Lovecraft Country Adapted by Marsha Green from a novel by Matt Ruff
HBO, 2020, 10 episodes
Reviewed by Kovie Biakolo
After all the real-life surrealism the world has faced this year, 2020 desperately needed some magic. Magic is what the HBO series Lovecraft Country certainly attempts, and with it, a multitude of myths, history lessons, poetry, and puzzles, making for an engrossing if perplexing viewing experience. Set in the 1950s, the show begins with the protagonist Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a Black American Korean War veteran traveling from Florida to his hometown, Chicago, in search of his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), after receiving a strange letter. Accompanying him on this perilous journey are his uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), and a childhood friend later turned romantic beloved, Leti (Jurnee Smollett).
The trio soon discover they have more to be afraid of than the potent racial terrors they come across as they travel the segregated country through “sundown towns”—white municipalities in which Black people’s presence can result in death, the danger exponentially increasing in some places, after the sun sets. Although it’s clear that the backdrop of racism is in itself a kind of monster, there are literal monsters too, including petrifying, flesh-eating creatures, not to mention peculiar white people who let the Black travelers indulge in some reprieve at a strange manor, Ardham Lodge, where even stranger occurrences and rituals take place. Soon, the viewer learns that Tic is the last living direct descendant of Ardham Lodge’s founder, Titus Braithwaite, who also established the secret society (or cult), Sons of Adam. The superficial mission of the group is immortality via the biblical garden of Eden, though the deeper purpose is, predictably, power—and Tic is at the center of how to attain it.
If this brief synopsis brings confusion, you’re not alone. Lovecraft, a horror drama that employs the idiosyncrasies of dark fantasy and science fiction, is hardly a straightforward watch. The series, which was developed and written by Marsha Green (Underground), is partially the revision, disruption, and subversion of its titular author, H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), whose style and work instituted an eponymous genre in his posthumous celebrity: Lovecraftian horror. As a writer, Lovecraft was as brilliant as he was unapologetically racist and xenophobic, even by the standards of his day. Green’s effort is therefore undoubtedly a feat of reinterpretation, even where it falters and befuddles. Perhaps the most apt description of the show comes from New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, who tweeted, “It’s like reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time: it’s so beautifully rendered but nearly impossible to follow."
Lovecraft does indeed borrow from Morrison’s work, though it makes use of Paradise rather than Beloved. Richly allusive, the show deploys the prose and profundity of other great American writers and artists of the twentieth century, including Octavia Butler’s gripping Bloodchild and Other Stories, James Baldwin’s unforgettable 1965 “The American Dream and the American Negro” speech, and Gil Scott-Heron’s momentous spoken word poem “Whitey on the Moon.” Above all, the show is Green’s rendition of author Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same title, which juxtaposes the Jim Crow-era United States against the cosmic horror genre and its originator, H.P. Lovecraft.
If Lovecraft's intention was for its supporting characters to be contingent on Tic's narrative—which is doubtful, given how the stories of its many characters are told—it hasn’t exactly failed but didn’t entirely succeeded either. While Majors is exceptional in his portrayal as Atticus, so much of the character as written has yet to create an urgent interest in the viewer. In contrast to this lack of clarity or deficiency of excitement plaguing its protagonist, Lovecraft’s depiction of women is complicated, curious, and compelling. Leticia “Leti” Lewis could have been portrayed as a mere sidekick to Tic, a friend who becomes a romantic partner in the quest to uncover the truths about the Sons of Adam. Yet Green’s construction of Leti and Smollett’s portrayal of her—as brave and beautiful, quick-witted and quick-on-her-feet—do not allow for the character to be lost in the details of the lead. It is often Leti’s actions that are critical to the show’s intensity, whether she is escaping their first encounter with monsters, purchasing a house for Black people in a white neighborhood, or steering Tic’s focus and temperament in their explorations.
We know little about Leti’s background other than that she has a somewhat uneasy relationship with her half-sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). Their mother is dead, though her presence is tangible in the sisters’ dialogue. It’s a subtle but noteworthy fact of Lovecraft that even when the women play minor roles or are unseen, their stories are present—a much welcome nuance on television. And Ruby’s character is even more captivating than Leti’s, perhaps accidentally so—Mosaku’s scene-stealing ability draws the viewer’s enthusiasm for the character. When we first meet her, she is emblematic of the burden of being an older sibling to a wild-child younger sister. What is unsaid is the repercussion of colorism that exists in the space between the two women, accentuating that dark-skinned Ruby needs to be more respectable than her light-skinned sister. But Ruby is transformed when she meets William (Jordan Patrick Smith), a white man with whom she has sex. Lovecraft ensures the viewer understands this kind of racial proximity as familiar: white men seeking Black women for sex in the shadows. Except William offers Ruby more than a clandestine sexual entanglement. Instead, by the power of magic, he gives her something more: access to the freedom and power of white womanhood.
Even with all the limitations that exist at the intersection of whiteness and womanhood, Ruby utilizes the power William gifts her primarily for material gain and obtains a high-end retail job she has had an eye on. For the first time, she experiences safety and a freedom from fear—freedom from Blackness under the white American gaze. It’s an uncomfortable, perhaps even an erroneous narrative that suggests Black people, especially Black women, would trade their skin for one that is higher on the racial hierarchy, given all the pitfalls of misogynoir. Indeed, Ruby concludes that her experience of white womanhood, despite what it affords her, is hollow; she wants some of its allowances but doesn’t actually desire it. She and William continue their sexual relationship and what appears to be a conflicting yet budding friendship, even after Ruby discovers that William is really a magical personification of Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee Kershaw); Titus Braithwaite is also her ancestor, and Tic, her distant cousin.
