Treya Lam and the Shape of a Person

On a sunny day this May I spoke with the musician Treya Lam about the metaphor of choice of instrument, one of the first choices any American child makes, at least a child born to relative security in this country. Lam, a multi-instrumentalist with an album released earlier this month, has many talents: at the piano, the viola, the violin. Her voice is what people comment on, though, as I found the more folks I spoke to who’d heard her perform. “When she opened her mouth it’s kind of like the entire restaurant stopped eating,” the comic Trish Nelson told me, remembering the first time she saw Lam, at that time a no-name gigger at Mother’s Ruin, the Nolita bar where Nelson waited tables. “It’s so typical of New York that you have a future Grammy Award–winning singer working a 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. song shift.”

The more I learned about Lam, the more her favorite instrument made sense. “The viola,” she explained in her low and musical voice, “is kind of like the middle child between the cello and the violin. It’s a little bit deeper. I personally think now that of all the string instruments…it’s just the best.” She likes how the viola offers the soulfulness of the cello without all the fuss, “a cello you can carry,” able “to create this richness” without impracticality. Imagine, she posed, referencing the larger string instrument, “having to take that on the subway.”

As she spoke, I saw a parallel. The 30-year-old prefers playing to everything else — promotion, talking, having people over to her apartment: Her soulfulness is clean and efficient and cloaked in a modest spirit. Hanging with her produces the wandery mood typically generated by someone who has no idea what she’s up to, the last person you’d expect to have a hip PR team behind her — a cello in viola’s clothing. These days she bums around on friends’ couches, having dropped $10,000 into the production of her debut album, Good News, the first release on a new label started by the guitar phenom Kaki King. For years, Lam — who was raised on Long Island — lived in Bushwick, both typical and not, in that she predated the groundswell, avoided the crowds, moved in before the butcher shops and vintage stores; her childhood friend Stephanie Fung nearly got stabbed on a Sunday morning visit, around the hour people go to church.

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King is herself a virtuoso — killer on the drums, the bass, the guitar, voice — who made a name for herself playing shows in early-2000s Manhattan, alongside a group of female-led rock outfits such as Tegan and Sara and Le Tigre. Today King works out of the Greenpoint home that she shares with her wife and two young kids, from a basement studio where she recently composed her first full-length score for a feature film, and where Lam arrived every day to record and mix Good News. When I visited the two of them in the studio last month, I found a row of some two dozen guitars on the wall. King wears her peroxided hair short, in a James Dean cut. Her jaw is sharp and her eyebrows dark; she is small but looks strong. “I always thought I’d have a hot tub and a doorman and a one-bedroom apartment with a line of babes coming in,” King told me, grinning. “But then this redhead walked into my life.”

On a trip to Los Angeles years ago, at the height of her hot tub–dreaming days, some musician dudes she gigged with told King she would be wise to save money and buy property. Years later, she was able to secure a home in Brooklyn, where she lives a simultaneously quiet and loud life, part rock ’n’ roll, part stable wife, mom, and daughter. Growing up in Atlanta, both her parents were lawyers — in the firm King & King. From them, she absorbed a criticality unusual for a so-called creative type. She describes to me fault lines in the #MeToo movement, says she’s not all on board to the degree one might expect of an icon of queer feminist culture, citing the case of Aziz Ansari as representative of the movement’s blurring of lines in terms of what is and isn’t abuse.

If King is the fire in the elemental balance, Lam is the water. Much of the album came out of literal journeys she took to find herself, drives up and down the East Coast some years ago, and finally a trek way out West, to find a vision she’d had in a dream. She’d been working as a maître d’ at a seasonal hotel on Shelter Island. “I had saved a bunch of money, and was just dreaming of this forest for the entire summer.” It was 2012. Lam told everyone she worked with, “When I’m done with this, I’m gonna go see the redwoods.” In her dream, the trees looked “like a family,” she told me, “a community of trees…super tall, like infinite giants. There was no water, it was just the trees.”

Lam is adopted. She met her birth mother recently, on a trip to Taiwan, a reunion that didn’t quite gel, beset by an inability to communicate that mirrored a larger sense of disconnection from this person in whom she had hoped to see herself reflected. When she drove out to Big Sur, she was searching. She didn’t realize she was in the presence of redwoods until she actually touched the bark of one. “I hadn’t slept well that night, and I couldn’t really comprehend where I was. At some point, I just pulled over and I touched this tree, and just started weeping because I realized I was there.” A few days later, farther north, she walked so far from the road that “everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by these trees. That was the point that felt most like the dreams.” She felt then that she had the power to visualize something into being.

When she and King met in 2016, “she was so prolific she was getting in her own way,” King told me. They were introduced by Nelson, the comic who first heard Lam at Mother’s Ruin. Nelson produces shows around the city — concerts and comedy — and she thought her two friends needed to meet. She orchestrated a setup that felt to her as awkward as an actual blind date, at least her part in it. After dancing around the point, Nelson finally blurted a request that the two musicians take the hint and work together. What resulted is Good News, a languid, bluesy album of songs refined out of reams of score Lam wrote while driving up both coasts. The lyrics reference simple, broad themes: nature, love, peace, kindness — belying the emo tilt of Lam’s appearance. She always wears a dramatic hat, and usually feathers somewhere, plus leather and torn jeans; she tells me she covers her short hair to feel less vulnerable.

As a kid, she didn’t think much about clothes except in an antagonistic way. She was adopted by a Chinese immigrant couple in Nassau County, where her dad, a former director of operation for AT&T, still lives today. Her mom died before the album’s creation, and was sick for most of Lam’s memory; an alum of Parsons School of Design, she was proud to have beaten classroom statistics by graduating. “Then she got diagnosed with lupus in her thirties,” Lam told me, “and was only out working for a few years before that kind of took her out of commission.” The Lams were major figures in the local Chinese Baptist church, hosting prayer meetings out of a basement, where they also housed a piano, expressly for the purpose of religious music. Lam was inducted into the piano circuit young, at the age of three, and played at church. That’s where she met Fung, the friend who would later visit her in Bushwick, and recalls how she would “just watch [Lam] from the pews, like, ‘This girl’s awesome. Amazing at a bunch of instruments.’ ”

With a verve that might have gone into a career in fashion, Lam’s mom set about making things for her baby girl, “spent that energy making me these ridiculously frilly baby clothes,” Lam remembered, wincing. “I looked like a child in a doily. Or we would have, like, matching Laura Ashley dresses.” Lam’s mom was feminine, while Lam never felt she herself was, didn’t yet know the term gender fluid, which she uses to describe herself today but back then might have appreciated for its usefulness — she wore “mostly gym clothes,” and crushed less on her peers than on elders, teachers mainly, never quite doing what she was supposed to. Ergo her love of the viola, the guitar — anything but the violin and piano, twin obsessions of the Asian American competitive musical circuit.

“She kind of had an intense relationship, with her mother being an Asian American parent,” Fung says, and therefore “strict with her about playing music.” Fung recalls “a rebellious phase,” an “I don’t want to practice or play the piano” phase. “The guitar was a little more rebellious.” The viola, as the “middle child,” to cop Lam’s phrase for it, also kept her out of the competitive glare, free to geek out over music without external stakes, so much so that she was accidentally rewarded come college application season. The viola was in high demand at schools, there being few players to choose from, and Lam was “able to get some really good scholarships,” finally taking one from a private school in Florida.

The neatness of the trajectory appealed to me, Lam consistently being rewarded for choosing her own path, for doing what she’s not supposed to, avoiding the easy glory not out of feigned martyrdom but because she’s uncomfortable with pressure, does best when free. Outside the Hungry Ghost coffee shop in Fort Greene, I talked to her about my own choice of instrument — the cello — which in the light of Lam’s path I saw anew. I had been less concerned, I realized, with the practicality of playing than with the sound of telling people what I played, and of pleasing those who would guide me. At the music store, the clerks noticed my long fingers and insisted I was a born cellist, and so I opted for the instrument I knew by reputation to be special; only my small torso meant I was relegated to a three-quarter-size model for all the years I played. I told Lam how I resented this, being handicapped from the start, never able to pull out the sound accessible in a full-size cello, never first chair, only once second, and even then aware that I’d been given a chance despite my inferior sound. Where Lam opted out of expectations, I fumed in silence at bowing to mine, blamed my circumstances for limiting my performance, a handing-off of responsibility for my choices that — my therapists might agree — forms the shape of my particular brand of baggage.

If there is an order shaped from birth, a path set in motion that we can reorient with the perspective that comes with age, into a shape we choose, Lam’s challenge is to reshape her rebellious streak into a marketable energy. King describes Lam’s album as consciously “uncool,” extremely “not 2018,” a throwback to a different era, the slow, moving songs of Carole King and Carly Simon. Lam sits uneasily in the present moment. She views Instagram with trepidation, posting because she knows she has to, and unsure what she should be doing. She namechecks the British singer Laura Mvula as inspiration, a big band–evoking performer who happens to be of color but operates in either a pre– or post–identity politics framework, depending on your view of where we’re headed. She’s listening to the new Janelle Monáe album “nonstop,” but states this in the stilted way of a foreigner explaining methods for fitting in: accent tapes, guidebooks, album of the year. In the car leaving King’s together (it was raining and she had her guitar), I suggest she look into Mitski Miyawaki, the Japanese American singer-songwriter whose track “Your Best American Girl” and corresponding video capture the angst of the in-between person in America today; cast against a blonde girl in Urban Outfitters–style Native American gear, Mitski loses out on a hot white guy both women admire.

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Later, over our coffee, I ask Lam if she got around to watching the video. She did, she tells me, and read an interview with Mitski, who goes only by her first name. Lam sounds less enthusiastic than I expected — I watched the video on repeat for days after friends introduced me to it, seeing in its beats the alienation and humiliation and hopelessness I felt as a young brown girl in Texas, aware that I’d never be taken home by the white boy — the desirable ones and the rest — and feeling this loss not only hormonally but in my mind, where I registered what options were available to me, what level of success.

A white boy represented a means to power and authority in this country; being denied him was to be denied full belonging, a symbolic nod to the current political question of who is in and who is out — one I thought Lam might relate to despite the video’s heteronormativity. Lam explained slowly what she saw: “a sense of longing that felt familiar. A wanting to belong or wanting to be loved feeling. Maybe I was focusing on this a little bit too much,” she then said, “or maybe it was the point, but I read an interview that they did with [Mitski], and she talks about how she’s half-American.” This bothered Lam, she explained, the implication that the blonde girl was “full American” (“she [Mitski] seemed to consider her that as well,” she pointed out) and Mitski half. “How can anyone be half-American?” she asked. “Isn’t that the whole purpose of this country? Like if you are here, we’re all American? Even if you were born somewhere else?” (Mitski grew up bouncing between various countries).

I confessed that I often felt “half-American,” in a poetic sense, denied of full personhood or power or authority, the girl who can try but will never get the full prize (which so often in America, for a straight woman, is the white man, but let’s call him a stand-in — for the promotion, the respect, the opportunities, the room to fail and support to succeed). As I said this I saw the shape revealed by my cello choice, the off-loading of responsibility for my sense of self onto others, a demand they accept me so I may accept myself. The freshness of Lam’s rebellion from this line of thought appealed to me — she’s maybe the first person of color my age I’ve talked to who spoke earnestly about loving America despite feeling rejected by the country. Her hopefulness, she says, is new, a departure, at an admittedly “weird time to be talking about hope in this country, but, even despite everything that’s happening…” She trails off. “Growing up I never felt that this was my country,” she tells me. Then she read the book Walk Across America, by Peter Jenkins, a man disenchanted with the country and the state of it to the point that he gave up his regular paces and decided to walk from Connecticut to New Orleans. “It has the stories of his travels, his solitude, and meeting communities,” says Lam. Reading that book alongside works by James Baldwin as she drove in search of her dream of a family of trees changed her mind about the country. The texts strung together “like a love letter, and it totally worked, because I fell in love afterward.”

