Why do white people like what I write?

Pankaj Mishra for the London Review of Books

From Pankaj Mishra’s piece on the rise of Ta-Nehisi Coates, featured in the LRB.


‘A racist society can’t but fight a racist war,’ James Baldwin wrote in 1967, ‘the assumptions acted on at home are also acted on abroad.’ During the war on terror the traffic between the US and various shithole countries wasn’t only in assumptions: there was also a wholesale exporting of equipment, technologies of torture and bad lieutenants. To take one instance, Richard Zuley, a specialist at Guantánamo, had become reassuringly ruthless while working for a Chicago police unit that for decades interrogated predominantly African-Americans at so-called black sites. It’s only now, with a white supremacist ensconced in the White House, that those same hardheaded liberals – who did so much to create a climate of opinion and a legal regime in which black and brown bodies could be seized, broken and destroyed outside all norms and laws of war – are coming to grips with ‘America’s Original Sin: Slavery and the Legacy of White Supremacy’ (an unlikely recent headline in Foreign Affairs). Back in the early 2000s the liberal universalists seemed unaware that their project might be fatally flawed, and that America’s own democracy had been secured by mass bondage, colonial dispossession and wars of aggression; they still hadn’t fully reckoned with the historical legacy of institutionalised racial cruelty, inequality and division – what Coates has come to describe.

‘In America,’ Coates writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.’ ‘To be black’ is to be perpetually ‘naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease’. The liberal freedoms of propertied men were always defined against omnipresent threats: mutinous natives, rebellious slaves. The white man, Tocqueville wrote as he observed race relations in America, ‘is to the men of other races what man himself is to the animals’, in the sense that he ‘makes them serve his purposes, and when he cannot make them bend, he destroys them.’ A social order built on systemic violence made the black man, Tocqueville recognised, an ever present menace in his white master’s imagination. This proximity to a nemesis made a culture of fear central to American politics, entailing a continuous investment in the machinery of coercion, surveillance and control, along with pre-emptive brutality against internal and external enemies.

Coates, who was born in 1975, came of age just as a new Jim Crow was emerging domestically to accompany Bush Sr’s new world order. ‘By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!’ So Bush Sr said in a euphoric victory statement at the end of the Gulf War. The kicking of the Vietnam Syndrome and ‘Saddam Hussein’s ass’ signalled the removal of all restraints on American power imposed by dogged gooks and their traitorous allies on the American left. With America free to police the world, old legal and moral barriers were also dismantled at home. Just as Coates entered Howard University and began his harsh education in American history, the stage was set for a pitiless imposition of market discipline and evisceration of welfare-state protections. Such drastic socioeconomic re-engineering required a fresh public consensus, and a racialised view of crime and national security came in handy in separating the deserving from the undeserving. Under Reagan, the police had started to resemble the military with its special weapons and bellicose posturing. The prison-industrial complex burgeoned under Bill Clinton: an incarcerated population of 300,000 in 1970 expanded to 2.1 million in 2000 – the majority black and brown, and poor. Liberals did not simply inherit Republican schemes of harsh policing and extreme punishment. They took the initiative. Clinton, hailed as the ‘first black president’ by Toni Morrison, ended what he called ‘welfare as we know it’ and deregulated financial markets. Amid a national panic about ‘street terrorists’, he signed the most draconian crime bill in US history in 1994, following it up two years later with an anti-terrorism bill that laid the foundation for the Patriot Act of 2001.

The intimate relationship between America’s internal and external wars, established by its original sin, has long been clear. The question was always how long mainstream intellectuals could continue to offer fig-leaf euphemisms for shock-and-awe racism, and suppress an entwined history of white supremacism and militarisation with fables about American exceptionalism, liberalism’s long battle with totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Hurricane Katrina, coming after the non-discovery of WMDs in Iraq, undermined liberal faith in Bush’s heavily racialised war. American claims to global moral leadership since the 1960s had depended greatly on the apparent breakthrough of the civil rights movement, and the sidelining of the bigots who screamed: ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’. In New Orleans, black bodies naked before the elements of the world – elements which included trigger-happy Blackwater mercenaries guarding the rich – made it clear that old-style racial separation had been replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution: segregation for ever. But the apparent successes of social liberalism, culminating in Obama’s election, managed to obscure the new regimes of racial sequester for a while longer. Since the 1990s, the bonanzas of free trade and financial deregulation had helped breed greater tolerance for racial and sexual variety, primarily among the privileged – the CIA under Obama set up a recruiting office at the Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. Overt racism and homophobia had become taboo, even as imprisonment or premature death removed 1.5 million black men from public life. Diversification and multiculturalism among upwardly mobile, college-educated elites went together with mass incarceration at home and endless military interventions abroad.


