Monday, January 25, 2021

Anandi Mishra: The Case for Twitter as an MFA Community

Historically writers have gone on a lot about how writing can get extremely lonely. So, when I started writing creative non-fiction early on during the pandemic, as a side to my day job as a communicator, I thought I knew what I was in for. A few weeks in a dreariness set in, I had no one to talk to about an essay on watching Satyajit Ray movies during the lockdown I was struggling with, no one to exchange information on submission calls, pitching notes, etc. During this time, I stewarded my meandering ship back to the docks from where it all started: Twitter. 

I have been on the social media app since 2011 and mostly for my own amusement. It was only in 2017 that I started noticing a pattern to the accounts I followed, the kind of tweets I dug and the conversations I yearned to scroll through. They were all people or organizations with a creative, if not precisely literary, bent of mind. I have wanted to be a writer since I have known what writing and reading were. As of 2021, I do not hold an MFA or any such creative writing degree and have actively been writing and publishing creative non-fiction for the last nine or ten months. Through this time, I have come around to finding a literary community among a gaggle of like-minded people and their tweets on my timeline. I follow writers, poets, memoirists, essayists, magazines and art journals along with their editors and section heads. And their tweets that follow the European Standard Time keep my Indian Standard Time’s Twitter timeline peppered with weird, beautiful and inquisitive insights from and about the world of creative nonfiction. I don’t have a real-world literary community per se and so it is through my Twitter account that I find my inspirations, adorations, reading lists, and submission prospects. Amid the loneliness of writing from Delhi, with a day job, I have come to call this entire echo chamber a kind of an MFA community for myself.

In 2017, on an unusually rainy October afternoon as I waited for my cab, I found myself reading Helena Fitzgerald’s Hazlitt essay "Green To Me." I still don’t exactly recall if I found my way to her timeline first or the essay first. The essay took me to places where I did not know writing could take me. It did things and showed me meanings that earlier were incomprehensible for me. It stayed in my mind for months. Every time I was alone in the loo or stuck in the metro, I would wrestle it out on my phone’s browser. Reading, copying, pasting and rereading snatches from it. Before reading it, I did not know an essay could make so much happen. It was not merely an essay about the color green but a treatise on the how the writer feels about the color in all its length, breadth and width. I would then go on and read almost everything written by Helena that was not behind a paywall. I scoured her timeline for other articles she shared, what she had to say about them and their writers. I read the other pieces, thereby creating a hyper-personal library of sorts, with curated essays that appealed specifically to my tastes.

This was the kind of writing that I was yet to read in the few Indian literary websites, forget about writing it. It opened my senses to not just the writing but also to the magazine that published it, to the writer who wrote it, and to the nature of replies people were typing below it. Soon, I would spend long hours on Twitter looking for similar essays, branching out from one essayist to another. Briefly, I was also obsessed with the work of the New Yorker music writer Amanda Petrusich. It was through this profile of Maggie Rogers written by Petrusich that I discovered the work of Rogers who would go on to become a season’s favorite musician for me. I specifically remember how through her profile I was led to Pharrell Williams’ interviewing Rogers and calling her work “singular”. This word, which was like a revelation to me then, is now something that I very carefully put to use. Around the same time, I remember finding the then New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Her Tweets came in waves. Some mornings I would wake to see a thread of tweets by Nussbaum which were more like she is having a conversation with herself on Twitter. Her writing was another space from where I would scout out not just other reading recommendations but also a lot of TV show suggestions. 

This was a place that I had longed to find in the work of writers’ closer home in India. I worked as a fact-checker and copyeditor in one of the country’s leading newspaper magazines. Based out Delhi, five days a week for almost three years I sat among reporters who wrote exclusively on music, culture, books, films, sports, etc. But there was a kind of a deficit, a lack of community and sharing. I wanted to know so much from them, but they seemed indifferent, a tad too busy in their own work and lives. I found that I was on my own, and Twitter was steadily growing to become my own literary community.

