The first weeks of summer, I knew no one in Santa Fe but my coworkers at the newspaper’s culture desk. I covered arts and music and literature, local goings-on, regional history. Quickly a peculiar pattern appeared in the cultural landscape. Everywhere science pervaded.
The first tip-off was all the science fiction writers. You could barely take take your dog to the park before he sniffed the butt of a science fiction writer’s dog. The first few weeks of my job, I was sent to interview them in hordes. I asked my copy-editor Joan what the deal was, blessed Joan, who shared my cubicle, who possessed an infinitely replenishing supply of red pens, who turned her chair around one-hundred eighty degrees for my every dumb inquiry. Joan, when people say Anglo here, do they just mean white? Joan, what is a Frito pie?
Sometimes, her answer was not an answer at all. “Joan, where are all the science fiction writers coming from?”
“Ah, yes,” she says. “It’s because of Los Alamos. Plus there’s Roswell, where the aliens landed in the 60s. There’s the real science, and the woo woo science, but it all gets mixed up. So, science fiction.”
Her answer felt like the delivery of some mysterious package, pulsing with significance.
If you walked into a bar or festival or concert or coffee shop in town there was a pretty good likelihood of its being alien-themed or outer space-themed or nuclear-themed. The cultural centerpiece of the summer was the Santa Fe Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic, set in the nearby town of Los Alamos—one of the strangest locales in America. It is a city of labs, or the labs and the city are one. The labs emerged suddenly and covertly during World War II. Thousands of scientists uprooted their families and relocated to the secret, militarized town. They needed a place to build the atomic bomb. The opera tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, but set to music.
I went on a few mediocre dates with physics students working at Los Alamos and they unfailingly brought up the extreme security measures. Their favorite was this: “If you leave your bag lying around unlabelled, they’ll blow it up.” It was never clear who the “they” were. The dates said this like a brag. To exist amongst operations of such gravity.
Something about this place had drawn the science fiction writers; the alien conspiracy theorists; the new agers. As if a giant magnet sat beneath the city pulling in all who sought a quick spiritual fix. Each visitor wanting something desperately, unsure exactly what, feeling that this place would provide it.
Or there was some other mystical entity nestled underground, like a large, shimmering crystal, which, in fact, there was. Henry, who was studying hyper-fission at the lab and seemed to know something about science, told me so. We were sitting at one of the atomic themed bars. At first, I didn’t believe it. It sounded too much too much like what all the gift shops were offering up—salt lamps and star charts and other new age commodities. And it sounded too much like what so many Santa Fe folks were telling me when I first arrived—that there was some buzzy current in the air that made life here different and strange and wonderful, but there was also something out there that might doom you. That this was the price you paid for specialness.
Every season, Henry said, the crystal sends up energetic waves into the city. You vibe with the energy or you don’t. Then, the lands accepts you or it doesn’t. If it accepts you, the city gives you little gifts, serendipitous moments, and things go well for you here. If it rejects you, life becomes a chain of misfortune. Sometimes it rejects you then accepts you, or accepts you but then rejects you for a little while and then accepts you and rejects you off and on for a few years, and so on, and it all sounds suspiciously like life.
But then I asked copy-editor/personal oracle Joan, and she told me that there actually does exist a bed of obsidian beneath the city. She even took a chunk of it out from her coin purse. When my eyes widened she shot me a look: “We all buy into the woo woo a little, or we wouldn't have come.” I get it. It’s like the zodiac. Another language to talk about ourselves. Don’t begrudge us our tiny scrap of cosmic significance. How could I, when I counted among the converted?
I should disclose, this particular summer was even more science-crazed than ordinary. That’s because the city of Santa Fe deemed it the “Atomic Summer,” a celebration of the state’s atomic heritage.
This question was like a nudging cat that refused to be ignored but shrunk away when I tried to grant it attention: What is the toll on reality when we mythologize daily life, when the quotidian becomes the cosmically fated sublime? This could be a benign game, I figured, or an act of survival, or escapism, or a dirty trick. But in the case of Los Alamos, this mystification process seemed plainly harmful.The trope of the bomb’s creation is of the naive scientist: bewildered that his invention has been used for evil. This may have been true of certain individuals, but collectively, Los Alamos was explicitly, flagrantly nationalistic. It may have been born in ignorance, but it was brought up by the hand of the United States military. Santa Fe was once home to an 80-acre Japanese internment camp. The labs themselves still bear the oddly juvenile motto, “The World’s Greatest Science Protecting America.” A paradoxical claim when you consider that in 1945, the U.S. military, fearing the end of the world as we know it, introduced the possibility of apocalypse. They looked to peril abroad and dismissed the big, atomic threat simmering in their own conversations at the dinner table, or huddled around the office water cooler.
This is what I was thinking about before I met Rebecca, the first friend of my summer. What did I do, those first few weeks? They now seem holistically insignificant, since they were without her. I went on hikes. I was good at my job at the newspaper. At work one afternoon, I caught a flash of myself in the monitor’s reflection, copy-editing with a red pen. A red sweater and a ponytail, bubble gum, the covers of old issues lining the wall behind me, and for the first time I felt preemptive nostalgia for my time at this job in this city. I got sick with a slutty headache, which is when you feel like shit but you feel kind of sexy about it. Like you’re lying around with a fever in lingerie, or dying of tuberculosis. I smiled meekly at the men who shouted at me on the street. I was careless about closing the blinds when I changed, though workmen passed my window in plain view.
I was okay with being at the world’s whim. That’s why I had come to Santa Fe to begin with—because it had called to me, and if I stayed there long enough, eventually something would happen. I didn’t believe in a giant crystal that ruled my fate, but I might as well have.
Rebecca was the opposite. She had come to Santa Fe for cheap rent and a quiet place to stay home and work on her screenplay. She had six close friends scattered across the United States (I would become the seventh) and once told me her biggest fear was the fact that you never know how you’re affecting someone else. She didn’t want other people to affect her, either. She dreamed of a world where everyone could exist side-by-side and never smudge, perfectly retaining their own innate qualities forever. But I wanted to be changed by every encounter. Like I could selfishly pull moments toward me like poker chips and stack them up until I was buried beneath a giant, fascinating pile of life’s miscellania. This glorious mass would constitute my self.
Rebecca took me to Santa Fe’s premier roller rink, housed in a small, outer-space themed warehouse. On the walls aliens wore boy shorts and baseball caps and spun basketballs. We zig-zagged, swerved right through gaps in crowds. Once, Rebecca overheard the rink’s owner telling another skater, You let the music come in! And hearing that kind of changed Rebecca’s life; she said, Somewhere in me is the kind of person who dances first. There was a kinship on the floor that scrubbed away the waxy coats of moralistic daily alarm around physical contact and chummy interaction—Lord knows I participate—but: no way you can be upset with someone for grabbing your shoulders or holding your hand if they are about to fall on their butt. Or start a skate train. Or hand you half a cherry AirHead while whizzing by, as someone does the first night. So Rebecca and I wove. Boundless. I thanked some nebulous force for the easy merging of our two lives. I appreciated its chemical rarity. By chemical, of course, I mean spiritual. A man was falling in the corner, saying Aw jeez Aw jeez Awww Jeeeeez, but it came out Hot cheese hot cheese hooowwwt cheeeese. We rolled our eyes. Hot cheese will not save you, sir, Hot cheese won’t stop your fall. But then I got it in my head too, as in, Hot cheese I like how it feels to be on wheels, be together and be not afraid, Hot cheese somewhere in me is the kind of person who is free, hot cheese please grant me the mercy to keep moving this way forever.
Soon, Rebecca and I developed a routine. We saw one another every day. We kept rituals. Wednesday night live music on the hill, the roller rink, writing side by side at Betterday Cafe, hiking up Monte Sol.
One Friday after work, Rebecca and I drove to Abiquiu Lake, to camp out where Georgia O’Keefe used to paint. Rebecca’s dog, Duke, stuck his head into the front seat panting. Outside the window, tall trees tipped and leaned like drunk brothers. There was a mode of careless sharing that had by then become our versed way, like there was no way of talking about ourselves before summer and never again would there be after. We each liked to understand how the other had processed her life, then imagine how we would have done it differently.
I told her about an incident last winter. I was collecting wood and milking cows for room and board at a farm on a mountaintop. A few nights in, a man entered my room holding up a large machete. I pretended to sleep while he stood over me. He receded to the closet. I turned on my flashlight and called out, but he didn’t respond. I felt quite certain that now was the time, as in every girl’s life, when I was going to be raped by a strange man at machete-point. I considered whether I should jump out of bed and run (though there was nowhere to run, it being a mountain top) or continue pretending to be asleep (though I had just proven I was not). I jumped, and ran across the house to the bathroom and locked myself in. The man paced in front of the bathroom door until morning, and at some point, gave up and left.
