The quandary at the heart of The Price of Everything, the art world documentary recently acquired by HBO, is summed up in a scene with the great German artist Gerhard Richter. Gesturing to one of his own paintings, Richter explains, “It’s not good when this is the value of a house. It’s not fair. I like it, but it’s not a house.”
Fairness and basic human needs such as shelter, however, are far from the minds of most of the participants in Nathaniel Kahn’s busy, stylish account of money and contemporary art. The opening credits bloom and fade over a breakneck montage of art auctions; the shouted numbers are in the millions, the artworks—Stella, Warhol, Richter—are chivvied along as props in the play of conspicuous consumption. As hammers fall, the voice of ex-auctioneer Simon de Pury intones, “Art and money have always gone hand in hand… It’s very important for good to be expensive… The only way for cultural artifacts to survive is for them to have a commercial value.”
It’s a statement so silly (plenty of extant cultural artifacts predate money by millennia) that one can only assume it is meant to shock rather than to be believed, a gauntlet thrown in the face of wimpy platitudes about art’s ineffable value. But viewers who anticipate a filmic celebration of capitalism as a force for cultural good, or alternatively, a condemnation of commodification, will be disappointed. The Price of Everything develops no particular argument, posits no solutions, uncovers no scandals. It isn’t a polemic, it’s a portrait, and in its mix of the grotesque and the earnest, a pragmatic and recognizable one.
Once upon a time, the buying and selling of art was conducted discreetly in back rooms; auctions were the dingy purview of specialist dealers; and contemporary art barely got a look in. Today, the contemporary art market is a glossy subject of public display and fascination (this is quite different from the art itself being fascinating to most people). Record prices for paintings appear above the fold in newspapers; the villainous art dealer is a common cinematic trope. The attraction is only partly explained by eye-popping sales: the global trade in art in 2017 was estimated at $63.7 billion, which is a lot of money, but tiddlywinks in comparison to other commodity classes (the Japanese automobile maker Toyota alone pulled in four times that amount that year). Unlike the automotive industry, however, the art business is mostly privately held and unregulated, so its workings are opaque. Then there is the fact that nobody needs a painting to get to work or put a roof over their heads, as well as the reality that aesthetic experience is stubbornly subjective. Finally, there’s the discomfort many feel in talking about art as a commodity class at all. Add moral anxiety to mystery and money, and you’ve got a hook.
Kahn’s film makes the most of this hook, trading on the very lures it critiques: big numbers, famous names, slo-mo shots of the privileged class enjoying its privileges. The closest it gets to “gritty” is the picturesquely dilapidated country house of painter Larry Poons and the East LA studio of MacArthur fellow Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Kahn, whose Oscar-nominated film My Architect (2003) focused on his father, Louis Kahn, is comfortable in this milieu. He is never seen on camera, but we hear his voice affably chatting with the rich and (art world) famous who occupy the lens. Most of his conversation partners are shown at work—the painters paint, the dealers schmooze, the collectors survey their spreadsheets—which is unexpectedly humanizing. For better or worse, these are people doing their jobs.
Kahn does not editorialize explicitly, but he clearly has his favorites, and they do not include the woman looking at paintings with her sunglasses on, declaring, “I want more. I want more. I always want more.” He devotes the greatest amount of screen time to Poons, an art star of the 1960s whose later painterly abstraction fell out of favor with the high-end market. Scrappy, funny, and unkempt, Poons acts as a foil to market darling Jeff Koons (the rhyme is a lagniappe), whom we see roaming his antiseptic factory, while assistants slave away producing his art. Poons, meanwhile, is shown in a shambolic barn where everything is coated in accretions of paint, including the artist. Musing on his fall from art world glory, he says, “All the success, all the sameness finally began to look like sameness… I wanted more… I wanted to be, you know, Beethoven.”
At the other end of the system, Kahn follows Sotheby’s Amy Cappellazzo as she prepares for a November 2016 contemporary art auction, and collector Stefan Edlis who, with his wife, Gael Neeson, recently presented the Art Institute of Chicago with forty-two works valued at almost half a billion dollars—the largest gift in the museum’s history. Cappellazzo and Edlis both take unabashed pleasure in art and the deals made around it. When Edlis describes his brand new, $2.5 million Koons painting as “modestly priced,” he is being accurate by the standards of his community (one can certainly pay more). But elsewhere—in the living rooms of most HBO viewers, one imagines—this is an outrageous, even stupid, amount of money to pay for what Edlis himself calls “a knock-off” (it’s a copy of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 soft-core porn canvas, Le Sommeil, executed by Koons’s assistants, with a garden gazing ball stuck in front).