The sexual relationship between Christina/William and Ruby is worth careful contemplation, markedly in one scene, where, after Emmett Till’s funeral, Ruby begins having sex with Christina-as-William in her transfigured white body, only to turn back into herself in the climax of the act. It is, without a doubt, one of the most grotesque, fascinating sex scenes on television: Ruby’s return to her own body is always accompanied by the blood and disfigured skin and bone of the white woman she transforms into. The pair’s sexuality within the confines of their respective transformation inadvertently allows the viewer to imagine sex as an act beyond the boundaries of gender and even personhood.
Outside of the double performance as William, Christina is an enigma whose intentions are questionable from the start and become more surreptitious as the show proceeds. Smart and shrewd, she is determined in her quest to enter the garden of Eden and subsequently acquire immortality, and she uses her power over Tic to do it. But in most ways, Christina remains a mystery. At times, her character seems more ornamental than functional, her dialogue often reduced to obscure, mundane haikus. On the other hand, Kershaw’s Ruby retains an air of intrigue but renders understanding of both her privileges and constraints as a white woman—a self-awareness that bring more relief than enticement.
Aside from Leti, Ruby, and Christina, the show offers a number of delightful—and literally magical—minor characters. Tic’s aunt, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), who we meet as a curious but reserved woman in service to her husband, gets the opportunity to transcend space and time in a multiverse. Then, there is Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), whose character might be deserving of a thesis study entirely. Ji-Ah, who was Tic’s beloved when he was serving in Korea, is possessed by a kumiho, a nine-tail fox spirit, a result of a shaman’s intervention in her childhood sexual abuse. The spirit is able to kill Ji-Ah’s sexual partners and access their memories. While introducing Korean folklore in a seamless way, Lovecraft both reproduces a trope of women as potentially dangerous, sexual mythical entities, and constructs an intricate figure who oscillates between gentle and deadly, human and mystical, making for a powerful display of duality in the character.
Unlike these women whose representations are wonderfully dynamic, if not without flaws, there are two outstanding characters whose depictions floundered in imagination and effect. Tic’s dad, Montrose, is caught in a multigenerational cycle of abuse (having inflicted it on Tic as a child), and he is also gay. But in the intimate, sexual affections between him and his secret lover, Sammy (Jon Hudson Odum), their relationship is illustrated with shame as the central tenet. One could contend that this would have been a “realistic” portrayal of a romantic or sexual relationship between two men in the 1950s or even now. But a series that can conceptualize monsters and mythical creatures can surely harbor a loving relationship between the two men, devoid of shame, at least when they are present with each other. Additionally, the abrupt appearance and casually violent departure of Yahima, an Arawak Two-Spirit character, gave me pause. Arguably, brutality is part and parcel of Lovecraft, but recreating it against a gender variant person replicates that harm against those who exist outside of the gender binary and produces no consequential critique.
In the final analysis, however, Lovecraft is a tremendous effort as an acutely complicated TV series. It doesn’t always succeed in fully exploring the immense depths of the characters, revisionist history, or the magical world it has created. But any sincere appraisal of the show will necessarily find its flaws as arresting as its pleasures. And where the women characters are concerned, Lovecraft bewitches.
Kovie Biakolo is a writer, editor, and multiculturalism scholar specializing in culture and identity. Her master’s thesis (DePaul University, 2015) conducted a sociolinguistic analysis of how popular digital media sites discuss race. Her critical analysis and reporting on race, nationality, and pop culture have been featured in The Atlantic, Essence Magazine, and Slate, among many other venues. Originally from Nigeria, by way of many places, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Rosa Luxemburg By Dana Mills
Reviewed by Charis Caputo
When Rosa Luxemburg was thirteen, she wrote a poem to mark the visit of German Emperor William I to her hometown of Warsaw. The year was 1884, and William, under the direction of his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, had overseen the unification of the German state, the institution of the Anti-Socialist laws, and, most recently, the emergence of Germany as a major imperialist player in the so-called Scramble for Africa. In her poem, the budding radical Rosa confronts the emperor: “Just one thing I want to say to you, dear William. / Tell your wily fox Bismarck / ... not to disgrace the pants of peace.” Ever irreverent toward authority and convention, young Rosa was already beginning to articulate the ideals that would define her career as one of the greatest and most controversial socialists of her time: anti-imperialism, anti-nationalism, and a fearless resolve to enact justice. Twenty years later, Luxemburg was imprisoned for insulting a different German Emperor (William’s grandson Wilhelm II) and “inciting the masses” while agitating in favor of a general strike. This was only one of several times she was imprisoned during a life lived in the thick of radical European politics and cut short at the age of forty-seven, when, in the tumultuous Berlin of 1919, Luxemburg was kidnapped, shot, and dumped into a canal by members of a proto-fascist militia.
This remarkable life is the subject of Dana Mills’s new biography, a study of Luxemburg’s personal, political, and academic writings, published as part of Reaktion Book’s Critical Lives series. Mills, an activist, theorist, and member of the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg editorial board, tells a brisk and more or less chronological story of her subject’s life and works, placing particular emphasis on the aspects of Luxemburg’s theory and praxis which made her a highly divisive figure even among her socialist contemporaries: her strident internationalism and anti-militarism, her refusal to compartmentalize various forms of oppression, and her striking combination of brazenness and empathy. Concise analyses of Luxemburg’s major works are placed in historical and biographical context, and intimate details about her rich, contradictory, and sometimes volatile personal life are occasionally extracted from extensive correspondence to give us a fuller picture of this iconoclastic soul.
Born in 1871, Luxemburg began life as a Jewish-Polish citizen of the Russian Empire: a "threefold nationality," as she would later write. Although her family was middle-class, assimilated, and steeped in Continental culture, school-aged Rosa experienced persecution as both a Jew and an imperial subject during a time of generally escalating tensions between Jews, Poles, and Russians. She was also disabled by a childhood disease of the hip that left her with a lifelong limp. This physically small, disabled, marginalized young woman was nonetheless bold and energetic. At fifteen, she joined the Polish Proletariat Party, just after the high-profile execution of some of the party’s leaders, and two years later, escaping arrest, was smuggled in a peasant’s cart across the border to Switzerland. There she continued her activism and studied law at the University of Zurich. After receiving her doctorate in 1897, she emigrated to Berlin, then the epicenter of European socialism. Through her writing and agitation, Luxemburg rapidly established herself as a brilliant, charismatic, and divisive figure within the Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany (SPD) and the Second International.