Waiting in the bathroom, I did not feel particularly afraid. And I haven’t felt fear thinking of it since. I resented being told that I should feel particularly torn up at this or other moments like it. Rebecca understood. She found my reaction bizarre, but we both agreed that emotional response seemed to defy this type of codification. I had to believe this, because I did feel visceral fear all of the time, and it did not correspond to real life moments of risk—and trying to chart where the two things matched up felt as random as if I’d spilled a box of pins at my feet.
At some point around the third grade, I’d fixed in my mind the schema of things that were genuinely worth being afraid of. These mainly involved serial killer clowns, flesh-eating skeletons, lamprey men coming out of my toilet, and other horror creatures that mostly emerged from the horror stories that got me sent to the principal’s office that year. For years after, I checked under my bed before sleeping. Sometimes I still do. My first night in the house in Santa Fe alone, I pressed a knife under my pillow in a 3AM panic, picturing supernatural clowns. I spent the interim until I fell asleep keeping watch out of the window for ominous shapes. I wished I could scrape these thoughts from my brain. But some obsessive quality kept them entrenched. After all a fear of this intensity and duration must betray some fascination.
The next morning Rebecca and Duke and I stood beside the lake. A flower poked through the white stone at our feet—a plant you saw all over the place here, one that unfolds methodically, over the course of many hours or even several days, like a blues singer alone on a stage, singing the slowest blues. Green dress, shaking hands. The slowest blues you ever heard.
Rebecca dove right into the lake and Duke followed her, as he followed her everywhere, but I had pause. I could directly trace my nerves, embarrassingly, to a late 2000s Animal Planet series called Lost Tapes, which I used to watch compulsively in elementary school. It produced in me a reaction of immense fear and immense pleasure. Each episode is a stand-alone mockumentary, but the show tries to pass itself off as nonfiction. The premise is the recovery of lost tapes—usually a combination of home video and surveillance footage—that prove the existence of mythical creatures. Sasquatch, aliens, Mothman, and so on.
At this moment, the Oklahoma Octopus episode was getting me. I don’t think I’ve ever entered an opaque body of water where this octopus did not enter my mind. The episode follows the show’s typical formulaic arc. A group of unsuspecting acquaintances, armed with a camcorder, enter a territory known to be home to some mythical beast—in this case, it’s high schoolers out on a lake trip.
THERE ARE CREATURES SCIENCE REFUSES TO RECOGNIZE, a booming narrator insists at the start of each episode. Over the next twenty minutes, the Oklahoma Octopus makes itself known from beneath the lake’s surface, flashing a tentacle here, a tentacle there.
BUT NEW TECHNOLOGY MAKES US QUESTION WHAT IS REAL. His disembodied and trustworthy voice offers statistics and history over informational graphic reels, and by the end of the episode, the teenagers are mostly dragged underwater by the beast.
INTO A REALM WHERE FACT MEETS FICTION
WHERE SCIENCE MEETS LEGEND
WHERE NIGHTMARES COME TO LIFE. In the end, as always, the camera lies skewed on the beach, knocked out of some victim’s hand. One survivor lives to tell the tale, and the viewer is confronted with the ever-lingering question…
...DO YOU BELIEVE?
I always did believe, at least a little.
The Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic was approaching, the heart of the city’s cultural fascination with the scientific and the mystical. One day at work I summoned the nerve to ask Joan across our cubicle if I could go. The paper agreed and got me a press pass.
The show’s libretto is thick with poetic allusions, in large part because J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, was himself a lover of poetry. He and his wife Kitty Oppenheimer used lines of poetry as both erotic and practical code.
The bulk of the opera narrates the World War II scientists’ decision to test the world’s first atomic bomb in Southern New Mexico. When it came time to choose a code phrase for the test, Oppenheimer went the pious route, named the test site “Trinity,” and borrowed this line from the poet Donne John: “Batter my heart, three person’d God;…break, blow, burn and make me new.”
Oppenheimer might have been the poster child for the total entanglement of science and spirituality. “Now I am become Death; the destroyer of worlds,” he famously mused after the Trinity test, quoting Hindu scripture.
Deeming himself manifester of the sublime because a uranium-235 atom absorbed a neutron and split in two.
His religiosity was extraordinary among scientists but hardly unique. Throughout the twentieth century, Los Alamos scientists ran radiation tests for bomb fallout on their own children. Like Abraham binding Isaac to the rock, like science was a god worth sacrificing one’s son to appease. Doomsday, long having signalled the Rapture or the Second Coming, has been invoked since the 1940s by the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists to warn the populace of impending nuclear armageddon (and more recently, climate armageddon). Before that first Trinity test explosion, one of the stated risks was that the scientists would set the atmosphere on fire, yet they felt themselves entitled to play the odds. The night that bomb was set to detonate, a thunderstorm arrived. General Groves threatened the weatherman physical violence because of the bad conditions, forgetting that men are not gods.
My editor assigned me a news piece about an acclaimed Los Alamos chemist. The chemist, when we met, was a booming presence with a hulking frame and broad gestures. He spoke and spoke, long after I’d gotten down all the information I needed. He spoke of his childhood abroad, his critical role in conceiving optical effects in LCD screens, his children’s national quiz bowl championships.
When he traveled for work, he never booked a hotel room, he said. Instead he would crash in the lab or work through the night. “There are many things we are told we need, that we don’t need,” he philosophised, and I nodded along. We meandered through the city together after the interview was over, and he invited me to live rent-free in his downtown adobe house for the summer, and I said I’d think about that.
I liked him. I left smug. A chance encounter delivering a friend and a housing offer, and the man was interesting, and if interesting things came my way then it must have meant I had some quality that attracted them, and therefore I was a worthwhile human being.
I imagined him toying with vials in his Los Alamos lab. I imagined Oppenheimer doing the same three quarters of a century ago, peering at atoms and thinking of the bomb to come. There was something so alien about the way he’d related to the bomb and to his own self-importance. Where I liked to float along the cusp of great forces, these men liked to wield them.
This seemed to suggest on my part some essential inadequacy, one that forever preceded action, preceded being. The image of letting life accumulate around me until I was buried suddenly seemed less like an act of creation and more like, simply, being crushed. I don’t know who I want to be but I don’t want to be a person made of violence.
I did have one more acquaintance in Santa Fe—a long-lost relative in her seventies. That night we met for dinner. I told her about the chemist. “That chemist,” she said, “is a liar and a narcissist.” She knew his ex-wife well. (It was a small town.) She went on: “She had a restraining order—Oh yes, it was abuse. And he forced those kids to do quiz bowl.”
Later my editor assigned me to cover the 73-year-after-the-fact congressional hearings of the atomic “Downwinders,” those mostly Indigenous and Hispanic New Mexicans living downwind of the first atomic test at Trinity. Several women testified before Congress, asking for federal compensation for medical costs. To keep the test discreet, the scientists evacuated no one. Mostly farming communities—so that not only their air and homes but their water and food were poisoned from the radiation. A plague of cancer slipped into their bodies, their families’ bodies, their genetic legacies. To swallow families whole.
It’s not just that the government has never paid for healthcare costs for atomic victims; they’ve never admitted that the land could be toxic to begin with. I interviewed one woman who was eight days old when the Trinity test bomb erupted, and she filled the space of six minutes listing her family members sick or dead with cancer. Not until just five years ago, when she saw a woman discussing the bomb on TV, did she have any idea why. She wondered: did god himself despise her? As if for dystopian flair, the Department of Energy maintains today that the area was unpopulated all along.
With the federal government shrugging the plague of cancer into the realm of the inexplicable, the downwinders had no knowledge of the toxic matter embedded in their land and bodies; and how, then, could they even begin to keep safe?
And just imagine it, being a rural farmer when the sky erupts with fire. What do you do, what can you call it but the apocalypse?
In the hypothesis of Native scholar Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, the zombie apocalypse took place many years ago. In the mid-19th century, California miners held “Indian hunting days,” organizing militias to hunt Native people. They were compensated by the state of California. Baldy writes, “If you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. Zombies.”
The city has structured its Atomic Summer around “Atomic Heritage”, that scientific legacy, those jobs created, these grand histories recalled; but Atomic Heritage rings a wholly different sound when one thinks of the particulate matter, the mutant cells, the death sentences transmitted from generation to generation. Yet this second heritage is not parsed out from the first. In fact, proximity to danger only furthers the fascination. In the city’s festivities—in its obsession with forces of the beyond—it forgets the atomic evidence of violence that radiates from the very land beneath our feet. All of history is subsumed into the mythos of science and pop-mysticism that has made Santa Fe what it is: its heritage.
The pilot episode of Lost Tapes, titled “Chupacabra”, follows a Mexican family crossing the border to the United States on foot. The daughter, Eva, brings along the camcorder she’s been given for her birthday. As the family treks, the mythic, vampiric chupacabra prowls. The narrator lists the dangers of border-crossing: heat, reptiles, cops, AND POSSIBLY SOMETHING EVEN MORE FRIGHTENING. “Of all the potential dangers,” the narrator concludes, “The most feared is the chupacabra.” As the monster attacks Eva’s parents, leaving her to wander the Arizona desert solo, the narrator makes tenuous claims to reality, describing the feeding processes of vampire bats and leaving us to our own conclusions.
