and he saw the head of someone who was his friend.
Anyway, Grandpa was twenty-five years old at the time. The war was to end in months with the bombing of Hiroshima.


Alfrida Schonning, too, must have driven Gunnar Sr. to the dentist, stopping at intersections and waving to neighbors along the way. The lead in those fillings could have just as easily been weights, boats, bullets. When the Halligan struck a sea-mine, could he taste the blast? What flavor was it?

It was just great.




My father included, “You may already have seen it, for all I know” in his letter, as I haven’t spoken to him in fifteen years. He included, “I may have, too” because he is an addict and a drunk. In some 500 messages that he has sent in the meantime, moreover, he has not mentioned Alfrida Schonning once.

Mama because, by saying nothing, they say all of it at once.


Biblical Paul Tibbets bound
for Dimashq


Brilliant billowing
Pillar of fire

rattling his
teeth to the root.


After emigrating to the United States from Denmark, a young Gunnar Schonning Sr. frequented Connecticut lakes and swimming holes. Even then, he could hold his breath for some three minutes. As the story goes, he would ask other boys to stand on his stomach while he laid back-down in the silt, immersed. A young Gunnar Schonning asked that they only let him come up for air when he tapped their ankles. He would send onlooking parents or lifeguards into a frenzy—“You’re drowning him!”—only for him to surface, unbothered.


Think of the moment that “Little Boy” was conceived—straight from the minds of men, into to the womb of Enola Gay. Think of it growing, moving: Hanger to carrier; carrier to the open air, six miles aloft. For days, “Little Boy” is nestled in Enola’s dark. Then, the bare metal doors crack open by degrees; light washes over the cold body. Think of it born—right on time.

All at once.


“Fire,” within its myriad meanings, has myriad roots. A recent ancestor is the Old High German, fiur. Another, used when referring to fire as an animate, life-giving force (read: water or air), is egni, the source of Latin “ignis,” or later the English “ignition.” When applied to “fire” as an inanimate object (read: tool) the dominant root is paewr, a Proto-Indo-European word. P-A-E-W-R.

For reference, the firepower of MOAB was eleven tons. The firepower of “Little Boy” was fifteen kilotons.




Rainer Maria Rilke—

O would that
I were a boy once again, with my life before me, and could sit
leaning on future arms and reading of Samson,
how his mother bore first nothing, then all.

First nothing, then all. The “Mother of All—" Read how Gilgamesh suffered all and accomplished all.

Gilgamesh’s name—more rightly, “Bilgamesh”—translates to “The Ancestor is a Young Man.”

What is going on?


On holidays or birthdays, packages would arrive at my childhood home from Gunnar Schonning Jr. containing absurd and often useless gifts. He must have bought them when out of his mind, on a bender, watching late-night infomercials. In one box, the patent-pending “Egg-stractor,” for deshelling hard-boiled eggs; in the other, a guillotine-like device for slicing bagels, and the collected works of Philip Levine. He did not know what he was doing.

Via e-mail, the trend persists. Rather than kitchen oddities, he sends a piece on Camus by the Paris Review; a job offer for grading test scores remotely, that pays “over ten an hour to start”; a message with the header “I know this guy from AA,” with a dead link to an article entitled “Man Jailed for Allegedly Shooting at Tree.” Once, he evoked Simone Weil.

5.18.2017 “affliction”

I no longer work at the university.
I don't miss it at all, except the work with plants and trees and grass. I found that to be gratifying. I
love the long leaf pine. When there is a high, severe clear blue ocean sky here (as there frequently
is—the light is the best thing about this place) and you look at it through the green needles of the
long leaf pine, well. I would like my death bed dragged out under one.

Things don't work out like that.
Simone Weil (and a book by Russell Banks) said that the mystery of life isn't suffering but affliction.
Affliction is the indescribable humiliation of the surreal pains of life.
She was so smart.

3/9/50 is my birthday. Born in Greenwich, CT.
I sure don't want to die in NC.
I do not like this place.


Biblical Samson finds a counterpart in the Greek Herakles. There are myriad online forums, largely populated by fundamentalist Christians and would-be academics, that do their best to claim that the former inspired the latter. The comparison is sensible—superhuman strength, flowing locks, tragic ends, etc.—but any real connection is tenuous.

Depending on whether you believe the account of the Bibliotheca or Euripides, Herakles either killed his children—Therimachus, Creontiades, and Deicoon—or his family entire—Therimachus, Creontiades, Deicoon, and Megara (their mother). According to both the Bibliotheca and Euripides, Herakles was under Hera’s spell at the time—he did not know what he was doing.


Long before it was an acronym, “Moab” was a name—a figure in Genesis. Though its etymology is contested, scholars are agreed that the name is some variation on “seed of the father;” “mo”—from, “ab”—father.

What is going on?


Aboard the USS Halligan, Gunnar Schonning Sr. was a petty officer, classified as both F1, or “fireman first class,” and WT2c, or “watertender second class.” The titles were more or less interchangeable—both responsible for tending to the fires and boilers in the ship’s engine room, which is where Gunnar was when the Halligan was “ripped skyward” by the mine.

Of those in the engine room, he was the only to survive. He held his breath, swam through the tear made by the blast. Tending fire, nestled in his dark—the bare metal wound opens by degrees. Light enters all at once.


Meantime, Oedipal Paul Tibbets

tends to child.




According to the biblical account, Moab lived some four thousand years ago; he was the son of Lot. As Lot and his family fled the destruction of Sodom—“Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire”—Lot’s wife, the mother of his daughters, looked back on the city and turned to a pillar of salt. With alternative pious women lacking, Moab was born of Lot by incest with his eldest daughter—hence the former name’s etymology.

Per Genesis, Lot was drunk during the conception—he did not know what he was doing.


5.20.2017; “nuclear tunnels”

I have a cold.
Did I tell you it looks like I'll be a security guard out at the nuclear power plant? Sleep soundly tonight, America! Trump is the President of the USA and Gunnar is guarding fissionable material that can melt a hole from Wilmington to the other side of the earth. I am planning to facilitate such a hole so I can jump into it and get the hell out of NC.


In the late 16th century, in another moment of lexical acrobatics, a group of men turned “fire”—with its myriad meanings and myriad roots—into a verb. Sometime around 1588, the Anglo-Spanish sea battles resulted in a revolution in naval tactics that promoted more cannon use and less ramming and boarding. In this moment, “fire” departed from its roots in noun and found new life in verb—a command—“FIRE”—and in so doing was made fully inanimate; fully absent.


Biblical Moab was the progenitor of the Moabites, who—in turn—founded the kingdom Moab. For centuries, it thrived east of the River Jordan, where today mothers call their children Mama.




Simone Weil, too, spoke to absence. For Weil, absence is a smattering of wounds that hollow a person out, one atom at a time, until God can ease inside—feet-first—like a child crawls into a snowdrift.

On God, she wrote, “For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun.”

All at once.

The speculative essay, as far as I hope to use it, insists itself into spaces otherwise barred from the craft. Essays of all kinds, of course, essai—attempt, question, exceed their forms even as they build them. By offering yet more license for inference and invention, speculation allows reader and writer to plot those usual threads beyond where they end. Speculation in reference to history, as this issue has occasioned, reinvigorates the phantom limb of what’s past; offers a glimpse through the keyhole of that otherwise closed door. I hope that my piece does so for history of all kinds—communal, personal, and imagined.

Daniel Schonning.jpg

Daniel Schonning is an MFA candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as an associate editor at Colorado Review and the assistant director of the Creative Writing Reading Series. He was a finalist for the Puerto del Sol 2019 Poetry Contest, the 2019 Pinch Literary Awards, and the 2018 Indiana Review Poetry Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from Guesthouse, the Pinch Journal, Sycamore Review, and Seneca Review.

