The promotion for Luca Guadagnino’s new miniseries, We Are Who We Are, was vague at best, teasing not much more than a gorgeous trailer, Kid Cudi and Chloë Sevigny in starring roles, and the promise of some kind of sun-drenched coming-of-age story set in Italy. For me, at least, that was enough. In the opening of the trailer, the two main characters are sitting on a boat. One asks, “Why do you read poetry?” And the other responds, “Every word means something.” When the first episode premiered this Monday, I took these words as instruction, trying to figure out exactly what I was watching, what it would become. Fourteen and brimming embarrassingly with earnestness and angst in equal measure, both characters seem to be doing the same. Fraser, the protagonist and new kid in town, is achingly New York. Being of the city seems to be the only information he’ll willingly, proudly give about himself, and I laugh, because anyone from here can understand that. Despite his ostentatious clothing, his bleached hair and painted nails, he doesn’t seem to have a sense of himself. Already the show is painting a picture made up of details he can’t define or articulate. But we see him at his most vulnerable, at his most violent, so predictably giving himself away. There are seven more episodes in the series, which will carry me to November. Good. I’d been starting to wonder what else I would have to talk about come October, when I can no longer sigh over the lost summer and wallow in nostalgia. —Langa Chinyoka Read More
In 2017, Honey & Wax Booksellers established an annual prize for American women book collectors, aged thirty years and younger. The idea took shape when Heather O’Donnell and Rebecca Romney, the bookstore’s owners, observed that “the women who regularly buy books from us are less likely to call themselves ‘collectors’ than the men, even when those women have spent years passionately collecting books.” By providing a financial incentive, and a forum in which to celebrate and share their collections, O’Donnell and Romney hope to encourage a new generation of women. In this, the contest’s fourth year, they faced an unexpected challenge: most of their partners on the ground, local bookshops and libraries across the United States, closed their doors due to COVID-19 a couple of weeks after the contest opened. O’Donnell and Romney spent the spring reposting and retweeting from their couches, hoping that word of the prize would reach young book collectors in lockdown. Despite it all, submissions were sent in from across the United States
We are pleased to unveil the winner of the 2020 Honey & Wax Book Collecting Prize, who will receive $1,000, as well as five honorable mentions, who will each receive $250.
Miriam Borden: Twentieth-Century Yiddish Primers and Workbooks for Children.
Miriam Borden, thirty, is a teacher of Yiddish and a graduate student at the University of Toronto, from Teaneck, New Jersey. Borden collects twentieth-century Yiddish educational materials: language primers—which form the core of her collection—songbooks and workbooks, flash cards, and scripts from school plays. These artifacts testify to a once-thriving Yiddish school system across North America, a network that collapsed after World War II as Jewish immigrants assimilated and Hebrew emerged as the language of the State of Israel. “There would be no more child readers of Yiddish children’s books,” Borden writes in her essay about the collection. As a teacher of Yiddish, Borden now uses these vintage materials to instruct adults hoping to reconnect with a lost part of their heritage.
“There was no heirloom china in the house where I grew up, no silver from grandmother’s chest to be taken out and polished for holidays and family celebrations,” Borden writes. “That china had all been shattered, the silver stolen… The heirlooms, and most of the family, were lost. But that does not mean I am bereft of inheritance. I was raised with an heirloom language, a treasure that could be taken out and polished and used on those rare moments when no word in English or Polish or Hebrew would fit the occasion. I was raised to speak the language of the dead. But never for a moment did it ever dawn on me that it was a dead language.”
Honey & Wax says, “Borden’s collection represents an impressive effort of historical preservation and an inspiring example of how a collection that began as something personal becomes a collective resource.”
How appropriate that a museum show devoted to the unicorn—a mythical animal whose name has come to mean something so rare and elusive that it might or might not exist—should have failed to materialize. “A Blessing of Unicorns” was slated to bring the fifteenth-century unicorn tapestries from the Musée de Cluny in Paris together with their counterparts in the Cloisters at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as part of a celebration honoring the Met’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary. Scheduled for 2020, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An exhibit of medieval art fell victim to plague, that most medieval of dangers.