The show feeds on this ambiguity. It asks, always, “Do they live among us?” In Lost Tapes, the object of horror is always off the back of the real horror, as if what Eva has to fear is a chupacabra and not structural violence. When American soldiers are attacked in a cave in Afghanistan, we are told that the nightmare is a group of cave demons and not the American bombing campaign that prompted them to enter in the first place. The show’s problem is not that it inquires into the possibility of myth, it’s that it displaces fear, that it sends fear outside the limits of our knowledge. The show says that danger comes from the unknowable beyond, effectively denying its existence in our own environment. It tells us that we don’t know what we think we know, when knowing what we know is so often how we keep safe.
By the end of the episode, two policemen have tracked down Eva in the desert. They’re no help. Darkness chokes out the scene and becomes the main character. Three faces peer out into the sagebrush sea like they’re all facing the same beast. The night rustles.
My roommate has some sort of condition where she gets freaked out by small holes. Trypophobia is what she calls it. It is hard not to make immature jokes about the fact that she is scared of holes, obviously, but for her this fear is very real.
I’ve never understood it. There is nothing frightening about holes. Holes are empty. If you dig a hole in the ground you can hide inside it, you can cozy up and feel the edges pressing in, nice and safe. A small hole in a sweater is something you can poke a pencil through, drag your fingernail around when you are nervous. Comfortable and secure. Nothing to fear.
What I do not like is the idea of small particles; miniature bits of a thing. Amathophobia, my friend Frank explained once. Fear of dust.
The thing about tiny particles is that they used to be part of something bigger but broke off, seceded from the mass, or maybe the mass disintegrated. I do not like these particles because it is not clear to me at what point they stopped being a part of the larger mass and started existing as their own small things, and this ambiguity makes me nervous. It is impossible to sort out when the particles lost the essential nature of the thing they used to be and became a flake, or a kernel, or a tiny morsel that is absolutely nothing at all besides the flake kernel morsel; that stands for nothing bigger than its atomic unit; that has no higher meaning than its small, miserable self.
We shed 1.6 pounds of skin every year. Live skin cells become microscopic dust. When my skin peels away from my body can I stare at the tiny skin flakes on the ground and say, there is Eliya? Of course not. So what does that mean about the skin flakes that are attached to me right now? Are they any more Eliya than the skin flakes on the ground? Structures of identity begin to crumble very quickly when particles get involved. I do not like it at all.
I know that I do not want to be here as soon as we step out of the van. I can feel it all over, my whole body sinking into itself, sending my brain a firm no, thank you. The sky is a bumpy sort of grey, like there are a lot of tiny particles floating around, like pointillism without any of the colors. But I am here, so. My brain with apologies sends my feet trudging forward.
My classmates and I sip coffee while we wait in the security line. We arrived in Poland the night before, and none of us have slept. We’re all in that kind of dull sleep-deprived stupor that feels a little bit nice as long as you’re with other people. But every time I look past the line of people and see the hazy sky in front of me, I have to fold my hands together to keep my thumb from twitching. I would like to leave, it is telling me, stretching of its own accord to point in the direction where our van is parked.
A group of girls glides to the front of line and hovers at the entrance. When there is a gap, they slither forward, approaching the security counter.
“Cutting the line at Auschwitz?” my friend Mitch whispers, eyeing the girls. “Jeez. Not a good look.” We all giggle quietly.
After security, a mittened man hands us headphones. The tour is thoughtfully orchestrated so the guides do not have to yell; because even on a day as windy as this one, the information we are about to hear is not meant to be screeched. The guide murmurs a greeting into her speakerphone; it lands directly in our ears. Thank you for being here. Crisp and clear. So we will not miss a word.
We follow her to our first stop: the metal ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign that hangs over the entrance to the camp, and this moment feels like plunging my head into ice-cold water, because suddenly there it is, here I am, that sign, this place, really really.
I am thinking back to the young adult Holocaust novels I pored through as a child, many written autobiographically by survivors of Auschwitz, most of whom, on their way to a hell they cannot yet contemplate, pause underneath the lettering, which seems to loom incredibly, monstrously large, to have a think. Arbeit macht frei. Work will set me free? Hmm. These soon-to-be-heroes never seem to believe the sign’s promise. Clever Jews.
I know it concerned my parents, the ferocity with which I flew through these concentration-camp memoirs. Are you sure you feel okay reading this? my mother would ask me gently. Can we talk about what you learned from your book? Are you upset about that? It was an oddly maudlin habit for such a cheerful child, but I couldn’t help myself. I was doing research.
Mostly, my interest was theoretical. I was curious in a clinical, distant way: what is it, exactly, about me and mine that made a whole lot of people want to make us go away forever?
But every once in a while, I heard about how someone painted a swastika on a highway barrier nearby, or a kid in my Sunday school class who went to an elementary school in rural Ohio told me they made fun of his yarmulke, and I thought about how Granny was born in 1938 and Hitler did his thing in the forties and Granny wasn’t all that old, really, and if one person (Granny) could live long enough to watch the world swing from scary to safe, it was not out of the question that another person (me, maybe) could watch the world swing all the way back.
And in those moments of paranoia, the YA Holocaust books became how-to guides. This boy, how did he escape? This girl, she lied about her age. That is a good trick. I will lie about my age, too, when the time comes.
I used to ask my friends: If there is a second Holocaust, can my family live with yours? Are you sure? My dad eats a lot, can you promise to feed him? You’ll need extra groceries, you know. And a sliding wall, do you have one of those? One girl I read about lived behind a sliding wall. Well, maybe you should build one. Just in case.
So when the guide starts talking about how someone stole the ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign recently, a tiny little part of me is thinking: I should practice how to cry quieter. If the people who ever stole the sign come to steal me, I will hide in the attic and they will never hear me. One of the girls in one of my books did that and they never found her.
But the mature, rational part of me knows this is silly, knows I am safe, is focused on staring ahead, like the rest of the group, calmly taking in the sign. It’s smaller than I expected, I decide. Like when you see a macho celebrity in the airport and discover he’s actually only 5’7”. Not so intimidating, actually.
Often in my books around the time the narrators encounter the sign, they have some sort epiphany about the sky. They stare up, as high as their necks can crane, wondering if anyone is up there thinking about the people on the ground, but all they see are flecks of ash dotting the sky, spreading out infinitely in every direction. And then they realize that these small dots comprised, until very recently, a person who was actively producing thoughts and feelings and sweat and excrement and is now a tiny piece of white flake drifting dully through the sky.
And sometimes these books have an additional horrific moment wherein a character has been assigned the task of cremating the dead bodies, and comes across his own father, inert in a pile of similarly cold naked emaciated Jewish men. Or watches her sister march into the gas chambers and hours later smells the scent of burning flesh. Smelling is just inhaling tiny particles of a thing into your nose.
Our arrival in Poland comes just a few months after 60,000 white supremacists march in Warsaw; a month or so after the government announces a ban on the labelling of death camps as “Polish” in an attempt to remove implication from the Polish people for the massacre of Jews, to refocus the conversation on the non-Jews who suffered and died during the Holocaust; and just weeks after backlash against this law spurred increasingly virulent anti-Semitic epithets, sentiments, and demonstrations, like the march where Polish nationalists carried signs that read “Take off the Yarmulke - sign the law” and “stop Jewish aggression against Poland.”
It is also a month or so before a survey emerges concluding that people are forgetting about the Holocaust: 66% of millenials cannot say what Auschwitz was. I do not know this particular statistic when I am there, but I know the trends. Rising white nationalism, Holocaust denial, xenophobia, anti-Semitism.
A few days after we tour Auschwitz, we visit the Schindler Museum.
I like historical museums–these places of quiet communion with the past. Sometimes in museums I stare at an antique uniform or a cluster of words on the wall and I feel like it’s just me and history, alone together. And then I look around and there are so many people inside our little museum cosmos; there is a pleasant hum of empathy because we are all here, we are all absorbing these narratives of times long ago, forming silky threads of connection, soaking up the past and thereby affirming our faith in the future.
I assumed this museum would be about Oskar Schindler, but I find very little of the information on him. Most of the museum’s focus is on World War II in Poland. There is also a lot of preliminary information on the history of Poland. I learn things like how Poland was sort of tossed around by a lot of Big Kahuna colonizers that kept trying to inhale it, like Russia, and how World War I was a good thing for Poland because it finally became an independent nation. And how when World War II came, the government told the citizens not to worry, that this war would be quick and neat and they would all go back to celebrating their newfound countryhood lickety split.
