Categories
Fiction

Brittle

by Maxwell Van Cooper | Fiction | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

Irene’s teeth were brittle from the lemons she sucked. Ever since she was a small child, she’d take the curious yellow orbs, delicately place one atop her tongue, and bleed it dry. Sometimes, as a little girl, she’d beg her mother to slice them after eating fish sticks and watching TV. The citrus would sting the inside of her nostrils, just like the man’s cologne—clean and crisp, like his white oxford shirts her mother ironed for hours as he sat smoking a cigar. Citrus and smoke clung to the furniture, even hours after he left in the morning. Sometimes, as a small child, when Irene was very displeased with him, she’d cut them herself, and piece by piece she’d suck every last drop of the entire fruit down. Her teeth felt strange and static, but the tartness was alarming, and that was nice. She could never think over the acidity.

***

Forty lemons for the forty years perched sweetly across her kitchen counter. Pink and rose tiles covered the kitchen, accented by the lace curtains that were oh-so-divine. Black-Eyed Susans stood in a vase on the corner table, overlooking her neighbor’s front yard. Near the flowers was a lounge chair where, in the morning, she would sip her chamomile tea and read last month’s Life magazine. Always tea, never coffee: it stained the teeth. She liked to look at the celebrities and think about their lives. Where did they play when they grew up? Why did they all wear the pink, not red lipstick? What were their fathers like? Had they been good fathers? Irene liked to imagine getting tea with them. Patrick Swayze would compliment the yellow drapes in the dining hall. Molly Ringwald would ask for some lemonade. And Irene would just giggle like a schoolgirl. Not a hair out of place, not a stain on their teeth. 

Sometimes as she drank her tea, she’d see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ children playing ball. How dirty their clothes got in the springtime. Irene took quiet solace in knowing that if they were her children, they’d always be very clean. They’d run in after their play, wipe their shoes at the door, and she’d offer them some meringue pie. They’d eat at her little table with the marigolds, always asking for more. How funny children are. Their stomachs are never quite full. Thomas is outgrowing his clothes already, the brute. Jane has dimples just like her father. But somehow, the dirt always seems to seep into the saffron tablecloth. They know she bought it last week. Why put their grubby hands on the table, their muddy legs kicking against the stools? How ungrateful. Their piggy smiles mock her, their laughter echoes in the house. Sometimes children have to have the dirt beat out of them, just like her Persian rugs. Sometimes there are white crisp collars and large hands, and sometimes there are grains of dirt everywhere, embedded in her skin like a code. He leans down, the sharp acidic scent splits the nerves in her body, he says if you have dirt on your soul, you won’t go to heaven. But it’s a good house for children. A good house indeed.

After her morning tea, she would get into a gray muted dress suit, pick up her briefcase, and drive her yellow vintage Cadillac. She was a makeup saleswoman. Enchanted Cosmetics was the nice company that had given her a job when she was seventeen after her miscarriage, and they’d treated her oh-so-fine. She was one of their most esteemed employees—she even got a card at Christmas. Thanks for the years – X, red-nosed Rudolph exclaimed. She kept every single card above the electric fireplace. It was nice to be appreciated. Irene loved her job—she’d knock on a door, and some nice woman in her thirties would answer, maybe with a daughter or son clinging to her dress, they’d chat, Irene would introduce herself, and after a couple minutes, the nice woman would invite Irene inside. Indiana had such nice neighborhoods.

Image by Rachel Weinstein

While the mothers apologized for the mess, offered her a seat, or scolded their children, Irene would survey the domain. Sometimes the houses had couches she had seen in Pottery Barn catalogues, sometimes the wood was varnished and shined, sometimes the women wore pearl earrings. But sometimes the houses were cramped, the dishes dirty, the floor chewed and clawed. Irene liked these homes the best. She would raise an eyebrow, purse her lips. My, what lovely curtains you have. 

Either way the suitcase was opened, and out came lipsticks and mascaras, eye shadow and eye primer, and her favorite—a yellow eye shadow called Bumble Bee Bliss. Irene was a professional. No matter what their homes looked like, she’d smile and treat them all the same. And the mother with the curly mop of hair and the mother with the tooth gap would ooo and aaa at the beautiful display. Yes, it is quite beautiful, Irene thought.

Sometimes a waiffy, confused mother asked her to leave. Irene puckered her lips. It displeased her so. She rose slowly to give her a second chance. Don’t you want to look pretty for your husband? With things so crazy, she said, with the Soviet Union about to nuke the world to bits, isn’t it nice to just enjoy the little things in life? And the mother did stare at her so queerly. Irene wasn’t queer. Sometimes the mother said, no, no, her husband would be coming home soon and it was really time to go. It displeased her so. How she would like to tell that dumpy mother her home is ugly. Her children are brats, her floors are dirty, and she mustn’t be so so so very selfish because he won’t like that one bit, not one bit, not a bit of dirt not a bit of dust don’t track in the mud Irene your shoes are filthy, you are filthy. He puffs his cigar and says that we won’t be accepted to the Kingdom of Heaven if we aren’t clean in and out. Straight from the gospel itself. Take a sponge and wipe the dirt away, confess and God will wash away the sin and grime. His teeth are like razors that cut his fresh linen, and she does shiver as he takes her hand, like raw lemons being squeezed on a fresh cut, but it’s ok, Mother says it’s ok. Maybe it isn’t so strange to suck lemons, maybe she likes her saffron curtains and marigolds. 

No one ever bought Bumble Bee Bliss.

It was days like these when she’d pack up her baggies of cosmetics, throw them in the trunk, slam the trunk of her yellow Cadillac, get in the door of her yellow Cadillac, turn the key in the ignition of the yellow Cadillac, and by God she would drive that yellow Cadillac all the way down the South End. Past all the cornfields and stop signs, as a tempered sun glared in her rearview mirror. Past the peeling playgrounds, and the water treatment center, past the cornhusks, there she’d find the trailer. Its silver reflection wavered under the sun. A dulled jockey statue with a broken eye guarded the front door, its plastic frame decorated by weathered Christmas lights. A faded sign that read Madame Mystic’s Palm Reading hung aslant on the window’s screen. The trailer was next to the county graveyard, small tombstones christened the earth in rows, tall monuments proudly towering behind. 

Irene ignored the various broken beer bottles, and opened the trailer door. The stink was undeniable. Irene was greeted by a squirrel and a crow, new additions to the taxidermy collection which sprawled throughout the trailer. Irene raised an eyebrow. Across the trailer, an old crone in a Christmas sweater sat by the TV. Next to her was a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and a small tin of chewing tobacco. She crooned from her corner. Knock, why don’t you? 

Ma’am, I don’t mean to disturb you ma’am, but I gotta see him, ma’am. Irene quivered with excitement. She was practically levitating. Ma’am, please. 

The old woman coughed, and waved her over. Irene took a seat on the TV. Her own home was far nicer. The woman settled into her faded arm chair and spat a thick black liquid into a can on the floor. Her face looked like a prune, her teeth yellow from years of black coffee and chain smoking. Irene took out three twenties, her hands shaking, and let them fall into the woman’s palm, careful not to touch her paper skin. The woman’s face twisted into a grimace, she took Irene’s hand, and squeezed it so tight, so tight she thought it might break. Calm yourself, Irene. Lemme see what your father has to say. The old crone closed her eyes, and rocked back and forth like a small child. Her lips rippled with inaudible words. Irene wished the psychic had drapes. Some yellow drapes would really help lighten up the place. 

