As a collegiate publication, Wilder Voice operates within a set of nonnegotiable time constraints: the 15-week semester, the two-semester academic year, the four-year bachelor’s degree. These limits are helpful, providing a ready-made arc to our work and dictating the steady tempo at which it advances. They’re also, well, limiting. There’s only so much that can be done in a single semester, and with a collective memory that rarely extends beyond half a decade, inconsistency over time is practically baked in. But limits breed creativity; inconsistency is just a synonym for experimentation. (And besides, there’s no motivator quite like a hard deadline.)
Like last semester, the magazine you’re holding in your hands (or, more likely, reading online) took form against a backdrop of specific, coronavirus-imposed restrictions: the abbreviated academic term, the class of 2023’s conspicuous absence from campus, and a student body burnt out by over a year of Zoom-based learning. The rules might be new and different (and worse), but they’re differences of degree rather than of kind. This issue, like any other, is where the ideal rubs against the real. It’s a collective attempt to wring meaning out of, and instill meaning within, transience. A good story is a good anchor: it’s something to hold onto.
In the spirit of finding opportunity (and continuity) within limits, we used this semester to expand our website by digitizing previous editions of WV. You can now view any piece published from fall 2017 onward here at wildervoicemag.com. Plumbing Wilder Voice’s recent past has been an instructive experience. We saw names move up the editorial masthead from semester to semester as a generation of Obies shared important reported stories and wrote through perennial and perennially urgent concerns—gender and identity, personal history, family narratives and their multivalent meanings, political activism and performance—with clarity and precision. The pieces differ in focus, from the history of Mercy Hospital to the founding of the ’Sco, from exploring death as exemplified by a beloved family cat to a series of meditations on the body. What ties them together is a willingness to engage and reengage with big questions and established narratives, to examine what’s been received and endeavor to understand it in a new light—or perhaps rethink it wholesale.
To further this commitment to complexity, we’ve encouraged our contributors in this issue to write longer and deeper, giving their voices more breathing room on the page in order to grapple with events and ideas in all of their intricacies. Lila Templin describes their disillusionment with Oberlin’s culture of wealth and the ways that students conceal their class privilege (“Unequal Footing”). Lilyanna D’Amato returns to her favorite children’s books and relearns to see the world in a new way (“The World from Below”). And Jemma Johnson-Shoucair explores hubris in the second Star Wars prequel and the groundbreaking technology behind it (“The Lucas Effect”). As always, their work is presented alongside striking student artwork, including Vincent Zhu’s photo series Cracked and a series of collages from Katie Frevert.
“The Lucas Effect” is one of two essays appearing in this issue under the heading “Diagnoses.” In this new department, writers articulate and interrogate problems of their choosing, exploring the “why” beyond the “what.” It’s not a space for crankiness so much as a space for synthesis through criticism; the intention is not simply to dunk on vexing phenomena, but to understand them.
As the spring semester comes to a close and we enter a summer of optimism and uncertainty, negotiating limits will remain a pressing task. After an unconventional but rewarding year serving as Wilder Voice’s EICs, we are excited to hand off the first-ever summer installment of Wilder Voice to our incoming Senior Staff: Alexander Saint Franqui, Dorothy Levine, Clara Rosarius, and Fiona Warnick. Their talents have already helped shape the magazine, and we are confident that they will continue to make Wilder Voice a home for Oberlin’s talented body of writers and artists.
—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice
Confronting identity and illness in the midst of a chaotic year.
I had just come out of the shower. I was damp, and tired. But I was calm enough that I was able to write a song for the first time in months. And it was good, I think. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter. At that point, I was happy to be doing anything but calling doctors or lying on my couch in pain or running through the same daily cycle of things I could do with my parents.
Having been alone in one place for four months, it was strange to be alone in a different place. It was relieving, actually, to feel like I’d accomplished some sort of movement, which I guess I had. Not only had I survived the five-hour drive from Connecticut to my aunt and uncle’s house in Maine, but also a six-week-long mystery illness, and the months-long process of getting prescribed estrogen. Being trans, and being sick, and being stuck in a house with only my parents for so long meant that any change that wasn’t altogether negative felt… wonderful. It’s a cliché, but, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, I genuinely felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while.
There’s sort of a redefinition of self when you spend time in a new place, even if it’s only for a few days. We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.