I also learn a lot about how much the people of Poland were not in charge of their fates, and how such loss of agency therefore disqualified Poles from being in charge of the fates of other people, like Polish Jews. How the Nazis pinned posters everywhere with lists of Jews and intellectuals and other unacceptable people for whom they were searching; how they threatened to murder entire families belonging to adults who knew but did not disclose the whereabouts of these listed people. How they cut the Polish people off from credible news sources and distributed newspapers that justified the Nazi cause and played propaganda films in public squares.
I am thinking about today’s Poland, the way many people are sick of the interminable guilt. It makes some amount of sense, I conclude, that they are fed up with the rhetoric of blame. Maybe there is a difference between atrocities committed out of malice toward others and those committed out of fear for the self, and maybe the people in this country have felt seventy years of guilt for the things their great-grandparents did because they were confused and afraid. And maybe the recent push for new laws came from this place of frustration.
“Polish people are people,” our guide tells us. “They need art and entertainment to live on just like everyone else. Of course they were going to…” she trails off. “To watch the films.” And turn in Jews, I think she means to add.
In Auschwitz, I am not thinking at all about the Polish land we are standing on or the Polish people who may or may not have condoned the atrocities here. I am thinking about the Jews and the others and myself and death and the Banality of Evil and mostly trying to cry quieter because people are starting to look at me and I feel like an idiot. Plus I only brought one tissue and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find dry real estate for nose-blowing.
We pass through dark rooms, empty except for the glass display cases. Each has a different theme. A pile of silver pilfered from prisoners. A mountain of shoes. One display case is full of baby’s clothes–tiny dresses, period onesies. A whole room of hair. So much hair, heaping piles of it. I don’t understand how it is in such pristine condition. Doesn’t hair decay? Perhaps seventy years is not so much time after all; not enough for decomposition to set in.
Our guide explains that the Germans wanted to use every part of the people they captured. Redistribute the precious items. Turn Jewish bones into hairpins, skin into couch cushions. Waste not.
In one barrack, we pass through a long hallway. On its walls are photographs of people who died in Auschwitz.
There is a Polish theater artist named Tadeusz Kantor who made a lot of avant-garde art about both world wars and he has this thing about how photography complicates the idea of death. According to Kantor, if you can look into someone’s eyes in a picture and see life inside, this person can never truly die. This makes sense to me intellectually, but in reality, I think it just makes the pain of death more acute.
Like the picture of Anne Frank on the cover of her diary, my favorite of all the YA Holocaust memoirs I ever read. I thought Anne was hilarious and cool and self-aware and brilliant and everything I wanted to be; I felt that she understood my angst and I—so far as I could empathize—hers. Plus everyone told me I looked like her, which I loved. In this picture, she stared up from her desk, caught mid-sentence, a huge grin, bright eyes. I used stare at her face for hours and think how easily, with a simple cosmic switch of birth years and locations, this girl could have been me, how horrible it was that this person had to stop living.
In Auschwitz the people on the walls feel the same. The hallway is so long and the pictures do not end, it feels like, there is just face after face, staring me down, eyes that believed they would keep blinking until the new millennium and on but that instead went cold just years, months, days after this image froze them in time.
Eventually the hallway of faces ends and we go down a tiny staircase that is dusty gray–like everything at Auschwitz, except the lower we go the dustier and grayer it gets until it is very difficult to see anything. It begins to smell a little bit, and I try very hard not to think about the tiny particles flying up my nose.
We go lower and the guide is murmuring about how down here is where they kept disobedient prisoners. They implemented all different kinds of torture regimens, she says, take your pick, empty dungeons everywhere. On your left is the cell where insubordinate prisoners had to stand up without a break for days and weeks and sometimes months, too narrow to sit so they just stood until they died. Or look to your right, this one’s a bit roomier, that’s where they starved people to death. Shuffle forward please and here if you peer into this peephole you can see the tiny room for suffocating which is exactly what it sounds like, just a lot of Jews in a small room and not enough air to go around. Voila.
My tissue by this point is so saturated with liquid it has no more capacity to absorb anything and as I am futilely wiping my nose, my thumb begins to twitch again, like it did at the beginning of the tour before I knew quite how much I did not want to be here, and I drop the tissue on the ground. The tissue is so wet and the ground is so dusty; I cannot pick up the tissue because in its wetness it has attracted specks of brown and if I use it I will be wiping tiny parts of dead Jew, little molecules that once were faces on the wall, onto my sticky lip. I stare at the tissue where it sits collecting pieces of jew and my snot, untissued, begins to plunk itself in droplets in the dirt. Does snot contain DNA? I decide it does. I am leaving a piece of myself here, I think, and I can’t tell if I like this.
Our group is leaving so I grab the tissue, carry it between my nails so my fingertips don’t have to make contact with the powdery brown specks. We are shuffling so slowly and now there is another tour group blocking the stairs but we go up them anyway, pushing past limbs and torsos and feet. Over our headphones the guide is saying how we are passing by the place where they tested the first gas chambers and ssssss–the feed cuts out and I cannot hear what she is saying–the first time they tested the gas chambers they didn’t put enough sssssss and when the guards went to check after a full day the people inside were still alive so ssssssss coughing wheezing prisoners trapped inside forced their way toward clean air but the guards ssssss slammed the door, locked the Jews back in the sssssss put another dosage of poison so ssssss the next day ssssss some dead some alive sss and sss two full days sss slowly dying until ssssssssssssss—By this point I am shoving people out of my way, which I have not done in my life ever, but all I am thinking is that I have to get out of the underground place so the static in my ear will turn clean again because now I’m taking shallow breaths so I can stop inhaling dead people particles up my nose, because I’m getting a little bit dizzy, because it is hot and crowded and the air is goopy and I’m getting droopy and—
But I am being silly. There is no Zyklon B seeping through my skin, no one slamming a deadbolted door in my face. The only thing between me and clean air is a few tourists walking a little too slowly. I shove my way toward the top of the staircase and emerge into the gray sunshine.
Apparently Hitler wanted to make a museum about Jewish people once they were all gone. That’s why we have most of the stuff that the Nazis didn’t burn or redistribute—the piles of hair, of baby clothes.
I can’t stop thinking about this as we explore Krakow. Because in this city, I am coming to understand, Judaism has become not much more than a relic, something fragmentary from another time. A poorly curated museum.
A tiny mural on the corner of a building, handpainted: “IN MEMORY OF THE BOSAK FAMILY, RESIDENTS OF KAZIMIERZ 1633-1941.” The occasional Jewish star paved at the foot of what might have been a synagogue. A Jewish museum where the man tells me there are no Jewish employees, “but we had a Jew intern here a few summers ago. Josh. From California. Maybe you know him?”
At the Schindler museum, the guide mumbles something about “One hundred fifty left” in the middle of a vague sentence about demographics, so when she is done speaking I pull her aside and ask her to clarify.
“Were you saying there are 150,000 Jews left in Poland?” There were 3.5 million Jewish people in Poland before the Holocaust, so I suppose this number makes sense.
“Sorry,” she says. “We have to keep moving.” I cannot tell if she is being odd or if she does not understand me. After the next stop, I ask her again, loudly. What does this number mean?
She stares at the ground. “One hundred fifty, yes. In Krakow today.”
“One hundred fifty thousand?” I ask.
“One hundred fifty. Jews. Living in Krakow.” She does not look at me once during this conversation.
After we leave the Schindler museum, I call my parents and tell them about what I learned—the way the Nazis coerced, threatened, propagandized the Poles. Maybe it isn’t fair to be so angry about the Polish bystanders, I say.
Maybe none of us are very good anyway and maybe these people were scared and misinformed and knew not what they did and who are we, really, to say that these people were so evil.
“Yes,” my mom says. “Fair. But Polish people turned in Jews at far higher rates than practically any other country. A lot of people there really hated Jews.”
“Did and do,” my dad chimes in. “Poland is like, massively anti-Semitic. Probably the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe. Sorry, sweetie.”
I hang up the phone, feeling silly. I knew this, of course. But in the warm, cobwebby narrative I began to tell myself of this pretty city, I switched out hatred for apathy, and the whole thing felt a lot easier to swallow. An easy mistake, I suppose.
Halfway through the Auschwitz tour my leaky face dries up, because the human body can only store so much water, and I drank a lot of coffee waiting in line.
We have landed in the center of Auschwitz I, facing the camp’s wide gallows. The guide points in the distance to a picturesque yellow house. This is where the head guard lived with his family, she says. In front of me, another man on the tour has reached his hand over to cup his girlfriend’s ass, and watching this interaction makes my stomach churn, so I turn away from the group and stare at the house for a while.