After seventeen and a half minutes, the crone opened her eyes. Her lips parted as if to speak. Irene eagerly leaned in. The old woman’s eyes widened, and she erupted into a fit of coughs. Irene winced. He says, the old crone spat, he likes what you’ve done with the house. He says, he likes the couch you bought from Sears. He’s sorry for what he’s done. You know that, Irene.

           Can you ask him to leave me alone?

Lord, I sure will.

           Does he really like the paisley?

He says it matches the rug from Bed ’n Bath.

           I thought of him when I got it.

I know you did, Irene.

***

Irene would arrive home around 6:30 PM. Tulips and roses encircled her house. She’d enter and admire the spotless baseboards. She’d make herself some chicken and peas, and eat it on the circular table with the Black-Eyed Susans. They’d smile at her as she ate in silence. It was too dark to see Mr. and Mrs. Sanders’ yard or children. Overall, it would be a good day. She’d turn on her cassette player, and Billie Holiday’s clear voice would fill the room. 

I’ll be seeing you
           in all the old familiar places
that this heart of mine embraces
           all day through

As she delicately dabbed the corners of her mouth, she felt his presence. He sat across from her, just as he did when she was a child, and it is oh so nice for him to be home. And she forgives him for all the terrible things the man does, as men do. She offers him some chamomile tea, he compliments the new china. This is how it was always meant to be. His citrus cologne enwraps her, and she knows she is home.

           Would you like a lemon? 

Yes, I think I would.

Categories
Voices

A (Sexy) Time

by S. Fishman | Voices | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

It’s cold for summer and genuinely an awful date when we sit on benches by the river on the Upper East Side drinking the beer I’ve bought for us. S is talking about moving to Oregon or somewhere. At this moment, I’m a 75-year-old butch in a blue mini-dress with tits flying amok and bouts of glitter rubbed carelessly just below the corners of my eyes. It’s in the third beer that I’m thinking we’re definitely going to smooch, and it’s about time because a true old butch—even an eighteen-year-old in femme drag—should have kissed a lesbo by now. We’re back at her place, more beer appears, and I lean my head against the bed frame. 

Apparently it’s sexy time when S turns the lights off and wordlessly slips her knee between my thighs. We start smooching, and as her teeth knock clumsily around my mouth, a familiar feeling seeps in. As it becomes clear that I’m on the cusp of full dissociation, logic and reason tell me it’s time to fuck: To my understanding, that is the duty which comes with a performance as the good butch. At this time, my definition of good butch is essentially, an emotionless dude who’s a dutiful top in the sack. So I’m fucking S, and after hearing what is presumably an orgasm, she’s going down on me, and at this point I’m essentially watching this happen from across the room. Then, it’s a quick reassurance—that’s okay, I’m good—from the depths of my inner stone butch, and a brief bout of spooning before I’m using my phone flashlight to track down my strappy sandals. In my haste, I forget my underwear buried among piles of crap on the floor, and bawling into the phone to a friend of mine on my way home, I’m undoubtedly feeling the breeze. 

Up until this point my past experiences in the realm of sexy time solely included porny performances as a balls-grabbing hot girl. During these episodes in my late teenage life, sex meant asserting power in order to derive some kind of entertainment from an otherwise dissociative penis-focused affair. Crucial to these experiences was an utter physical and mental indifference, which, whilst fucking men throughout many grand years of repression, I attributed completely to an unwillingness to accept my queerness. A date with S meant getting rid of that baggage all at once, becoming the queer I was always meant to be after one quick fuck. I essentially repurposed all the tools and forms of intimacy learned from dudes I’d fucked to create a queer sexual identity. 

My attempt at dating à la the horny teenage boy I may one day become culminated in a panic: a panic over fucking. I use the term “horny teenage boy” lightly, but what I mean to describe is a hormone-ridden seventeen-year-old eager to get his dick wet. The trope itself is a product of compulsory sexuality, the idea that all humans are inclined to fuck and perform a sexual identity of desire. The point is, if I was going to fuck, it wasn’t going to be as simple and sexy as I’d hoped after coming to terms with my dyke-dom. Hence, a panic over fucking. Countless interactions with others have confirmed time and again that sexuality and gender identity which diverts from the absolute norm is a cause for panic. Even while you’re not fucking and not worried about it, someone else is undoubtedly worrying about it for you. 

I’m not currently a horny teenage boy, nor is this a problem to be dealt with. Many people understand asexuality to mean a lack of desire, a total aversion to any form of sexy time, and although this may be true for some, asexualities are pluralistic, ranging from total horndog to sex- and romance-averse. My identification as not a horny teenage boy may be where I place myself on this spectrum, though an asexual-identifying person is by no means necessarily not fucking. This kind of label is useful to a good old boy like me and, had I been introduced to it earlier, could’ve been useful to the aforementioned baby dyke crying commando on a long cab ride home. Asexuality provided the vocabulary for the spectrum of who’s fucking, who’s not fucking, and who that’s important to. Having only heard of sexless relationships needing to be “spiced up” and of the narrative of sexual repression assigned to closeted queers, the idea of not fucking, and still having feelings of love or intimacy, never occurred to me. However, as my mother once generously reminded me, her freaky genderqueer child, in a conversation about my sexual life, it’s very possible to “make myself come with someone else!” My Republican mother’s willingness to imagine slightly nonnormative intimacies can set an example for us all. 

A friend of mine, N, is a sweater-wearing English major at a fratty university who goes on a date with a dude for the first time. Sitting in the booth of an Ann Arbor diner, they’re talking about the op-ed N is writing, his date listening intently. Suddenly, he looks at this dude over a plate of eggs over-easy and imagines them fucking. The heat rises, the sweaters come off, the masculinity simply oozes out in beads of sweat. N tells me that this is a pivotal moment for him. He can imagine them fucking without any feelings of disgust or shame. For him, an envisioned fuck legitimizes his queerness, makes it tangible, even easy. This fuck signifies that he’s a big queer, and he’s going to bang a hot dude into the sunset. His existing baggage around intimacy—which we all have a fair dose of—would simply disappear after a good orgasm. In a cloudy flashback, I see my baby femme self, chock-full of dissociative sexual experiences with cis men, diving blindly into S’s bed on 86th and Lexington Ave. He tells me this story and I think, good job, you’ve shed one small layer of shame. Because being able to fantasize about embracing queerness is a great thing. What I ask is that my dear friend not think of his queerness as reliant on a sex drive. I want him to consider his desires and whether they’re being reflected accurately onto this brunch boy. What was unfulfilling to him during his career of solely fucking women could open up possibilities for his future queer interactions. Straight relationships and interactions don’t ask for a diversion from intimacy as we tend to define it. When repression and shame are part of one’s narrative of queerness, as they so often are, it’s useful to ask basic questions about how we want to be intimate. “Do I want to fuck?” and if so, who, where, when, why, is a decent start. I’m certainly not saying there’s anything unexciting about a hunky babe with egg dripping down his face; rather, I’m wary of sex as a qualifier for queerness. 

It’s like when I tell my brother that M and I are together but not fucking. I think I use the phrase “casual emotional romance.” He responds, “isn’t that just friendship?” which is not a bad question, nor an original one. Where does one draw the line? If I spend half of my time fucking my platonic roommate and the other half maintaining an asexual romantic relationship with a partner, which of the two is my friend? Which my lover? My brother, a cis man and comedy writer—a fatal combination—approaches me with curiosity and suspicion because my romantic experience hardly resembles his. And then I understand that many of the romances I have or once had or will have may be classified as just friendships. It takes me a long time to recognize that my romance with M is a romance. That the number of smooches we share or times we get nice and naked in front of each other doesn’t define our interaction. That M not kissing me at times when in previous romances I would’ve expected it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel things for me. My expectations were tainted by interactions where sex and minor sexual cues took absolute precedence, and where my desires weren’t acknowledged, many times because I didn’t know they mattered; for me, kissing had existed as a tool for validation and security rather than a form of getting close to another person or being sexy together. This mode of being together—all the not-fucking in the world, plus all the baggage of two repressed queers, plus telling each other how crazy hot we are—could go unrecognized as a romance. And then I’m asking myself if my brother would recognize romance if he wasn’t fucking it. 

