Monday, December 25, 2023

Andrew Maynard on Other People’s Children

When my wife, Ally, began to feel contractions last month, she tried to convince herself they weren’t real. With baby #1, her water broke on the due date, but these arrived nine days early, and it can be difficult to recognize a reality outside of your lived experience. Ally researched Braxton Hicks on her phone while I slept in the nursery (I’d been kicked out of bed in favor of a full-body pillow). The contractions drew closer together, more painful, until she could no longer pretend they weren’t real. She woke me up to take her to the hospital. I was struck by her calm. 

The first time Ally was in labor, she pushed for four and a half hours, had an epidural that didn’t spread to half of her body, experienced the frustration of some unfortunately-timed shift changes, and ended with an episiotomy. In the aftermath, she experienced sustained waves of crippling anxiety. We took our son home but had to return to the NICU the next day. About a week later, my mom called while I was out walking the dog. When she asked how I was doing, I started crying on the crowded sidewalk. I didn’t have the language to explain what I was feeling, so I hung up the phone. 

But this time the epidural distributed its magic with generosity, and we took a nap while we waited. When the doctor came in to check on the progress, Ally’s water broke and our second son was delivered fifteen minutes later. Ally looked at ease holding Sheppard. She’d done this before. Her body and mind had evolved to not only endure but to embrace building and delivering life. I cut the cord. The doctor stitched her up and then left. The nurses remained to do what they do: professionally care about other people’s children. We stared at our son, Sheppard, all day. I’d now witnessed two births up close and personal. I knew what it looked and sounded like. Yet I also knew I could witness a thousand more and never really understand the experience. I studied my son's tiny face and long toes and jet-black hair, and for the first time in weeks, I forgot to call my senators to advocate on behalf of the thousands of children who had been killed in Gaza. And the thousands more to come.  

I recently revisited Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” and find myself in the precarious position of agreeing with Lorde’s sentiment that “Your silence will not protect you,” while also being weary (verging on cynical) of the way speaking truth has manifested in the contemporary landscape of social media. When everyone speaks every one of their truths to everyone in their curated circle, the effect rendered is the same as the white noise machine in my toddler’s room: the voices converge into a single static that muffles the outside world. 

I arrived at Lorde’s essay in a state of frustration. I was irritated how the rhetoric surrounding the atrocities in Gaza had started to diminish the atrocities themselves. I was aware of the irony—centering my frustration over the way people center their outrage—and thought Lorde’s words might discourage my pettiness, maybe even combat my hypocrisy. Or at the very least force me to think outside of my experience. Usually the role of the essay in my life is simple: I take pleasure in reading them. But sometimes, particularly in moments of chaos, there’s more intention. 


We moved from San Francisco to Richmond, Virginia, this past summer to be closer to Ally’s family. Moving is a pain in the ass, but it’s also transformative if you allow it to be. You have to make choices about what you value, where to invest your resources, which stuff is worth the haul, who you must say goodbye to. As independent school teachers, Ally and I have to consider whether we want to take advantage of discounted tuition with our employer schools or start thinking about public school districts. Do we prioritize a yard or a walkable neighborhood? We have to clarify what we actually mean when we say we value diversity.  Basically, we have to decide what air we want our children to breathe. Choice can feel daunting, but it’s always a privilege. Moving across the country, like writing an essay, asks you to hold both who and where you’ve been and who and where you want to be in tandem. 

Moving has also made me conscious of the provincial influences on how we tell stories about our own homes and the homes of others. When I tell people in Richmond I moved from San Francisco, I’ve been met with looks that say, I know why you left. They don’t. Yes, they know it’s expensive, and they’ve typically seen the videos of the car break-ins and tents on the sidewalk and people doing drugs on the street. Multiple people have specifically referenced how Walgreens now has to lock up the majority of their products and might have to shut down their city locations. And I find myself wondering if purchasing free-range deodorant from a Walgreens in San Francisco was really once the nostalgia-inducing experience they make it out to be, or if there’s something else going on. And if you’ve seen the headlines about San Francisco on major news outlets, it’s hard to blame anyone for believing the city is broken. But it’s also important to acknowledge that if you, like Ron Desantis, use maps that track human shit, you shouldn’t be surprised when that's what you step in. And I say this as someone who loves San Francisco and also hates the way San Franciscans so often talked about the South as if exempt from the bigotry. I say this as someone who is essentially still a tourist in Richmond but has realized that, depending on your slant and where you fall on the map, Richmond is either the former capital of the Confederacy that fetishizes its past, or the predominantly minority city that has demanded new monuments. And if the stories of San Francisco and Richmond can be told in ways that are unrecognizable to the people who live there, what might I be missing in the discourse about Gaza? And anyway, most people in Richmond with whom I discuss San Francisco simply respond, “Oh, I love San Francisco.” But those responses don’t help me say what I’m trying to say. Do you see what I’m saying? 

And this all rests under the umbrella of the question: What can the essay do in a time of genocide? I don’t think I have (nor am I particularly interested in) a prescriptive answer. It’s easier to answer what the essay can’t do in a time of genocide. Essays will not feed or clothe or shelter or shield the people whose roots have been tattered and ripped from Gaza. Essays will not pull the shrapnel from the flesh of children. Essays will not breathe life into the cold bodies of dead babies. 

But essays do encourage digression in a time that feels more privy to debate and definition. Essays tend to avoid the delicate jostling of semantics that send the internet into a tizzy over the parameters and application of the word genocide. Essays reject the Jenga-styled, veneered arguments that pretend to be offended by the manufactured hypocrisy of both valuing land acknowledgements and believing Palestinians have the right to exist. 

Within Lorde’s essay, there are entire worlds to explore, but I keep coming back to this passage: “In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.” It’s here in the essay where I suspect Lorde would urge me to call my reps and donate to aid funds and encourage my community to follow suit, but she would caution me against taking up space in an increasingly crowded discussion where it can already be a challenge to interpret the words let alone make meaning from them. I don’t believe it’s this white American guy’s function in the transformation to be heard, but rather to listen to those whose function and experience make them, as speakers, vital to the transformation. 

And history and policy are important, and they are lanes that require drivers with credentials of knowledge and experience. And there are essays to be written that I can’t and will not write but will devour if you write them and encourage others to do the same. So I’m trying to stay in my lane here, to keep it simple. Because there is simplicity within this complexity. People are dying in droves. Civilians are dying in droves. Children are dying in droves. And Lorde says: 

For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth. 

And here is what I know beyond understanding. On our first night in the hospital, Sheppard, as is common for babies who undergo a quick labor, had a belly full of amniotic fluid that he kept spitting up while asleep on his back. The nurses assured us that babies can tilt their heads to the side and will not choke on their own bile. But we still couldn’t sleep. Maybe it was because we’d recently binged Breaking Bad and had too recently watched what happened to Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane. So every couple minutes when Sheppard would gag, we’d flock to his bassinet and wipe away the mess and hover, a hand on his chest and an ear by his mouth waiting to feel his breath. And we did that all night—out of instinct, not choice. A choice is whether you look at the sensitive content. Maybe you insist on spending three days sifting through investigative reports that warn you it’s going to hurt. And maybe you find a detail so brutal that you can barely bear to consider it. There's much to be gleaned from reading other people’s essays, but I’ve also been thinking about the role of writing the essay and teasing out the banality of my own experience in the time when the World Health Organization has reported that a child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza, which means that dozens of children have died in the time I’ve spent recounting the birth of my own. And when you measure anything in the lives of children, it’s fair to ask what’s the point? And it’s tempting to borrow a sentence from Lorde, perhaps, “The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us.” But that would feel contrived, like total bullshit coming from me. Because Lorde’s essay was written to be spoken and shared with an audience, and I’m writing this for myself. I’m writing this because I want to think exhaustively about something I feel in my body but don’t fully understand. To remember that after Ally gave birth to our first child it was the stories of women that made her realize she wasn’t alone. I want to question why it’s impossible to sleep when my child is gagging, but I can sleep while children die in Gaza. I once cried in the middle of the street because my body and mind were still acclimating to the weight of being explicitly responsible for another life. And while our bodies and minds might be built to evolve and protect ourselves, we must reject hardening to the deaths of other people’s children. And when Lorde says “teach by living,” I think of the nurses who showed me how to fold a diaper beneath the stump of an umbilical cord and how you have to swaddle a baby tighter than you might feel comfortable with to make them feel secure. And at the time I thought they were modeling how to keep your child alive, but maybe they were modeling what it looks like to care for someone else’s children as if they were your own. Maybe when they told me not to worry about Sheppard spitting up what to me looked like poison, it’s because they understood that amniotic fluid was what nourished him for months, and sometimes we have to reject the very thing that used to keep us safe, that once sustained us, in order to live and grow and transform in a new world. 