On desperately lonely days I would scroll past the tweets, and into the replies of these writers. I wanted to find other people like me. People who were reading what I was reading, which is how I’m told reading circles at MFAs work. I would search for people, and going by their bios and recently shared links, arrive at a ripe prospect every now and then. It was probably through one such vicarious joyrides on Twitter that I arrived at English writer Rebecca Smith’s timeline. She shared essays and articles about nature, posting whenever she wrote something. I read her widely and through her in the last leg of 2020 I found out that the Scottish writer Cal Flyn was looking for mentees to supervise for a brief duration. I reached out to her and sought the much-needed mentorship. My interaction with Cal over the last couple of months, all via email, has been the closest I can come to a formal community experience. She reads me patiently, answering every query in as much detail as I assume, she would in person, sharing with me openings for submissions, and commenting on the work I share with her. This experience has been one of the most progressive and cherished ones so far.

Similarly, by some stroke of odd luck, when I chanced upon writer Sejal Shah’s Twitter timeline in the beginning of 2020, I did not know what worlds it would open for me. I started by reading all of her writing in a week’s time, waking up to her essays, going to sleep after reading her interview, and so on. The timing of my discovery of her account was also when she was about to release her first book. That happy coincidence meant that I would get to see and read everything that she read before the book’s release and see how readers in the US were reacting to what she was writing. Her essay "Betsy, Tacy, Sejal, Tib" again altered the way I thought one could write about their lives. The poignance that runs through her writing is something that felt unnaturally real. I had read American or British writers talk about their lives like that, but perhaps because of Shah’s ethnicity, and my investment in her story, I was quiet deeply moved by this piece of writing. 


Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have worked on developing a strong literary community and create (even if it’s only fleeting and false) sense of belonging on Twitter. During the summer months, I read Sheila Heti’s essay about art and her grandfather in Yale Review. I remember reading the piece in a still, dank, May summer room. It was early in the morning, an hour or two before I was to start work. I read it in what now seemed like a reverie. Later, I unearthed every possible piece of writing by Heti and watched all her interviews on YouTube. Hers was a masterclass in simplicity and spareness in writing. I was in awe, of course, and wanted to gather more. Little did I know then that later in the year, I would run into her twitter account and go on to establish an email acquaintance with her. We are certainly not friends, but yes there is a familiarity, for sure. 

The magazines I follow now are the ones I read regularly, but also the ones I aspire to get published in. The Paris Review, Guernica, Granta, and The Offing rank higher up in the echelons, but there are the important ones like Orion, Barren, The Common, and Catapult that have my heart. I read them and a hoard of others religiously, following them through and through for all the writing they publish, stalking profiles of writers and editors and then following them. On the off chance that someone follows me back, I understand that it means nothing. Berfrois was one of the magazines that I used to read voraciously during my post-graduation days in 2013-14 but came to follow only a couple of years back on Twitter. Through it I discovered an essay that I loved, read immensely and shared widely with people. Pia Ghosh-Roy's "Separated by the Wingspan of a Moth" was published on Berfrois, and again gave me one of those writers whose entire body of work I would end up reading in a month’s time. In April 2020, Berfrois would also go on to be the magazine where I would publish my first personal essay. So, it remains forever entrenched in my heart and mind as a special one.

I did not know what I was doing through these years was technically creating a reading/writing community for myself. After I saw the recording of a Q&A session by Korean American writer Alexander Chee, I understood that’s what it’s called. Twitter does get overwhelming on some days, what with the extreme political upheaval going on globally. Above all, for me Twitter in this decade has been about discovering what exactly I wanted to read and pursue it. I found almost all of the literary world that I now know, through a web of interconnected writers, magazines, articles, journals and so on. While researching for this essay, once again I chanced upon this golden thread on the magic of Maggie Nelson, which will sustain my curiosity for a week or so. At the end of it all, things make a difference in the way we choose to make use of them, had I kept looking at Twitter for entertaining vines and quick laughs, I might still have been writing, but without this community, it would have not meant the same.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Anna I. McClain: John le Carré vs Ian Fleming: Overcoming Heartlessness in Spy Fiction

Flip to any page of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and you will find enough layers of nuance to seed a doctoral dissertation on the Cold War. The quintessential 1963 spy novel by the late John le Carré set in Cold War Berlin and London weaves a complex yet concise espionage story that captures the essence of exploitation of the individual inherent in spycraft.

Alec Leamas, aging and weary after losing several agents at the hands of Hans-Dieter Mundt, Deputy Director of Operations for the Soviets in the East German Secret Service, is sent out on one last mission to feign defection and defeat Mundt once and for all. 

