Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), along with two other books of nonfiction: Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor (with Joanna Ebenstein) of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2019 | 21 minutes (5,681 words)
The question of “craft” is central to the new anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton. It’s there in the title itself, with its emphasis on shapes and shaping, but beyond that, throughout the anthology there is a recurrent interest in the question of craft and crafting, both in the sense of the writers’ craft and in the relationship between writing and other kinds of crafts.
In early June I reached out to Washuta and Warburton about doing an interview with them about the book. In the conversation that follows, we talked about the form and style of the twenty-seven essays that make up the book, as well as how European and non-Native attitudes towards literature and craft can hamstring an understanding of Native storytelling and writing.
Among other things, we discussed the idea of the basket as a figure for the essay — the book is organized around four sections, each of which takes its name from a term related to basket weaving: “technique” (for craft essays), “coiling” (for essays that “appear seamless”), “plaiting” (for “fragmented essays with a single source”), and, finally, “twining” (for essays that “bring together material from different sources”).
But in Shapes of Native Nonfiction, the basket is not only a metaphor; as Warburton notes below, is also often intimately related to storytelling and genealogy. Throughout our conversation, we returned again and again to a distinction between metaphor and literal meaning. It’s a distinction that in non-Native writing informs a long-standing and durable binary, but is for many of the writers here, a binary that’s not only unproductive but actively reductive.
This is only one of the various binaries that these essays break down or reconfigure. The twenty-two writers featured in Shapes of Native Nonfiction present a wide range of approaches, each one both sui generis and part of a long, interwoven tradition. In what follows, Washuta and Warburton discuss how the book came to be, how they arranged it, and how the various pieces in the anthology connect with one another. Read more…
Colin Dickey | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,573 words)
I remember my first encounter with the work of Félix González-Torres, even though most of the details are fuzzy. I don’t remember which museum we were at, nor which piece, exactly, it was. I don’t remember the year, though it was sometimes in the early 2000s. Sometimes the way memory works is through a very tight precision that exists in a sea of imprecision.
It was one of his many takeaway pieces, one of the stacks of paper — a heavy stack of large, poster-size paper, each printed with the same image — and the public was invited to take a sheet. I remember Nicole explaining to me how the weight of the stack of paper was the same as González-Torres’s lover, and slowly, one by one, the stack would be diminished by visitors taking sheets away one at a time. González-Torres’s lover, who had died of AIDS, as would, eventually, González-Torres himself. The stack would wither and diminish but it could be replenished by the museum’s curators. Nicole took one of the prints — I can’t remember what was on it, which image or block of text — and we moved on.
The weight is the important part — the idea of a body. Félix González-Torres made work about the physical space of a body, and how that body could change and wither by disease, or how it could be reconstituted in different ways. So many of González-Torres’s works involve subtraction. Perhaps most famously were his mountains of candy — often the exact weight of his lover Ross Laycock, or the weight of González-Torres and Laycock together — where viewers would be invited to take a piece of candy and eat it, this small thing that made up the weight of the body of González-Torres’s dead lover becoming part of the bodies of the audience. Read more…
Colin Dickey | Longreads | March 2019 | 15 minutes (3,788 words)
A month after we bought our first house in 2009, our friend Vanessa came over for her first and only visit. She was moving with great difficulty by then, and the three steps up to our front door were treacherous. When she made it to the chair closest to the door she sat down with visible relief. Scleroderma is a perverse disease where the body manically over-produces collagen: it gets in your joints, making moving painful, and at its worst overtakes the body’s organs themselves. It makes one’s movements slow and measured, as though suffering from advanced age or arthritis — and yet, as Vanessa was fond of pointing out, it also makes one’s skin smooth and radiant. It is as though one is simultaneously aging forwards and backwards at once.
“Is that a linden tree?” she asked, looking out the window. Now having sat down again, her eyes were flashing around the room — she was still very much alert and alive, still very much a moving part of this world.
I told her I didn’t know — I’ve never been good at identifying or remembering trees. I couldn’t tell you the difference between an oak and an elm, a maple or a poplar.
“I’m pretty sure,” she said, “that it’s a linden.”