Categories
Voices

Five Meditations On The Body

by Clio Schwartz | Voices | Spring 2018

Prints by Bridget Conway

I. MY BODY AS APPARATUS 

I want to dictate the means and the end of my being. 

I have built a life-long habit of ignoring my body as a form of resistance. Trying to prove my adaptability and inner strength, I’ve spent years shoving the most basic of human needs to the back of my consciousness, suppressing physical exhaustion, hunger, and pain. Maybe it comes from a reluctance to submit to my body. Sometimes I think I need ultimate control over my existence. I don’t want to waste a moment that could be used for something more productive or exciting on something as banal as the body. And yet, here I am, trying to process and come to terms with my corporeal form. 

I’ve pushed my body to its limits—how long can I go without water? Food? Sleep? Just how much do I actually need to survive? I forget what my body needs to feel good, and I lose track of the warning signs. Confused as to why I’ve been fainting every few days, I realize that I haven’t been hydrating. 

My psychiatrist asks me if I ignore my body’s needs as a form of stoicism. “Stoicism?” I ask. “Maybe you’ve heard it portrayed as having grit,” she elaborates. Bending to the will of my body feels absurd—what does it say about me and my strength if I must give in to this form, a form explicitly for my own use? Shouldn’t I be able to force my body to submit to my intellect? Much better to bravely endure the repercussions of exerting my power over my body than to listen to its needs. 

In the same way that my body is perceived as a healthy body, although I have been carrying chronic illness around with me for upward of eight months, my body is perceived as a woman’s body, despite the fact that I feel unconnected to womanhood. My friend tells me that, after meeting me, her mother tells her: “I look at Clio and I just see a woman.” This plays in my head every time I look in the mirror for a month or so, then it’s relegated to the intrusive thoughts that show up every now and then when I’m feeling particularly anxious about my gender presentation. How do I reconcile the way people perceive me and the way I feel? This same mother is never able to get my pronouns right, and doesn’t hear her mistakes—but upon meeting a more masc-presenting friend, immediately catches on to gendering them correctly. I go home and cry. Am I not trans enough? Do I not look trans enough? 

In this nebulous area of non-binary-ness that doesn’t present androgyny in its traditional form—AFAB people dressing masculinely and embracing masculine traits—I feel lost. My friend makes a post on Instagram about people being tripped up about her gender, and my heart sinks with the realization that I would love that experience; to have someone stumble over my pronouns (“he—they? she?”), or call me sir and then wrinkle their brow and squint a little. I feel so limited in this body that is so excessively feminine. Even when I’m binding, even with my hair buzzed short, nobody ever thinks twice about their perception of me. 

The way my body looks is perceived and gendered so differently from who I am, and yet I feel no desire to change it. What is the point of rejecting womanhood if there’s no physical, perceived manifestation of said rejection? The amount to which I choose to perform my gender shifts as easily as a breeze. Some days I wish to have no body at all.

***

II. MY BODY AS SPECIMEN

In the beginning, I’m not too concerned. It’s August. Waves of numbness spread through my face and I can’t move my head without feeling so dizzy that I collapse, but this isn’t the first time. My friend drives me to urgent care and they take two vials of blood. A mono spot (negative), and a complete blood count (normal). On the off chance that I have Lyme a second time, they give me doxycycline, which my body can’t keep down. Three days later, I go to Cleveland Clinic. 

I’m apprehensive about going to the doctor—they always call me Madeline, no matter how many times I clarify, and the number of times they refer to me as a woman is exhausting. This time I am on the fence about coming out to the doctor as non-binary. Maybe they’ll write something in my file, and I’ll never have to deal with this again. 

“I’m not a woman,” I begin to explain. “So you want to be a man?” the doctor asks me after I tell her I’m non-binary.

“No, not at all! I’m not a man or a woman. I’m a third gender, non-binary. Not on the binary.” I stumble through a second explanation, already regretting the decision to come out. It sounds clumsy and I feel like a zoological attraction that she suddenly doesn’t understand, rather than someone she can relate to. 

Later, I check my file online. 

NOTE: Patient is non-binary and would like to be addressed as Ze (instead of he or she) 

HPI:
Madeline Cleo Shwartz (goes by Cleo) is a 19 year old non-binary female presenting today to establish care and address new onset intermittent dizziness and facial numbness. She recently moved from NY to Cleveland for college.

Not only did I never ask for the pronoun “ze,” the file goes on to use “she” for me throughout the entire document. Although this is the first of many doctor appointments, it is the last time I come out.

They take seven vials of blood from me. Everything comes back normal, except the Lyme, which has results that don’t make sense. Due to the Lyme results, they refer me to the Infectious Diseases specialist. I put off making an appointment for six weeks, emotionally exhausted from the last appointment and overwhelmed by the chaos of September. When I go to my mom’s for October break, I realize I am so fatigued that I can only spend an hour or two out of bed each day. I call Cleveland Clinic, but the earliest they can get me in to see the Infectious Diseases specialist is December 6. I spend the next six weeks deeply exhausted and pushing myself to live a normal life, pushing myself to the very edge of my limits. 

Throughout this whole ordeal, I feel crazy. Nothing feels normal, and yet nobody can find anything wrong with me. And fatigue is too nebulous and invisible: Everyone at Oberlin is tired all the time, and I don’t know if I’m being overdramatic or if this is real. Doctors—including my psychiatrist—keep asking me if my fatigue is depression-related (maybe because I’m trans?) but I know what that feels like and I’m mentally stable. I need there to be something wrong with me, some diagnosis, so I can get some closure with this illness.

On December 6th, they take thirteen vials of blood. I am finally diagnosed with mono, with evidence of past Lyme. I push through finals, with one emergency incomplete. I feel defeated, helpless, and alone in my exhaustion. I see another doctor in New York after I spend two weeks bedridden with no signs of improvement. She takes another seven vials of blood from me. After twenty-nine vials of blood, four doctors, and five months, I am finally told that I have healed from three types of mono, all of which I had at the same time throughout fall semester, without knowing. Now I have post-viral fatigue, an unexplained affliction that can last months, or years. 

Twenty-nine vials of blood, four doctors—it felt like a lot while it was happening, but it isn’t until February that the quantity really hits me, with the arrival of a steep medical bill my insurance won’t cover. In addition to other medical debt my family had been struck with in the fall semester, this feels like a slap in the face. Impostor syndrome comes rushing back. Did I really need all that testing? I could have just endured, evoking the stoicism I had internalized for years prior to this extended illness? And with no way to quantify my fatigue or the degree to which I have healed, it is hard not to feel self-indulgent and, in some ways, useless as I attempt to scale back my commitments and workload. 

***

III. MY BODY AS INCANTATION AND RITUAL

At the end of December I move into my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. It has a skylight, and I can keep it just as clean as I like because for a blissful month, I will be alone. After spending several weeks practically bedridden at my mother’s home, I sacrifice her care in exchange for the independence and agency solo living will allow me. And with this newfound independence I find the space and time to learn my body. After spending months detachedly ignoring my illness, I suddenly am allowed to lean into it. I mourn the loss of my ignorant trust in my body, and I mourn the time lost putting my life on hold. 