During his long and fruitful literary career, le Carré, a former spy for the British M-15, then M-16, exposed the duplicity and moral ambiguity intrinsic to the world of espionage. In his books, he paints a dark portrait of those who become entangled in and destroyed by dirty plots aimed at preserving an elusive greater good. He deconstructs the spy’s futile, anxiety-driven attempt to disrupt and contain the iron machine of Communism and exposes the dissociation from the heart that all spy work ultimately sows and feeds upon.

My own father, a CIA case officer during the Cold War, served, like le Carré, in post-war Germany on behalf of American intelligence at the beginning of his career. From that point of initial, state-sponsored engagement in spy work, a part of my father was necessarily walled off due to secret operations he became involved in. The necessity and irony of any oath to secrecy—and this can be true whether one is protecting entire governments or one’s own indiscretions—is the unfortunate requirement to mask who you really are at your core. One operates not only against the object of deception, the perceived enemy, but against oneself; against the human impulse to achieve spiritual integration and wholeness. From the pressure of such dissonance, the self splits in two. The real self knows the entire score but performs only the party line out loud. In the case of my father and the CIA, he held secrets without wavering because lives depended on it. As a result, my father lived until 2014 in the grey shadow of duality that duty to the United States had required of him from 1950-1969. My father placed loyalty to country first and foremost and this contract effectively exiled him from full expression of his own heart. In his later years, he reflected upon his experience externally, abstractly, perhaps even unwittingly, through a fascination with intellectual concepts of duality in his own writing and painting. The heart was the old country, the place I believe he longed to return to, but never could. While it may be difficult to imagine my father’s brand of loyalty in government today, it was a palpable part of him, and of the colleagues of his I met when I was a child. In the harsh and unforgiving realm of psychological warfare between nations during the Cold War, lives depended on duplicity.

“Did your dad ever kill anyone?” Such questions asked by innocent cocktail party goers are one reason I don’t talk casually about my father and have only recently begun to write about his intelligence career. Though the history of the CIA is in many respects dark and fraught, perhaps we can learn something from it now, in the wake of Trump’s confounding authoritarian allure for so many in this nation, and to remember the enormous personal sacrifices so many of our World War II veterans and Cold Warriors made on behalf of the fight against authoritarian regimes. Le Carré’s fiction gives us a place to reflect on the true spiritual costs of misinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare.

As we remember John le Carré and his complex characters, we can remember, too, the real life Cold War spies and appreciate how much more their lives mirrored the harsh realities of Smiley and Leamas rather than “Bond. James Bond”. For many, the “game” was far more psychological than physical—and losses in the field were grieved quietly, but relentlessly. There was a lot more sitting at tables smoking and analyzing situations and a lot less martini swirling, tuxedo wearing and womanizing than Bond movies would have us believe. 

The people my father worked with were just people with real families. They juggled raising children while living in dangerous territories doing risky work. The ones I knew, most of whom are gone now, had diplomatic skills, strategic minds, and terrific table manners. Some spoke three or four languages. Some had performed heroic duties for which they’d received secret medals in the inner conference room at Langley—medals presented then confiscated and locked away. Medals they could not keep, look at again, show to anyone nor talk about. All of these people shared a love of country that drove them into a world where they could no longer be whole. And none of them looked or acted like James Bond. 

Not that there weren’t some colorful moments. In his retirement, my father did come to a point at which he needed to figure out how to dispose of an old cyanide pill he’d once carried in case of the need to commit suicide in an emergency. But generally speaking, these guys were not exploding gadgets or poisoning people on trains. Rather, they were exhausted, anxious and flawed thinkers who believed they were doing the right thing. Human beings charged with carrying out nationalistic dirty work, operating on behalf of the greater good in a seedy vortex of mistrust. 

The aging, short, plump George Smiley, le Carré’s disenchanted British agent engaged in a dark search for truth, makes a brief appearance in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but in terms of le Carré’s canon, Smiley is his key player, a sweetheart of a spy if there ever was one. He stands in stark opposition to glitzy Bond, the iconic fictional spy of the Cold War era. 

