My father and I sat in near silence for the four-hour drive to western Massachusetts. The worst possible thing had happened: my father had read my diary. Now, my parents were sending me to summer camp for three weeks. Over the previous eighteen months, I had undergone a personality transformation. They had seen the outward signs — how my grades slipped and my once gregarious and sweet disposition now alternated between despondency, sulking, and fury. The diary revealed that this new me also lied and drank and spent as much time as possible in the company of bad influences and older boys who either believed that I really was sixteen or didn’t care that I was actually thirteen. I, too, was confounded by my transformation and so my diary offered a meticulous accounting of events with little reflection. When I imagined my father reading it, my mind blanched white hot, like an exposed negative. My body was brand new but felt singed around the edges, already ruined in some principal way.
Dina Nayeri | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,210 words)
In the last two years I’ve become entangled in the workings of the homelessness prevention arm of London’s Camden Council. Camden is the borough that includes the British Museum, the British Library, a small sliver of Regents Park, and a huge chunk of Hampstead Heath. It also has its rough parts, with subsidized or free council housing, artists on grants, young mothers on benefits — as in most of London, Camden’s residents are a varied lot and everyone, whatever their socioeconomic class, uses some kind of government service.
Minoo is an Iranian refugee with two bright children and a sick, immobile husband. In Iran, she was an experienced nurse, her husband an engineer and Christian convert. Her daughter is clever and witty, her sharp eye taking in every detail. Her son is a football star with a head for math. The four escaped religious persecution and possible death in Iran, spent months as asylum seekers having their story scrutinized for lies, then slept in a roach motel for a few more months before being recognized as both refugees and at risk for homelessness. Now, having been granted asylum, they share a tiny room in a Camden hostel and wait for permanent housing.
Minoo and I met two years ago, when her church contacted me to befriend a new refugee who was at risk of depression. She was my age, a mother, like me, and came from my hometown in Iran. We had fled for the same kind of apostasy, though I had been a child and she was in her 30s. We met for coffee. She was bedraggled but smiled for my sake. She insisted on buying my coffee. She had sad, kind eyes, with a drop of something, like a tear, lodged near one iris. To bridge the class divide, and to put her at ease, I made a clown of myself, and soon she opened up to me. “We can’t breathe,” she said. “My son is almost a teenager. My daughter is suffocating.”
The family’s Camden hostel room has a single bed that they share: sick husband, wife, pre-teen boy and girl. From the bed, you can touch the bathroom door and the kitchen table. Three large steps will put you at the opposite wall. Every day, they face potential homelessness, and yet, for two years, the Camden housing authority has run them in circles. It’s important to stress that the family’s status has already been decided. By the (conservative) government’s own estimation, they are at risk of homelessness, and given the husband’s condition, entitled to public housing that includes separate rooms for the boy and girl. And yet, accessing it has been humiliating, repetitive, and opaque. Recently it’s become vindictive, too.
Around the age of 3 or 4, Harriet McBryde Johnson sits in front of her family’s television set and thinks, “I will die.” The thought comes to her after an advertisement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association flashes across the screen, one that depicts a small boy’s journey from running bases as a baseball player to using a wheelchair and then to bed, one he never rises from. Born with a neuromuscular disease, this commercial, and then a telethon around the age of 5, are Johnson’s first encounters with depictions of disability in mainstream media, as she writes in her memoir Too Late To Die Young. From that first scene, the line I will die, I will die, I will die, serves as a sort of chorus, one that punctuates Johnson’s progression from kindergarten student to law school graduate to protestor and beyond. Johnson reclaims the line; as she moves through life, I will die is no longer a source of fear, but rather a lyric of defiance.
The negative representations of disability Johnson encounters in childhood do not leave her in adulthood, particularly in relation to her wheelchair. She protests against entities like Jerry Lewis, who claims, in a letter penned for Parade Magazine, that wheelchairs are a form of “steel imprisonment,” a “dystrophic child’s plight.” When, being photographed for The New York Times Magazine, the photographer asks to remove Johnson’s chair from the frame, saying that Johnson looks “frail.” The photographer argues that Johnson will look “beautiful and powerful out of the chair,” “brave,” but Johnson advocates for herself.
Johnson’s memoir reveals a litany of ableist assumptions directed toward her and other disabled people, as well as the emotional and physical tolls these perpetual violences take on her throughout her life. Harmful messages, distributed through television ads, telethons, looks others give her while she’s out, snide comments, the highly inaccessible way our world is physically built, seep so much into her consciousness that at one point, she sees wheelchair dancing as being “undignified.” It takes her years before she reckons with her own beliefs, questioning whether they are borne from what others have told her about her disability or about what she herself has experienced in her body. Then, she explains the joy that comes from moving through the world in her wheelchair, saying, “we can in our own way play with sight and sound, combine rhythm and form, move in our chairs and with our chairs, and glide and spin in ways walking people can’t.”
Though Johnson’s life experiences are unique to her, the underlying themes within her book resonate far beyond. I saw myself reflected in some of her passages, particularly when I thought back to my own experience using a wheelchair for a few months as a result of neurological symptoms, during which time I felt a sense of shame. Johnson’s reckoning with her own internalized ableism helped me realize that my feelings came not from my use of the wheelchair, which allowed me to move through the world, often with great joy, but from how I thought others might perceive me.
Her memoir, too, encouraged me to ask questions: How does pervasive ableism affect the way our society continues to be architected? In what ways have disabled people been represented in media and how can representation continue to evolve so that disabled people have more agency? How are invisible disabilities treated versus visible? What have other disabled people’s experiences been engaging with different accessible tools and technology? The essays curated here cover an array of topics related to those questions, as well as delve into intersections between disability and race, class, and gender.
1. Common Cyborg (Jillian Weise, September 24, 2018, Granta)
Jillian Weise writes against Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ exposing numerous flaws in Haraway’s argument, namely, the fact that Haraway neglects to acknowledge disabled people. Weise discusses what it means to claim a cyborg identity, and how disability is treated by a group of people she names ‘tryborgs,’ who “preach cyborg nature,” but “do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine.”
They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured.
2. What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry (Keah Brown, September 5, 2018, Teen Vogue)
In this essential reported piece, Keah Brown, author of recently published The Pretty One, interviews three models with disabilities — Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax — and draws on her own experiences with cerebral palsy to emphasize the need for increased representation of diverse bodies in advertising, media, and modeling.