The Met’s beautifully illustrated Summer 2020 bulletin, A Blessing of Unicorns: The Paris and Cloisters Tapestries, not only shows us what we missed but may make us rethink our view of unicorns—a subject that, to be honest, hadn’t crossed my mind in years. I used to think about unicorns a lot. In fact I lived with one, you could say: a reproduction of The Unicorn Rests in a Garden hung in my childhood bedroom. I used to stare at the dark fields so thickly covered with impossibly perfect flowers, and at the unicorn in its small round enclosure, so sweet, so melancholy, so lonely—so like the spirit of a preteen girl infused into the body of a white horse with a single corkscrew horn.
It came as something of a shock to see it again, as I looked through the Met minicatalogue and read the lucid informative essay by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator at the Cloisters. And as I read, I saw something in the image I had never seen before. How could I not have noticed that the unicorn’s hide is streaked with blood, that thin rivulets of crimson trickle down the smooth white flesh as it rests so patiently in its circular enclosure? Some scholars have argued that the red streaks are pomegranate juice, the symbol of fertility, but it looks like blood to me, and it seems unlikely that the dog nibbling the unicorn’s back in The Unicorn Surrenders to a Maiden is dribbling red fruit nectar.
Imagine you’re a mother, living in the ninth century, and your son is handed over to your husband’s political rival for “safe keeping.” You are miles away. There are no emails. You are living in what was once Charlemagne’s great empire, now being contested by his heirs. Even though you’re an aristocrat, you’re isolated. You do want to make sure your boy is growing up good, strong, devout, and, most importantly, respectful to his royal captors, who are punishing your husband for his disloyalty. You’re afraid for your son, body and soul. Also, you want him to remember you.
And as aristocrat, you have certain privileges most other women (peasants, really) of your time do not. Having survived the rigors of childbirth, you’ll likely live longer. Your clothes are finer, your diet heartier. In some cases, you wield political power behind the scenes and, when your husband is away at war, you are the face of the operation; all are answerable to you. (If you had been a queen consort, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, you would have ruled an empire.) You have some education. You can read, but perhaps you never learned to write, which meant at the time that you weren’t truly literate. Literacy is for clerks, but you have access to those.
Your son, William, is fifteen. His younger brother—your other son—was a baby when he, too, was taken away. You don’t know him. William is older and might listen, even from a distance. What do you write to him?
Before we go any further, there is something you should keep in mind. All medieval literature is derivative. That’s not to knock medieval literature. Not in the least. Originality is overrated. We fetishize it, but mainly because we can’t admit it doesn’t really exist. In the Middle Ages, they weren’t only not trying to be original, but originality was highly suspect. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you emulated the ancients. Aristotle for philosophy, Augustine for self-flagellating autobiography. When medieval writers committed their ideas to parchment, there were tried-and-true models they could follow. Didn’t matter what it was. Poetry or Biblical commentary or chronicles or rental accounts … and the rule certainly applied to advice literature.
That is what the duchess, Dhuoda of Uzés, decided to gift her son. The Liber Manualis is a handbook of her wisdom, one that he should read, internalize, and apply to his own young life to navigate the complicated feudal politics of the age. Though there are other such books in this genre, Dhuoda’s stands out. First of all, it’s rare that we have a book composed by a woman in this period. I’m a medieval historian, and speaking for the weirdos in my tribe, we cherish anything of this nature we can get. Second, its abundance (some might say overabundance) of maternal touches gives us a window into Dhuoda’s turbulent, emotional existence. Despite her relatively privileged life, things weren’t easy for her. We empathize with her, even though she seems a bit smothering. Though I’m Jewish and Dhuoda was devoutly Catholic, her advice sounds, on the whole, like it came straight out of my mother’s mouth. Or my aunt’s. If they lived in a castle and had nowhere to go.
