Two writers discuss false binaries, litmus tests for dating, and a lack of nuance on the Internet.
Adam Valen Levinson and Morgan Parker met many years ago—more than five, almost certainly less than eleven—as undergraduates at Columbia University; neither recalls precisely how they met. Now, as published authors, the two often banter and joke and argue and lament from their respective homes in Harlem and Hollywood. These conversations are imperfect, but rigorously in search of some shared understanding (hope?) for the human capacity to love, to care for, to accept, to amend, to create beauty. These are admittedly risky beliefs for a black American woman and an American Jew to hold. These conversations don’t hold all the answers, but they exist and continue to exist, which seems to be better than everyone just giving up on the messy stuff of the world. Parker’s work deals with ideas of multiplicity—of beliefs, of identity, of histories, of possibilities. Valen Levinson’s work, fueled by his propensity to poke other people and beat up on himself, addresses questions of the heart with a reporter’s commitment to facts. The following interview, conducted over Skype, is the second recorded conversation between Parker and Valen Levinson; the first attempt was lost to a dead cell phone.
I’ve found the switch to texting, and then the many different evolutions and generations that texting has gone through on different platforms, so tough because it’s taken what you can do with bodies and most of what you can do with faces all the way out of it.
Yeah, I mean, you can’t really text well with someone that you don’t know that well. You can relay information, but—
And yet the new generation is meeting their spouses and dog walkers and doctors and therapists that way.
I know. I mean, I feel like it’s a different skill, right? Like, it’s a skill to be able—and I’m saying this as a poet—to communicate your personality and intonation in a text. Most people can’t do that.
Really, though, I think that it’s impossible to do. It’s impossible to ever communicate in a way where there’s no chance of it being taken as entirely the opposite of what you’re saying. Full-body communication is way harder to misinterpret because it taps into biological and social things that go back millions of years. Even orangutans smile at each other. So when you tell somebody, Hey, shut the fuck up, and you’re smiling, our brains are like, Cool, dude, I’m on board, I get what you’re doing there. It takes so much longer to establish trust over text, and I feel like we think we’re just establishing all this trust and communicating, but we’re not. There’s such a narrow range of expressions in text.
One thing that I did not expect to happen with my book There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyonce is a lot of people thinking my title is me saying that Beyoncé is not beautiful—which is something that I, having a firm handle on the English language, did not expect to come across. However, there are many people on the Internet who are mad at me. It’s really disturbing to me that a lot of people had this reaction, because it’s literally a book about multiplicity. That reaction has taught me so much about how we as a culture think—that one thing can’t exist alongside another thing. And it’s really scary to me, because I wrote that book about multiplicity and inclusion, and the idea that, yes, Beyoncé is beautiful, but so is this greasy, crown-fried box that I’m seeing on the street in Bed-Stuy. All those things are beautiful because they are the many things that make up the world. And it puzzles me when people insist on asking, Well, what is more beautiful? I think, well … maybe justice, you know? It’s scary to me. If you truly think there is nothing more beautiful than a pop star, that’s sad. And it’s not okay. I didn’t know that we were that deep in.
Right. And it’s not just putting things in competition with similar things—like my nation is better than your nation. It’s a ranking of everything, flattening what makes anything worth anything, and turning everything into a hierarchy. Beautiful has maybe become code for better. Something that’s less beautiful means it’s worse.
And what’s scary is the lack of nuance. Like, that’s not what words are for. It’s like what you were saying about emojis and the flattening of nuance and language. When I say beautiful, I mean it in all the ways of the word. I think we’ve forgotten that words have so many crazy meanings.
When you’re communicating more and more about things that are worth a thousand words, how do you not lose the dexterity to deal with just one at a time?
Well, but honestly, the flexibility of words is my whole jam. We know that words have multiple layers of meaning. And if we’re thinking about emojis as words, then the emojis, too, must have multiple layers of meaning.
They do, but the words we use and how we break up our thoughts are the product of a long evolution, not just one that has taken place over our lives as single people, but long beyond that—there are long histories to every word. When we start over—and it feels like that’s what we’ve done with emojis—it’s gonna take us a long fucking time to build what we have with words. I mean, people are already talking past each other and are not good at communicating and not good at not hearing what somebody didn’t say. We’re already not articulate enough, so much of our lives. When we start over? Man … sure emojis can have nuances, but when they replace—
But that’s the thing that is scary to me—the need to sub in and replace, instead of simply adding.
Yeah. Cause it’s an option. The emoji is an option. It used to be that I would have to find words to say to you. And because every word is full of connotations and can mean all kinds of different things, I’d have to make so many choices, especially if I don’t know you super well. Now, it’s like, Oh, shit, I can just send you a wave emoji? Tight.
That’s only hard when we’re trying to not be ourselves, though. That’s the real problem.