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming ignited the reading public’s imagination with a hard, sophisticated and unshakeable modern spy in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die and Moonraker.  In 1956, the Soviets outed the existence of the secret Berlin tunnel that the Americans and Brits had dug into Berlin Soviet Headquarters to intercept communications. The Soviets were aware of this clandestine activity long before they sounded the whistle on it, thanks to the cunning efforts of British double agent George Blake (who also blew my father’s cover in the early 1950s in an event unrelated to the tunnel). The revelation was not good PR for Britain or the United States to say the least. In 1956, the Soviets also squelched the Hungarian uprising in a bloody show of domination. That same year, Fleming released Diamonds Are Forever, and offered Britain a sense of relief from its own fumbling—a fantasy super-hero to hang onto in the face of her deteriorating efficacy. My eldest sister recalls sinking down in her movie theatre seat with horror when my father roared with laughter during the most tense parts of the movie. The journalist William Cook observes that, with the British Empire in decline, "Bond pandered to Britain's inflated and increasingly insecure self-image, flattering us with the fantasy that Britannia could still punch above her weight.” Although Stalin’s reign of terror had stalled out upon his death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev would soon demand that Western powers pull forces out of West Berlin, or else. This three-year crisis over Berlin’s future led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. And the shooting of a compromised agent at Checkpoint Charlie is the eerie starting point for The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, as if le Carré set out to answer Fleming’s cavalier portrayal of bullet-proof spies in this mood-driven thriller, though he claimed he wrote simply to entertain his readers. In a live performance entitled Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré, Anthony Horowitz, bestselling author of the Alex Rider spy novels and David Farr, Emmy-nominated screenwriter of the BBC’s adaptation of le Carré’s The Night Manager face off to determine which author is the better writer, with final votes to be collected from the audience. Horowitz claims that James Bond is bigger than fiction and like Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, he’s lodged in our collective DNA. Horowitz makes salient points about Bond’s popularity. He muses that only 007 could have escorted Queen Elizabeth II from a helicopter to open the 2012 Olympics; this was hardly a job for George Smiley. Horowitz praises Fleming’s sense of timing, use of language and iconic action scenes. 

For me, it is difficult to get on board the Fleming train. Perhaps this has less to do with craft and more with the flagrant celebration of misogyny that infuses his novels. Phrases such as, “All women love semi-rape. They love to be taken. It was his sweet brutality against my bruised body that made his act of love so piercingly wonderful.” (The Spy Who Loved Me) Or this, from Goldfinger:

Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits—barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

Clearly, both le Carré and Bond write from a linear mid-century male perspective and papers could be written weighing the evolution of binary gender roles in spy literature. However, for the sake of this argument, I’d venture to say that Fleming pens stories devoid of deep introspection to titillate rather than challenge our perceptions about the complexities of truth vs lying for the greater good with such lines as, “Goldfinger could not have known that high tension was Bond's natural way of life and that pressure and danger relaxed him.” Goldfinger deserves a modicum of credit in the kitsch department as he sits on his throne drunk with the desire to dominate, red marks on his throat, instruments next to him. And, okay, I’ll cast a weary nod to the unimaginative trope of the beautiful, yet terrified girl strapped to a chair just out of Bond’s reach. But I tire quickly of Goldfinger’s lengthy soliloquy as the circular saw approaches 007’s private parts. SPECTRE, SMERSH and the man with the third nipple don’t bring me closer to a new level of understanding about good and evil, much less, myself within the context of good and evil. 

There are no men with third nipples in le Carré’s work. In fact, nipples are not the focal point, so to speak, nor are the women “honeypots”. Liz Gold, Alec Leamas’s love interest is no Pussy Galore, though okay, yes, she is of course, far younger than Leamas. To me, she symbolizes a brand of spiritual innocence that Leamas has lost and cannot regain. The ordinary, uncompromised life. A simple kind of love that Alec will never be able to have because of his entanglement with espionage and his inability to be whole within his own heart. Le Carré writes Liz Gold subtly. She’s nice looking but not a material conquest. It is she who kindles the relationship with Leamas—and she’s fairly complex. Le Carré answers Fleming’s pornography with something of the heart. 