Lam grew up getting yelled at by the pastor’s wife for running around, making too much noise. At a young age, she saw her grandmother’s best friend die, a woman so close to the family she lived with Lam’s grandma, as if they were lovers (they were platonic roommates, to Lam’s knowledge, both at one point moving into her own family’s home.) An early memory is of lying in her bedroom after the death, before puberty, and full of confusion. As a teen, she worked as soon as she could, got a special permit at the age of fifteen so she could enter that refuge of the artist looking for a buck, the restaurant industry, a sort of mirror world to the stage in that every night of service demands each player nail her role. Independence was a seduction, but also a birthright — being adopted, she belongs in a sense to no one. The family of trees, I asked, did they and the album arise as a sort of solution to the problem? A way to create a family? Lam thought the search was connected, for herself, to the search for a past and future, to the severing from roots that comes from dislocation. (King, to this, remarked that she forgot Lam was Asian until just then; she thinks of her music as a-gender, a-race, not tied to ethnicity but to human experience. Lam too told me of a series of love songs written with a careful excision of all pronouns, of how it pleases her when listeners describe their surprise at hearing a coffeehouse voice spill out of someone who looks like her).

At a concert at Joe’s Pub a few weeks later, where she played the entirety of her album, I found myself seated next to old friends of the Lams, an elderly Chinese couple who told me Treya’s dad couldn’t be prouder; who talked openly about the adoption and how much love flowed between these people unconnected by blood; how instrumental the Lams were in the church, and how devastating the death of Treya’s mom in 2016 had been for her and her dad, how proud her mom would have been. They pointed Papa Lam out to me; he sat behind me, a smiling man with a large camera, who shook my hand and asked what I thought of the music, in a tone that suggested he didn’t expect anything less than a glowing review.

Lam describes a complex interaction between intimacy and disconnect. Her mom drove her musicality, insisting on lessons and practice, and fretted over Lam’s actual compositions, wondering why the messages couldn’t be kinder — Lam cites one lyric as example, a questioning of a lover for inspiring pain, which rubbed her mom the wrong way. A typical maternal response to sadness in Lam’s life was the suggestion she pray the pain away. Frilly dresses symbolized their difference. At the same time, biking to meet King their first day of recording in 2017, Lam found herself stopping to cry, wishing her mom could hear what came out.

Lam’s marketing team is Girlie Action, the PR firm selected by King because, she told me, “they’re the best at what they do.” In our Uber Lam told me of a moment when, looking around a table at the people handling her shit, she realized no one was of color. I ask if there’s a relief in being seen outside the bounds of race, or any defining quality, referencing how King seemed to realize Lam’s race only in the context of my presence prompting discussion of it. I cite an anecdote from a friend in an MFA program, about a guy with cancer who can’t shake from agents the pitch to market himself as “the cancer guy,” ask if she’s happy to be spared such treatment. (She punted, giving me a smile and a shrug and a variation of “it’s complicated.”)

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Lam’s own musical coming of age tied to white-women rockerdom — barred from radio hits out of religious strictures imposed in her house, she heard her first tease of popular music in college, via a girlfriend, who took her to a Cat Power concert even as Lam’s sexual awakening was unfolding. “She listened to a lot of Cat Power,” her college friend Lauren Palma, also a musician, told me, remembering how the bluesy college band Lam fronted commanded audiences with every show, converting all that rocker energy from the Cat Power inspo into poetic ballads. On the phone with me, Fung, the friend from church, remembered the first song of Lam’s she heard written exclusively for voice and piano. It brought her to instant tears, the song a meditation on unbelonging made richer by Fung’s knowledge of Lam’s unique shape. “I told her,” Fung said, “she should play only the piano.” Fung had also been at the Joe’s Pub concert, where I met Lam’s dad, and I told her I could relate somehow, to the double hearing that comes from knowing what Lam has been through, the questions on her mind. My brother came with me knowing nothing of Lam’s history — the adoption or loss of mom, the gender fluidity, the search for a family of trees. Afterward, he said he was drawn in by her air of mystery, buoyed by the dramatic outfit and a resistance to explain her songs, both features in which I saw proof of the shyness I felt over our coffee, blockades against the public rather than bait to draw them in.

A  few months after her mother died, Lam suffered another death, of a dear friend, the only musician she considered a natural peer, the California singer Dave Deporis. They met at a house party in Brooklyn at a fecund time for him. All he wanted to do was hole up in his room; Lam, for once the social one, seeing in her new friend a need to which she could relate, brought him out, into the light, for balance. Writing songs some time later in a café in Oakland, California, he was interrupted when someone stole his laptop, containing all his songs, his life’s work to that point. He hitched onto the thief’s car and got dragged to death. “I don’t feel frustrated at [Deporis],” Lam said, to the unstated suggestion of agency in the air, the mourner’s refrain, of why’d he have to do that.“I feel frustrated at the way our society is structured. The way we support developing artists is so poor that he struggled to create some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard, up until his last day. All I felt like he wanted to bring to this place was love and…I don’t know. It’s been less than a year since it happened. I’m still…” I asked if she’d ever work on the music he left behind, and she guessed some day, the time would be right. In the meantime, a song he wrote about a redwood tree remains one of her favorites.

My own favorite track from Lam’s album, “Magic,” reminds me of a drive at the tail end of the Pacific Coast Highway, along which Big Sur and the redwoods run. This particular stretch is called the 17 Mile Drive, from Carmel to Monterey, which I experienced a few Januarys back, in a rented car. My companion and I took the path early enough in the morning that light beamed in from the topmost branches of the trees. At one point I begged him to stop the car, the light was so drawn from a fairy tale, falling through the leaves in golden dashes, as if someone gave party confetti the power of levitation. “Magic” exists in a place that reminds me of that one, the instrumentation light and airy and golden, Lam’s voice beseeching the listener to watch out for magic. It sounds cheesy, but the effect isn’t; as with the best nursery rhymes, there is a haunting, forever quality, as if you were meant to hear the tune since birth (aided by the suggestion of a music box hammer in the song’s rhythm). Lam told me she wrote the song after the gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary School brought down more than a dozen children. Her heart was with the ones left behind, now inside lives stretching ahead with the task of untangling what they had seen. As she told me this, I thought of her on the bed after her grandmother’s friend’s death. Today, I think of the children at the border of our country, who face a long road to healing.

The album’s title echoes the terminology of the religious, and a few passages from the Bible show up in lyrics. Lam tells me these choices reflect a strategy of sorts, to draw in listeners who might not go for a queer nonwhite songstress. A previous near miss at an album brought Lam close to appealing to an entirely different audience — non-American, on the Asian continent — shepherded by Ysanne Spevack, a musician and manager out of L.A. who heard of Lam through a mutual friend. A multi-instrumentalist and string arranger who’d gigged with the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Asian Dub Foundation out of her home in the U.K., Spevack linked up with Lam years before King, ahead of the current era of popular culture in which marketing one’s own identity is a prereq for creative success in the way it is today. Spevack encouraged Lam in that direction anyway, thinking she’d simply write deeper the more she knew about herself, and live happier.

One thought was to market Lam in Taiwan; Spevack knew the British government spent money on the global success of its artists, funding grants and training abroad. One night, she discovered the Golden Melody Awards, the Taiwanese analog to the Grammys, only “way bigger than anything we have,” because it’s in Asia, where stadium size is a point of national honor. One slice of the awards was dedicated to indigenous Taiwanese musicians. Intrigued, Spevack read up on the awards organization, only to find with growing anxiety that she was looking at a people who resembled Lam. The revelation felt earth-shattering. “It had implications about her health, her genetics, her adoption,” Spevack says — hypothesizing that an indigenous baby adopted by a mainland Chinese couple might be seen as better off never knowing she wasn’t mainland too.

As Spevack clicked through images, she saw the shape of Lam — her large bones and dark skin, her tendency to wear feathers and go barefoot and sing about nature, all traits shared with some of the artists out of the country’s tribal regions. She compares the distinction to one we make in America with jazz and blues traditions, that a people linked to a story of despair infuse a level of emotion into their art. “Indigenous Taiwanese people from these three tribes have this tendency — if you’re a good singer, there’s a tendency toward this beautiful soulfulness, this ability to move people to tears.” Hearing the story,I thought of Lam’s favorite instrument — the viola, whose larger body emits a different sound from that of the violin, deeper, lower, melancholic, and singular; Lam’s body, I thought, was the viola to her Chinese peers’ violins.

Spevack asked Lam to consider a trip upstate, told her she had important news, but she would need to be ready for it; worried she might hurt the family. Before any revelation could happen, Lam’s dad spilled the news of her origin, in a stroke of aligned timing. Some day, Spevack hopes to visit Lam’s tribe in Taiwan with her. (Lam tells me she’s excited to explore her heritage while being “wary of exploiting this side of me.”) Spevack sees in Good News a step toward a self knowledge that doesn’t jump with both feet into the American marketing game, the promise of a Jack White–style success story in the album’s potential to turn Lam international where the Taiwan push fizzled, to find a place in the U.K., where audiences accept the power of sound, often in lieu of sociopolitical alignment.

This tendency Lam’s crew has, to see a potential superstar behind the resistance to being one, I saw reflected in the spirit of the Joe’s Pub concert. The crowd of well-wishers and strangers produced waves of applause and cheers that felt almost loving, even as Lam begged off long explanations of her songs, saying, at one point, “I’d rather just play.” Fung compares the effect of Lam’s voice to ocean waves. “She draws you in, hypnotizes you, and all at once you’ll get taken up by a huge tide, a swell that takes you over completely.” She tells me she noticed the waitstaff stop at one point in the evening, as Lam sang next to a trio of musicians on string instruments — all of them, by chance, white. “I do remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, this Asian female lead singer is onstage, leading a bunch of caucasians on string instruments, doing a fantastic job.’ ” The reversal of expectations pleased Fung, a totally 2018 flip one might expect a PR manipulator to orchestrate. Like everything with Lam, though, the effect was accidental; you could tell she wasn’t trying to be anything.

Treya Lam is performing with Kaki King at the Prospect Park Bandshell on July 28 as part of the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival.

Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Too Sad to Move: On the Paralysis of Depression

On my honeymoon we hiked a glacier at the border of Argentina and Chile, about as far south as you could go before hitting Antarctica. No organic life moved. Neon blue water faded to the shore into a milky hue due to particles of ice. The shore was rock, the redbrown of a lion. The glacier sliced in white sections shot with the same chemical blue as the waters. The guide said the blue came from the sun. When ice gets super cold and dense, light refracts off it differently; the color shows more intense. We slipped and climbed in our rented spiked shoes and caught panoramas of water and rock and air. It was like no sensory experience I’ve had, save staring into a canvas — pure color, something by Gerhard Richter, maybe. Occasionally we’d meet a blue sliver in the ice plunging more than a mile. The guide told us to beware; if we tumbled to the bottom we might not die, but we’d break every bone, lie in pain until they somehow got us out.