I don’t think so. I think in any communication, there’s so many parts of yourself you could share, and you choose which to let out. Like, you could be fully yourself at dinner with somebody you haven’t seen in a long time and just unload every kind of worry or stress in your mind, but you don’t do that. You channel. You’re always filtering.
I think emojis just let you avoid the choice.
I think I’m not as good at that as other people.
I know. Well, I don’t think you want to do that, which is really important. But I think a lot of people do. It’s cool to not let everything out and say too many things. And with emojis, you can just click a button, send the emoji, and not make any kind of choice between the millions of possibilities of what words to use. It’s too easy an out, man, it’s too easy an out, and then we stop getting trained to do the difficult work of figuring out how other people might actually be thinking when they say something we don’t expect.
For The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah, I spent five years basically working on the story of that part of growing up. When you relive and reprocess and try to share a story for a long time, you gotta stay in it. I think that whatever the next steps are, in some ways, I’ve forced myself not to take them, because I was still working on the thing before.
Yeah, I mean that sounds incredibly hard.
You’ve gotta be twenty-one to drink—I wonder if you should have to be at least forty-five to write anything that they call a memoir.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, the perspective is important, and otherwise you’re kind of delaying becoming the person after at the end of the story.
A hundred percent.
Like, I write poems about my everyday life, and if I look at my books—when I wrote my first book, I’m like, Yeah, I remember that bitch. I’m not her anymore, but I was writing from that place. But I haven’t been able to write about high school until now, and it took me forever to finish that novel draft because I was still reckoning with so much of who I was in that time.
And that’s having ten years’ distance from that time. But it required a weird reentering into it that pervaded my whole life. I felt like I was constantly regressing—it just felt weird. Even though I believe and believed that I had enough distance from that person, it was still a really emotional and tough experience to try and make peace with that version. I think one of the biggest reasons I didn’t finish for so long was because I hadn’t forgiven that version of myself. I couldn’t even really stand to look at her. Because I had moved so far away from there, and spending time with her made me think, Oh my God, have I ever changed! And I never wanted to be in the company of that bitch ever again. I think it’s different when you’re writing about something that just happened. What does it mean to go over that story over and over? Does the story start to change, does it take on different shapes, does it sometimes feel like a comedy, sometimes like a tragedy? I can’t imagine it because you wouldn’t be able to grow and change in the everyday, right?
I have such a big problem with that distance. I find it so hard. And maybe it’s just the kind of journalistic ethos applied to first-person feelings?
Right, which is impossible.
Well, it made me think, Okay, the only way of really being able to pull through this story and explain what I was seeing and feeling, and feeling about what I was seeing, and feeling about what I was feeling—in order for the reader to navigate, I still had to be able to connect with all those things. And at the same time, I was talking about some older version of myself that I actually wanted to leave behind in a lot of ways—like, I hope the narrator in The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah seems stupider at the beginning, you know? I hope in ten years, I can look back and read some of this and go, I can’t even see where this dude was coming from! Cause there’s something—I think this is what’s really hard—where to be able to understand where somebody else is coming from, you have to be able to at least logically understand how they got to that thought. But in order to hold something really that different in your head, you have to let it kind of pull you toward it in some way. I think that to truly leave something behind you actually have to stop being able to communicate with it as cleanly. You have to lose the language, too.
Yeah, for sure. It’s funny to think about working in different genres, and what this process is. I feel like I’m really intimate with myself when I’m writing, and that goes for poems and essays and fiction. And I’m very hard on myself in the process as well. I think in poems, I’m trying to work something out or find an emotional space for something—for future reflection, or making sense of. But there isn’t really a sense-making in the poem itself, it’s more just a painting of an emotion. And then with essays, I’m doing more of a logical working out of something, which usually demands a little bit more distance and time. However, with this long-form look at me in high school, the relationship I felt with the material, aka my young self, changed over the course of writing. When I started, I was so embarrassed by her, and then it moved into making fun of her, and then it moved into trying to make her look better than she was, and then it moved into pitying her—and all these things that are not quite the right response, right? But I had to go through all these stages, almost like stages of grief, and now, at the end of it, I don’t recognize her, and I don’t always agree with her, but I feel really tenderly toward her. And that feels like the right note, but something that couldn’t have happened without all of the other phases. You know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s not just pruning. It’s not just saying, Hey, you’re not part of the plant anymore—get out. In the yard-work world, we would call this compost [laughs]. You know, you take the dead leaves and you put them in a big pile and they turn into mulch and you use that to grow the rest of the plant. It’s the best soil you can have, that other dead plant.