The film goes some way to unpacking how we got here: it includes footage of the famous 1973 auction in which Robert and Ethel Scull reaped large profits, selling art they had bought just a few years earlier, often from the artists. The artists saw none of those gains, of course, prompting a famous on-film fracas between Robert Scull and Robert Rauschenberg. Equally revealing, at one point the camera slides past a Poons painting and we hear Scull say, “I’d never seen it stretched since I bought it.” Filling out the story, Phillips auction house executive Ed Dolman explains the synergy between a diminishing supply of available important old master works and a rising class of “younger people, enriched beyond imagination, with a thirst for the new and the now.”
There is a consensus among Kahn’s informants that contemporary art is being monetized in ways that, while not unprecedented, are newly brazen. Dolman mentions the Koons “futures” trade—the buying and selling of promissory notes for works not yet produced. On CNBC, Cappellazzo discusses art as “a very attractive asset class,” while the ticker tape scrolls below.
The irony is that art is wildly unreliable as an investment. In the 1880s, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (circa 1665) was sold at auction for about $30 in today’s money, while Ernest Meissonier’s 1805, Cuirassiers Before the Charge (1878) commanded about one million. The Vermeer is now undoubtedly one of the most valuable canvases on the planet, while the Meissonier is… not.
But really, why should we care? If the rich aren’t going spend money on things like public education or curing malaria, does it really matter which baubles they accumulate? Some figures bemoan the disappearance of art into private collections; others worry that the gravitational mass of so much money distorts the production of art. In one affecting scene, Akunyili Crosby—then thirty-four years old—watches the live stream of the Sotheby’s November auction as her painting, estimated at $200,000–$300,000, sells for $900,000 (over a million, with commissions). The collector who sold it had owned it for less than four years. The expression on her face can only be described as dismay.
“Without doubt, we’re careening toward some edge or some end,” says gallerist Gavin Brown. “I think I can smell smoke.” Perhaps. At least one of the film’s talking heads, dealer Mary Boone, could shortly be doing prison time for tax fraud. But the doomsaying may be premature. The excess, myopic worldviews, dubious self-justification, and passive acceptance of extraordinary disparities of resources that characterize the art world are simply a reflection of the world at large. As long as there are mad amounts of money going around looking for a place to park, it seems likely that art will continue to represent an “attractive asset class.” And name-brands within any given asset class will tend to rise and fall.
Though the art market is often described as capricious, it has a clear logic: the art that commands the most money at a given moment is that which best reflects its collectors’ view of themselves—pious or powerful, beautiful or deep. Edlis observes, with self-deprecating charm, that “to be an effective collector, deep down you have to be shallow.” Koons—whose shiny objects, vendor-babble, and dead smile recur like a fugal motif throughout the film—has provided this service for decades, celebrating the crass while flattering his buyers that they are clever and superior for being in on the joke.
Will Koons be the Meissonier of the twenty-first century? Noting the dearth of Koons works in the 2016 fall auctions, Edlis remarks that “the real estate people started thinking of Jeff Koons as lobby art.” “The kiss of death,” Cappellazzo agrees. “You never get out of the lobby once you’re in there.” They both shrug.
Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything is streaming on HBO.
When I was diagnosed with chronic migraines five years ago, I didn’t feel as though I was pursuing a medical mystery, exactly. I had my first migraine when I was five, and they have been a part of my life ever since. What did feel mysterious was why nobody had told me that this mundane, common condition could get so bad—that migraines could transform into a daily, even nonstop event; that they could derail my life. That there was no standard, tolerable, or effective treatment made my attempts to manage the condition feel like a gauntlet, even an odyssey. The other mystery was that almost no one outside of my immediate family—including, initially, my doctors—seemed to comprehend how devastating this was.
In July, audio producer Allison Behringer released her podcast Bodies, distributed by Los Angeles’s NPR affiliate, KCRW. Each episode looks at what Behringer calls “a medical mystery” told through a particular woman’s story. Most of the episodes don’t track unusual diseases, outlying cases, or difficult-to-diagnose conditions, but rather the more humble, routine transitions, breakdowns, and malfunctions of the body. The first episode, for example, is an intimate account of Behringer’s first serious relationship, one that begins to unravel due to unexplained pain during sex. It’s notable not because painful sex is so rare—as we hear, it’s really not—but in part because it is Behringer’s first profound experience of being mystified and disappointed by her body. The intimacy of the subject, and Behringer’s willingness to make herself vulnerable as she seeks answers from doctors and loved ones, sets the tone for the show.