Andrew Maynard is a teacher and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. His prose has appeared in HAD, Rejection Letters, True Story, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two sons, Clyde and Sheppard.

This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Patrick Madden on Exactitude in Translation (feat. Eduardo Galeano with a Christmas Eve pun)

I have just finished reading Eduardo Galeano's last book, Hunter of Stories, in English translation, against Karina's advice, and I admit that she was utterly correct to question my judgment. I know Spanish well enough, and I do own the book in its original language, but that copy is miles away at my office, and I am sick, and I'd been waiting so long to say goodbye to Eduardo, who died many years ago, and I've been rereading my favorites of his books but avoiding this one, I suppose because the act felt too final, but this long weekend seemed like the right time to finally do it, "it" being to read, but also to bid farewell, which is not really farewell, as Eduardo himself learned as a young man in the old cafes of Montevideo:

I discovered that the past could become the present, and that memories could be recounted in such a way that they would stop being yesterday and become right now.

So maybe I was just missing my old friend and I wanted him present again, and Karina was right that I should have listened to his voice unfiltered through a translator. This point came home to me most clearly near the end of the book, in a scene from years ago in Montevideo's Parque Rodó, which the translator renders (in part) thusly:

suddenly I found myself surrounded by an uproarious crowd of children, dressed in their school uniforms, the girls with big blue ribbons in their hair.

As I've mentioned, Cazador de Historias is ensconced on a shelf in my university office. I will write the next bit before I get the book.

Reading that line, I knew it was mistranslated. I felt curious, a bit miffed, a bit betrayed, a bit territorial, a bit elitist. I wondered why Mark Fried, who'd translated eight of Galeano's books, who'd worked with him for twenty-five years, would have interpreted the idea this way into English, knowingly or unwittingly. My cavil was with the ribbons. While it's possible that some girls wore blue ribbons in their hair, I'm certain that Galeano was noting the big blue bows on the front of every Uruguayan schoolchild's uniform, boys and girls alike. I imagine the translator, encountering a strange detail that didn't map onto his experience, deciding that Galeano must have meant ribbons in the girls' hair, a logical place for such things. Who ever heard of a school uniform featuring giant blue bows, or, for that matter, flowing knee-length white smocks buttoned up in back? Who would design such a cruel outfit, not for private school students, whose risible getups are an expected part of their hazing, but for every child in the public schools of a country that led the Americas in establishing free, obligatory, laical education for all (1876)?

I guess I'm surprised that Fried seems either never to have visited Uruguay, or never to have noticed the ubiquitous schoolchildren in their silly uniforms, or maybe he visited only in the summer, or he didn't think to check on what must have seemed an odd phrasing in Galeano's Spanish (Galeano would have been dead by the time Fried got to this part of the book, I believe, so he couldn't have consulted). Or perhaps he decided not to "go there" in describing the reality Galeano had written, knowing that most of his English-speaking readers would be confused by an accurate depiction of the scene. But not this reader.

I have just found the Spanish edition of the book and checked the original phrasing. I was right (of course; I wouldn't complete this essay, or release it into the world, if I were wrong). Here it is:

me encontré súbitamente rodeado por una alborotada multitud de niños, vestidos con sus túnicas escolares y sus grandes moños azules.

I like "uproarious" for "alborotada"; "crowd" is better than the cognate "multitude." Same for "uniform" instead of "tunic," though the latter term gets us much closer to an accurate visual. Syntactically, "suddenly I found myself" is the expected rendering of what reads as "myself [I] encountered suddenly" in word-for-word translation. Nearly everything feels pleasing, both accurate and artful, but maybe even the non-Spanish speaker can see that there are absolutely no "girls" and no "hair" here. Just "grandes moños azules" = "grand moños azures" = "big blue bows" ("moño" is supposed to have entered Latin from Etruscan, where "muhn" meant "knot").

I don't know why this bothers me so much, but I imagine it has something to do with the unavoidable imperfections of translation, or even the imprecisions of writing generally. For instance, I have been to Parque Rodó, numerous times, so I can locate Galeano's scene in a kind of general scenery/geography. In fact, I do locate it (unconsciously) just outside the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, where I once ran into the novelist Mario Delgado Aparaín. Obviously, the happenstantial similarities deepen the topographical. In this transposition of memories, I guess I am the rowdy schoolchildren and Delgado is Galeano (note the near anagram: 5 of 7 letters). But I am certain that my image is "wrong," not only because what are the chances, but also because Galeano used to always walk along the riverfront, which intersects the park several blocks from the museum, nearer to the amusement park, which seems like a more likely place for kids to (want to) be. Of course, a reader doesn't have to visualize the scene with any measure of specificity (and even my sharpest experiential memory of the park is only hazy and vague) to get the point of the vignette, which is that the children were excited to see an author they'd read in school; that they hailed him as "lord of the flames," misattributing to him a story he'd recounted from an unnamed man from Neguá, Colombia; and that, as Galeano points out to end his piece, this was "the only title of nobility [he'd] ever received." There's a lot here, but mostly the inversion of our expectations about value, about whom we ought to impress. Not only does the piece celebrate children; it undermines the whole system of back-patting honorifics. It's typical Galeano, in a good way.

So why should it matter if the translator transplanted the blue bows to the girls' hair?

I guess I could ask you how you would read "an uproarious crowd of children, dressed in their school uniforms and their big blue bows." Would you breeze by the description? Pause to consider it? Wonder what those bows were doing? Where they were located? Might you place them in girls' hair anyway? And does knowing that they’re on every child, dangling just below the neck, on a dresslike white smock, advance the plot? Does it help you understand anything about any message? Or does it give you another kind of pause? Are you heading to your search engine right now to see this sight?

Here. I'll save you the trouble:

For me, who didn't grow up in Uruguay and who's never worn the uniform, but whose children have (betimes, when we have lived in Montevideo long term), the sight of those comical dandy-painter costumes always elicits a smile, sometimes even a chuckle. Karina repeats the party line about how the uniforms equalize rich and poor, because nobody sees whether your clothes are ratty or fashionable, but I'm not so sure. For one thing, you can see pants legs and shoes; for another, maybe your smock is not in the best condition. A related justification she gives is that kids never have to worry about what clothes they'll wear to school because they're covered up with the uniform anyway. I mean, yes, those are possible interpretations of the tunic-and-bow, but couldn't we also be perpetuating a minor humiliation on our children, or, better said, a humbling, to good purpose? Enforcing a kind of uniformity as a means of, well, uniting them, us, not just spatially-socioeconomically but temporally-historically? Children wear the same uniform their parents wore, same as their grandparents and great-grandparents wore, same as those kids who thronged Eduardo Galeano that day. Dress (as redress) is yet another way past becomes present. Everybody does it. Has done it. See? We all survived. We're still here.

And while we're still here, extrapolating ad nauseam from such a trifling mistranslation, I should clarify that I'm resolutely against the idea that writing is purely secondary to what we commonly call "reality." Galeano first taught me this:

We begin with the moment an act happens in reality, outside an author's head, and then the author reproduces in himself what happened outside himself. Then this idea, this reproduction of the act inside the author's head, also becomes part of reality. The original act, which comes directly or indirectly from reality, is transfigured in the process of creation.

You would be right, given all we've been through, to wonder what this statement sounded like when Galeano spoke it through the air to my ears two decades ago in Cafe Brasilero in Montevideo's Old City. For the benefit of Spanish speakers or Google translators, I'll share a transcription here, noting, with a humbled smile, how my own translation smoothed over quite a few extemporaneously rough edges:

...y de algún modo siempre a partir del momento en el que un hecho que proviene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad, o sea un hecho ocurrido en la realidad que está fuera del autor, o un hecho nacido en la cabeza del autor, que al fin y al cabo es un ser en sociedad, por lo tanto reproduce dentro de sí lo que acontece afuera, por lo tanto eso también es parte de la realidad. Ese hecho que viene directa- o indirectamente de la realidad se transfigura en el proceso de creación.

When he said it, amidst hours of jovial conversation, it struck me as something utterly new and vitally important to understand. I comprehended, epiphanically, the power behind the motto Galeano printed on all his books: "la creación literaria": literary creation: the idea that the written word not only derived from but created reality. Reality expanded infinitely, immediately, it seemed.