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A bedrock of pain linked us, so this caught our attention. By then we’d developed a game, my husband and I, that we called: “Should we just kill ourselves?” It involved saying the phrase, then pondering the question. (The rules were unstated but understood.) We played when faced with a task that felt insurmountable, some paralysis, due to career, or other people, or family. Paralysis was something I felt I would live with always. My first therapist couldn’t figure it out, met with silence my description of sitting on the couch unable to move, circles of thought moving me instead, arguments against living. I’d found her after calling my dad, after considering walking into traffic with a seriousness that was new. No one we knew from India or with roots there had a therapist, at least not openly; but my dad was a pragmatist, and we didn’t need more death. The smell of my mom’s cremation was still in my nose, every word still in my head from the letter I slipped under her bathroom door a few days before she fell from a stroke that came like a surprise wave — blaming her for the hands that touched me when only hers should have, for denying me when I asked for therapy years later.

Now she was dead and I worried she didn’t know that I also didn’t blame her, that I loved her. I went to an old escape fantasy, first shared at the office of my pediatrician in Texas, who laughed when I asked for a pill that could turn me back to a baby. Some darkness always lay in wait to get me and I felt I couldn’t stand it — kids laughing in the shadows, or grown-ups who hated me, or, always, hands. I imagined the whole world sharpened to a point against me, a vision helped along by the many times people would stare: when I walked into a classroom, the only brown kid; when we entered a gas station on a road trip. Some years later a girl around my age, seven or eight, shot herself with a gun in the bathroom of her fancy prep school nearby. I was transfixed by the story, couldn’t stop thinking of a girl my age being so decisive while I stayed wishy-washy. I contemplated the knives in our kitchen, asked my mom what she’d think of a girl my age going that way, covered my tracks by saying I’d heard of such a happening. She said she’d think the girl was sick. I didn’t want her to think badly of me, so that was that.

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I don’t know where the urge to kill oneself comes from, if some of us have it and some of us don’t. My mom didn’t seem to have it. She had no hair or ability to walk or talk, and still she raised her arms every day to exercise them, on the hope she would get strong enough to live through surgery to remove the tumors that caused the stroke, a cancer growing in hiding until it made itself known by wrecking her in a second. Watching her I felt awed, and confused. If it’s not a kitchen knife that gets you it’s a rotting hole in your belly from the feeding tube, physical pain if not emotional. At amusement parks, I’d get to the end of the line and turn around, bow out, push through all the people to exit the experiment. I knew I’d never fight as my mom had, given the chance to die. Why waste time along the way?

Biology tells me I’m programmed to want to live. So many sperm could have made their way to the egg. Clearly the one that did had will, a survival instinct, expressed years later in my dad insisting I live by securing outside help. That day on the ice, my husband and I considered dying, but only because the glacier was more beautiful than anywhere else we could go. Better to die there, we reasoned, than return to a place of paralysis. I’ve found it helps to physically move, the way stretching can stave off the stiffening of joints that comes with another sort of disease. But healthcare is expensive in this country, people too busy to talk on phones, therapy treated as a luxury good. I do not know what one does without a biological proxy for the survival instinct, engaging your will to live when it is lost to you, who calls the numbers, writes the checks, lifts your arms in exercises when you can’t move.

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.


What “The Simpsons” Doesn’t Get About Its Apu Problem

Growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Texas, I became accustomed to my point of origin doubling as a punch line. Jokes came from two ends — from bullies, of course, but from friends too. I remember the pain I felt when one of my closest friends, a white Texan girl who felt like a sister, made fun of my family’s characteristically joined brows in front of a bunch of boys we all wanted to impress. Other friends mimicked my parents’ accents, which I hadn’t even been aware of until the white people around me performed imitations. A friend recounts a curry joke told under similar circumstances, with boys as the audience, by one of her besties, another second-gen kid, but one not as evidently “different” — her parents having immigrated from Iran. 

When even your friends see the facts of your existence as comedic material, you can start to turn against the terms of your life. My recourse was to join in. Though I loved my parents and unibrowed brother in private, I saw them as enemies in public, holding against my mother her tendency to keep her bindi on at Taco Bell after a temple visit or wear a sari to one of my junior high school events, as if she chose such options expressly to endanger me. As I grew older and more inclined to get ahead of a story, playing my family and especially my parents for laughs became second nature, to the point that when I finally got a starring role in a high school play — a Molière joint — the theater director suggested I convert the character, play her with that funny Indian accent I did.

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I think back on that performance more these days than I could have expected. I carried it out according to instruction, even as my internal radar for honor, my sense of losing respect for myself, thrummed madly in my belly. On a grander scale, we see brown Americans doing the same, even today. Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistani American actor behind the mainstream indie rom-com The Big Sick, told me years ago about an audition at which he was asked to put on an accent, despite the fact that he has an authentic Lahori one. At the time he and I spoke he was just making waves on HBO’s Silicon Valley, not yet an Oscar nominee, with room enough to escape the bind. “I already have a Pakistani accent, but they want me to do ‘the Apu accent,’ ” he told me. “A lot of people think of that as being the go-to comedy Indian accent.”

Such days may seem far behind, but as the writing staff of The Simpsons pointed out this week, some among us long for them still, including people from which one doesn’t expect such nostalgia, given the bent of their industry’s politics. On an episode that aired Sunday night, Lisa dropped a line during a bedtime story that’s since been replayed all over the internet. At the time, her mom, Marge, reads aloud a re-edited version of a fictional children’s book, The Princess in the Garden, neutered to reflect the politics of 2018 with the excision of jokes about the Irish and South Americans.

“Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect,” Lisa muses at one point. “What can you do?” The camera pans to a framed photo on Lisa’s nightstand of the Simpsons character who owns the Kwik-E-Mart — Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — signed with the phrase, “Don’t have a cow.”

For those of us involved in the respectful war against this long-named cartoon relic, the scene is one more explanation of why we shouldn’t stop talking. The influence of the character known as Apu runs deep and wide. I first became aware of its extent when reporting an article lately seen in the 2017 documentary against which this new Simpsons episode seems directed, The Problem With Apu, helmed by the comedian Hari Kondabolu. The documentary aims to situate Apu inside a larger tradition of minstrelsy in American culture. (Full disclosure: I’m in it.) 

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To my mind, though, Apu stands as unique in the canon of American caricatures, because of the position of his real-life analogs in this country. Voluntary immigrants of the 21st century don’t fit neatly into the country’s canonical narratives of otherness. And so we struggle to tell our story, working as we are with somewhat new text. Compound the slipperiness of our tale with our broad philosophy to jet-propel rather than rock a boat, and you arrive at the strange place in which we keep finding ourselves: where even the people programmed to try to understand you instead throw in with the bullies. Viewed as wealthy and educated, we are also seen as fair targets; that we started out by playing to expectations, making fun of ourselves, only complicates the current moment.

The dismissal of criticism by Asian Americans comes regularly these days from a certain strain of should-be friends: white comedy veterans. Tina Fey epitomized this stance when she dedicated an episode of her Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to the humiliation of an organization of activist Asian bloggers, after the show’s sole Asian character, a silent man named Dong, drew criticism in the real world. The minds behind the Oscars ceremony validated this line of comedy a few years ago, with a bunch of jokes about Chinese kids threaded into an otherwise grave parade of #Oscarssowhite protestations. And the Simpsons has by now perfected the non-apology apology, this latest grumble at critics coming after a parallel episode that aired in 2016, soon after Hank Azaria spoke to me about feeling bad for the first time about Apu after watching Kondabolu complain about the character on Comedy Central. In that Simpsons episode, Apu reveals a with-it, American-accented nephew, played by one of the angriest sources in my story, the actor Utkarsh Ambudkar. What seems a mea culpa twists by the end to once again validate the sanctity of Apu and write off critics as a bunch of whiners. As Ambudkar bemoaned years later in the Kondabolu doc, “the Simpsons always wins.”

Hari Kondabolu vs. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon

A story about a story can tell a lot. I wonder why, in this country, “friends” value the comedic potential of certain among us over our psychic health. I recall a line told me by another second-gener, making sense of a liberal white dude with power who once told us to stop angling for space to write our stories because “Asian Americans aren’t minorities. You’re just like white people.” My friend theorized that the guy didn’t want another group to feel bad about. In the case of established comedy writers, I’d wager an emotional stasis also plays a role. Once you accept that your definition of comedy isn’t funny anymore, where are you? Make space for new people who don’t look like you, and what do you lose?

We might pose similar calculations to ourselves. Whether making fun of or explaining our lives, we’ve spent a lot of energy on the needs of people who don’t really care about ours. The good news is our parents taught us to try really hard, as a Simpsons writer might tell you. The demographics of the inner chambers are changing; we’re selling our own shows, and everyone knows the underground party is better than prom. It’s probably time to stop trying to get titans to listen and just keep writing so hard the ones who know what’s best for them have no choice but to hear.


‘I Am Manjula!’ In Praise Of The Ultimate Indian Diva

Manjula graces a friend’s Facebook page, chin in hand, eyes in kohl, “bored but fantastic,” as my friend says of the glamorous Sixties screen villain. Last week I met Madhur Jaffrey, the Indian actress who played Manjula all those years ago, in her East Village apartment. Shakespeare Wallah, the film to which we owe both female icons, airs in high definition this month in select U.S. theaters. The 1965 Merchant Ivory production marked a time of hope for its key players, who’d all go on to major careers. “I wanted to be Marlon Brando,” Jaffrey told me, sitting upright on a couch. Born in 1933 in Delhi, she’d made her way to America by her twenties, led by a love of acting and of a man. Her first husband, Saeed Jaffrey, won a Fulbright to study drama that ultimately landed the couple in Manhattan in 1958; Madhur herself had already graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Madhur’s birth and departure from India bookended the fall of the British Raj, and in the world of British theater, she found herself drawn to others linked to the subcontinent, a sort of Anglo-Indian Brat Pack, led by director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This “three-headed monster,” as Merchant once called the trio, would make Shakespeare Wallah and two dozen more films, including A Room With a View, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

Shakespeare Wallah tracks a love triangle, between Lizzie Buckingham, played by British actress Felicity Kendal; Sanju, by the Indian actor Shashi Kapoor; and Manjula, by Jaffrey. It was shot in the Himalayan foothills on a tight budget with proceeds from The Householder, the first ever Merchant Ivory film — now a genre of its own, suggesting period drama, elaborate dress, English accents, a bit of stuffiness, maybe, but quality — scripted also by Jhabvala. To save money, the team shot Shakespeare Wallah in black and white, using homemade costumes. At the time, Jaffrey lived with her first husband on 26th Street in Manhattan, in a small apartment on the top floor. She showed up in India after years away, nauseous for her first shoot (getting to the hills is even today no joke — I puked en route as recently as 2008), a look she felt set doubt in the crew as to her rightness for Manjula. Jhabvala, Jaffrey told me, seemed to question the casting even before shooting. The women knew each other from All India Radio; Jhabvala, a Brit who moved to Delhi from England, translated Sanskrit plays; Jaffrey voiced some roles. “I was skinny,” she explained, as to why she seemed wrong for Manjula. “My nickname at school was ‘bookworm.’ ”

Manjula is a diva, a film star with many fans. “I am Manjula!” she snaps at one point, when Sanju upsets her. She wears flowy dresses and makeup to bed. In a famous scene, she serves Lizzie Buckingham tea while dressed in all white and gold jewelry, her hair in a chignon. The idea is to intimidate her competition. Lizzie, wearing stripes and a cardigan, belongs to a troupe of roving actors run by her parents. Throughout the film, the Buckinghams traverse hill stations performing Shakespeare for Indian crowds who seem to bore by the minute. One show ends badly when Manjula swishes in late, diverting the attention of young male fans in the audience. Later, Sanju scolds her with the cadence of a brother. With Lizzie, he’s romantic. She tells him of sleeping in bus stations, living the life of an artist. He repeats the word to Manjula, telling her one afternoon, as she asks for advice on which photograph to send to a magazine, that she’s anyway not a “real artist,” like Lizzie.