From there, Behringer turns to other women’s difficult experiences. There’s KalaLea, who has painful periods so heavy that she routinely misses work and often avoids going out; Reese, whose anxiety and disorganization persist despite all efforts to get it together; and Vivian, a family doctor with a newborn who refuses to breastfeed. As women find themselves blindsided by what it means to inhabit their bodies, complaints to doctors are met with blank stares, resignation, or pat responses. In the absence of knowledge, guidance, and, in many cases, empathy, each subject wonders what could be wrong—if there’s something wrong at all—and how best to address the problem.
Women’s bodies so often feel unknown even to those who inhabit them. The questions we have about our bodies, because they are hard to formulate and touch on subjects that are private or taboo, become mysteries. As with my migraines, most of the circumstances that these individuals face aren’t extraordinary. Rather, they happen frequently, to many women all over the world. But that doesn’t make them any more comprehensible. If not truly mysterious, the stories Behringer tells are confounding and intractable. They are traumatic for the people who experience them, and vivid and painful—and likely familiar—to many listeners. We listen as each protagonist deforms her life, or her psyche, to accommodate pain, confusion, and dysfunction as she struggles to find relief. Behringer suggests that they needn’t be. Those years of desperation, or bearing physical and psychological pain, might be avoided, she tells us, if we didn’t feel the need to hide.
Between hiding what we’re told is embarrassing and presenting ourselves to the world to be appraised, women’s relationships to our bodies can be complex, even brutal. As Behringer reminds us in one episode, being a woman only comes with one instruction: “Be beautiful.”
One of the standout episodes of Bodies is “Other Than,” in which we’re introduced to Jeromey, a young woman plagued by thick hair on her cheeks and neck. The hair begins to grow at sixteen, during the uncertain molting of puberty, and Jeromey finds herself shut off from any sense of blossoming femininity. Mocked by classmates, unsupported by her sister and mother, Jeromey tries to bear her lot as best as she can: wearing turtlenecks, shaving her face. When she finally sees a doctor, she’s told that whatever hormonal imbalances the hair suggests are likely a result of her obesity—a problem not easily tackled, and one the doctor can’t treat. Later, when she’s encouraged to see a gynecologist, Jeromey refuses. “I just thought my vagina was like this scary place… that there would be cobwebs down there,” she recalls.
Jeromey isn’t exactly proactive about dealing with her body. Instead, for much of her adolescence, she holes up in her small apartment. Lonely, tormented, she sometimes finds herself consumed with violent thoughts, which she purges in powerful poems, stories, and “video essays,” collections of scenes from horror films that she edits together. Many of the horror films are sexually explicit, though they avoid the usual tropes of women as victims, and it’s here that Jeromey begins to access her own sexuality. Eventually, she decides that she wants to be a filmmaker. The episode builds to a description of Jeromey’s senior thesis film, a chilling fable of a woman who loses her virginity and, like a praying mantis, then consumes her mate. Alongside her artistic actualization, Jeromey incrementally attempts to deal with her physical condition. But Behringer’s main focus is the artistic identity Jeromey carves out for herself in the process. As Behringer puts it, “Stuck in a world where beauty begets womanhood, Jeromey creates her own sexuality and power.”
In other episodes, Behringer emphasizes sharing practical, constructive information. Above all, Bodies wants to help. The show demonstrates the difference between a compassionate, forward-thinking doctor and one who is just going through the motions. It empowers women to do their own research.
