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A few weeks ago, I was sorting through storage bins to find an old pair of sunglasses to wear to the beach. I pulled out the decorative paper trunk that I thought contained them but instead found an unopened box with a 50ml EDP bottle of Coco Mademoiselle. I spritzed the perfume behind my ears and walked out the door. I still haven’t found the sunglasses.
I had forgotten that my grandmother gave me the perfume years ago, when she was still well enough to travel to Paris with her sisters to celebrate what she knew would be one of her last birthdays. From what my father told me about her trip, she had done everything an elderly tourist was expected to do — Visit the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. Skip the Louvre because she wasn’t a fan of art museums. Eat at McDonald’s because it’s familiar and my father’s side of the family is comprised entirely of picky eaters. Her trip wasn’t so much about what she saw and did in the city so much as the fact that she was there, being who she normally was but in Paris.
I imagine the perfume came from that same excitement — a department store she and her sisters walked into because it was close to her hotel, a duty-free shop she found once she landed at Charles de Gaulle. Not 31, rue Cambon. She wasn’t choosy. It’s a bit of a stretch to even say that she “gave” me the perfume — I hadn’t known she had perfumes to gift to her grandchildren until after the funeral, when my mother gave me the choice between Coco Mademoiselle or Daisy by Marc Jacobs. My sister would receive the one I didn’t pick.
“The Chanel,” I insisted.
Even before I had tried the fragrance for the first time on my way to the beach, I had always assumed Mademoiselle was a classic, stunning fragrance. It seemed like a generally safe assumption to hold — my grandmother hadn’t been a perfume snob like I am, but she knew what was nice, and she wanted to buy nice things, and she wanted to give her children and grandchildren nice things. I held off on wearing it for a number of reasons — I wasn’t interested in designer perfumes at the time and preferred niche lines (a prejudice I would break quickly as I dove deeper into the perfume world). I was worried that the fragrance wouldn’t fulfill my expectations, whether through the fault of the perfume itself or my own skin not being able to hold in all its complexity. And I wasn’t sure whether I should attach a certain reverence to the perfume since it came from my grandmother, and if so, whether that reverence was preserved through using the perfume or savoring it.
As it dries on the skin, Mademoiselle doesn’t hit you with its floral heart notes like many spicy florals do. Instead, they sweep through you. That’s not to say those notes go quickly, because they remain long after, but that they rush up and past you like a whirlwind. It takes a bit of time to recognize the mimosa and ylang-ylang in a garden of rose and jasmine. Yet to start off with the image of rose and jasmine would almost be a disservice — roses and jasmine can have such heavy profiles to the point of delirious intoxication, but they’re tempered by the vanilla and patchouli base notes as well as lightened by the orange head note. Wearing the fragrance gave me a brief cockiness, as if I could challenge strangers to dare me to fly, and, failing that, that I was a person of some great but indefinable importance. As Chandler Burr wrote in his five-star review of the fragrance, “Coco Mademoiselle graces [the wearer] with youthful sophistication…Using a core of beautifully engineered patchouli, its scent is floral without a trace of heaviness, fresh without green, sweet without sugar — in short, the scent of loveliness. Come across someone wearing it, and you want to lean closer.”
There is also a sweet, powdery-balsamic note that introduces itself a little longer into wearing Mademoiselle. While looking at the Fragrantica profile for the EDP, I saw that the only note I didn’t know anything about was opoponax, a strange word whose letters look too round and sounds like a glitch when saying it aloud.
Opoponax is a natural gum resin like myrrh or frankincense. It is also referred to as “sweet myrrh.” The resin has been collected since ancient times from Somalian and Ethiopian Burseraceae trees and was used as incense in religious ceremonies — the origin of the word “perfume” comes from the Latin per fumus, or “through smoke,” referring to the smoke and smells of incense as it burns. (It has also been used since ancient times in herbal remedies, and, of course, perfumes.)
Like many incenses, opoponax has its own mythos, including being called “the noblest of incense gums” by King Solomon. Its name comes from the Ancient Greek words for vegetable juice and panacea, exhibiting the resin’s healing qualities. A handful of websites that focus on magic, alchemy, and witchcraft note that opoponax has been associated with protection, knowledge acquisition, and necromancy. As most would be, I’m skeptical of those claims, but it felt somehow fitting to learn about this resin and its association with the dead this summer, when I feel that my past keeps haunting me, and fears and pains that I thought were long-gone keep slipping into my mind.
I suffer from summer nightmares, but I haven’t had any this season. I have miraculously kept my bedroom cool enough to prevent myself from having them, and, while I enjoy sleeping through the whole night, their absence feels off to me, like perhaps in exchange for the nightmares I made some pact with the universe that I’d have to face uncertain fears and impossible situations in real life instead.
My grandmother died three years ago last June, and a month after her funeral, I saw a woman roughly her age on the subway wearing the same light purple cardigan she had given me as a birthday present. I found this perfume about a month since the anniversary of her death as well, a week after my mother had given me some of my grandmother’s old jewelry that she wanted me to keep. These are serendipitous coincidences and nothing more, but they’re fresh in my mind because of how vividly I remember my circumstances from three years ago and how many parallels there are to what I’m going through three years later.
I’m reminded of the terror of leaving college as a person who had always been good at her studies and, even a few internships deep, was worried about the inevitable failures and growing pains that come with leaving academia for the “real world.” I remember the thrill of moving to New York and knowing that it would take a while to get used to it after four years in Pittsburgh, and having to navigate myself around entirely new dynamics with the various communities I wanted to ingratiate myself with. There were so many things I just couldn’t understand and was frustrated about, such as how to find a job and an apartment and emotional support from newfound friends and mentors and the best anyone could really tell me at the time was that I was so young and didn’t need to get so wrapped up in all these concerns.
