Ma Jian’s China Dream, translated by Flora Drew and published earlier this month by Counterpoint Press, is a short, sharp-toothed satire of Xi Jinping’s China. The novel depicts a corrupt bureaucrat’s attempts to implement a new government initiative to overwrite people’s dreams. Ma, a dissident writer who lives in exile in London, portrays a contemporary China in which consumerism goes hand in hand with totalitarianism, and memories of the Cultural Revolution surface at the most inopportune events. China Dream is funny in a kind of hopeless way—the title itself comes from a slogan popularized by the Chinese government in 2013, and a Red Guard–themed orgy scene halfway through reads like a nightmare—and it raises questions about political violence and the suppression of memory that stay with you long after the book has ended. —Rhian Sasseen Read More
Michel de Montaigne is best imagined on horseback; firstly, because that was how he traveled around his own lands and between his estate and Bordeaux, as well as elsewhere in France—to Paris, Rouen, or Blois, and even farther afield (during his great journey in 1580 he traveled through Switzerland and Germany all the way to Rome). But he should also be pictured this way because he never felt more comfortable anywhere than in the saddle; it was here that he found his equilibrium, his seat:
Travel is in my opinion a very profitable exercise; the soul is there continually employed in observing new and unknown things, and I do not know, as I have often said a better school wherein to model life than by incessantly exposing to it the diversity of so many other lives, fancies, and usances, and by making it relish a perpetual variety of forms of human nature. The body is, therein, neither idle nor overwrought; and that moderate agitation puts it in breath. I can keep on horseback, tormented with the stone as I am, without alighting or being weary, eight or ten hours together.
First of all, traveling enables us to experience the world’s diversity, and Montaigne insists that there is no better education. Traveling shows us the richness of nature, proves the relativity of customs and beliefs, and shakes up our certainties; in short, it teaches us skepticism, which was Montaigne’s fundamental doctrine. Read More
“Today we make history.” This was the constant refrain from Tim Rollins, as a group of teenagers filed into the South Bronx studio every afternoon after school. The group had named itself Kids of Survival and the lofty idea of making history became ingrained in the fabric of our collective consciousness. Our aim was to change our lives and become immortal through the creation of art. Today, Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, the longest running art collective in history, is included in over 120 museum and public collections. Since its inception in a junior high school classroom in the Bronx, it has exhibited hundreds of times at major galleries and institutions worldwide
I was fortunate to have grown up in the South Bronx in eighties. Yes, there was violence. No, it wasn’t necessarily the safest neighborhood. Drug dealing and prostitution were rampant at the time, and the AIDS epidemic hit our neighborhood especially hard, but there was an energy ignited by music, fashion, and the visual arts. The South Bronx was the epicenter of hip-hop and its effect on the community was palpable. Despite the abject appearance of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, there was a certain defiance born from genuine pride in the community. If you had some sort of special talent, like drawing for instance, you garnered respect, including respect from drug dealers and other rough entities. They left this nerdy kid alone. In ways both physical and metaphorical, the making of art provided me safety.
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This column has run weekly for over a year, and now, our dear and busy poets must slow it down to once a month. Never fear — they’ll still be here, just a bit less often. This month, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
Two years ago, I came out of the closet to my family by introducing them to my girlfriend. They responded fairly negatively, expressing their disbelief (“we would have known if you were gay”) and disapproval (“it’s not something we believe in or support”). I have pushed back in many ways—bringing my girlfriend to family functions, being hypervisible online, and proclaiming the steadfastness and validity of my relationship in frequent and intense fights. In the wake of this, my relationship, which did not have a strong foundation to begin with and shouldered the normal fears and anxieties that accompany any romantic partnership, suffered greatly. The more unstable my relationship became, the more strongly I held on to it—I fought for her so hard in the public arena that I didn’t know how not to in the private one. At times, it was volatile and abrasive, yet I fought for it still.
After two years of what felt like pushing the boulder of “us” up a mountain, we decided to call it quits. Now I am both heartbroken over losing her and losing myself. In her absence, I am struggling to find mooring. How do you mourn a relationship whose primary purpose was to validate your queerness, both to yourself and others? How do you maintain an identity in the absence of the person it was formed around? Perhaps most of all, can I keep her in my life without making her my compass?
Broken Heart, Broken Self Read More
Still sometimes late at night it slides in—what it felt like to think of my brother Tom outside. In the coldest seasons of his years of homelessness, it would rise up late in the day if I was alone in the hour in which darkness descended.
Each year as the seasons shifted, as leaves fell and the frosts came to Santa Fe or New York, I would grow tired and short-tempered, my body aching. The small muscles along my spine would seize up and I would get tight headaches. A knot would form at the base of my skull as my shoulders lifted and pinched, causing a tingling pain to come on along the backs of my arms. I would have to distract myself, get my mind off Tom—have a beer, talk about movies, pop a Valium left over from a prescription for back spasms.
I came to rely on certain facts about his relationship to winter. That he had been a skier, a camper, a mountain climber. That Alaska was, aside from a few years in Boulder, the only home he had ever known. He knew how to survive outside. He had the skills to stay warm, to make a camp in the woods. As long as he could keep track of his gear. Find enough food. That was my biggest worry at first—that he was always hungry.
Nights, I tried not to imagine the worst possibilities of where he might be. Instead I placed him in the safest, warmest camp I could conjure. I led him into the thickets beside the Coastal Trail, built him a snow cave, stuffed him into a fat sleeping bag on a thick foam pad, filled his pack with dry gloves and long underwear, placed new socks on his feet. What else was there to do.
If it gets really bad, I thought, he can always go trespass somewhere and get arrested. I knew he knew that. I knew he wouldn’t forget that. Read More
Amy Irvine is a writer and a mother, a competitive rock climber, an activist, a caregiver, and a truth teller. (She is also a friend.) Her latest book, Desert Cabal, is a fiercely tender and provocative response to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—his classic and now canonical account of the desert West—on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Desert Cabal is about Irvine’s own life in the West—raising a family, falling in love with the land and working to protect it—and it explores the myths of Western masculinity, the sublimity of endangered territory, and the kinds of intimacy enabled by spaciousness and proximity.
Near the beginning of Desert Cabal, Irvine evokes Abbey’s seductive evocation of solitude as “loveliness and a quiet exaltation.” But her book challenges his understanding of solitude in nuanced and surprising ways. “Now that I have been a working mother wrangling a special-needs child in a complicated and congested world,” she writes, “my definition of solitude has changed.”
As soon as I read that line, I thought, Yes! Solitude means something different for women. It has to do with the intense expectations we face around caregiving—the assumption that we’ll take care of places, people, objects, schedules. Before I became a mother, I remember thinking, How does parenting work for introverts? These days—as someone who loves my ten-month-old daughter so intensely I can hardly stand it, but still loves to be alone—I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about the vexed relationship between care and solitude.
I’m not an expert in wilderness literature, but Irvine’s book is written for all of us: those of us who know the literature of the wilderness, and those of us who don’t. Because the wilderness matters to us all. We are all beholden, and we are all culpable. In proposing a new way of thinking about the wilderness—not in terms of solitude but in terms of relation—Irvine is posing even broader questions about how we understand ourselves in relation to one another. This is a book written for anyone who has ever wanted to be alone, and for anyone who has ever realized solitude is a delusion.