Disabled people and disabled models are still left out of most campaign ads and runway shows. This lack of representation has implications: When you go so long without seeing yourself it is easy to interpret that lack of representation to mean you’re ugly and unworthy, that you deserve to be invisible or even worse, are grotesque.
3. How Designers Are Failing People With Disabilities (Justin Rorlich, March 6, 2014, Hazlitt)
With estimates that there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world who control more than $8 trillion in disposable income, you’d think there would be competition within the wheelchair market to create products with sleeker, more efficient design. But no, as Justin Rohrlich exposes in this piece, hardly any work is being done within big corporations to advance wheelchair design. Instead, individuals like Andrew Slorance are taking matters into their own hands.
In no other market do we force people to simply take whatever product gets shoved down their throats, especially one of this size,’ Donovan says. ‘It’s really sort of unbelievable.
You’d think that companies would have figured out long ago how to sell to a cohort this size. For some reason, it remains barely-touched.
4. The Complicated Dynamics of Disability and Desire (Lachrista Greco, April 6, 2016, Bitch)
After a teacher in middle school tells Lachrista Greco she’s using her invisible disability as a “crutch,” Lachrista begins to make a connection between her disability and how wanted she feels in relation to others. In examining harmful cultural moments like Kylie Jenner modeling with a wheelchair, essays by other disabled writers, and personal memories, Lachrista explores how disability is connected to desirability, both in her life, and in our culture as a whole.
Jenner appeared on the cover of the magazine sitting in a brass-colored wheelchair—sexy, glamorous, and blank. It’s fetishization to the nth degree for Jenner, an able-bodied person, to pose in a wheelchair wearing a black latex bodysuit. It’s “crip drag,” as comedian and disability rights activist Caitlin Wood calls it.
5. The Amputee Cyclist’s Art of Self-Repair (C.S. Giscombe, May 23, 2019, The New York Times)
After seeing a banner that reads “Do you remember when prosthetics weren’t mind controlled?” while on a bike ride through the U.C. campus, C.S. Giscombe reflects on his own prosthetic; ruminates on intersections of race, class, and disability; and confronts ableism.
He was amazed — as some people are, ‘because of your handicap’ — that I was riding at all, and as we talked and climbed the topic of touring came up and he was quick to inform me that it was a thing sadly beyond my capabilities, though we had just met. ‘Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy,’ as my friend the poet Jennifer Bartlett has observed.
6. Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities (s.e. smith, September 20, 2018, Vox)
After seeing a device called a Sock Slider ridiculed on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, s.e. smith compiles a list of other tools mocked on the internet: “banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more.” In interviewing people with disabilities, disability scholars, and compiling research about costs of attendants, smith not only makes clear that the use of these gadgets enable some disabled people to live independently, but also examines the role of the internet in spreading harmful messages.
When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.
7. I Love ‘Queer Eye.’ I Don’t Love The Way It Portrayed People With Disabilities. (Jessica Slice, July 26, 2019, Huffington Post)
Representations of people with visible disabilities on television are far and few between, so when the Fab Five of ‘Queer Eye’ featured Wesley, “a Black man, loving father, 30-year old community activist and wheelchair user” on an episode, Jessica Slice had hopes that the team would empower Wesley to embrace his identity as a disabled man in the same way they encourage others featured on the show. Instead, the episode falls short in many ways, which Slice chronicles in this well-researched piece.
Critically, being disabled is not a negative. It’s an identity, just like being queer, Black or Latinx is an identity. If it makes you pause to hear ‘Black, but not really,’ or ‘gay, but not really,’ then you should have the same reaction to ‘disabled, but not really.’
8. (Don’t) Fear the Feeding Tube (Kayla Whaley, May 8, 2018, Catapult)
When her mom brings up the idea of a feeding tube, Kayla Whaley recoils. She feels shame and fear thinking about such a concrete change being made to her body until she speaks with others who have gone through the surgery. This essay, in addition to providing a history of gastronomy tubes, also chronicles Kayla’s emotional turn from revulsion to delight in relation to her g-tube, and the ways in which her feeding tube allows her to connect with her body in new and surprising ways.
More than that, knowing what was inside felt like sharing a secret with myself. Seeing inside my gut, learning to recognize its patterns and moods, felt intimate in a way that was wholly unexpected but altogether a joy.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,811 words)
Two weeks after I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, I found out that she would be speaking at a literary symposium titled “Against Storytelling” at a venue some minutes from where I live.
The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment block with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in an entirely new set-up of family, home, and work.
The book is about other things, too, like cycling up a hill after a day writing at a garden shed; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair.
It is, mysteriously, about a scarcity of time and money, of trying to make ends meet. Mysteriously, because it is such a generous book, so lush and unrushed.
One of my best friends, visiting for the weekend, picked it up from the coffee table while my husband and I were preparing breakfast on Saturday morning.
“Oh my god,” she shouted from the living room, “this book is amazing!”
I guessed that she must have read the opening scene, when the narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.
“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.
“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too… It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”
My friend went home on Sunday evening. She’d just been offered a new job, and would be spending the week negotiating her terms and meeting with the people at the new office. One of her reservations about the job concerned a partner who had first approached her for recruitment. Yet he didn’t have the tact, even as he sought her out, to stifle sexist comments meant as jokes. My friend wondered whether she should call him out on this during their meeting. In their offer, the firm had praised my friend’s directness.
That week, she and I messaged back and forth about the offer, as well as about all our favorite parts in The Cost of Living. She told me she’d recommended the book to her therapist.
Another friend was struck by the book’s lightness — its reluctance to belabor any sorrow, despite the sadness that runs throughout. He felt that this was a form of respect towards readers, their capacity to understand grief and hardship without dissecting it to pieces.
Yet another friend (we were all reading The Cost of Living) said that the book had lungs. Between the empty spaces of its short paragraphs, it breathed with light and transforming meaning. This friend had just read all of Levy’s work in one stretch.
Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (1,878 words)
The 11,000 people who attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual Conference & Bookfair (AWP) come for professional advancement and to build community. They come to attend panels, to stay motivated after graduate school, to promote their magazines, book presses, and graduate programs and to choose magazines to write for, books to read, and graduate programs to attend. For many attendees, AWP is a chance to talk shop deep into the night. I came this year for many of these reasons, and also to improve my editing abilities.