I’m worried, again, of leaving fields and places I once knew and immersed myself in. I’m terrified at the prospect of letting go of what I’ve been able to keep and build of myself, of rounding a new corner and not finding what I expected on the other side.
Even as someone who knows I can’t have it both ways, I’m similarly terrified of staying where I am with myself, of taking these risks and them coming to nothing. It’s put me in a spot where I read into each interaction as some sort of omen to follow, of finding patterns where there aren’t any, like the friends I see daily at coffee shops or cleaning at the end of the work day, saying their t’s softly, telling me when I ask them questions, “No yet, no yet.”
I have to keep this talk abstract, but lately I’ve been in situation after situation in which I have to explain myself to other people, give an overview of my life that shapes it into a narrative and makes it sound like everything that led up to where I am now has been planned carefully and deliberately. I’ve told friends that I’m tired of talking about myself under these circumstances. To the people I talk to, this seems like an easy enough task for them, and their life stories are crafted without any knowing blinks or twitchy hiccups. I’ve gotten better at reworking my own story, though I’m not sure how convincing I’ve been in telling it. I never let it show on my face, but with each retelling I think about the hardships I brushed past and the people I gained and lost in that time. I think about how utterly ridiculous it is to construct my life, or anyone’s life, for that matter, around such neat little statements.
Perfume is an even more ludicrous way to measure and construct a narrative of my life, though I’ve been toying with the ghosts that come to mind with each of my recent experiences with perfume. I find myself in fragrance boutiques and scrolling through perfume articles (and researching obscure notes like opoponax) much more often in times of stress and states of flux than I do under normal circumstances.
My first perfume, Tokyo Milk’s Bittersweet, was an impulse purchase I made three years ago, when I ran into a Sephora after my first interview and needed something indulgent to take my mind off the stiff, awkward conversation I had with someone who I knew would not hire me. Bittersweet is a perfume I chose because of how much it smells like Betty Crocker cake mix before the drydown, when it turns more sensual and cozy through its musk base note. It wasn’t my most sophisticated choice, but I had a lot to learn and it would do for the purposes that I needed it for – safety, familiarity, cheap decadence.
While Bittersweet was an amateur choice, it lured me into the world of perfume and I quickly learned how to go about letting a fragrance develop on the skin, which physical and digital places would provide samples, what the fragrance families are, which notes have surprising characteristics about themselves, who the big perfume critics were, what the history is behind perfume. I latched onto this pet interest as a way of cheering myself on–every new lesson I taught myself was also a reassurance that I was capable of something, that I would find a job soon, that my life post graduation would be fine, that I had a personality outside of the one I had to portray professionally, the one who knew how to act confident and had a life story and was ready for anything.
There are a handful of friends who knew all the ways I was hurting at the time and were also excited about my newfound interest, letting me teach them about perfume while supporting me with their sound arguments regarding why I would be fine. They had faith in me and my abilities, and they were happy to indulge me in something that I found (and still find) legitimately cool. Thinking back to where I was three years ago reminds me of when I found who I could trust and who trusted me. It was also the beginning of a sinking realization of who didn’t have faith in me or what I was doing.
Three years ago was when I started to have serious doubts about a longtime friendship that I had formerly assumed would span the rest of our lives. I couldn’t remember a conversation we had had in the past year that didn’t revolve around her wanting to teach me something or to affirm her opinions, and it had started to take a toll on how I presented her to others.
“She’s so cool but you have to be careful around x, y, and z.”
“She’s the best and I love her but she’s getting on my nerves about 1, 2, and 3.”
“She doesn’t trust me about a, b, or c views and won’t stop trying to re-teach me about these views I already hold if I don’t say enough of the right thing.”
It was a terrible way to talk about my best friend, and I hated myself for it.
Perfume measures the way our friendship ended as well. My budding interest in perfume after Bittersweet was surprising and fun and, like many things I was interested in, was something she wanted to demonstrate she had been two steps ahead of me in knowing about . . . by showing me the perfumes she was interested in purchasing full bottles of but had not yet sampled on her own skin. The Etsy shop she sent me links to was alluring, but I told her not to give into the temptations of a bottle with an edgy, astrology-influenced name and notes in a combination she hadn’t yet tried.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been reading the reviews and I’ll make sure anything I buy has at least a three-and-a-half-star rating!”
It took an adamant and repeated plea on my behalf for her to listen, to teach her that it is common wisdom within the perfume world to try the fragrance on your skin first to see how it develops and that buying without sniffing is a high risk that often results in disappointment. I’m unsure if she bought the perfumes anyway, but we stopped talking about fragrance after that.
Our friendship wouldn’t end until the following summer, but it was perfume that made me think about how little faith she had in me to show her anything new, to let her know more about what I was going through and how I was trying to find my way through the world in these undiscovered ways. How much more trust she demanded of me than I of her to make her feel that she was accomplishing the image she set out for herself, and how tiring our friendship became when both of us stopped trusting each other.
I find myself thinking about this relationship just as much as the one I had with my grandmother when I wear Mademoiselle, strictly in how my life would be different if both were still in it. How my friend would probably point out incessantly that Chanel was a Nazi even though I had already known that, how I would never point this fact out to my grandmother because her last few gifts as a dying woman were so sincere and so quintessentially her, how I would tell them both that the Nose behind the perfume, Jacques Polge, did not know Chanel by her tyrannical ways but rather was inspired by her distant and iconic image as an elegant young woman who led an elegant life, as well as the beautiful apartment she lived in and the collections she owned.