Farr reminds the Fleming vs. le Carré audience that the Bond books are not to be confused with the movies and agrees with Horowitz that Fleming creates “wonderful cartoons”. He says, “Fleming is a stylist, a skillful writer of action.” But, he adds, “The movies have blessed him.” Farr sees Bond as a superhero who fulfills our fantasies, but warns le Carré knows:

 … no such solutions are possible. He has tasted the reality of post war Europe and knows that no number of Aston Martins and martinis can solve them. Le Carré’s world is seedy, it’s ugly, it’s evil and it’s banal, yes, but most problems in our world do not come in black and white, they do come in gray. Far from being glamorized, the spy in le Carré is dragged down in some level of compromise, he is desensitized. Many of the practitioners in the novel are incompetent.

Farr goes on to say,

I would argue that le Carré is a truly great novelist. He delves into the human soul… he takes big existential risks. The spy novel is basically all of our lives writ large. We’re all seeking to find out who we are…what masks do we present in our lives…what double agents do we meet in our own souls? 

Farr asserts le Carré’s greatness is in the search within his own heart. In the end of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the trap Leamas and Liz Gold find themselves in, and the reckoning we see in Leamas as he decides to join her in death, is far more sophisticated and emotionally devastating than any two-bit lecturing/slicing/dicing tyrant with a circular saw could dish out. Though Leamas believed all along he was working to get revenge on Mundt, in the end, he discovers that he himself has been had by the British Secret Service. He has been used, one last time, as a pawn by George Smiley and “The Circus” who had sent him to compromise Mundt’s second in command, Fiedler, who had started to suspect that Mundt was a double agent. As it turns out, Mundt is indeed the Brits' man and Leamas unwittingly saves Mundt from being outed by Fiedler and inadvertently condemns Fiedler to his death.

“Then why didn’t they shoot you?” Liz asks the compromised Leamas. “You conspired with Fiedler against Mundt, that’s what they said. You killed a guard. Why has Mundt let you go?”

“All right!” Leamas shouted suddenly. “I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what you were never, never to know, neither you nor I. Listen: Mundt is London’s man, their agent; they bought him when he was in England. We are witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin. To save him from a clever little Jew in his own department who had begun to suspect the truth. They made us kill him, d’you see, kill the Jew. Now you know, and God help us both.”

In the end it is Fiedler, whom Leamas had befriended, who meets his maker. Mundt is safely intact as London’s primary asset. And what about the moral responsibility for the death of Leamas’s agents? Eh, that’s the price tag of doing business. 

In an article entitled Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré, William Boyd writes that when Leamas and Liz Gold try to escape over the wall,

George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of bluff and counterbluff, is waiting for him. Leamas hears Smiley shout: "The girl, where's the girl?" But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead. That is the key implication...that she's never coming over and was never meant to. Leamas suddenly understands this—it is the final betrayal he suffers—and he climbs back down to the east and meets his death. 

Boyd admits having read the book several times before understanding that the rubbing out of Liz Gold was required: 

Leamas was meant to make it over the wall—the service was going to bring him in from the cold, but Liz Gold, by association, knows too much to be released back into society. She was always destined to die on the wall. 

Farr asserts that le Carré explores deep existential questions relentlessly. He notes how le Carré pays homage to Joseph Conrad: 

Le Carré is on a search for the secret sharer, “the person who knows us better than we know ourselves. He explores complex ideas around doubles and selves. Someone is always seeking someone else. Leamas seeks Mundt. Smiley is seeking Karla. Magnus seeks Axel. Or does Axel seek Magnus? The heart of darkness is the soul of the other.” 

And underlying it all, adds Farr, is the dark, existential notion that “the person you love most is the person you know least well.”

Le Carré’s characters are on a journey into the heart of darkness of Cold War Berlin and London. Their inward struggles stand in stark opposition to Fleming’s cursory take on interiority as this moment from Goldfinger suggests: 

“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death."

At the end of the evening, the audience in the Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré event sides with Farr, and with me, with 60 percent agreeing that le Carré writes circles around Fleming. Sure, our culture will always enjoy entertainment that infuses us with a false sense of addictive power. We imagine ourselves running the show, overcoming the foe with our unique brand of cunning and cool. We imagine ourselves standing at the bar commanding specific cocktails despite our precarious location in a pit of snakes.