In many ways, Coates’s career manifests these collateral trends of progress and regress in American society. He grew up in Baltimore at the height of the crack epidemic. One of his own friends at Howard University in the 1990s was murdered by the police. Coates didn’t finish college and had been working and writing for small magazines when in 2008 he was commissioned by the Atlantic to write a blog during Obama’s campaign for president. Three books and many blog posts and tweets later, Coates is, in Packer’s words, ‘the most influential writer in America today’ – an elevation that no writer of colour could previously have achieved. Toni Morrison claims he has filled ‘the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died’. Philip Roth has been led to histories of American racism by Coates’s books. David Brooks credits him for advancing an ‘education for white people’ that evidently began after ‘Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings’. Even USA Today thinks that ‘to have such a voice, in such a moment, is a ray of light.’ Coates seems genuinely embarrassed by his swift celebrity: by the fact that, as he writes in his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays published in the Atlantic between 2008 and 2016, ‘I, who’d begun in failure, who held no degrees or credentials, had become such a person.’ He also visibly struggles with the question ‘Why do white people like what I write?’ This is a fraught issue for the very few writers from formerly colonised countries or historically disadvantaged minorities in the West who are embraced by ‘legacy’ periodicals, and then tasked with representing their people – or country, religion, race, and even continent (as in the New York Times’s praise for Salman Rushdie: ‘A continent finding its voice’). Relations between the anointed ‘representative’ writer and those who are denied this privilege by white gatekeepers are notoriously prickly. Coates, a self-made writer, is particularly vulnerable to the charge that he is popular among white liberals since he assuages their guilt about racism.


An excerpt: In the Dark Room

Image 9 (137)b

An excerpt from Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room, published today.

¶ A haunted house

In the autumn of 2004, a few months after I had begun trying to picture once again my own family home as it stood empty on that morning eleven years earlier, I travelled to see a work of art which I suspected might have something to say about the relationship between houses and memory. The work, by the English artist Tacita Dean, is a film – or rather, three related and subtly different films – entitled Boots. On the day in question, I arrived at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, where the film was to be installed for the next month, to discover that I had mistaken the date of the exhibition’s opening: it was not due to begin for another four days. The security guard who informed me of my mistake, however, was sympathetic, and I was directed upstairs to three adjacent rooms, where two technicians were busily preparing a trio of ancient and recalcitrant 16mm projectors. I explained my error, and they agreed that as soon as they had got the first version of the film running (focus was so far proving difficult), I could enter the first darkened room and watch a still slightly shaky back-up print of Dean’s film.

Boots is a meditation on architecture and memory, shot in a vast Art Deco villa in Portugal that is now used as exhibition space by a nearby museum. The film takes its title from the nickname of an old family friend of the artist’s, so named for his orthopaedic boot, the sound of which, as it strikes the gleaming wooden floors of the villa, echoes through the twenty minutes of the first of the film’s three versions. The octogenarian Boots, his frail body supported by two walking sticks, wanders through the house alone, apparently recalling as he goes the building’s former, now deceased, inhabitant: a woman, Blanche, with whom, many years ago, he had an affair.

In fact, the story he fashions out of the odd muttered reminiscence or sudden exclamation is at least partly fictional. Boots, unscripted, invents his own memories to fill rooms that are brilliantly sunlit and quite empty. He improvises his own character, while Dean’s camera gives the house itself a grandly melancholy personality, composed of cool shadows and sudden, blazing expanses of light. As the old man moves through the villa, the viewer realizes that the figure on screen is seeing a quite different film: a series of tableaux made, perhaps, out of his own past, now projected on to the pristine surfaces of an empty house.