I’ve been searching for more perfumes that have opoponax as a note ever since doing my research on it. Opoponax’s associations with protection, knowledge acquisition, and necromancy aren’t my primary reasons for doing so, though I do find it fun to think of how I’ve been needing the first two and metaphorically running into the third. Opoponax is simply an incredibly lovely fragrance, adding a powdery dimension to flowers and fruits and spices that make them stay afloat instead of drowning in the humid muck of summer.
A close friend of mine, one of the same handful who helped me out three years ago and always believed in me, reminded me the other day that nothing regarding where I am currently and where I’ll end up will be as bad as it was three years ago. She’s right, and I don’t have to struggle with the reality that happened when my plans didn’t go the way that I had hoped. I have more ghosts and fears than I did three years ago, but I’m more capable of handling them now at twenty-five than I could at twenty-two. Perhaps the real summer nightmare I worry about facing is knowing that each change I make comes with the test of who I have faith in and who has faith in me, but it’s an old nightmare with existential horrors that I’ve since familiarized myself with.
Last week, I visited Twisted Lily, a fragrance boutique in Brooklyn, for the first time in nearly a year. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it always clears my head when I go. For a couple hours, I walked down the shelves and picked up each bottle, sprayed and dipped test strips, waited for the alcohol to dissolve before smelling, moved bottle after bottle to the counter of the store and then moved each back until I was left with the five that gave me the strongest impressions that day. A small ritual with each perfume, a ceremony I completed once I picked the ones I wanted samples of. It was exhilarating and I felt in control, that for this brief moment in time I had just as much trust in myself as my loved ones have for me. That I would make my picks and knew, regardless of whether any of my samples soured on my skin or made it blossom into something wonderful, everything would be fine. No yet, no yet. But soon.
I want to thank you for writing The Hatred of Poetry, a book that I read upon its release in 2016 and loved then, too, but that helped me gain new perspective recently. I hope you don’t mind the following longwinded story.
— angel nafis (@AngelNafis) January 19, 2018
It’s about time for everyone to come out with their end-of-the-year retrospectives, and if I don’t write mine now, I likely won’t get to it until March of next year.
There’s no question that 2017 has been marked by scandals and controversies. It felt as if every other week, another news-breaking unsettling development came to light in politics, pop culture, technology, and other fields.
It was interesting, in a voyeuristically thrilling sense, to have attended the premiere and panel discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where Elisabeth Moss and other cast members refused to describe their TV adaptation of the book as a feminist work. I was more awed than mad at the lack of understanding of the term “feminist,” really.
It was interesting, again voyeuristically, to have seen The Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar before the major news outlets covered the controversial depiction of Caesar as a certain orange Cheetoh. The qualms I had about the modernized aspects of the production slowly dissolved and were replaced with anger at the corporate sponsors that withdrew support from The Public.
And in retrospect, I’m haunted and disgusted by the memory of attending Kevin Spacey’s Clarence Darrow, by all means a disappointingly lackluster one-man show, a memory made more unpalatable by the fact that Spacey invited the students of his youth arts foundation to the stage after the play’s end. It’s nauseating to remember how he was surrounded by these teenagers for photographs as we gave him a standing ovation.
But! I imagine better writers will also be covering these events in their takes of 2017 (and many have already covered them as these scandals unfolded), and I am not a TV or theater person. So instead, I want to discuss the scandals that happened within the industry I’m part of – books.
The scandals in the publishing industry that come to mind and encapsulate 2017 for me are (chronologically):
- The Pen Literary Award nomination and quick withdrawal of nomination for John Smelcer’s Stealing Indians, after it was brought to light that Smelcer had been faking his Alaskan Native identity
- The scamming of the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller List by Lani Sarem’s debut novel Handbook for Mortals, which stole the #1 spot through underhanded means before being removed from the list
- The author of the anonymous “worst fan fiction ever” My Immortal revealed to be Rose Christo, only for the reveal to be proven false after Christo was found to be forging documents and Christo’s brother stated that she had lied about her story
I want to focus on these three, even though I know there are many more book scandals that happened this year. It’s not that hard to find better articles about Milo Yiannopoulos’s cancelled book deal, Hachette’s shutdown of their Weinstein Books imprint, Kirkus amending its review of American Heart, the resignations and suspensions of Leon Wieseltier, Lorin Stein, and Leonard Lopate due to allegations of sexual misconduct, and more.
There are a few similarities that stick out to me in these scandals: all three happened within or were at least strongly connected to the YA world, all three either directly or indirectly hurt marginalized people in some way, and all three were uncovered through social media.
It’s self-evident that all three of these scandals are each based off a series of lies. Smelcer has pretended to be of Alaskan Native descent for years, going so far as to spout literal gibberish and saying it was an ancient Native American language. His book also contains a falsified blurb from Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013.
Sarem will still not admit to cheating the system to gain bestseller status despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and has hinted that she may fudge her numbers again with a second book. Many have speculated (probably correctly) that Sarem sought bestseller status solely to boost the chances of receiving support for a film franchise.
Christo’s tale involves foster care, a dubious Cree heritage, and growing up queer, stating that the writing of My Immortal was intentionally bad as a convoluted attempt to find her long-lost brother (the same one who claimed her story was completely inaccurate). Like Sarem, Christo has stuck to her story and given her own excuses as to why her book deal was cancelled.
I think it’s telling that these scandals all happened in the YA world, both in terms of how these writers view YA and how the YA community actually works.
Smelcer has been writing YA and poetry for years. While many Native and non-Native scholars have known about his dubious claims at Native identity (as well as his propensity for recycling or making up blurbs from famous writers) for just as long, Smelcer’s Goodreads reviewers and general audience don’t necessarily have that same information shared with them.
