I’ve published another essay up on Three Quarks Daily, or rather, an excerpt from a book I’m working on.
It’s about immigration, labor, and the role ethnic identity plays in holding back children of the working class. Cameo appearances by Didier Eribon (and his book Returning to Reims) and Arturo Giovanitti, the famous socialist poet who inspired the exhausted workers of the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912 to carry on.
It begins with one of my own experiences as the daughter of the youngest son of an Italian fruit peddler in the South Bronx of the twenties and thirties.
“When Eribon sketched out the political developments in France over the past fifty years, it was to clarify the process by which the traditionally left-wing French working class gradually abandoned the Socialist Party, which had long been ignoring their interests, and embraced the National Front. The rhetoric of the radical right—anti-intellectual, anti-liberal, anti-solidarity, anti-immigration—spoke directly to the disaffected and disenfranchised, who welcomed the chance to recover their pride and didn’t seem to register that the party’s policies essentially exacerbated their economic plight. And in a cruel twist, when their children beat the odds and managed to get an education and make something of themselves, they often accused them of being just like ‘the people upstairs’—the ones pulling the strings and making the decisions. Not only did their parents show indifference to their achievements; they were quick to remind them not to let it ‘get to their heads’ or to imagine they were anything ‘better.’”
I decided to write a bit about coming to Berlin in the early 1980s—and what the city felt like back then to foreigners. The first time I came to Berlin was in ’83, 38 years after WWII ended. I moved here one year later and stayed. 1983 is a midway point in history for me, because now, in 2022, I’ve been living in the city for 38 years, in other words: I am as far in time from the year I first arrived here as that moment was from the end of the war—which was, in many ways, still present and very palpable.
Whenever I try to understand how history is rewritten, I think of these “time bridges” and recall overhearing a conversation between an elderly couple in a diner somewhere uptown on Lexington Ave. many years ago. I don’t recall the precise marker the man used, but I heard him saying: “that’s exactly as far back in time as that time was from the Civil War.” The time bridge, for want of a better word, connected him to what had once seemed to him a kind of pre-history. Come to think of it, that marker was quite likely the year he was born.
For me, growing up in the US, WWII was also a kind of pre-history—but as the decades accrue, and the mind tries to sort them out, that war—in light of the current war—feels closer than ever.
The essay is titled “Musings on Exile, Immigrants, Pre-Unification Berlin, Trauma, Naturalization, and a Native Tongue”—it’s about those first few years, the mental health crisis among refugees, applying for German citizenship, and what happens when multi-generational memory is no longer passed down through a parent’s native language.
The situation felt primal, imminently violent; distant epigenetic memories of war and bloodlust shivered in my veins. Turn the music off, I shouted, the lyrics are misogynistic. The truth was, there was no time to even consider what they might have been about in any larger sense; the music was sudden-onslaught deafening, terms for female genitals were thundering throughout a public space occupied mostly by excited, electrified young men: to be a woman in this scenario was to feel under threat in a way that was simple and visceral.
Read an essay on cultural assimilation in Europe, the appropriation of American Black subculture by minorities, and gaps in understanding on Three Quarks Daily.
This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale,the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.
Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island.
The first time she’d decided to research the ship manifests and to see what information she could find about her parents’ voyage and subsequent internment, she stumbled, one might say improbably, on a photograph of her mother, taken aboard the ship, posted online by the Immigration History Research Center Archives of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It was part of a series a Latvian passenger named Uģis Skrastiņš had taken to document his trip after leaving a displaced persons camp in Meersbeck, Germany, before eventually resettling in Minneapolis. The collection held a total of 87 photographs recording trains arriving, passengers disembarking, and people standing in line on a dock, waiting to board with manila tags attached to the buttons of their coats, blankets strapped to the suitcases resting on the pavement next to them. People crowded the ship’s deck, near-silhouettes against the churning, metallic-looking water below; crew members handled ropes as thick as their arms, with heavy black smoke curling upwards from another ship’s funnel behind them, and everywhere the latticework of huge metal cranes ready to haul up cargo. Again and again, I came back to the photograph of my friend’s mother. She was smiling, her eyes were downcast, and she seemed to be unaware that she was being photographed; her smile was private, reserved for my friend’s father, the man in the foreground with his back turned to us and his head slightly tilted, also smiling. It was July, and while the ocean air must have had a nip to it, as the people in the photograph were wearing coats, my friend’s mother was wearing hers open. She was two weeks pregnant with my friend; presumably, she didn’t yet know this. Her hair was in place, as was her husband’s: the day was not particularly windy, and two women seated in the background, one of them with a kerchief tied under her chin, seemed to be enjoying the sea air.