But I find the edges of my form stretching, filling this body up; imagining shapes and pouring my body into them. I spend more time naked and I take long, hot baths, moisturizing afterwards. Treating my body tenderly allows for a new burgeoning of love where before there had been only a distaste. When I can stand for long enough, I cook complete, beautiful meals. I drink liters and liters of water, as constant as breathing.

And most of all, I sleep. Fitfully at first—hyper-realistic nightmares flood my subconscious and shake me awake, cold and sweaty. I reach for the glass of water by my bed and blearily knock it all over my nightstand, soaking my journal. And then, after a time, more peacefully. Dreamless sleep.

Awakening from this dreamless sleep feels like stepping onto a new planet. I move slowly and cautiously, hyper-aware of my breathing and balance, holding onto the wall and chairs as my body adjusts. When I take risks and push myself to walk unsupported, I faint and have to rebuild my confidence. Falling again and again is humbling—a necessary reminder of how fragile I am.

In January, I have just enough energy to take on one activity a day. Most days this is something like lunch with a friend; sometimes it’s more ambitious, like a paper-making workshop. And yet somehow I no longer feel useless and alone, as I did throughout December. I am learning a lot. I know how to feel when I am hungry, or dehydrated, or physically exhausted, in ways that hadn’t yet become intuitive for me before this illness. This body that had been background noise for so long, almost two decades, reveals itself to me as rich with so much more than pure utility. 

It is hard to internalize the idea that my fingertip is just as much me as my mind. This merging of self, or extension of self from intellectual to physical, starts to take place as I begin to dance alone in my living room. Soon it becomes compulsive: a daily ritual. I dance until I can’t breathe, which at first is a laughably short period of time but it grows longer. Being able to express an emotion or thought by moving my body in a certain way allows me to recenter my sense of self in the body. Rather than journaling, I move viscerally, bypassing intellectual processing. My fingertips become as saturated with emotion as my mind, as the rest of me. I drip heavy with emotion.

***

IV. MY BODY AS PERFORMANCE

The growing understanding of my body’s physical limitations coincides with a renewed interest in my gender identity and expression. I cut my hair again, despite knowing that my body is unequivocally perceived as that of a woman. A physical rejection of femininity feels impossible to me, and I make very little effort to counter that, perhaps because I know that no matter what lengths I go to there is no chance that people will see me otherwise. My mother likes to remind me that I am on the cutting edge of social development; that I should be patient with the general public. Patience is hard to summon. Despite my frustration with the inability of most to see me as non-binary, my gender doesn’t seem as tied to my physical presentation as others would expect. And then what is gender? Is it the way I am talked about? Is it relevant to the people I kiss and the kinds of relationships I engage in? I am comforted by the theory that all gender is performative, but it is hard to break from the societal narrative that informs me that mine is especially so. 

In the same way that passing as healthy in a society that stigmatizes the chronically ill is a privilege, I recognize that passing as cis allows me a lot of ease in the way I navigate a transphobic world. It can be difficult to weigh the pain of pretending to be what I am not against the pain of the bigotry directed at who I am. “I look at Clio and all I see is a woman.” These are the moments that I mistrust my own sense of my gender. What if this is a phase after all? What if I am really a girl? The cisheteropatriarchy is extremely talented at seeding that kind of self-doubt. I value my femininity and the empathy and tenderness that has been nurtured in me, but I don’t know how much of this is truly who I am and how much of it was taught into me. I don’t know how to delineate between true identity and a reaction to my environment. And is there even a delineation? It is impossible to remove myself from my environment, so perhaps my true identity is only a reaction to my environment. I struggle to feel my gender throughout my body despite having learned, over the course of January, to channel my sense of emotional self throughout my physical self. Perhaps I had been dealing with my gender identity through the same lens of stoicism I had used to understand my body. This chasm between body and gender is a fundamental disconnect that feels insurmountable. I try anyway. 

***

V. MY BODY AS MIRROR

This is what I grapple with as I heal, so slowly it is nearly imperceptible, or rather only perceptible over the course of several months. There are no day-to-day little successes. The healing is not an uphill battle—it is a slog. It is like finally turning a corner and crashing into a glass wall, finding myself thrown backwards, bruised. Trying to figure out my relationship to gender surprises me in how accurately it parallels this. I find one way to think about my presentation, or the way I’m perceived, or my relationships to others, and as soon as I turn that corner and hit that wall, I am thrown back into chaos. I had imagined that I’d move linearly from confusion to an innate understanding of my gender identity, but the more I come to terms with the limitations of my body and my being, the more unclear I become. 

My gender is invisible and yet integral to my identity and experience of this world; simultaneously, my illness creates limitations for me that can’t be seen by the untrained eye. I am reluctant to let this chronic illness define my identity and so I downplay it—but it feels so much a part of me that the fact that it can’t be seen sometimes feels like an injustice to its significance in my life. 

One function of the mirror is to establish a relation between the human and its reality. In the same way, I see my gendered reality reflected back at me in my chronic illness. Because of the peace I must make with my body throughout this chronic illness, I am able to establish a more concrete understanding of the way my gender affects my interactions with the world. Seeing this mirrored reflection of my struggle with gender identity has shocked me. I never expected to find understanding of either in the other, and yet coming to terms with the limitations of my body in both respects takes a similar kind of emotional work. I am in no way resolved about either experience; rather, I am actively working to sort through them in tandem. 

At the beginning of September, I start to grow my hair out. I wake up in April and am consumed by the urge to shave it all off. Dead weight is suddenly gone and I feel reborn. For the period of time that I adjust to my buzzed head, I have no way of grounding myself in reality. I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. It is immensely comforting. 

Categories
Parallax

Berenice and the Taboo

by Dario Voltolini | translated by Prof. Stiliana Milkova | Parallax | Fall 2017

Photograph by Clio Schwartz

On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Dario Voltolini is a contemporary Italian writer, the author of novels, short story collections, radio plays, travel narratives, and a range of nonfiction texts. His literary works often dwell on human relationships in an urban, post-industrial world to find profound meaning underneath the most prosaic occurrences. The theme of the writer’s task in a global, overpopulated world emerges in “Berenice and the Taboo: On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.” In this essay Voltolini reflects on Calvino’s famous novel taking the last city, the “hidden city” of Berenice, as his starting point. Voltolini discusses the question of Time (and its manifestations) as Calvino’s Other, and taming—or representing—that otherness as the writer’s task. When I read this essay in Italian I was captivated by its ideas, by its close reading of Calvino’s text and its broader implications for literature and society in general. Translating it in to English posed a single challenge: capturing Voltolini’s thought, rendering it legible, while also preserving his original language, his own “agile, incisive, sparkling” imagery.


In this essay I examine a particular aspect of Calvino’s poetics—his self-representation as a writer—that I have always deemed problematic. What I have in mind is a certain unresolved tension which afflicts me as a writer too, and perhaps for this reason I tend to notice it in the work of others. This tension arises from the general problem underlying the relationship between the writer and the Other, or better yet, to put it more abstractly, the writer’s relationship with otherness.