Perhaps this is how, say, the Kenyon Review received enormous backlash when they published two poems by Smelcer, then very quickly removed those poems from their online site, but the Pen Literary Awards judges for the Young Adult category may not have been among those same circles. To some degree, Smelcer probably knows this and has taken advantage of this oversight, as his target audience isn’t usually included within these “high literary” circles.
Full disclosure: I am friends with one of this year’s Young Adult Pen Literary Awards judges. I was also an intern at the National Book Foundation in 2015, when Sherman Alexie was a judge for Poetry as well as a guest editor for the Best American Poetry series, for which he received flack when he included a white poet who had used a Chinese pseudonym. My friend and the other Young Adult judges were horrified when they learned about Smelcer’s background, as I remember hearing how Alexie was horrified when he learned how the white poet he had chosen was using yellowface to get published. While many blame the judges for not knowing better, I do not – it’s an incredibly difficult and stressful position that, first, requires sifting through hundreds if not thousands of submissions and, second, requires a high degree of mental stamina and the ability to ask essential questions about what to put forth as the defining voices and issues of a certain moment in time.
In the case of Smelcer, it makes sense that the judges wanted to find marginalized perspectives that would speak to young readers. Smelcer fit that bill before it was found out that he had been taking the spotlight away from real Native writers – like the title of his book, he was literally “stealing Indians.” It was truly a shame that this disaster happened, and I hope this rattled enough of the book world to make sure it’s not repeated again – especially in the very popular but still vastly underrated YA world.
In another case of stealing the spotlight away from a more deserving, marginalized voice, Sarem’s Handbook for Mortals scam is the scandal I’ve listed that I’m personally the angriest about. When news broke about the book that had taken the top spot, the YA community instantly looked into the author and the novel. Despite the book’s classification by the first-time publisher GeekNation (a fan site) as YA, the protagonist is not within the age range for that genre and there is other content in the novel that clearly does not align with other contemporary YA books, much less other YA books on the bestseller list (a positive view of smoking, gratuitous internalized misogyny, incredibly outdated references, etc.).
Moreover, the readers who read the sample pages that Amazon provided (I am among them) and those who went so far as to purchase an e-book have all shared the same conclusion: Sarem’s writing is absolutely atrocious. As someone who regularly reads the slush at a literary magazine and who took numerous college courses and writing workshops, the quality of Sarem’s writing is below that of even the most amateurish Intro to Fiction Writing student. To have her conflate herself to being good enough for the bestseller list is the equivalent of me drawing a picture of a horse and demanding it be good enough to hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sarem’s interviews and other public appearances since the scandal show that her working knowledge of the YA world, and the book world in general, goes only so far as books that have become franchises. In this wonderfully shady Huffington Post article, Sarem only names the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games trilogy, the Twilight trilogy, and the 50 Shades trilogy. With the exception of 50 Shades, it seems that Sarem connected these YA hits as having a better chance of being optioned as films and spent her effort towards cracking the bestseller list rather than caring about the content of her book or the readers she would need acclaim from. She is set to star in the movie adaptation of her own novel, and her background is as an occasional actress and band manager.
Her attitude toward the book world as the “pre-movie industry” is what I find most infuriating. I’ve already mentioned that my career is in book publishing, and yet I have often been bombarded by questions from friends and family about whether I would consider going into television or film. I have had a friend ask me, not once, but twice whether I could, as someone in book publishing, help her land a job in writing for movies or TV. First off, if I wanted to be in those industries, I would be. And it’s a disservice to treat my industry as less than these other forms of media, especially when I find books so compelling and the community that shapes it (readers and writers alike) so encouraging, accessible, and forward-thinking.
And it’s this forward-thinking and support that makes it more aggravating to me that Sarem took the #1 spot from Angie Thomas and her debut novel The Hate U Give. Thomas’s book (which is getting its own movie adaptation after becoming a critical darling and a sweeping success among readers) is about a young black girl who witnesses her unarmed friend get shot by police. It’s a YA novel that discusses the Black Lives Matter movement, code switching, and growing up as a black girl, and it comes from a first-time author who worked incredibly hard to get where she is.
However indirectly Sarem thought her motives were in placing her book above Thomas’s and everyone else on the bestseller list, however briefly Handbook for Mortals was on that list (less than a day before Thomas was reinstated as #1), it’s still a matter of a white woman taking the focus away from a black woman’s hard work and success.
As for Rose Christo, perhaps her scandal is the least damaging of the three. Her story is not as closely tied to current YA book trends, but it does touch on mid-2000s YA culture and nostalgia. The 2006 fanfiction My Immortal was lauded similarly those same early- to mid-2000s audiences lauded the 2003 film The Room – terrible in so many inexplicable ways that it was entertaining, almost endearing. In the same way that The Room was a spot-on distillation of a mediocre person purporting their work to be a singular masterpiece, My Immortal encapsulated perfectly the particular adolescent attitudes of that specific time – the angst, strange and sometimes nonsensical fantasies, goth aesthetic, “more ‘real’ than thou” mentality – while also using the same annoying slang and terrible writing tropes of that era to disastrously hilarious, parodical effect.
The authorship of the fanfic had also been widely debated. While the author had posted under the name “Tara Gillesbie,” many readers speculated that, not only was it a pseudonym, but that My Immortal was so amazingly bad, that perhaps a team of unknown authors rather than just one. When Christo revealed herself to be the writer of the fanfic, brought to light after it was (jokingly?) speculated that Sarem was the author of the fanfic, the internet who had grown up with My Immortal had excitedly latched onto any more details about how the fanfic came about and what the author was up to now.