Let Me Recite What History Teaches

Text by Heidi Stalla
Sound Design by Diana Chester
Special Contributions by Cora Ceipek

I am standing here, behind a makeshift podium, imagining Gertrude Stein in the summer of 1926, standing behind a podium at the Cambridge Literary Club, half obscured by a jug of roses, and reading from her lecture, “Composition as Explanation” to a small following of undergraduates.  The lecture is nonlinear, it disrupts conventional notions of time, and compares the evolution of World War I warfare to the role of Modernism in the evolution of the Arts.  “There is singularly nothing that makes a difference,” she begins,

a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking.  By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

Perhaps it is Stein’s attention to words, nouns, pronouns, even verbs, as entities so powerful that they can almost exactly summon to mind everything and anything we see and hear and touch regardless of the year or century that led her to write in the continuous present.  Her language, full of time-sense, creates a spirit of the age that refuses to be dismembered from its historical body.  I believe in representations, and I find myself composing a word portrait of Stein for my students, thinking that what she looked and sounded like could help flesh out her words, her mind, her meaning.  For one, Stein’s biographer tells us matter-of-factly that as a young medical student at the turn of the century she went uncorseted: “big and floppy and sandaled and not caring a damn.”  To her lover, Alice B. Toklas, Stein “was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair,” and her voice was “unlike anyone else's voice—deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto's, like two voices.”  Like two voices!  Contraltos, the lowest female voice part, are rare, falling between tenor and mezzo-soprano; so rare, I read, that some people today deny that contraltos actually exist.  Sometimes, men, counter tenors, are hired in place of contraltos, and I wonder whether to Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s two voices meant that she heard in her lover perfect oscillation, sweet sound between interchangeable male and female tones, two essences vibrating like a cat’s purr:  pure, and without equivocation.

As I read Stein’s voice out loud, I am thinking about how to explain the lecture to my own literature students almost 100 years later, who are eager writers themselves.  When Stein talks about composition she means a few things:  she means art, specifically modernist art; she means her own avant-garde writing and the way she arranges words spatially and sonically to make meaning, and she means the composition of war—specifically the design of battle: war strategies that had to evolve in real time to match modern warfare and technologies.  Lord Grey, she says, “remarked that when the generals before the war talked about the war they talked about it as a nineteenth century war although to be fought with twentieth century weapons.  That is because war is a thing that decides how it is to be when it is done—just as the modernist impulse is a thing determined to see and describe the world exactly as it is, fragmented, in flux.  War accelerates change, and this is the same from generation to generation.  Whether the Great War closing 1918, or the MeToo movement opening 2018, it is crisis, as Stein notes, that creates rupture compelling artists and politicians and public intellectuals to make a choice to either embrace things that are new and different and odd in their generation, or else to widen the trenches between fact and perception: in simple today speak to court alternative fact.     

To see truly—it is this quality that I find myself thinking about in my own time as I imagine Stein and as I mull over her lecture.  She went uncorseted in spirit as well as body, never prevaricating in any aspect of life or love or art.  Perhaps Stein didn’t mean to be explaining the nature of truth to the Cambridge Literary Club when she was talking to them about beginnings, middles, and endings, but from my vantage point, facing a generation born around the time that Bill Clinton didn’t inhale, and coming to age just in time to cast their ballots for or against a president who lies about voter fraud, boasts about the size of his inaugural audience, and claims to have seen thousands of people cavorting on rooftops to celebrate 9/11, this is the angle from which I am looking.  At first it seems counterintuitive to read Stein as a beacon of clarity, however, the seeming slipperiness of Stein’s language is essential to the candor of a vision that seeks to enlarge the truth: for all of her experiments disrupting sound and sight on the page, Stein is a proponent of straight talk.  Her witticisms and word play open up possibilities precisely because they invite the widening of the senses from beginning to middle to end.  Stein pairs clarity of sight with direct and pared-down speech when she writes, “There is no blindness where the talk is cheap, a version of her more famous line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” from her poem, “Sacred Emily”.  In the age of Homer, Stein explained, a poet could use the name of a thing and the thing itself was really there.  Well, time and politics have intervened so that the inverse now is true.

In the age of Trump, our debates about language have very little to do with composition, or craftsmanship, or a part’s meticulous relationship to the whole, but we do return again and again to conversation about impending wars, fake news, and alternative facts.  Language is not birdsong to be interpreted from the ether, but instead we chase shrill and broken tweets that race around a threatening virtual reality.  Perhaps we are traversing a fault line that first began with the invention of this virtual reality; the internet, in its garnering of a space more concerned with semblance than true essence, represents the sort of change in modern composition we would do well to really see and understand.  For now its simulated environment performs the antithesis of Stein’s continuous present, where a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.  In virtual reality, “thinginess” is merely symbolic, and it becomes easy to insist that the truth, any truth at all, doesn’t actually exist.  For now, we are living in contingency; any form of the past not caught verbatim on tape or in video footage evades, dodges, prevaricates, or as Donald Trump might have it relative to MbS—pussyfoots around. 

“There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi,” announces the American Secretary of State to the world.  Well, I can just about hear Stein’s response to the secretary; it would take the shape of a verbal portrait of the true likeness behind the secretary’s statement—which is not really about MbS at all, it’s entirely about President Trump.  But Stein’s portrait would use the president to represent something much more interesting, much more telling than Trump the man; she would answer with a verbal portrait of the figures at the heart of the debate.  What I have in mind here, is something in the style of her second portrait of Picasso, which other than the title, “If I told him: A completed portrait of Picasso” has little discernible physical resemblance to Picasso at all—much as Picasso’s painting of Stein was hardly representative of her.  In fact, in her poem, she never even mentions Picasso—she opens with repeated references to Napoleon, asking, “if I told him would he like it, would he like it if I told him.  Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.”  It doesn’t take much to see the connection between Picasso and Napoleon: they were both short men with big egos—Picasso emperor of modern art, and Napoleon, the soldier emperor of France.  By representing Picasso as Napoleon, Stein captures something of Picasso’s surround sound, so to speak; a reverberation that we could playfully extend to our self-styled emperors of today.  Let’s let Stein slip into the composition of this moment in time that Trump inhabits and influences and is both part and parcel of:


If I told him: A Completed Portrait of #45 

If I told him would he like it . Would he like it if I told him. 
Would he like it would he trump him would he trump him would would he like it.
If MbS if I BS if I told him if MbS. Would he like it if I trump him if I told him if MbS. Would he like it if I BS if MbS if I told him. If I told him if I BS if I BS if I told him. If I trump him would he like it would he like it if I BS.
Not now.
And now.
Exactly as as kings.
Feeling full for it.
Exactitude as kings.
So to impeach you as full as for it.
Exactly or as kings.
Shutters shut and open so do screens . Shutters shut and shutters and so shutters shut and shutters and so and so shutters and so shutters shut and so shutters shut and shutters and so. And so shutters shut and so and also. And also and so and so and also.
Exact resemblance to Jamal Khashoggi, the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly dismembering, exactly in resemblance exactly a dismemberance, exactly and rememberance. For this is so. Because.
Now actively repeat at all, now actively repeat at all, now actively repeat at all.
Have hold and hear, actively repeat at all.
I judge judge .
As a dismembering him.
Who comes first. Trump the first.
Who comes too coming coming too, who goes there, as they go they share, who shares all, all is as all as as yet or as yet.
Now to date now to hate. Now and now and date and the date.
Who came first Khashoggi at first. Who came first MbS the first. Who came first, America first.

The thing is, in the age of Trump, a dismembered body is not a body is not a body is not a body.  An audio tape is not a tape is not a tape is not a tape.  A murder is not a murder is not a murder is not a murder.  A king is not a king is not a king is not a king.  A smoking gun is not in flagrante delicto.

It is the way you are looking, Stein says across her podium, that affects the way life is conducted, and this way of looking at any one moment is what makes up a composition.  Using the language of the creative process, Stein is asking each generation to bear witness to their present moment in real time, to realize what that other modernist Virginia Woolf said, that while words are useless they are the only thing that matter.  We must not allow advances in today’s technology to outpace our means of using them, but instead figure out how to maintain the richness of composition, of the natural arcs of beginnings, middles, and endings, of words that tell human stories that lead to meaning.  Aristotle told us generations ago that if words have no meaning then our reasoning with one another, and indeed with ourselves, has been annihilated.