“A dry martini,” he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet...Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?” (Casino Royale) 

While Bond inflates our sense of control, le Carré makes us feel as if we ourselves inhabit the dark, porous, gritty world of Alec Leamas. His genius as a writer lies in his ability to illustrate a sense of nihilism. He writes the stark minimalism of Berlin and London and squares off with the tensions between East and West and the degradation inherent in the spy profession. In his final conversation with Liz Gold, Leamas utters the famous lines:

“What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” 

Le Carré requires us to look at ourselves as we watch the action. We cannot remain bystanders. This note by Matthew McVeigh, that I found buried in the comment section of the YouTube video of Ian Fleming vs. John le Carré gives us the essence of the important difference between the two writers:

He turned a genre that was previously about action fantasy into a realistic psychological exploration of bureaucrats, detective work and ethics. He did indeed bring an element of the European existential novel to his stories, and it would be more interesting to compare him to Kafka or Heinrich Boell than Fleming or other spy writers. I don't like Bond, I don't find him exciting or attractive and don't like the implications Fleming is making about his world. Le Carré's protagonists have just as bent a set of ethics as Bond but it's addressed differently: rather than expecting us to bluntly accept behavior that would ordinarily be seen as appalling on account of the espionage context, le Carré wants to reconnect the spy world to the rest of the world, and to re-connect the lost, confused characters in search of their identity to the humanity they are fleeing by taking refuge in espionage. 

In the end, le Carré includes us in this terrible world of mistrust. We are all in it together. We are forced to reckon with those parts of ourselves that move between shadow and light, to confront the double agent in our own hearts.


Anna I. McClain is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, at work on a memoir about uncovering her Russian-American emigre father’s Cold War experience. @annaimcclain

Monday, January 11, 2021

Text Your Dead: An Invitation from Eric LeMay


How will we mourn everyone who's dead and dying? 

This question, like so many others, spiraling inside me. Inside us. I replay the numbers. Yesterday's death count, in my county, our country, our world. As though I’m not numb to them. Morgue fatigue, magnitude fatigue. Instead, I replay the metaphors: yesterday another 9/11, another Antietam. One jumbo jet going down, two going down, the Titanic going down. I try to hold the whole of it in my head and can't. Bodies in mass graves. Bodies in refrigerator trucks. 

And all this happening while so many Americans refuse to recognize it's happening. Since it started, two of my uncles have died. Both with severe comorbidities, both in care facilities, though one returned home to die in hospice. I can't get a clear answer about whether their deaths were COVID-related. My family veers right, sees the virus as a political exaggeration. Even mentioning it is charged. 

"What happened?" I ask my father on the phone. "Well, it's not entirely clear. He was in bad shape." I know not to press him, not because he isn't reasonable, but because he knows better than to press our family about the virus at such a moment. This, in the family etiquette, isn’t a moment for politics.

So how will we mourn our dead when we can't speak about how they died or how, had we acted otherwise as a country, so many of them wouldn't have?

Sometimes I try to still these questions looping in my head by listening to podcasts, usually in the dark, sleepless hours. Experts on collective trauma, storytellers on healing, gurus on grief. Sometimes it helps. One night I came across an episode on This American Life called "Really Long Distance." It's a bad title for a beautiful subject. 

In 2010, a garden-designer named Itaru Sasaki built one of those old-timey telephone booths in his garden. It overlooks the sea in the Otsuchi region on the east coast of Japan. It has a black rotary phone. The phone isn’t connected. No line, no signal. Sasaki built it after his cousin and long-time drinking buddy died of cancer. He uses the phone to speak to his dead cousin. Sasaki calls it "kaze no denwa," the wind phone or the phone of the wind. It’s the wind that carries your words to the dead. 

And then, about a year later, on March, 11, 2011, one of the worst tsunamis in history hit the eastern coast of Japan, the very region where Sasaki lives. At least 16,000 people died, another 2,500 went missing, almost half a million were displaced. Soon after, the wind phone became a place of pilgrimage. Thousands of people have come to Sasaki’s garden, picked up the black telephone, and called their dead. 

In the episode, you hear the mourners speaking on the phone. You hear the grief rake through their voices. As I was listening and crying and trying not to wake up my wife and son sleeping next to me from crying, I found myself wondering what a wind phone might look like for me? For us? What might carry our words to our dead?