From there, the particulars of each woman’s experience evolve into more political, systemic questions: Is my experience in the range of normal? Should a woman’s discomfort or confusion be tolerated and suffered? Doctors have always treated women differently than men. Since the nineteenth century, women’s unexplained medical ailments have been chalked up to hysteria, a catchall category vaguely associated with a woman’s anatomy and tumultuous hormones. (“Hysteria” comes from the Greek root “hystera,” meaning “uterus.”) Even if hysteria is no longer diagnosed as such, the physical symptoms that women present are often conflated with psychological ones, and health conditions that impact women tend to be less well studied than those that affect men. In her 2018 book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, Maya Dusenbery writes that diseases that disproportionately affect women, like autoimmune disease, migraines, fibromyalgia, and other chronic pain conditions, are under-researched, leaving doctors without the tools to recognize and properly treat them. Women, who are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, are also more likely to be prescribed antidepressants or tranquilizers for pain than men are. Women are underrepresented in clinical research—until 1993, the FDA banned women from participating in drug testing, and there is still little research on the way that medications impact people by sex. Finally, symptoms and medical issues that are considered a natural part of a woman’s life—PMS, birth control, menopause—are poorly studied, with insufficient treatments and few drugs in the development pipeline.
Even when explanations are forthcoming for the women Bodies profiles, that doesn’t always lessen their suffering. Here Behringer gets at a bigger, more existential question: When we encounter these disappointments and pains, whether inevitable or not, how do we go on? With warmth and empathy, she patiently asks her listeners to reconsider what we expect of our bodies, and what we can do to support each other. In the course of our lives, we will all encounter physical pain, moments when our bodies don’t work right, and the grief associated with both experiences. Part of Behringer’s project is to help us accept the fact that bodies fail us. Beyond information and support, that acceptance is part of healing.
Behringer introduces her first episode with a message for her mother. “Hey, Mom,” she begins. “You did a great job. But why didn’t we ever talk about how sex is supposed to be just as good for me as it is for my partner? Why did I think it was okay to always put myself second?” Over the course of the show, Behringer evades her mother’s questions about her relationship, climbs into her mother’s lap to cry, empathizes with her mother’s losses, and revels in her mother’s triumphs (an active and happy sex life in her fifties). Behringer Sr. (we never learn her name) presents on tape, like Allison, as compassionate, warm, and nurturing. It’s a touching testament to their mutual trust that Allison expects her mom to have taught her all of this in the first place.
Underlying Behringer’s question for her mother is the issue of intergenerational knowledge. In a world where women’s bodies are a vortex of expectations and prohibitions, what collective knowledge exists? What information do we pass down? What responsibility do we have to educate each other? How can we ensure comfortable, routine conversations about our bodily experience and what it takes to be healthy?
Behringer believes we each bear the responsibility to talk openly about our bodies, to assuage the suffering of other women. In each episode, Behringer calls for us to let down boundaries and to ignore taboos. “Talking about our bodies is about reckoning with our most vulnerable selves,” Behringer says, and revealing those parts of ourselves is the only way to build collective knowledge. In the first episode, she describes how the doctor, who finally helps her, holds a mirror up during a pelvic exam to show Behringer what she “looks like,” as Behringer puts it. She learns about the vulvar vestibule, the glands inside her vagina, her pelvic floor. She does this all on tape.
This permission to feel and explore the body immediately brought to mind Our Bodies, Ourselves, a comprehensive book about women’s health first published in 1970. Inspired by the second-wave feminist notion of consciousness-raising, the members of the Boston Women’s Book Collective wrote and self-published the book to answer the questions women had about their bodies that they couldn’t get physicians to answer. The book privileges women’s individual experiences over clinical research, and its information and advice is inclusive rather than prescriptive. (One of its mainstays is encouraging women to hold up a mirror to look at and explore her genitals.) Behringer’s Bodies is timed extremely aptly since the collective just announced last year that it will cease to publish updates and new editions of the book.
The interplay between generations persists throughout Bodies. In the final episode of the season, “Unraveling,” Behringer returns to her mother. Behringer begins with the story of a woman named Lisa going through menopause, who was so disoriented by mood swings, dizziness, and panic attacks that she stopped being able to drive. Lisa’s story piques Behringer’s curiosity about her mother’s experience with menopause, a phase Behringer missed because it coincided with her years away at college. When she asks her mother about it, Behringer Sr. tells her daughter that her menopause transition was colored entirely by her grief after the sudden death of her husband, Allison’s father. Behringer Sr. found herself weeping on many days, and expresses gratitude for a tight-knit group of friends and thoughtful neighbors who drew her out of isolation and encouraged her to see a doctor. That doctor found that Behringer Sr.’s heavy, clotty periods, which Behringer chalked up to the burdens of perimenopause, were due in part to a prolapsed uterus, a painful condition where the pelvic floor weakens and the uterus slips into the vagina. She also gave Behringer Sr. a prescription for Lexapro. Like her daughter, Behringer Sr. is willing to make herself vulnerable in service of honesty and disclosure about our bodies.
