In 2009, Alexander McQueen sketched a shoe that would forever change footwear, even for those who, like me, would never try it on or even see it in person. The shoe was shaped like a crab’s claw and covered in glittering scales. It had a nine-inch spiked heel and an interior platform; the wearer would stand on tiptoe, feet curved into the extreme arch of a Barbie doll or a ballerina in pointe shoes. It was aggressively ugly. McQueen didn’t intend to make these “armadillo boots” (as they came to be called) available to the masses; they were designed as showpieces. The collection that season was filled with fantastical items, objects that came from a future in which “the ice cap would melt … the waters would rise and … life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish,” McQueen said. “Humanity [would] go back to the place from whence it came.” Read More
When, for my Well-Read Black Girl anthology, I asked some of my favorite black women writers to write about the first time they saw themselves in a book, I wasn’t surprised to see that nearly all of the contributors wrote about works by other black women. Who better represent us, after all, than our sisters? What follows is the only essay in the collection focused on a work by a white writer—a white man, at that. Bsrat Mezghebe beautifully portrays the pain of separation and the need to belong that she felt as a young black girl in the diaspora, as reflected in Roald Dahl’s own story of migration, Boy. She shows how, even when we can’t see ourselves directly on the page, our imaginations can forge the connections we need to embrace ourselves entirely. —Glory Edim
In Boy, Roald Dahl starts his childhood memoirs with this story of his father: As a teenager in late-nineteenth-century Norway, his father falls from a roof and breaks his arm. A drunk doctor pulls up in a horse and buggy, gives the wrong diagnosis, and amputates the poor kid’s arm without anesthesia. Dahl assures the reader that his father managed just fine. In fact, the only great inconvenience he suffered was not being able to cut the top off a boiled egg. No other time is spent on this unnecessary loss of limb.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Boy. But that blithe tone about an avoidable catastrophe was the first time I found my family in a book. Dahl sounded like my parents and their mass of Eritrean friends who had become our surrogate family in the Washington, D.C., area. Their stories were otherworldly, so different from my own life and the books I read. And the levity with which they treated their dramas—the deaths of loved ones, culture shock abroad, and nostalgia for home—only confused me more. Dahl’s voice echoed what I had heard in my home but nowhere else.
Dahl fast-forwards to his father and uncle taking a country stroll to discuss their futures. They decide that Uncle Oscar will plant his flag in France, while Papa Harald will try his luck in the United Kingdom. A branch of the Dahl family splinters, and again, something felt familiar. Thanks to the independence war against Ethiopia, I didn’t know a single Eritrean who had family in fewer than three countries. Our circumstances were less idyllic than the Dahls’—most Eritreans trekked on foot to Sudan before eventually making it to North America and Europe—but here was the first time I read of families parting, mirroring my own sense of loss. There is nothing tragic about being a first-generation American, but the discontinuity is palpable. Your ancestors lived in the same place for hundreds of years until a dislocation, whether by force or design, hurls your parents a world away. Unlike my American friends, I didn’t know all my cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. I didn’t really understand the rhythm of my parents’ hometowns and early lives, nor could I visualize their journeys to the place I called home. Yet I needed my parents’ origin stories to make sense of my own. Read More
Lucia Berlin called many different places home during her lifetime. The following is a list she made in the late eighties detailing the pitfalls of some of them.
Juneau, Alaska—Avalanche the day I was born, wiped out a third of town.
Deer Lodge, Montana—No heat, just the oven. Earthquake.
Helena, Montana—Splinters in the cellar door. Blizzards.
Mullan, Idaho—River right outside, too dangerous to play. Mill right by. Stay inside. Flood.
Sunshine Mine, Idaho—Paper-thin walls. Mama crying crying. Woodstove smoked. Avalanches.
El Paso, Texas—Cockroaches, dark hall, three mean drunks. Drought. Flood. Read More
To understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel. We must go back beyond the builders putting the capstone on Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, and on past the last lick of paint on the iced cake of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House; back again another six hundred years past the rap of the stone-mason’s hammer on the cathedral at Reims, in order to finally alight on a promontory above the city of Rome in 410 A.D. The city is on fire. There are bodies in the streets and barbarians at the gates. Pope Innocent I, hedging his bets, has consented to a little pagan worship that is being undertaken in private. Over in Bethlehem, St Jerome hears that Rome has fallen. “The city which had taken the whole world,” he writes, “was itself taken.” The old order—of decency and lawfulness meted out with repressive colonial cruelty—has gone. The Goths have taken the Forum.
Many are likely to be surprised to learn that Yukio Mishima—yes, the writer who chose to die by dazzlingly public disembowelment and decapitation in 1970—wrote haiku. When you think of it, though, if you go to school in Japan, you will automatically be asked to compose haiku in grammar school or, at any rate, in junior high school. Also, sometimes, but not often, your parents will meticulously preserve every scrap of your school compositions or the school magazines printing your stuff. Both happened to Mishima. As a result, we have about a hundred eighty of his haiku collected among his complete works.
Mishima was a literary prodigy. With haiku, it also helped that his Japanese-language teacher in the Middle Division of the Peers School was Kurō Iwata. Iwata didn’t just encourage his students to write. After the war, he established his reputation as an authority on Edo haikai. He published, among other things, a large compilation of commentaries on all of Bashō’s hokku.
One of Mishima’s earliest haiku dates from when he was seven years old, and it reads:
Otōto ga o-tete hirogete momiji kana
My younger brother spreads his palms, maple leaves
The “younger brother” here is Chiyuki, two years old at the time. He went on to become a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Morocco and Portugal.
Now in English translations, Mishima may not be known too well as a playwright, despite Donald Keene’s translation of Madame de Sade and Ingmar Bergman’s famous staging of it, my translation of My Friend Hitler and Other Plays, and a few others. But he wrote more than seventy plays, beginning with the ones he wrote in his early teens, and most of them were staged in his lifetime. In fact, as Donald Richie observed, “life was but a stage” to Mishima, his staging of his own seppuku the most meticulous construct he pulled off. Read More
“When I was twenty-one,” wrote Zadie Smith at age twenty-five, “I wanted to write like Kafka. But, unfortunately for me, I wrote like a script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult and then discovered Foucault.” What is a writer’s voice? Surely, as in life, we all have many voices, different ones for different occasions.
For the young Zadie Smith, Kafka’s voice established a norm: this is what literature sounds like. Different genres—fiction, academic articles, general nonfiction—conjure certain expectations. I write differently in all of them. But over the last couple of years, I’ve started to feel the strain of singing so many styles on the page, and I’ve started to wonder: What does my own voice sound like, freed from the mold? Do I even have one?
As any classically trained singer or actor can tell you, trying to make your voice sound like someone else’s can do all manner of damage to it. Voicing relies on friction between the breath and the folds of the vocal cords, but the cords can wither or be damaged from being struck too harshly. This can spill out into the body as well, and tension can build in the jaw, neck, shoulders. “Good voice work,” writes Cicely Berry, former RSC voice director, “should always aim to use the voice that is there and stretch it and open up its possibilities.”