Even though I work as an editor, I have a lot to learn, and the editors on the panel “Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?” offered tons of practical wisdom. Jennifer Acker from The Common magazine moderated a group that included John Freeman of Grove/Atlantic, Freeman’s, and Granta, One Story editor Patrick Ryan, and Catapult managing editor Matthew Ortile. Freeman is a quote machine; his mind moved so quickly I could barely write down what he said. Read more…
Noun, feminine: An abundance of persons or things; crowd, horde
Noun, biblical: Survivors, the chosen
* * *
When I fell for the video girl in Omarion’s “Touch,” I never thought I’d come to know her name. I loved her for her low-slung baggy jeans and spangled bustier. I loved her for the wave arranged across her forehead, her sly smile, and most of all, of course, for the way she moved. In the video, Omarion spots her with her girls as she’s leaving the club, and soon they involve each other in a pedestrian duet that elaborates the walk home along the lines of a Cuban rumba: frankly sexual, magnetically relational, but rarely, barely touching.
What won my attention was an unusual liberty in her movement — unconfined, it seemed, by a tightly choreographed routine or proper place in the staged urban environment — and a looseness in her waistline I can’t help calling Spanish. In Latin music, lyrics linger less over hips and ass, lavishing attention on la cintura atómica, la cintura sueltecita as the locus of sensual movement, maybe even the primary engine of Latin culture’s successive “explosions.” Marking the waist as specifically Spanish doesn’t check out in a diasporic vocabulary that includes wining, belly dance, even hula. But that’s how I responded to her body — with recognition. I followed the current that ran up and down her torso, briefly electrifying each gesture as if it were a spoken phrase that would resolve into a statement. I wanted to know where the meaning would land.
I didn’t expect to see this dancer again. Maybe I couldn’t see past the way she’d been cast: as a girl who appears, suddenly, in the chaos of the club, then slips back — a moment, an hour, a day later — into the city’s unsyncopated working rhythm. Blink. Touch. This was 2005, before the internet’s full power was at my fingertips, before I could feel confident that “Omarion video girl” would yield a name, a résumé, a world. I didn’t try. For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
* * *
Pop culture teaches us that backup dancers are beneath notice. They’re not real artists, and the pleasure we take in them is primitive. They are not suitable emissaries of culture, even if culture wouldn’t be any fun without them. There are no prominent prizes for video girls, no credit roll at the end of the concert naming names. When we pick favorites and mimic their moves, our mothers make sure we know not to aspire. Backup dancing is not aspirational; it’s a no-man’s-land where brown girls are liable to languish, underpaid and overworked. It’s one wrong turn away from sex work. When Cardi B brags, “I don’t dance now / I make money moves,” she’s minimizing the difference between the kind of dancing she used to do on the pole and the kind of dancing done on other stages. Neither one, she seems to say, will pay. These messages have posed a problem for me, because I grew up in a time and place in which every Puerto Rican you’d ever heard of was — or had been — a backup dancer.
The distinction between was and had been didn’t matter that much, because the fact that certain individuals had achieved star status did little to reduce the stigma of salacious amateurism that lingered with them. Especially before Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sonia Sotomayor, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went to Washington, the prototypical Puerto Rican in U.S. consciousness was [Dancing Girl emoji, skin tone tan]. Probably, she still is. Even the nation’s youngest congresswoman is haunted — or rather, refuses to be haunted — by her younger body, bopping across the rooftops of Boston University in 2010. As a dweeby tween, I wasn’t ashamed: I liked being noticed in relation to something “sexy.” But I see now why my mother was. There’s an implied analogy between the backup dancer and Puerto Rico itself, as if the island exists first and foremost for the empire’s entertainment, as if Puerto Ricans can be famous, too, so long as we know our precarious, paradoxical place.
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Official policy refers to Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, but it’s really a shadow colony in plain view, hypervisible especially in relation to the colonies most Americans don’t know or name: Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States government sometimes refers to Puerto Rico as “the shining star of the Caribbean,” a phrase dreamed up for a midcentury publicity campaign designed to attract business investment to the island. But this special status has not protected Puerto Rico — or its diaspora — from myriad forms of colonial extraction. Puerto Rico is both empire’s “shining star” and, in the notorious words of U.S. Senator William B. Bate, “a heterogeneous mass of mongrels,” threatening the nation’s delicate racial and political ecosystem from the shadowy margins. There are too many of us (“mass”), and each one of us already contains too many (“mongrel”). When changes in U.S. economic priorities have displaced Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico itself, we’ve become backup bodies in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. By the late 20th century, Puerto Ricans made up the largest “immigrant” group in New York City. Life hasn’t been much better stateside, but there is still an important sense in which the Puerto Rican pseudo-citizen moves dique freely in relation to her cousins in the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America. She won’t be deported, exactly. Instead, she’ll spin in a perpetual motion machine.
All of these myths and policies converge on the body of the Puerto Rican backup dancer. The consolation prize for second-class citizenship — really, for lack of sovereignty — has been cultural nationalism. We can shimmy and shake all we like, get loud and proud about how well we do it. But even when the backup dancer gets to be a star, she’s on the blink, appearing and disappearing like the bright spot on the nocturnal satellite map before and after Hurricane Maria.
For years I’d return to her on YouTube, exhibiting her to friends and lovers, an avatar of erotic freedom, improvisational play, anonymous genius. I wanted her to be noticed beyond the terms the screen had set. And I wanted to be noticed for noticing her.
Over the years there are certain stars I’ve come to count on, that seem to have achieved a steady glow: Rita Moreno, for example. Rosie Perez. Jennifer Lopez. Invoking them in sequence, like this, suggests a progressive history, a lineage in which I secretly attempt to situate myself. But the more I read into it, the less it feels like history and the more it feels like a cut-rate carousel. I’m stuck on the constant costume changes these women have hustled through to appear, against the backup dancer’s odds, as names we know. Despite the individuality that stardom confers, they’ve passed through many of the same institutions and come to many of the same professional crossroads. Sometimes they have literally danced in each other’s footsteps or played the same roles. They stand out from and stand in for New York City itself — Nueva York, los niuyores — a few recognizable forms in what the performance scholar Jayna Brown calls “the multijointed body of the female tableaux.” She’s talking about black vaudevillians at the turn of the 20th century, but the image translates: there’s a complex pleasure to getting lost in the crowd. Brown goes on to quote a contemporary of Josephine Baker’s: “She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.” But it’s hard to hear her tone. Is the chorus girl jaded, disabusing us of the glamour we associate with the star, implying that she can never really rise above her station? Or is taking the star down a peg a way to hold her close, to include her in movement’s “we,” movement’s “all”?