It really is very pretty. In a tasteful way. Pretty yellow house for a pretty yellow-haired family. Pretty pretty, and suddenly everything is pretty, and I am watching this pretty Aryan family, so happy, blonde and coiffed, bouncy pink cheeks; cozying up in quilts when it gets cold, driving to the beach when it is warm. It is nice, I see this; nice to have so much space, to be able to stretch their strong arms and legs wide, yawning into the lebensraum nice Herr Hitler made good on: throwing open the curtains to let sun beam down on the manicured carpets, peeling the windows open to breathe fresh air on calm days. And then, on days when the breeze picks up, discreetly shutting the windows, so the ashy particles floating by don’t contaminate the tiny lungs tucked safe inside the tiny blonde children tucked safe inside this pretty cottage tucked safe inside this horrifying death factory; lungs that will stretch and grow and inhale for years and years, even as tiny lungs this very same size wheeze and expire elsewhere in the camp.
The guide has turned her attention to the gallows. These ones were for group hangings, she explains, but the nooses are gone and everything still looks pretty, so all I can think is that the structure looks like a big swingset frame. You could probably fit six or seven swings on it. Six happy children, swinging, shrieking; fourteen little legs, Jewish legs, pumping higher and higher; stretching to reach heaven, I imagine, like babel.
And then the man in front of me who was fondling his girlfriend has now pulled out his phone and is scrolling through Facebook, and it is not pretty and nothing here is, but before I can decide whether I should punch this boy, the guide is saying “here is a crematorium” and my Mortal Enemies have chosen this time for a photo-op. They crouch next to the smokestack, this couple, and pose for a selfie. In my head their smiles stretch so wide their gums are shining and the smiles turn to grimaces and blood oozes out of their mouths, staining the ground.
I want to sit down, I want to call my mother, I want to scream. Why did you come here? Why the hell did you come here? Because if here in this place we are not all feeling the same pain then dear god how can there possibly be any potential for shared empathy anywhere else?
The guide is saying that one of the big-name Hitler cronies was killed here after the war, that his war crimes judge sentenced him to hang from the same noose he had forced thousands upon thousands of Jewish necks into. I know this man was probably not born evil, was likely just one of those strong-jawed sheeple who wanted to feel special, who fell under the spell of a system that told him he was born superior. He was just following orders, following rules, I know. I know that a life is a precious thing to lose. In this moment I do not care.
When I imagine the man’s stiff body swaying languidly in the breeze, tiny flecks of skin drifting off cell by cell, until he is no longer one body but a million pieces of indistinguishable dust, it is my turn to smile real big. Cheeeese. It is pleasing to me. Molecules of Nazi, signifying nothing. This death is sweet.
In a gift store on the streets of Krakow, I find rows of tiny porcelain figures sitting on a shelf. They have cute bug-eyes and cartoonishly large noses and payot—traditional Hasidic hair curls—and yarmulkes and prayer shawls. And they are all clutching a real one-cent Polish coin the size of their tiny porcelain faces.
I show the figurine to Mitch, who is with me in the store, who is also Jewish; I hold it in the air with my eyebrows high and he stares at it for a moment and then says—
“Aw! So cute!” and returns to the chess board he is inspecting as a gift for his grandfather, the one who escaped Krakow with his family when he was a little boy and the Nazis were just about to close in and never not one time came back.
“No,” I say, and point at the money my figurine is clutching. “It’s a Jew begging for money.”
“Oh,” he says, and we stare at it for a little while. “Or is he showing off how much money he has?”
The version of me that I would like to be in this story pockets the little Jew and glides out of the shop and then throws it on the cobblestones outside, smashes it to tiny pieces, bashes its head in so that no one can have this perfect little Jew, so that no one can take it home and put it on the window sill to laugh at. And then this ideal-me picks up the little Polish penny that the Jew used to be clutching from where it has landed on the sidewalk and adds it to her wallet alongside the abundant America coins that my plush paint-bearing ancestors earned in a place that was not Europe while people less fortunate than Mitch’s grandparents choked on poison. Because waste not a single part of the Jew.
But in the version of this story that actually happens, I just return the figurine to the glass shelf from whence it came and nod shyly at the stoic lady manning the counter. Sorry, I try to say, except I don’t speak a word of Polish.
The thought of stealing the figurine doesn't occur to me even until much later. I follow the rules. I am a rule-follower extraordinaire.
The town we pass on the ride home from Auschwitz is dilapidated and feels very empty. There are rundown gas stations and graffitied signs advertising something via photos of sexy, windswept women. Presumably people live here, because there are all the requisite signs of civilization, although we don’t see any of them.
I wonder what it is like for the people who live within walking distance of this place where millions of people took their last breath. Does it feel haunted? Probably it feels like nothing at all. In America we live in a country that has taken land from people and killed other people and subjugated even more and I think that if aliens learned our history and then came to visit they would wonder how we could possibly live with the knowledge that our ancestors did this thing and we’d be like “idk I don’t think my actual ancestors did the actual thing so it’s not really my emotional burden” and they’d be like “yeah but you inherited all the benefits of the thing they did” and we’d be like “yes” and then we’d go back to our knitting. Probably life in this rundown Polish town is unremarkable.
I don’t feel much like chatting on this bus ride, and I have seen enough of this town, so I pick up my phone. There isn’t any service, not much to do; I flip halfheartedly through my photos.
I took two pictures in Auschwitz, both of them in the final segment of the tour, Auschwitz II Birkenau.
While Auschwitz I was created for torturing and punishing and killing enemies of the reich of all sorts, Auschwitz II had a much simpler mission: it was constructed after the head honcho Nazis decided on the Final Solution for the express purpose of killing as many Jews as possible. Complete extermination of the Jewish race. Auschwitz II Birkenau is where the massive gas chambers once stood, before the Nazis burned them down to cover their tracks.
This section of the tour is less directed, so we’re all sort of wandering around, staring at the rubble. I expected to be able to feel the evil rising up from this place where so many hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives. But there is no sense of anything powerful buried in the charred wreckage. It’s just vast structures crumbling into increasingly smaller pieces. Someday there will only be piles of soft ash left, someday even this will be gone entirely.
I wander around until I come upon a series of rectangular stones with words inscribed into them. I find the one written in English. Its message is bleak—“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity,” it begins. But what I like about the inscription is that lower down I see the word JEWS, and that next to the English stone is another stone and another and another, maybe twenty stones that all say the same thing, each in a different language, each language’s word for JEWS. JEWS JEWS JEWS.
And here amidst the ruined gas chambers, surrounded as I am by charred lumps devoid of meaning, suddenly the plenitude of JEWS is something I would like to quantify. Because they tried to make us go away but here we are, everywhere; the massive diaspora endures. So I take a picture.
I am still trying to fit all the stones into one frame when our guide wanders past. She doesn’t appear to be doing anything, so I make my way over to her. I ask her awkwardly because I do not know how to phrase it, why does she do this thing that she is doing. She is very nice and does not seem offended. She tells me in a voice much softer than the tinny one I had been hearing over the microphone that her grandmother was forced to do manual labor for the Nazis and her grandfather was part of the Polish resistance and tried to save Jews. She says that she gives tours at Auschwitz because of them.
I ask her, because she seems amenable, what she thinks of the recent laws restricting the way people talk about concentration camps. “I do not support my government,” she says, looking steely.
She tells me that she has been doing this for twelve years, Monday through Friday most weeks. I ask her how she does this every day, because I cannot imagine that I would be able to return here ever again, least of all make this place into a habit.
She shrugs and shakes her head, like she doesn’t know how to answer this. Does it help to not think about what she is saying? I ask. To make herself a little bit numb?
“No. Never,” she says. “I will never be indifferent to what I am saying. Not ever.”
As for the second photo: this one happened on our way out of the last barracks we visited, the very last stop on the tour. I noticed an etching here scratched into the wall. So high in the sky I almost missed it, all caps, no punctuation, scratched so faintly into the light brick I could only just make it out.
With its sandy expanses and climbable pyramids, the Ancient Playground was designed to evoke empire. As a kid, I spent countless afternoons ducking through the piss-fragrant tunnels of the Giza-inspired play structures. During the summer, I’d dash through the sprinkler as if Moses himself had just cracked it open. In all seasons, teenagers made out behind the concrete obelisk.
The playground is one of several Egyptian architectural features in the stodgy, patrician neighborhood where I went to school. A quarter mile west is Cleopatra’s Needle, a 3,500-year-old obelisk (it’s a long story) that shrouds itself in pink blooms during springtime. Across the street, the Metropolitan Museum exhibits a transplanted sandstone temple (also a long story, but I’ll get to it later) in an all-glass wing. On some days, this is nothing short of majestic, and on others, you feel like you are peering into the world’s largest dining room cabinet.
The Ancient Playground was built in 1973, one of several “adventure playgrounds” constructed in New York City during the 60s and 70s. These were considered antidotes to the philistine playgrounds erected during the tenure of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Though outdoor play spaces proliferated under Moses (municipal, not Biblical), they were uniform and Spartan in design: a slide, a swing set, a row of monkey bars. A patch of the outdoors for drilling gross motor skills. The spatial equivalent of drinking a glass of milk for strong bones. Grip, lift, climb.
Richard Dattner, who designed the Ancient Playground and other avant-garde recreational spaces, had some choice words for these average traditional playgrounds: “there could not be a more hostile environment for children’s play if it had been designed for the express purpose of preventing play.”