Berenice, the last city in Invisible Cities, exemplifies this tension: Highlighting specific themes elaborated in Calvino’s characteristic style, themes still resonant today with the depth and complexity of their implications. Berenice has much to give and to reveal to those of us who deal with meaning—that is, those of us who write. In Berenice, Calvino explores the relationship between the city of the just and the city of the unjust. He depicts it as the progressive nesting of the city of the just within the city of the unjust, but within the nested city the seed of injustice already germinates, and inside the city of the unjust, in turn, germinates the seed of justice, and so it continues in an infinite game of mirrors. It seems to be an idea borrowed from the mathematical theory of recursion. Here is a brief quote from Berenice to illustrate this process:

[I]n the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right—and of being more just than many others who call themselves more just than the just. This seed ferments in rancor, rivalry, resentment; the natural desire of revenge on the unjust is colored by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they do. Another unjust city, though different from the first, is digging out its space within the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices.

Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to catch a distorted image, so I must draw your attention to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the possible awakening—as if in an excited opening of the windows—of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became the vessel of injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the growing tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense metropolis.

Besides the fascinating image of a city nesting successively in itself its own opposites, I am always struck by something else. I am not a Calvino scholar, but as a writer I hear a call which in my own writing I have repeatedly tried to ignore or avoid so as to be able to do my work—because when you come this close to a planet as large as Calvino’s you risk being pulled away from your own course by its gravitational force. But in the end, I must confront this call, and I can begin doing it here.

So let me first discuss what disturbs me: Calvino’s unresolved tension, his persistent stumbling block. The telltale move which always takes me by surprise is when Marco Polo concludes his narrative: “From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: All the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”1

Drawings by Bridget Conway

Calvino’s double construction is curious. On the one hand, a remarkable recursive progression over time; on the other, the complete negation of time itself as suggested by the coexistence of all future Berenices within an undifferentiated present moment devoid of temporal movement. This is not merely a question of rhetoric—there is something else. Here, in my opinion, is Calvino’s taboo subject, the blind spot of his otherwise astute and penetrating eye. Why construct this sequence unfolding in time only to invalidate it in the end? What kind of operation is Calvino performing? What kind of logic underlies his discourse? Marco Polo is right to suspect that Kublai Khan “has reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities.”2 In fact, Marco Polo has just stated it! Not only has he told Kublai Khan precisely that, he has already conveyed this idea through the dynamic images used to describe Berenice: wheels will jam, a new mechanism will arrive, a cuisine evoking an ancient golden age, fermenting rancors, a city digging out its space, the awakening of a love for justice, a city more just that it was before it became unjust, a tiny spot spreading, a growing tendency—and from these data it is possible to deduce the future Berenice. The outcome of these dynamic transformations is even more striking: Calvino’s vision of an immense metropolis as the rhetorical and narrative realization of the germinating Berenices. An initial tension already inhabits the text here. Berenice’s game of mirrors is infinite, but the city’s realization as an immense metropolis stands in direct contradiction to it. Calvino seems to hypothesize a qualitative discontinuity. The nesting of the just city within the unjust one does not proceed in a straight line (or even in a half line, from the golden age onward), but rather leads to a discontinuity (the metropolis), an entirely different formation.

This initial tension is subservient to the real, central tension in Calvino: the tension between a process occurring gradually over time (the recursion of the just and the unjust Berenices) and a condition of complete immobility—the city Marco Polo reveals to Kublai Khan at the end. The figure of the metropolis bridges these two opposite visions. The figure of the metropolis works as a rhetorical linchpin allowing Marco Polo (Calvino) to negotiate the vertiginous slippage between the premise of Berenice’s existence and the text’s conclusion which invalidates this very premise. This is Calvino battling his own taboo: time. The irrational course of Marco Polo’s narrative already underscores this ongoing battle. Calvino cannot fight fairly either. The match evolves in three phases: 1) a city reverses into its opposite and vice versa, in a progression that is temporal, but otherwise flat and infinitely identical to itself; 2) even if that were not so, even if this progression did not unfold as infinitely identical to itself, but instead culminated in a qualitative change such as an immense (infinite) metropolis, then all of its reversals would occur simultaneously; 3) Berenice indeed is a point devoid of time where nothing can ever unfold and yet everything unfolds all at once, inextricably so, without any movement, as in a photograph.

It is both curious and symptomatic that to reach this conclusion Calvino invents the striking image of “yes” and “no” wrapped one within the other. First, he offers us an infinite game of mirrors over time, then he tells us that it is not so, that in fact everything happens all at once. What is he actually negating? The negation seems to imply an overt, ongoing dispute between Calvino and time. And for any narrator, time is not a trifle; for any narrator, time is the most important matter.

Now, I’d like to take a step to the side, to move the knight, as it were. I’d like to revisit the first of his American Lectures, the cross on which, in my opinion, Calvino crucified himself, exploring the familiar concept of lightness. By now, citing Calvino on lightness has become a routine, almost Pavlovian practice. At the beginning of the lecture, Calvino claims, as I recall, to feel a strong tension between the opacity, weight, brevity, and rigidity of the world and the language, the literature he wanted to create—picaresque, lively, agile, incisive, versatile, sparkling, polished like silver. He claims to perceive an already irremediable difference between what should have been his literary material (the world, everyday life) and his own writing. He claims he does not want to peer inside this heavy, inert mass, because it would be like staring at the Medusa’s eyes—he would turn to stone. And thus he invents, following the myth’s logic, the possibility of looking at this world indirectly, by way of mirrors, reflections, and triangulations.

Not as a critic or scholar, but personally, I believe that Invisible Cities provides the most convincing example of Calvino’s game of mirrors. This game enables him to attain what cannot be looked at directly. What cannot be looked at directly Calvino renders in the image of the weight of the world, and this weight is what I referred to earlier as otherness. Calvino knows he is not free from the obligation to deal with this otherness—no writer ever is—but he deals with it indirectly. He weaves webs, sets traps to get the better of it; always in search of solutions as incomplete, uncertain, or variable as they may be. He turns to already existing literary and scientific discourses, that is, to already established representations of otherness. Here in a nutshell is the metaliterary Calvino, while in his confrontation with temporality— which is the most petrifying aspect of otherness—we find the metanarrative Calvino.

For Calvino, contingency, mortality, limitation, uniqueness, and nothingness constitute total otherness—our private human Medusa—which he holds captive through his game of infinite possibilities, or at least he tries to. And in Invisible Cities he is more successful than anywhere else. In If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, Calvino again plays the game of possibilities but he takes it to the extreme, to the point where the game itself reveals its limits. His attempt to create a collection of cities, as if arranged on a chessboard of his own invention, is also the attempt to tell, to narrate, to inscribe all possible cities. In the logic of set theory, all the real cities—past, present, and future—exist within the set of all possible cities. Any given real city is one of all possible cities. But the game does not work if we substitute “imaginable” for “possible.”

If we could imagine by way of literary creation, by way of the genius of invention, all the possible cities, then we would be able to imagine all the real cities, past, present, and future (and perhaps this is Calvino’s insight). It doesn’t work this way, however. There exist cities that were not imaginable before. The set of all imaginable things and the set of all the real things do not coincide completely but rather overlap in increasingly disturbing ways. There are unimaginable things that do occur. And therefore, if we could have full and total visibility of time and space, backward and forward, present, past, and future; if we could describe everything that exists, even by means of chessboard combinations, then we would really fence in everything that exists. We would deliver a blow to the Medusa; she would be the one afraid to look. Everything would be reflecting surfaces. We would have put the Medusa in check.

But this is impossible to do. And the sign of its impossibility lies in the question of time: Time as the site of otherness and not as quantity. Destructive time, time that gives birth and inflicts death, time that allows or rather brings about transformation. Time as the site of discontinuity and catastrophe, of the new and the unforeseeable, of our infinite ignorance and epistemic myopia.