Last year, I wrote a piece about being—or, at the time, maybe not being—trans. It was for my creative nonfiction class, so I shouldn’t have been worried about anyone reading it and passing real, personal judgement, but I was. I revealed a lot of what I’d buried for most of my adolescence: cutting up old clothes so they would look like “girls’ clothes,” having several near-crises about my gender in my early years at Oberlin, realizing I was trans (in a planetarium in Montreal, of all places) and then recanting. But I also concealed the important part: that I’d never really felt like a person, like myself. I guess I’d thought that was too heavy to impart to anyone else.
What’s funny is that very soon after writing that essay, I did drop a metaphysical brick on everyone in my life, and in a much more meaningful form than a college nonfiction piece: I came out. First, to my parents, then to my best friend, then to all the myriad people I loved and cared about. I don’t know why I decided to come out when I did, after returning home from the fall semester (although my rash decision to give myself bangs may have contributed). But I did. And things got so much better after that.
I used Winter Term as a bit of a trial period for my transness; I changed my wardrobe a bit, and adapted to my new name. Gosh, did I feel so much more… alive. That feeling carried through the beginning of the spring semester: I was able to go and do things with my friends without being anxious about being perceived. For the first time, I could go to a party and not have a panic attack or melt into the walls. For the first time, it was good to be seen by other people, because I felt like they were validating my existence as the person I actually was even by saying “hi” to me. It was the happiest I’d been in a long while.
And then the pandemic hit, and all that newfound joy in human interaction was dashed. I was to be pretty much locked in a house with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not that I don’t love my parents, or that they aren’t supportive; it’s just that two people isn’t enough. Have you ever spent a bit too much time with a few close friends and needed to go have coffee with someone else, just to breathe different air? That was how I felt with my parents, except there wasn’t anyone to have coffee with, and breathing different air was… inadvisable.
I soon realized that this sudden change was going to end up forcing a lack thereof. As I’d learned how to be myself in Oberlin, I’d also been seriously considering starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’d always felt like my body was an ill-fitting sweater that I couldn’t take off, and HRT seemed like a solution. I was bent on broaching the topic with my parents during spring break, but spring break never happened. When I got home, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to see an endocrinologist for a long time. My entire transition hit an impasse.
After a few days at home, it became clear that I (and everyone else) wouldn’t be returning to Oberlin for the rest of the spring. In addition to reckoning with my suddenly molasses-like transition, I was also going to engage in my studies at home. I had to make a bunch of hurried adaptations to my Connecticut life, because I could see that my routine of waking up at noon and eating two meals a day was going to get dark, and fast. I forced myself to leave my bedroom shades up; I learned how to make myself coffee; and I went on a lot of walks. To return to my earlier pseudo-psychological language, I had to redefine myself against what little positive stimuli I had within the confines of my neighborhood.
One of these stimuli was an album by singer-harpist-bard-of-the-universe Joanna Newsom called Have One On Me. It’s an 18-song, two-hour-long album about codependent relationships (which I’ve, uh, had a few of). It was meaningful to me not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its overall emotional depth and complexity—it was something I could really dive into at a time when I felt life’s gravity had paused and left me hanging in midair. I listened to Have One On Me in chunks, and then as a whole, and then in chunks again, over and over and over. I also set off on the project of learning how to play all of the album’s songs, many of which had perplexing harmonies and rhythms. It was almost like a healing process for me, like the music was working me through all the quarantine-based ennui I’d developed.
There are so, so many lines from Have One On Me that came to mean a lot to me, but one sticks in particular: “All my life, I’ve felt as though / I’m inside a beautiful memory / Replaying / With the sound turned down low.” The second I heard this line, I knew it typified a feeling I’d had for most of my life, one that was indescribable until then. I’d always been detached from myself, like I was in someone else’s delicate and muted memory. Hearing Joanna’s words when I did was particularly arresting, because that feeling had intensified in the time I’d been home. I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine.
The school year wound down, and I began to settle into a bit of a groove. Without work, I was free to do what I wanted. I found solace in running, playing and writing music, and editing my poetry. With the pandemic calming somewhat, I was finally able to set the ball rolling on hormones. And I got a new therapist who was, at the very least, another person I could bounce my feelings off of. I was still isolated and disengaged, but I had established a comfortable rhythm.