* * *
Growing up, I wanted to be included — even, especially, in the mass of mongrels. I knew Senator Bate didn’t mean to make it seem like so much fun, at least not on the face of it. But by the time we get around to the 1978 Rolling Stones song “Miss You,” Mick Jagger is sure the way to sound American on R & B radio — the way to sound black — is to growl “we’re gonna come around at twelve / with some Puerto Rican girls / that’s just dying to meet you.” I liked singing along — accustomed, like women of all backgrounds, to extracting pleasure and power from pop music’s misogyny. Sometimes I still do.
Maybe I was particularly vulnerable to crude seductions because our family was the opposite of a crowd: me and my mother in California, my grandmother in New York, no siblings, no husbands. Until I left the Bay Area for New York when I was 18, my direct relatives were the only Puerto Ricans I really knew. I was grateful for my Chicanx friends at the private schools we attended on scholarship — we began our political lives together — but culturally speaking they didn’t really know where to place me, and I wasn’t in a position to help them. If Jennifer Lopez implied an urban world teeming with around-the-way girls and spontaneous block parties, I was eager to be implicated.
In Zami, Audre Lorde’s erotic memoir, she articulates her mother’s longing for her natal island of Grenada: “She missed the music you didn’t have to listen to because it was always around.” When my mother danced around the apartment it became populous — with stories of her father’s famous footwork, Motown madness with her college boyfriend, José, the live drums from the New Rican village that seemed to fall in line behind her heels. We’d angle out the closet door with the full-length mirror so she could teach me her teenage moves: the Mashed Potatoes, the Watusi, the Jerk. And then she’d spin out where I couldn’t follow, spurred into a frenzy by the telltale cowbell in “Adoración.” She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one. Given our isolation, it would take me years of living in New York to discern which of my mother’s gestures and behaviors were the product of her powerful personality, and which were Puerto Rican cultural commonplaces. It isn’t always easy, or explanatory, to name the difference.
In her self-titled memoir, published in 2011, Rita Moreno remembers moving to Washington Heights and “sitting on the wrought iron grille base beside an open window … while our new radio, shaped like a small cathedral, blared music to me and to any other appreciative Latinos within earshot.” With neighbor girls she “put on costumes and spun through living rooms [and] even ‘entertained’ on the rooftop.” Rosie Perez credits her early dance training to the long summers she spent with her cousin Cookie “in a dilapidated tenement that she kept clean as hell … doing the Hustle in the kitchen while my wet set dried.” I wonder if we’d call it training if we never came to see her dance on TV. Was I training, too, for the pedestrian life I have, in which I’m only famous for my dancing among the friends who follow my Instagram stories? For my gracelessly improvised life as a writer?
‘She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.’
The New York I live in now is more densely Caribbean than it was when Audre Lorde’s mother suffered the unmusical noise of the north. Despite the city’s constant war on public space, the air at least stays thick, stays wavy. These days the uptown bodegas play bachata, and when I walk by I like to let it inflect the rhythm of my walking — the music I don’t have to listen to because it’s everywhere, the dance I don’t have to do because it’s always in my body. It’s a trope of black diasporic dance to start small, as if walking, as if merely shifting weight, hitching a skirt — the better to dramatize the smooth continuum between everyday life and the high fever of the mess around.
My mother sometimes worries about the way I walk, especially in Washington Heights, where my grandmother lives. She migrated — pregnant with my mother — 15 years after Rita Moreno, in what historian Lorrin Thomas describes as “the postwar boom … that nearly doubled New York City’s Puerto Rican population in two years.” We’ve come to call it “la gran migración,” taking a cue — as we often do — from African American history’s Great Migration from the rural South to the urban North. I still visit my grandmother in the same neighborhood — the same building — where my mother grew up.
And yet it isn’t the same. I was born post-crack and post-Reagan, so our block has always been that kind of hood to me. Now it’s gentrifying. I admit wishing we could keep the ancestral apartment, somehow, so I could live there with rent control. But she doesn’t think I understand the danger. Around here, Latinas are always the ones hit hardest by street violence, she says. I don’t know whether I am, in this case, her daughter or the daughter of my gringo father. So I ask. She thinks the corner boys can tell I’m Latin like them: You can’t do anything about the way you move. In the heat of conflict I feel a pleasurable frisson: the transmission alive in me. I wouldn’t wish that way out of my body, because I wouldn’t wish my body away. It feels safer, somehow, to stay close to my mother even when she says it isn’t.
I know that standing out can pose its own dangers, depending on how and among whom. Cue Zora Neale Hurston: I feel most colored when I am thrown against a stark white background. The image evokes the police precinct’s mugshot as vividly as the museum’s gallery wall. I also know that being singular — or at least, the idea of being singular — has mattered to both my grandmother and my mother because it’s mattered to their survival. Moving — out, away, up from poverty — is often easier alone, dissociated from the trope of the hungry horde. But even loneliness has a lineage, and I find myself feeling for it.
* * *
Rosita Dolores Alverío was not technically an only child; her mother had abandoned her younger child, a boy, when they migrated from Juncos, Puerto Rico in 1936. But in the wake of this desperate choice, Rosita was raised like one, with the intensity of attention I recognize from my mother’s only childhood and my own. Focusing on one child mitigates the economic limitations of working-class life — and of course, raises the stakes for a return on investment. Even by the impossible standards of an immigrant mother, it’s safe to say that Rosita made good as Rita Moreno, the first Puerto Rican to become a bona fide star in the United States. She’s won all four major prizes in American entertainment — the Oscar, the Grammy, the Emmy, and the Tony — and her 1962 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Anita in the musical West Side Story remains the only Oscar ever awarded to a Latina performer.
Over time, this distinction has become a bitter sign of how tightly U.S. culture seeks to control our conditions of appearance. But in her memoir, Rita conveys the animating thrill of matriarchal ambition that first set her spinning onstage as a child dancer. In certain moments, her descriptions of their shared labor sound almost utopic:
A happy home has its own music. The house hummed with Mami’s Singer sewing machine as she worked the foot treadle. This machine was so old; it was not an electric model. All the energy came from Mami, from her foot tapping and rising and falling. It sounded like the roll of a Spanish rrrrr! As if in accompaniment, I danced in time with its pulsing, while Mami was creating headdresses and costumes for me.