The early interviews and articles about Christo paint a picture of a self-aware, now-grown woman who, in a somewhat charming way, embarrassingly owns up to the fact that she had written a bafflingly ridiculous story in her teens. The book deal she had at the time with Macmillan’s imprint Wednesday Books was a memoir about the various hardships she faced while in foster care after a traumatic and abusive childhood that involved child pornography and separation from her brother. The memoir would go into why she had believed that writing the worst fanfiction ever and becoming internet-famous would lead her to finding her brother.
When said separated brother publicly called Christo out for fabricating the whole story, and Macmillan cancelled the book deal over documents that Christo herself admitted to forging for the sake of “protecting her family,” the public didn’t seem to react with outrage like the other two scandals. Rather, Christo’s story had gone through such a whirlwind of various twists and turns in such a short period of time that it seemed the public didn’t feel so much betrayed by Christo as it was perplexed. With the over decade-long mystery ending on the same note it started on, there was little to feel besides confusion over why any of this had to occur.
While these three scandals are only part of my corner of the universe’s troubles this year, I feel that they’re also a microcosm and product of what this year has done as a whole. The idea that these three scandals targeted generally younger, less seriously taken audiences is not lost on me either in terms of its relevance to many other issues that we’ve faced this year.
Additionally, it’s become a familiar scene to see others lying for as much attention as possible, getting caught in lie after lie but vehemently denying it, deliberately misconstruing evidence to turn themselves into victims of a corrupt system that they already benefit from and have certain privileges in. Through some combination of ego and mediocrity, it’s somehow become a more popular method of achieving notoriety for these people, not even fame, this year than most others.
I brought up the social media aspect of these scandals as a means of embracing whatever truths can still come to light and be circulated widely among those who seek it in this post-truth era, and how facts still have the power to overturn deceptive narratives, stories completely removed from reality. It’s been a rough year, one that we’ve somehow survived, though not without the pain, stress, and, often, horror. The scandals that I mentioned started off hoping to play the rest of us for fools, and ended with these scandals uncovered, its instigators humiliated, and us better for finding the truth. If at least some of the victories we can claim are these, if we can set the real world right again in these instances, perhaps there will be more. Perhaps this is too optimistic of me, but holding onto this hope that such things are still possible is what I want to keep in mind as we enter 2018.
SYNOPSIS: Ruth Young moves back in with her parents for a year after she breaks up with her fiance. She helps care for her father, who suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and records her experiences in a journal format.
July 30th, 2017
I finished GOODBYE, VITAMIN on the train back to my hometown last week, where I stayed with my parents and little brother for a few days to help out around the house and celebrate my dad’s birthday. I’ve been mentally and emotionally preparing myself for this trip due to past issues I’ve had with my family, but my stay was easier to get through than I thought it would be and I think your novel helped me through it. I keep flipping the pages to July 11th’s familial shenanigans, the pain in May 21st, and the sweet nostalgia of February 19th (my birthday). I’ve found the Youngs’ mistakes and small victories comforting because they make me reflect on my own family situation as less daunting than before.
GOODBYE, VITAMIN is the first novel I’ve picked up in years with little knowledge of what was inside. Outside of my friend Isaac Fitzgerald’s Book of the Month Club recommendation, I didn’t know what the book was about, hadn’t heard of it through other friends, and didn’t read any reviews. I’m really happy I picked this novel up knowing so little–it’s about time I picked something up that didn’t have a downer ending! I couldn’t help but literally laugh in public during my subway commutes to and from work. The humor and lighthearted moments of the novel are earned yet somehow still surprising, as if Ruth were a close friend telling me a story that we know I’ll find funny but she knows how to catch me off-guard and make me laugh unexpectedly.
As an emerging writer, your novel reminded me how important structure is and how even something as deceptively simple as calendar dates can create an effective shape for a story to live in. Ruth’s observations reminded me of the poetic feel to Little Book of Days by Nona Caspers or Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement–although neither rings quite so sincere (nor were these books funny). I’ve been struggling with pace in my stories lately, and reading GOODBYE, VITAMIN made it all the more transparent to me how structure can make working with a complex story more manageable and interesting.
I gushed about your novel to my fellow One Story literary magazine volunteers, and I’m excited for your next project!
On the first week of its run, I was lucky enough to win tickets to the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar. Despite the rain, the audience and I shivered in our ponchos and managed to fill about half the Delacorte Theater. This was my third time going to Shakespeare in the Park, and Caesar did not disappoint; Corey Stoll as Brutus was phenomenal, John Douglas Thompson was a stunning Cassius, Elizabeth Marvel played Marc Antony with amazing versatility, Nikki M. James was incredible as Portia, etc. etc. Aside from the acting, the lighting and special effects were engaging and fun.
Let me get this straight: I highly, highly recommend seeing this production if you can. Go as soon as possible, the ticket line and standby line be damned. It’s memorable and it’s free and it’s definitely worth your time.
That said, I was taken aback when I realized that this play would be a modern adaptation of Caesar. The set includes large panels filled with the Constitution and the Capitol building. The senators aren’t in togas, but in suits. And Julius Caesar enters with loud rock music, a fog machine, a CEO’s stride, and a ridiculous tuft of hair that makes it clear who he’s supposed to remind us of. We laughed as he made his way across the stage, making finger guns, waving, and shaking the hands of nearby audience members.
While it was clear that Caesar had been chosen by the Public Theater due to our current political climate, their modernization felt odd and even, at times, goofy and tone-deaf.
There are some fun nods to our current situation, such as Calpurnia’s foreign accent, the line “Caesar could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose the Romans’ support” (or some variant of that line that I’ve since forgotten precisely), and, most hilariously, the use of smartphones, particularly in recording the stabbing of Caesar. Hold my cold brew, I’m ‘gramming the assassination.