But in early June that all was disrupted (this is becoming a theme, yes?). I started to have difficulty digesting what I ate. At first I thought, Eh, I just ate bad fish or something, and then, Hm… Do I have salmonella? and then, I don’t know what I have but it is bad. By Independence Day, I was unable to keep anything nutritious in my body. I lost 10 pounds in a month (which is a lot for anyone to lose, but especially not good for normally 120-pound me). There were nights when I’d be greeted at 3:00 AM by intense nausea and dehydration. There were days when I had to lie in bed, not because of my growing exhaustion, but because any sudden movement I made would send me stumbling to the bathroom. And there were moments when I just broke down crying. It wasn’t the pain of being sick; it was the pain of not knowing what was happening to me, of feeling completely and totally out of control. I felt like my body was a blank gray wall, and no matter how loud I screamed, how many times I pleaded for answers, it just stood, disintegrating, silent.
Though I obviously needed a doctor, it took an extreme experience to get me to see one—because of the pandemic, and because I can be needlessly stoic. But after a rough morning when I ran a low fever, I got through to an on-call doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist an hour away. He took about five minutes to listen to my symptoms and suggested I have a colonoscopy, and quick.
So I did. It was honestly not that bad; I counted back from 10 and woke up rather loopy an hour later. (And I got those hospital socks with the grip on the bottom, so that was a plus.) The doctor told me I had a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and prescribed steroids (temporarily) and an anti-inflammatory (permanently). Although it wasn’t a rosy outcome, I was glad to know I wasn’t wasting away for no reason. I was also glad to know I’d get better. At home, I’d already been mentally removed, and being sick took my physical security away as well. I was looking forward to being someone with a functioning mind and body again.
So there I was in late July, four months into my forced experiment in social isolation. I’d just been prescribed a whole bunch of stomach medicine, as well as—finally—estrogen. And the day after I began taking all this in, after I began the process of healing in all the myriad ways I needed to heal, I left my Connecticut hideout for six days, to visit my aunt and uncle. When I got to Maine, I felt like I could breathe normally again. It was certainly a result of everything changing at once for me, but I didn’t realize that. It felt metaphysical. Like I’d stepped over from dusk to dawn.
Through all I’d experienced that spring and summer, I’d been working on a long poem about my first experience realizing I was trans in a Montreal planetarium. Along with Have One On Me, it kept me going. It was one of the first poems I didn’t just pour out all at once; it was a stanza-by-stanza, section-by-section sort of deal. I would spend most of my afternoons, and sometimes the late hours of the night, writing and rewriting, destroying the paper with eraser marks. I did this even when I was at my sickest—I suppose it felt like the only way I could do something productive, despite the fact that few people were likely to see the poem, whenever I ended up finishing it.
When I went to Maine, I was ever so close to finishing the poem, but the first four nights I was there, despite my newfound calm, I could not think of the right way to end it. I don’t know if it was classic writer’s block or if I just wasn’t spending my artistic energy in the right way, but I was stuck.
Then, pretty late into the night before I was set to leave, I was walking out in the semi-cleared woods next to my aunt and uncle’s. Looking up at the sky, I could see the stars clearly. In the opening of the poem, I’d invoked Polaris and Ursa Major, and now they were right in front of me: “asterisms in the stars’ set order,” as Joanna Newsom would say. I had my ending.
I sat in the grass, ignoring a thin layer of mist, and took out my phone and wrote. It was a bookend that also pointed forward, like an arrow sent through a board. I wrote feverishly, and though it ended up only being a few lines, I was satisfied. I got up and started heading back to the house.
The poem closes with the line, “Dear god of the big mistake, / Here deserving of a small thanks.” Essentially, it’s a recognition of having come out of things ok, of having been lucky enough to come out at all. I wrote it with my transness in mind, but I think it came to represent all I’d been through that year: the hundreds of times I’d called doctor’s offices, the sickness, the stress, the isolation. But I’d gotten through that. And I was going to keep getting through it.
As I was walking back, the fog from the lake beside me seemed to rise, but I could still see the stars looking down as I was looking up. With each step, I hit the ground, which was only getting wetter, with a squelch. And somehow, despite all known logic and physics, the wilderness picked up on that sound, reflecting myself back at me across the water.
am listening to “tintin in tibet.” it’s autumn, and cooler than it was, and phil elverum says, “you don’t exist / i sing to you, though.”
he’s singing this to his wife, geneviève, who passed a few years ago, just after their daughter was born.
phil’s songs are great missives often written to his wife, or to the ether, or helios, or raven’s feathers; he’ll skirt around the point, but never quite arrive at it, such that his ideas leak in a sort of scattered melancholy.