Play fairly.
Play fairly well.
A well.
As well.
As or as presently.
Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.


Text and Audio Sources:


Smith, Samuel Francis, and Unidentified Band. America. [Edison, 1914] Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010370/>.

Novello, Ivor, and Frederick Wheeler. Keep the Home Fires Burning. Edison, Orange, N.J, monographic, 1916. Audio. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/00694067/>.

Vanderlip, Frank A., Spk, Nation'S Forum Collection, and A.F.R. Lawrence Collection. One Hundred Million Soldiers. [New York: Nation's Forum, 1918] Pdf. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2004650678/>.







“Let Me Recite What History Teaches” is about speculation in all its forms: it thinks about what Gertrude Stein meant about history and time in her essay, “Composition as Explanation”; it plays with, in both form and content, the nature of collaboration and the invisible sounds and influences that underscore any published work; and finally, it uses Stein’s sense of a continuous present to highlight how history and characters repeat through time, in this case right up to the moment of last year’s questions and prevarications about the brutal facts surrounding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

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Diana bio.jpg

Heidi Stalla (text) is a literature scholar and nonfiction writer interested in the play between modernist texts and contemporary issues.  She has a BA from Stanford and a DPhil from Oxford, and teaches literature and creative writing at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.  

Diana Chester (sonic composition) is an interdisciplinary multimedia artist and Digital Media Scholar. Her work draws from sound studies, archival studies, and the ethnographic study of expressive culture in religious festivals and traditions. Chester is fascinated by patterns in sound and the relationship in the formal qualities of different mediums. This gives organization to her work and informs her compositional approach. Diana is a visiting scholar at TISCH School of the Arts at New York University, and holds a Lectureship in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney.

Enter Time, The Chorus

by Lesley Jenike

“Enter Time, the Chorus” wants to know what happens when I applique my experience on top of historical time. It wants to know how art and literature became material presences in my life and how they shape my view of history—both with a systemic H and a personal h.

“The best understanding of a work is always to be gotten from the work itself.” –Kenneth Koch

 When an actor leaves the stage, she enters the ineffable. Her story continues, only there aren’t any words for it.

I suppose you might see the unsayable as a weakness, the totemic as lifeless. You might think it’s the vibrant motion of a visible narrative that keeps art alive. You might believe it’s too easy to end in ellipses, literarily or figuratively, and that to do so would suggest the story begins and ends with you.


Poet Louise Glück has her gripes with hazy endings. She writes, “The void itself, the tremulous incipience of the ellipsis notwithstanding, has a strangely burgher-like stolidity,” giving a thick, weighty shape to the nothingness—as if it were an unsmashable statue, maybe.

At the end of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, poor, wronged Hermione has become nothing, that is, a statue. Forgiveness is impossible. Any apologies Leontes might make break against her like waves. But that’s not the whole story. The play ends in a sort of ellipses…a last, enigmatic gesture in Arden’s gigantic Complete Works of Shakespeare. It reads,

Good Paulina,
Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand, and answer to his part
Perform’d in this wide gap of time, since first
We were dissever’d: hastily lead away. Exeunt

Shakespeare commences with his magic and Hermione is human again, the broken family is reunited, and life goes on. “Lead us from hence,” Leontes says, “where we may leisurely / Each one demand, / and answer to his part….” meaning, after the actors have left the stage they will continue to talk, to explain, to describe what happened during that “wide gap of time,” only they’ll do it without us, far away from here, in an undetermined future we can’t see. In effect, The Winter’s Tale goes on and on, because even though the actor has disappeared, the play itselzf has not. The play knows and the play may or may not say.

Let’s say I am the play.  


In 1962 Niki de Saint Phalle propped up a plaster Venus on-stage and shot at it until paint splattered all over its face, its breasts, its armless torso—Bang! Bang!—in a play about the making or remaking of a city, the city of Boston precisely, which was, in actuality, built during what scientists call the Little Ice Age—a change in climate that lasted the length of the seventeenth century, and likely longer.

The Little Ice Age ushered in unusual meteorological events. The salinity of the ocean changed. Strong storms rose up at odd times of the year. Bodies of water iced over when they hadn’t before, and for longer stretches when they did.

Boston may have helped to bring about the Little Ice Age, with assistance of course from the small pox epidemic that preceded it, dislocations, relocations, massacres. Naturally there were geologic and astrophysical reasons for the seventeenth century’s unusually cold winters, but let’s not underestimate the human effect. Let’s not minimize the structural forces grinding out across the planet that made Boston possible.

Boston was built in the coldness of time, not its fullness.

 In 1962, long, long after the Little Ice Age ended and our Long Hot Age began, the poet Kenneth Koch wrote a play called The Construction of Boston in which Robert Rauchenberg, Jean Tinguely, and Nikki de Saint Phalle in a single day (shrunk down to an hour), contrive to make Boston using—what else?—their art! The artists played themselves.

History as a series of definable events—community-building as a series of constructions, not to mention the removal of native populations, the filling-in of marshland, land disturbances, tree harvesting, wildlife poaching, witch trials, births and deaths, ostracizations and welcomings, roof raisings and roof razings, immigrations and departures—

all these and more Koch eliminates in favor of art. All is redefined and reimagined as art. And not just any art, Robert Rauschenberg’s, Jean Tinguely’s, and Niki de Saint Phalle’s, de Saint Phalle who shot guns loaded with paint at her canvases, Rauschenberg who stuck a tire around a dead goat, and Tinguely who took junk and reanimated it, giving his machines pencils with which to make their own drawings.

In an hour or so—however long that singular 1962 performance was—the Puritans and Pequods, the whaling ships and Revere’s ride—all gave way to a revolutionary notion that we can change history, or at least subvert it, even the history of a place as old, rooted, and inescapable as Boston. One needn’t haul ass to California. One needn’t ride a steamer to Paris. One needn’t change her name, her hair color, her religion. One needn’t disappear into the brush. All one need do is make art and in making art, make a new city on top of the old one.

Somewhat later in time, in an operatic recreation of the original play, the opera itself steps onto the stage and sings, “I am the opera, here to explain myself!”

It’s not entirely unusual for an abstraction to tell a story. Shakespeare did it in The Winter’s Tale, imbuing Time with great ambivalence and a penchant for narrative, which is to be expected of Time:

“Time. I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that make and unfold error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings.” 

The Winter’s Tale was first performed in 1611, deep in the heart of that world-wide freeze. Among many other things, it’s a play about paranoia—a psychosis rampant in certain provinces during the Little Ice Age, notably the Massachusetts Bay Colony which saw America’s original witch hunt, progenitor of subsequent “witch hunts” played and playing out in our own Big Hot Age, or so I’m calling it because I don’t know if it has a name.

No one knew when or if the long winters would end. No one knew what to call it, this disruption in Time.


It’s 1996. Boston is buried under a foot of April Fool’s snow. I’m on the phone with my mother and I’m crying. “Are you ok?” she asks. “I know I shouldn’t hang up until I know you’re ok. Are you ok?” I’m crying. “Do I need to come up there? I don’t need to come up there, do I?”

It’s 2019. My daughter and I look down into a pond at the local plant nursery. Roiling koi practically crawl out of the water to gulp the fish food we throw at them, a dime-per-handful. My daughter asks me, “Where do the fish go in the winter?” And I say, “It’s like they become statues and freeze until it’s spring, then they thaw out again.”

A winter’s tale.

In Shakespeare’s story, Leontes believes his wife has cheated on him with his childhood friend and that the child his wife bears isn’t his, so he abandons her in a faraway country. How long does it take him to accept that his wife didn’t cheat and his daughter is his? According to Time the Chorus—sixteen years. According to theatrical time—maybe two hours.

We can quantify the Little Ice Age, say it began in a certain year and ended in another with a century in-between, but what is time to the mother frozen solid on an Amsterdam stoop, her baby in her arms? Motherhood is a time-fuck. It’s a play performed inside a walled garden on the greater property of historical time and geologic time. Our movements inside the garden are constrained, miniaturized. We populate our little plots of ground with sculpture and ephemera. If we’re lucky, there’s an old tree no one bothers to cut down.