Before we move on, allow me a brief additional consideration of transfigurations. All this reminds me of another Galeano piece, one of the "Walls Speak" segments in Walking Words, where an unknown graffitist has written

Las vírgenes tienen muchas navidades, pero ninguna noche buena

which was translated as

Virgins have many Christmases but no christenings

The grace of the Spanish joke is that Christmas Eve is called "Nochebuena," or "Good Night." So the sentiment of the graffiti is that virgins (recalling Mary, the Virgin mother of Jesus, of course) may celebrate many Christmases, but they don't have any good nights. Ever. Because...well, you get it. The problem with the translation is that, while it's technically true (or is it? a virgin could attend the christening of a friend's child), it's not funny. Yes, there's the alliterative wordplay, but there's no pun. So I tried my own translation:

For virgins Christmas comes but once a year, but every night's a silent night

While the rhythm stutters at the outset (that pesky "for"), it settles into a pleasing, regular trochaic nonameter. And what's more, it finds a pun in the same last position, and with the same literal Christmas-Eve connection, and with a very similar double meaning, as the original. In order to pull off that feat, it has to revise the initial premise (from "many Christmases" to rare Christmases), but this feels like a more forgivable revision than ditching the joke altogether.

Which reminds me of yet another nitpick I've had with a Galeano translation, but I'll spare the backstory and simply let Eduardo remind us that

every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated, or forgiven.


Patrick Madden, author of Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), teaches at Brigham Young University and curates the online anthology of classical essays

Monday, December 18, 2023

Dave Griffith on Thinking About Looking or The Essay as Ally

Screen shot from Instagram: Warning for Sensitive Content

In the summer of 2017 I met Shaun King at the Chautauqua Institution–yes, that Chautauqua, where Salman Rusdhie was attacked and subsequently lost sight in his right eye. 

I was onboarding that summer. I had just been hired to the executive team of the Institution and, though my start date was later in the fall, they wanted me to see what the lovely and venerable grounds were like in-season.

King, an activist and organizer, was unknown to me. All I knew was that his visit was controversial. The audience at Chautauqua, while known for being deeply curious and full of well-educated folk committed to life-long education, are also known for being majority white and politically center-right. All I was hearing about King was that he was a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, an affiliation that led most of the Chautauquans I spoke with to cock an eyebrow.

King’s lecture was in the newly rebuilt 4,400 seat amphitheater, or simply, “Amp,” as it is known on the grounds, and it was standing room only. I stood at the back of the Amp and listened, but mainly I was watching the crowd. I was curious to see how they would react to the news that this young man–still not quite forty-years-old–was there to share with them; that racism is systemic and structural; that it is endemic, baked in, so to speak, to most American institutions, especially law enforcement. 

While the crowd was gracious, clearly what King was saying was a direct challenge to the way most audience members, myself included, experienced everyday life. One audience member, an older gentleman wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of the military vessel he presumably served aboard during World War II, turned to me and said, “Love it or leave it.” 

King got his start blogging and writing as a justice reporter for the New York Daily News, but these days he’s most known for raising funds for families victimized by police violence, and for the long, impassioned explanatory captions he writes in the space below his numerous Instagram posts, many of which are reposts of videos sent to him in order to help boost the visibility and awareness of events that would otherwise be lost in the daily glut of fitness and lifestyle influencers. If you follow reports of police brutality, then chances are good that you have seen some of his posts. His words illustrate and illuminate: “Let me tell you what you’re seeing,” he often begins, providing context for the often jumpy or grainy cell phone footage taken by bystanders.

Since the October terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas militants, King’s Instagram feed has become focused almost exclusively on the IDF’s retaliatory counterattack, which has led to the death of thousands of civilians. Collaborating with journalists inside of Gaza, King has been reposting dozens of videos per day, many of them depicting the lifeless bodies of children. 

Many of the posts are flagged by Instagram as “Sensitive Content,” indicated by a white eye icon with a warning slash through it, as well as a brief message: “This video may contain graphic or violent content” and beneath it a small box containing the words “See why.” Clicking on the box reveals a boilerplate statement explaining that though the post “doesn’t go against our Community Standards, [it] may contain images that some people might find upsetting.” And then: “We cover graphic content so people can choose whether to see it.” 

The unintentional poetry of this statement–choosing whether or not to see–is profound.

King has many detractors for a variety of reasons–see Wikipedia–and I’m not here to defend him against those criticisms, but one thing that I think needs to be said is that what he is doing here and now goes beyond mere “outrage journalism.” He is forcing us to confront the choice itself. Do we opt for blissful ignorance and avoidance of what is being done in the name of justice and peace out of fear of being allied to, or complicit in, the cause, or do we engage in the difficult work of looking and thinking for ourselves.

King’s Instagram posts are, in a way, reminiscent of the work of essayists and thinkers like James Baldwin, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, and Susan Sontag, writers who look(ed) at the world around them and, as Henry Giroux writes, told stories about what they saw in a way that has “the potential to unsettle common sense, challenge the commonplace, and move communities to invest in their own sense of civic and collective agency.” In this way, essays and essaying “make knowledge meaningful, in order to make it critical and transformative and provide a different sense of how the world is narrated.”  

I am thinking here of many essays at once, but top of mind is Thomas Merton’s “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” which I wrote about 11 years ago this month for this very forum on the occasion of the school shooting in Newtown, CT.

As odd as it feels, I will quote myself: 

Reading Merton's essay now in the full, glaring light of the the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut--27 dead, 20 of them children between the ages of five and ten--I am reminded how an essay, a preoccupation relentlessly chased, an attempt to articulate--to assail--the unspeakable, written decades ago with no thought of Newtown, Connecticut or gun control laws, can implicate us and charge us--and here I mean "everyone"--with a mission: "Our duty," Merton writes, "is to refuse to believe that their way is inevitable." 

I know that I (and we) must be careful how we choose our words and our analogies. And so let me say that I do not mean to equate the murdering of American school children with assault-style rifles with the IDF’s current bombardment (much of it with munitions whose flight cannot be controlled) of innocent Palestinians. Nor would I call the unrelenting spate of school shootings the genocide of American school-age children. 

This is not what the essay, as I am currently imagining it, intends. Merton might say it best. Writing in the prologue to his collection of essays Raids on the Unspeakable he directly addresses his essays:

You are not so much concerned with ethical principles and traditional answers, for many men have decided no longer to ask themselves those questions. Your main interest is not in formal answers or accurate definitions, but in difficult insights at a moment of human crisis.  

In other words, the essay, in the face of a crisis like the murder of revelers at a party in the name of freedom or the indiscriminate bombing–”total war,” as it called–of a civilian population, moves away from the safe pedantry of articulating ethical principles, and detours into the history of warfare to underscore the fact that we have been here before, and, don’t you know, that we have treaties and conventions abolishing such conduct, to focus on what we can say of ourselves at this precise moment in time. And, in so doing, enter the timeless and the prophetic.

I am thinking now of Wendell Berry who begins his essay collection What Are People For? with “Damage,” a poem about the building of a pond on his property to water his livestock.

The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.

I am thinking of the closing paragraph of Susan Sontag’s book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others. Writing about a photo depicting dead soldiers from the Russian/Afghan war, she takes on the perspective of the dead:

What would they have to say to us? “We”--this “we” is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.

What we can say of ourselves–we, us–at this moment? I look to a post on Shaun King’s Instagram for assistance. The post is dated 12/5. It has received 317,890 likes, if that matters. It bears the “Sensitive Content” warning, so the screen is blurry in that 2 am scrambled cable channel pornography way. The caption reads “Forgive me for what you will see and what I have to say.”

The caption continues:

 What you are witnessing is the Massacre of Deir Al-Balah in Gaza–RIGHT NOW.

This is being filmed by our dear brother @motaz_azaiza [a photographer living in Gaza whose own Instagram feed has 17.1 million followers] - this is HIS NEIGHBORHOOD. He soon realizes that he has lost many family members, friends, and neighbors.

The entire videos are some of the worst I’ve ever seen. It looks like 6 ENTIRE BLOCKS of LARGE APARTMENT BUILDINGS were just completely destroyed. Kids, elders, women, men. Everybody - either blown to literal bits or so badly mangled that survival is unlikely.

I saw torsos without heads of limbs.

Hands with no arms.

Heads with no bodies.

Skin with no bone.

It’s been a lie since 1948.  

When I saw this post on the 5th of December, I chose to click on the “See Reel” link at the bottom of the blurred window. I did not bother with clicking the “See Why” button. I knew that what I was likely to see would be graphic. I told myself that I needed to see it. I had been avoiding such accounts. I had been taking other people’s word for it–thousands of innocent dead; whole neighborhoods bombed to rubble–so now I needed to see it with my own eyes.

What I see is this:

Cell phone footage from Motaz Azaiza. His camera is facing the street–not at him. He is running so the camera lurches up and down, up and down, with his footfalls. I am reminded of standing over my youngest brothers’ shoulder, watching him play the first-person shooter game DOOM. It is the 90s. He is maybe 10. All I see are the player’s hands as he runs through the maze of rooms. If I listen closely, I can hear the panting of this digital person as he runs. This is not Gaza, but some subterranean hellscape, but the movement and the sounds are eerily the same. The bobbing, lurching action simulates desperate, life or death running. I am concerned about my brother because I have heard the warnings about these first-person shooter games; worries that they can desensitize you, make you into a violent person.