I didn’t demonstrate enough talent in ballet class to warrant such a scene, but my mother did make our home into a kind of studio, ready for whatever talent might emerge for cultivation. In the “happy” immigrant home, work and play are closely intertwined by necessity. Work must become play, or play must become work, if play is to survive as a vital practice. Like my grandmother, her sisters, and the majority of Puerto Rican women immigrants to New York City, Rita’s mother first worked as a factory seamstress. At home, she turned these same skills to the fanciful project of imagining new and dramatic ways for her daughter to appear. Rita was the chosen channel for this form of dreaming, but the dream itself was more general: to produce, with the means of production at hand, a range of possible lives and the freedom to move among them.
When the doors of Hollywood opened for Rita Moreno, they didn’t open for all her possibilities. They opened for a Slave Girl, an Indian Princess, a Dusky Maiden. It was one role, really: the temporary romantic interest of the white leading man led astray by her temptations before settling down with a suitable (read: white) wife. Who can blame Rita Moreno, then, for her profound ambivalence about so-called stardom? “Cold feet” kept her from auditioning for the principal role of Maria when West Side Story was on Broadway, and her anxiety persisted even after she secured the supporting role of Anita in the film adaptation. Though Anita animated contemporary anxieties about New York’s “Puerto Rican problem,” the role was also substantial, a rare opportunity she was sure she’d somehow squander: “A shadow followed me like a backup dancer, making me worry that it would only be a matter of time before I would lose everything.”
There she is: the backup dancer, making a cameo here as a sly, flexible metaphor. If Rita’s shadow is the backup dancer, then Rita herself is surely the star. But the metaphor seems to articulate the slippage between the two positions — the backup dancer is the star’s shadow side, the constant reminder of how precarious her visibility really is. She’s on her heels, grabbing hold wherever her body touches ground. Maybe Rita felt shadowed by the roles she’d been forced to play, unable to get out from under the sense of herself as an erotic extra. Or maybe she couldn’t escape the sense that her luck would always come at someone else’s expense: she was keenly aware of replacing another Puerto Rican dancer, Chita Rivera, who’d triumphed as Anita on Broadway. She was convinced she could “never, ever be as good as Chita,” that she’d never deserve the power of her position.
She was multiplied at both ends: by everything that entered her and everything her dancing made me do, the movement she started in the living room. A culture of one.
But if the backup dancer haunts the star, she also keeps her company. “Rita the Cheetah,” as she was known in the press, would never be lonely as Anita: the role activated a rhyme of substitutes, a small crowd of Puerto Rican hopefuls passing in and out of the spotlight. In fact, Rita deliberately “sought out a friend who had played the part of Anita on a coast-to-coast tour,” eager to learn a few steps for her audition. Every dance begins in — as — someone else’s shadow. That’s just how it is. However singular her performance would turn out to be, Rita became Anita in relation to the other women who had been her. A gang of Anitas gave birth to Rita’s Anita, the gang leader.
Ultimately, it is Anita, with her active — if contentious — relationship to group identity who is West Side Story’s brightest star. It is Anita, not Maria, who seems to summon the whole urban world into being with a swirl of her purple skirts and a clap of her hands: “Here,” said the New York Times review, “are the muscle and rhythm that bespeak a collective energy.” When I imagine a world ruled by Anitas, I get a festive feeling, as if I’m climbing the fire escape to the famous rooftop scene. I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind. Maybe there’s a way to argue over what “America” has made of us in our own language.
From the rooftop, these dreams seem don’t seem so far off. But in her memoir, Rita Moreno asks us to stay with her in closer quarters, to find freedom in a scene where her only company is her own shadow, in a moment that’s not right for shimmying. In one of West Side Story’s most tragic turns, Anita leaves Sharks turf to deliver Maria’s message to Tony, only to be intercepted by the Jets:
When I had to play the attack scene in the candy store, I wept and broke down— right on set. It was that incredible, amazing, magical thing that happens sometimes when you’re acting and you have the opportunity to play a part so close to your heart: You pass through the membrane separating your stage self from your real self. For a time, at least, you are one person.
The “attack scene” has always been understood as an implied gang rape, which heightens the intensity of her language in this passage: why should inhabiting a scene of traumatic violence be “incredible, amazing, magical,” a restorative moment of contact with her “real self”? Trauma is usually narrated using exactly the opposite vocabulary: splitting, sundering, shattering. But for Rita Moreno, to break down is to return to a truth about her experience in the industry that her usual performance of resilience obscures: being singled out for special treatment by Hollywood’s power players had a shadow side.
Rita’s first sexual experience was what she later came to recognize as rape by a man who claimed to want to work as her agent. Immediately after the filming of West Side Story, her long-running, emotionally abusive affair with Marlon Brando would drive her to attempt suicide. Of course, these biographical details do not exactly correspond to the violation implied by the candy shop scene. Rita was never a Puerto Rican gangbanger; her working-class Washington Heights was more like my mother’s than Anita’s. And yet, the projection of these fantasies onto her body — the stereotype of her body as essentially available, disposable, and replaceable — put her in the way of real violence, mostly at the hands of white men. Becoming a star required a dangerous risk: leaving her own turf for the way her turf was rendered in show business. The candy shop wasn’t real to Rita, but the candy shop scene did feel real, with its crowd of white men curtailing her movement with threats and demands. This time, she did not have to hide her fear and anger for the sake of her career; she could dance with them.
There’s a moment in Peter Pan when Peter’s shadow runs away and Wendy intervenes to carefully stitch it to the soles of his feet: a woman’s work. I think of Rita in West Side Story as her own Wendy, mending her relationship with the shadow that would follow her everywhere in the Neverland of American show business. It’s another kind of costura, more painstaking, maybe, than the dreamwork that produced her first costumes. Here, her desire to be “one person” is not the same as a desire to escape alone, to escape intact. Instead, it reflects the difficult knowledge that she is one person only when she can bear to incorporate the parts of herself she’s disavowed.