When I got off the train yesterday at Santa Maria Novella, I was convinced that I remembered the way; I knew that I needed to take the 36 or 37 bus, but the stop I recalled turned out to be the Capolinea, the end of the line where I disembarked two years ago, over an hour early for my train departing Florence—upon which, to kill time, I wandered around the neighborhood of San Marco, lugging my suitcase behind me in the early-morning serenity of the still-deserted streets. I remember wondering if this mysterious new epidemic would remain confined to its various pockets of outbreak, when all at once, as I turned the corner onto Via Nazionale, the brightly lit letters of Hotel Corona stopped me in my tracks.
As with my arrival in Florence two years ago, it took me some time to find the bus stop, just enough for a vague sense of anxiety to set in. I was traveling by choice, I had an invitation and a room to stay in, and yet the news images of people fleeing first the advance of Russian troops on the Donbas and then everywhere else superimposed themselves onto the bustling Florentine streets: people abandoning their cars and possessions after running out of gas in thirty-mile-long traffic jams headed west for the border checkpoints; men pulled out of queues by Ukrainian soldiers and forced to bid goodbye to their families and join the armed resistance. Children with bunny ears on their woolen caps alarmed and wailing, their faces turned away or pressed to the foggy windows of buses and trains, their mothers unable to console them. Women carrying toddlers in snowsuits and diaper bags and lugging suitcases behind them, bracing for hours on foot in the freezing cold to reach a border or train station even as students and other people from non-white countries are turned back from the checkpoints and often beaten. People hauling cats and dogs on their backs, their children in tow, most of them too exhausted or too numbly focused on surviving the next minutes and hours to cry. The sight of their shock and their uprootedness slices into the marrow and fuels my own temporary lack of orientation, my struggle to conserve the last six percent battery power on my cell phone. I backtrack several times, perspiring and unable to properly concentrate, knowing all the while that I am headed to warmth and safety, to privilege. It eventually occurs to me that I can check Google Maps, and I finally find the bus stop, ashamed at my lack of resourcefulness, at my porosity and empathy that help no one.
“The Weaponization of Language”: an essay on trauma theory, mass communication, the somatization of guilt, and what Mary McCarthy already knew seventy years ago after watching Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” — in LitHub
In the 1990s, trauma theory, most notably that of Cathy Caruth, Judith Herman, Shoshana Felman, and Kirby Farrell, expanded the literary criticism of cultural trauma—based as it was on the Holocaust and the psychological interpretations of its aftermath—to encompass a broader range of subsequent political events that have greatly impacted contemporary society. Caruth drew on the neurological insights of Bessel van der Kolk to assert that trauma, because it so overwhelms the psyche’s capacity for normal perception and memory formation, remains unassimilated and takes its place outside language. The result is a blind spot that is essentially unknown to the traumatized individual, who nevertheless compulsively reenacts it in the form of flashbacks, involuntary bodily responses, phobic reactions, deluded ideation, etc.
While the biological metaphor—the notion that the mechanisms of individual trauma and its somatization can be applied to the pathological symptoms of the larger social body—is not a code for deciphering every troubling feature of the culture, it can nonetheless be instrumental for analyzing phenomena that otherwise defy interpretation, including the enabling fictions that American society, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, creates to reinforce its fundamental beliefs about itself and to justify itself when its behavior transgresses its own declared moral boundaries.