Time is a chorus, which can mean a single narrator, as in The Winter’s Tale, or for ancient Greek dramatists it can mean a whole group of narrators speaking in unison, though the fact of their union is illusory. The chorus is a collection of people, each with their own minds, their own bodies, no matter how homogenous their society, how hammered down they might be by their mutual culture into identical, metal bowls. Time is of two minds, of three minds, of four, and so on.

It’s one thing for a universal property to announce itself, make known its intentions, then bungle our hope for Aristotelian unity, but what about the medium itself, speaking of itself?

I am the play and I’m here to explain myself.

At first, I thought I was an actor, so I went to Boston because New York was just too big. I needed to get the hell away from Cincinnati and my warring, divorced and perpetually divorcing parents.

You go to school “back East” is what they say, if you are of certain means with certain ambitions, but I wasn’t any good. Too much in your head, my instructors said. When during an improv exercise I pretended to look for a lost contact lens, I was nearly laughed out of the studio. Would it really fall all the way over there? I had no real sense of reality.

When I was made to give one classmate a massage or to fall backward into another classmate’s arms, I thought to myself, what ignominy! When I passed out during floor exercises in a movement class then woke to the teacher’s yellow, gnarled toenails by my face (Good to have you back), I knew I was probably dead, and how gross, and I was never going make it—it meaning a fruitful connection to the universe, fame, or a paying gig. 

I walked in circles trying to feel my chi. I huffed like a gorilla and trilled like a bird high up in my nasal cavities. I clung to a barre and lifted my leg several degrees lower than the optimum height. I sat on the floor of an old, wood-paneled classroom feeling like an Elizabethan kindergartener and listened to the palpably narcissistic dramaturgy professor dismantle everything I thought I knew about plays, about play. Why is it called a PLAY? It’s called a PLAY because we’re all just children PLAYING *mind blown mind blown mind blown*

I wasn’t cast in any of the shows, but word got around campus that I wrote. My acting coach seemed vindicated. Too much in her head. Makes sense. Actors need to be unsolidified and I was walking around with cement on my shoulders.


Hermione steps down from her pedestal and is a living, breathing woman again. Despite her reanimation, she never speaks directly to her husband Leontes who has accused her of infidelity. Forgiveness won’t come easily, and it may not even arrive in language, at least none that we’ll ever hear.

Sixteen unexplained, off-stage years have gone by, and we’re left wondering which she is—art or person, dead or alive, past or present. But despite sometimes being hidden, Time is still there, biding its time, and I’ll tell you what happened. I am the play, after all:

It took way more than sixteen years for my father and mother to sit down at the same table again. It took grandchildren’s bar mitzvas and graduations. It took old age and softening bodies. It took alcohol and fortitude. It took years of my life and my sister’s and brother’s lives spent in utter panic. It took careful calculation and the consideration of feelings so delicate they went mainly unremarked upon, only felt, like a storm still miles away. It took therapy on our part, not theirs, and three subsequent marriages. It took the loss of memory, and the gaining of it. It took work. And dead pets. And menopause. It took so much time. It took my mother on the floor of my Boston apartment in the mid-Nineties, prone on an air mattress like one of those stone effigies immobilized by her bad second marriage, her bad first marriage. It took the suppleness of Time for me to see my mother is actually just a hurt little girl and that I was only playing at empathy. In fact, I was a play about empathy and I called myself The Construction of a City, “the Earth’s best city or at least the darkest and the coldest at some moments of the year.” 


Kenneth Koch was a native of Cincinnati. He lived there until he was 18, then he escaped and joined the army, went to Harvard, then to Columbia—Boston, New York, Paris.

A professor of mine who knew Koch once drove him from the airport to the University of Cincinnati where he was to read and lecture for a bunch of eager grad students. My teacher told me Koch hadn’t been back in years and years at that point, and he could see a marked change in Koch’s face—a sudden pain—as they crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky into the city that raised us, my teacher, Koch, and me. To Koch, time retracted suddenly, like a tape measure, and he was back at the beginning, as if no time had passed at all. Yet, every hour, every second he’d spent away lay coiled inside the case.

In Kenneth Koch’s libretto for The Construction of Boston, Niki de Saint Phalle brings to Boston “art and beauty with a magic pistol that she fires.” The truth is, de Saint Phalle didn’t spend a terribly long time in Boston, though her first child was born there. Her name was Laura.

In 1953 de Saint Phalle experienced a psychic break. She was committed and underwent electroshock therapy. Then one day, she woke up

and decided to point a gun at her canvases—not to destroy, but to create—exploding the paint into ecstatic shapes, missives, mighty fireworks.

“Fire at that ancient statue!” the chorus cries, and Niki de Saint Phalle strikes.

“Music, awake her; strike!” says Paulina to her musicians, “Strike all that look upon her with marvel. Come!”

When I was a kid, one of my fantasy jobs was to be a historian and I thought I’d “write on the side.” I had no idea what “on the side” really meant, or even what it meant to be a historian which—it turns out—actually requires a lot of writing. I knew writing would be my life’s occupation, only that I’d have some other day job too, but what I didn’t realize then was that history, research, and writing were, in fact, all of a piece, part of my make-up, and what makes me tick. It took me just about 40 years to figure out how they all went together—at least for me—and what’s exciting, I’m still in the process of figuring it out. “Enter Time, the Chorus” wants to know what happens when I applique my experience on top of historical time. It wants to know how art and literature became material presences in my life and how they shape my view of history—both with a systemic H and a personal h. It wants to make connections—however gossamer—between myself and Kenneth Koch, the Little Age, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Shakespeare. When I was younger, I never would’ve attempted such presumptuous speculations; now that I’m older, I can’t stop myself.

Lesley Jenike .jpg

Lesley Jenike is the author of two full-length poetry collections, including Holy Island (Gold Wake, 2017), and several chapbooks. Her poems and essays have appeared or will appear soon in POETRY, The Kenyon Review, West Branch, The Southern Review, The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, At Length, The Bennington Review, Rattle, Verse, and many other venues. She’s currently a regular blogger for Ploughshares, and teaches writing and literature at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, OH were she lives with her husband and two small children.

Me: First Grade

by Melora Wolff

I like that photography and speculative essays both start with visible facts, and accelerate toward the permanent loss of facts; both activate and agitate the shapes that haunt the peripheries. I think speculative essayists, like the kids in the photograph, wander in a realm of real ghosts.

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“Remembering is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather, its lining.” —Chris Marker

Forty first-graders pose for their class photo. Twenty-three boys, thirteen girls, and four, unknown. The day appears to be sunny. Several of the kids squint, and light shadow falls across some faces.  The year is likely in the 1920s. The weather is mystery. Five children wear their winter coats open; five wear no coats at all; one boy has short sleeves; three boys wear suit jackets. They all pose in the schoolyard of Nowhere. Ten keep wool hats pulled low, one girl wears fur, three boys wear caps and tip them just the way they like, to the right, the left, over the eyes, cocky. In the front row, one child clasps a white boater. Some boys wear long ties, another wears a bow tie that embarrasses him for all eternity. An impish, foppish lad sports a wide, starched collar.  The short kids squat in front, their butts suspended above the dust in a pose they will abandon gratefully in middle age. The kids in the middle row stoop over, and the tall kids are in the back. That is where you will find Me, the tallest, most bundled, maybe even the richest kid, whose coat seems a cut above the rest, a fussy, fleecy gift from an indulgent mother. An arrow points helpfully to this child’s head, in case of confusion, later.