* * *
In an interview from 1998, Jennifer Lopez refers to Rita Moreno as “the original Fly Girl,” naming her the inadvertent matriarch of the Fly Girls featured on Keenen Wayans’s hip hop driven variety show In Living Color, where Jennifer got her first big break. She shifts the focus from Rita’s moment of semi-stardom as Anita to imagine her in relation to a small collective of dancers, most of whom did not move on to fame and fortune. It’s a complicated gesture, elevating the Fly Girls by saying they have a history while at the same time pluralizing Rita’s individual achievement. She was just a chorus girl, baby. We all was chorus girls. Every genealogy of Puerto Rican performers — including the one I’m moving through in this essay — will be intimate, idiosyncratic, and provisional. But if we’re talking about the Fly Girls, specifically, it’s fair to feel like someone’s missing.
In large part because of the narrative of competition forced upon them as two Puerto Rican stars in generational proximity, Jennifer Lopez has never been very good at publicly acknowledging her debt to Rosie Perez, the In Living Color choreographer who lobbied to make her a Fly Girl in the first place. I think a lot of Latinas who came up with and through hip-hop are just beginning to see what Rosie meant to us — to mend, like Rita with her shadow, the disavowal that has often accompanied our admiration. DJ Laylo, a Bronx Dominicana, put it this way in an interview with Remezcla: “It’s a little bit of a sore spot for me because whenever I’m in predominantly white spaces, I always have people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh my god you sound like Rosie Perez.’ And I know they don’t mean it because they’re paying tribute to all that she is.”
My mother was the first one to introduce me to Rosie — we checked out Do the Right Thing from the library on VHS — but she, too, was plainly unsettled by Rosie’s accent, which she insisted had been exaggerated to make her seem Extra Rican. The theory wasn’t far-fetched; Rita was made to invent an accent she didn’t have for West Side Story. But I wasn’t really listening to my mother’s critiques. I was too mesmerized by the film’s famous opening credits — red lights, then blue — which find Rosie pumping her chest and throwing hooks in front of Brooklyn brownstones to all four minutes of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Whatever she was fighting I felt like I was fighting too, including my own resistance to her performance. Recently I’ve been asking friends how they remember feeling about the scene back in the day. The word “unapologetic” keeps coming up, which makes me wonder what — and who — we’ve grown accustomed to apologizing for. My friend Christina’s take is a little more specific: “She seemed like she wasn’t afraid of men.”
I can almost smell the summer-softened tar, the beer going flat, the perfumed sweat rising as banter becomes music, becomes, suddenly, a dance battle. Maybe there’s a way to wiggle free from our collective confinement without leaving each other behind.
In some ways, history supports Christina’s formative impression. In several interviews, Rosie recounts how she first met Spike Lee at the L.A. nightclub Funky Reggae, where he was hosting a big booty contest to promote School Daze. Rosie wasn’t having it; she’d come to the club to dance: “disgusted…I jumped on the stage — okay, so it was a speaker — and bent over shaking my ass.” It’s a parable of her performance philosophy: the speaker becomes the stage as she insists upon her objection to performance as part of the performance itself. When Spike’s bouncers came through to pull her skinny butt back down, the young director decided he liked that trash-talking Brooklyn Rican. He picked her out from the lineup and gave her an on-screen solo.
It would be a merciless eight-hour shoot that gave Rosie swollen knees and tennis elbow: he solicited the anger she’d once directed at him and worked it to the bone. It’s not an endorsement of his abusive techniques as a director to say that in the final cut her anger seems to exceed its conscription to become the sign and symbol of the borough’s unrest. In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative. Who or what is her adversary as she trains for a fight we never see go down onscreen? We can’t call it. The block, the pizza parlor, the movie set itself — the site of struggle is always changing. Rosie is slick with the sweat of staying ready wherever it finds her.
Part of the reason I find myself saying “Rosie” instead of her character’s name, “Tina,” is because the scene unfolds in a liminal space between our world as spectators and the world of the film, where the story has yet to be told. When Do the Right Thing first came out, the conservative critic Stanley Crouch complained in the Village Voice that the scene was “amateurish,” nothing more than a music video. He’s wrong to complain, but right to see it like that. Rosie isn’t really Tina yet, she’s Rosie, recognizable if you know her from Soul Train, and just a Puerto Rican girl dancing if you don’t. Soul Train’s practice of using amateurs to bring the energy of the street to the screen was being developed in new directions by MTV, and Spike Lee was making major contributions to the same culture. He wasn’t the first one to cast Rosie Perez from the club floor; her “realness” had become a hot commodity in the emerging hip-hop economy. Of course, someone like Stanley Crouch was never gonna get Rosie. But his critique magnifies an anxiety about her performance shared by those who thought they did.
Soul Train’s director, Don Cornelius, liked Rosie so much that he had her dance down the line twice on her first night on set. She was out of place — a Puerto Rican in Los Angeles — which made her stand out, trigger a double take. Her light skin and tight little body gave her immediate mainstream market value. But the way she moved and spoke from within that body also seemed to threaten the investment. “Is that your real accent?” Don Cornelius asked the first time he heard her speak, turning an invisible dial down. In her 2015 memoir, Handbook for an Unpredictable Life, Rosie remembers: “Don Cornelius did not want to see how I really danced,” anymore than he wanted to hear how she really spoke.
On Soul Train Rosie was always trying to do the moves she’d learned back in the city: the Pee Wee Herman, the Roger Rabbit. At New York clubs like the Roxy and the Latin Quarter she had her eye on the male dancers “behind Whodini and Big Daddy Kane … all doing James Brown, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and the fabulous Nicholas Brothers moves, making them their own.” Don’s early objections to Rosie’s dancing took the form of gender management: “Nononono, you’re a girl!” Of course, the (imagined) friction between her conventional femme sexiness and her hip-hop intensity is what gave her performances heat. If her body was disciplined in a satin miniskirt, stockings, and a waist-cinching belt, her face was not: that self-possessed sneer. Louie Carr — “Cutty Mack” — remembers Rosie as “aggressive and sexy and a little street, like a machine gun.” Don Cornelius wanted the rhythm of the weapon without the war.
Don’s struggle for control over Rosie — and here, he’s only an example — reveals the risk inherent in the aesthetics of realness. A musical like West Side Story was exciting, in its time, because it suggested an intimate relationship between the singing and dancing on-screen and the changing demographics of the city itself. Rita Moreno, the only actual factual Puerto Rican with a speaking role, was the linchpin of that seductive suggestion. In the plot, her dancing always starts a debate, a competition, a party. It always demands a reply. The delight we take in her call-and-response virtuosity implicates us in the project of imagining an urban world we can all inhabit. But the industry only let the provocation of Rita Moreno’s performance go so far. It didn’t matter that she mastered the choreography. That she waited her turn for dignified, complicated starring roles that never came. That she wore a white pleated skirt to the March on Washington. The game had rules for a reason: to make sure it never got really real.