“Littledaughterlinesses” and “corridoricities” and other coinages & portmanteaux in the luminous Walser universe: My review of Susan Bernofsky’s Walser biography at The American Scholar, “Lessons in Abstraction”
Wann ist es Zeit, die Toten hinter sich zu lassen? Auf einer Fotografie, abgedruckt in der New York Times während der Jugoslawienkriege, konnte man Bosnische Serben sehen, welche auf ihrer Flucht die mit dicken Seilen aus den geöffneten Gräbern gehobenen Särge ihrer Angehörigen auf den Dächern ihrer Autos befestigten; sie kannten ihre Feinde – trotz ihres enthemmten nationalistischen Wahns waren diese kaum anders als sie selbst – und wussten, dass diese die Gräber ihrer Ahnen schänden würden.
Immer wieder werden Flüchtlinge, die bei ihrem Versuch, den afrikanischen Kontinent zu verlassen, im Mittelmeer umgekommen sind, an den Stränden Libyens, Tunesiens und Italiens angeschwemmt, wo es selten Vorkehrungen gibt für Grabsteine, DNA-Datenbanken oder nummerierte Grabstätten. Angetrieben von Barmherzigkeit versuchen einige Personen vor Ort die Opfer zu identifizieren, Angehörige zu kontaktieren und den Leichen eine würdige Bestattung zukommen zu lassen. Doch wenn das Meer selbst zum Friedhof geworden ist, welche Bedeutung hat es dann, in fremder Erde begraben zu werden?
Read an in-depth conversation with artists Simon Lee and Eve Sussman, online in my Artists’ Conversations series at 3 Quarks Daily:
“The guys in Dubai’s Old Market were being oppressed for less than minimum wage, they were worker immigrants from Bangladesh that lived in a work camp and sent their wages home to support their families; the construction site that Eve and I originally fantasized about producing Stalkerpooh on became luxury apartments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; the deceits of powerful people—their spoken words—became our script; we built a useless factory that circulated water for no reason.”
“Thirty years later we speak of the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall,’ but the Wall didn’t simply tumble down like a row of dominoes on November 9th. The GDR continued to exist for another year, during which the East German authorities did what they could to keep up appearances. The border guards let East and West Germans cross the border freely, but when it came to foreign residents like myself those first few weeks, they didn’t quite know what to do. My passport wasn’t enough for them; I had to go to the foreign police and apply for an interim document, a ‘Lichtbildbescheinigung’ that was essentially a stamped sheet of paper with my address and a photograph stapled to it. It was a pretend-document for a situation in which the authorities pretended they still had authority; a document for a charade.”
“I know of no love that exists with moderation, at least on my side. The older I get, the busier I am, and the more engrossing my social life becomes, the warier I grow of submitting to the powerlessness of being in a love affair in which the heart is truly engaged. There’s a Kenneth Koch poem posted on the wall behind my computer that explains why. It says, ‘You want a social life, with friends/ A passionate love life and as well/ To work hard every day. What’s true/ Is of these three you may have two.’ When love comes in the door, my work and social life seem to fly out the window. Yet every now and then… even though I know how disruptive it is, I succumb, and all balance is lost.”
I talked to Liesl Schillinger to celebrate the publication of the Strange Attractors anthology with UMass Press—you can read the full conversation here.
And come to the reading at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg, Brooklyn:
Joy Amina Garnettis an Egyptian American artist and writer living in New York. Her work, which spans creative writing, painting, installation art, and social media-based projects, reflects how past, present, and future narratives can co-exist through ‘the archive’ in its various forms. She has been working on a memoir and several other projects around the life and work of her late grandfather, the Egyptian Romantic poet and bee scientist A.Z. Abushady (1892–1955).
Joy Garnett: “Growing up, his ghost was all around me, the stuff of fairy tales, but I didn’t have a real sense of him as a person. My mother and aunt put him on a pedestal—their father, the famous Egyptian poet and doctor. Much literary criticism has been written about his poetry, so I spent years reading and absorbing as much as I could while trying to put together a more intimate and complex picture of him. As an undergraduate, I studied classical and spoken Arabic, and recently I took a series of hands-on beekeeping classes.”