At the left, in the second row, crouches the opposite of Me. This child is not really in the image. Thick black hair obscures the face. The small body folds over on itself.  The figure does not wear a fleecy coat with deep pockets for mementoes that reassure of maternal love, but instead the black lining of a coat without pockets, frayed. There is no arrow to identify this child.  “You!” the photographer points, and waves his hand, impatient. “Don’t spoil the picture!” No response. The other youngsters jostle one another, first-graders forever. Unaware of the blurred other hiding among them, they pose obediently like the rest of us nestled together in the past, with our bare knees and furrowed brows, our faces smudged by oblivion, our noses itching in the sun.  We are proud to be seven years old! We will never again think of this day. No one, but every one, is missing from this picture. In a moment, the school-bell will toll, and we will race in to “History.” We gallop to our inkwells, trip each other, and shout each-others’ names. Which one is Me and which one is You?  What was the lesson that we learned that day?  Our teacher, picturing a life beyond her reach, instructed us only, “Check your posture. Smile. Now count to three.”   

One. Two. Three.

This photograph grabbed my attention immediately when I saw it in the museum’s archive. Each child’s expression hints at an incredible personality, a personal history, a future. The word “Me”—a speculative word, I believe--penned onto the photo by a child “unknown,” perhaps dead, haunted me. What does it mean to write “Me” on a photo? Who is the message for? Puzzles of memory, identity, and time started to disrupt the historical facts of the image. We are all in the photo as soon as we look at it and see the word “Me,” our shared name. We must be entering a collective space. Where is that? Somewhere beyond the picture. The photo seems to me a figuration of the certainty and uncertainty, record and erasure, inherent to all History, the true scrap book. I like that photography and speculative essays both start with visible facts, and accelerate toward the permanent loss of facts; both activate and agitate the shapes that haunt the peripheries. I think speculative essayists, like the kids in the photograph, wander in a realm of real ghosts. 

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Melora Wolff is a nonfiction writer whose work is in such publications as The Normal School, the New York Times, Accelerate, Brick, Best American Fantasy, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. Her awards include fellowships from the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and multiple citations in Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prizes.  She teaches at Skidmore College. “Me: First Grade” is part of a book in progress of speculative nonfictions on vernacular photography.

Imagine: A Day Without Evening

by N.D. Brown

I see speculative nonfiction as the process of extracting meaning from objective reality. Certainly, nonfiction owes its readers the truth. And to me, the fullest truth is the delineation and acknowledgment of the writer to its readers of what is fact, what is analysis of those facts, and what is speculation.

Imagine a man alone in an army tent. Not the kind of tent that’s meant for sleeping or overnight trips. The kind that’s in place of a building. The kind with that distinct tarp smell: mildewed and dry. Now imagine that this tent is a church, and the church sits in the middle of a desert, but the desert isn’t empty the way that that church is empty. Empty except for the man. Imagine the man is a priest. That the man stands six feet three inches tall. That he has short brown hair and wears vestments that are normally gold, white, or red. Imagine that these vestments are desert brown. Camouflage. It’s his first night in Kuwait and remember that there is no one inside, but he’s unboxed two, three-foot rectangular icons and has stood them up to create an entrance way in the middle. Imagine the middle as a walkway into the altar. Imagine a square altar table, jungle green, unfolded and covered in sheened, white cloth, frilled at the end with another red cloth placed on top that’s red to hide the color of wine and blood, which in this place can be the same thing.

It’s night, Pascha, Easter for the Orthodox Church which follows a different calendar. Festive bunnies aren’t preparing to fill empty baskets. Just the sounds of war’s continuation: machinery, soldiers, helicopters, and radios. War without the hot heat of the day. Only the cold sounds of war. The priest sets up chairs. Pours wine. Alone.

It’s Easter, the anniversary that god came back from the dead, resurrected up through the sands of a different desert, borne of the same heat both past and present. Imagine rows of empty chairs. The priest alone in the tent beginning the service because the night is still the night regardless if anyone’s inside to see. Imagine the sadness at the emptiness of a church. Celebrating life over death. Hear the priest chanting alone in the empty tent, acting as both call and response. The service, well over a thousand years old, has seen empires fall and world wars come and go. The priest sings to himself with only candles lighting the interior. Now imagine those lights go out. The darkness.  

From the end of Saturday into the earliest morning of Sunday, this service is three hours long. Sunday morning is called A Day Without Evening. The following week is called Bright Week. But before the light of Sunday, there must be the darkness of death, even in God. All the lights must go out. The clock strikes midnight on Pascha morning. A single candle in the darkness. When a church is full, the light is supposed to spread, from priest to deacon to a member of the congregation. Just as waves reach out under the gravity of the moon, so does this fire reach out under the gravity of The Son. Dull wicks enflame. Feel a subtle heat build as the light moves into the dark. Obliterating the dark into its inverse. Proving its impermanence.

Here the priest in the tent stands outside the altar with several points of light held within what looks to be a menorah. The priest exits the tent, singing out into the cold, dark desert. He circles the tent three times. Once for The Father. Then for The Son. And then for The Holy Spirit.

Do not imagine anyone coming in at the last second to alter the loneliness of the moment. That did not happen. Do not imagine the priest is content or any less exhausted on this, one of the saddest days of his life.

Imagine instead that this man is your father. That you are his son. His first-born son. That you were in Illinois some 6,881 miles away. A new teenager. That the story he later told you contained almost no details. Just that his first night in Kuwait happened to be during Pascha and that he had to do the service alone in a tent. You saw the camouflage vestments years later hanging in a basement closet. You saw the altar table folded and forgotten. You didn’t need to ask your father anything more. You’ve been to that service every year since second grade. The service unchanging.

Imagine that every Easter your feet hurt, and you’re hungry, but you know the same words are being said in Russia. That the same hymns are being sung in Greece. That in that night you are a Rosetta Stone of an expanse of languages spanning seas and continents and borders, both cultural and political. You can speak Romanian. Ukrainian. Amharic. Syrian. You understand what all these languages are saying because of the tones and inflections you have come to know better than you realized. In the countries of Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Egypt, and Finland, people are circling their church in the same way you are.

But that priest alone in the desert. Circling the tent by himself with the 250 million variegated others spanning the globe. All those lighted candles in the darkness. Chanting together in languages of music and light and fire.

I see speculative nonfiction as the process of extracting meaning from objective reality. Certainly, nonfiction owes its readers the truth. And to me, the fullest truth is the delineation and acknowledgment of the writer to its readers of what is fact, what is analysis of those facts, and what is speculation. Of course, these elements have always been in creative nonfiction; it’s just gone unnamed. My piece, “Imagine: A Day Without Evening,” is the rumination of a son as he pieces together the details of a war story told by his father. The result is a historical and geopolitical juxtaposition of Pascha in the Eastern Orthodox Church, against the backdrop of the Iraq War. Thus, bringing into conversation the ancient past with the urgent present in an attempt to illuminate that which is ubiquitous to humanity.

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N.D. Brown is a second year MFA candidate at The University of South Florida. He’s the Outreach Coordinator for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Occasionally, he enjoys building hand-made furniture with the help of electric drills and large saws, which he’s found makes the process infinitely easier. His work can be found in The Heavy Feather Review.

America Was a Shooting Star

by Natalia Singer

One of my students recently said that the very thing that makes a nonfiction account unreliable in a court of law is what makes us trust it in an essay: the art of conjecture, those moments in which the author interrogates her own version of events, and also tries to write her way, through a sympathetic imagining, into the lives of the other characters in her story.

“America was a shooting star,” the Welsh software guru said. Eyes pale blue and compassionate, hair the white-yellow of young corn, the faint ghost of Guinness-gut on an otherwise sleek torso; he’d been logging time at the gym. He was smart, funny, kind, animated. I could see why our son was so fond of him. My husband and younger son and I were in England visiting the firstborn and his wife for the holidays. The older son, who is a research scientist, had wanted us to meet some of his friends, and seven of us were huddled together in a Cambridge pub three months before the original Brexit deadline: Christmas décor still on the walls, roast dinners offered in partially erased chalk.

When he was growing up, the Welshman continued, New York was the center of everything. “American hip hop. The Nineties. New York was the coolest place on earth.”  Like many bright kids of that era, he went into tech. Worked at a startup in Manhattan beside the heir to one of those fortunes art museums get named for. “I was kind of his babysitter,” he shrugged. “The guy was so hapless his dad had to buy him a company to give him something to do. For my part, I never worked so hard in my life.”  Twenty-hour workdays, seven days a week. Having to take calls from anywhere at any hour. “I was only in my twenties, but after a few months I needed medication for my blood pressure.”