I watched Dean’s film with a growing sense that I was seeing something very familiar: the moment when one moves through a space both intimately known and at the same time utterly alien. The artist’s frail collaborator conjures the most moving images out of the tiniest details of the house: details which, for all the historical resonance of the house itself, and the ravishing cinematography which revives it, were invisible to the viewer. Boots, it seems, is seeing ghosts. ‘One has the feeling, or I have the feeling,’ he sighs at one point, ‘that they are still here, but in another dimension … and that this whole house is in another dimension … it’s not … of the moment, if you know what I’m trying to say.’ Not only is the house, as Boots negotiates its remarkable rooms, overpopulated by mid-century ghosts, but the space itself seems to have dropped out of history, drifted off (like the massive ocean liner it resembles) into unchartable seas of memory.

As this huge, convoluted theatre of memory opened itself up before me on the screen, I was reminded of another, more tangible artistic reflection on the house as an image of recollection and nostalgia. In 1993, the sculptor Rachel Whiteread made a work simply entitled House. The sculpture (if that is what it was: various civic dignitaries rushed to condemn it as an inartistic monstrosity) was a cast of the interior of a Victorian house, ‘exhibited’ in situ at 135 Grove Road, Bow, East London. Whiteread had garnered a certain amount of celebrity from her previous works, in which the interior volume of a single room was cast in blocks, later reassembled in the gallery to form an eerie white ghost of the original space. House was a good deal more ambitious and resonant: an entire phantom building was revealed once the outer shell (which was, after all, the house itself) had been removed and the specially formulated concrete beneath revealed. The sculpture unearthed an impossible volume: the solid replica of an empty interior, the image of a void once enclosed and supported by real bricks, real plaster.

I have never seen Whiteread’s House: after months of controversy, it was finally demolished, and even the fact that the artist had won that year’s Turner Prize could not save it (might, indeed, have hastened its end). But photographs of it suggest that for a time it must have soaked up the memory of its environs: the surrounding streets which, pocked with derelict houses, had eventually been demolished. Stranded at the edge of the empty park that had replaced them, the sculpture gave the impression of having solidified memory itself. This was an illusion: it was not a solid mass at all, but a collection of vacant concrete boxes, held together by an invisible interior armature. You could have broken through its surface – some local squatters attempted to do just this – but you would not have found a habitable space, just a mass of wooden and metal supports. To the viewer on the outside, however, House made manifest a feeling that only occasionally overtakes one at home: that the substance of the house – the layers of brick, plaster, paint and wallpaper – is quite unreal, that the true house is the space in which we move. It is the empty volume that we get used to, that makes our bodies move in particular ways, that forms habits and physical attitudes which persist, awkwardly, after we have left.

We often think of nostalgia – which is nothing more or less, etymologically, than the desire for home – as accruing to objects and images (and so it does, as we shall see later). But there is another sort of ache for the past, which has nothing to do with the visible and tangible world and everything to do with the void that abuts it in the most complex ways. If the photographic evidence is to be believed, visitors to Whiteread’s House must have been startled not only by the obtuse volume of the thing, but also by the way that emptiness was so minutely etched and convoluted. A house is not made of flat surfaces, but of odd protrusions, embossed or striated planes. Each tiny recession of the solid world around us is an extension of our own space, and therefore full of memory: a refined and slow-drying medium which covers everything. Nostalgia is no longer the word to describe the moment when we see the space around us for the complicated void it really is. At that instant – the instant, for me, of seeing the house empty for the first and last time – it becomes properly uncanny (which is to say: unhomely). The house no longer looks like itself, and yet it is reduced to its essence for the first time: recognizably a house from which we have been banished. The brilliance of House lay in the way it depended for its existence on a specific, unrepresentable space, and at the same time recalled all those who saw it (perhaps especially those who rejected it as art) to the vanished chambers of their own pasts. No house could be more comprehensively stocked with the detritus of the past than the empty house.


On Sophie Calle

Nico Israel for 4Columns

For 4Columns Nico Israel reviews Sophie Calle’s exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, currently running at Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris.