… it’s autumn. in the song, too, i think.
now only, you
are probably not thinking of me and certainly not singing to me, or to anyone else. maybe to yourself.
the air is drier, and i keep sneezing into my mask. can i write that so nonchalantly?
this is a moment i think we’ll remember, which is a small devastation like when i touch the place where you kissed my neck, not intending to cry, or when i realize i’ll never quite discern between certain blues. “tintin in tibet” plays on loop,
and now i’m aware it isn’t autumn after all.
now only, we
should have known; the lawns are free of leaves, and the date is apparent to anyone with a fair grasp of things. i sit on my stoop and share a look
with a black bird in our maple tree. phil sings, “standing in the front yard like an open wound / repeating ‘i love you,’ to who?”
and i get the sudden sense that he’s somehow read my psyche, or at least my poems, and then i feel stupid for associating my loss with his.
and then i just feel sorrow.
behind me, the sun sets in blankets of glare, falling from a distant windowpane. i don’t notice the sky change color; blue, to blue, to blue. can you live in the moment when the moment is just begging
to be passed through? like this weather, like each small devastation breaking across my neck; like each aching moment of “tintin in tibet,” and yet i listen.
Notes on friendship and malaise during a unique spring and summer in Oberlin.
As the weeks go on, it becomes clearer that we won’t be going to the beach. This means campus shuts down and empties out in a matter of hours. This means the snow keeps falling. This means the flowers keep blooming and then curling back into themselves when the flakes cover the petals. We close the tabs on our computers where swimsuits have waited a month for us to purchase them. On the warmest days, we drag chairs into the yard and peer over tiny sunglasses at novels. It’s too easy to share a beer at 2:00 PM. It’s too easy to forget the sunscreen. With our eyes closed, the cars that pass by sound like waves.
We all become masters of the way several hours can pass like a shadow. We wave to the couple across the street who smoke and play cards from two to six every afternoon. We set up movies on the projector before lunch. I wake up most mornings feeling newly acquainted with the word ‘malaise.’ I call my mother and gain no comfort; she’s not feeling any sort of malaise. She is weirdly cheerful, resilient, hardworking. She likes her home office, feels as though she may even be more productive there. She’s finding time away from the workplace to be restorative. When I call her on my walks, she barely has time for me. She is taking two classes online and working on top of it. I have never felt more disconnected from her.
I struggle to get myself out of bed; I haven’t done homework in a week. I stopped taking notes the week after classes started back up. All I bring myself to do is find new paths in the Arb. All I can bring myself to do is pick up the guitar. And then, not even that.
Our friends who lived in a college-owned house across the street from us left in a hurry, not locking the doors behind them. Yesterday, we went in, just to do something new. The first floor smelled like rot. When we got to the kitchen, we found fruit on the counters with brown spots and fruit flies, expired dairy products in the fridge, takeout containers on the table. I wandered into the first-floor bedroom while everyone else went upstairs. A couple of years ago, I was seeing a girl who lived in this same house and I spent the night in that room. I marveled at the lines the sun cast on the bare mattress.
One time, she and I went to the bar downtown and then walked back to her house, where I took my contacts out in the dark and fell asleep, earlier than either of us would have liked. Her room’s windows looked out onto the porch and each one was wide open when I awoke. I turned over and the bed was empty, but there were voices drifting in from outside. It was seven or so people, all of her closest friends, sitting there. I suddenly felt like an intruder, like I was taking away from her time with her friends; I had accidentally stumbled into something intimate and private. I dressed, then slipped out the back door. I texted her saying, “Hey, just slipped out,” and she responded, “Come eat ice cream on the porch,” which I pretended not to see until the morning.
Last night at dinner, I forgot about the rising body count. Lee and Sophie spent four days preparing for Passover: marinating, mincing, putting together. I came downstairs on Tuesday and Sophie was in the kitchen, crying while making homemade chrain. Laughing, I took her face in between my hands, wiping away her tears.
Today, we opened up all the doors and windows, we wore freshly ironed clothes, we all put on shoes. We set the tables with bunches of flowers, moved chairs around, put wine glasses at every spot. When we held hands and prayed, there was nothing else. Sophie went to the post office and paid 10 dollars to print the Haggadah. It sat in a huge and heavy stack on the table. We kept passing it around, taking turns reading. We kept wondering if we would do this again, in a year. We kept thinking about where we were last year. Time stops and then picks up again, I guess. Maya and Grace got drunk off of four glasses of red wine. Everyone else joined them by glass six. Today, I’ve felt so gentle and smooth, I’m going to cut off all my hair and move without the weight of it.