One day, he said, his heart was beating so fast he thought it was going to blow up.

Still, he said, he admired America—even now. The music and art and innovation and, until recently, celebration of diversity and progressive values. “You’d walk down the streets of New York and hear dozens of languages,” he said. He even liked all the daring and hubris. “Straight up America went, so fast, so far, like a rocket, a shooting star,” he repeated. “Leaving the rest of the world dazzled and perplexed.” 

“And then we fell straight down,” I said, ready for his take on the hideous now. He and Scientist Son and their two friends at the table were convinced the decline began with 9/11, but I argued that the dot-com boom of their youth notwithstanding, we’d been in free fall their entire lives. “You’re too young to remember, but I think it goes back to Reagan,” I said. “The unions lose power, the solar panels are taken down at the White House, there’s a backlash against women that lingers to this day, and lobbyists get unlimited access until corporations own the politicians.”       

What ensued was a game of speculative history. What if Jimmy Carter had won a second term?  What if—and here I lingered—the Senate had believed Anita Hill?  We wouldn’t have Clarence Thomas, who couldn’t have “appointed” Bush Junior as president. President Gore would have listened to the intelligence and prevented 9/11, but if it had happened anyway he would have tried Bin Laden in a court of law instead of starting the wars we’re still fighting two decades on. Without those wars there would be no ISIS, or refugee crisis. The climate catastrophe could have been averted. Tony Blair would be remembered as the man who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement with Northern Ireland and gave a moving eulogy to Princess Diana, not as Bush Junior’s fellow war criminal. Labour might still be in power, the global economic meltdown of 2008 could have been averted, Brexit would not be a word, and on and on we went, thinking of alternative beginnings and endings to the dystopia we’re living now.

Then again, for Anita Hill to be believed, we would have needed a world in which misogyny did not prevail. Which brings me back to a sign I saw that night in the women’s toilet: If a man in this pub makes you feel unsafe, go to the bar and ask for Linda. When I asked the barkeep about this, he said that “Linda” was code for call me a cab and lead me out through the kitchen door so I can get away from this scary asshole.

Maybe we all need to call Linda.


When Scientist Son had invited us to the pub, I’d braced myself for a lot of lab talk and data sets. No matter how patiently he explains his research, his work as a synthetic biologist always flies over my head. My husband and I had agreed to stay an hour, tops, then leave them to their day-after Boxing Day lads’ night out. My daughter-in-law had already excused herself and I had Sally Rooney’s Normal People waiting on the nightstand. Hence my surprise and delight to find the seven of us absorbed in my favorite subjects, history and politics and apocalypse, sweetened by the hard cider I was sipping and occasional references to foreign travel and family pets. The prospect of Brexit was holding one of the software guys’ future in limbo because his girlfriend, who is Dutch, doesn’t know if she’ll be able to use the prestigious EU grant she snagged for her research if she stays in Cambridge. The third man, who is married to a British physician, will likely have to relinquish his Danish passport, thus limiting potential markets for his startup’s software. Through all their years of hard work and attainment they never expected their world to shrink in this dramatic way, but of course “remain” advocates like these men are seen now in Britain as the elite, much like the Ivy League-educated branch of the Democratic Party.

Our what ifs kept spinning—back to the collapse of the Soviet Union; back to Nixon; back to a youth revolution that still kept women subservient, mimicking the flawed old order; back to the birth of oil-fueled economies; back to postwar alliances and peace, flashing forward to the imperiled EU where I’d long nursed the secret hope that my husband’s British passport would allow us to retire someday in the South of France—a series of speculations and missed chances that kept my husband and me out well past our bedtime. The pub was near closing and the men deep in hard Brexit and the what ifs of Britain’s economy shrinking by ten percent when Kerry and I began our long walk to the flat under a waning moon, wreaths still hanging from blue doors, stars hidden under a scrim of cloud. We’d been energized by the conversation, but were saddened, naturally, by the narrowing of opportunities dangling before these bright still-young men, the irony being that the lies disseminated in the disinformation campaigns that hastened the closing of borders in the U.K. and U.S. were spawned inside the very machine they’d given their life blood to building. Fellow architects of this brave new world, they’re as baffled and bruised as the rest of us who can’t compute the algorithms that took us down this dark path. And then there’s our younger son, the artist, who, over the course of the evening, kept insisting on paying for rounds he couldn’t afford while trying to explain to his brother’s friends the current mess in Wisconsin, where he is a poster child for the provisional academic economy, making perilous long drives through winter blizzards to earn below-the-poverty-line pay on three different campuses as an art instructor. Artist Son makes gorgeous, bold, joyous geometric abstract paintings that make my heart sing, he lives on less than $15,000 a year, and on this particular night as he approached the prospect of his thirty-ninth birthday, he had reason to think one of his classes wouldn’t fill, which would also mean losing his health insurance. Have I mentioned that his mother (I’m the stepmom) died of cancer at forty?  


Tall, gaunt, wavy-haired, and handsome with paint-spattered T-shirts and Clark Kent glasses, Artist Son has an uncompromising ethical compass. It kills him that he needs to schmooze rich people to sell his work, although he does it with grace when he’s put in the path of potential patrons. He’s also nerdy-hilarious, balancing references to semiotics and Noam Chomsky and Charles Peirce’s metaphysics with obscure punk bands from my youth that I never knew about and Internet videos about hoarders, Amish kids going wild, and cats. All the men in our group that night were drinking with gusto, but it was alarming to watch him setting the pace; we were used to hearing him complain that even a glass of wine at dinner made him fuzzy when he woke up, less able to summon the stamina he needs to work in the studio for twelve-hour days. Perhaps because his brother is a fabulous cook and has the ruddiness and girth of a bon vivant, Artist Son carved out his sibling niche early on as the starving artist who survives on two modest meals a day, black coffee, and water. His friends sometimes bring him food, worried that if left to his own devices he’ll waste away like Bartleby the scrivener (which is, incidentally, the name he gave his cat.)  Doing the work of late capitalism requires intense self-sacrifice from all of us, but I worry that Artist Son takes it too far. And then I worry—when I see him abandon his regimens—that he’s giving up. What’s the point of trying so hard, one might ask, if the stars are clearly not aligned in our favor?

It also occurred to me as the conversation spun round and round through twisting corridors of time and history that the last time all four of us had spent Christmas in England as a family, I was the same age Artist Son was now. Scientist Son was in his first year of college and the younger boy was starting at the boarding school with the enriched art curriculum we sent him to when he told us he wanted to become a painter. The decision to send this forthright, social justice-minded kid to a rich kids’ school was not something we made lightly. We worried about how it would affect his confidence and identity to be surrounded by so much privilege, but we wanted him to at least have a shot at realizing his dream, and the art teacher in our rural public school had just been put in prison for sleeping with his students and the school board was scrambling to find a qualified sub. For my part, I was just glad the boys were in good hands while their father and I escaped, if only for a year, from the America that had broken my heart.


If New York in the nineties was the center of the Welsh software designer’s everything, London in the nineties, when I was thirty-nine, was the center for me. As a child I had escaped river-on-fire industrial Ohio by reading novels set in the Yorkshire countryside. None of my friends was surprised that the older man I fell in love with when I began my teaching career happened to be a Brit who looked like Graham Nash. When he was tapped to direct our university’s abroad program in London, I was ecstatic. That year also happened to be my first sabbatical as an English professor. We found a flat in St. John’s Wood around the block from the zebra crossing made famous in The Beatles album, Abbey Road (which proved to be a nuisance, actually—trying to cross the road without interrupting someone’s photo op). I felt so lucky to be in London as the U.K. geared up for the election in May when Labour would win by a landslide, the Party headed by its youngest leader in history, who, incidentally, Kerry knew personally because their fathers, both Scotsmen, had taught together at Durham University, and Kerry’s mother had once sewn a button on Tony’s shirt when he was canvassing.