Dattner’s adventure playgrounds, in turn, were meant to condition the imaginative muscles of the New York City child. European children, as legend would have it, forged their own play spaces from the rubble of World War II—and in true American fashion, the grown-ups decided that their children could learn a thing or two from other people’s misfortune. The resulting playgrounds touted themselves as theatrical stages rather than gymnasia, opulent and seamless ecosystems of make-believe. In a 1973 feature that heralded this new, innovative generation of playgrounds, the New York Times reported that architects aimed to provide “physical or psychological separation of the children from their parents” and “promote indulgence in a child's sensory experience and fantasies.”
The construction of the Ancient Playground was bankrolled by the Estee and Joseph Lauder Foundation ($225,000) and a cohort of Upper East Side mothers who called themselves the 85th Street Playground Association ($75,000). The project was ostensibly a six-figure investment in the strange and unconquerable inner lives of children. In the New York Times piece, one mother marveled: “In this kind of playground, for an adult to walk in, it's almost like interfering.”
This no-grown-ups-allowed ethos was inscribed in the design of the playground. Until the renovation, all of the slides and tunnels and pyramids sat in a massive, central pit of sand that smelled like rust and always felt a little bit damp. Mothers and nannies sat at the periphery and only traversed the sacrosanct boundary in case of blood or bruises. Standing atop peaks of concrete, the Upper East Side’s youngest denizens could see the park unfold at their feet, tasting something like imperial power for the first time.
Sometime in the early aughts, I found myself the indentured best friend of a classmate known for her clinginess. It all started innocuously enough: at the Ancient Playground (where else?) with some make-believe game that seamlessly incorporated lots of sliding. (The architectural motifs rarely had any bearing on the games that were played; girls at my school were partial to variants of tag that also involved pretending to be Dickensian orphans.)
When recess ended I asked this classmate, with a frankness I wish I could still access today, if I had to do this again tomorrow. She looked down at me from the top of the pyramid and gleefully informed me that we would be doing this every single day. And so we did.
I’ve since come to associate little blonde girls and wide blue eyes with pleading and persuasion, but in that fateful, unflinching every single day there was no room to negotiate. It was an ironclad contract I could never quite explain to my parents. So it was on the Playground: languid afternoons, some artificial sense of the old and majestic, little blonde girls and their forceful, lawless fantasies.
The Ancient Playground is Egyptian in the same way that Mandarin oranges in salad are Chinese: vaguely, and with a certain 1970s flair. But Dattner didn’t just pick the Egyptian theme out of a hat. The playground commemorated the Temple of Dendur, a sandstone structure that was built during the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar. The temple was dedicated to Isis and Osiris, and it was fully relocated to the Metropolitan Museum, one block away from the playground, in 1978. In its original iteration, the temple was not a congregational place of worship; it was designed to house the deities and the offerings their worshipers extended. No one would have imagined the crowds it weathers today.
The 800-ton transplant was largely the doing of Jacqueline Kennedy. The construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to submerge several sacred sites along the Nile, and the First Lady urged her husband and Congress to join an international effort to save them. As a thank-you, the Egyptian government gifted the Temple of Dendur to the United States in 1965. The Met won the monument in an inter-city bidding war that journalists termed the “Dendur Derby.”
It took more than a decade to dismantle, transport, and reassemble the temple. Thanks to a hefty donation from opioid magnate Arthur Sackler, the museum’s director, Thomas Hoving, built an artificial “Nile” to encircle the temple. Floor-to-ceiling glass paneling made the monument visible to all passersby. Though the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy had wanted to reconstruct Dendur (a remembrance of her husband’s foreign policy) on the banks of the Potomac, she got a pretty convenient view of the temple from her Manhattan apartment right across the street. The lights stayed on in the glass-enclosed Dendur wing all night, even after the museum closed.
A few years ago, a guide on a trendy “unofficial” museum tour told me that in some circles, the temple was nicknamed “Jackie’s Night Light.” At the time, I thought the image was adorable: eight hundred tons of sacred sandstone keeping the widow’s nightmares at bay. I imagined the stony likeness of Horus at the foot of her duvet and the hem of her silk pajamas brushing the mighty columns.
I’ve never entertained the idea that Cleopatra was white, but I’ve devised this strange mythology of Manhattan’s Egyptian and “Egyptian” structures in my head, and it crawls with terrifying, wealthy, and beautiful white women. They are at once tiny and giant, swarming the ruins like ants and then holding the sandstone in their fingers like teacups. There are pyramids and pillbox hats and pleated uniform skirts—oddities of the Upper East Side’s “Egypt” and the white women who make playthings of it.
The whole scene has the effect of a diorama or a snowglobe collection or some other artifact of the postwar affinity for stuff. It is an indulgence in fantasies I didn’t invent. It is an investment in the daydreams of Jacqueline Kennedy, my elementary school classmate, and the concerned mothers of the 85th Street Playground Association.
According to family lore, I took my first steps in the Temple of Dendur. I’m not quite sure that this is true, but at the very least it makes for a picturesque thing to say about growing up in New York. There are photos of me at a year old, arrested in some intent waddling motion toward the massive arches. I am wearing green corduroy overalls.
Somehow, this unlikely meeting of the ancient and the infant feels fitting. It is a surprisingly humble encounter between site and visitor: the sandstone looms high and majestic and indifferent to the development of gross motor skills happening below. There is little room for games or adventure or imperialist fantasy in learning how to walk; there are only steps and stumbles and the incomprehensible, enormous things ahead.
When I learn about the homeland for the first time, nobody tells me that I should see home. A teacher pulls down the map of the world, then the map of the continent, and taps with the black tip of her pointer. “Africa,” she says, and like magic the classroom turns a Sahara-sun yellow, something called tribal print bordering the walls, my sister said, pointing through the doorway; and in a few months she is learning to say jambo, we are beating pellet drums against our legs, she is sent home with a letter to give to our parents asking them to bring African food on World Culture Day. I sit on the floor by the stove, my tongue to the hard scratchy surface of the pellet drum, smoky-tasting, hide-flavored, and worriedly watch my mother make a rice that will be served to our classmates at school in the cafeteria, in huge aluminum pans, in front of the teacher who pulls down maps of the world and its continents, who sent home the letter. (Can your family make us some African food?)
On the day my sister is wearing a shirt, lemon-yellow, Africa-yellow, and on the day I am not wearing a yellow shirt but I cannot let my sister be the only one here, I cannot let these people shit on my mother’s cooking. I hover by the station, armpits damp with anxiety over our classmates who cannot eat the rice because it is too spicy—meaning too peppery—which my mother stubbornly dishes out to them with a smile on her face, sweat on her forehead. Nobody knows what Kenyan food looks like. This jollof is full of bay leaves and scotch bonnet so hot it burned my fingers to separate into pieces and dump into the blender the night before in the suffocating warmth of the kitchen. Today my sister and I eat platefuls like dutiful daughters, the insides of our mouths stinging, cumin seeds caught on our tongues. We watch our classmates spear dodo with their forks and nod when they tell us that they like these bananas (because even then we know that no one else eats plantain). Next to the red station, China, I stare out across the cafeteria, where my mother smiles at me from Kenya and wipes her face with the back of her wrist, where I ask myself what color I feel for the homeland, and then I’m not sure that I’ve ever had an answer.
When I see the homeland in color it is ankara glittering from the inside of a red and blue bag, it is the hand cream my mommy-auntie left on the shelf when she went back to the homeland, peach, rosewater. The grimy glass bottles of Fanta in the back of the African market, in a fridge hidden behind shelves of Nido and cornflakes and halal kilishi and black soap. The dust everybody talked about, settling over their feet like beauty powder. I tell myself know dust, sparkling in the air when light comes through and beams across the living room carpet. I know snow, sparkling in the air when light hits it from all sides. I know the grime I swept up from windowsills with one finger, I don’t know anything about the dust. But the smell of it. And how it gets into your mouth. And the red.