Then it occurred to me: we don't call, we text. What if we could text our dead? So I did what you do with a grief-soaked idea that comes to you on a sleepless night in the middle of a global pandemic. I registered a domain, built a website, bought a phone, got a new line, started a Twitter account, and created the badly titled Text Our Dead, where you can send a text to your dead. Here's how I introduce it:

Q: What is this?
This is a chance to text someone who has died.

Q: What should I text?
Text what you want to say. Or what you didn't. Ask what you want to ask. Or didn't. Text about your dreams or your day or your dog. Send a blessing. Send a curse. Share with your dead your grief, your memories, your love.  

Q: Will I get a text back?
Not from this number, which isn't the same as saying you won't hear back.

In the daylight, I doubt the idea holds up. Then again, right now I doubt anything holds up, including me. 

As an essayist, I think of Text Our Dead as something like an intervention into the culture of American mourning at a moment when we're dying faster than any time in our history, but usually I think of it in light of something Sasaki has said: “Life is only, at most, 100 years. But death is something that goes on much longer, both for the person who has died and also for the survivors, who must find a way to feel connected to the dead. Death does not end the life. All the people who are left afterward are still figuring out what to do about it. They need a way to feel connected.” 

We all know American rituals of mourning are shit. Be brave at the funeral. Be back at work on Monday. Get over it. Get on with it. Don't cry. Don't bury the bones of your loved ones in your heart. For us, it’s not a connection but a chasm between the living and the dead. We’re bad at death, bad with our dead, and bad deaths are happening all around us.

To say it another way, just as the pandemic has exposed so much that’s wrong about our culture—our economic inequality, our racial injustice, our environmental negligence, our cruelty towards immigrants, the elderly, and the poor—it’s also exposing how terrible we are at mourning. 

And then there’s Sasaki, with a very different view: death goes on, life goes on, the living need to feel connected to the dead. 

How might that happen for us? Maybe through our smartphones rather than Sasaki’s old rotary phone. When asked why he chose a phone, Sasaki explained that picking up the phone primes you to speak. You just start talking. That’s right as far as it goes, but nowadays we just start texting. It's our go-to, our mostly likely way of connecting with others in our lives. Maybe texting can also connect us with our dead.

Our phones, after all, are already conduits of death. The final calls from the ICU, the last Facetimes. And we're all figuratively dying on our phones we're always on. For work, for school, for the closest thing many of us have to human touch. Touch screens. It's soul-killing. What left to lose? If we text to connect, why not try to connect with those we’ve lost?

Try. That’s the key word. Try, test, essay. That's why I’m sharing Text Our Dead with you on Essay Daily. We’re believers in the essay. We want to see—want to essay—what words can do. Words thumbed on the phones and mangled by autocorrect. Words generated from voice-to-text and pocked with emojis. Words crafted from memory, from missing, from the possibility that your words might mean something not only for you, but for  them, your dead.

“Death does not end the life,” says Sasaki.

Sure, it’s absurd, but if we’re willing to risk dying in traffic to send a text, why not risk the absurdity and text our dead?

Eric LeMay is the author of Remember Me and other work. The quote and paraphrases of Itaru Sasaki's words come from Tessa Fontaine’s “The Phone of the Wind” in The Believer (July 25, 2018).

Monday, January 4, 2021

David Grandouiller: Unreality, Ohio

 “It’s a book about disaster,” I told my friends all summer—on a march to the statehouse or at an outdoor wedding. “But not just disaster. It’s sort of about human psychology and disaster. Or sociology and disaster. How do people interact with past and future disaster? How do they cope?” And then maybe under the marquee, sometime before the bouquet toss, I’d relay an insight from the book about the first atomic bomb or placebo effects in pain therapy or the microparasites that drive ants, by means of mind control, to the tops of leaves of grass, because they “want” to be in a cow’s stomach. 

In exchange, friends told me how much they loved the new Haim album. Or how corn is taking over the country, and we’re all doing its bidding. So I learned things by reading, and I learned things by talking about what I was reading. 