London was hip and fun and I fit right in with my Rachel-from-Friends layered shag haircut, flair trousers, and black loafers with heels—until I opened my mouth. Bridget Jones’s Diary was a column in The Independent; The Full Monty came out, giving us a new expression; and although no one approved of monarchies the people’s princess was still alive until the end of that summer, hugging babies with AIDS. London was pricey, but you could eat noodles at Wagamama’s in Leicester Square for five pounds a plate, then take in a free exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery: Duane Hanson, Fiona Rae. An all-female crew made the short list for the Turner.

During the day, I wrote. Or, to be more precise, I wrote and cried, cried and wrote. I was hammering out the first draft of a memoir about growing up in poverty as the daughter of a mentally ill mother—write for an hour, cry for two was my motto as I mined the unraveling of the safety net that had kept my sister and me housed and fed and educated. Some days under darkening skies I would cry so much I wondered if I needed medication. It turned out that yoga would help, and acupuncture, and changing my diet to include meat. And on the surface, there was much to celebrate. At home we re-elected a Democrat, the economy was booming, and I was getting paid for a whole year not to go to my job. But even while I accompanied the students and my future husband and father-in-law to the theater and we strolled along the Thames and my cheeks pinked up with protein-enhanced meals and I eased my body into full lotus and someone somewhere coined the expression “it’s all good,” I could not tune out the rising threat of nationalism and tribalism (as in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo), or ignore the fact that Clinton was putting more people of color in prison than were ever enslaved while also “ending welfare as we know it,” the safety net that kept me alive as a child. There weren’t enough “it’s all goods” to shut down a lifelong habit of worry. Most of all, I dreaded going home again to the Gingrich Congress that vowed to end public funding for the arts and to ban abortions and would eventually impeach Clinton for lying about a certain dalliance.

Maybe I should have felt on top of the world to be thirty-nine and newly tenured in an era when the capitalist engines kept the beat to a hip hop soundtrack and the new dot-com millionaires promised everything would be all right, but I, a Johnson-era Great Society Democrat still waiting for a truly participatory democracy would think to myself, late empire, late empire. Widening inequality. Burning planet. Ruin.


London was also the first time in my life when I had the leisure to look back on my past, and on the America of my childhood. Inevitably I thought of my mother.

I would picture her at the age I was now. Beautiful, hopeful, but so ill. And yet she tried and tried to be a good mother. She taught my sister and me French. And how to swim. And play piano: I could read music before I read words. Classical music, foreign languages, physical fitness: she wanted her girls to rise. On Sundays she took us to the Cleveland Art Museum, pausing always to admire the expansive gardens surrounding the lagoon outside where nature’s siren song competed with the screech of cop cars and ambulances. “This is your garden too,” she would say, instilling in us a belief in the commons and assuring us that we had the right to go where we pleased, even if we couldn’t afford to eat lunch in the museum’s cafeteria. Her childhood neighborhood on the East Side had once held the city’s highest concentration of Jews, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe like her mother (who was born in the East London slums of Spitalfields en route to America from Belarus), and was now mostly African-American. This district had always been poor, yet throughout the twentieth century her old school, Glenville High, graduated an impressive roster of NFL athletes, politicians, artists (including Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the duo who created the DC Comics character, Superman), and musicians like my mother, who won a scholarship to a music conservatory where she trained to become a concert pianist.

The year my mother turned thirty-nine, I was placed in Major Work, an advanced curriculum launched in the twenties for kids who scored high on cognitive tests. As a third grader, getting put in Major Work was like winning the lottery (almost akin to being placed in an arts-enriched private school like the one to which we sent our second son). In Major Work you got to study a foreign language. For art class we had sketching trips around town, including the West Side Public Market. In music class we worked with a Hungarian composer, and twice a year we went to hear the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra perform at Severance Hall. It was the Cold War, the Space Race, the War on Poverty, and all our pep slogans then, every word of encouragement featured metaphors of space and of flight. Reach for the stars. Fly high.

Sometimes as a kid I would look through my mother’s old yearbook to wonder how we’d ended up here, in this crappy apartment in a rundown neighborhood on the West Side of Cleveland, struggling to get by. Honor Roll student, winner of statewide musical competitions, fluent in French, a raven-haired beauty like Lois Lane: our mom was one of the kids her peers believed was destined for great success.

At thirty-nine, my mother was still hanging onto the dream that our father, whom we hadn’t seen since I turned six, would publish another novel (his first had been well reviewed but didn’t sell) and bring an end to our financial woes. “When my ship comes in,” she often began her sentences. When my ship comes in, we’ll be able to eat shrimp or steak more often than once a month. We’ll go on vacations to the seaside. I’ll be able to buy you girls beautiful clothes. When her ship came in, we wouldn’t have to rely on her parents’ handouts anymore, or government subsidies like food stamps and Medicaid and Aid to Dependent Children. But by the time John Glenn made it to the moon, our father had decamped to Mexico and stopped paying alimony. We never heard from him again. My sister and I watched helplessly when the bill collectors came to take away the baby grand our mother had bought on credit, and when she sent our puppy to live with her parents because we couldn’t afford to feed her. On and on it went in a merciless downward spiral, until our mother tried to take her own life. This had happened before—right after the divorce. My first memories of Cleveland, where we moved from Indiana when I was six, are of bending down to help my grandfather wipe off the blood spattered on our apartment building’s steps after she’d stabbed herself.

What saved my sister and me were those government “entitlements” and the gospel of Space Age optimism: that if you worked hard you could reach the stars. We did get into good colleges, and luck brought us the rest. But I have come to see that what we think of as “luck” is often just good timing—that is, when someone is born, and where. It was my good fortune to be born in an era when it was widely understood that government is obliged to make all people’s lives better, not just those of the donor class. My sons, who came in with Reagan, haven’t had the same good luck.

I try to tell Artist Son that it’s not his fault that Governor Walker, a college dropout, gutted his state’s higher education system, and that neoliberalism has wreaked havoc on every aspect of American society, including higher education, making tenure-track jobs increasingly rare. To compound his feelings of shame and worthlessness, Artist Son feels guilty for feeling bad about his predicament; he is, after all, a white man at the top of the food chain in Trump’s white supremacist patriarchal America. It breaks my heart that my brilliant, gifted son, while fully cognizant that we are living through a second gilded age, believes that it’s mostly his fault that he’s not a superstar.

When Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the graduating class at my mother’s alma mater during that year she turned thirty-nine and I started in Major Work, he said, “If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl if you have to, but keep moving forward.”  This was King’s more muted version of the era’s Fly High mantra, and as an educator and parent, I can’t help but pass it on, even though I know that slogans like this ring hollow in the face of today’s downward mobility and rising inequality.

As we pilot our way through ordinary days, when do we sense the beginning of a time of promise and freedom and renewed flourishing, and when do we feel in our gut the beginning of the end? 


Chekhov once wrote in a letter, “You’ll get a picture of a moonlit night if you write that on the dam of the mill a piece of broken bottle flashed like a bright star.”  I wish I could tell you more about how dark the sky was as my husband and I walked back from the pub on that unseasonably warm night in late December, mulling it all over, or how communicative (or not) the stars, but we were focused more on whether it was too late to get takeout—we had skipped dinner—and how our sons would wake up with monster hangovers. Of course we were concerned that the company of these prosperous men would make Artist Son feel even worse about his precarious situation. But we weren’t in bad spirits. Over time, we’ve developed the capacity to carry the full load of heartache in the face of our children's suffering while permitting ourselves the luxury of savoring a night walk in each other’s company. As parents, as citizens, as witnesses to our global unraveling, hope lives aside dread, a constant companion. I notice beauty more these days, laugh harder at certain jokes. Perhaps just as, collectively, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing terrible news, we almost have to insist, as a form of resistance, in finding solace, however fleeting, wherever it presents itself. Or, in the words of Hanif Abdurraqib, “surviving on small joys.”