But by the time Rosie Perez was born, whatever remained of the American Dream for Puerto Ricans was dead, and she was too black and too busy trying to survive an abusive childhood to play along. Rosie’s New York was post-Civil Rights: the War on Drugs had replaced the War on Poverty, and the collective trauma of ghetto life had already yielded several generations of black-brown collaborations including bugalú, salsa, and the beginnings of hip hop. White institutions were no longer the only gatekeepers crafting and legislating the representation of urban culture. Rosie’s class position and her historical position intersected to make it clear that she wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to assimilate out of the world that made her.
Don Cornelius, with Soul Train, was a major player in that transformation. Starting in 1971, he opened the door to the creative power of regular-degular city kids, who brought their own bell-bottoms and hustles to set, collectively forming the living, breathing backdrop for some of the most iconic black performances of the ’70s and ’80s. But on Soul Train the backdrop was the real show — not the celebrity guests who mostly lip-synched anyway. The young dancers pulsed behind the permeable membrane of the screen. And on the other side the rest of us joined the party, turning the TV into a magic mirror. A girl who could be your half sister is doing the dance you do in the front yard on Sundays, and she’s making it famous. Next time, it could be your actual half sister. Next time, it could be you. In providing a major cultural platform to kids who rarely received the message come as you are, Don Cornelius modeled the possibility of an equivalent political platform.
In a movie that centers on the political struggles between black and white men in the world of work, that cannot imagine a role for anyone else in the battle for representation in the face of racist violence, it is a Puerto Rican woman’s persistent and plotless physical practice that frames the narrative.
But he also exploited the Soul Train dancers. Rosie remembers: “We didn’t get paid, just a Kentucky Fried Chicken two-piece lunch box — not kidding.” The prestige economy forced the dancers into a frenzy of competition, like “piranhas at feeding time.” Don Cornelius — and the other impresarios who followed in his footsteps — wanted to let in the feel of freedom, but carefully calibrated to align with market protocols and the agenda of their own enrichment. That’s life under racial capitalism, beibi. If he let Rosie move however she wanted to move, she might roll up the next night with her entire hip hop block demanding a living wage. On the other hand, if he didn’t, she might leave. One night, that’s what she did:
I walked back to the head of the line, paused, then strutted down as if I were Naomi Campbell on the runway, continued walking past Don to my seat, grabbed my things, and told him I was out.
It takes a special kind of grace to perform and stop performing in the same seamless gesture. The Soul Train line always pointed beyond the station; Rosie’s secret weapon has been her willingness to leave. In a 2017 interview with Desus and Mero, Rosie states it plainly: “I didn’t wanna be [in show business], so I wasn’t afraid of not getting a job. I was like, fuck this shit, I’m smart, so fuck y’all.” Almost nothing is more threatening to the star system than divestment from it. The star system often functions as an imperial structure of containment, a way to manage the unruly energy of a muchedumbre whose festivities incubate a revolutionary impulse. The Puerto Rican poet Luis Palés Matos warned everybody back in 1937: si … te picara un tambor de danza o guerra / su terrible ponzoña / correrá siempre por tus venas. Translation: if … you’re pricked by the drum of dance or war / that terrible poison / will run forever through your veins. This kind of inheritance doesn’t care who your mother is. This kind of inheritance could go viral.
* * *
Over time I find myself feeling disappointed in Jennifer Lopez, and this might be the moment to ask myself why. It’s a refrain among Puerto Rican women I know to say girls like that are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. My mother says it, too — that her cousin Carmencita was more beautiful, with her heavy winged eyeliner and languorous way with a pencil skirt. Eyes like black coffee trembling in a cup. I’m not sure if we say so because we’re ashamed that she’s regular — the wrong one to represent our culture’s repressed powers — or if we’re ashamed that we’re regular, too, but without the will to say so what? Jennifer Lopez never claimed to be the most talented girl in the room. In her infamous 1998 interview with Movieline, she said, “I’m not the best … that ever lived, but I know I’m pretty good.” Being humble, for her, has never required being hidden — as we so often assume it must.
But Jennifer’s mediocrity is not the source of my disappointment. I don’t care that she can’t sing, or that she’s just okay at dancing. When I think about the fact that Keenen Wayans refused, at first, to hire her as a Fly Girl — “called her chubby and corny” — I’m grateful to Rosie for fighting for that “big-ass beautiful girl from the Bronx” with the “star smile.” I like the footage from that period, especially a little promotional clip for Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” where Janet introduces her new dancers as “Jennifer, Shawn, and Nicky: three backed-up hoes!” It’s fun to watch Jennifer fire back, “Honey we’re here to wreck shop, what’s your problem?” Taken literally, the idiom suggests the end of buying and selling, the general damage “backed-up hos” intend to do with their dancing.
If these are the moments I love best, then maybe I’m less disappointed in Jennifer Lopez than I am in the nature of stardom itself. She’s achieved what long seemed impossible for a Puerto Rican performer: race-blind roles, multimillion dollar paychecks. But that doesn’t do anything to make me feel like part of an us. Her stardom feels far-off and joyless. When I try focusing on recent interviews with her, my eye always wanders from YouTube’s main screen to the little stack of further possibilities waiting in the wings, and I can’t resist clicking aimlessly. I’m more interested in the algorithm of associations than the record of any single personality.
That’s how I spot her: Omarion’s video girl, in a red crop top, striped shorts, and gold sneakers, dancing with Bruno Mars in the January 2018 video for “Finesse.” It’s a tribute to In Living Color, and Danielle Polanco — this time I can say her name — is the Fly Girl the camera loves best, leaning out from the fire escape with her girls to call down to Bruno and his boys, a Tony-and-Maria moment made plural for our pleasure. The family tree has many branches: later I learn that she danced backup for Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, and Beyoncé, that she was the dance captain for the Broadway revival of West Side Story. She played Consuela, an even smaller role than Anita — a backup dancer’s backup dancer. Now, the core of her career is teaching boutique classes: “Heels” at Alvin Ailey Extension and Millennium, “Vogue Femme.” Virtuosity is not what determines a dancer’s destiny in the studio as opposed to the spotlight, and I don’t find myself wishing Danielle Polanco were a star just because I could watch her dance all day. Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
Maybe that’s why Rosie Perez felt weird when she went to the club with her friends from Soul Train and people pointed, stared: “Look, it’s the Soul Train girls!” Just a few years earlier Rosie herself had been the random amateur scouted from the crowd. What had changed, really? The club was still her home haunt, the uncanny valley between amateurism and stardom where her career played out. It’s not hard to imagine all the other Rosies on the dancefloor who’ve remained undiscovered, but still manage to steal the show when the beat drops. Then there’s the rest of us, shoulder to shoulder, an undulating wave of body heat that breaks, now and then, into open conflagration.
