When I was very, very young and very, very unhappy working in a bookstore, I read on my lunch breaks Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, a novel about another very unhappy shopgirl, and felt as though I understood it on a cellular level. Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin, and her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty, is part of the appeal. Screen Tests, her latest, pairs a first half composed of very short, very funny pieces of fiction (some of which were published in the Spring 2019 issue) with a second half of longer essays, and the effect is that of a particularly devastating form of déjà vu. Sentences repeat themselves; nameless characters are named; consequences are experienced. The pernicious effects of class, money, and gender reoccur. Is there a way to break the cycle? Art seems like part of the answer—and in an era in which it feels as though we all constantly need to market ourselves, it’s refreshing to read a book that explicitly champions art that is raw, art that is messy, art that cannot be contained. —Rhian Sasseen Read More
Martin Puryear’s “Liberty/Libertà,” an exhibition featuring significant new sculptures in the artist’s oeuvre, is the United States’ official contribution to the ongoing 2019 Venice Biennale. The following essay appears in the catalogue accompanying Puryear’s presentation.
“I like a little rebellion now and then,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. minister to France, to Abigail Adams. She’d sent him a letter denouncing Shays’s Rebellion, a movement of Massachusetts insurgents, many of whom had served in the Revolutionary War but were now militating openly against the state they’d fought to form. Farmers, unable to pay their debts, had been imprisoned and dispossessed; four thousand rebels blocked the courts and sprang their comrades out of jail.
Jefferson’s words seem to smile at the events, expressing a kind of princely titillation at the sound and the fury, the thrill of the clash. But the Jefferson of 1787 believed that a regular challenge to government was vital to the exercise of public freedom: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This was republicanism, this was popular will, this was liberty—the abstraction that fluttered prettily over all his writing and thought. Jefferson was a white, debt-free slave owner who, as he composed his letter to Adams, felt sure of Daniel Shays’s demise. So he wrote from the luxurious position of a philosopher and former revolutionary, flushed with a sense of fabulous drama. He, unlike Adams, was sitting safely in France.
Two years passed before the events of 1789: the Tennis Court Oath, the formation of the Assemblée nationale, the storming of the Bastille, and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen by the abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and the Marquis de Lafayette, with help from Jefferson himself. So he stands at the origin of two declarations, two revolutions, two republics. He is a fantastically inflated icon, a gleaming national fetish. We live with his myth, his legacy, his image, and his contradictions. The contradictions are violent. He was a thinker of revolt and constitution, movement and stasis—and a humanist who owned humans he refused to see as such. Read More
According to my Goodreads page, the first time I read The World According to Garp, by John Irving, was after my first year of college. I had thought, mistakenly, that I’d first read it in high school, but regardless, it had made an impression on me. It was my first exposure to an openly trans character and an openly asexual and aromantic character in fiction, the first book I read that explicitly discussed feminism and confronted toxic masculinity head on (though it didn’t call it that and, in my first reading, I didn’t, either). In rereading the novel recently, I wasn’t surprised that these themes had struck me so deeply, though Garp is about so much else as well.
In his new foreword to the fortieth-anniversary edition of the book, Irving writes that back in 1977, he thought the novel was about “the polarization of the sexes … the story was about men and women growing further apart. Look at the plot: a remarkable, albeit outspoken woman (Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields) is killed by a lunatic male who hates women; Garp himself is assassinated by a lunatic female who hates men.” But when Irving asked his then-twelve-year-old son, Colin, to read Garp in manuscript form, the boy saw the book completely differently. He told his father that it’s “about the fear of death … Maybe, more accurately, the fear of the death of children—or of anyone you love.” With that reading, it makes sense that my memory tricked me into thinking I first read Garp in high school: my father and his mother both died when I was sixteen, several months apart.
My mother, Dania, is eleven in this photograph. It was taken in the Dominican Republic in 1965, four years before my father married her and then brought her to New York City, separating her from her family. Her parents were the ones who made her do it, though she was still a child. They did it because it would eventually mean the rest of the family could immigrate, too.
This photograph is one of the few of my mother at that age. She’s wearing her Sunday dress and knee-high white socks. On her left are her three brothers: Rolando, Johnny, and Andres. On her right is her sister, Isabel, smiling, embraced by their father, who looks off in the same direction as the littlest brother. What are they looking at? Who else is there? They are all dressed up, so it’s either one of those rare planned visits or a festive occasion. Perhaps it was one of the many times my father would stop by with his entourage of brothers to woo my mother. On these visits, they were fed by my grandparents, who looked up to the brothers who traveled to New York City to work at restaurants, factories, and hotels. My grandmother would make my mother dress up and sit pretty for him. In this photograph, my grandmother, Leoncia, turns her body away from the camera, looking sternly toward my mother whose body is stiff, her arms long and straight, by her side. My mother’s dress is a little girl’s dress with its high waist, square neck, and puffed short sleeves. The hemline, midthigh, looks like she’s outgrowing it. My mother’s focused, soulful eyes look straight at the camera. What does she know? More to the point, who is she looking at?
I was reminded of this picture, and this moment in my mother’s life, the other week when children were separated from their parents in Mississippi during ICE’s largest statewide scoop in U.S. history. Eleven-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio was captured crying on camera, advocating for the freedom of her father, who was taken away along with 679 other undocumented immigrants, many of whom had already established their lives in the United States. She’s wearing a striped pink-and-white T-shirt, her long dark hair pulled back away from her face. A 12 News microphone is recording her, most likely without parental consent. She says to the world about her father, “He’s not a criminal.” When I look at the video of Magdalena, I see a child who needs her parents.
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite-size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Carl, who is also my brother Rabbit, sits his days and nights away at 4121 Wilson Avenue at least five times a week after working his maintenance job at NASA or when he is not fishing or near to the water where he loves to be. Four thousand fifteen days after the Water, beyond all news cycles known to man, still sits a skinny man in shorts, white socks pulled up to his kneecaps, one gold picture frame around his front tooth.
Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder. Or else, seated at a pecan-colored dining table with intricately carved legs, holding court. The table where Carl sometimes sits is on the spot where our living room used to be but where instead of a floor there is green grass trying to grow. Read More
An untrained listener’s guide.
During my hour-long commute home from work, when I’m too tired to even listen to podcasts, I listen to music. More often than might be healthy, I listen to Lana Del Rey, as she cycles through her doomy refrains about how her life is over, she’s filled with poison, she’s running like mad to heaven’s door. With their frothy melodrama, Lana’s songs tend to match my postwork mood so precisely that it doesn’t feel like listening at all. I don’t have to concentrate or pull myself in. I am already there. Listening, for most of us, doesn’t feel like doing anything. It’s more of a sensation than activity, a dreamy, ill-defined feeling stretching through us. We’re often not aware we are doing it, or even fully conscious. We literally—when we forget to shut off the television or our Spotify playlists—do it in our sleep.
But sometimes I wonder what would happen if we listened harder, or better, or more rigorously. This might seem exhausting. Am I incapable of relaxing? Probably. But music scholars insist that if we listened to music the way a musician would, understanding how notes trigger feelings, how tones take on their own textures and meanings, then we might experience something more visceral and expansive. We could push deeper into every song.
I reached out to various musicians and music scholars to gather some insights about how nonmusicians like myself could select and listen to music more intentionally. Below is a quick, beginner’s guide to what I learned.