“Fish for your ideas from your fishmonger,” recommends an old prefabricated sign Sophie Calle saw in an Arles fish market shortly after her father died, then later bought and placed near the entrance of her current Paris exhibition. Writing in chalk on the sign, menu-du-jour style, the artist briefly recounts how, depressed and devoid of ideas, she went to see Sylvain, her fishmonger, to ask him for his help. In a four-minute accompanying video, Sylvain listens sympathetically to her as Calle describes her plight, but he claims to know nothing about art. When pressed, he says he likes paintings and sculptures, especially the kind that are “well executed”; he has no patience for abstraction, much less the kind of conceptual photographs, films, texts, and installations Calle tells him in an uncondescending way that she herself makes (and is at that moment making with his participation). But he does, he notes, think you can do things with salmon; they used to make shoes out of the fish’s skin. Next to the video monitor appears a sculpture with a school of wax-molded and pink- and black-painted “salmons.” On nearby walls are photographs from numerous different American cemeteries of headstones that say, simply, “Father.”

This jarring combination of mourning and humor, collaboration and imposition, intimacy and abjection characterizes much of Calle’s art in the show, which includes both new pieces and reactivated work from earlier in her career. The exhibition venue, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, occupies an imposing seventeenth-century mansion full of taxidermied wild animals, trophies, and bric-a-brac; in 1967 André Malraux (of Le musée imaginaire renown) turned it into a public institution dedicated to investigating the relationship between human beings and animals. The museum was renovated and extended about a decade ago, and since then a couple dozen artists have responded to the space in shows that usually occupy small parts of the capacious mansion; Paris-born Calle was invited by curator Sonia Voss to take over the whole museum. The resulting exhibition, Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis!, allures, ensnares, and slays.

The show’s title appropriates a slogan from a 1960s ad campaign for a French bullet company in which a valet congratulates his gentleman employer for being an excellent marksman. In the French hunting lexicon, doubler means to kill two animals with two consecutive, near simultaneous shots—and in the exhibition Calle repeatedly reflects on the deaths, in 2014–15, of both her father, a well-known surgeon and art collector, and her housecat Souris (Mouse). There is a photographic portrait of her father shortly before his death superimposed over a prose poem/lament about him, whose intimacy is astonishing. Nearby are pictures of black-and-white Souris in life and death. In her accompanying writings, Calle notes that Souris was the “name she pronounced most in her life”; she also transcribes the unintentionally callous words her friends and acquaintances used (in notes, voice mails, etc.) in response to the passing of her animal companion of eighteen years. Calle is almost certainly aware of critiques about man-centered ideas of “nature,” and of the dangers of anthropomorphizing animals (not to mention of maudlin sentimentality)—but isn’t interested in them. What she is interested in is mourning and longing; where the exhibition really surprises is by putting mourning and longing in the conceptual frame of la chasse et la nature.


London launch events for Esther Kinsky’s RIVER (tr. Iain Galbraith)

At Sutton House in Hackney and Tate Modern

Please join us for the London launches of River by Esther Kinsky (tr. Iain Galbraith)

On Tuesday 20 February, Pages of Hackney will host a launch event at Sutton House, 2 & 4 Homerton High St, London E9 6JQ, from 7-9pm. There will be a short reading and drinks. The event is free and all are welcome. Please RSVP to Pages of Hackney here, or to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. 

On Wednesday 21 February, Esther Kinsky will be in conversation with Gareth Evans at Tate Modern from 7-8.30pm. This event is also free and open to all, but please book a place through Tate here.  


White Magic

Lou Cornum for The New Inquiry

For The New Inquiry, Lou Cornum considers the under-examined racial history of witchcraft, the ‘white witch’ phenomenon and the current cultural obsession with witches.


The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.

That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).

Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.

The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.

These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.