Jaffrey’s own acting career tracked more Lizzie than Manjula. In mid-century New York, she worked nothing parts making $10 a week “off-off Broadway,” repped by an agent with clients “like me,” she said, meaning non-white and desperate: Middle Easterners, Indonesians. Aware of their low ceiling, the Jaffreys thought of starting a theater troupe. When Saeed shared the plan with Ivory — a Californian with whom he’d worked on a documentary — the director, high off The Householder, had another idea. “What a great idea for a screenplay,” Jaffrey remembers him saying.

Indian women old and young love Jaffrey, as my friend’s Facebook page attests. The actress’s Imdb page feels “Indian” too, with its bit roles, Law & Order stints, and British productions. “Indian” can go both ways to a casting agent, Jaffrey pointed out: too Indian, or “not enough,” a phrase as infuriating as it is mysterious.

“They don’t know that there are all kinds of us,” she surmises. For her part, she “felt more in common with artists than Indians” in those early Manhattan years. She happily talked “Indian shop” with the few who lived stateside, but her ethnic “herd instinct” wasn’t as strong as her artist one. She and Saeed split in her twenties, three kids between them. By the 1970s, she had a new husband and career, as a food writer. She wrote for small magazines, a job that paid fine in those days. (“Writing doesn’t make sense anymore,” she said, piercing my heart.) She moved into books, most laced with recipes from her childhood in Delhi. Her list of James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing bears none of the caveats of her Imdb page; it’d be impressive for a white dude.

Felicity Kendal (right) as Lizzie Buckingham in “Shakespeare Wallah”

In Shakespeare Wallah, Sanju and Manjula bear neither surnames nor family; Lizzie Buckingham has both. When the movie played at the Berlin Film Festival in the summer of 1965, Jaffrey upset expectations by winning a Silver Bear prize for best actress. Ivory supposedly hoped Kendal would be awarded the prize, a bit of gossip affirmed onstage by Jaffrey during a Q&A last week. (“There was some amount of awkwardness there,” she said, coyly, of tensions in the team after her win. “But I think we got over it as best we could.”) One understands Ivory’s dilemma: Lizzie’s who we’re meant to love. First and last name. A full person. Not to mention, sweet. White, not brown. Civilized, not savage. She smiles, never pouts, is kind to Manjula, despite the harassment.

Watching Shakespeare Wallah as an Indian or second-gen woman can produce a dissonance. We are meant to root for Lizzie, but then she can’t compete with Manjula. The presumption of Lizzie as a universal taste betrays the movie’s creative origins — it was written, after all, by a Westerner in India, a woman who also loved against type. Like Lizzie, Jhabvala fell for an Indian man, a Parsi architect, whom she married. A German-Jewish exile to England, she became a prolific writer of fiction after shifting to India in 1951, at 24, the start of her adult life. Householder was first a novel, which Ivory approached her to adapt. “An alien place,” she would call India, after leaving, decades later, somewhat broken, according to reports, by the heat and poverty. One story, Aphrodisiac, speaks to the loneliness of the Indian wife, in the context of mother-son love — a mother dotes so much that the son’s marriage falls apart. (A Portnoy’s Complaint for the Indian man could really write itself.) In Jhabvala’s best-known novel, Heat and Dust, an Indian man falls for a white woman.

If writing reveals biases of the heart, so does reading and watching. My favorite of Jaffrey’s books exposes mine. It may be her least known: Seasons of Splendour, a slim volume of myths she first heard at her aunts’ feet, as creepy as any Jhabvala story collection. I paged through it again after meeting its author. In my Brooklyn apartment, I felt drawn back to my childhood bed in Dallas. To the bedsheet bought on Commercial Street in my mom’s hometown of Bangalore. To the sound of my parents frying dosas, of India somehow in our house, the veins of the country brought to us. One story goes a step beyond even Aphrodisiac’s oedipal psychodrama: A mother-in-law tries to kill her son’s wife. Watching Shakespeare Wallah, I felt my biases stirring — the sight of an Indian woman lounging in silk, convinced of her power, drew me in. The sweet British ingenue as her counterpoint? Not so much. Even in what is meant to be Manjula’s grossest moment, I saw triumph. When she distracts the Indian men from watching Lizzie, and, thus, Shakespeare, I saw the story of India wresting power for itself, taking control of its methods of art and distraction. In that moment, I saw the fall of the Raj. I welcomed it.

The movie closes on Lizzie too, as if to bring home to whom our loyalties belong. She looks sad as she floats on a boat back to England, having told Sanju she loves him, to no avail. In a frustrating scene, she says she’ll do what it takes, shift her life from the artist’s one she adores to a pace fit for coupling. Nothing draws a response, not this practical invitation to love, nor the one when her voice catches on the actual word. “He sucks,” my Manjula-stan friend and I agree. Some hero and heroine: the former unaware of his selfishness, the latter of her foolishness. Both claiming connection but in the end buttoned up against the other, drifting apart, while Manjula forces intimacy with each, over tea or in bed. (Hatred is a form of intimacy.) It’s Manjula, a villain selfish and foolish and lonely and sad, but never claiming to be otherwise. She lives in the heart. Exposes our bias. She is the one we love.


“Shakespeare Wallah” runs today until November 14, at Quad Cinema, in Manhattan. Tonight’s screening includes a Q&A with Madhur Jaffrey and James Ivory.


Print May Be In Peril, But Pop-Up Magazine Is Alive and Thriving (Maybe Because It’s Live)

Last March, sitting in Town Hall Theater in Seattle, Brooke Jarvis cried over a magazine story. Not something she’d read, though. Jarvis found herself in tears over Pop-Up Magazine, the live storytelling series aiming to shift the print experience from the page to the stage. Jarvis is herself a seasoned investigative reporter, and knows something about provocative storytelling. “Unclaimed,” her profile of an anonymous migrant who spent 16 years unidentified in a vegetative state, won a Livingston Award this summer, a big deal for journalists. But at Pop-Up, she found herself moved in a new and unexpected way. “I could imagine reading the same information in a magazine or text, and while you’d have an emotional reaction to it, maybe it wouldn’t be as strong as being in the audience, all together,” she says. “You’re laughing and crying and caught up in the collective experience.”

At a Pop-Up show, journalists become performers and vice versa. Lineups may include comedians and actors, as well as reporters and essayists, invited or accepted via an open application process. The challenge is to tell a reported story through audio and visual means, crossing the playfulness of fiction with the rigor of nonfiction. The development process can take months and is collaborative, involving members of Pop-Up’s team.

Next week, the series sets down at Lincoln Center for the first time. (Past New York legs have included Town Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Kings Theatre.) Performers on tap include the comedian Aparna Nancherla, with her funny analysis of a viral TED talk on body language, and Cord Jefferson, who juxtaposes the death of voicemail with a more private loss. They share the stage with traditional journalists: New York-based reporter Matt Wolfe, whose piece tackles a mysterious graffiti tag laced through the city; an examination of the word “diva” by the investigative reporter Robin Amer weaves in a performance by an opera singer; and an appearance by Kurt Andersen, who knows all about the transition from the written word to live performance, having gone from co-founder of Spy Magazine and editor of New York to Peabody Award-winning radio host of Studio 360 on WNYC.

A Pop-Up journalist is accompanied by a band at the show in Oakland.

The series has become something of a rite of passage for media wonks since 2014, when the journalist Douglas McGray launched both the live Pop-Up shows and The California Sunday Magazine: a more traditional publication in tandem with a whole new kind of journalistic model. Ultimately, California Sunday has developed into a formidable media property in its own right, the winner of multiple National Magazine Awards, as well as a darling among journalists.

A loose pipeline connects California Sunday and Pop-Up: Jarvis’ editors at the former suggested she apply to perform at the latter. Her “emotional reaction” during field research surprised her, given her familiarity with magazine stories. Sitting in the audience full of emotion “made me want to pitch them,” says Jarvis. It’s a unique experience for writers used to seeing their words live on in print or online: the shows aren’t recorded, or disseminated for viewing after the fact.

For performers it’s like touring with a band, absent the “jerks,” Jefferson suggests; shows start with a backstage toast and end with a cocktail party in the lobby. There are three tours a year, with this one swinging from the West Coast to the East, with a stop-off at the Twin Cities. Future tours may expand out of the country, and into new storytelling modes: virtual or augmented reality.

Pop-Up ‘s Oakland show, from October 18

The “special kind of alchemy” of live storytelling appealed to Jefferson, a Gawker alum who now writes for Master Of None and The Good Place. In television, “it takes forever to accomplish anything, and often the things you end up writing never see the light of day,” he said by phone.

Pop-Up offers something new for journalists, too. Jarvis spoke of the “constraints” of the obsession with timeliness in the field, which can discourage writers or editors from considering subjects dead and gone, such as the 20th century kidney doctor Jarvis’ new story tackles. “I think every writer has had the experience, probably many times, of being in love with the story, and you can’t convince an editor to love it too. Because editors are working within constraints. They need to convince readers why you should read this and why you should read this now.”

Revenue includes ticket sales and ads run as narrative segments during shows, as well as subscriptions to California Sunday. “The biggest way we gauge impact is how we moved the audience,” says Anita Badejo, a Pop-Up senior producer and former BuzzFeed editor. “We have people who’ve gone to really early Pop-Up shows and years later will say, ‘We remember this story we saw at Pop-Up in 2011.’ That is really powerful and really exciting, because how many stories do you read in a newspaper or hear on a radio that you’re going to remember in six years?”

The model echoes live theater. “Other people may see the same play, but never the version you saw,” as Jefferson put it to me. In the age of screen dominance, “it’s nice that as in life, sometimes you have to be there to get the experience of something,” Jarvis agrees. She left the Seattle Pop-Up show with an idea, a pitch for the story she’d take to the stage, scribbled in the program.

Pop-Up Magazine will be performed Monday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.


Salman Rushdie, an American Immigrant in the Age of Trump

Salman Rushdie wants to re-create Lolita. Specifically, the “long middle section, when Humbert and Lolita are on the road going from motel to motel in the middle of nowhere.” Not in a skeezy way, but with his youngest son, who is in his twenties, hates Facebook, loves Instagram, and promises untold knowledge and material and surprise for his seventy-year-old novelist father. The trip would scratch a few itches: supply the take “of a much younger person on what’s going on”; play out literary fantasies, re: Lolita and another old favorite, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It would also take Rushdie — a cosmopolitan writer in the strictest sense — into what the Manhattan intellectuals in his latest novel The Golden House might call “the hinterlands.” The “long middle section,” not of a book, but of a country.

Out this month, The Golden House unfolds far from the hinterlands. It’s meant to be Rushdie’s “New York novel,” he tells me, in the line of the great ones, most obviously, The Great Gatsby. Here too a dazzled narrator — named only René — guides readers into the life of a self-made enigma, Nero Golden, who arrives in a haze of moneyed mystery at the Greenwich Village enclave where René was raised and still lives. The complex feels otherworldly: a block of housing around a quadrangle, referred to throughout as The Gardens. It’s a dream of New York for the canon — more Madeleine than Girls. With it, Rushdie makes a formal bid for a title. When I suggest he has leapfrogged since his debut from “Indian” to “international” author, he offers an addition, based on the lineage The Golden House slots into: “I think I can even call myself an American novelist.”