Mills argues that Luxemburg’s cosmopolitanism and the many lenses through which she personally saw and experienced oppression—ethnicity, disability, gender, imperial subjugation—guided her toward a sort of unified theory of liberation. Her writing relies heavily on the concept of “the masses,” a more flexible term than “proletariat.” As an unwavering internationalist, one of her most controversial tenets—and one that contradicted Marx himself, as well as setting her at odds with radicals and liberals alike—was her staunch opposition to nationalist revolution and national self-determination, even in her native Poland: for Luxemburg, all forms of nationalism were bourgeois constructs, and she argued that the overthrow of capitalism, an international system, could only occur at the international level. She was similarly opposed to “bourgeois feminism.” Like her socialist-feminist friends and comrades, including Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx, Luxemburg “could never separate the woman question from the class question,” advocating women’s suffrage as part of universal suffrage: a necessary step toward empowerment of the working class. As well, she was an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, as exemplified by her public critique of the Dreyfus Affair, but she opposed Jewish nationalism and viewed the persecution of Jews as part of a larger system of oppression. As she wrote in a letter toward the end of her life: “I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch ... I have no special place in my heart for the [Jewish] ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
Although Mills critiques the way that Luxemburg’s zealous anti-nationalism undermined her stated anti-imperialism, she also praises Luxemburg as a pioneer of what we might today call “intersectionality.”
In Mills’s account, Luxemburg was a proto-environmentalist. Her personal writings from prison include meditations on wasps and trees, a lament for the abused buffalo forced to carry heaps of bloody soldiers’ clothing into the prison to be washed by inmates, an injured pigeon she bathed and cared for in her cell. Some previous biographies have attended to these more “sentimental” aspects of Luxemburg, and Mills notes a kind of dichotomy in the literature: “For some, she was a romantic lover of nature; for others an unwaveringly ruthless revolutionary.” But for Mills, Luxemburg’s love of nature was not so much sentimental as an expression of her radical, universal empathy.
Elsewhere, Mills touches lightly but significantly on Luxemburg’s unconventional personal life, unafraid to confront the contradictions she finds there. Although she married a friend’s family member to receive German citizenship in 1897, she divorced shortly thereafter and was engaged throughout her life in romantic relationships with several male collaborators. Despite her radical values, she longed for an essentially bourgeois family with her first love, Leo Jogiches, who financially supported her for many years, although they never married. Her later lovers included Konstantin Zetkin, who was fourteen years her junior and the son of her close friend Clara Zetkin. Although Luxemburg never had the child she wanted, one of the book’s more dewy-eyed details is the motherly affection she had for Mimi, an injured stray cat she adopted and named after the protagonist of Puccini’s La Bohème. Relatedly, the anti-Eurocentric, anti-bourgeois Luxemburg’s fondness for opera, as well as for Shakespeare, Chopin, Goethe, and other indicators of her bourgeois Eurocentric taste exemplify the kind of contradiction and complexity Mills’s nonetheless admiring biography strives to evoke.
Luxemburg is already the subject of countless biographies and academic studies. She has been unfairly maligned as a violent Leninst, and, on the other hand, her work has been embraced by movements as diverse as liberal feminism, anti-Apartheid activism, Israeli communism, and Palestinian liberation. Since her own times she has been recognized as one of the critical leftist polemicists of that period in which communist revolution seemed eminently possible in much of Europe. From the publication of her first book, The Industrial Development of Poland (1898), she was recognized as a brilliant intellectual in the tradition of historical materialism, though unafraid to break with Marxist orthodoxy. She engaged critically with many of the questions that still engage the left today, including evolutionary versus revolutionary socialism, arguing that democratic legal reform is a means toward an end, the end being working class revolution. She was also a charismatic speaker and teacher, rousing crowds and students with her personal conviction, brash personality, and keen mind. A student of hers at Berlin’s Trade Union School recalled: “she tapped along the walls of our knowledge and thus enabled us to hear for ourselves where and how it sounded hollow.”
But Mills’s account emphasizes the ways in which, despite her influence and appeal, Luxemburg was increasingly ostracized by fellow leftists. Her uncompromising internationalism alienated even her fellow revolutionaries, as did her categorical anti-imperialism and vociferous critiques of racism. In The Accumulation of Capital (1913), she characterized imperialism as the inevitable result of capitalist expansion, critiquing imperial violence toward Native Americans and Black South Africans as examples of this expansion and its consequences. The contemporaneous response to this book was overwhelmingly negative: the right wing of the SPD supported colonial intervention, and even leftists found the critique of racism hard to swallow; Lenin—with whom Luxemburg had a long, sometimes close, often contentious relationship—called “the description of the tortures of Negroes ... noisy, colorful and meaningless. Above all it is ‘non-Marxist.’”
Sexism, of course, was also a factor in her reception. Although Luxemburg’s friendships with her female contemporaries appeared nearly unshakable, she was never accepted into the (male) inner-circle of the SPD. Her combative style aggravated misogyny. Although the SPD refused to make her an official delegate to the Second International, she showed up to her first conference with close-cropped hair and took the floor. Consequently, she suffered epithets such as “the syphilis of the Commintern” and “poisonous bitch.” She also suffered intimate abuse from her longtime partner and collaborator, Leo Jogiches, who stalked and threatened her for years after their romantic relationship fell apart. But her “insistence on ideological integrity,” writes Mills, “was part of her way to fight back against sexism.”