Azaiza’s camera does not pause until he encounters bodies, and even then he runs past the first body he sees, fixing his camera instead on the large apartment building–or what had been an apartment building–shrouded in dust, a dark plume of smoke rising above it. Then, he doubles back a few yards to capture the body in the street–a man, covered in dust, above his head is a halo of blood, spreading itself on the asphalt of the street.

The camera turns and he is running again towards the wrecked building. People are running into the rubble and returning with small, limp, dust-covered bodies in their arms. All the bodies that he passes are covered in this dust. We must not come from the same dust, I think to myself. It is the only answer to how such destruction and death could be tolerated, could be countenanced.

I keep coming back to the formal apology of King’s caption: “Forgive me for what you will see and what I have to say.”

I am thinking now of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. I am thinking of the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister who survived the initial blast on August 6, 1945. I am thinking of him running through the streets in the aftermath and saying to the wounded who walk burned, bloodied, dazed, and covered in dust past him: “Forgive me for having no burden like yours.” 

I am thinking of what we are told is a quintessentially Japanese attitude, the guilt of having survived while so many others perished. 

I am thinking now of James Baldwin who begins his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American” with a Henry James quote:

“It is a complex fate to be an American.”

I am thinking of my students from this past semester. We had just begun reading Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others when Hamas militants attacked and massacred young people their age at an outdoor rave. 

I am thinking of the looks on their faces when what we were reading became practical, if that is even the word for it. I am thinking of Sontag, quoting Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, of the Poem of Force” (another book-length essay) how “violence turns anybody subjected to it into a thing.” I remember looking out at my classroom, this ring of students in their desks and allowing for just a moment to think of them as things. I am thinking of the horror, the shudder that went through me at the thought; that I had even allowed myself to have it in the first place.

After Shaun King’s appearance on the amphitheater stage, he was to lead a workshop for a much smaller group of people who had paid extra, I believe, for this more intimate experience. I asked if I could sit in on the workshop. This, too, was standing room only. 

Held in a high ceilinged ballroom on the third floor of Alumni Hall, a beautiful old manse with a wrap around porch, I stood at the back of the room and, again, as in the amphitheater, listened and watched the audience. The focus of King’s remarks to this small group of maybe fifty people–mostly white–was allyship: How can we be allies to the oppressed? 

His message, and I quote (as best as my memory serves): To be an ally don’t show up expecting to provide the answer. Being an ally means asking what you can do. It means bringing food, setting up chairs. It means standing back and listening, waiting, watching, and being ready to help. But don’t expect that anything you have to say will help solve the problem. 

From the looks on the faces of those present, this was a hard, deflating message to hear–it was definitely not what I expected to hear–as it burst the growing bubble of hubris; that fantasy that we alone can make a difference. 

I am thinking about looking. I am thinking about thinking about looking, and about how looking causes us to think. 

But, I am thinking: Is looking required, or is requiring photographic proof of atrocity a concession to the cynics among us? No, I am thinking, I suppose not–the freedom to choose to look or not must be protected. 

But I will say this: an essay is a different sort of looking, a different sort of proof, a different kind of choice. It is an allying. 

The essay asks, If this is true, then what? 


DAVE GRIFFITH is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull Press). His essays have appeared in print and online at the Paris Review, New England Review, Belt Magazine, Image, and Another Chicago Magazine, among others. 


This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"


Monday, December 11, 2023

Nicole Walker on the Insistence of the Essay

I subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and my local paper, The Arizona Daily Sun. Unless you’re talking about how families receive $7,000 vouchers to remove their children from the public school system with no regulation for where and how they use that $7,000, the Daily Sun is a relatively safe space with stories about rim to rim to rim Grand Canyon hikes and when the new In and Out burger joint will open. But The Times and The Post offer less safety. Last week, I spent three rough days delving into investigative reports that warned each time that these stories were not for the faint of heart. That I had to prepare myself. That, for the first time, they were going to show images that papers usually don’t show.
The first article I read was a no-holds-barred article in The Washington Post, “Terror on Repeat: A Rare Look at the Devastation Caused by AR-15 Shooting.” A police officer, entering the elementary school after the massacre said, “I thought at first it was an art room because I saw a lot of red paint all over the walls and in the far left corner I thought I observed a pile of dirty laundry.” And then he realized those were not clothes. Or not only clothes. The clothes held the bodies of dead children who had huddled together to try to protect themselves from the shooter. Other images of blood streaking down the school hallway. And there were other photos from the Las Vegas massacre with another pile, this time of spent bullets, pyramiding in an empty room.
Next, I read in The Times the article, “They Started Playing Football When They Were Six,” about children who had played football as young kids and had killed themselves in their teens and early twenties. One element to this multimedia article showed a video of a young boy, as clean cut and together-looking as a kid could be, as he recorded himself saying that his brain had become increasingly uncontrollable. He could not stop his depression, his anxiety. He said, “Dad, I know you’re capable of doing this,” then he asked his dad to, after his open-casket funeral, donate his brain to science. He wanted them to see proof of what he believed: the many concussions he received while playing football caused his mental illness. Then, he turned the camera off and shot himself.
The third article was about children dying in Gaza. Another warning reminded me that these images might be too difficult to bear. In the article itself, an image of a mother holding her shrouded child in her arms was deemed the safe one. But if I clicked below, I could see the unbearable image. I clicked. Seven children lie under a blanket, their bodies covered to their necks, their faces exposed. Five of the faces looked dead, their heads bent in unlikely positions. But two of the youngest kids, maybe four and five, looked like they were sleeping. I could look at those faces a second longer than the others. One second.

What can the essay do in the face of these tragedies? The articles have been written. The photos finally revealed to make the horror plain. Can my words provide more horror? Can I say better what The Times and The Post have said? They say, usually, we don’t show photos or videos like these, but now is the time.
I usually write braided essays, pairing a personal story with something research-based and informative. My hope is that by toggling back and forth between two kinds of stories, elements of likeness appear between the two, articulating that the personal story streaks through the bigger world and that the larger world reveals its nuances in the personal story.
But the Israel-Gaza war does not call for a braid. The war doesn’t need our opinion. It doesn’t need a political history lesson. What the essay can do is insist. Essays require a different kind of time and space. In fact, they make time and they make space. To read an essay is to give yourself over to the possibilities. They recount survivor’s stories. They describe the photos of bodies. They imagine the author signing up to work for the Red Cross. They image the four-year-old hostage whose parents were killed in the October 7th attack and wonder to what home that child might return. They think of the seven bodies and wonder what if those children had just been allowed to sleep. They imagine what peace might look like. They imagine water running freely from the taps of faucets like it never had before with Israeli-restricted water rations. They imagine that good story of a mother from Israel and a mother from Gaza bringing hummus and lentils and baba ghanoush and pita to each other at the border and sitting resolutely as the bullets fly overhead and feeding each other with their hands until suddenly, hummus looked better than bullets to the soldiers.
The essay, as has become cliché to say, means to try. It tries to see something others can’t see. It tries to believe something others don’t yet believe. The essay says, Look at what’s happening. It says, Do not look away until you see the things you didn’t want to see. Then the essay says, Look until you figure out how to make it better. 


NICOLE WALKER is the author of Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster; The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet; Sustainability: A Love Story; Where the Tiny Things Are; Egg; Micrograms, and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. You can find her at Twitter: @nikwalkotter and website: and TikTok @nicolewalker263


This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"


Monday, December 4, 2023

Eric LeMay on Unbearable Thoughts and the Bombing of Children

Embed from Getty Images

Palestinians evacuate the area following an Israeli airstrike
on the Sousi mosque in Gaza City on October 9, 2023

“Writing my children’s names on their bodies is the solution, so that the world will know them.” 

- Mohammed Abu Odeh

On October 22, over two weeks into the bombardment of Gaza, I learned that parents are writing the names of their children on their children’s arms and legs. The parents hope their names will identify them if their bodies or parts of their bodies are found at bomb sites.
      Before I learned this, I’d read the reports of children being dismembered by Israeli missiles and found in the wreckage. I’d also read the reports of the thousands of children who’d had to flee their homes, who’d been orphaned, who’d been killed. At least 6,600 dead as of today, December 4, fifty-nine days into the fighting.
      Yet when I read about these parents inscribing their children’s names on their children’s limbs—names they gave them at their births, names they say every day of their lives—I broke.
      I am a parent and a writer. I can’t imagine writing any words more devastating than my child’s name on my child flesh, meant to be read when he is dead, when pieces of him are found.

“When my children ask me why I’m doing this,” says Mohammed Abu Odeh. “I tell them that it is for their safety and protection.”
      Abu Odeh is from the Al-Shati refugee camp in Northern Gaza. He has two children. He is explaining to reporters from Al Jazeera that no child should have to live hearing bombs explode above them, needing to worry about whether they’ll be buried under rubble.
      “Can anyone in the world bear the thought of what our children are going through?”