There are multiple simultaneous nostalgias at work with the current witch obsession. There’s the nostalgia not only for a romanticized premodern time when earth-based practices, like a life structured around seasonal ceremony, were more possible, but also for the ’90s and its earnest invocation of girl power. First uttered by the punk group Bikini Kill, “girl power”—as a phrase, attitude, and position—was brought to wild heights of popularity by the Spice Girls. It is not surprising that in this atmosphere of celebration a fascination with witches would arise. While modern-day witches may seem, at times, aligned with a feminist political critique of capitalist reproduction, the fundamental threat of savagery they could pose to the nation is downplayed in their mainstream and even cult-classic iterations, which tacitly support female empowerment while avoiding the crisis in femininity witches have summoned in their naked fire dances. Of the many witchy movies and TV shows of the ’90s, several have since become millennial classics. The Craft—released in 1996 and centered on a group of four occult-dabbling Catholic schoolgirls—remains the iconic standout of the genre for its ability to brand the female empowerment narrative in the definitive looks of a contemporary coven: black latex, black eyeliner, black chokers. Unfortunately, what begins as a goth feel-good tale of getting revenge on slut-shaming football jerks turns to a jealous girl-on-girl fallout. Released three years earlier than the goth-chic cult classic was the more family-oriented Hocus Pocus, set in Salem, which features Bette Midler playing a genuinely scary and villainous witch but one who is defeated in the end by a teenage boy. Indians are absent from these movies and the lore they invoke. And though there is some passing reference to the violence faced by heathen women of the past, these films are mostly centered on redemptive stories of love: love between friends and sisters, but always more importantly romantic love between men and women.

The paragon of pagan chick flicks Practical Magic, for instance, begins in Puritan times with the scene of a witch about to be hung. This witch is feared for her magic and resented for her homewrecking ways. Ancestor to sisters played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, the witch puts “a curse on any man who dares love” any of her female descendents. What ensues is a lifelong quest for the sisters to find un-hexed heterosexual romance. At one point they pull off a spell to reanimate Nicole Kidman’s abusive boyfriend with a pentagram made from a can of reddi whip. And in the end, Sandra Bullock’s character overcomes both the persecution of witches as outsiders and the family curse by falling in true love with a cop, once the violent enforcer of order transformed into a benevolent, handsome man.

Herein lies one of the more sinister revisions at work in the ’90s movie about witches—the strange women who abandon civilized life to live naked with other women in the woods become straight. According to colonial logics, women accused of witchcraft and Indigenous and African-descendent peoples are fundamental threats to the nation state. Their unruly sexualities (and the non-Western societal structures they index) are capable of undoing the binding power of the nuclear family, otherwise known as the power of the father. But the depictions of witches in the ’90s worked hard to repair witches’ reproductive role in the home. Willow, the beloved lesbian witch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the exception whose status as sapphic icon proves the rule.


Chance and Agency: Carolee Schneemann’s Use of Fire

Olivia Gauthier for BOMB Magazine

For BOMB Magazine, Olivia Gauthier considers the role of fire in American artist Carolee Schneemann’s works.


Schneemann’s studio burned in 1960 while she was a graduate student in Illinois. There is no readily available documentation of this fire, what it damaged, or what her studio looked like after the flames were extinguished. Two years later Schneemann would create several assemblages in small boxes, filling them with materials, fixing them with resin and paint, then drenching them in turpentine. At this point Schneemann would light a match and quickly close the lid, relinquishing control over the resulting state of the materials. Upon extinguishing the blaze, she was left with chaotic compositions, testaments to her collaboration with the flames. Schneemann furthered her exploration with fire as gesture in her iconic work in 16mm film, Fuses (1964–67). After filming, Schneemann manipulated the celluloid by cutting, painting the surface, dipping it in acid, and setting it ablaze. The presence of fire in the making of Fuses more directly connects the works subject with connotations of fire as a symbol of passion and creation.

In her 1991 performance Ask the Goddess, an audience member asked Schneemann: “What is the meaning of art?” to which Schneemann replied, “The meaning of art is destruction.” In the postwar period painting became an arena for action, as Harold Rosenberg explicated in his essay, “The American Action Painters,” published in ARTnews in December of 1952. Schneemann’s penchant for destruction was not simply in dialogue with other artists around her, the majority of whom were men, but rather came from a desire to dismantle control in an effort to attain liberation. Using fire was one way actively to remove or distort the artist’s hand in her own work, the very part of a painter’s body that is so coveted and admired. In this gesture Schneemann refuses the notion of individual authorship years before Roland Barthes would address similar concerns in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author.”