Let me give a banal example. I don’t have the exact number but I know that today, for the first time in human history, 60 percent of the global population lives in cities. It used to be that city dwellers were a minority and now the reverse is true. So will this new condition produce qualitative change? We cannot foresee this even within the progression of all possible Berenices containing “yes” and “no” always within the same plane. Does the immense metropolis presuppose immobility or exactly the opposite? We cannot know, but we can dread it. We use literary combinatorics to pursue facts, but to no avail. This is a dramatically real yet exquisitely theoretical game of chess which appeals to anyone harboring the illusion that it is possible to impose immobility on the multiform and thus harness it once and for all. In a book someone gave me just this morning, Calvino says: “We raise our eyes from the page only to peer into darkness.”3

What is the main point then? How do we come to grips with Calvino’s call? What are the vertiginous dynamics still facing us today, especially us writers, all those riddles not resolved but posed by Calvino? The main point is that when faced with the irreducibility, illegibility, and otherness of facts or reality, we respond in different ways. Calvino’s way is to turn elsewhere in search of notions of otherness already established, made familiar, and therefore acting as a shield (weapon) against the Medusa. This is the game of mirrors I was referring to earlier.

For the author of Invisible Cities, the ideal city is the legible city. I remember reading that for Calvino, Paris was the champion among all cities. Paris was to him a legible city—he would walk around reading whatever interested him directly from the walls, from the streets. Paris for Calvino was a city enmeshed in writing, a cultural city, a text. Of course, it is obvious that the legibility of Paris derives from the fact that it is a much perused (written) city.

But the task of the writer, or one of the tasks in any case, is to confront total illegibility and otherness, to commit to rendering them more legible. To write is to make legible. The line, the threshold Calvino stood on (it will always remain a threshold since death stopped him when he was about to cross over and announce his new direction, for it is clear Calvino was on the verge of a new direction) is the demarcation line between otherness reduced to legibility (familiarity) and the reconfiguration of the already legible into further legibility. Calvino often intentionally thematized this very line, debating it and problematizing it. And this problem of (il)legibility, already founded on a tension, is grafted onto the question of temporality, which I suggest is Calvino’s own taboo, and thus opens space for new inquiries into his narrative. As a writer, Calvino was rent by infinite tensions, by unexpected fissures. Nonetheless, he did his best to offer us, in addition to his works and life, his interpretations and his biography. And yet, he still remains one of the most mysterious writers of the twentieth century. Although in his various essays, Calvino time and again battles with obscurity, illegibility, opacity, and otherness, it is in his clearest crystals that the darkest abyss opens. Perhaps because displaced, negated, or left behind. And Invisible Cities is his diamond.

1Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. (Harcourt, 1974), 162-3. English translation modified slightly to reflect better the original wording.

2Ibid., 163.

3Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Zenobia Marder

interviewed by Bridget Conway | Visual Processes | Fall 2017

Art by Zenobia Marder

Bridget Conway: Can you give a statement of your work—what you’re trying to achieve this semester? How has your work shifted in the past few years to get to the point it is at now?

Zenobia Marder: At this point, I’m a mixed media artist who began with a focus on film photography. My work took a radical shift after spending a semester abroad in South Africa, where my school shut down due to student protest action. I had an internship at a gallery, where I curated performance art pieces and worked with a lot of people in fashion photography in South Africa. I was also really inspired by the work I saw that was being produced in South Africa, and the way people were aesthetically presenting themselves. Then when I got back last semester, I was in a mixed media class taught by Pipo [Nguyen-Duy] and we had a project on identity. I had been really obsessed with these plastic bags that I saw a lot in South Africa. They’re called Ghana Must Go bags [seen left], and they’re basically used in communities of color all around the world, primarily in Africa and China (they can also be called China bags) as utilitarian storage. In Nigeria [during] the eighties, there was a huge forced migration of Ghanaian immigrants, and they all had to leave the country almost immediately. There’s this famous photo of them all waiting for boats at the border of Nigeria with hundreds of these plastic bags, because they were the easiest, weirdly stylish, utilitarian way to store all their belongings quickly. I’m Chinese and Jamaican of African descent, so this material tied into the project. So, that’s where my obsession with specific materials began, and I shifted toward exploring my work through mixed media, rather than just what I see in my surroundings or a narrative I could come up with through a photo.

BC: What goes through your mind when choosing the materials you use for your mixed media pieces? What are some examples of materials that mean a lot to you and your work?

ZM: I realized that crafting with specific materials based on what they mean to me, as well as the meaning embedded in the material, could transform and really elevate my work. When we had a piece on identity [in Pipo’s class], I made this cape that hung all the way from the ceiling to the floor all made out of these Ghana Must Go bags. It also had other items related to my identity, like a yam coated in resin, covered with a root that’s used to cure alcoholism in China, and stuff like that. I also started making quilts: I got really into sewing and its process. I’ve always been really interested in fashion and specifically the way Black fashion is realized in both the Americas and in Africa; so this semester, I’m working on the larger project of examining garments as an object of resistance and a kind of weapon in the diaspora. In using certain materials, I’m thinking about aesthetics as a weapon and Black aesthetics as a weapon, and Black performance of wealth—and what that means in a colonial perspective. In addition to my quilts and fabric pieces, I’m working on things like sculptures in materials that are important to me, like terra cotta [seen above]. I’m using a lot of salt—putting salt on clay, soaking objects in salt, putting salt on garments—because of its healing properties, but also because of a Jamaican saying, “sucking salt,” which functions as a way to signify pacifying oppression. I’m also using a lot of synthetic hair: One of the pieces I have up in the Fischer Gallery right now is a corset shirt made out of synthetic hair, as well as some other objects that go along with it [seen right]. Fashion, sculpture, mixed media pieces, installation—specifically the way I place objects in a room and a few found objects are really important. I’m obsessed with extracting meanings out of materials, and complicating those meanings in my work.

BC: How do you want viewers of your work to feel, especially in these large, immersive installations?

ZM: I want viewers of my work to be attracted by a certain beauty, but I also want my work to make viewers uncomfortable. Fascinated—but confused. For example, when people see this collage of cowry shells and denim [seen right] finished, it will be scary. It’s so overwhelming: the amount of shells on the piece, and the monotonous pattern, and the way it will look like a seascape in the end. This is another piece where materials are really important—the cowry shells I’m attaching to the collage were used for European traders to buy slaves in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was this luxury item that was used as African currency that the European traders thought was completely ridiculous, but exchanged for human lives. Cowry shells also grow on organic matter in the ocean: including dead human flesh. If the Europeans killed one of their slaves or one of their slaves died, they would cut up their limbs, toss them in the ocean, and shells would grow on the bodies, and the Europeans would buy more slaves. If I’m using these objects that are so encoded with meanings, I have to be aware that not all my viewers are going to associate these meanings with the materials; so how do I incorporate encoding or text into my work, to draw my viewers to the experience of the work I want them to have?

BC: You’ve written before about your work containing juxtapositions between organic and artificial materials. How is that present in the work you’ve been making this semester?

ZM: That was one of the things I was focused on in my earlier work, and since then I’ve really sharpened my focus and become finalized in my approach, but I am [still] interested in that. For instance, I’m [currently] making pieces out of synthetic hair. At first that hair appears to be organic, but if you go closer, you might realize it’s not, or you might think it’s totally organic and I’m making this piece out of organic material. In reality, it’s actually synthetic Kanekalon hair, which I, and many other African American, Caribbean, or African women, wear on their hair to cover up their actual hair to look nice and presentable—and still, to a certain extent, [to] have these long, straight tresses that adhere to European standards of beauty. If I’m going to use these juxtapositions between the organic and the artificial, I want it to be subtle. I’m creating these shorts, and the fringe on them is inner tubes from bikes, and the big piece of material on the side looks like skin, but is actually plastic latex. I also want to create a cape made out of the same latex, where it looks like it’s made out of flesh… Even this quilt is more performative. In making this quilt [seen above], I chose that color of the red mulch because I really loved how organic it looked, kind of like blood, but it’s actually just plastic. Then I printed the image onto plastic, which I etched onto this quilt, which is made out of leather, a more organic material. I feel like I might not always be aware [of] when I’m approaching these juxtapositions, but they still exist in the work and push my argument forward.