As the days continue and the bombings continue and the deaths continue, I see ever more clearly that the answer to Abu Odeh’s question is yes.
      There are many people in the world, many in my own country, who are not only bearing the horrors that Palestinian children are going through, but who are also supporting this attack on the civilians of Gaza.
      I see ever more clearly how they—how we—have hardened our hearts even to the mass killing of children. We who are parents. We who cannot bear the thought of such horrors happening to our own children.
      When I learn about these parents writing their children’s names on their children’s limbs, I try to share this news with my spouse. It’s morning, before school, and our own child is in the next room, playing with his electric toothbrush.
      As I tell her, she begins to cry and says, “Stop it.”
      I stop and, later, I think to myself that this is exactly what has to happen: it has to stop.
      It hasn’t stopped. 

“At that moment, I thought that if the house was hit by a severe bombing, my children would die, and no one would be able to identify them.”
      The moment Sara al-Khalidi is describing happened in her living room in Gaza City, where she huddled with her four children during an Israeli bombardment that lasted the entire night. She goes on to describe fleeing south to Khan Younis, where she hoped she and her family would be safer.
      Once there, al-Khalidi saw her relatives writing the names of their children on their bodies and, later, saw a doctor at al-Shifa Hospital doing the same to the children there. Until then, al-Khalidi had resisted doing this with her own daughters. The thought of it, she said, made her cry. She worried it would bring bad luck.   
      “The world should know about these children who were murdered by Israel,” al-Khalid says, “because they are not numbers, but names, stories and dreams killed by the Israeli occupation in Gaza.”

Yes. They are not numbers. They are children, as full of stories and dreams, as fully named, as our own children. As my own child.
      It’s knowing this, it’s knowing and loving my own child, that makes the thought of what these children are going through unbearable.
      My child’s name is Roland Sean LeMay.
      I write these words here, as a parent and a witness to the parents in Gaza, to the love they bear for their children in the midst of what’s unbearable. 

Note: One of my aims in this essay is to amplify the voices of Palestinian parents. I’m grateful to Linah Alsaafin and Ruwaida Amer, journalists at Al Jeezera, for their reporting on the people of Gaza and for this report from which I’ve drawn the accounts about and quotations from Mohammed Abu Odeh and Sara al-Khalidi.




Eric LeMay is an essayist and a parent. He lives in Athens, Ohio. One of his most recent essays, "Hole," appears in RiverTeeth.

This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"

Monday, November 27, 2023

The Essay in a Time of Genocide: An Invitation

Statistics on individuals killed and injured in Palestine and Israel
(Source Al Jazeera)

Around the globe, in real time, we are witnessing atrocities happening to the people of Gaza. Through our phones, our tablets, our televisions, we’re seeing the images that Palestinians are posting on social media. We’re hearing about their experiences directly from them. Never before have we, as a collective, witnessed such violence happening to a people as it is happening. 

And this violence has extended our collective awareness to other atrocities. Genocides in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Myanmar, and China, as well as the genocides of the indigenous people in what colonial settlers named the Americas and their connections to the history and ongoing legacies of chattel slavery.  

In such a moment, what is the purpose of the essay? What is the role of the essayist?   

Essay Daily invites essayists to respond to these questions for a feature that, given the exigencies of this moment, will begin as soon as possible.  

In a time of genocide, what insights might the essay afford us about language, about violence, about empire, empathy, and justice? What alternatives does the essay offer to the current op-eds and talking heads? What beneficial change, if any, can an essay make in a humanitarian crisis or a human heart? 

Contributors might look to essayists from the past, such as Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldúa. They might also look to practitioners in the present, such as Gayatri Spivak, Jamaica Kincaid, Angela Davis, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Noor Hindi, whose “Against Erasure” and “American Beings” offer powerful examples of what the essay can accomplish. 

This is an open invitation, a call to witness, a collective attempt to support—in whatever ways essays and essayists can—our fellow human beings. 

If you’re interested in contributing, contact Eric LeMay (


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Andrea Flint, The Wisdom of Spear Grass


Andrea Flint


a cover of Sarah Minor's essay "A Log Cabin Square"


(click to expand, or click here to download a pdf)


I don’t have many vivid memories of my childhood. Mostly, I remember a sensation that used to follow me around like a needy puppy—that things were not what they seemed, that there was a disconnect between my perception of reality and reality itself. 

I also remember the relief I felt when, on hitting school-age, it began to dawn on me just how powerful the mind was. Soon I learnt to override my feelings. Unlike emotions, elusive and fickle like swallows flitting across the sky at springtime and gone by winter, the brain could always be relied upon to make and preserve meaning. 

But no matter how hard I tried to hold on, I felt as if something was terribly off—as if my perception of the world was, somehow, defective.

I have learnt that unacknowledged traumatic experiences can do that to a person. Dissociation is a powerful survival tool, one where flights of fancy can lord unchallenged over a cruel reality to protect ourselves. Only when the veil lifts, does the impact of this alienation become apparent. Suddenly we are hit with the realisation that our ability to listen to our body’s wishes has been impaired to an extent that is commensurate to the strength of our denial. It’s as if the superhighway that connects body and mind has been lost to an enemy that has been residing undetected inside us. 

There is no way to describe that time in my life other than I fell spectacularly apart. Though outwardly I was functioning by dint of a peculiar mix of willpower and habit, inside I was scrambling to gather the pieces of me that a nascent, frightening consciousness had ripped apart. 

"The Wisdom of Spear Grass" was born out of this grown child’s irrepressible desire to make meaning—to join the dots out of the muddle of memories that were emerging from deep freeze during the hazardous process of therapeutic recovery. 

It was around this time that I first came across Sarah Minor’s "Log Cabin Square". For the first time, home didn’t have to be something neat, monolithic to be called home. Home could be a collage, an amalgam of fragments whose meaning is revealed only when juxtaposed to other seemingly randomised tassels and enjoyed from the safety of distance. 

As I tried to process the tangle of feelings the image of “horses on fire circling back to their bright home” stirred inside me, it struck me that the power of Minor’s Log Cabin Square rested on its ability to summon complex feelings that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. It’s this connubium of form and text that creates meaning. The latter—her essay reminds us, doesn’t exist in isolation, but as part of a whole that stirs our senses and tugs at our soul—our personal and collective mythologies. It cannot but be fragmentary. And that’s all right. And plentiful. And beautiful. 

Though quilt-making has not infused the Italian psyche in the same way it has across the pond, from the outset this art & craft struck me as so intuitively right I didn’t hesitate to borrow its form. If cultural appropriation is a sin, then I hope to be forgiven. 

Soon I discovered there were myriads of patterns and combinations—one for each life event, special occasion, celebration, even political causes. But I kept returning to the log cabin. 

The idea of the hearth—of home inherent in its squares—spoke to me in ways other patterns couldn’t. Even though its nucleus—the central square around which all the others corral, kept eluding me, I knew I had found my container, one that was both physical and metaphysical. 

The idea that a lowly weed—one that is regarded as a pesky nuisance in my ancestral land, could function as its organising principle felt as fitting as it had felt serendipitous. Gramigna has threaded its way across three generations of women on the maternal side of my family. It carries within it the wisdom of sharecroppers of whom my grandmother had been one—a lithe six years old, who had to learn fast not to take love for granted. 

Suddenly a pixilated picture of me within my extended family—atomised but undeniably truthful, bobbed to the surface. For the first time, perhaps ever, I felt moored. I had found my quilted hearth, its faintly smouldering embers beneath the seams radiating just enough heat to keep me going. 


Born in Italy, Andrea Flint is an emerging writer based in London UK, working in Creative Non-Fiction as well as poetry and short stories. She is currently working on a hybrid memoir around the themes of identity, trauma, and heritage. 

"The Wisdom of Spear Grass" was written during her time on this year’s Spark Your Story Intensive programme. Andrea is especially grateful to Nicole Breit and Rowan McCandless for their wisdom and mentorship—and for showing her the way to creative non-fiction heaven. 

The Wisdom of Spear Grass is her first publication—something that makes it all the more special.


Essay Daily runs a series of cover essays (essays that "cover" another published essay, in the way of a cover song). Pitch us yours!

Monday, February 20, 2023

February 20, We Know Our Own Lives Expertly: a conversation with Hilary Plum

An account of care, labor, illness, friendship, professionalization, and political struggle, Hole Studies (Fonograf, 2022) explores radical possibilities. Over four essays, Hilary Plum describes resistance and reinvention in our social lives and our aesthetic practice. The work touches on, among many other subjects, Sinéad O’Connor’s 1992 destruction of the Pope’s image on SNL; the corrosive psychology of whiteness; precarity in academic and service work; the rejection of “necropolitics” in struggles for freedom and humanity; the work of teaching; and the author’s own experience of chronic neurological illness. Hole Studies is a gorgeous look at the possibilities of authentic encounter—in art, in protest, and relationships—and it’s one of the richest, most humane books you’ll read this year. Plum is a friend; we recorded this conversation via Zoom between meetings in October 2022, a few days before Hole Studies was published by Fonograf Editions.