The book was Elisa Gabbert's The Unreality of Memory, a travel guide to my summer. I’d walk down to the corner store, wearing a mask, feeling a bit apprehensive, and see thirty, thirty-five college kids all shouting across a beer pong table in the same front yard. And then I’d get home and Gabbert would quote Chernobyl survivors saying, “You can’t be afraid the whole time; a person can’t do that. Some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” Or saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The contexts weren’t the same, of course, but it felt like we were having conversations. One morning I joined chants in an intersection on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. The next afternoon, I drank with an old friend on my porch, laughing while the neighbor’s kids played on the lawn and police sprayed mace into the crowds downtown, and it was dissonant. “I feel this way all the time now,” Gabbert wrote. “Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.” 

These are the kinds of lines that end Gabbert’s essays. She’s an aphoristic writer who loves to leave the reader with a one-two punch. “My own past suffering is often a great source of comfort to me,” she says. “This must mean I’ve never really suffered.” Or, “It’s comforting to think that when we’re too fatigued to fight, someone else will take the lead. It is, perhaps, too comforting.” They work like little models of the essays at large, illustrating, in miniature, how we’re always caught between two truths, two needs. 

This tension seems like an inevitable consequence of trying to live with care at a time when we have unprecedented access to information about our communities’ ills whether or not we have the sense to seek that information ourselves, at a time when even the youngest among us are bracing for global apocalypse from war or natural disaster or disease—or all of these: as Gabbert’s book shows me, different kinds of disasters compound one another. It’s important to fight for the prevention of disaster and to fight for the recovery of those already experiencing disaster. 

At the same time, it’s not possible to hold all the problems you’re exposed to in your head at once. And it’s not possible to give your total attention to any one of them for very long. There are things you have to do, like eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. And there’s your limited energy—your “spoons,” as I’ve heard more people saying recently. The tension between our responsibility to fight and our responsibility to go on living seems to be always increasing as our awareness widens— “the ballooning millennial conscience,” my roommate once called this. And when we can’t worry about all these things at once, and we have little power to change many of the things we worry about, we can end up asking foolish questions: as Gabbert puts it, “Where do I focus my anxiety so that I can feel like a good citizen in an anxious society?” It’s precisely this anxiety that can rob us of our empathy when others need it, she points out. 

I’ve begun to wonder if my “good citizen” anxieties stem from a belief that it’s possible for me to act rightly and sufficiently as an individual in the face of the world’s problems, if I just tried a bit harder, taught myself to care a bit more. Gabbert spends many pages wrestling with her limited energies, her limited empathy. Meanwhile, her book complicates any belief in the power of the individual by overwhelming the reader with a full sense of their own helplessness—there are viral pandemics coming that will make this one look like child’s play, she suggests from the research. When Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupts, many of us will be buried in ash before the news arrives. And if these things don’t kill us all, one day we’ll die, anyway. 

When I allow myself to think about all that, it often makes me feel nihilistic. Why should anything I do matter? But this summer, during a conversation about The Unreality, a friend told me, “No—don’t you see how freeing that is? We have nothing to lose.” We can take action, he meant, for the people and causes that are important to us, without worrying it isn’t enough. Enough for what? You don’t measure care in quantities. 

What I love most about Gabbert is that even while she spends so much of her energy engaging big, important things (she votes, she marches, she calls her senator; a sticky note by her desk says Be an activist), she allows herself to think about small things, even petty things. She’ll tell you she wants a bigger bed. That she wishes she had time to play more tennis. She’s good at this on her Twitter, too, which is worth following if you don’t already—there are pointed commentaries on current events, like, “WE NEED THE POST OFFICE FOR OTHER THINGS. NOT JUST VOTING.” And then, non sequitur gems: “In the 80s you could smoke inside a hospital.” 

More than that, she’s willing to put the largeness of disaster away, sometimes, for the intimacy of a single voice saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The individual voice is a world in its own right. It, too, needs saving—from the tyranny of scale. I can’t prevent the globe from being covered in water, or in fire. It’s possible that together we can, but even that is beside the point, I think. What’s important is that as I move to fight the disaster, I will encounter my neighbor, who is also moving. I can listen to her, and she can listen to me, and we can talk about what she’s reading, and we can cry, and we can tell new jokes.


David Grandouiller is a French-American writer and editor living, most recently, in Philadelphia. He's working on a first book of essays about the bitterness and confusion he taught himself at a conservative Christian university, looking for uncertainty in faith and for intimacy in autonomy. His essay, "On Communion," was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant from the Ohioana Library Association.