Categories
Voices

Besa

by Jona Beliu | Voices | Fall 2017

Image from the Fall 2017 issue

The stories in this piece come from a private realm of my family’s history. They show the difficulties we’ve faced as Albanian immigrants and highlight the faults within our own culture. History affects everyone, but immigrants especially must interact with both the history of our own country and our adopted one. In both instances, we experience loss: the loss of our homeland, and the feeling of being lost in integrating ourselves into our new country. Albania is on the Mediterranean Sea, north of Greece, and is one of the very few Muslim-majority nations in the European continent. My story centers around a recurring pattern I’ve seen in my own Albanian immigrant community—incredibly welcoming, warm, and generous, until American racism creeps in. We show our limited perspective through the phrases we sometimes say and how we view other marginalized groups in this country. The United States has equated ‘Muslim’ with ‘foreigner,’ with ‘immigrant,’ and, most importantly, with ‘person of color.’ This false assumption that all Muslims are people of color has permeated our worldview. It creates a monolith for what Muslims “should” look like and has aided in the persecution of both the religion and its people. This story isn’t as simple as the oppressed becoming the oppressor. This story is far more complicated. It’s a testament to how powerful whiteness is in America. How white assimilation—especially because Albanians are not considered “white” in Europe—can corrupt a person to the point where they love their own executioner because they refuse to see themselves as the target.

***

I am of the Albanian diaspora and have grown up simultaneously immersed in both my history and the culture of the United States. Albania is obscured by the giants that surround it—Greece, Italy, Bulgaria—and my people are relegated to brief mentions within European history. For many decades, my nation’s history and existence have been silenced, erased, and ignored by the rest of the continent. As more of us leave the country, we create a global diaspora. We begin to carve out our own livelihoods and share our experiences, and we garner an international political power that has been actively taken away from us. In many ways, this piece is political action against the continued erasure of my country within the modern-day discourse of the European continent. This is also an analysis of how our history of persecution in Europe has manifested in the United States and expresses itself in insidious and racial ways. Western culture has filtered into Albania; I can see the vast changes happening every year to Tirana, the capital, and to the rest of the nation. With an introduction to the Western lifestyle, we were offered access to an enticing linguistic platform. The English language has a power that creates a monumental opportunity, allowing English-speaking Albanians to begin to translate our own experiences for the global audience. By using English, Albanians can subvert Western dominance and make our stories heard.

***

I was born in Tirana, Albania to a Cham mother and a Tironce father. We are an ancient and isolated country—these cultural groups are long-established and create particular identities. To be clear, most of my immediate family, with a few exceptions, aren’t practicing Muslims. That was washed away by years of Ottoman rule and communism, but much of our culture, language, and ontological and theological understandings of the world come from Islam. One of the few practicing Muslims in my family is my uncle on my father’s side. He goes to mosque almost every day, observes Ramadan, and lives very much within the Muslim community. If you were to ask my extended family what religion they are, without fail they would say, “We are Muslim.”

For much of my life I have been taught fragments of my family’s history. Albanians are proud people; this pride has taught me the benefits of patriotism. In just the last 50 years, over half of my country has been taken by the Greek, Serbian, and Montenegrin governments. Without a strong sense of identity and pride, my land, language, and people would have dissolved long ago. This isn’t to say that Albania is devoid of internal tension. My mother is from Chameria and my father from Tirana, which are only 220 miles from each other and share the same language, yet each have distinctive communities. These divergent cultural groups, while still Albanian, created familial tension when my parents first started dating. My grandmother on my father’s side said her son shouldn’t date my mother because Cham people are “dirty and of a lower class than us.” Albania has a long history of ethnic tension, which has bred an “us versus them” mentality. In some ways this has been beneficial: Arguably it is what fueled Kosovo’s success in separating from Serbia in 2008 with hopes of achieving its own quasi-statehood and own separate identity as Albanian people. More than 80 percent of Kosovars are Albanian. However, that kind of mentality is also what creates blinders for most Albanian immigrants when they come to the United States.

We are a persecuted people. During the London Conference of 1912, a summit of six world powers held in the aftermath of the First Balkan War, the treaty signed took about half of Albanian land, giving Kosovo to Serbia and Chameria to Greece. We’ve had our land, our family, and our history stolen, and therefore (in the minds of some Albanians) our perpetuation of American racism and nationalism is justified. Racism allows us to enhance our own social standing as white Americans and feel more included in this country, perhaps more so than we’ve ever felt in Europe. We see this pattern continuously in the history of European immigration to United States: People migrate from States because of cultural, religious, or ethnic tension, and are eventually granted the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness. This assimilation creates a social comfort that leads us to believe that ethnic tension, racism, and classism are not prevalent in the United States because we do not experience it here.

Photographs by Anna Stearn

Albania is uniquely ositioned when it comes to our relationship with the United States. Unlike most other Eastern Europeans, most Albanians feel favorably toward the United States. We have statues of Woodrow Wilson scattered around our capital, and continue to revere the Clintons for assisting Albanian Kosovars during the Kosovo war in 1999. In that conflict, Serbian military action caused the displacement of 1,500,000 Albanian Kosovars and the murder of over 10,000. Our love for the United States began after the First World War, during the deliberations between the Allied powers at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The Allies wanted to divide control of Albania piecemeal among our neighbors—Greece, Italy, Serbia, and others—removing our country from the map and erasing our national identity. Wilson spoke out in our favor, stating that we were a true nation and deserved to be protected. The delegates found his arguments persuasive: Albania was not split among the countries of Eastern Europe. We were independent for twenty years, but by the start of World War Two, Italy had invaded. We went from Italian to German control in 1943, and from the Germans to our very own Communist Party, led by Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s reign was authoritarian. He followed in the footsteps of other communist leaders by eliminating all freedom, religion, and hope. Hoxha created prison camps, much like Stalin’s gulags. An estimated one in every fifteen people was sent to prison camp and that one in three was contacted or intimidated by the Sigurimi, state police who were sent to monitor the ideological correctness of the country. Enver Hoxha created and maintained a “state atheism” by shutting down and destroying mosques, and punishing those who partook in Ramadan and Lent. During Hoxha’s authoritarian rule between 1944 to 1992, people were confined within the Albanian borders. Immigration and travel were relegated to a small minority. Most of our exposure to other cultures has come from a limited amount of travel into and out of Albania, most significantly from Turkey, Italy, Western Europe, and northern Africa. With the death of Hoxha, the communist regime slowly started to fall, and in 1991 we transitioned into democracy.

***

During the presidential campaign, my mother and I were talking at home in Albanian. I said “inshallah”—a word meaning “god willing,” a word directly from the Quran, a word imbedded Albanian colloquialism, culture, and life. She paused the conversation and told me not to say that word and other “Muslim words” when we’re on the MTA or walking around the city because “we don’t need to bring that kind of attention to ourselves.” Very rarely during my life in the States has my mother been so direct in her erasure of our culture and country.