Hilary Plum is the author of several books, including the essay collection Hole Studies (Fonograf Editions, 2022), the novel Strawberry Fields (Fence, 2018), and the work of nonfiction Watchfires (Rescue Press, 2016), which won the GLCA New Writers Award. A collection of poetry, Excisions, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023. She teaches at Cleveland State University and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press. Recent work has appeared in Astra, Granta, American Poetry Review, Fence, Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Jay Aquinas Thompson (he/they) is a poet, essayist, and teacher; they're the author of The Resurrection Appearances: a Daybook, forthcoming from Gold Line, and they have recent or forthcoming work in Neon Door, Adroit, Guesthouse, and Poetry Northwest, where they're a contributing editor. A ’21-’22 Best of the Net nominee, they’ve also been awarded grants and fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Community of Writers, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. They live with their child in Washington state, where they teach creative writing to public school students and incarcerated women.


JT: I’ve been reading Fred Moten lately and I wrote down the sentence, “unrestricted sociality as an alternative to academic space.” I’m thinking about how Hole Studies attends to problems of work—the demoralizing, constant precarity; the ruthless, secretive, smiley competition in the academic world; and the sort of devaluation and adjunctification of all different kinds of labor. But the thing in the book that I wanted to begin from, that represents one alternative to that, is friendship. What role do certain conversations, or the kind of ongoing relational tug back and forth of care and ongoingness or abiding trust, play in your process as you write? Do you imagine a particular friend as a reader? Does a particular conversation or relationship persist as a goad when you’re working? Or is your writing something much more solitary than that?

HP: I definitely am always picturing friends when I’m writing. That’s who I’m writing for. I want you to read it, I want Caryl Pagel to read it; there’s always a small number of people who I am thinking about and writing toward, thinking about things that they’ve said and ideas they’ve had. And sometimes I give the piece to those people and respond to their critiques and comments and their further ideas. It’s just a handful of people, and who they are might change a little project by project depending.

And then there are future friends! It doesn’t have to be about whether you would have a personal connection with this thinker. It’s like, your work would be friends.

I love that thought from Moten. But also, sometimes when you’re looking at, I mean, the problems of academia—its restriction of sociality and friendship and its horrible competition and commitment to a really lethal idea of meritocracy, while meanwhile, it’s just being economically hollowed out—it’s funny, because when you step outside of it, you’re like, oh, this happens in other spaces too, small press spaces or poetry community spaces or among activists. All sorts of spaces have similar hierarchical problems. They aren’t formalized in the way that a workplace’s hierarchies are formalized or disciplined, but even in spaces that are more purely social, you can see those same dynamics, where people are competing with each other instead of feeling free or welcome to collaborate or feeling called into the generosity of collaboration. It’s an academia problem that is also a beyond-academia problem.

JT: Given the persistence of that sort of atomized, competitive, economically hollow, lethal asociality pervading so many kinds of communities and so many different forms of experience, can you say a little more about this future friend or a future reader you imagine? Is there something of the aspirational projection which you write about elsewhere in the book, around the experience of participating in a protest? Or is the aspiration more like, May, in the better world, this book find exactly the person it needs?

HP: Yeah. I mean, the best version of it is someone that you admire, whose work you admire, also might find your work useful or want to read it. So maybe that’s the future friend.

But also, even as all of this shit is happening in academia, the work of teaching remains very, very hopeful. Our students are looking for those future readers, and they’re being those readers for each other, and you can be that kind of reader for them, when you try to really be with them in whatever they’re working on, sometimes to a very deep degree. The belief in the future friend is also about feeling hopeful enough to believe in something, in some kind of relationship or possibility that you don’t know about yet. And when you’re teaching something like writing, you’re witnessing that hope in people who want to write. And you’re trying to sustain that hope, which is that their writing is going to be able to do something that they don’t know about yet, or to connect with people who might then become themselves in a new way.

So I think part of it—the part that’s maybe most like attending a protest—is that, like, writing something for your friends or writing something for the people who are immediately around you that you’re in some kind of community with, when it’s in the best sense, is also writing for that possibility, that future whatever, that unknown something. Our friends are the people who make you believe in that, or who make that seem possible. Right? So you’re never just writing for your friends. It’s more that writing for them allows you to together imagine something that’s beyond that, too—that’s larger than that.

JT: This makes me think of a subtle harmony I was aware of in the book: the comparison between the beloved community, unknowable but apprehended in the rebellious sociality of a protest, and the book’s description of a poem as “a past and future land.” You say that, as readers, “we’re not there, but we’re practicing being there.” The spiritual exercises that works of literature demand of us—Fady Joudah telling American readers to repeat the sentence, “the Arab is beautiful”; Peter Dimock urging his readers to “live in the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history”—are things that we rarely literally live out. But we still allow ourselves to be recognized by those demands, and perhaps altered in some way. Likewise at the protest, you write that “everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together,” even if it’s imperfect, even if it’s fragile, even if it’s constantly under threat and surveillance.

HP: The thing about protests is that they feel so powerful and important to be at, but they also feel so futile. And, like, you’ve gone to a million of them. The line you quote from the book—“everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together”—is trying to get at the hope that, in another context, or given a little more space, or having seized a little more space or freedom or possibility, we could figure out what the next thing to say was. Right now, everything the protest is saying is reactionary, right? It’s in response to whatever’s happening, to which our reply is a huge no, a sort of gut refusal.

So that means we can’t yet say how everyone would get to talk to each other and be together in this other possible future space. But, at the protest, you’re also practicing toward that right now, right? Like, you are together right now doing something, and listening to each other.

In the book I’m discussing a protest on behalf of Palestinian liberation and against the Israeli assault on Gaza in May 2021. I quote a line by Mahmoud Darwish, in translation, “the land of my poem is green and high.” Darwish’s work and its relationship to the Palestinian liberation struggle gives its own context, obviously, of the poem standing in for the land, but also not being the land: marking the land that’s not there, but also serving as a place for people to be together and for a memory that’s looking toward the future. And that’s something a lot of people have written about, who are not me and are better writers, readers, and scholars of Palestinian literature than I am. In terms of scholarship in English, there’s Jeffrey Sachs’s book called Iterations of Loss, about Darwish particularly and about poetry as the naming of loss. The poem is the land and the land is beautiful and it’s there, and he’s saying, this is where my poem came from and it’s where my poem is when you read it.

JT: The way that you’re threading together questions of glimpsed social possibilities and the aspirations of literature makes me want to come back to the way that you write about form, literary form, in the book. You talk about the dread of being taken as an expert in any content you include; you say something like, Everything I know about this is already in the book. Please don’t treat me as an expert in this topic. And instead, what you assert is that “form is a means to get at the possibilities of form.” So my question is, what possibilities of form, and hence content, did these essays open up for you, either in their own composition, or in the writing you’re doing now that Hole Studies is done?

HP: In US literature, we’re not in a moment that is paying a ton of attention to form. There’s not a lot of discussion or big fights about aesthetics, the kind of fights that have characterized other moments, nor the sense that aesthetics are ideology, nor that people are doing their politics in their aesthetics; it’s more like they’re doing their politics in their content. And in the book I talk about some of my concerns with this disregard for form, and these concerns are familiar critiques of social media, maybe the main place where form is made invisible and content is king: that fighting online is a distraction, and that there’s a kind of hypocrisy that’s easy to perform there, where people can say anything but it’s divorced from their own life. That mode is very performative, and there’s only certain kinds of thinking that you can do in its form, and a lot of kinds of thinking are left out of it, which you might fear are being degraded or excluded by the dominance of these types of media and interaction.

For a lot of literary writers, maybe especially in the essay form, that question of what we’re “expert” in feels really present all the time: you think, OK, I guess I’m an expert in my life, but is that interesting? Actually, I feel largely like I don’t know a lot about my life! What context do I put it in? What are the important features of it to include? Every time you make a choice in relation to that, you are having politics about it. And those are all basically formal questions.

What I got really interested in was—and this is in the book in different places—how people live or experience their jobs, and what they’re able to say about what their job is to them, or what they think it is in the world, or why and how they do it. Which is the thing that you want to know about everyone’s job, but not the thing you can ever make them tell you. It’s a hard thing to find language for. In the book it appears as a fight I was having with law students who didn’t want to connect the legal work that they were learning to do with thoughts people might have about society and the world, which is understandable, but also, you know, seemed very alienating and as though professionalization was a training in alienation or training in not seeing what role your work is playing in society.