And that integrity, her refusal to compromise even as the SPD gained a majority in the Reichstag, and, leading up to World War I (a war which Luxemburg vehemently opposed), veered significantly to the right, resulted in her expulsion from the party and imprisonment for denouncing the German military. When she emerged from prison in November of 1918, she entered a changed world, a Germany in flux. She started a newspaper that rejected the postwar German government led by Friedrich Ebert, her former ally in the SPD. Fearing the revolutionary agitation of Luxemburg and her allies, Ebert ordered an extra-parliamentary right-wing militia to assassinate her in January 1919.
Luxemburg's was a life lived in the front seat of a volatile historical period, and it's impossible not to be compelled by it. Mills's account of this life is swift and in some ways untidy—the prose is nearly stream of consciousness at times, mingling personal tidbits and textual analysis almost at random. But as the book swept on, I was utterly transported by the drama and urgency of Luxemburg’s life, and the precarity of the world in which she lived and died.
In many ways, that world was not so different from our own, racked as we are by the abject disparities of capitalism, the ghosts of empire, the looming threat of fascist violence. A polemic, divisive, and contradictory figure, the Rosa Luxemburg with which Mills presents us is nonetheless ultimately a unifier, a whole and generous soul; her beliefs and pursuits cohered around a radical empathy and a willingness to give her life to the cause of universal justice. Regardless of how we feel about the specifics of her socialist politics, we can all take inspiration from her courage. The letter found in her handbag on the night of her assassination, addressed to lifelong friend Clara Zetkin, asserted: “One has to take history as it comes, whatever course it takes.”
Charis Caputo is editorial assistant for Women’s Review of Books and an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at NYU. She holds an MA in history from Loyola University Chicago.
The Freezer Door By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Reviewed by Kathleen Rooney
It’s easy to see the pandemic as a rupture with the past. In March of 2020 we entered a new epoch, and yet, in many ways, the imperatives of social distancing are continuous with what came before: a shrinking public sphere, diminished opportunities for meaningful social interaction. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door is an intimate exploration of desire and its impossibility, as well as a critique of the waning possibilities for communal engagement with desire in everyday experience. A longtime activist and critic of cultural conformity, Sycamore identified these problems, particularly as they relate to queer communities, long before COVID, but this new book enters a world in which they feel more poignant than ever. As Sycamore herself has joked in videos and interviews, “I wrote a book about alienation and then everything got worse.”
Sycamore is the author of three novels and a memoir, as well as the editor of five anthologies, including the collection Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform. Like her previous work, The Freezer Door challenges the culture of queer assimilationism and documents her own search for sexual and intellectual intimacy. This deceptively slim volume is a slow read in the best possible way. I wanted to underline practically every sentence, and Sycamore strews her poetic fluidity with an almost overwhelming abundance of aphoristic utterances. A sampling: “Every gay bar is an accidental comedy routine. The best comedy routine is the one that takes itself seriously”; “I don’t want to become the cops, I want to end policing in all its forms”; “A sexual revolution without a political revolution isn’t a revolution at all, it’s just consumer choice branded as liberation.”
As seems fitting for a work that aims to challenge the very idea of the mainstream, Sycamore’s lyrical writing flows like stormwater, expressing her concern that “queer spaces have become places where the illusion of critical thinking hides the policing of thought,” and clarifying her desires: “I don’t want any team to win, I want to end winning.” This is an anarchic and unruly, yet dreamy and languid, meditation in fragments, full of unexpected juxtapositions and white space, in the tradition of such works as The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Socialist Realism by Trisha Low. The leapfrogging sections blend concrete personal experience and abstract theory to explore AIDS, cruising, trauma, loneliness, and connection.
Gentrification—particularly the cultural whitewashing and social isolation it produces—is one of the major objects of Sycamore’s critical gaze. Seattle, where Sycamore currently resides, receives a much-deserved dose of her disappointment. “This city that is and isn’t a city,” she writes, “but I guess that’s what every city is becoming now, a destination to imagine what imagination might be like, except for the lack.” If the marginalized don’t get washed out, they are pressured to blend in, adopting the trappings of the dominant culture. “When anything becomes homogenous, there’s a problem,” she writes. “When anything becomes so homogenous that people don’t even think about it, that’s worse.”
Like a latter-day, radically queer Jane Jacobs, Sycamore offers a biting appraisal of cosmopolitan existence for the twenty-first century. “The dream of urban living has always meant a density of experience,” she writes, “that random moment on the street that changes you. But now, when people say increasing the density, they mean building more luxury housing for new arrivals who only want an urban lifestyle with a walled-off suburban mentality—keep away difference, avoid unplanned interaction, don’t talk to anyone on the street because this might be dangerous.” She shines her wit like a flashlight on all that darkens her bright vision of what urban life should and shouldn’t be. For example, Sycamore is doing stretches, leaning on the exterior of a random apartment building, when “some fag wearing a backwards floral baseball cap tries to give me the straight gay attitude” for trespassing. The building is pretentiously named Onyx, although, “there’s nothing onyx—the building is grey, tan, and beige—it’s like Florida meets the supermarket.”
Sycamore slings plenty of zingers, and her targets are righteous, but she’s a lover, not a hater—a lover of trust, of beauty, and of genuine connection in all its forms, not only between romantic partners but between people and their friends, people and their architecture, people and trees, and on and on. What stuns me about her criticism is its gentleness—the ways she finds to be forceful but not harmful, always punching up, so to speak, or really not even punching at all, only highlighting blind spots and inviting her readers to open their eyes to more than the restricted array of consumerist possibilities that late capitalism presents as our only options. “I wonder if I’m the only person who still goes outside thinking something magnificent and unexpected might happen,” she writes in one of many sentences that encourage the reader to wonder too, and not just about that question, but to engage in more wonder in general.