The adaptation as a whole, however, felt very confused in trying to modernize ancient Rome into contemporary Washington, D.C. The soothsayer that warns Caesar about the Ides of March wears a Guy Fawkes mask, the icon of the hacker group Anonymous. When Cassius meets with Brutus to discuss their plan to kill Caesar, Cassius runs onstage with a pussyhat and a banner that says “resist.” Brutus and Cassius aren’t exiled from the city and left with their own armies to fight Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, but become part of the democracy-leaning resistance movement, who chants “No Justice! No Peace!” and other similar chants we’ve heard in every protest before and since the election. Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus, then, continue to symbolize the monarchy that Caesar stood for? But with fascistic tendencies to make it seem more like something that could happen in this day and age? And isn’t the Caesar-Trump parallel a little forced, as Julius Caesar was a decorated and well-respected war hero? These modernized readings felt lacking and watered-down in context, both Shakespeare’s and our own. This Roman foot didn’t fit into our modern-day polished leather shoe.
To be fair, I think the spirit of the play is entirely intact. The Romans are swayed easily both by Brutus’s rhetoric and Antony’s pathos, evoking the same phenomena we’ve dealt with from both parties when hearing strong arguments and sensational news. Mob mentality has tremendous and terrifying power. The fear of upholding democracy in the face of rising absolute power still registers.
(At this point I should mention that I haven’t read this play before watching this production, nor have I studied Shakespeare extensively. I’m unsure how he felt about democracy and monarchy, though I imagine that having to please the Queen meant that his works had to have some sort of pro-Monarchy bias to them. A “putting the rightful King on the throne” motif happens quite a bit in Shakespeare’s works as a result, such as in Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, etc.)
I should also state that I do enjoy modern adaptations. For all their flaws, I enjoyed 10 Things I Hate About You and Romeo + Juliet. This adaption, however, seemed to fall flat for me for being too on-the-nose while misunderstanding certain politically-charged markers of our current political divide.
If I’m being so rough on this adaptation, perhaps it’s because that on the weekend following the election, I was fortunate enough to watch the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written by Bertolt Brecht. It was performed by a small, ten-person cast in the equally small Wild Project theater, and the director had clearly wanted to make the play an homage to Brecht and his groundbreaking approach to theater.
Ui was played straight, with fedora-sporting gangsters, old-school microphones, and other props and markers to place ourselves in 1930s Chicago. Or 1930s Germany, really, considering that Brecht had made the two locations analogous. The actor playing Arturo Ui, Craig Smith, wasn’t deliberately trying to be any current politician, but simply a buffoon who learned how to be a menacing orator and a manipulative politician. Even within the play, Smith was simply Arturo Ui, not Adolf Hitler, though clearly Brecht made sure that there were parallels between the two. No lines were added or changed for a modern surprise that the audience would notice. While the theater’s Facebook page was definitely using the election as a way to garner interest about the production, the performance itself was true to its source material.
As a result, I had chills at the end of the play. These chills were noticeably absent when I left the Delacorte Theater after Caesar.
In many respects, Caesar is the more complex, more interesting play. Ui shows a criminal’s rise to power, while Caesar shows the fragility of democracy. What went wrong with my experiences? Is there a saturation point when it comes to adapting plays for a modern audience?
In the May 12th issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Maria Margaronis reviews a production of Ui at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Her review, “Second Time as Farce,” mentions similar complaints about this adaptation from critics that I have about the Public Theater’s Caesar adaptation. “Critics have complained that Bruce Norris’s adaptation at the Donmar Warehouse tries too hard to update the play with references to ‘the leader of a certain nation,’ sprinkling the great dictator’s lines with obvious Trumpisms,” Margaronis states, and adds that Norris’s adaptation includes a banner that reads “Make This Country Great Again” as well as a line about “a nasty woman.” She sums up her review disappointed, writing that “it’s difficult now to give Brecht the edge he needs . . . perhaps the production’s failure to shock is its darkest warning. We find it all too easy now to laugh at its potentates.”
Maybe Margaronis would have watched the same production as I had and come out with the same review, but it seems much more likely to me that the pitfalls for both the Public Theater’s Caesar and Norris’s Ui lie in molding the plays too much toward the ephemeral news of the day, not trusting the audience enough to make these contemporary connections themselves, worrying that too much dust has settled on the original works. Unlike her, I don’t think it’s our modern moment that leaves us feeling less shocked than we should be at Brecht and Shakespeare, rather that the adaptations we’re given are too informed by our modern moment to give us the benefit of the doubt.
I’m wondering if this current trend of jam-packing plays with contemporary nods will continue with future adaptations, as it feels like more and more political-thriller plays are being announced each week (including, I believe, many more adaptations of Ui and Caesar).
I’m also wondering whether it’s more effective to have these plays keep their biting characteristics as originally intended or to continue to have these modern updates as a sort of validation that our political climate is affecting so much of our public consciousness. It was certainly revelatory to me after watching Ui to feel unsettled and astounded at the power of theater, but what if it was just as eye-opening for other audience members to have these dramatic parallels pointed out for them? When I left the Delacorte, I heard a number of audience members talking excitedly. They were amazed at the similarities between the politics of today and those that Shakespeare wrote about four hundred years ago. Is a cold, sweat-inducing fear what we need? Or do we need a cathartic, easy-to-handle manifestation of what we fear in front of us to laugh and poke fun at?
I’ll continue to think about these questions while I’m watching Clarence Darrow on Friday night.