When the Welsh software guru returned to Britain and a much more humane work life, where even as the CEO for the company he started he suddenly had more down time, he was able to go off his blood pressure medication. “I make time to exercise every day now,” he told me. “And I can sleep. Finally, I can sleep.”  He talked about how he’d learned not to use his electronic devices at night, or even bring them into his bedroom, and that it helped. “Maybe you just need to limit your access to the news,” he said to me kindly, perhaps reading something in my face or tone of voice I didn’t know was there. “Maybe just make it a rule in your house. No news after dinner. No Trump.”

Good advice, I thought that night, and still do. Even though I’ve yet to follow it.

One of my students recently said that the very thing that makes a nonfiction account unreliable in a court of law is what makes us trust it in an essay: the art of conjecture, those moments in which the author interrogates her own version of events, and also tries to write her way, through a sympathetic imagining, into the lives of the other characters in her story. When the subject is history, at how we went from there to here, we are, of course, examining and juggling multiple storylines and possibilities, a speculative dance if there ever was one, but in this essay I also wanted to explore some what ifs that might have landed us elsewhere.  When I wrote this essay about a spirited conversation I had about the rise of xenophobic right-wing nationalism and closing of borders in the U.K. and the U.S., I was mining the past for a trail of breadcrumbs, but I was also exploring how we can find hope and solace going forward.

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Natalia Rachel Singer is the author of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties.  Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Harper’sMs.O: The Oprah MagazineThe NationThe Iowa ReviewRedbookThe American ScholarThe Chronicle of Higher Education, and many others. Her work has been short-listed for The Best American Travel Essays and the Pushcart, and anthologized widely.  She is completing a new essay collection, Stubborn Roots.  A professor of creative writing and environmental literature at St. Lawrence University, Singer has led study-abroad programs in France and India.


by Valerie Ang

To tune in to the history of the marginalised, the subjugated, it is necessary to speculate—to believe that they, like us, lived and fought and died for what they knew to be true.   

Years later, you will still speak of the narrow stage. That terrace of steps where you sang and swayed in your Sunday best: a phalanx of soldiers, mighty in density, packed sword-arm to shield-arm beneath the neon cross as the band played.

You will speak of how the spotlights strobed. How they kaleidoscoped across the hall, rubying the world to red. More heat than light, really; or perhaps a kind of kinetic energy, rarefying you into your component atoms. Bearing you up like hot air, like spirit, like a holy thing.

You will speak of the battle hymn. Drums that stirred your heartbeat, were your heartbeat. Bass throbbing in your bones, melody in your marrow. Always you came offstage with bloodrush in your cheeks, sweatsheen on your brow, like you’d been marching, or fighting, or killing. Like Joshua’s priests, who brought down the might of Jericho with the music of trumpets.

More than the song, though, you will speak of the singing. You will speak of Jericho.

Jericho, jewel of Canaan, land of milk and honey. Yeriho in Hebrew, Arīḥā in Arabic, fragrant, and fragrant it was. Sweet streams, rolling pastures, dates and olives and flowers and figs. By the time the trumpets called, the City of Palms had stood for eight thousand years.

The story they taught you from the Book of Joshua went like this. Canaan was the Promised Land, God’s bequest to the people of Israel, forfeit by the Canaanites themselves because their forefather had once seen Noah—he of the ark—lolling about drunk and naked, and was cursed to eternal servitude in punishment. When Joshua and the Israelites began their conquest of Canaan generations later, in the Middle Bronze Age, they started with Jericho.

They marched around the city day after day. The armed men first, then the priests, bearing their trumpets and the Ark of the Covenant. In silence they circled the high walls, the guarded gates, while the defenders watched from above. The miracle happened on the seventh day, as miracles do. Joshua gave the signal, the priests blew on their trumpets, the people raised a shout; and at the sound of that wild music, the walls of the city came crumbling down like chaff. And they utterly destroyed all that was in it, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the blade.

Poor Jericho, you thought. God forbid you ever stumbled across Noah in his nakedness. See nothing, hear nothing, close your eyes and sing.

 You didn’t want to leave at first.

There was something heroic, something primal and archaic on that stage beneath the neon cross. The murky shadows of the band poised like action figures around you, their guitars like crossbows, like catapults in silhouette. War-drums pounding at your pulse points in the instant before the lights plunged on. Swelling cheers, cresting synths, the crowd of faces upturned to you. Your conductor’s exhortations: look them in the eye, sing grace into their hearts. Remember Joshua. Against God no wall shall stand.

You loved it. Not the song, the singing. You sang the lyrics unthinking, our God is an awesome God / He reigns from heaven above, over and over, the words gaining stridence till they thundered like a cavalry charge. A lockstep legion raising the battle-cry—blades bared, trumpets calling, as the walls of Jericho tumbled down, down, down. If the violence of the parable ever troubled you, you turned your gaze away.

 Jericho was never meant to be rebuilt. What God had done could not be undone; the song, once sung, could not be unsung. Joshua’s prophecy lay heavy upon the smoking ruins: Cursed be the man before the Lord that riseth up and buildeth this city. He shall lay its foundations with the life of his firstborn, and with his youngest son shall he set up its gates.

Your pastor’s own pastor was in the news. A scandal, church funds misused, millions of dollars’ worth of tithes and offerings channeled into sham bond investments to fuel his pop-star wife’s singing career. All for the glory of God, of course, we wouldn’t expect nonbelievers to understand. This is the prosperity gospel: wealth is the will of the Lord for us all. Here comes the collection plate. Open your wallets, you trumpeters of Joshua, who would never look upon Noah naked. Give in faith. Give, give till your heart breaks.

The pastor is in prison now—three and a half years for criminal breach of trust. And the City of Palms sprang up again. A man called Hiel of Bethel braved Joshua’s curse to rebuild it, yielding up the life of Abiram his firstborn to lay its foundations, setting up its gates with Segub his last.

 Evangelism began with an empty Kleenex box. Your youth leader handed round slips of paper, told you to list the lost souls you were going to invite to Easter service. Their names would go into the box, and you would all lay hands on it and pray. Your neighbour James, who drank and smoked and sheltered stray cats in his flat when it rained. Your classmate Lynn, who’d been with Suzanne since junior college and was still in delirious love. O Lord sing down the walls of the dollhouse Jerichos in their hearts, of all that make them James and Lynn. And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein. Only the silver and the gold, they kept for the treasury of the house of the Lord.

You slid a blank slip into the box, a guilty secret. Lord forgive me. Turn your annihilating grace elsewhere. Let these souls be.

You left. The song called you back, our God is an awesome God, heard by chance somewhere, a call to arms after the war was done. A mantra you once believed and still did, still do, so you returned. You left again; it called you back once more; you left; it called. But it was the singing you loved, not the song: the stage with its glitter, its glamour, its terror, its thrill. The trumpets were losing their hold on you. You left. This time the leaving stuck.

Jericho survived a hundred deaths. Sacked by Joshua, rebuilt. Sacked by Babylonians, rebuilt. Flattened by earthquakes, rebuilt. Overrun by Turks, then Crusaders, then the crusaders who fought the Crusaders. Mined with explosives in World War II. Occupied and reoccupied by Israeli and Palestinian troops. Rebuilt, rebuilt, rebuilt. The water of Jericho is held to be the highest and best, wrote the Arab geographer Al-Maqdisi, millennia after the trumpets had fallen silent. Bananas are plentiful, also dates, and flowers of pleasing odour. Jericho the fragrant, Jericho the defiant, Jericho the triumphant.

Faith is, perhaps, essentially speculative. We believe in what we cannot prove, a reality more felt than seen. Much the same could be said of history, particularly the history of the defeated, written in the margins of the stories that victorious civilisations have dictated to us over the millennia. To tune in to the history of the marginalised, the subjugated, it is necessary to speculate—to believe that they, like us, lived and fought and died for what they knew to be true.  

Valerie Ang.jpg

Born and raised in Singapore, Valerie Ang is a writer of queer fiction and poetry, and a graduate student of Creative Writing at LASALLE College of the Arts. Her work has been featured in Cortex, the Ekphrastic Review, and Southeast Asian Review of English. She is working on a novel about the Second Punic War, and is the proud owner of a three-foot stuffed whale.