I wander downstairs sometime before noon. I watch one movie, and then another. I read A Little Life from cover to cover in a day. I stare up at the ceiling and forget why I came to the kitchen.
I never knew I liked plans so much until I couldn’t make them. I’m obsessed with the spring break trip we didn’t take and I try to connect our daily life to things we could have done there. Grace comes in from a run, wet from sweat and snow, and I tell her she looks like she just stepped out of the ocean. Jae and I make plans for dinner and I suggest fish each time. When we bike past standing water that smells like trash, I always say it smells like the beach. I wonder if I’m doing this right. I wonder if I should be filling my days in other ways. I walk for two hours and then realize it will take two more to get home. Sometimes the clouds get so low that I stop making plans.
I just got into a fight with Maya about a squirrel she saw killed by a car while on a run. She saw the car coming towards the squirrel, and then she saw the car leaving the squirrel, and when she went over, the squirrel was dead. She poked it with a stick to confirm. She finished the run and came home and wanted to go back to where the squirrel died, and because I hadn’t seen her all day I joined her. I biked back with her. She wanted to take a picture of the squirrel to put online. I thought that was a mockery of death. She told me if I wanted to leave it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I left, convinced I was right. Now, I’m sitting alone upstairs. I know she’s back. I think she should apologize to me, to the squirrel. I know she’s feeling genuine grief. There’s so much curiosity about death. There’s so much grief we’re all holding. There’re all these headlines and all these burdens. I keep waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming that I’m sitting in front of my parents’ caskets. I forgot to mention that she kept poking the squirrel with a stick, reanimating its little limbs.
Of all the bedrooms I’ve ever lived in, I like this one the best. It’s got south- and west-facing windows, hardwood floors, light green-painted walls. I have my clothes very neatly organized in a closet that doesn’t have a door. I hung just a few pictures around the room, and the light is always perfect. There’s a queen-sized bed and a balcony. It’s very hard to leave, but when I do there’s always pizza in the oven downstairs or someone’s just finished a pie. Or Grace is studying for a test on the couch, and Maya and Jae are working on a puzzle.
They keep surprising me, the people I thought I knew best. Mila takes walks and is gone for hours, comes back quiet and full of secrets. Maya scrubs the floor with such beautiful vigor. The dirt comes back within a few hours and then she’s at it again. Sophie watches RuPaul and is working on her fifth knit hat. Last week she made a full set of pottery bowls and mugs. Jae rises before us and is the most ready for adventure at the drop of a hat. Last week Jae cut my hair even though they had an essay due in an hour. Lee has to get into a body of water on a warm sunny day, no matter how cold the water may be, no matter how murky it may look. Grace dances in the Arb, in the front yard, by herself, with new people, with an old friend; she gets filled up on dancing and sometimes it’s enough for the day.
And then there’re all the discoveries. For example, that the bike path doesn’t end in the middle of a field. Instead, if you turn left and enter Wakeman, you can bike alongside a highway for three more miles and then suddenly you’re at a square lake with geese. Or how two miles past Black River Metro Park, there’s a swampy bed for the trees and a white carpet of tiny wildflowers. There’s a trail that wanders through and the light is yellow-green. Everything is very quiet.
I keep thinking about split universes, and it seems all too plausible to me; I spend hours researching the whole Berenstain Bears thing, the Mandela effect. We sit on the couch in the seven-person home and suddenly notice that there are punched holes in Jae’s painting on the wall. We all pause, sure that these were new additions. When Jae comes in and we ask them, they laugh, “Yeah, the holes have always been there.” But there’s something about the camaraderie of enough people remembering the past differently. There are so many of us who remember “Berenstein.” There are people who remember Nelson Mandela dying in the ’80s. We all remember the painting without the holes. There’re all those mathematical proofs. That’s what I’m saying about split universes. I can’t look at the spelling Berenstain.