When I was in fourth grade, the school music teacher offered to teach violin lessons to any student willing to give up recess once a week. Violins could be rented at a heavy discount. The music teacher visited every fourth grade classroom to encourage us to take this opportunity, measuring our arms for our violin sizes and playing short songs with a salesman-esque bravado. I told my parents that I was interested. I thought I could give it a try.
At the end of the school year, I had learned to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a few Christmas songs. Despite playing with the rest of the elementary school orchestra at the middle school and receiving celebratory Rita’s Water Ice for our performances, I didn’t feel like continuing past the school year. The instrument felt ungainly on my neck and its sound was shrill and squeaky. The recesses I had spent indoors reading sheet music were dull and too structured in my already very structured days in my regular classroom.
My parents, meanwhile, had decided that I would continue to play violin, and had yelled at me that we were not a family in which we tried things and then dropped them. They told me that I would continue to play violin until I was “finished.” I’m as confused about that statement now as I was then, at nine years old. How could I measure whether I was “finished” with violin? As far as I was concerned at that age, I was finished with that instrument. I was also finished with violin at ten years old. And eleven. And twelve. And every year up through my high school graduation.
My parents were the worst supporters of this forced musicianship (among many other things they had forced me into). By middle school, violin practice wasn’t something I had to fit into my recesses or schedule after school – it was a graded orchestra class. Whenever my grade in that class dipped below A-level, my parents flew into a rage and repeated ad nauseum to practice longer, harder, until I could complete all my pieces perfectly.
As soon as I would begin to ask when I could quit, why did I have to play an instrument, why couldn’t I try something else, they complained twice as much about how they had already spent so much money to pay for the rental for another year, how they had invested so much time and effort driving me to school and helping me prep for seasonal concerts, how I was being ungrateful for this “beautiful skill.”
Things came to a head when I was fourteen and they threatened to destroy my small but cherished (and retrospectively crappy) music collection if I didn’t stop complaining and start playing. For every hour I put bow to string, I’d shut the door, lie in bed, put my headphones on, and pop a CD into my Discman for just as long. Arctic Monkeys, AFI, Green Day, Rise Against – I was not at all subtle about how shitty I thought everything and everyone in my life was, and the music I was drawn to validated the anger and ugliness I wasn’t allowed to express.
My parents’ threat worked, and I took to violin without further protest. They later deluded themselves into thinking that I appreciated it. I made my way from the third violin section to the first. I was asked by the middle school orchestra teacher if I would consider being part of the honors section. Outside of end-of-the-year orchestra concerts, I played at nursing homes during the holidays and at my aunt’s wedding reception. I took private lessons when I hit high school. My parents were worried that my violin skills weren’t strong enough to be part of the high school orchestra, and I didn’t need the heavy time commitment to get in the way of my AP course load or affect my GPA. Still, I wasn’t “finished” with violin by their standards.
It was almost a relief, after my private instructor had invited me to join the community orchestra for a performance of Carmina Burana, for my parents to circle around to the question of their own accord. Didn’t I like the violin? I’d been playing it for so long. Something must have kept me playing for those nine years. The only follow-up I gave after telling them “no” was that my private lessons were on Fridays, and I liked my instructor. I was usually not allowed to spend time with friends, so it made me feel like I was a normal teenager to be out of the house on a Friday night, with Friday night plans, even if my friends were off on their own much more interesting Friday night adventures. It was an unacceptable answer to my parents, but I was leaving for college in a few months and my music was on an iPod. They stood at my bedroom door and yelled at me for what felt like a month and let me quit my private lessons two weeks later.
I left my first job over two months ago and can’t help thinking about my experience with the violin. I didn’t realize until I had left that I had hated it for quite some time, and it’s been easy for me to find the parallels between the two situations.
I was raised to be a completionist. Aside from violin, I stuck with things, half-hearted or impassioned, until I hit some level of adequacy. Tango, poetry, pilates, baking, and perfume were things I tried and fell in love with. A B.S. in economics was more difficult to feel motivated about, but I stuck with it anyway. The same goes with business school and geology and running and who knows how many other things I put effort towards unthinkingly, just so I could reach some passable level of skill with it until moving on.
When I left my job, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no right to leave. I hadn’t even been in that position for a year, and the work I had done was acceptable but far from exceptional.
I didn’t start off hating my position, but I remember hoping in my first week that I would like it more once I got the hang of it. By the end of my first month, I switched to hoping the next few months would go by quickly before I started searching for a new job. It felt like the equivalent of being told to put out twenty different fires every day, and attending to only a few at a time while everyone screams about the fires you’re not putting out.
I came to the office every morning scared of looking at my emails. The bulk of them were requests marked “high importance” that had come in at all hours of the night from international contacts who needed files, approvals, signatures, permission information, all as soon as possible. The rest were some medley of annoyed responses on why someone couldn’t yet provide what I had asked for to complete urgent tasks, questions from my supervisor on whether I had yet handled said urgent tasks, frantic follow-ups on why I hadn’t emailed back within the last few days, hours, minutes. Possibly most disheartening of all were the queries from other departments about whether some stray request they received was something under my territory, because what was it that I did, exactly?
There was no doubt that my department’s work was important, but it was also obscure within the larger scope of the company. I was overwhelmed by my responsibilities, my main tasks were tedious and automatic, and, while I was told to not expect any recognition or gratitude when I accepted the position, it bothered me that all my work was barely understood and rarely thought of when I was working so hard. It was difficult for me, as well, to look at all my accomplishments over the week and not feel proud of the work I did.