If the book opens us up to wonder and to the unexpected, one of its strategies is its formal subversions, such as the titular “freezer door.” The already broken narrative is periodically interrupted by a dialogue taking place inside a freezer between an ice cube and an ice cube tray. The two discuss global warming, elections, the Supreme Court, gentrification, and a number of other pressing present-day problems. In doing so, they raise issues of freedom and community, safety and risk. “The only open relationship is the open door, says the ice cube tray.”
When the ice cube asks, “Why do people hate poetry,” the ice cube tray replies “Because it’s like us.” There are a lot of different ways a reader could take this fanciful back and forth, but one of the most liberating seems to be that, in a system that reduces lived experience to a set of commercial preferences that can be easily marketed to, and that boxes people into the tyranny of narratives inoffensive to the status quo, poetry can be a means of dismantling linguistic traps and offering a greater array of prospects for thinking and being. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance—another recent might-as-well-just-dip-the-whole-book-in-highlighter manifesto I happened to encounter shortly before The Freezer Door—“as deregulated predatory capitalism is destroying the future of the planet and of social life, poetry is going to play a new game: the game of reactivating the social body.” Poetry, and poetic books like Sycamore’s, put forth the necessary strategies to open the freezer door. One of the many wondrous aspects of Sycamore’s approach becomes not only what she’s saying, but how she’s saying it.
That said, as Sycamore notes, “uncritical consumption of critical engagement is still uncritical engagement,” and there are aspects of her book that some readers may find hard to appreciate. That, too, seems to be part of her intent: to invite readers to reset the way they gauge their own taste and what does and does not strike them as offensive. She uses the word “faggot” a great deal (advisedly and informedly, and to continue her critique of assimilationist gayness and internalized homophobia) and writes quite explicitly about fucking strangers in public parks and bathrooms. Some audiences possessed of “an overinvestment in middle-class norms” might find this material obscene, but that’s partly her point.
Rather than employing taboo and transgression as ends unto themselves, Sycamore transgresses in order to urge her audience to interrogate their almost-invisible suppositions and so-called civil decorum. She subverts the hypocrisies that tend to make people—especially self-described liberal people—uncomfortable, particularly the trend among American cities’ mainstream citizens to profess support for diversity while really favoring a bland and superficial aesthetic with little actual politics behind it. Sycamore’s strategic obscenity suggests that the real obscenity might lie elsewhere, like in trying to deny and erase difference because of the alternative it poses to putative good taste or consumerist decency.
“Part of the dream of queer is that it potentially has no opposite. Straight is the opposite of gay. Queer is a rejection of both.” The Freezer Door stands as a call to open the door and take a gamble on what might be outside—to reject the illusion of safety and try instead for a re-enchantment of everything, a magic that can only happen by reaching beyond “walled-off insufficiency.”
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017) and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020).
Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader By Vivian Gornick
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Vivian Gornick doesn’t care what you think about this book. She doesn’t care what you think about anything. She loves without apology, and love reduces her to jelly on the floor. There are no faked orgasms here about shoulds.
All her creativity comes from not caring, and out of that freedom has tumbled what she needs to turn over a thought. As if a thought is three dimensional, like a chair hung in space you can rotate and cantilever. What would the thought look like if I flipped the conclusion to its opposite? Is that the thought I was too afraid to form? As if a thought is a character in action, and you can launch it back in time and reconstruct the house where it pressed its ear to the floorboards, listening to adults behaving inscrutably.
The thoughts in Unfinished Business are about books Gornick returns to because she likes to reread. This is not a guide for how to be. The books that draw her are madeleines, summoning the self she was at previous readings. Criticism in Gornick’s hands is a sneaky form of autobiography—a series of love letters to moments she was jolted into consciousness. Sneaky and enlivening because the narrator looks out at something other than itself, and in that looking reveals a self to the reader.
The books Gornick returns to are Eurocentric. From the Before rather than the Pause or the Now or the Next. Mainly white people. Mainly women. Some working class, as was Gornick growing up. Among them D.H. Lawrence, Colette, Hardy, Duras, Delmore Schwartz, Natalia Ginzburg, Doris Lessing, and Elizabeth Bowen. There are some stunning examples of literary analysis along the way, Gornick slipping under the skin of the authors she admires and trying to sense events as they do.
Here she writes about Sons and Lovers: “This habit of Lawrence’s, of making the character suffer two and even three reversals of judgment in the space of a single paragraph ... not only signifies the routine instability of one’s actual moods, it nails the torment at the heart of any decision rooted in mixed emotions, and the second—no, not the second, the third—time I read the book it hit me hard.”
The great thing about Gornick’s book is where a passage like this darts next—back to her life. Such a tactic runs the risk of sounding like one of those tedious accounts people chime in with on social media posts. Gornick’s jumpcuts, however, are richly entertaining. Also, they dramatize the way we become known to ourselves through reading. She writes: “I was now old enough to have experienced many times over the alarming bewilderment of my own erratic behavior—the morning of my first wedding day I was nearly hit by a truck because, as I crossed the street, I was still saying yes, no, yes, no to myself, and failed to stop walking when the light turned red—and I could feel viscerally the shock of Lawrence’s acuity in tracing the staccato nature of emotional confusion.”
Gornick reminds the reader of times they, too, read books to learn how to live. For years in the 1960s and 1970s, I read books with orange spines by women. Virago and Penguin editions. Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Colette at a clip, the Margarets Drabble and Atwood, Violette Leduc, Jean Rhys, Gayl Jones, Plath, Sexton.... What books made you?
Not only are we made by books, the thickness of our experience in turn stirs our insights into them, as Gornick brilliantly illustrates along the way. About Duras’s The Lover, she writes, “What the girl learns during this affair is not only that she is a catalyst for desire but that she herself is aroused by her own powers of arousal.” Writing about Bowen’s 1948 novel The Heat of the Day, written during WWII, Gornick nails the author’s “great subject”: “The acclimatization to deadened feeling—in war or in peace ... this is the enemy of life, the criminal charge she brings against the human condition: that which allows us to adapt ourselves to the atrophied heart. Herein lies the inborn tragedy of this, our one and only life.”