Behringer began her podcast by asking her mother why she hadn’t told Behringer what she needed to know to have a happy sexual life. In learning how painful and disruptive menopause can be, Behringer returns to her first question: Why didn’t I know? Speaking to her mother, she says, “Over the course of making this podcast, I’ve been forced to reconsider a lot of things that I just never even thought about, like breastfeeding, when I called you the other day and I was like, ‘What was that like?’ I don’t know anything about that.” She feels embarrassed that she never bothered to ask.
Her mom’s response is wise and sweet and understanding. She tells her daughter that she’s getting ahead of herself. “You’re not supposed to know that,” she tells her daughter. “You’re not there in your journey yet.” Behringer Sr. reminds her daughter, and all of us, that we can’t know of every possible physical challenge that will come. All we can do is take things as they come, do our best to confront them with grace and tenacity, and find a way to endure.
When my migraines were at their worst, I spent a lot of time reading about the condition: everything from recent medical research on new medications and related morbidities to advice from migraine specialists to message boards where people shared experiences, treatments, and frustrations. I read memoirs as well as philosophical texts about pain, illness, and the body. Some of it was terrifying—I learned of “migraineurs” who had given up careers or hopes of family entirely—and sometimes I had to take a break to protect my own mental health. But it was ultimately helpful to know that the bewilderment I was experiencing wasn’t unusual or unique.
My migraines are stable now—I still get them, but they’re predictable, treatable, and don’t prevent me from making plans or meeting goals. What’s been most rewarding, though, has been passing on that hard-earned knowledge to others. In October 2016, I published an essay about my chronic migraines, and the wisdom I’d gained from watching my mother, who suffers from her own painful neurological illness. I received dozens of emails and messages, many from strangers who had suffered their own sagas with chronic migraines. Some still had headaches every day, but had managed to make a life for themselves, and were eager to reassure me that I could do the same. Others wanted to share tips and tricks they had learned through years of pain and treatment. Still others wanted advice, and I found myself spending hours, for weeks, sharing all that I knew that might be useful. Dispensing advice and reassurance was as important as receiving it.
I know few women who haven’t suffered from one form or another of chronic illness and pain, mental illness, painful periods or sex, body dysmorphia, or infertility. Behringer’s recognition of how widespread these experiences are has spawned a Facebook group in which Bodies listeners can discuss the episodes as well as their own medical issues. Advertising the group on the podcast, Behringer always advises: “Nothing is off the table and everyone is welcome.” Her project, in addition to a feat of storytelling, can boast another accomplishment: it has created its own community.
Though, to date, Bodies is only six episodes long, Behringer offers something of a formula for confronting medical conundrums: take a mystery and reveal how common it is. Acknowledge how much suffering something mundane can cause. Treat with information and empathy. Repeat. But a couple of times, Behringer breaks from her formula. In one interlude, in which Behringer is not the narrator, the listener gets to spend four bright and curious minutes with Elizabeth, an eleven-year-old who has recently been fitted with hearing aids. Now, Elizabeth’s world is filled with the discovery of sound. Fans, machines, the pages of a book, her father’s voice, her mother’s radio all crowd the sonic landscape, giving us a glimpse of Elizabeth’s experience of being inside her body. The segment is as joyful as it is playful, dealing with discovery rather than loss.
Whether or not she produces another season of Bodies—and I hope she does—Behringer leaves us with a counterintuitively positive thought: “There’s a lot to look forward to as our bodies age.” Behringer ends with a momentary manifesto. She calls for “building a new reality, one with no dark corners and plenty of room for our full bodies, our many-layered selves.” It’s a reminder that, even as our bodies inevitably change and break down from illness and age, they also offer opportunities for discovery, pleasure, and wonder.
Bodies, produced by Allison Behringer, with music by Dara Hirsch, is distributed by KCRW.
Water comes over the screen in waves for long minutes as the film opens. Offscreen, we hear the scrubbing of a straw bristle brush, as soapsuds float in and out of the frame, and at last the shot widens to reveal a young woman, tin bucket in one hand, long-handled squeegee in the other.