Yesterday I cut off my hair to try to shear off all this dread. I’m practicing walking around the world without the weight of it. I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right. I trip my tongue over the words ‘boy’ and ‘dyke.’ I flip between thinking my hair is too long or too short. My best friend cut bangs into my hair in mid-March, right after we got the news, and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to decide if bangs made me look too femme. Then Jae cut into my hair more a week ago. I had them leave it long in the front, like I still have bangs, but it’s shorter on the sides and in the back. I look like a 10-year-old boy who needs a haircut. My curls fall into my eyes, so I have to push them back constantly. When I wake up, no hair falls on my forehead; instead, I walk to a mirror and I look like Cosmo Kramer, with 2.5 inches of hair standing straight up.
I like it all the same; my showers barely happen. My body easily hides in baggy clothes. And I like getting all the way out to the middle of nowhere and not worrying about cars slowing down beside me. Last summer, my ponytail was so long and so high and so curly, it looked like an invitation. Every run, every bike ride, I practiced staring straight ahead. One time, a man in a Hyundai tried to run me off the road, came straight at me with a car until I jumped into a ditch. He yelled out, “Fuck you, bitch,” and kept driving. I put up my middle finger before I realized he had already turned the corner.
Still, I’m not convinced by the haircut. I like the way I look, but I’m not sure if I look like me. At least, I look nothing like what my high school self dreamed I would look like at 21.
In high school, I wore skinny jeans and barely ate. I had this haircut that came just barely past my chin. I was really smart, and really motivated. I tried to fuck one of my closest male friends. At age 21 I wanted to look: sexy, confident, thin, with beautiful curls. I wanted: a fat ass, long hair that looked like an invitation in the sunlight, a perfect score on the LSAT. I wanted to be: desired, makeup free, relaxed, funny. In reality, I am: most of those things, but a lesbian. I use the term lesbian lightly.
When I came down the stairs this morning, Maya ruffled my hair and I leaned into it. I think that there is a chance that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. On days when the sun is out like this and I move inside whenever it goes behind a cloud, when we move around an empty campus in a pack, when we strip naked on North Fields as the sun is going down. I mean, to live with my best friends in a world where they are the only things, I mean, to be able to make dinner and rules together every night, I mean, to climb into a bed with sun-dried sheets. I like moving from room to room, I like walking to kill hour after hour. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s like a vacation.
Still, I keep looking up the definition for malaise. As in “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” as in “unhappiness,” “uneasiness,” “restlessness,” “melancholy.” I look up what causes malaise. I look up how to cure malaise. I look up what causes malaise again. I can’t decide who decides what makes it malaise and not boredom, unhappiness, homesickness. This is my only symptom.
But here’s what I’m trying to say. When I was 10, we lived in Japan. My mother had this plan for us to see the five main islands. In Hokkaido, we went to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was completely deserted. There were lush mountains on either side. We had to hitchhike to get there. We had to hitchhike home. Once we were there, we barely spoke. It was like being in a trance. The water was clear. The waves were calm. We are from Arkansas; my brothers and I had only seen the ocean a couple of times before this. No one put on sunscreen.
We all swam out too far. It was only once the shore was several strokes out that we realized: the jellyfish. Jacob screamed when he felt the tentacles wrap around his ankle. Carlin and I weren’t as far out as him, and swam closer to help, not realizing what was happening. My mother was floating serenely on her back. When the stinging began, I was surrounded only by the people I love most in the world, many long strokes from shore. Fear alongside comfort.
When we began planning this issue in June, we faced far more unknowns than knowns. Oberlin had yet to announce its three-semester schedule for the academic year, and staff turnover left us with a Wilder Voice crew of just three, to say nothing of the broader world-historic events occuring around us. We knew that our work would continue, but the form that that traditionally print-forward work would take was far from assured.
We decided to embrace these disruptions by looking backwards to Wilder Voice’s institutional past as we imagined how the magazine would operate differently this year. We set to work on a brand-new website to accommodate Oberlin’s mandated shift to online publication, and we began to reach out to former Wilder Voice editors to get a sense of what the magazine has meant to Oberlin’s community of writers and readers throughout its history. In September, we celebrated the launch of wildervoicemag.com. And with the new site, we began a new web-exclusive interview series, “Institutional Memory,” which explores the magazine’s past through conversations with former staff members.
We also modified our editorial process to give every piece we publish an even greater level of attention and care, and updated our style guide to make it more inclusive and up to date—adding in obligatory rules for pandemic-related terms like “Zooming,” for instance. This Editors’ Letter is itself a new addition to the magazine, a chance for us to tell you directly why we’re excited about this semester’s iteration of Wilder Voice.