Arousal and deadened feeling are two hot spots for Gornick in whatever she reads, and by revealing the private nature of these themes to us, she enlarges her authority to speak about them. Back and forth, back and forth she goes, from remembering how she read something in the past and why she read it that way, to her present sense of both the past reading and her take du jour. In early chapters she seems to be looking for a “best” or “truest” interpretation of a text. She started life as a utopian, in search of an idealized Large Life. For her parents the key had been Communism. For Gornick it was feminism, until she saw that idealism—with its rightthink and groupthink strategies—made life smaller and less free than experience was teaching her.
As the chapters unfold, the delight Gornick takes is in the provisional nature of any reading, and her prose takes flight, growing more cunning and imaginative. In the third chapter, like the fulcrum of a seesaw, she tells a startling and crazy story that is so narratively right for her book, she would have needed to invent it if it hadn’t happened.
She’s illustrating something or nothing. It doesn’t matter. Suddenly she recalls being eight and desperately looking forward to a party. She gets into a fight with her mother, who, in revenge, cuts the dress where the child’s heart would be. “‘You’re killing me,’ she always howled, eyes squeezed shut, fists clenched, when I disobeyed her or demanded an explanation she couldn’t supply or nagged for something she wasn’t going to give me. ‘Any minute now I’ll be dead on the floor,’ she screamed that day, ‘you’re so heartless.’”
In later years, starting when she is eighteen—again at thirty and forty-eight—she asks her mother how she could have done such a thing to a child, and each time, flatly, her mother responds, “That never happened.” With each denial, Gornick’s scorn expands until, one day in her late fifties, she reports: “On a cold spring afternoon ... on my way to see her, I stepped off the Twenty-Third Street crosstown bus in New York, and as my foot hit the pavement I realized that whatever it was that had happened that day more than half a century ago it wasn’t at all as I remembered it. “Migod, I thought, palm clapped to forehead, it’s as though I was born to manufacture my own grievance. But why? And hold onto it for dear life. Again, why? When my hand came away from my forehead, I said to myself, So old and still with so little information.”
The comedy and joy of being wrong—so you can write like this and have a story to tell that goes nowhere as it burrows into our own dead hearts—that’s what Gornick lives for, and why we need her.
Laurie Stone is a regular contributor to the Women’s Review of Books. She is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, which features several essays that originally appeared in the WRB. In a New Yorker review, Masha Gessen noted the book’s reframing of “the personal is political” to describe “our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished” and praised how Stone “suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.”
Girl Gurl Grrrl: On Womanhood and Belonging in the Age of Black Girl Magic By Kenya Hunt
Reviewed by Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa
Looking back on 2020 feels like something we can finally do. As a Black, queer woman, it’s hard not to think of the trash fire this year has been for people who look like me. The only progressive candidate really serious about drastically improving the material conditions of Black women lost the 2020 presidential primary. In the U.S.—where the average wealth (assets minus debts) of a single Black woman is only $200, compared to over $15,000 for a single white woman and $28,900 for a single white man—our president’s denial of the severity of the pandemic and its economic consequences is slated to leave more and more marginalized Americans vulnerable to eviction (for which Black women are at the highest risk), hunger, and death. Even amidst a plague that continues to take our lives at alarmingly disproportionate rates, Black women showed up in the streets this summer, as daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, cousins, friends in mourning of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, George Floyd. We don’t all go home to safety. Many of us join the battered and the dead at the hands of domestic partners, the police, or anyone else determined to snuff us out. Those of us who have survived and even thrived against these odds have been called many things: lucky, excellent, that bitch, bad bitch, magical. We are all of these things. We are also tired.
Black women have always been the stewards of our own stories. Out of necessity and solidarity, we have done the hard and dangerous work of amplifying our voices along with those of other groups—including Black cis men and white women—who have neglected to reciprocate the gesture. Social media platforms like Twitter have seemingly democratized speech, protest, and outrage, creating fertile ground for discourse that has been historically silenced. Yet true freedom and equity for Black women is far off. In the meantime, autonomy will have to suffice. In our case, that means the ability to peer into a looking glass and see beauty and strength reflected back at us, to see the truth reflected back at us and to be able to say, I am a Black woman, I love myself, and no one gets to tell my story but me. In isolation, that looking glass could be the mirror and we could be talking to ourselves only. In the context of the greater world, as argued in Kenya Hunt’s debut essay collection Girl Gurl Grrrl, that looking glass could show us BLM activist Patrisse Cullors, or actress Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther, or the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic and its many iterations on Black Twitter.
Hunt is a Black woman working as the fashion director for Grazia UK and living as an expat in London with her family. In Girl, her personal and career milestones testify to the love, truth, and heartbreak that make up the interconnectedness of Black womanhood. Any reader who is a Black woman will recognize threads of their own life story woven throughout Hunt’s own. True to journalistic form, the writer does her homework, charting the evolution of cultural phenomena, at times quoting from interviews with cultural figures like CaShawn Thompson, the creator of the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic. She reveals that the ubiquitous term “woke,” a concept that was birthed offline by Black activist communities, in fact dates all the way back to the racial terror chronicled by abolitionist and journalist Ida B. Wells. The concept of “wokeness” is reiterated every time this country's racist past is shown to be rather present-day. It is a directive to be “perpetually attuned to discrimination,” for the dual purposes of survival and pushing back against systemic racism. Moreover, Hunt drives forward the impact that historical context and the passage of time have had on the meaning of wokeness (some changes have come for the better and some for the worse), mixing philosophical waxing, sharp insights, and biting snark befitting your best girlfriends’ group chat.