I think about this always—that to make a choice that is really just rejecting some limit, or attempting to prove that that limit is bullshit, is basically letting that limit decide for you in almost exactly the same way, you know? Like, if you go into an ice cream place, and there’s a trillion flavors, and you don’t want to get what your friend wants, but you know your friend hates chocolate, so you get chocolate—did you make a choice? No, you didn’t. Your friend chose, you’re just shirking choice.
You can never really get to the right metaphor.
You don’t think the ice cream was the right—that was a bit sloppy, honestly. Forget it. The point is, it’s a false binary. It’s saying, You said this, and therefore, this is me. Well, it’s not, bro. You’re not an opposite to what your parents are. You’re not the opposite of what the State Department travel warnings say—that’s not gonna help you sketch out your personality and your place in the world.
Well, cause it’s a two-part thing, right? It’s like, Okay, I know that I don’t want to listen to you, but instead, I’m going to do x, y, and z.
And it can’t just be, All right, so I’m the opposite. You then have to build something on top of that. It’s like if you’re in a work meeting and you say, Oh, I don’t like that idea. You then have to also provide an idea.
Yeah. You have to actually make a choice.
I’ve done this on dates—I have a really weird assortment of songs I would like to play at my wedding. And I have told this to a couple of men. I’m like, If you’re down with this particular combination of songs that are very weird, we could just get married. Like, that’s a solid litmus test. Like, my fucking Tinder is a combination of Allen Ginsberg and Angela Bassett and Bernie Mac! And I feel like if someone sees that and thinks, Okay, that’s what I’m looking for, then we’re good, you know? It’s hella specific—no one messages me ever—but, like, you know, the odds are really not in my favor, and I’m just weeding out literally most humans. What sort of person wants to walk down the aisle to Jay Z and Beyoncé “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” the best love song of all time—what sort of person, that same person, also wants to have their first dance to Steely Dan? I don’t know. That’s one other person on the planet. So you know, specificity is important.
We’re all cocktails, man. You’re just doing a really good job finding your recipe.
I mean, I’m not saying that it’s working. I just really know what I—
Defining the recipes, yeah, but still.
I know what I’m putting out there. And I just feel like I don’t have time for a person to discover who I am after they thought I was someone else. So I’m just like let me lead with all the information.
So you’re saying you don’t have time, if somebody assumes you’re somebody else, there’s really nothing you can do to say, Oh, well now that your momentum is going this direction, I’m gonna do what people do in judo or whatever and use your momentum to make you do a different thing, to actually pull you back around to where I want you to be.
Well, I think—I mean, it’s interesting. I think that describes how I write books. That is really what I like to play with in poems and in the life cycle of a book. But I don’t think I have the energy to do it in an interpersonal situation. I don’t really have the energy to pretend, even for one dinner, that I’m whatever those white girls in their J. Crew are, you know? Like, I’m just not gonna pull that off, for any length of time, at all. So I don’t even wanna try, because I’ve done that thing, and it’s just kind of heartbreaking and uncomfortable. So I might as well just be like, All right, here’s what the deal is, for real. You know what I mean?
Yeah, totally. I really think I understand that. It’s funny, because I feel like I do the other version of that, which is I’ll lean into whatever the assumptions would be, and then try and work on this other version of myself that is in pretty direct contradiction to a lot of those things.
For people that I care about but that are maybe only getting one side, where’s the scenario where they see the whole thing, where can I bring them both together?
But how do you keep track of yourself in that?
I think I do lean into certain real binaries. Like real black-and-white distinctions, so that if I feel like I’m conflicted in some element of my personality, it’s a matter of compartmentalizing those things, you know? And maybe I’m taking a page out of America’s political book, where we’ve just always lived saying you’re either this or you’re that. Or from old religious traditions that marked things as either sacred or profane. But any cultural sociologist will say that it’s way deeper than that—this is really ingrained in how we deal with symbols of any kind, we really just want to mark them as in or out, good or bad.
Good or bad, yeah. I mean, I know that our brains work that way, but nothing real happens in that space, in that negotiation. You know what I mean? Like, everything real happens in the mixing and the complexity of holding two binaries and adding a third one and a fourth. I don’t know.
My reaction was to not really label things good and bad at all but just label traits good and good in a different context, and then to parcel them out so that some version of me could claim all of the things that I thought were good, but that’s such a more complicated way of existing then just saying, Hey, whatever that binary was, it was a false distinction. The distinction between, say, being an adrenaline junkie and wanting to dig into the linguistic tradition of an ancient language—those aren’t in opposition, man.
They’re not opposites.
They’re just not. They’re just not opposites, even at all. They’re the same, they’re both adventures.
It makes sense.
Adam Valen Levinson is a fellow at the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, where he studies senses of humor as a key to crosscultural understanding. He is the author of The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah.
Morgan Parker is the author of the poetry collections There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé and Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. A third collection, Magical Negro, a book of nonfiction, and a young-adult novel are forthcoming.
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