All of these changes have been made so that we might better pursue Wilder Voice’s primary goal: providing Oberlin students with a space for true stories. And this issue marks some of the magazine’s most intimate pieces yet: Fiona Warnick dives deep into her personal relationship with shopping malls and the gender politics they imply (“Me, The Mall, And I”); Mary Brody discusses living in a house with three visual artists and speaks with her roommates about their work (“Visual Processes”); and Aniella Day shares a moving account of the death of her brother, who would have graduated from Oberlin this spring (“AIDEN”).
It feels trite, at this point, to invoke the coronavirus pandemic in a note of this kind, but it feels equally dishonest to ignore it. It’s simply a fact of Oberlin life, one we tacitly acknowledged every day this fall as we attended masked meetings in large rooms and did our level best to stay present and focused over Zoom calls. None of the works you’ll find in this issue take COVID-19 as their direct subject, but none of them elide it, either. They remind us that although the pandemic remains foundational to our daily lives, the way that it is experienced is far from monolithic.
Now, as always, stories are unfolding, and they deserve to be shared. As the coronavirus has narrowed public life considerably, those stories have only become more personal. To say that they are stronger for it would be to impose a specious silver lining on a global tragedy which has, at press time, killed over 1.5 million people—many of them already marginalized. But, in the midst of the bizarre social circumstance we are enduring, telling stories remains as meaningful as ever.
So welcome to the 30th issue of Wilder Voice. We hope that the time you spend here will be as rewarding for you as it has been for us.
—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice
Rosalinabeth and I were at Victoria’s Secret, checking out. When it was my turn to approach the register, I held my breath. I had brought my own bag, and did not need the violently pink striped one they would try to foist upon me—but when was the right time to voice this? Too early was awkward, but so was too late. I had to say it before the cashier had already reached for the bag, or I would lose my nerve entirely. It would become too easy to surrender to the process—the pink tissue paper, the store-specific credit card.
I managed to refuse the bag, and stuffed my new bra into the already-full canvas tote I’d brought from home.
Rosalinabeth had three bags: her purse, the yellow one from Forever 21, and this latest one from Victoria’s Secret. (Rosalinabeth is not her real name; it’s what she always chose when we were six and playing fairy princesses.) “I love having multiple shopping bags,” she said suddenly, swinging them along beside her.
I knew exactly what she meant: it was like being on a movie poster. A woman shopping, on TV, always has too many shopping bags. (See: Cher in Clueless, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl.) She is always on a spree, never a purposeful trip to buy the pants she needs for her chorus concert.
As much as I loved these shows, the Woman Shopping was not a character I wanted to emulate. To care about shoes, in the movies, meant not caring about important things like grades and morals, and also not being taken seriously by the surrounding male characters. So I tried not to enjoy shopping.
Sometimes, though, I would catch sight of myself in a store window: skinny jeans, new boots, purposeful stride. And that reflection—too brief and shadowy to show any flaws—made me happy, no matter how many times I had been told beauty didn’t matter.
“Let’s go to Starbucks,” I said to Rosalinabeth. Damn the sea turtles, I wanted to drink something through a plastic straw.
The mall has always made me feel this way: full of joy, and ashamed of it. Growing up, I felt that feminism had done a lot for the girls of my generation (or, at least, the upper-middle-class white girls of my generation). No one had a problem with us being good at math or baseball. My classmates and teachers took my opinions seriously. Yet I was afraid. I felt that if anyone should discover the joy a lacy bra inspired in me, or the hours I could spend in front of a dressing-room mirror, everything would fall apart.
I didn’t have any clear evidence to support this fear. The threat of being exposed as a Girl Who Likes Shopping was amorphous, collected from the edges of everyday life. I extrapolated from, for instance, the way my father described my third grade teacher: “She’s great, the kids love her, but she always wears this bright blue eyeshadow.” He said it as if the makeup were a point against her. I hadn’t noticed that my teacher wore eye shadow until then. It was just part of her face.
When I went to Rosalinabeth’s house in early elementary school, we would sometimes paint our nails. She had so many colors, and also the sparkly stuff you could layer on top of other colors to feel extra fancy.
But I had another friend—we’ll call her Jo. Jo never wore dresses and never wore shoes and never brushed her hair. She climbed trees and hunted frogs and was generally the coolest person I had ever met. If I was going to her house, I made sure to take off my nail polish first.