In the spirit of experimental practices, especially the introduction of low materials into high art, Schneemann turned to an unlikely material, however rich in symbolism. Fire has a duality of associations, both positive and negative. It can be a source of warmth and light, but it can also destroy and bring pain. Ecologically, fire is a source of rebirth: when the earth is scorched, room is made for new growth; this fire often symbolizes purification, resurrection, and productive inspiration. Although we may not know what Schneemann felt upon seeing her singed studio, with the Controlled Burning series she found creative potential in fire’s ability to act as both destroyer and producer. This duality is not dissimilar from Schneemann’s use of her body to challenge fixed notions of the female nude, representing herself as both image and image-maker. 


Paris in August

Jacqueline Feldman for The White Review

Jacqueline Feldman’s essay on surveillance, paranoia and the emergency state in Paris, featured in The White Review.


‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.

I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them. The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism. Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious. The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily. Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’. These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.


More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at CHARLIE HEBDO in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.


A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.


Top Stories: Anne Turyn on the groundbreaking New York periodical

Hannah Nussbaum for Tank

For Tank, Hannah Nussbaum interviews Anne Turyn – the founder of Top Stories, a New York-based periodical which published experimental fiction from the 1970s to 1991.

Hannah Nussbaum How did Top Stories come together?

Anne Turyn I got an undergraduate degree in fine art, and then I moved to Buffalo, New York because of a boyfriend. There was a really active art scene there, and I ended up getting involved with a little non-profit gallery called Hallwalls. Around that time, I found out that one of my favorite writers – Walter Abish – was going to be a visiting professor in the writing program at the University of Buffalo, where I was already attending critiques even though I wasn’t enrolled. So I decided to enroll in grad school there. I was interested in writing and also interested in photography, and I asked Hallwalls if they could fund a little magazine, which I was able to get a small chunk of grant money for. I started Top Stories – a prose periodical – which I produced as part of the programming at Hallwalls. But even though it started out associated with a gallery, I always thought of it as a literature publication  as focused on writing. I was really interested in language, and was also interested in the possibility of artists taking their performances from text – one of the early writers I worked with was Laurie Anderson, and I had seen her take her performance from a text and put it in a book called Individuals. I had read a great interview with Kathy Acker in Only Paper Today, out of Toronto. At that point she was interested in – and talking a lot about – the use of I – the first person as a multiple register that could be constantly switching around.

HN So there was a sense of newness in combining the art and literary worlds when you started all of this?

AT Yeah, at this time, the space between writing and art was starting to become much more porous – the downtown was much more porous. One of the early Top Stories issues featured Pati Hill. She was a writer and also an artist who worked particularly with photocopiers. She had published several novels in the 1960s. In 1976 she had published a book of photocopy art and writing – a novella. She tried distributing it through a poetry publisher and they said it was a children’s book because it contained words and pictures. That would be laughable now. From then on, I started inviting artists and writers who I was interested in to contribute to Top Stories. My working method was, people could submit whatever they wanted, as long as it fit the format of the chapbook.

HN What are your thoughts about Kathy Acker being re-mythologised right now?

AT Isn’t she all myth at this point? And obviously all the stories about her are secondhand. Chris Kraus’s book, After Kathy Acker has been very influential and talked about. But I think it’s possible that people could be misreading Acker’s ‘I’ when they read her writing and work today. I am super excited that Penguin UK is republishing a version of what was Top Stories #9, New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker.

HN Was there a sense that you all were working in a new voice, like a new mode of writing that was discursive or confessional?

AT No, it was something new, but it wasn’t confessional at all, nobody would have used that word to describe what we were doing at the time. What Kathy Acker or Constance De Jong were interested in was the idea that the first-person narrator can be unreliable, can be constantly switching around. But it’s not like this can’t be traced back to so many different moments in earlier American literature. Faulkner has switching narrators, right? Or Ken Kesey in Sometimes a Great Notion, he switches the narrator sometimes in the middle of a sentence – and it works! I think the work Constance DeJong was and continues to write is a powerful example of this and her influence and power seems as potent today as it did in the 1970s.

HN Do you think that the work of Top Stories’s authors is being read differently now in the advent of what people are calling “fourth wave feminism”?