Rushdie’s first trip to New York was during his twenties. “I had a lot of friends here, so when I actually did move here, I didn’t feel like a stranger in town.” He rented a place, figured he might stay six months, instead lasted “basically the rest of my life.” His new home reminded him of the one he’d left. “Even the shape of Manhattan island is pretty much the same shape and size as what used to be called Bombay and what is now called South Bombay. The old downtown area.” Like America’s, India’s megalopolis “has grown massively onto the mainland. There is this sort of peninsula sticking into the sea, which is really very approximately the same proportions as Manhattan and exactly the same, really, of this very vibrant, incredibly crowded space.” In both cities, it takes “two hours to get anywhere.”

The theme of arrival thus inspired The Golden House: a “classic New York subject,” says Rushdie. “This is a city in which most people who live here were not born here. Most people came here from somewhere else. You put your bags down and you’re a New Yorker.” So far, headlines about the novel focus mostly on Donald Trump, whose presence is elliptical; the book begins with Obama’s inauguration and concludes with the rise of a monstrous, green-haired new president, a political framework Rushdie makes light of repeatedly, in a resigned tone, as if executing a move he’s had to make all tour long. “I think of it really as background rather than foreground,” he says.

Rushdie isn’t in the business of anticipating the internet’s needs. He more often confuses it, as when Gawker and Page 6 writers covered his oddly old-fashioned sexts, in 2011, or when a few years later the writer Benjamin Anastas blamed the banality of Rushdie’s tweets for killing the fantasy of literary celebrity. We chafe when Disney stars grow up, nor do we want stately literary types to be too real (especially when they have British accents). Ultimately, Rushdie reached what he calls “a vanishing point,” set in play by a thought. “I just don’t need this noise in my head. I just don’t need it. There was something about the tone of voice of a lot of Twitter which is very discourteous and adversarial. It’s like a performance of something. I just thought, ‘Stop it, I don’t want this. I have no use for this.’ I stopped, and I deleted the app.” His last tweet is a poignant one, sent on November 8, 2016. “Done. You’re welcome, #MadamePresident! #imwithher,” it reads. Below it, a selfie of a bald, hawk-nosed face. Golden House–resident style, passable for any sort: Israeli, French, Jewish, Zoroastrian. A triangle of pinstripes edging a black coat, buildings of the city behind him. A man of the metropolis voting for a woman of the same, endorsed with a heart symbol, 2.7 million times.

René’s parents liked to talk about a bubble that they were happy to live inside. “Between the metropolis and the hinterland, always resentment, always alienation,” René’s mother, a college professor born in Belgium, used to say. Their neighborhood teemed with immigrants. Not the sort one might associate with the Lower East Side — scrappy Poles or Russians or Chinese strivers looking to make a buck. Residents of The Gardens became immigrants because they had money, not for lack of it. Hyper-educated, mobile, rootless. From nowhere; going everywhere. Nomads stopping at the finest ports of call. Immigrants in the vein of Rushdie himself, who was born in India when it was still British, to a Kashmiri Muslim family when such a title wasn’t in contention, in Bombay when the city was still spelled that way. When he arrived on the literary scene in 1981 with his Booker Prize–winning novel Midnight’s Children, he embodied the global citizen, a figure who seemed destined to last, even after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence, in the wake of 1988’s The Satanic Verses, chased him from London to New York. Rushdie seemed to define the future. A person born to toggle between poles of power: educated in England, decamped to America. In the hinterlands, they might call him a coastal elite.

Rushdie has a magician’s rather than a physicist’s sense of the world. He laughs that his conception of New York is “probably romantic” (dropping bags no longer stakes a claim so much as dropping millions in cash). His first novel, Grimus, confused readers because of its romanticism. Billed as sci-fi, it featured the flights of authorial fancy that became his calling card — rooted loosely in mythology: Sufi, Hindu, Norse — rather than in the strict internal logic of bona fide science fiction. The Golden House may feature the markers of the day, but Rushdie downplays what is current about it. “If the book depends on those things, then those things pass and our level of interest in those things diminishes, and along with that, our interest in the book diminishes,” he says. “The real virtues of the novel” he lists as “character and emotion and caring about what’s happening to people.” Fitzgerald, he believes, never forgot “the human scale, that the novel is actually about human beings and their concerns. As long as you put that in the center, then you have a chance of lasting.” I ask if technology has irrevocably changed the “human scale” of life. Do we care for each other as we have for eons, when we interface so regularly through machines? “It has endangered it,” he replied.

Even so, novelists who never claimed to be “political” are shifting gears. Zadie Smith last year spoke of being surprised at her changing urges, citing George Saunders’s take on Trump supporters in the New Yorker as evidence of a trend. “The question is who is in the bubble,” he says, laughing. “I sometimes think that the people out there in the middle of nowhere are the ones in the bubble.” He described the middle of the country as full of people “who somehow got left behind, in an earlier age of the world.” As to the hard fact that they are setting the pace of the next age, he cited a statistic René’s father frets over, that 19 million people did not vote.

“I don’t think it’s the metropolitan world that’s out of touch,” says Rushdie. “I don’t see why it is that neo-Nazis are supposed to be the ones in touch.” The global immigrant wave he emblematized in 1981 isn’t dead yet, he adds. “We do live in a time in which all of us, countries as well as peoples, are very interpenetrated. The idea of somehow retreating into some pure idea of white America, it’s not tenable for any length of time.” Then again, he is a romantic. And he hasn’t done that road trip yet.

The Golden House

By Salman Rushdie
Random House
400 pp.


Leo Fitzpatrick: The Kid Stayed in the Picture

Leo Fitzpatrick owes everything to his friends. One of the first was Ryan McGinley, now a photographer whose work hangs in the Whitney, but back in the day just another skinny skater kid from Jersey hopping turnstiles with Fitzpatrick, five bucks in their back pockets for a day in the city. Two dollars for train fare; three for a meal of soda and chips or iced tea and cookies. Then Washington Square Park or Astor Place or the Brooklyn Banks, on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, “the oldest running, most famous New York skateboard spot,” as Fitzpatrick calls it. “I remember telling kids in my town that I’d go to New York on the weekends, and they were like, ‘What? Why would you do that?’ I’m like, ‘Why aren’t you doing that? It’s right there!’” He and McGinley were on the same wavelength. “We would be the New Jersey guys coming to New York, and New Jersey guys always get hated on, so you stick together.”

Next was the old guy who showed up on the scene one day. “Why is this fifty-year-old guy riding a skateboard and hanging out taking pictures of everybody?” Fitzpatrick remembers thinking. But when Larry Clark asked him to be in a movie called Kids, full of sex and drugs and teenage rage, Fitzpatrick said yes. In a cast that included then-unknown future stars Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, Fitzpatrick is the first person you see, his character, Telly, so hard to love that the first time Fitzpatrick met Roger Ebert, the critic confessed he wanted to slap him in the face. The 1995 cult classic would prove a thorny gift for Fitzpatrick, a high school dropout from a blue-collar home, but Telly led to other acting gigs (The Wire, My Name Is Earl), enough to keep him solvent enough to hang, anyway. His crew — rising young artists like McGinley, Dan Colen, Dash Snow, Nate Lowman, and Terrence Koh — made not just art, but headlines in the gossip pages for their late-night, drug-fueled, graffiti-tagged misadventures.

“Leo’s what I always imagine hanging with a poet would be like,” Lowman tells me. “He was always the guy without the job, the opposite of a professional.” But now, however improbable it seems, Fitzpatrick — the forever kid — has somehow magicked a life that feels grown up, as co-director at the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery in Chelsea, where his new group show, “Feedback,” has drawn critical acclaim.

“I think if I’m lucky I’ll get to be a part of New York’s history, like guys like Taylor Mead or Rene Ricard,” Fitzpatrick says. “People I grew up looking up to, who sort of walk the line — nobody really knew what they did. They just did a lot of different things and they know a lot of cool people. Guys like John Lurie. They’re not famous, but they’re legends.”

The day before the opening at the Marlborough, Fitzpatrick celebrated his fortieth birthday. He didn’t have a party, just dinner with his wife, Chrissie Miller, though given his pre-adult vibe one might have expected Chuck E. Cheese’s. He eats like a kid, pizza and Coke, and dresses like one, too. A hint of the Telly drawl lingers out of the side of his mouth. At the gallery he was clad in black Dickies, a suit for a guy who’d rather not wear a real one. “His job in the art world makes perfect sense, but at the same time it’s also hilarious,” Lowman told me. “I mean that in an admirable, astounding way. It’s impressive and kind of magical.”

Trump-channeling artist Martha Wilson and Fitzpatrick at Marlborough Contemporary

At a bar in the gallery’s front stood Martha Wilson, the seventy-year-old artist behind one of the city’s key avant-garde spaces, the Franklin Furnace. She offered guests bottles of Pacifico while wearing an acid-orange wig meant to evoke Donald Trump. A photograph of hers hung at the gallery’s rear, taken decades ago, of a boyfriend. She’d dressed him as Marcel Du-champ. The idea was to emasculate him a bit, she told me, to turn the power. The space’s two floors host more than seventy works from the past five decades, each honoring a loose theme about collaboration. A Richard Prince piece is meant as a troll, a joke the artist recorded with the sculptor Robert Gober, not for sale. On a far wall hangs a record of all the drugs Clark, the Kids director, ever took, listing some fairly staggering amounts. The animating spirit is of intimacy, a notion that’s “very Leo,” to cop a phrase Lowman used to describe his friend’s own artwork. “I do everything to impress my friends, really,” Fitzpatrick told me.

It seems to be working. “There’s something about this show that feels like the best reflection of all these years that he’s been learning and absorbing in this very quiet way,” says Colen. “He had no education. So he learned from his friends in a very systematic and direct way. It wasn’t, like, an accident.”

A real job, a wife, a baby at home. It all seems a bit like adulthood. Until recently Fitzpatrick had no health insurance, and so he used a trick his mom learned working switchboards at a hospital. “She’s the one that told me if I ever got hurt and it was an emergency to just go to the hospital and give them a fake name.” His cribbed the name of a skateboarding hero. Most injuries he fixed with superglue. Even a cut through his scalp healed that way. “You just squeeze, and squeeze,” he explained, pinching his flesh and an imaginary tube of glue. And then you skate some more. But one time he was hit by a car. He lay in the hospital for a week, under a fake name. They nearly had to amputate his leg. Every time they’d call him by his pseudonym, he’d get excited, forgetting it was meant to be his.

Leo Fitzpatrick as Telly in Larry Clark‘s 1995 film, “Kids”

Fitzpatrick loves his mom. She let him do Kids, despite the sex. Didn’t flinch when he quit school after ninth grade to skate. She’s tough: worked as a maid most of her life and raised five kids after leaving Fitzpatrick’s dad, a janitor. Both parents came to the U.S. from Ireland in their teens, but his dad was bitter about what America gave him. Still, Fitzpatrick says, his siblings turned out great.