My mother hasn’t spoken about the dust since my father came back from the airport one night, auburn lining his luggage. My father has never spoken about the dust. Instead he told us about the color television in his baba’s bedroom which he and his siblings would secretly watch as children, he described the amount of beer his parents bought him for his high school graduation party before he left for America. The day my father started to remember the homeland more than he had ever remembered it before was the day he began to forget us. Twenty-five years and the Texas in his accent made no difference, when he left sometimes none of us knew if, this time, he would ever be back. Once when my father came back he brought us a suitcase full of toilet paper we were not allowed to touch. Too many curses in the homeland, my mother told us. Too much conflict for this house. I saw the nostalgia dry up inside of her, grow inside of me, and then the homeland became so many colors I couldn’t name them all at once. When I looked at a map of the continent I saw a darkness full of purple lights, bouncing; a house bursting with cousins, spilling out aunties and uncles and music and noise; oil-stained linoleum, reeking of meat roasted to oblivion; green Heineken bottles and the caps we collected and held up to our noses, that bitter lemony smell of the metal; praise medleys and Nollywood voices vibrating into our chests. The homeland became the color blue, a Super Blue Omo blue, of the blankets they piled on top of us during the blackout at mommy-auntie’s house in Ekpoma, and of the milk candy my uncles bought us at a kiosk in the middle of nowhere, and of the painted flowers bordering the china plates my grandmother stacked with biscuits and agege bread. I picked sugar crystals off the tops and ate garri with powdered milk and even though I knew the nostalgia had died within my mother, who was only here in Benin City to bury her iye, I would put my fingers to my mouth and taste sand. Sugar. But somehow from the window, from the playground in front of Mr. Bigg’s, in the hallways of the hospital where they brought my sister to take a shot of antimalarial, I could still hear the mourning. The sound of the shovel, dirt over an ancestor, someone disappeared into somewhere: someone finally returned to the sea. I wipe the tears off grown-up cheeks with my hands, my knuckles, and imagine ancestral spirits among the waves, bobbing like lights towards an unknown endlessness.
I hear the homeland like it’s trying to reach out through the speakers at a backyard wedding party and touch me, slip into my skin, nestle into my stomach. Somebody from the soil once said, “The place of remembrance.” Somebody newer said, “The center of love.” When, shaded in orange from a faraway streetlight, my cousins and I sit on an uncle’s front porch holding bottles of malta against our bottom lips and swaying reluctantly to P Square the summer of “1er Gaou”, I can maybe imagine that the stories are not so far away. That the language lives between my teeth, silently, tucked into the left sides of my cheek like baba dudu waiting to slip, to be swallowed whole. That when the time comes to speak, it filters out into the air like the red dust of the homeland. Its perfume. But our aunties say, “Sweet, like chalk,” and I do not know what on earth that means—chalk? A sweetness?—I think of a loss in translation, I think despair, I think of the sand, mixing in with the sugar. What I know how to translate is thank you. Good morning. I’ll see you later. I pronounced my name and all the aunties and uncles laughed at me. Then saddened for me. They said, “The name. What we gave to you from the homeland, the only thing we thought you could keep.”
When I speak homeland I speak something else. My parents call me baby-baby and sweetie pie, they kiss my forehead with lips pursed into an English Honey I love you, our language of intimacy. Their language of love. Even when they are very angry they are angry in English. I asked them, “How many times do you dream in homeland?” (But I cannot remember what on earth they had answered). When my parents speak homeland together it is their language of secrecy, and when my sister and I sit on the stairs trying to listen for our names in their dense conversations it almost feels like a constant defeat. Africa, a traitor. When I speak homeland it means I’m speaking English, which is not “my native language”, which cannot be; although it is the only thing I really speak, it is the language my mother used to sing to me at night as a baby, it is there when I love somebody, when I can’t find the words, when all I have between my teeth and inside of my stomach are shooting stars and feeling. I call my mother and ask her about her day, and the language comes out like gravel. She does not like the America in my accent, the softness of the syllables, the mismatched tones; she says, in English, “Just speak English. ”
I think that maybe she found English a liberation. She cannot speak homeland without bringing it to life with English. She was younger than I am when she arrived at LaGuardia, Jheri-curled hair and a suitcase full of Austen and Shakespeare, she could not tell you who the current president of Nigeria is—and so we can almost forget that there’s something missing. We throw I love yous out into the world like confetti. There is no word for love in homeland. Still I kept notebooks full of words, wahala and mumu and na wa o, and when I wanted to learn something beyond the heartbeat of the nation she said, “No, you are from the heartbeat of the nation.” When I tried to learn homeland she said, “Stop, stop speaking.” I wrote down more words. She couldn’t understand them.
The homeland on paper is silent. Too small now. Too gone. I am obsessed with the ruins, I read all the stories about the kingdom and realize many of them end in a bloodshed that makes the baba dudu taste sour in my mouth. Yet relentlessly I search for art history papers about religious ceremonies and chalk thrown into rivers; I put together documents about spirituality and title them mysticism. I look at the shirts my sister and I were made to wear as children, photos of stolen artwork printed on the front and underneath, a caption urging the British to bring our iyoba home. Realize so much has been stolen that my foreign hands are never enough to salvage, no matter how bare, or determined. When I learn about the homeland my professor turns on the projector to flash us an image of the continent and then switches the slide to an overview of South Africa. One tribal system is Africa’s system. One people’s religion is African religion. We sit in lecture romanticizing Africa, they tell us, “Let’s think of a new Africa,” erase the old Africa—first the Kenya-yellow Africa, then the homeland of bouncing purple lights. “Let’s invest in Africa,” because Africa should be our next real-life endeavor, Africa has all this real-world potential, Africa just needs somebody to believe in it. They say everything I have is not my own, not my liberation love-language English, not my grandfather’s Catholic church, not my grandmother’s European name. They say everything I have is adulteration. My family does not care when I call after class to describe all the Wole Soyinka I have studied. All they know about the history of the homeland is that it was a very large and very ancient kingdom, and for this reason my sister and I were named very ancient things. The first woman born to the world was Adesuwa. The second, our namesake. My mind dreams her up in a deep red wrapper, shining, coral beads clinking together around her neck and ankles. Black hair gathered into a crown. My mind dreams up a woman from the homeland and I do not think she looks like me. My aunties, wrapping fufu in aluminum foil, sometimes stare as one of us passes through the doorway, lamenting our faces (features full of America). How much America has drawn homeland out of their children. How they cannot give us a single piece of our ancestors, no matter how hard they try. But instead bequeathed a nostalgia so heavy it is all of the old country weighing us down. We say we would like to someday visit the homeland; they ask us what we think we are trying to find.
They do not know that when we are not learning about the homeland, the homeland does not exist. There are no black children in America whose parents got off planes here in 1984 or 1991. The grandmothers I venerate were Freedom Riders, were women who lit the lamps along the underground railroad, grandmothers who did not know I would come but did all these things so that I could come. Their blackness is the only blackness that holds me in its arms and makes me feel like a daughter. The homeland is a birthplace I romanticize through their eyes. When I learn about black people for the first time I remember my teacher in that empty classroom, sunlight filtering through the window and illuminating the colors on each shiny page of the book, Ruby Bridges lit up like royalty. My teacher followed my eyes, wanting me to read the words and breathe in the story, the courage! The revolutionary! But I kept looking down at the illustration of her, Ruby Bridges in a pink dress, six years old and brown like me, I wanted her curls and her white socks and her cardigan. Wanted the baubles tying up her hair. At home I have big flat picture books about Sojourner Truth and John Henry but my grandmother is a woman I speak to once every seven years. My grandmothers are all dead. The last time the homeland buried an iye I was not four years old eating garri out of a ceramic bowl, sitting on the window seat and trying to hear the bright music of church bells piercing through the gray gray sky. The last time, I was facing my house, in the middle of the road, another place I’d started calling home. That last time, I cried. A loss so vast it was all of those souls, lights drifting through the ocean, tired of waiting for me to find them.
When I dream of the homeland I dream mythology. Everything I have is not my own. How many times have I learned about the homeland and hoped I could feel some kind of connection or some kind of beauty in a history no one records anymore? Do I still press my palms against the glass at the Met and close my eyes in front of the ivories, wishing some kind of forebear magic would filter in and fuse with my very Western soul? I had a mommy-auntie who would carry me on her back until I fell asleep on her shoulder and feed me beans with the tips of her fingers, who would press her cheek against my forehead when I was sick and sweating in her arms and once walked a mile in the snow to buy medicine for my fever.
“What’s the matter?” my mother would ask me when I was very little, and my mommy-auntie would explain, “She doesn’t like crowds.” Or, “The TV’s too loud.” Or, “She only drinks chocolate Nesquik, you’ve bought her strawberry.”
Sometimes we’d go out to feed bread to the birds after it rained, and then she would poke my stomach and ask me questions in homeland. (Sometimes I answered correctly and when this happened she would take both my hands and shake them, overjoyed). When she went back everyone says I sat by the front door and cried for weeks. When I speak to her on the phone now she cannot understand me. Eventually someone explains that mommy-auntie isn’t used to my accent anymore, the American noise of my words so thick and heavy that she never calls to speak to me again. But there was a time I dreamed of her when I dreamed of the homeland, I conjured her smell when other people’s planes landed in from West Africa at JFK, I slept with her scarf around my neck and listened to people talk to her on the phone and wished she would ask to speak to me again. So that maybe I could just try again.