There is this thing that happens, all too often, when a Black woman is being introduced in a professional setting. Her accomplishments tend to be diminished. The introducer might laugh awkwardly, rushing through whatever impoverished remarks they have prepared. Rarely do they do the necessary research to offer any sense of whom they are introducing. The Black woman is spoken of in terms of anecdote rather than accomplishment. She is referred to as sassy on Twitter, maybe, or as a lover of bacon, random tidbits bearing no relation to the reasons she is in that professional setting. Whenever this happens to me or I witness it happening to another Black woman, I turn to Audre Lorde. I wonder how Lorde would respond to such a microaggression because in her prescient writings she demonstrated, time and again, a remarkable and necessary ability to stand up for herself, her intellectual prowess and that of all Black women, with power and grace. She recognized the importance of speaking up because silence would not protect her or anyone. She recognized that there would never be a perfect time to speak up because “while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”
In 1979, for example, Audre Lorde wrote a letter to Mary Daly, and when Daly did not respond, Lorde made her entreaty an open letter. Lorde was primarily concerned with the erasure of Black women in Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, a manifesto urging women toward a more radical feminism. In her open letter, Lorde wrote: “So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.” The letter is both gracious and incisive. What Lorde is really demanding of Daly and white feminists more broadly is for them to seriously engage with and acknowledge Black women’s intellectual labor.
In the thirty years since Lorde wrote that open letter, Black women have continued to implore white women to recognize and engage with their intellectual contributions and the material realities of their lives. They have asked white women to acknowledge that, as Lorde also wrote in her open letter to Daly, “the oppression of women knows no ethnic nor racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those differences.” One of the hallmarks of Lorde’s prose and poetry is her willingness to recognize, acknowledge, and honor the lived realities of women—not only those who share her subject position but also those who do not. Her thinking always embodied what we now know as intersectionality and did so long before intersectionality became a defining feature of contemporary feminism in word if not in deed. Read More
Edward White’s monthly column, “Off Menu,” serves up lesser-told stories of chefs cooking in interesting times.
On the evening of November 11, 1976, the BBC broadcast the third episode of The Big Time, which followed members of the public as they tested themselves in high-pressure situations. It was what we’d term today a reality TV–style show, and that week was the turn of Mrs. Gwen Troake, a middle-aged woman from rural Devon in southwest England, who was being given the chance to design and cook a special banquet at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel in London. Troake, an amiable, soft-spoken lady any audience would root for, was assigned the most demanding mentor the production team could muster: Fanny Cradock, an extraordinary character who was the face and voice of cooking on British television from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s and was once described by one national newspaper as “a preposterous character, the foodie you loved to loathe.”
Cradock built an entertainment brand on her putative brilliance in the kitchen, but also her superciliousness, hectoring her husband, mistreating her colleagues, and patronizing her audience, the great British public, whom she regarded as gastronomic philistines. Evidently, this included Gwen Troake, the amateur cook on The Big Time. As Troake ran through what she was planning to serve at the banquet—a seafood cocktail, followed by duck, and rounded off with a rum and coffee cream pudding—Cradock rolled her eyes, gulped, and grimaced in a pantomime of disgust and disbelief at the overbearing richness of the menu, at one point blowing her cheeks out as though she were about to be physically sick. When Troake revealed that the duck would be served with a blackberry jam, Cradock could stomach no more and unleashed what she thought was the ultimate insult. “All these jams,” she said, “they are so English.” Despite being stereotypically English in so many ways, in her mind the only really good English—or, indeed, British—food was really just French food by a different name. “The English have never had a cuisine. There’s nothing English. Yorkshire pudding came from Burgundy.”
She was probably wrong about Yorkshire pudding, but she definitely had a point, both about the heaviness of Troake’s menu and about the sorry state of her nation’s cuisine. In the postwar decades of Cradock’s great success, amid heated debates about what it meant to be British in a postimperial world, British food was an international laughingstock. It was fitting, then, that Cradock herself seemed to be in a perpetual identity crisis. Her personality was as peculiar as many of her famous recipes, and nobody was quite sure which of the stories she told about herself were true, and whether, despite her constant talk of refined French food, she was half as accomplished in the kitchen as she claimed to be. In the words of somebody who knew her well, “She wasn’t real … she didn’t know who she was. She made herself up as she went along.” Read More