Genius has no proper place. Insisting on the absolute distinction between genius and mediocrity drags the party down; it disrupts the circulation of genius itself.
* * *
Three years ago in Brooklyn a new DJ night was born, spinning salsa and reggaetón and trap en español: “A Party Called Rosie Perez.” It’s organized by Christian Martír alongside DJ Suce and DJ Laylo, the same woman who bristled when the wrong people projected a resemblance. It’s gotten hot: when my friend Cassandra went, she spotted Residente from Calle 13. The first time I go, Bobbito Garcia, the legendary hip hop DJ, is at the turntables and I’m dancing with my friend Yohanna while a video projection of Rosie on Soul Train plays on the club wall. Now and then someone bumps the shaky projector and Rosie’s head gets cut off, so she looks like a doomed chicken flapping through her final bravura performance. I can see the bright shadow of her younger body pass over Yohanna’s, Rosie’s rapid pumping playing a polyrhythm over Yohanna’s more relaxed step and slide. Since we’re the party, are we Rosie Perez? Alive and moving inside the space her body’s made? The visual effect allows me to imagine that it’s possible to dance in someone’s footsteps without replacing her. To channel someone’s spirit without making her a ghost.
My reverie is interrupted when a young white boy dancing next to me taps on my shoulder and points to the screen, shouting who is that? In America, I remember, you can immerse yourself in Puerto Rican culture without knowing it. Without ever naming a name. Months later, I think of this moment while reading La raza cómica by the scholar Rubén Ríos Ávila, who offers some counter-questions: What is pleasure worth if it cannot be deciphered? What is the joy of dance good for if we can’t know its point of origin?
I understand the impulse behind the Party as my own: a form of feeling for history. In the absence of something so static or simple as a point of origin, a name is a portal — a way into the crowd as well as a way out of it.
When I leave the club my body’s still buzzing. For a moment I think I see Danielle Polanco, striking a pose on the subway platform. Up close, I see she’s just another cinnamon girl with a high bun and hoops whose skin is dewy from the sweat of a summer night. But I can’t help feeling we’re both backup dancers. Any sudden movement might start a number. We might already be in a number without knowing it, an elaborate social production we didn’t design, roles we didn’t choose, and for which we are probably not being properly compensated. But as backup dancers we’re always ready. Are you?
* * *
Carina de Valle Schorske is a writer and translator living between New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is currently at work on her first book, a psychogeography of Puerto Rican culture, forthcoming from Riverhead and tentatively titled NO ES NADA: Notes from the Other Island.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Fact checker: Ethan Chiel
John Birdsall’s essay for Topic on crimes against taste deserves kudos for bringing us the beautifully evocative words “glitter-scurfed,” but also for being a fun and funny way of getting us all to realize when we’re being judgy assholes about peoples’s food (#ChideReads?). Is the line between “good taste” and “food crime” completely relative? Maybe. But even if it’s not, it’s a lot fuzzier than most of us think.
Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.
Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.
While living in China, English journalist Poppy Sebag-Montefiore experienced the way strangers touched each other in various situations — on the train, in the market, standing in line. “Touch,” Sebag-Montefiore writes in her essay at Granta, “had its own language, and the rules were the opposite of the ones I knew at home.” She recounts her fascination with all of this touch, and how she set about understanding the way it works and where it came from, before the country’s rapid modernization irreparably changed it. All this physical intimacy offered, in her words, “a direct hit of the love, energy and camaraderie that you get from friendship,” but she also wondered if it had a dark side.
Touch in public, among strangers, had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent. But it wasn’t neutral either. At times, yes, you’d be leaned on indiscriminately because of lack of space, or to help take some weight off someone’s feet. Yet other times you’d choose people you wanted to cling on to, or you’d be chosen. You’d get a sense of someone while haggling over the price of their garlic bulbs and you’d just grab on to each other’s forearms as you spoke or before you went on your way. Touch was a precise tool for communication, to express your appreciation for someone’s way of being, the brightness in their eyes as they smiled, their straightforwardness in a negotiation, a kindness they’d shown.
I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.
I wanted to document this unselfconscious touch. To keep hold of it. I could tell that this ease between the bodies of strangers might not survive rapid urbanisation. This touch was so visual, so visible. I freed my camera from the head-and-shoulders interview shot and took it out to the streets.
Jacob Silverman | Longreads | February 2019 | 22 minutes (6,069 words)
Mark Doten is a deranged seer, a mad scribe mapping the end of the world. In The Infernal, his wonderfully strange first novel, he tackled a host of twenty-first century horrors: Osama Bin Laden and his followers, the moral disaster of the War on Terror, the gravitational pull of the networked world on our minds, and a seemingly inevitable post-human future in which one of the few survivors is Mark Zuckerberg. Now, in Trump Sky Alpha, Doten’s produced a fierce, unexpectedly moving, and surprisingly quickly conceived book about the Trump presidency. The new novel begins with a nuclear conflagration that wipes out 90 percent of the global population. The protagonist, Rachel, a journalist steeped in the folkways of the internet, is one of the few survivors. In an effort to reboot American journalism, the New York Times Magazine, risen from the ashes, assigns her to write an article about internet humor at the end of the world. What were people tweeting as the bombs fell?
It may sound like a deliberately obscure assignment, but it soon takes Rachel into some of the darkest corners of the post-apocalyptic American landscape. Mourning her dead wife and child, Rachel is also searching for their final resting place; along the way she finds a new lover, encounters an American security state that seems just as malevolent as its pre-apocalyptic forebears, tangles with a frightful hacktivist-turned-cyber-villain, and meets a novelist dying of radiation exposure who may be the key to it all. Trump Sky Alpha begins as an elaborate farce and ends as something much more grim and compelling, covering issues of politics, resistance, identity, and what, after all these years of mindless info-consumption, the internet actually means to our society. Read more…