By the time Fitzpatrick hit his twenties, McGinley was starting to make a name for himself while studying photography at the School of Visual Arts; his stoop on 7th and A became the nexus for a burgeoning crew of hotshot young artists, some born to privilege, their lives assiduously documented by way of one another’s work. Journalists loved them, comparing the scene to the heyday of Warhol’s Factory, with Snow as the group’s unofficial mascot and muse. He came from the famous de Menil clan, the first family of the American art scene, modern-day Medicis. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, was always around, the actor in a group of artists: at Lit, where he started to DJ, and Max Fish, a bar that hosted some of his early attempts at curating. In those small shows you could see the roots of “Feedback,” to date the largest he’s ever done.

Lowman describes his friend as someone with “the least traditional education of anybody I was really close with, but the one who read the most books.” (“I hated reading,” says Fitzpatrick, “until I found the right books.”) When the two got close they were living across from each other on the Lower East Side, on Attorney Street. Lowman was “confused,” he says, “an artist trying not to be an artist.” Between acting gigs, Fitzpatrick met him for coffee, lending him poetry, a genre Lowman hadn’t read since college. Those afternoons took on the air of readings, as did the company.

Leo (11:36 PM) October 1, 2001 by Ryan McGinley

Along with Hanna Liden — another artist who used to share McGinley’s stoop — Fitzpatrick and Lowman co-founded the Home Alone gallery, first in Tribeca, then on the Lower East Side. Liden and Lowman were busy with their own art, so Fitzpatrick found himself running the operation, and enjoying it. Research, even emailing. Being wrong for the part. “I can get away with things,” he says. He’s heard that artists answer his emails because of how wrong they are, sent from a personal account with something goofy in the subject line. He likes having a role with his friends. “Before we started [Home Alone], I was just the actor in the group,” he says. “[Not] even a successful actor.”

“Ryan and I were trying to be artists, and Leo was trying to be an actor,” Colen recalls. “But he was always really fascinated by art. Always a fan.”

When he wasn’t acting, Fitzpatrick was educating himself. The late experimentalist Colin DeLand was an early mentor, co-founder of the New York Armory Show as well as the gallery American Fine Arts. “Colin had an open-door policy. He didn’t judge people,” Fitzpatrick says. Stepping into AFA, he felt comfortable being wrong. He came with another friend, Brian DeGraw, a musician in a band called Gang Gang Dance, who hung out at AFA with everyone else. “It was like small-town U.S.A. but in New York,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “A small scene within a bigger scene. Everybody was dating everybody. Everybody would go to hang at Pink Pony and Max Fish and AFA. I didn’t consider myself an AFA kind of person, even though I hung out. I was shy. I was on the outside.”

For Fitzpatrick, a guy whose identity is so bound up in his friendships, New York seems like a friend he’s starting not to know. In 2009, Snow died of a heroin overdose; in June, so did Benjamin Cho, the influential designer and DJ who “knew everyone.” Fitzpatrick’s fellow skaters and Kids co-stars Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter are long gone: Pierce took his own life in 2000, while Hunter died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2006. “I would say 90 percent of my friends are alcoholics and/or drug addicts,” Fitzpatrick says. “They’ve either gotten sober or passed away or something like that, but it’s weird when you realize a lot of your socializing revolved around bars and those kinds of things.”

Conversely, his East Village stomping grounds seem to be teetering on the brink of respectability — and thus demise. We pass a sign advertising cauliflower and kale, and Fitzpatrick scoffs. He lives off pizza, Coke, and cigarettes. Double-fists coffee in the morning. Sounds happy talking about the dead body he and his infant son encountered in Tompkins Square Park one morning. Food is “fuel”; no point sitting down or getting precious. “I like not having to tell them what I want,” he says of why he eats at a diner. Even in the old days, he liked to hide, DJ’ing while everyone danced. At one of his recent openings, he tended bar. But his neighborhood has started feeling foreign, with all the drunk brunch kids disturbing the peace on the weekends. He talks about moving upstate, chopping wood. “I’m not sure the city is built for longevity, as far as, like, a person’s psyche is concerned,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m relevant enough.” He shrugs.

His son is a new friend. The title of the show at the Marlborough came from a performance piece from the 1970s, by the artist Dennis Oppenheim. The photo of the performance on display at the Marlborough depicts two bodies, the artist’s and his young son Erik’s. Their backs are bare, covered only with two long, twisted lines, one apiece. They are drawing with marker on each other. Below the image comes the explanation: I originate a movement which Erik translates and returns to me. What I get is my movement fed through his sensory system. The piece is called A Feed-Back Situation. “It’s like the ultimate bonding experience you could share with your child,” Fitzpatrick says. It captures his theme, his obsession with intimacy. “It’s really kind of sentimental.”

Fitzpatrick, third from left, first gained attention as the sex-crazed Telly (far left) in Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995.

Even being antisocial is about being social. He likes being alone at the party: DJ’ing, bartending. He found that solitude young. Weed and alcohol made him more awkward around girls, so he went straight-edge for a few years. Then Kids came out and some things got worse. Telly is his inverse, driven to intimacy out of an absence of feeling. He sleeps with girls as conquests, and ruins the life of the one we’re meant to care for most, played by Sevigny. Fitzpatrick was a virgin when they shot. “I was already so awkward. Didn’t know how to talk to girls, I didn’t know anything. And then this movie made me seem like this evil guy,” he says. Having people “know and judge” him before they’d met could feel like a “handicap,” even once the emotion wore off. The judgments just changed. “Oh, this actor guy now wants to be a gallerist?” he deadpans. “Like, how cliché can you get?”

He’s too old to get on a board regularly, but he plans to buy one for his kid, probably on Canal Street. The shops near him have dried up. He tells me this matter-of-factly. If he has a religion, an imaginary friend, for hard times, it’s the one he found young. “Some people see a handrail as just a handrail,” he says. Skateboarders see it as a path, physical and metaphysical. “How do I manipulate this thing to do something cool on it? How do I take the few resources I have and do something cool?

“You look at the world differently. If I can’t go this way, how do I get there?”


Meet Iconoclastic Bushwick Curator Brittany Natale

Brittany Natale used to call her dad “Jekyll and Hyde.” “He’d go on a drug binge, come home, do the craziest stuff,” she says. “Lock my mom in the closet, or beat her.” A “bad Long Island City kid,” as she puts it, growing up he bounced from job to job, all of them in New York City — his penchant for the town being the lone taste his daughter would come to share.

This month, the 26-year-old curator and Queens native funnels her lived experience through “The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture,” a collection of visual art on view through mid-April at the Wayfarers gallery in Bushwick. Work by young coastal artists such as Juliana Paciulli and Matt Starr joins with that of more established New Yorkers, like the Long Island City–based Priscila De Carvalho, whose graphic canvases can be found around the city. The show is characteristic of Natale’s curatorial style, inspired by her personal life but broadened to speak to larger concerns. One of the points of particular interest here: opioid addiction in the heartland, a theme also leveraged by Donald Trump on the campaign trail as a sign of lost American greatness.

Natale is a curiosity, a “good girl” in a sea of conflicted ones, says Bianca Valle, the alt-model-slash-photographer whose naturalistic portraits were part of “Mood Ring,” Natale’s previous Wayfarers exhibition, which ran in the fall of 2016. Natale’s shows tend to feature young women, often fellow New Yorkers, but they aren’t, according to Valle, the “usual culprits” — those “certain girls who have their moment, and they’re involved with several things, and people hear their name quite often.” Good girls, Valle says, work for love, not fame, an impulse she sees as a rarity in a “young female art world” polarized toward the limelight. “What’s beautiful about Brittany is she puts these shows on without incentives. She doesn’t care if ten people come or a thousand people come.”

Wayfarers is an enigmatic part of the Bushwick art scene, partly by design. Its sign’s font and style mimic that of a tire shop down the street, a symbol of a hope to blend in, though the gallery’s very presence suggests change. Natale embodies this split desire, at once “savvy and informed about the art world and contemporary developments, but [with] a populist approach,” says George Ferrandi, Wayfarers’ owner. Since joining the gallery last year — she answered an ad posted online, and curates for free; she makes her living in marketing — Natale has attracted record numbers and press with buzzy shows like “Teen Dream” and “Weekend With Bernie,” the latter a fundraiser she co-curated for the would-be Democratic presidential nominee that brought in hundreds of visitors. Echoing Valle, the Wayfarers proprietor also credits a certain abstemiousness for Natale’s feats: She doesn’t drink or smoke, for one. “She’s really good, and she has no social life,” said Ferrandi, jokingly.

Instagram, it would seem, suffices for letting the id out, and Natale is at ease on hers: flashing a peace sign at a show’s opening night, exiting a homeless shelter following a volunteer shift, protesting at Trump Tower. In person, she’s more vulnerable, almost jittery. She apologized repeatedly for talking too much about a life Horatio Alger might have rubbed his hands at: hours spent lost in watercolor projects and Mazzy Star songs on the floor of her mom’s old bedroom, dreaming of an adult life in the borough over the bridge, whose skyline a friend had drawn on her wall. She’d been shuttled to her grandma’s home in Queens after a series of domestic dramas: Her parents split and her mom moved to Pennsylvania, leaving Natale, by then old enough to choose who to stay with, to opt for her drug-addled dad — though really she chose New York City. “He’ll never leave,” she says now, matter-of-factly. When her dad’s neighbor called her grandmother, worried that he’d started pimping girls out of his apartment, Natale found herself in the informal custody of her gran, who couldn’t drive or attend to her in the way she needed.

The phrase “straddling two worlds” came up, too perfect not to invoke. World one: Manhattan at its finest, where a great-aunt Natale adores and still visits lives in walking distance of the Met. Her mom’s side is full of artists, all women, their careers stunted by marriage and professional hurdles. One aunt worked for Christian Dior. Another played piano at Carnegie Hall. Her mom went to Parsons, and her grandmother painted watercolors. When it was time for college, her mom warned against art school — too cutthroat — so she went to Marymount College. Eventually she transferred, to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied marketing. The goal was only to get back to the city. FIT is a state school; it won based on cheapness.

Today she manages her mental health through talk therapy, nutrition, and spirituality. Panic is always with her, a semi-controlled companion, most often creeping in while she’s on the train, which represents confinement as much as escape. Her dad worked for the MTA — he still does — and she killed many a teenage night at a train depot in Queens while he cleaned cars. She had her first panic attack in high school, at fifteen: She left health class to splash water on her face. “I couldn’t breathe. Nothing felt right,” she told me. “I went to the nurse’s office and just lay on the floor, telling her, ‘I’m dying, you have to call 911.’ ”

Internal strife makes for rich art. Panic, or addiction, or sadness — all so hard to explain in words, or to understand unless you’ve been there yourself. Off the canvas, they split victim from viewer. They isolate, trick. A panicking person looks fine but is not: is dying, or dead, losing breath, thinking the thoughts. That classic feminine sin, of being dramatic, gets thrown around. A panicking person might even accuse herself of it. (And she is likely a woman — a recent study out of Cambridge University suggests that women are twice as prone to anxiety.)

After that memorable first bout of panic — she thought it was a heart attack — Natale realized her physical pain came from an emotional source. “Everything wasn’t working anymore. I remember sitting on the nurse’s office floor and having that realization, like, ‘OK, my mom’s not around anymore. My dad’s not around. I live with my grandmother and she doesn’t drive, so she can’t pick me up from school.’ I don’t even think she had a car. All those experiences and emotions that I didn’t process eight months earlier, that’s when I processed them.” Her openness almost seems like an affect, a part of the art. She tells me it is, in a sense. She wants to take down what she calls “the ‘I’m fine’ culture”: Even as we self-destruct in interesting and tragic and novel ways, we like to say we’re fine. “Everyone is totally cool 100 percent of the time,” she laughs, when “the real answer is, ‘I am getting my period, and I just had a panic attack on the M train.’ ”

‘The Darkest Side of Paradise: Navigating the Modern-Day Drug Culture’
1109 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn
On view Sundays, 1–5 p.m.
Through April 16



What Makes Art “American” in 2017?