Cool girls did not like girly things. Nail polish was not compatible with the Powerful Female Character archetype.
I knew our society’s beauty standards are unrealistic, manufactured by corporations to keep women oppressed and spending money. My inner desire to be thin and blond—to fit that image of the woman laden with shopping bags—became a symptom of poor moral fortitude. The advertisers had gotten to me.
In my seventh-grade French class, we learned the verb ‘aimer’: to like. The teacher gave us a list of activities, and we had to write sentences explaining if we liked them or not.
I wrote: “J’aime lire. J’aime nager. J’aime faire du vélo.” I like reading. I like shopping. I like bicycling.
I wrote: “Je n’aime pas aller au centre commercial.” I do not like going to the mall.
Shopping didn’t always exist as a recreational activity. For most of European history, only the aristocracy had more than one or two sets of clothing. Everything had to be done by hand, so a new dress was both extremely time consuming and extremely expensive. In this era, cities were masculine spaces, meant for politics and business. Respectable women stayed at home. The only women on the streets were prostitutes, objects for male consumption.
Then came the industrial revolution. The middle class expanded, goods were produced at lower costs, and shopping became a viable activity for a much larger portion of the population. Suddenly, women had a reason to roam the city.
In London, they installed raised sidewalks and street- lamps. The sidewalks were meant to keep women’s shoes and long skirts out of the mud, and the streetlamps allowed them to keep shopping even as the sun set. The goal was to keep women in the stores as long as possible, so they would spend the maximum amount of money. It was manipulative capitalism, yet it was also the first instance of women’s needs and desires having an impact on the architecture of the city.
Department stores went even further, offering safety, tearooms, and public lavatories to the female shopper. Advertisers had to address women specifically, and though their tactics were certainly rooted in deeply sexist assumptions, it was still one of the first times that men had to think deeply about what women might want.
This, perhaps, is what I did not understand growing up: a woman shopping is a woman with purchasing power, and a woman with any sort of power is basically an existential threat to the patriarchy—ergo, why society must ridicule her.
The advent of shopping-as-recreation meant that women could make decisions about fashion and decor, but only if everyone understood that these decisions were not important. And if a woman came to care deeply about these choices—the only ones she was allowed to make for herself—she could easily be laughed off as frivolous.
The mall did for Rosalinabeth and me what the department store did for 19th-century women. It was the first place our parents said, “Here is some money, be free, meet us back at Macy’s at two o’clock.” The posters in the store windows may have given us unrealistic beauty standards, but they were aimed at us—teenage girls—specifically.
We went to the mall to find out what we liked. To say, “Oh my God that bikini is so ugly,” which really meant, “I am becoming a person who is confident in their own tastes and opinions.” We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us. At the mall, we could be the experts.
This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it.
This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it.
Malls are dying. Online shopping is pushing them ever closer to obsolescence. Throughout high school, Rosalinabeth and I watched the stores trickle out. We said goodbye to the Aeropostale; we said goodbye to the Wet Seal; we watched the Forever 21 move from a nine-room maze with two escalators and its own entrance to a small retail space next to Target.
Recently, I heard a journalist on TV say the pandemic is accelerating the demise of the American shopping mall, and I can’t say I’m mad about it. We could do with fewer sprawling parking lots, fewer plastic bags, and fewer stick-thin mannequins.
A shopping mall, to me, feels morally similar to a zoo. The animals are given food, safety, and expert veterinary care. They are celebrated—but they are also caged. And at the end of the day, the people who erected those cages are trying to make money.
Right now, I am stuck at home. I have not been to a mall in over a year. My pants are all too big for me (I’ve lost weight in quarantine—part of me is happy about this, part of me is ashamed of that happiness, rooted as it is in unrealistic beauty standards) but I haven’t bought new ones because fitting rooms are closed.
Everyone is talking about the first thing they’ll do when this is all over. They’ll hug their grandparents. They’ll go to the movies. They’ll get absurdly drunk with all their friends.
I might go to the mall, if it is still around. I will buy a strangely fruity iced tea from Starbucks, and be frustrated when the cardboard straw gets too soggy to help scoop up the ice cubes from the bottom. I will try on some pants. I will ride anescalator. I will feel, somehow, like myself.
In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.
It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:
“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”
Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?
Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.
“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.
For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”
Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.
Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”
While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.
Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.
Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.
Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.
Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.
But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”
In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.
In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.
Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.
The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.
Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.
Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”
Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”
Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.