When I learn about the homeland I draw a map in my head that looks like an expanse of silk-linked constellations. Trails of lights intersecting across the sea, a warm clear water and something returned. A map that sounds like highlife guitar, collecting dollar bills on a shoe-scuffed dance floor, Asa above the sizzling of onions, like cymbals edited into her rustic strumming as my friend’s mother cooks a golden shito behind us. A map that has all the wrinkles of fabric crumpled up at the back of my clothes drawer, glitter from the gele still rigid with pins, sequins from the skirt our grandmother sent us from a tailor in Ibadan. Iye-nokhua, drinking her morning milk and tea and eating her buttered bread at the table, then an apparition of woman towering over me while I squinted at the crystals on the biscuits, the flowers on the plates. Later an illumination of a buoy shifting towards the final star, the homeland, the center of the world. The two-piece she sent was green-black-orange, and when I tried to put it on I realized I couldn’t sit, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe in it. Instead put it to my nose and inhaled deep the Africa. Was this, I wondered, a thing I felt I knew by heart? (“No,” my parents would later say. “No, you don’t know Nigeria.”)
Still, how it smelled like my father when he comes back from the homeland, sad to return to remembering us again, jetlagged and sentimental for days—how it felt like falling asleep as a five-year old with my pinkies stuck in the lace of his white-lavender agbada. The time he would look at me like he was looking at me, instead of something stopping him from making that final trip back home. One day when my sister and I were small he told us that there is truly not much homeland in us but just look through the window—we were in the car, I rolled down the glass and put my hand out towards the traffic—just look through the window, this place should be home. So maybe every day I do the remembering. And maybe every time we’re a little more found.
Maggie Nelson is a poet, a scholar, and a writer of non-fiction. Her work is known for bending genres, refusing to sequester academic rigor from lived experiences of intimacy. She is perhaps best known for her 2015 book of memoir and analysis, The Argonauts, as well as Bluets, a 2009 prose meditation on loss and the color blue. She has a PhD in English from the Graduate Center, CUNY and is currently a Professor of English at USC. Harvard Advocate President and staff writer Lily Scherlis corresponded with Nelson by email over the course of a month.
Let's start on a style note. You've described your ideal prose as hot, as writing that "puts the needle right into the vein." What does good prose feel like, for you? How about bad? Is it easy to tell the difference? How do you calibrate your mental prose-barometer?
You mean, my own prose, or that of others? Other people’s writing is infinitely easier to judge, because while reading it I’m not struggling to get any thoughts out. As for my writing, I generally ignore questions of style while I’m writing, & go back in with an eye to sound later. Poetry is a little different, as there I’m not trying to get at an idea that could be separated from its inaugural sound.
In Bluets and elsewhere you talk about how your writing is often comported towards a "you." Your work often makes me think of Lauren Berlant's discussion of apostrophe, which builds off Barbara Johnson's ideas. She talks about how in writing we conjure up other subjectivities, phantasmagoric spectres who are really parts of our selves that have broken off so that we have someone to talk to, to address. Elsewhere Berlant writes:"To intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures... but intimacy also involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others."
Here I think she's getting at the same tension you address when you talk about wanting "the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person need never apply." Do you feel like writing about intimacy while, as you've put it, serving two gods––the "you" that you love, and the deity on the page––is like writing a letter that's meant to be intercepted? Or is it the work of translating private shorthand into plaintext?
This is lovely—I will look up the exchange of ideas between Berlant and Johnson, both of whom are important to me. I have often used the need to address someone in language as a spur to write, but the more I write of a given project, the more it’s quite clear that I’m not actually addressing that person any more, even though I might have been in the moment of composition. In that sense I never really think, by the time of publication, that I’m writing an intimate letter, or that there’s any doubling of purpose—I’ve been around the block too many times to delude myself on that account. I mean, it can feel great to be addressed in someone’s poem, to be the beloved memorialized in print, to sit in the audience feeling important, but even then both parties know that it’s one-sided literature and not the full relation, so that can feel lousy and cause pain. Exulting in being someone’s muse and feeling used are closely related, always have been. It’s a pharmakon.
Reading your review of Fred Moten's new book, Black and Blur, I was admiring how conscientiously you commit to writing plainly about language you describe as "a field defined by incessant motion, escape." For me, the sheer firepower of Moten's prose together with his tendency to defer satisfying our desire to "figure out" what's being said makes the inability to cleanly parse his sentences is a pleasurable kind of pain. I'm curious how you would situate yourself on the imaginary spectrum between writers religiously dedicated to transparency and those inclined towards more viscous or opaque prose. What do you think these different modes have to offer, especially in the context of the project of consenting not to be a single being?
That’s well put, about parsing sentences being a pleasurable kind of pain. I relate to that, re: some of my favorite writers. Moten himself has said some very smart things about plainness, & about precision. I won’t try to reproduce what he’s said here but I will say that the conversation has been fruitful to me, challenging, important. Generally speaking I kind of doubt that writers really choose their idiom—I think people have a way of thinking and talking and addressing, and then usually find an explanation, political or spiritual or what have you, after the fact, that gives their approach a certain kind of meaning. Which is fine, you just have to watch out that you’re not valorizing what you do as a privileged aesthetic just because that’s the way you happen to express yourself. I mean, even if I wanted to write in a very viscous or opaque way, I likely just don’t have it in me (which is why it kind of delights me when someone thinks I’ve been unclear or baroque, even if they’re saying it as an insult). I don’t think writing should be any one way or another, or that any one style is better suited to the project of consenting not to be a single being. Really the opposite—we need everything, everybody, all sounds. Because part of that consent, so far as I understand it, is endlessly recognizing our difference, while also understanding that difference as part of the world as a plenum, as da Silva has put it. If there were only one way forward, then only one single being would make it.
You wrote about your mentor Christina Crosby in The Argonauts. You've also written poetry about visiting her in the hospital in Something Bright, Then Holes. Reciprocally, she wrote about these poems and your relationship more broadly in her book, A Body, Undone. How do you feel about relationships of mutual literary use, mutual museship? Do they offer new possibilities for intimacy, or are they doubly precarious?
Each situation is distinct, and demands its own negotiation, comes with its own set of possibilities and challenges. In the case of Christina, our enmeshment in person and on the page has brought me much happiness & satisfaction, probably more than any other instance of writing about someone/ being written about that I’ve had. In my experience, being written about doesn’t usually bring the subject very much pleasure. So the fact that Christina valued my being there to bear witness, in writing, some of her most difficult, indeed catastrophic moments, and that she said so in her own book – that meant a lot to me. A LOT.
In an interview with The Creative Independent, you said:
People often say they feel like they know me, but I know they don’t—they’re just responding to an effect created by artifice. Which isn’t to say there isn’t real intimacy created—there is. It just means that they’re responding to a sort of “use artifice to strip artifice of artifice” loop.
What has it been like to meet your own page-dwelling mentors, your "many-gendered mothers of the heart"? Do these encounters change their work for you? Do you feel like matching up voices with real embodied people is anticlimactic, or conducive to more meaningful relationships on or off the page?
I think I’ve been around long enough to no longer ever feel “disappointed” or some such by meeting anyone I admire in person. I usually feel just fascinated and grateful. I’ve noticed that my students often report feelings of anticlimax on this account, maybe because they still expect a certain one-to-one relation between the written word / art practice and the human being. I don’t expect that. I can remember a whole class of poetry students being so disappointed after we read John Ashbery and then I took them to an Ashbery reading – they were like, “he’s not a good reader of his own work!” I was like, there is no good or bad reading of his own work; this isn’t a theater audition. It’s JOHN ASHBERY!!
You told Poetry Foundation that you're (understandably) getting tired of the phrase "personal writing." Any thoughts on how we could recontextualize or change how we talk about the genre it refers to?
Not really. I don’t think personal writing refers to a genre. I’d like it if people gave up this fetish of “she seems to be speaking just for herself, but the miracle is that it ends up a universal truth!” – on the one hand, good writing always does that, and on the other, trying to get to some universal transcendent shared experience or feeling is part of the problem anyway.
As a college lit mag, much of what we publish is juvenilia our writers may eventually disown. How much of yourself do you recognize in work from, say, your early twenties? Do you feel a sense of contiguity with your younger voice? Or is the "I" in those pieces a discrete individual, distinct from your present "I"?
O I recognize all of it. My ‘I’ has always been the same ‘I.’ Mostly I’m amazed that I had the chutzpah to think that my innermost musings and language experiments were worth publishing as soon as I’d written them. But I’m glad I did – because without that kind of chutzpah, you probably won’t go very far as a writer.
Can young writers (or older writers!) have too much chutzpah? Moreover, I have the sense that eventually we all start to develop grumpy language-foreclosing super-egos. Do you have one? If so, how do you negotiate with it?
I’m not concerned about too much chutzpah. If you’re a self-important jerk or your politics are rotten, all that will come out in your writing and personhood eventually, so if you care about that, you should engage in some good old-fashioned self-examination and transformation. And you’ve got to do your work – just because you wrote some cute tweets doesn’t mean you should or will sail into a fat book contract. But chutzpah is necessary for writing, and I don’t worry too much about grumpy language-foreclosing super egos. Just make sure you give yourself the time and space somewhere to express yourself without fear of what readers will think. You can worry about that later.