AT Well we were definitely feminist, but saying you’re feminist is like saying “I’m breathing.” Of course we were feminists, and we were also being avant-garde and breaking rules and forging territory.


A Double Room

A short story by Ann Quin

Ann Quin’s tale of a failed affair, ‘A Double Room’ – featured in the newly released collection of Quin’s writings, Another Country, published by & Other Stories – introduced by Danielle Dutton for Electric Lit.

They had arranged to meet at 11 a.m. She arrived at 10:30. I know I must be there early or I won’t go at all. Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time. It drizzled now as she looked out of the station. Cabs swished by. People rushed through barriers. Escape. Escape with my lover. But he isn’t even that. In her small room. On her single bed they had gone so far. Fully clothed. No we’ll wait it wouldn’t be fair I have to leave you soon. Now the weekend he would prove to be

She clutched her bag. Glanced at the clock. And there he was. His hat cuckoo-perched on an unfinished nest. Dressed in a new suit. Mac just cleaned over his arm. Hullo love. If people stopped to look they would think we were father and daughter on our way to an aunt’s funeral. They don’t look. But think dirty old man. As he takes my arm. My bag.

The train. Carriages with long seats. Without divisions. Seats that make one aware of sagging shoulders. She straightened up. Straightened her skirt. Haven’t seen that dress before love — new? He removed his hat. It nestled beside him. He had washed his hair. Had a bad shave. Without adding the bits of cotton wool. The train shuttled forward. Stopped. Now I could say I’ve changed my mind I can’t go on with it I feel ill. Well how are things sweet? OK had a row with the wife oh some trivial domestic thing anyway makes it easier. Looks as if it might clear up. Brighter in the west — forecast said it would. How long does it take? About two hours love should be there in time for a beer and brunch in a nice pub somewhere. The rest of the carriage empty. Maybe someone will get in at the next stop. Pray that someone gets in. Ininininininin the train chugged on over the bridge. Children threw stones into the river. He had on the green shirt. She remarked once how nice he looked in green. Matches your eyes. Eyes now stared directly at her. Was he thinking of the night. Nights ahead. Nights he had saved up for. Relishing in cosy domestic mornings. Reading the papers together. Quietly sipping tea. Quietly satisfied. Three. Four mornings ahead of them. Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might. But no one got in at the next station. He leaned over and took her hand. She looked out of the window. Looked back at him. Cigarette? Her hand released. She dived into her bag. They lit up. He sank back. She took out a paperback. Looked at the words lumped together. Spaces between paragraphs.

The train stopped. A woman with a child got in. The child held a blue teddy bear nearly bigger than herself. They sat opposite. The woman looked across once. The child more than once. Giggling she approached. Adjusted the bear’s arms. What’s his name then? Tethy. He’s nice isn’t he? She passed the bear over. He took it and balanced it on his knees. The child started crying gimmee back gimmee gimmee Tethy gimmee. Judy come here don’t disturb the gentleman there’s a good girl. He smiled and handed the bear over. It growled. The child giggled and passed it over to me. Do you want to hold Tethy it’s his burfday. She sucked her thumb and watched. Watching. He watched.

The houses crammed together. Back yards where men leaned on spades. Women in doorways dried their hands on aprons. Fields where boys played football. In small parks girls paused over prams. The sky strips of blue. Houses spread out. Fields. Cows. Sheep. Away from civilisation. Away from the little rituals they had been going through. Manipulated. Meetings in pubs. Fish and chips afterwards. Parties where she danced. Flirted. While he looked on. Hurried fumblings. Kisses. In a cab. Long talks by the gas fire. Holding hands in the cinema. Being shown off to his friends at dinner parties. I’m so glad he’s found you he does need someone bless him and you seem so suited his wife as you probably know is

The child bounced the bear on the seat. I looked at the paperback. This autobiographical novel is a brazen confession of rebellion, trespass and blatant sexual exploitation in a world of intellectual despair and moral chaos. She closed the book. He looked up from the newspaper. His shoes highly polished. Crease in trousers nicely creased. Oh so nicely creased. Creases under his eyes. Around his mouth. Anticipation anticipation anti anti antiantiantiantiantianti. The train rattled on. The child talked to the bear. Tethy Tethy my Tethy is a naughty Tethy. The woman put away her knitting. They got out. He leaned over. It’s going to be great just great love I know it will. Pressure on my knee. Only another half hour to go love. A dozen hours to come. No. Perhaps he will want to in the afternoon. An after lunch doze. I closed my eyes. Opened. More fields. More boys kicking in an orgy of mud. Men tinkered with cars. Station after station. Signals. Tunnels. Hedges. Then the sea. Flat grey. Flat washed green land on the left. Well this is it love — here I’ll take your case. The hat flew on.