Despite how unrewarding my job was, it pained me to think that I could leave what I was doing without at least getting better at it first. In place of my parents, I felt more of a duty to prove myself. That I could do my job well even if I could barely stand it. I wanted to “finish” my first job and end on a strong note. The threats this time didn’t stem from a patronizing demand to pursue a vague and loveless skill, but rather from my own fears of unemployment, of being unable to pay rent, of failure.
I went to readings and other literary events after work. Although I was and still am part of the book publishing world, nothing that I did between 9AM and 5PM at my first job felt connected to books. After leaving well past 5, often closer to 7, I would go to book launches and lectures and anything that would feel stimulating and less distant than how I felt during the day. I’d arrive back at my apartment too tired to stand, then wake up dreading the day’s tasks and wondering how I would reward myself for getting through one more day. I had out-grown my previous music taste and the de-stressing effect they had on me. I went to these panel discussions and fundraising parties instead.
“Doesn’t it seem like all Monique does is party?” a past professor of mine asked my friend at AWP17. I posted pictures every other day of which book events I had been to, and over time my social media presence seemed exclusively comprised of book events. My professor was worried that I was going out too much and not spending any of my time writing. She was concerned that I wasn’t improving my skills, and she was right. I hated being alone with myself and thinking about all the work I wasn’t getting done. I tried desperately for weeks to write a page before leaving for work or once I got home, but I was too drained to do anything else. And, as always, I kept returning to the feeling that I should instead be using that time to get just a bit better at my job.
I was stuck in a mindset in which I thought I could set aside my feelings, work hard, and, no matter whether I cared about what I was doing or not, get good at doing it. To me, this felt like a normal thing that many people already did. My boss had said that he had wanted to become something else in the industry, didn’t make it, and just landed where he is now. I had followed many blogs in the past run by single mothers who didn’t care about their jobs at all but continued to do so for the sake of their kids. Similar blogs I followed mentioned how classist the notion of “doing what you love” was. If these other people could continue the jobs they didn’t enjoy, couldn’t I?
After all, violin and my job weren’t always bad all the time. I met other students at school who were being forced to play the violin against their wills and befriended them. Similarly, I treasured the times I ran into friendly coworkers in the hallway and we talked about how busy we were and what we were doing after work. I traveled with my middle school orchestra to Dorney Park at the end of the school year, and my company threw an incredible holiday party at the end of 2016. Couldn’t these small moments of reprieve be enough for me to get through the day?
Eventually, I got to a point where I was dreading every hour of every day of my job. It took me a while to realize, but I had been equating “working hard” with “suffering and stressed beyond belief” and “feeling guilty all the time.”
At this point, my job search had already been underway for a few weeks, but there was still a part of me that wasn’t sure if there wasn’t some possible way I could end on a high note, show everyone and myself that I wasn’t as incompetent as I felt. Once I accepted a new job offer, however, I looked back on all the times I had texted my boyfriend early in the morning, asking if I had to go to work that day, that I felt terrible, that I wasn’t sick or otherwise feeling ill but that I could call in a personal day and couldn’t stomach the thought of coming to the office. I had had so many conversations with friends that started with me listing off all my work troubles and ending near tears.
I guess I’ve always seen my completionism as a point of pride. I could prove that I had put effort into something, even be somewhat good at it, even if it wasn’t for me. Perhaps it was because I learned it early on through violin, but it’s often very difficult to think of myself in these situations and how slogging through things I don’t like affect me mentally and physically.
The first week at my new job brought along all the accumulated apprehension that came with the memories of how I started at my previous one. Were the mistakes I was making new-hire mistakes or idiotic ones? Did my new boss like my work ethic, and, separately, did she like me as a person? Could I see myself here in a year? What level of apology should I prepare myself for if I’m still messing up a month in?
I’d be lying if the anxiety from my first job didn’t affect how I started my current one in both my nervousness and my stiff first impressions. But all my initial fears melted away almost immediately. My new office is huge for our small, 15-person company, and, while I’m sure to be on time and try to be both efficient and fast at my daily responsibilities, the atmosphere is incredibly laid back.
Last Friday, a few coworkers and I got lunch together and it ended up being a two-and-a-half-hour-long affair. My new boss is patient and generous with reminders. My department is supportive and doesn’t speak in eyerolls, as my last one did. The rest of the company makes me feel included – I’ve been invited to birthday parties, offered extra tickets to dance parties, given help on my apartment-search, run through a flash flood for free margaritas with them, drank with them during Wine Fridays (which are every Friday before the work day ends). We frequently check up on each other and how we’re all doing. It was such a bizarre experience for me to go from such a high-stress, corporate position in which you had to prove your commitment to your job to this new one in which we behave like a group of friends and trust each other’s work and skill.
I came into this position wondering if I “deserved” to have this much fun and have this many benefits as an entry-level person at the company. It’s so telling that this was how I started off at my new job, that I had hurt myself so much by sticking with my old job for so long and then felt that I had to bear some sort of terrible burden first and prove myself before I could enjoy what I was doing.
I’m writing more now (this post is evidence of that). My friends and my boyfriend have noticed that I no longer seem drained from work and on-edge all the time. Everyone else I work with has rich lives outside of the company, and we get pumped when we hear about each other’s vacations and successes, such as mine when I got accepted into a summer writing retreat I’ve been dreaming about for years.
I’m still getting used to the fact that yes, this is fine, this is how life should be, enjoyable, happy, enough stress to keep me focused on my own professional and personal goals but not so much that it’s overwhelming. The completionist in me is going to stick around for a while. But I’ve definitely come a long way from just accepting life as it is if it’s currently making me miserable, and the small steps along the way that led me away from that mindset have been invaluable. I have to keep reminding myself to assess how I’m doing in relation to what I’m doing, but it’s been getting easier to do so day by day.