This relatability is a large part of why Girl is so captivating. A hilarious example is Hunt’s recounting of IRL run-ins with the white nonsense that comes along with the commercialization, and thus dilution, of Blackness and Black womanhood. Take the words “girl,” “gurl,” and “grrrl,” after which the writer named her book. These polymorphs were once primarily terms of endearment, forms of address, or proverbial head nods to fellow Black women, but now, as a result of the light-speed globalization of such rhetorical gems by way of the World Wide Web, “girl,” etc. hits different. What Black woman has not encountered the “hipster racism” of the “Bearded White boys in flannel shirts” doling out “You go, girl” as if to say, Hey Black lady, I’m down, I speak the language. Even juicier are Hunt’s horror stories from the circles she navigates in the fashion industry. Take the weirdness of “White gay men on the fashion party circuit who mistakenly thought their queerness excluded them from buying into cultural stereotypes and who caused me to stiffen with their awkward greeting, ‘Hey, girl, I like your hair. Is it yours?’” Glimpses of Blackness and Black womanhood where there was previously a dearth of depictions cannot communicate a complete picture of who we are or what we are like. Life among non-Black people tends to reflect the Black image en vogue back at us, and so we must find ways to show each other truer images.
Reading Kenya Hunt’s Girl, I felt like my circle of Black women had automatically increased; I felt less alone. This feeling was furthered by Hunt’s curation of essays by other Black women within the collection, additional testimonies from corners of Black life and Black womanhood. Freddie Harrel’s essay on the Black hair journey––to perm or not to perm; the ever versatile sew-in weave; the luxury of salon-styled braids––was a road map, every style and preference marking distinct stages in her life. I gasped and clutched my chest, remembering near identical internal battles of Should I or shouldn’t I? Will a fro make me appear less professional at my workplace full of white people? Add that to the notes on grief, motherhood, and mental illness by Ebele Okobi, activism and African legacy by Jessica Horn, public and private identity by Candice-Carty Williams, and Black beauty by Funmi Fetto, and Hunt has presented you with new allies, friends, gurls.
Not every essay in Girl resonated with me. Many short chapters, dispersed throughout the book, are not much more than anecdotal journal entries. These segments hold meaning for the writer and add value to this product, whether through cuteness (anything surrounding Hunt’s sweet son and his peculiar questions) or social justice commentary (the class implications of a fatal public housing complex fire) into which Hunt has poured some heartbreakingly personal and poignant material. What I appreciate the most about this book is the acknowledgement that, as much as Black women are connected by shared life experiences (which make us feel seen while reading this book), there exist divergences of being, thinking, acting, and believing in us that deserve a spotlight in equal measure. We bond across our similarities and differences and stand (or sit) for one another—from bad bitches who juggle the hustle with beauty regimens and fitness, to those who are chill, regular-degular, disabled, or hail from varying socioeconomic strati. There is room for all of us. If you don’t see your story written, whether in Kenya Hunt’s Girl Gurl Grrrl or elsewhere, please go write it.
Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a writer, actor, and creator living in Brooklyn, NY. She writes about race, gender, art, and politics and has bylines in New York Magazine, The Nation, Artforum, ARTnews, and others. She reviewed Bridgett M. Davis’s The World According to Fannie Davis in the January 2019 issue of WRB.
Fat By Hanne Blank
Reviewed by Ariel Kim
In a recent interview on David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, the musician Lizzo stated, “I’m sick of being an activist just because I’m fat and Black. I want to be an activist because I’m intelligent, because I care about issues, because my music is good, because I want to help the world.” Equal parts pioneer and product of the shifting culture around body positivity, Lizzo rose to fame in 2019 for her irresistibly confident presence, dazzling bodysuits, and fierce and catchy refrains of self-love: “I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feelin’? Feelin’ good as hell!” But long before she was TIME Magazine’s Entertainer of the Year, Lizzo was outspoken about political and racial activism, using her musical platform to highlight a myriad of social issues, not just body positivity. Nevertheless, her figure remains one of her most important traits for much of the public: the first autocomplete question when I Google search “Lizzo” is still, “What size is Lizzo?”
This is unsurprising, Hanne Blank argues, in Fat, her latest work at the intersection of bodies and society. A good voice is a good voice, regardless of the body that it arrives in. And unlike most other industries, music will accommodate—but that doesn’t mean that listeners can forget an artist’s plus-size status. As Blank writes, “to thrive in an [otherwise] unaccommodated, dispossessed, denigrated body” still requires “a well-cultivated, sometimes stubborn, knowledge of its worth.” Hair toss, check my nails.
And yet, despite society’s obsession with thinking about fat, Blank believes that “we tend not to think about fat very clearly or very well. Fat has too many identities in our lives, too many meanings, and we are too reactive, too confused, and frankly, too ignorant.” Blank’s book, however, does not promise to simplify or streamline—quite the opposite, in fact. She takes us on a whirlwind historical, cultural, personal, sociological, and psychological exploration of our collective ignorance. She challenges the language that we have for a simultaneously polysemic and metonymic subject. She turns a critically insightful eye to the many forms and functions of fat in order to clarify the love-hate relationship that we have with this entity that “extends deep inside, but also far beyond, our own individual bodies.”
Fat is a part of Object Lessons, an essay and book series published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury that aims to illuminate the hidden lives of ordinary things—from email to environment, personal stereo to potato. Blank, a cultural historian, currently serves on the faculty for the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Denison University. She writes from the interdisciplinary overlap of history, bioethics, gender, and culture, tackling topics like heterosexuality and virginity in previous books. A self-described educator-activist and “lifelong fat woman,” Blank brings a wry, welcoming (but not to be mistaken for indulgent) voice to this concise and cogent page-turner.