This is also something one thinks about as a teacher and editor and publisher: to ask, What am I reproducing? That question shows up in the book’s first essay, “Work, or the Swet Shop Boys,” thinking about the politics of English: what English am I reproducing? What am I enforcing when I become a professional in the language of English, a hegemonic language?

JT: How does this tie back to questions of expertise?

HP: What I was trying to think about in the book was, okay, what thoughts can I have about literature and experiences of literature and music and pop culture detritus that are not going to be expert thoughts, but will still be worth having? Even the book’s thoughts on literature—there’s an essay on the range of literature about the Iraq war, it’s mostly on work written in English, but the essay is not a scholarly project, you couldn’t publish it as scholarship, et cetera. It’s a different thing.

I also write about music that I was listening to, without being someone who really knows anything about music or is very good at listening to it. And there’s YouTube shit: watching without actually knowing a full context—you could take any YouTube clip and build out a context that you could study, so that you would understand better where it was coming from and you could read it better. But in fact, in our life, we’re not doing that. So that’s the kind of reception and thinking that I was interested in. Even for people who have a lot of expertise, and spend a lot of time really trying to think, a lot of your day is not that. You’re receiving all sorts of things and you’re synthesizing them and you’re having a thought about them and you’re living your life and you’re feeling feelings and you’re making connections between the things that you know a lot about and these other things that exist, or that people say to you, or that interrupted you, or surprised you, or whatever.

And so the book was trying to get at that realm of thinking, which I think literature is a good discipline for getting at. It’s the everyday being in the world, a feeling, thinking, responding, relating kind of existence. It can be theorized in a bunch of ways, but we’re not usually theorizing as we do it. You know what I mean? So that was what I was interested in. And the essay form, I think, is a good way of doing that, because you can braid, you can move among subjects, you can do more critical work and more emotional work and more storytelling work, all next to each other. Nothing can reproduce the stream of everyday thought, if that’s what anyone was trying to do, but this kind of essay is closer to that. It’s bringing your different modes of thinking and responding and observing in together rather than having a single, more established form that you’re doing it all in. So I like the essay as a form for that. I like how it can move between something personal and a claim that you’re making about something else, some kind of research you’re doing and also your reaction to it.

My arguments about form, I think, are in particular about the radical possibilities of form. If you can find a form that lets you think in a new way or make new connections, lets you synthesize things that had seemed disparate or at odds, or that can help people understand each other, then that isn’t just an illumination about whatever your subject was, right? It’s an illumination about how it’s possible to do that: to get somewhere new, understand something newly. And so you might be able to continue doing that, continue making discoveries. I think I say in the book, new possibilities of form are a way to get at new content. That is what I was arguing or feeling.

And also there’s something very dignifying and sustaining about thinking that a dumb obsession you had might become a real thought, and actually could connect to something larger—like, the first essay in that book is really just about a hip-hop group that I started listening to at a boring job. And so you think: okay, but could this stray interest in this thing mean something? Can you get it to say something to you? And can you then say something back to it and to the world? And that’s very life-affirming! Or to be like, God, I’ve really watched this one Sinéad O’Connor YouTube five times for no reason, and it’s long, 30 minutes long, why? And then you say, okay, why don’t you just try to say why? And then you’ll find out why, and you’ll also find out something else. If you give it more, it’ll give you more and you can make something together. So I think that a form that takes things seriously, but also tries to open a door with its subjects, is what I was looking for in that book.

Also, I was wanting to write about work, all the jobs that we have—which I think everyone should write about, but they’re probably too tired.

JT: What struck me when I was hearing your response is the way that you use words like dignity and sustenance, because one of the things I found so moving about Hole Studies is the way that it pursues, not authority in any of its subjects that it describes—not that that was anything but an illusion in the world of any essay—but rather a form where unexpected moral truths can break through, fellow feeling can break through, and then maybe we can refuse despair.

And I’m struck too by the way you talk also about certain ugly or racist thoughts. You said, It feels like when I think these thoughts, I’m reproducing something. I could see how I just thought a stereotype, a cultural or social virus, that exists in endless forms outside us and is constantly reproducing itself through us. And I see Hole Studies, perhaps in response to that, scrupulously weighing its conclusions or assertions, testing assumptions, rigorously examining them. So I wonder if you see a connection between the deliberateness and the sensitivity with which the book pursues its conclusions and the horrible infectiousness of certain kind of social contagions.

HP: Yes, the evil of memes! The memeing of evil! One project in my writing is to recognize that things can feel intimate without being in fact individual—to relieve us of the pressures of being an individual. And that means, in terms of thinking a horrible thought, it’s not your thought. You’re a vessel that’s vulnerable to thinking. And that, I think, helps you deal with those thoughts, because instead of shame and hiding, you can witness the thought more accurately and be responsible for it without being caught up. And, like, this isn’t a story about you. It’s a story about that thought and the harm it can do. That recognition seems useful to me and also more accurate.

And I come to this having benefited from the sort of gift that no one wants—having had both a mental illness and a neurological illness. Through those experiences you find that you really can’t actually trust your thoughts. Your thoughts aren’t really reliable. Even having something as common as anorexia, which I had when I was young, 13 to 15 or 16, you know, the thinking of that disorder is yours. Like, you are really, really thinking it; in fact, it’s all that you think about. But it’s also quite common. You’re really shockingly unoriginal; it’s a deeply derivative art. So that in itself was kind of humbling. And I think this is also common: I would never have labeled or understood what I was doing as anorexia; at the point at which I could understand it as anorexia, I was already well into recovering from it, because I hadn’t had that ability to identify it and give it language before that point. And then I was really shocked that something that felt so personal to me—like, it arose directly out of my life, and it was thoughts that I had, that I was thinking about myself and people around me, it was something I was doing day in and day out—was actually common. I was an adolescent. We have a lot of thoughts like that when we’re adolescent, where we’re like, What? Other people are people? But the insight remains with you. And it’s sort of a relief.

I also have a chronic neurological illness, and there’s whole sets of thoughts that come as part of that, as symptoms, and they’re not reliable; you can’t trust them. They’re bad. They’re just bad thoughts. I mean, they both feel bad, and they’re just shitty. You can’t, like, do anything with them. So I think that that’s helpful, because it means that you have a little skepticism toward yourself, and also you have a little mercy, you know what I mean? Someone thinking something isn’t really about them. It’s happening to them, but it’s not about them. It depends what you do with it. I think some of the skepticism and scrupulousness you see in my writing probably arises out of that experience of unreliability or feeling like, OK, if I have a thought, I’ve got to test it, take it for a ride. And also I would say that it feels like an ethical approach, because if you keep giving an account of your thought, and why you’re having it, and why you’re committing to it, and why you’re staying committed to it, that feels more truthful, and like a better basis for relationship with other people, rather than just asserting it.

I can also get into problems of ambivalence—sometimes I have felt like I didn’t say something as fully and crisply as I wish I had, because I was doing that more scrupulating work, you know, or making a lot of space for people who might be coming in a different place. And later I thought, Hilary, you should have just given your opinion, and maybe what you did was a little chickenshit even though you thought it was a good practice. So there are problems like that, too.

But some of those stylistic choices are trying to practice giving an account of who you are, and as much as you can see about why, and how the world shapes your thinking. If you can try to witness your thinking as much as you can, you can at least give an account of it and say, I am thinking this, and I think it’s for reasons like this, I’m going to try to do this with it, for these reasons. The more you can give that meta-account as you’re doing something, maybe the more you can resist certain kinds of pressure and reproduction of rote connections or stereotypes or erasures that exist in the thinking around us. It’s not perfect, but to me, those are practices that would help you offer something.

JT: Yes. It would give you a ground from which a praxis could start, a way of self-understanding that could lead one to a certain kind of action in the world, or to ways of being together.

HP: Yeah. Well said. [laughs]

JT: There’s a Peter Dimock quote, in his novel George Anderson—I thought of this, too, when I was reading your book. He writes, Within structures of complicity, reciprocity must be improvised moment to moment each day. This is made difficult by the pleasures and rewards of benefiting from atrocity.

HP: Yeah! Exactly!

JT: In Dimock’s quote I saw a similar kind of intention to what I see in Hole Studies, to be both morally penetrating and scrupulously self-aware. I think of that refusal to gaslight ourselves that you talk about when you write about the sociology of people seeking abortions. You write, “We know our own lives expertly. We know the forces acting on us.” There is this desire in the book to scrupulously examine one’s own thoughts, but not undermine one’s own sense of authority about one’s own life or one’s own moral commitments, that I find really ennobling.

HP: That’s nice! You should be ennobled! I want people to feel that.

JT: Do you think you changed over the course of thinking through this book, over the course of drafting it, over the course of editing it? Who are you now that Hole Studies is done?