I wear the symbol of my country’s flag around my neck, and my parents have ensured that both my sister and I know our language, culture, and history. They refuse to let America erase our nationality. For my mother to distance herself from a core aspect of our identity is terrifying. It’s the compartmentalization of Albanian identity, the ability to cherry-pick and erase certain aspects in order to become palatable. My mother wanted to ensure we weren’t targeted on the streets, but that is already incredibly unlikely since we have few visible identifiers for which other Americans and immigrants are targeted. We do not wear the hijab and we are white-passing. The only thing that distinguishes us is my parents’ slight Eastern European accent—our language is the one thing that could give us away.

Albanians trace our ethnic history back thousands of years to the Illyrian tribe, one of the very first peoples to live on the European continent. My family can trace its history back 300 years through every name and town. We keep our ancient tradition and history alive. A significant part of my cultural identity is a strong belief in unity: We are a Muslim-majority nation, but we pride ourselves on living in peace with Christians, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox people. Our flag, a two-headed eagle, is indicative of this commitment. It was originally used as a symbol to unite the North and South of Albania against the Ottomans and is an intentional sign of our solidarity against the political forces that attempted to divide us.

Unity and respect have a legacy in Albania. One of the most notable aspects of Albanian culture is an ancient law we hold and abide by to this day: besa. This is a fifteenth-century law originally created to govern the northern tribes of Albania. The word can be used and translated in many ways. At its core, it means trust or a promise. Besa is a moral testimony, a law inherited from distant ancestors, a law that is brought up in our daily lives. There are many citations and sayings that express the meaning of besa. One of the most notable is “Shpija para se me qenë e Shqiptarit, eshte e Zotit dhe e mikut,” which translates to “a house, before it belongs to the Albanian, belongs to God and the guest.”

There are many Albanians and Eastern Europeans alike who say that the law of besa is what sustained Albania through the ages, quelling disputes and providing safety for travellers through our country. Besa was the force that allowed my country to welcome the Jewish population during World War Two. Besa is an idealist law, and like all laws there is a circumstantial limit to our generosity. The limitations on our empathy are exposed in the U.S., where our history is unknown, our race is white, and our identity is European. Whiteness in America is founded upon the sanitization of internal difference in favor of a neutral white unit which can be separated from “others.” A caveat in American whiteness is that contemporary white foreignness is attractive and something to be proud of. That idea is enticing for Albanian immigrants. It allows for an assimilation unlike that which we face in Italy and Greece, where most Albanians refuse to acknowledge their nationality or speak a word of our language in fear of being found out.

Drawing by Bridget Conway

***

I immigrated to the United States in the winter of 2000. My parents and I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a predominately white area with practically no Muslim population. By definition I am an immigrant, by culture I am called “first-generation.” This duality is a foundational aspect of many child immigrant stories. We live in a time where immigrants (more specifically, non-white immigrants) are targeted. Now more than ever, immigrant narratives are flooding our Facebook newsfeeds. The United States is again at a point in time where it is publicly fighting against the very people that it prides itself on attracting. The demonization of Black Lives Matter and Trump’s Muslim bans are vain attempts to scapegoat this country’s economic and political failings: A dwindling blue collar working class, a populist president, rising distrust in the federal government. It was during the 2016 presidential elections that I felt closest to my Muslim identity, the most confused about my positionality, and the most frightened by what white American culture had done to most Albanians in the States and to my family.

My family came to this country just a few months before September 11, 2001. After the attacks, my grandparents called us right away and said, “Come back home, America isn’t safe.” My dad calmly replied, “We’re hundreds of miles away from New York City—we’ll be fine.” Aside from the distance separating my family from New York City, he was also implying that we are not seen as Muslims here. My mother’s retellings always point to the fact that we came from Albania, known to be predominantly Muslim. The United States is still seen as the best destination for emigrating Albanians: It is full of opportunity, it is wealthy, and there are plenty of other Albanians, but most importantly, we do not have to hide our culture or nationality. Washing away our Muslim heritage has been the norm for my family for three generations, and has only strengthened by my parents’ defensive reactions to the attacks on 9/11. This fact has dramatically shaped my parents’ immigration experience. Our history in the U.S. has been significantly shaped by our religion and culture, as well as by years of European ethnic tensions and our fighting to gain the right to exist as a people on our own continent. The privilege to immigrate to the United States and assimilate by virtue of our skin, while still retaining our national pride, has put blinders on many Albanian Americans. These privileges obscure our ability to understand how our actions are perpetuating a system we have been able to escape.

***

Since the World Trade Center attacks, my parents have been attempting to distance themselves from any aspect of our identity linked to Islam. This has become one of the largest contradictions within my household—fierce pride of our nationality combined with fear and aversion. What’s difficult to explain to my parents is that by distancing themselves from our Muslim heritage, they are aiding in the erasure and dilution of Albanian identity.

***

Dinners at my house means a table encircled by immigrants from around the world: India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Korea, Australia, Mexico, Greece, and Albania. At dinner, my parents rarely ever drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, but this time it’s different. My dad gets tipsy. The quiet, shy, paunchy, 40-year-old man opens up and begins talking about the election cycle: Hillary, Trump, Obama, nationalism, race. I’ve known about his right-leaning opinions for years now, but since Trump took the stage to announce his candidacy, my father has careened to the right. Until now, I haven’t been able to quite figure out his ideology. During dinner, he holds forth in front of immigrants who would be directly affected if his words became actions. In front of the very people he considers his closest friends, in front of people who have given him a community he so desperately needed since moving to the United States, he says that Trump is right, that we need to curb immigration from Mexico and from Muslim-majority countries. He goes on to state how our national economic problems are caused by the laziness of racial minorities, and how a degree of racial homogeneity is best for a country.

I sit there for an hour, two hours, chiming in when he steps out of line—which is often—in defense of the older adults around me who are obviously getting uncomfortable with him. Then my dad says, “Trump is the best thing to happen to this country. What he stands for is the only way.”

That’s where I lose it. The first thing that comes to my mouth is, “How dare you, after everything we have gone through.” I tell him the only thing that makes sense to me at that time: “Look at who is sitting around you, and think about your words. Our family would be embarrassed to hear you speak like this.”

I have three and a half years of Oberlin rhetoric and higher education under my belt, but I knew the only thing that would get through to him would be to see his friends around him as they are: all of different nationalities, just as proud of their identities as we are. He did not need any help to see their humanity—we’ve been close family friends for years—but he needed to see their race, their history, and how our society has discriminated against them. What my father wasn’t able to understand, and what many Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims refuse to accept, is that we have fallen into the racial hierarchy within the United States. Here we have been given a social power, an equality that was routinely taken away in Europe. We have forgotten what discrimination feels like and because of that, we have fallen into the trap of believing that, in America, everyone is free.

***

Since my father’s dinner speech, he has slowly unclenched his far-right ideology. This isn’t entirely thanks to the subsequent conversations I’ve had with him about his political logic. A good portion of the credit should go to Trump, whose actions and speech highlight his hypocrisy.

My mother, father, and I had the privilege of selecting our identities when we immigrated to the United States. We were shielded from much of the harm that is falling on the shoulders of other immigrants—especially Muslims and people of color—and yet my parents hide from this fact. This destroys their own narratives, and they see it as an undermining of their individual success in the United States. We, the Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims, cannot assist in the destruction of anti-Islamic sentiments if we do not admit our own. We cannot help Albanians and other persecuted people until we come to criticize our own racism and xenophobia. For a people who have experienced the pain of stolen land, destruction of family, communism, socialism, civil unrest, and persecution all within the last 50 years, we must do better. Our pain cannot resonate so far inward that we are unable to criticize our own actions.