Yes, page-turner. Blank’s creative and engaging style is especially fitting for Object Lessons—every line is densely packed with both intellectual insight and emotional inquiry. If I were still in college, I probably would have underlined almost every sentence, annotated the margins with a frenzy of asterisks and exclamation points. Whether it’s the opening description of her own body—“the oddly comforting, distinctly sensitizing way the elasticized wicking compression fabric of my gym top squeezes my fat back and belly and breasts from all directions at once,”—or a deep dive into the historical and sociocultural factors contributing to the hierarchy of bodies in the patriarchy, she does not shy away from an honest and vivid discourse. She can curse a wannabe sugar daddy’s “fucked-up doublethink bullshit” and then succinctly explain pubertal sex-linked fat deposition in the same, effortless breath.
Blank separates her dissection of fat into five chapters: Fact, Friend, Foe, Fetish, and Figure. She begins with Fact, launching into a detailed explanation of the biological necessity of this lipid. Did you know that the glycogen in fat cells can be broken down into glucose, which every cell in the body needs in order to function? Did you know that, in addition to providing insulation and organ protection, fat releases regulatory hormones? Did you know that calories originally had nothing to do with food, nothing to do with fat?
With this fact about calories—a scientific unit of measure for potential energy that was misappropriated onto nutrition labels by the US Food and Drug Administration in the 1970s—Blank begins to break apart many of the other misconceptions and mysteries surrounding fat. She embodies both no-nonsense biology instructor and learned social anthropologist, and with these two personas, she expertly sets us up to be receptive to the chapters (and their increasingly intense content) to follow. When she shifts to discussing fat as Friend, she gets more personal, sharing anecdotes about the comfort that her husband finds in the fleshy skin below her armpit and her experiences with “intentionally and unapologetically [occupying] every cubic inch of my fat body” when she sang professionally. We begin to understand that fat is more complex than just the “sideboob” or “Dad bod” that meets the eye.
Blank accomplishes another crucial thing in the first two chapters: she invites us to look—and not just to look, but also to investigate and reflect and rewire our thinking. Because of how deeply and early on certain reactions to fat are ingrained (“Don’t stare! That’s rude,” “Don’t use the word fat! Say curvy or plus-sized instead,” “Don’t ask questions.”), this is an unfamiliar and uncomfortable exercise.
But Blank confronts any reluctance head-on, insisting that the only way to overcome our unhealthy fixation with fat—our fat-hating and fat-shaming, our fat anguish and fat phobia—is to consider “its thoroughly rotten sources.” And the problem, the Foe, is not necessarily fat itself: the issue of fat is an issue of race and class, of sex and status, of power and patriarchy. The religious and medico-moral history of the West, the long and terrible legacy of slavery and racism, the far-reaching consequences of colonialism and capitalism, have all resulted in a toxic (but often unconscious) socialization. The word “fat” has become shorthand for disgust, shame, undesirability, insecurity: “a fetish object of wrongness.”
However, Blank continues, “Fat tastes good and feels good. This is part of why it troubles us.” Fat is also Fetish, over-commercialized and hyper-sexualized. And it’s not just about bodies and kinks, or the fact that “male privilege might rule the world, but it can’t withstand juicy hips and a fat ass”—it’s also about sweet cream butter and extra-virgin olive oil. It’s about the essential Omega-3 fatty acids that we all want our babies to have so that their brains will develop properly, so that they will grow up to be healthy and smart.
But fat is also, and finally, Figure. No matter how healthy or smart we are, Blank writes, “we cannot mold our own fat into the specific shapes we want or control where our bodies deposit it.” Instead, our lives are fashioned around the figure that fat bestows upon us, and “fat doesn’t give a sweet and fancy goddamn what we want.” It’s worth noting here that, although Blank does offer an intimate lens into her own personal reckoning with fat—“having been fat, to some degree or another, for as long as I can remember, fat and I have a longer relationship than I have had with any other entity”—she also writes from various first-person plural perspectives (women, humans, society, academia, the as-yet-unenlightened reader). Even though it can get a bit confusing, by counting herself among a more collective “we,” Blank emphasizes the multifaceted and intersectional characteristics of fat. In doing so, she also avoids preaching or pleading; her well-researched paragraphs persuade you of the facts on their own.
“Picture a hypothetical person sitting in their hypothetical automobile shuddering with disgust at the idea of sex with a fat person while they thoughtlessly, hungrily dunk a French fry into their milkshake and eat it,” she writes. “It’s not difficult to imagine.” Picture this same hypothetical person turning on the radio in their hypothetical automobile and humming (or shouting) along to Lizzo’s relentlessly catchy self-love anthems. It’s not difficult to imagine.
Over the course of five punchy chapters, Blank makes fat visible. Whether she is playing the role of science teacher or feminist scholar, cultural historian or that one very philosophical friend, she is always “dispensing ... reality checks.” (She is not, however, “the Fat Friend”—if you are looking for warm and fuzzies, look elsewhere.) She recasts the issues and ignominies of fat in order to paint a more dynamic picture of what is truly at stake.
So, what is truly at stake? Is it just visibility? Is it the activism that pushes issues like body positivity into the mainstream? Is it the humanity that our otherwise ignorant gazes would strip away from others? Is Lizzo just “fat and Black,” or is she also seen as a human being? (As much as any celebrity might be seen as a human being.) Would her platform be the same if she weren’t visibly “fat and Black”? What is the cost of this platform, this visibility? What is the cost of Blank’s invitation to look?
Blank doesn’t offer clear answers or action steps, not for activism and not for humanity. Certainly not for a subject as individually resonant but universally relevant as fat. Instead, she shares knowledge and analysis before simply asking, “What would you not do, what would you not give, what would you not pay if it offered you even temporary acknowledgement as a human being?”
Ariel Kim is a recent graduate of Harvard University, where she studied English and Global Health and Health Policy. Her interests include education, social justice, and creative writing.