Howling Dogs isn’t so much a video game as a genre-mash, redolent of choose-your-own-adventure books, an unwritten Black Mirror plot, a poem, a depressive spiral, a manic flight. You “enter” its “rooms” via hyperlinks leading to pages of text. The construct starts you off in a cell that gets dingier by the day, your only escape temporary: a series of dreamy virtual realities accessible via hardware. You can pretend to be a Joan of Arc type on a pyre or an empress learning to die. But like a sad person self-medicating with drugs or sex or work — the game is a commentary on trauma — you cannot escape your recursive state. When the v/r fun ends, you’re back in the cell (the page describing it, that is), locked in a reality you badly want to leave.

The game’s creator, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, is an unlikely entrant into a hoary museum. And yet this week Heartscape steps into her glitziest gig by many miles, as one of 63 chosen artists showing at the 2017 Whitney Biennial — the first at the museum’s dramatic new site. The 29-year-old Oakland resident is known best in the furthest reaches of the internet. Off it, the trans artist — in the tradition of LGBTQ kids kicked out of their homes, as she was — battles chronic homelessness. She wrote Howling Dogs in under a week soon after starting hormone therapy, in a friend’s barn; by phone, she says the hormones leached into the work in a “furnace-like process,” full of “temperature shifts…feverish sweating and chills and reds and blues and oranges flushing through your body. It’s like when you’re taking metal and tempering it into a different shape. It was a molten experience, and that sweat a lot into the work.”

This year’s Biennial curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks.
This year’s Biennial curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks.

Her presence is a signal, a promise kept, by curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks. When the thirtysomethings were announced as this year’s gatekeepers of American art, much was made of their youth and backgrounds. Lew, a 36-year-old Brooklyn native, sports a mohawk, looks like a kid, and is Chinese American. Philadelphia-born Locks, also preternaturally youthful, also Asian American, is 34. They are the latest reps for a museum forever locked in a battle with itself, to change its own game every round. Every few years headlines surface about curators different from, and seemingly more exciting than, their predecessors: non-Whitneyites for 2014; an embattled alum for 2012 (Elisabeth Sussman, whose then-infamous, Anglo-skewering 1993 curation job has since become the stuff of myth); an odd couple for 2010, in the form of a Gen X’er (Gary Carrion-Murayari) and a 53-year-old (Francesco Bonami).

Lew and Locks signify, perhaps, the most committed departure yet, anomalies as they both are in a world still sheltered from first-gen, non-European tastes. Lew, a staffer at the Whitney for almost three years, met Locks at his previous job, at P.S.1, where the pair shared a desk in the MoMA offshoot’s open-plan office. He’s not a practicing artist, but he grew up in the museums of the city — MoMA, the Whitney, the Met — and shared with his deskmate the love of a viewer. “We never collaborated, but we were always working in tandem,” Locks says, describing what sounds closer to a friendship than a business relationship. “We’d go see shows together, stuff we were excited about.”

Rafa Esparza performing building: a simulacrum of power, Los Angeles, 2014.
Rafa Esparza performing building: a simulacrum of power, Los Angeles, 2014.

When the Whitney tapped Lew, he went with his gut in selecting a partner. Wary of the “forced marriage” rut curatorial duos often find themselves stuck in, he chose “someone I wanted to be on the road with, Airbnb’ing with.” If the approach seems looser than expected for one of the biggest art events in the world, it’s maybe predictable for a museum going hard on the path of reinvention. This will be the first Biennial at the Whitney’s buzzy new Renzo Piano–designed home, which has shifted an institutional center of gravity from the midtown museum block to the Chelsea gallery scene. The lineup suits that downtown trajectory. Better than a third of the artists showing this year were born in or after 1980 — four of them in or after 1990. To compare, post-1980 babies were far scarcer in 2014: Out of more than a hundred artists, they numbered eleven (none in that edition were born in the Nineties).

So Lew and Locks got to play out a buddy-comedy art film. En route to Berlin, they lunched in Amsterdam with Jo Baer, the Seattle-born octogenarian paintress, whose minimalist canvases Locks fell in love with at a viewing in London. A rare “studio visit” with the anonymous artist Puppies Puppies played out in an L.A. dive bar, where the three huddled around a laptop looking at images of art. “The waitress who was serving us was like, ‘Is it pornography?’ ” Locks remembers. Lew chimes in with a stab at what the server might have been thinking: “Why are you in an old punk bar in Los Angeles looking at art?”

Lyle Ashton Harris, Lyle, London, 1992, 2015.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Lyle, London, 1992, 2015.

Aily Nash, a curator for the New York Film Festival who helped Lew and Locks build the show’s video offerings (the duo relied on a team of supplementary curators from the moment the process began, in 2015), says she was surprised at how “casual” it all felt. She invited the two to her home in the Hudson Valley one weekend, where the three spent a day and a half curled up on her couch, watching videos she was into at the time. “It felt like the right thing to do, to have them come up. It wasn’t like we were always meeting at the museum,” she says. “They’re lovely, and they made the experience informal and friendly.”

Lew, she says, fumbles his way to the light: “He goes on an instinct, not knowing exactly why something is interesting, but kind of being able to sense innovation or newness.” It’s a characterization Locks echoes. She calls her partner a good “early talent scout.” Meanwhile, he says she holds the flashlight. “Mia will say, ‘Why is this interesting? What’s going on here?’ She makes us take that time to process it,” Lew says.

Ajay Kurian’s Childermass installation, 2017.
Ajay Kurian’s Childermass installation, 2017.

Working with “a shared brain” made it easier to “hunt around in the dark,” he adds. Ergo the inclusion of Heartscape, rooted in a 2014 New York Times article on the Gamergate controversy that rippled through the outer rings of gaming sites. That article, with its lengthy look at the fringe pioneer, stayed in Lew’s mind, and at one point he found himself, as if possessed, making “Mia play a lot of video games, or at least attempting to. I didn’t know why.” Locks — “the opposite of somebody who’s played video games” (“the last one I played was Duck Hunt,” she says) — became equally enthralled. Together they formulated a theory, on humanism. Heartscape’s games, directional forces in the indie gaming world, are “intentionally circular,” Lew says, “frustrating.” Enter a Heartscape creation and expect to feel a simulation of mental distress. “They’re about issues of trauma and PTSD. It locks you into something, the way depression does. It enacts [depression], in a sense.”

Interactiveness became what Lew calls an “accidental schematic.” Not in the Disneyfied sense (à la Rain Room), but a quieter sort. The building will be a participant. Built for “transparency,” as Lews describes it in the Biennial catalog, the museum will absorb installations, even in corners not associated with art. A room-size structure of adobe bricks by Rafa Esparza will offer new space in the lobby gallery for artists at his invitation; above the admissions desk will hang a piece of signage by Park McArthur, while an “exciting but troubling work” by Ajay Kurian winds up the central staircase, commenting on “upward mobility.” Fight in an Elevator, by Dana Schutz, links viewer to work and vice versa, via a cram of subjects meant to vivify the canvas itself — to “embody the claustrophobia an image may suffer if it had feelings,” as one reviewer put it. Schutz’s blurring of thing and person, feeling projected and feeling felt, led Lew and Locks to ask the Brooklyn-based artist to create a new Fight in an Elevator. This one will teem with both insects and political allegory. It’ll also, they promise, be funny.

Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Fall With Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016.
Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Fall With Me for a Million Days (My Sweet Waterfall), 2016.

The show’s start and end fall on either side of a major shift. “When we started, we were in the fall of 2015,” Locks says. “The presidential election wasn’t on the radar. There was an openness.” The artist list gelled before the election, but angles of interest sharpened afterward. “The lens shifted,” Lew says. “It’s not like we radically shifted gears, but what we were doing felt more urgent.” Issues at hand aren’t likely far from any American mind: “mass shootings, violence, complexity around immigration and the economy,” Locks says. “Moving through the landscape and having conversations with artists sculpted the conversation for us, about what issues are at stake and what’s happening in the world. And the role of art. Much of the way artists are thinking and working right now is partially about tackling those issues, and also about modeling new ways to do so.”

Locks cites a “collective” sensibility, seen in the empathy of Heartscape’s and Schutz’s work. This she distinguishes from “collective action, or even a formal [art] collective.” Her and Lew’s interest is in its broad meaning, against isolation. She contrasts earnestness with irony. Recall our near past: a collage of selfies and, in a trash heap somewhere, a pile of Time magazine Person of the Year issues, the gimmicky 2006 ones with a reflective surface as the cover. In the age of Trump, Locks argues, in a catalog Q&A, artists are no longer into “just trying to make it alone,” having come to favor “the communal and collaborative endeavor” and not “career as much as…the things a community needs.” Earnestness also stands in contrast with the predictability biennials typically get called out for — in 2014, the critic Jerry Saltz memorably judged most of the Whitney’s to be “dead art” — but this year’s catalog teases the absence of what has come to be central: the “slick, pop” cadence of biennials worldwide.

Carrie Moyer, Glimmer Glass, 2016.
Carrie Moyer, Glimmer Glass, 2016.

Of course, contemporary art arrives dying, or half-born, by the rule of time. Currency is a fallacy, Lew argues. “We’re all blind to the present. You can’t back up and look at the moment we’re in, trying to connect certain thoughts, when the context doesn’t exist yet.” It’s an admission hard to imagine from curators past — being unable to bottle time. But ours is a strange one. The president tweets policy, and what is urgent veers by the second. Information arrives in a flash and fades just as fast. It’s perhaps most timely, then, that Lew’s mission statement echoes the language not of the gardener but of the predator, who chews and moves on: “to digest something quickly,” he says, “to synthesize the moment as it’s unfolding.” Or, to quote Mark Zuckerberg, another catabolizer of the present — done is better than perfect.

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial

A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial



Tune In to Pineapple Street’s Podcasting Revolution

On a Monday so windy even the Brooklyn Bridge seemed to sway, two of New York’s leading cultural critics sat on matching chairs in a DUMBO studio, perched on their heels like kids at story time. Jenna Wortham, wearing all black cut with a graphic button-down, grinned. On the floor beside her lay a folded copy of the New York Times. Across sat Wesley Morris, her Times colleague.

The near symmetry felt sibling-like, same-same but different. Morris looked less Vogue, more Broadway, with his boxer’s build clad in a sweater, khakis, and a flat-billed hat that Wortham was making fun of. The contrast between chic and earnest extends to other aspects of their chemistry. “One of the funny dynamics” of the duo, says Samantha Henig, who heads the podcast division at the Times, “is that Jenna is so of the internet and Wesley is really not. But he’s also unbelievably plugged in,” she adds, “so I don’t know how he does that.”

They’d come for their weekly appointment at Pineapple Street Media, a dynamic young podcast agency that boasts clients like Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham, who calls PSM founders Max Linsky and Jenna Weiss-Berman the “funniest, smartest people in Brooklyn.” On the Monday in question, Weiss-Berman was in New Orleans on a project but would return to edit the audio. She’s said to have an artist’s touch; “film editor meets poet meets DJ,” in Dunham’s words. Linsky plays director: He leaned in a chair and threw out notes — “I’d really like to hear you guys on why it’s so hard to talk about Shyamalan, because you have to give away the ending” — and made fun of the hat, which would cameo in the week’s installment of their podcast, Still Processing.