She died a few weeks later. In the months that followed, I spent a good deal of time looking out the window at the linden tree.
Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes | 3380 words
We had come to a place muted of light. Every day felt like a potential backsliding, the news unrelenting, as though the nation had finally given up pushing back against its own savagery — and every day felt like the held breath before the fall. I thought increasingly of Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist from Slovakia: Aghast at the rise of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, and at the inability of Europe’s bureaucratic governments to respond, Lux walked into the General Assembly of the League of Nations and, before the gathered diplomats, fatally shot himself. His last words were “C’est le dernier coup.” This is the final blow. It was only July 3, 1936; the blows would keep coming long after Lux’s death.
The center was not holding; there hadn’t been any center for decades. It was a country of bankrupt politicians, of killings by police so commonplace they barely made the news. It was a country in which families were routinely broken up by early morning immigration raids, where men abducted for traffic violations and women arrested for misdemeanors were sent off to countries they hadn’t known for decades. It was a nation where young white men found solace drifting through rage and irony, and felt alive only by terrorizing others. It was not a country in open revolution, but more and more its people felt revolution would at least be the exhalation they’d been waiting for. It was a country waiting for the final blow.
Whatever rough beast Yeats had seen had already slouched its way out of the desert, laying waste to everything that fell under its pitiless, blank gaze. The body of a lion and the head of a man, the indignant desert birds circling around its slow thighs, it has laid waste to the veneer of civility and decorum that had once been papered over the country.
A United Airlines jets sits at the gate at Denver International Airport. (AP Photo/David Boe)
Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words
On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.
Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.
As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.
What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.
"A Vision of Sir John Soane’s Design for the Rotunda of the Bank of England as a Ruin," by Joseph Gandy, 1789 (Sir John Soane Museum)
Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes (3,060 words)
In the opening pages of Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald describes the Antwerp nocturama, a zoo enclosure of simulated darkness designed to allow visitors to watch nocturnal animals in their natural environment. Sebald finds himself fixated on a raccoon compulsively washing a piece of apple, an animal whose work goes “far beyond any reasonable thoroughness,” he writes, as though this “would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived.” In the same way, perhaps, I’ve been reading Sebald compulsively for the past few months, as though through this act I might find the means to escape the unreal, topsy-turvy world of this grim winter.
Sebald is often called a Holocaust writer—all his major works deal with the Nazi genocide, some more explicitly than others. But his writing is often more concerned with a crisis in European modernity, one that can be traced back as far back as the Napoleonic Wars—a crisis in which the Holocaust was a horrifying, but nearly inevitable by-product. No historical tragedy arrives, ex nihilo, like Athena from her father’s forehead. Rather, Sebald traces and patterns that are laid out decades, perhaps centuries in advance, often in plain sight. They ostentatiously draw attention to themselves, though we have no desire to recognize them. Rather than focus on cartoonish depictions of Nazism as some anomalous evil, Sebald looked for the ways that fascism grew from the innocuous and banal aspects of European culture—from textile manufacturing, to psychotherapy, to architecture.
It was in architecture that Sebald saw the most telling indicators of the inevitability of the camps, often in the most unlikely of places. In Austerlitz, Sebald’s narrator meets up with the novel’s eponymous protagonist in Brussels’ Palace of Justice, reputed to be the largest courthouse in the world. Built in the 1880s, the Palace is a massive accumulation of stone organized haphazardly, such that many of its corridors and stairways lead nowhere. Sebald sees a paranoid logic in such a building, meant as an awe-inspiring monument to justice, yet containing a lawless rabbit warren of hallways—a belief that marble and brick can forestall death itself. There was an anxious psychosis in the late-nineteenth century that led to greater and greater structures, each trying to outdo the last, further exacerbating a death drive. “At the most,” Jacques Austerlitz tells the narrator about this palace, “we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”
The Palais de Justice in Brussels, Belgium was begin in 1866 and finished nearly twenty years later. It is said that Hitler admired it as one of his favorite structures, but during the liberation of Brussels, retreating German troops set it on fire, heavily damaging the building. (Wikimedia Commons)