Yeah, I do think I changed. I feel more confident and more middle-aged. And I spent a lot of time walking around—this was last year when I was turning forty—saying, You’re a forty-year-old English teacher in Cleveland, and feeling OK about whatever romcom that was part of. And one thing that gave me confidence, of course, as I talk about in the book, is that I got a job that supported my work better, and that helps. But I also stopped feeling so insecure about, like, never knowing anything and not having gotten a Ph.D. You know, all of these types of expertise—we all have the thing where we say, well, I didn’t do that, and other people did that, and so other people know more about this than me, because of X or Y. And I did find myself letting go of some of that, and allowing for myself that sort of dignity. You just very nicely described that feeling as ennobling, of having one’s everyday thinking be acknowledged and respected. And then, as with a lot of things, you realize, Oh, that has to include me, because otherwise self-deprecation becomes a kind of self-aggrandizement in that way—if I’m hung up on my own shit, it means I’m treating myself differently.

So I had to just say OK, I need to see what my thinking is and try to do things with it and be responsible for what it is, and not be so caught up about what it isn’t, or what’s not happening, or who I’m not, because otherwise I think you can end up in a more entangled egoistical space.

JT: Throughout the book, the moments of angry and precise assertion are chosen with incredible care, and one that most stuck with me is in “Work,” when you just say, “Our labor isn’t ours. It bears within it others’ work, others’ time, their years of frustration, boredom, achievement, and our own work radiates through the living hours of those we in no other way know.” What I hear in what you just said is a refusal to minimize or eat away at our own intellectuality, or our own expertise in our lives, or our own ability to make connections between the seemingly disparate parts of our lives, as a way to then have something to give to others. If we don’t eat away our own foundations, then we have something to pass on. And if we don’t eat away our foundations, we’re honoring the gifts that we’ve gotten from others’ care, others’ labor, others’ frustration, others’ boredom.

HP: Yeah. In that case I was thinking about medical work particularly, but it’s true of everything, and the pandemic emphasized this, obviously, because we witnessed our connections to and our reliance on each other so starkly.

JT: What books are you reading right now? What’s feeding your brain?

HP: I always feel like I’m not reading anything, which is not accurate. Whenever anyone asks me, I’m like, I can’t read! But I just started rereading a Tana French novel. I’ve been in a real detective fiction hole; in a good way—well, in a bad way and a good way, in part because I read them when I’m not feeling well, and I’ve been not feeling well a lot. So I think I’ve read about thirty detective novels in the past year; I wrote them all down this year, and I thought, That’s pretty solid. But I just restarted a Tana French one that I love, called Broken Harbor. And I’ve been listening to this history of the crime novel. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that genre, and what’s so appealing about it, and what’s so appealing about it to me, and what I want to do with it.

I also just reread Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which I helped to publish, and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, but then I reread it and I thought, This is a real banger. Such a fucking good novel. Which I knew the whole time, but it was great to come back and think, It’s even better than I thought. I was an idiot, I thought it was really, really good, but it was really, really, really good.

And I just re-read Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, which I feel very similarly about: it’s really a perfect novel.

Crime novels, detective novels, are a pretty heavy genre. When you’re reading one, it has a set of expectations, it has tones, it has a lot of history and traditions. It’s like a sonnet, as someone said to me recently; it brings a lot with it, but I love also thinking about what authors do in that space, and what makes them want to be in such a constrained space, where they get to express their artistic offerings through what frictions they have with the form and what they decide to do with those. And it’s a form about the criminal justice system, yet at its best it’s about the failures and the insufficiency of that system. Crime novels are often so much about a place and a time, and they’re about the political and systemic pressures of that place and time—the crime is chosen to express those, right?

I’ve also been reading a lot of students’ writing, and it’s interesting, there’s a trend or tendency at the moment toward a lot of speculative work in their fiction. And that’s not something I’ve done—I’ve done little smidges of speculative fiction, but never a whole book. And I’m realizing, in contrast, wow, I feel so committed to reality right now. So I’ve been trying to think about why that is, and what are the ways that fiction comments on history, or does the work of history and journalism for us, that are so meaningful to me.

You mentioned Peter Dimock, whose work I love and which is part of a vein of more documentary fiction that’s been happening steadily, although not quite exploded into the mainstream. That kind of work is very engaged with reality; it’s doing its fiction very much around archival material or things drawn directly from reportage or history, and it’s often interacting very directly with journalism, which is more like the fiction that I’ve written.

So I’ve been kind of coming back to that same set of ideas, thinking, Given others’ love of the speculative, what is my love of reality? And then enjoying thinking of crime fiction as an in-between. Its genre form means that it feels like a performance: it’s doing a genre. You couldn’t say that it’s exactly realistic, but of course it’s realism. It has to be believable, and it’s supposed to feel like a real time and place, and its violence has a real weight to it.

JT: What do you hope unifies Hole Studies?

HP: Some of the things we talked about: feeling dignified and empowered in the ways that we think, and decentering authority from some of its usual shit-hole fortresses, recognizing authority in the spaces where it’s happening, and cultivating receptivity instead, other modes of response. I think that is the theme throughout the book. The first essay ends in watching Riz Ahmed appear in different settings across mainstream media, and the kind of opportunities that he seems to generously create for people there, which they mostly don’t take him up on. But there’s still the invitation: if you can recognize when someone’s doing that, you can try to respond; there’s a lot of potentiality and potency in moments like that. And art is a space like that—I mean, when it’s good, someone is generously making a potential space for future togetherness. But you in the audience have to do the next thing, right?

So I think the theme of the book is about that: recognizing those moments of possibility or potential and then feeling empowered to receive them and respond to them, even though you might just be a person.

It’s a book that also helped me think more about teaching, and so maybe it can do that for other people, but I don’t know.

JT: The way you describe the hope of the writing workshop as a “nice space” is another sounding of the moral theme of the book. You write, “I, too, am someone. This is how I tried it. This is how it worked out, in case that is useful to know,” and then, “Please use what I’m trying to say to say something you want to say.” I think that’s another sounding of that theme of shared labor and the dignity of our knowledge, or the dignity that we can give to our experience by taking it seriously.

HP: I hope so! I do like to use that phrase (and I write about this in the book), when teaching a workshop for example, to say that I am just trying to make a nice space—that’s the sentence that bubbles up in me and I’ve decided to stick with it. That phrase, “make a nice space,” seems kind of humble, pathetic, maybe misguided, next to academic course objectives and, like, aesthetic aims. But I like that about it, I like using a phrase that’s a little embarrassing and declines some forms of expert status, as we’ve talked about. I like that it doesn’t make an argument about what good writing is and who might be doing it and who will be the judge—it makes an argument instead about good experiences and good processes. So it’s not about what I, the teacher, will deliver as an authority, it’s about what we all will need to offer each other. It is very hard to make a space that feels nice to everyone in it, since people are very different and they are often in that same space for different reasons, looking for different outcomes. Ideally, niceness doesn’t deny or suppress difference, it makes space for it, while refusing hierarchies. So you have to keep observing, asking, checking in, calibrating, turning agency over to others but also guiding when it is useful, always attending.

I’m not saying other people need to use this phrase—to make a nice space—especially since it is kind of banal, but I think teachers can find tools or guidelines that work for them and help them counter the tendencies toward hierarchy that swell up inside us or that roam any room, making these insidious dynamics that are exclusionary and unjust, not open. So that phrase (whatever anyone’s phrase is and feel free to use mine if you like it) is meant to be a kind of touchstone to help you recognize when hierarchy is getting going and think, that’s not so nice. So you’ll get in there and tend that space.

Part of that approach, and this is what the quotes you mention are getting that, is that I as the teacher can try to offer my own experience to the room, and maybe it’s useful to think of that as experience not expertise. You can say, I did it like this, it went like that, in case that’s useful to know. But that mode of teaching or talking is more participatory—it means you’re doing less of the teaching thing where you impart knowledge and perform authority, and more of the teaching thing where you help students identify their questions, build a methodology and mode of approach—this is true of creative writing, too—and then reflect on their own processes and the work that resulted and the feedback they got. This is harder for everyone, especially because students often want clear definitive answers to their questions, not more questions, or an invitation to answer their question themselves—we all want to just receive sometimes and not be made responsible, especially if we’re not sure yet if we have the skills we need. And teachers also like to answer questions because it feels good and we want structure so that we’re not wandering too vaguely or idiosyncratically, or falling into the trap Dimock outlines, where an improvisatory practice that’s meant to build reciprocity—like conversation, like workshop—slides into complicity instead. But I think this is still the right less/more balance to try for. And after some years in teaching, I feel I still have a lot to learn and want to keep learning—and it’s hard even to want to keep learning! This is what is so admirable about the work of people being students—but I can say that the feeling of a nice space and good process is something I know students value, I’ve seen them value it and use it and try to offer it to each other.