“So, I’m Fat Albert,” Morris says, after Wortham launches with an impression, to which she responds, “You are wearing a newsboy cap.” Morris counters that “we live in a world where the opposite of what is true can be true. I am a living alternative fact.” Wortham: “That hat is an alternative fact.”

Few mediums are more personal than the podcast. Audio — accessible anywhere, recordable anywhere — suggests the thrill of anonymous phone sex, the purity of lifelong pen pal–dom. Earbuds in, listeners can shut out the external cacophony of the modern world, seduced by a voice traveling through those thin white tendrils. “What’s more intimate than being whispered to?” as Dunham says, on the allure of the form. In the debut episode of Clinton’s podcast with Linsky, which aired November 6, she hints at vulnerability when she says, “Contrary to some opinion, I do have feelings. I can get hurt.” Linsky, who told me he loved her more with every meeting, and was set to continue with the podcast from the White House, deadpans: “I think we just broke news here.”

Hence the allure. And yet most of the top podcasts on iTunes are led by white male hosts. Homogeneity spreads; people take cues. For a generation raised on a monolithic radio culture, the temptation to mimic can be strong. Robert Boynton, an NYU professor focused on audio journalism, draws a through line across media. “In the Seventies and Eighties, every newscaster had a certain kind of sound. Then there was a period when everyone was trying to sound like Ira Glass. It’s amazing how many guys are out there — nerdy Jewish guys with nasal voices — and they all sound like him. Including the guy from Gimlet, who even says, ‘I’m the guy who’s confused for Ira Glass.’ ”

Monoculturalism in podcasting reflects the “built-in advantages and disadvantages of the existing world,” says Shaun Lau, a Chinese-Japanese-American podcast host who has sought to raise awareness of homogeneity in the industry. Podcasting could theoretically raise up outsiders, but its economics are tricky: low barriers to entry, but high standards for success. To sell advertising, a show must be popular (and thus findable), featured on the iTunes homepage, or given press. Hosts with built-in fan bases, or backing, tend to triumph in this sphere. “It’s not that listeners necessarily prefer [white male hosts], but they gravitate toward them,” Lau says, “because there’s money and resources behind established traditional media.”

Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham brought New York Times cred to Pineapple Street.
Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham brought New York Times cred to Pineapple Street.

Still Processing — and Wortham, and Morris — twists the rules. A product of one of the most established media properties in the world, it stars two people who differ from the podcasting mainstream in obvious ways: They are both black, and they both identify publicly as queer. The show was inspired by Another Round, the BuzzFeed interview series hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu (and produced by Weiss-Berman, who was formerly at BuzzFeed), but the goal was never “to make a show about being black in America,” says the Times‘ Henig, who was instrumental in launching Still Processing and signing on Pineapple. (Clayton and Nigatu are also black.) The point is the “passions of Wesley and Jenna,” Henig says. This has something to do with “the fact that they’re young and that they’re people of color. But also, they’re so cool. It’s basically inevitable that — if you have a conversation with one of them — it is the most insightful conversation you have that day. We’ve been lucky enough to experience that in the office, but we wanted to broaden the audience.”

The hosts speak with casual authority on vital topics, as any critic might aspire to (though many can’t). But their scope is as varied as their work, their chemistry as electric as any great duo’s. Morris is a wonk and a populist, able to “look at the world from an airplane but also a microscope,” as Wortham puts it. Her writing is finer-boned, crafted with referential architectures strong enough for the far reaches of Twitter. Linsky reminds them not to forget their “veggies” — their written work — but otherwise they have no directives. Some segments could double around a dining table in a black home, such as a recent one on saying bye to Obama (the “ultimate black dad”) or another on Kanye’s erraticism. Meanwhile, the hat episode seems built for an Indian uncle: swerving from a Wortham-essay-pegged breakdown of the creepiness of Amazon’s Alexa to the legacy of M. Night Shyamalan, defended by Morris — against his co-host’s protestations — as a fun “paranoid moralist.”

Increasingly in today’s world, one wonders what is universal and who is central. Wortham, an alum of, skirts the edges of tech, culture, and identity in her writing — carving out her own corner of the internet wherein she is a rightful star. (A shimmering Lemonade essay prompted a thank-you note from the Queen herself, signed “Love, Beyoncé” and ‘grammed by Wortham.) Morris was forged in that other crucible: the print world. After winning a Pulitzer for his film criticism at the Boston Globe, he moved on to pen dense, sardonic crit for Grantland. Linsky points to Morris’s essay on Hollywood’s treatment of the black penis — dropped by the Times with the surprise factor and gotta-have-it feel of an album release — as an example of his uniqueness in media. Morris worked on the essay for months; Linsky recalls congratulating him on his viral success the day it was published. “[Morris] said, ‘Oh, did people like it?’ ” Linsky remembers. “He hadn’t looked at his Twitter, his Facebook, his email.” Weiss-Berman agrees. “He’s so mentally healthy,” she says, sounding awestruck.

Wortham calls him “focused.” Meanwhile, Morris says he’s learning from Wortham how to live online; only recently has he had the urge, after snapping a picture, to share it on Instagram. Since the podcast’s launch, the two have become constantly connected, when not in person, through machines. “She’s an elemental part of my life,” Morris says. “I talk to Wesley before I go to bed,” Wortham echoes. “And when I wake up I email him.” Morris partly puts down their canny performance skills to a lifetime of code-switching. “Any person who has learned to be fluent socially in different environments — racially, sexually, whatever — you learn how to be a version of yourself depending on context.”

There’s an argument to be made that the nature of a critic’s existence matters, that in a field that maps vision and empathy, the old view of authority turns illogical. The latest episode of Still Processing holds a gem of a segment suggestive of this idea. The subject is tired enough: Dunham’s own Girls, the final season of which debuted last Sunday. To Morris’s broad insights (Marnie is a drag, Zosia Mamet a genius), Wortham — who wrote the definitive critique of the show’s psychic narrowness years ago — drills to the core of the Girls hot-take industry, using her life to explain larger shifts. “If you are a black woman like I am, you deal with these women the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed,” she says, evoking clueless girls flicking their wet hair on her face on the train. She cites Insecure, Atlanta, and Broad City as palliatives. In the past, “spending my leisure time with these women was not something I wanted to do.” Today, watching the credits roll the names of twenty-year-old women, Wortham has reconsidered: “My cold heart beats with pride.”

Weiss-Berman and Linsky recording with Hillary Clinton in November.
Weiss-Berman and Linsky recording with Hillary Clinton in November.

Still Processing, like most shows in the Pineapple Street stable, is de facto progressive. If the agency has an ethos, it might be locational. Clinton and Dunham respectively claim headquarters and a home mere blocks from the studio. And it was in the borough that Morris and Wortham were first introduced, by the New York magazine writer Rembert Browne, at an anniversary party for the Awl. (There is something of the young media nerd’s fever dream to the entire operation.) It was prickly love at first sight. “We both were excited and intimidated by each other,” Wortham says. “Like, we wanted to talk to each other more, but we’re both like, ‘Oh no. That person’s too cool for me.’ ” Morris was blunter: “I thought you didn’t like me. Or just that you had better things to do.”

Pineapple operates without v.c. money, a rarity in podcasting. Revenue relies on a Draper-esque hustle for clients, and advertisers, that’s demanded by a market lacking a clear competitive structure. (Theoretically, for podcast production, “all you need is a computer, or even a phone,” Weiss-Berman says.) Agencies tend to favor either a “churn” approach (as seen in the stark and effective fare of Panoply Media, the Slate-affiliated studio that produces podcasts for Condé Nast, the Wall Street Journal, MTV, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and other old media heavyweights), or lush standardization à la public radio (think Gimlet Media, with a roster of shows as linked-yet-distinct as an haute couture collection). Pineapple is more ad hoc. Self-funding allows freedom, with limits. Branded content supports pro bono work and designer shows like Dunham’s Women of the Hour — which Weiss-Berman launched at BuzzFeed, its first home. Linsky wouldn’t give specifics, but hinted at big projects in
the new year.

A co-founder of the journalism site — now also a podcast — Longform, Linsky once wrote wild features for a Florida alt-weekly, assigned in a haze at the end of the last decade, as the print world collapsed. Weiss-Berman found her way to audio through the nonprofit StoryCorps, where she interned while working in the collections department at a big law firm (“the guy who took my job after me got indicted,” she notes wryly), and started side-hustling. She still edits for Longform, and did through her tenure at BuzzFeed, where she headed audio. Henig, the Times staffer who tapped her for Still Processing, knew her via Longform; Henig is married to Evan Ratliff, a fellow co-founder. She hoped to channel Another Round, and figured Weiss-Berman could help the Times, then a podcasting novice, do so.

The timing — coinciding with Dunham’s desire to strike out on her own — struck Linsky as meaningful. Combined, he and Weiss-Berman share an enviable contact list. “Why shouldn’t we start our own thing right now?” he recalls asking her soon after the Times‘ request. Within weeks, Weiss-Berman had quit and set up a new shop with Linsky, eventually hiring a handful of assistant producers and paid interns and shifting to DUMBO. The office is cozy and spare, with rugs, pineapple-themed décor, a photo of Larry Bird (in honor of Linsky’s Boston roots), and scattered knickknacks donated by Elisabeth Watson, a production assistant on Girls who helps with Dunham’s podcast.

Neither founder came to podcasting with a grand vision, and they say Pineapple’s strategy is equally organic, a matter of placing one foot after the other on a path that feels right. “I think Max correctly has realized that a lot of what any of these enterprises — doing an independent website, or podcast — involves is a kind of ‘going for it’ [mentality],” says Aaron Lammer, another Longform co-founder. “There’s not really a procedure or standards. It’s making things up as you go along. Neither [Weiss-Berman nor Linsky] had to go to podcasting business school.”

In person, the partners project inverse energies of what you might expect. Linsky is intense, whereas Weiss-Berman — the one everyone says knows everyone — seems almost shy. In press, she is spoken of reverently, including and especially by Linsky. (One article refers to her as “the Jenna Weiss-Berman.”) “No one else works like her,” says Dunham, who first met Weiss-Berman at Oberlin when a roommate dated her. The luster of her rep seemed a surprise to Weiss-Berman when I mentioned it, so much so that once Linsky left the room to take a call, she gently asked for details. Like the stars of Still Processing, Linsky and Weiss-Berman were dressed evocatively, if less glamorously. Linsky wore the neutral baseball-hat-and-jeans uniform of “the rube,” as he called himself, explaining his role as the audience stand-in, nudging Morris and Wortham into lines of conversation that might serve listeners perhaps less savvy than they. Weiss-Berman wore a sweatshirt she’d bought online. Like her, it was insidery, playful, and low-key, printed with that unmistakable credit: EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DICK WOLF.

Weiss-Berman admits to an undying love for her roots, but says she’s sensitive to the implications of public radio, particularly of “the white voice.” Speaking naturally and forcefully is something she and Linsky are keen to encourage hosts to do (they laugh that Morris and Wortham are naturals, Morris at times maybe too exuberant).

Still Processing seems cast from a different mold than public radio journalism: that of the buddy comedy, perhaps — or, to step into a genre of the home — of a phone call between brilliant friends. “We’re not looking to be a billion-dollar podcasting company,” Weiss-Berman says. Nor is the point to remake NPR for millennials, exactly, though the closest Pineapple Street has to a mission statement sounds primed for a fundraising callout: “Just good people,” Weiss-Berman says, “and good work.”