The tiled area under the brush is the carport of a home in one of the older parts of Mexico City, and if you’re a Mexican viewer you’ll know without thinking that the person with the bucket is a servant, doing the daily morning clean-up. You’ll know her occupation even before you really see her face because she is dark-skinned and too poorly dressed to be anything else in a house of that size, and because she exudes an air of calm and ingrained patience. What you won’t necessarily realize is that she, Cleo, is the protagonist of the film, because no Mexican film, other than the farcical and offensive comedies featuring la India Maria, has ever had a household servant at its center.
(It is only later that we’ll understand that what Cleo is so busily scrubbing away is the filthiest of all filth: dog shit, supplied in large quantities by Borras, a cheerful mutt who is the house dog, but not exactly the house pet. American-style pets didn’t really exist in Mexico back in 1970, when the film begins.)
For an American viewer—or at least for those viewers who have never met or been a domestic employee, known anyone who employs a full- or part-time servant, or hired a woman to provide domestic help—reading the character of Cleo, and by extension those of her employers, is possibly even more complicated. But start by looking carefully at the house: it is in the no longer elegant Roma neighborhood. Large but not enormous, and somewhat run-down, it’s certainly not luxurious. In addition to Cleo and her best friend, the household cook, seven people live here: four children, who share two bedrooms; their father, who is a doctor, and his wife, a chemist; and the wife’s mother. The furniture, heavy and dark, most likely belongs to the wife’s mother, as, in fact, the whole house probably does. (How do I know this? Because in the 1960s professionals like Cleo’s employers lived in newer, more comfortable houses in the suburbs, or in apartments that were cheaper and easier to care for.)
This is the house that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Roma, grew up in. Or at least it’s the recreation, meticulous to the point of madness, of that house. And this is the story of Cuarón’s memory of a turbulent time in his childhood. The movie is shot parallel to the action, as if the camera were the ghost of Cuarón revisiting his childhood and looking on it silently, with the compassion and distance we are sometimes lucky enough to muster for our sinning youth and that of our parents. The hero, though, is Cleo, the nanny whose affection, unlike the parents’, is never wavering or disconcerting, and who, unlike a different, infinitely tiresome nanny on other screens around the city, performs true miracles. She had been on Cuarón’s mind for years: in his early masterpiece, Y tu mamá también (2001), one catches a glimpse of Liboria Rodríguez, the real-life model for Cleo, carrying a tray of food up a long flight of stairs to the rich kid played by Diego Luna, and handing it to him with an affectionate pat. (The Luna character is nearly oblivious of her care, her effortful journey up the staircase, her love for him, her hard work. Almost, but not quite; later in the film, as the car he is riding in passes a road sign pointing to Tepelmeme—Liboria’s hometown in real life—the Luna character notices it and reflects that this is the place the nanny he once called mamá came from.)
So who is Cleo? The subtitles tell us that the language she speaks with Adela, the cook, is Mixteco, so we know she is from a desperately poor highland area of southern Mexico comprising parts of the states of Puebla and Oaxaca. Her small size and the shape of her face tell us so, too, because the dozens of nationalities, languages, and customs of the first peoples in Mexico were as highly distinct as those of Europeans; there were, among others, long-boned Apaches in the north, Purépechas and Mexicas in the middle, and delicately built Zapotecs, Mayas, and Mixtecos in the south. (Both the real-life Liboria and the first-time actress who plays her, Yalitza Aparicio, a recently graduated preschool teacher, are Mixtecas. Aparicio was living in her native village in the highlands of Oaxaca when Cuarón recruited her to play Cleo.)
Lastly, Cleo is part of a family, or rather two. She belongs to a family back home, of course, but Roma is about the family she works for and lives with. Nannies everywhere are often considered part of the family, and families tend to reflect the societies of which they are the building blocks. In this particular case, Cleo is and will remain throughout the film—and, we understand, beyond it, as the real-life Libo has remained to this day—part of a hierarchical, exploitative, unequal, unstable, and nevertheless unstintingly loyal and, yes, loving, Mexican family.
Cleo and Adela (played with relaxed authority by another Mixteca nonprofessional actress, Nancy García) are probably kin. Adela, the older of the two, may have emigrated first to the city, in search, like Cleo, of a life better than the parched subsistence she and her family eked out back home, with its grueling workload of endless days that transformed women into hags before they turned forty. But Cuarón is not interested in portraying Cleo anthropologically: he wants to show us what she was to him, and to tell the story of Mexico City and what happened to Cleo the year that his own family shattered.