To Be, or Not to Be

Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books
Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties

Masha Gessen’s essay – which was adapted and given as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library in December 2017 – on identity and the politics of choice-making.



The topic of my talk was determined by today’s date. Thirty-nine years ago my parents took a package of documents to an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. More than two years would pass before the visa was granted, but from that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.

I have emigrated again as an adult. I was even named a “great immigrant” in 2016, which I took to be an affirmation of my skill, attained through practice—though this was hardly what the honor was meant to convey. I have also raised kids of my own. If anything, with every new step I have taken, I have marveled more at the courage it would have required for my parents to step into the abyss. I remember seeing them in the kitchen, poring over a copy of an atlas of the world. For them, America was an outline on a page, a web of thin purplish lines. They’d read a few American books, had seen a handful of Hollywood movies. A friend was fond of asking them, jokingly, whether they could really be sure that the West even existed.

Truthfully, they couldn’t know. They did know that if they left the Soviet Union, they would never be able to return (like many things we accept as rare certainties, this one turned out to be wrong). They would have to make a home elsewhere. I think that worked for them: as Jews, they never felt at home in the Soviet Union—and when home is not where you are born, nothing is predetermined. Anything can be. So my parents always maintained that they viewed their leap into the unknown as an adventure.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, no one had asked me.



As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself in a clearing in a wood outside of Moscow, at a secret—one might say underground, though it was out in the open—gathering of Jewish cultural activists. People went up in front of the crowd, one, two, or several at a time, with guitars and without, and sang from a limited repertoire of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. That is, they sang the same three or four songs over and over. The tunes scraped something inside of me, making an organ I didn’t know I had—located just above the breastbone—tingle with a sense of belonging. I was surrounded by strangers, sitting, as we were, on logs laid across the grass, and I remember their faces to this day. I looked at them and thought, This is who I am. The “this” in this was “Jewish.” From my perch thirty-seven years later, I’d add “in a secular cultural community” and “in the Soviet Union,” but back then space was too small to require elaboration. Everything about it seemed self-evident—once I knew what I was, I would just be it. In fact, the people in front of me, singing those songs, were trying to figure out how to be Jewish in a country that had erased Jewishness. Now I’d like to think that it was watching people learning to inhabit an identity that made me tingle.

Some months later, we left the Soviet Union.

In autobiographical books written by exiles, the moment of emigration is often addressed in the first few pages—regardless of where it fell in a writer’s life. I went to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to look for the relevant quote in its familiar place. This took a while because the phrase was actually on page 250 out of 310. Here it is: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.”

This is an often-quoted phrase in a book full of quotable sentences. The cultural critic and my late friend Svetlana Boym analyzed Nabokov’s application of the word “syncope,” which has three distinct uses: in linguistics it’s the shortening of a word by omission of a sound or syllable from its middle; in music it is a change of rhythm and shift of accent when a normally weak beat is stressed; and in medicine it is a brief loss of consciousness. “Syncope,” wrote Svetlana, “is the opposite of symbol and synthesis.”

Suketu Mehta, in his Maximum City, wrote:

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to.

Mehta didn’t let me down: this assertion appears in the very first pages of his magnificent book; also, he moved to America at the same age that I did. And while I think he might be wrong about everyone, I am certain he is right about émigrés: the break colors everything that came before and after.

Svetlana Boym had a private theory: an émigré’s life continues in the land left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an unpublished piece, she tried to imagine the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing and reimagining became something of an obsession. She also had a theory about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted. In any case, there are many stories to be told about a single life.


Fitz Carraldo Editions