Life in la capital is both exciting and pleasurable for the shy Cleo and her more forward friend. They share a crowded room at the back of their employer’s house—how lonely to sleep by yourself! The work is delightfully easy compared to the punishment they left back home, the money better—they can buy a sandwich and drink soda whenever they want! And they are lucky to have stumbled on good patrones—they get a day off every week. Like any live-in nanny—like any full-time housewife, for that matter—Cleo’s days are as long as those of the four children she cares for. She sings them to sleep, nuzzles them awake, is nourished by the way their eyes melt with love when they say goodnight. Cleo doesn’t say much when she is around them, in part because her Spanish is hesitant, but alone with Adela the two chatter and giggle endlessly in Mixteco about boyfriends, the patrones, and the children.
The thrill of going regularly to the movies in one of the ornate movie palaces that dotted the city back then is superseded only by the excitement of romance. Cleo falls for a wised-up capitalino, Fermín. We should know he’s bad news from the moment he guzzles her soda on the sly before rejoining her on their date, but, like her, we are dazzled by his grace and sheer beauty. Fermín tells Cleo what Cuarón needs us to know; he is a child of a shantytown on the city’s eastern outskirts, Nezahualcóyotl. Today, it is a full-blown city of one million people, but back in the movie’s time it was a vast expanse of reeking mud—no paved roads, streetlights, water, or phone service—where immigrants from the desperate countryside often found a first foothold.
Fermín drank too much, huffed glue, was generally a mess, he tells Cleo, but then he discovered the martial arts of which he has just given us such a ravishing demonstration. He is a different, more powerful man now. Of course, he gets Cleo pregnant. Of course, he walks out on her the moment she breaks the news to him. Of course, the day she travels all the way to Nezahualcóyotl, where he is part of a kung fu stick-fighting group, he denies that the child could be his and calls her a whore. Meanwhile, seeing garbage trucks parked behind the field where he has been training, we realize that Fermín is a garbage worker.
And so, now that we have been introduced to Roma’s main characters, calmly and in some, but not too much, detail, the action lumbers forward like a tank that takes a fair amount of time to roll up to cruising speed, but then is almost impossible to stop. The crucial events take place on Corpus Christi, a movable feast in celebration of the transubstantiation of the body of Christ that, in 1971, fell on June 10. An extremely pregnant Cleo and the matriarch of her employers’ family go together to a furniture store, to buy a crib for Cleo’s expected baby. In Cuarón’s obsessive recreation of the real-life events of Corpus Christi, we see the two women pass through a street scene that the inhabitants of Mexico City have come to know well: roads lined with military armored cars, police vans, heavily armed police, and tense men in civilian clothing carrying not-so-concealed weapons.
Also walking toward broad Ribera de San Cosme Avenue are increasing numbers of young people, on their way to join a march that is gathering at a crossroads a couple of blocks away. In real life, less than three years had passed since the gruesome Olympic Games massacre at Tlatelolco Plaza, and the Corpus Christi march was the largest protest since that event. At the start of the march, demonstrators sang the national anthem, which, in the movie’s brilliant soundscape, we hear approaching offscreen. A growing murmur of panic rising from the street draws the shoppers in the furniture store to the windows.
Dazed, they watch the protest break up under the assault of men wielding heavy sticks and firing guns. Marchers scatter like a column of ants threatened by a torch, and now their utter panic is brought inside, into the store, to the very threshold of Cleo’s body: a clutch of murderers in civilian clothes has burst into the showroom, guns pointed at a terrified protester. The young man is shot and falls dead; another gun is pointed at Cleo, and at the other end of it is a face whittled by adrenaline to a feral point: Fermín. Of course: those of us who remember the Corpus Christi massacre’s history know that many of the men who attacked the demonstrators, killing dozens, were garbage workers controlled and trained for the occasion by goons from the ruling party (and, the movie implies, by US operatives). In the shock of recognition, Fermín retreats, Cleo’s water breaks, chaos ensues.
When I was a child there was always a nanny. My parents were broke more often than not—breakfast and supper might frequently be a bread roll and black coffee—but there was always a nanny, and no matter how sporadically we paid her, she never left: it was the order of things. Carmela fed me breakfast when my parents weren’t around. She took me with her wherever she went: to market, to shop for the day’s meal; to the shoe repair shop; to the park, where we sat on a bench to watch the pigeons while I clung to her, blurting questions; and even to faraway Xochimilco, where she had relatives, and where, on a dusty road in the middle of cornfields and narrow canals, I saw my first funeral—a quavering chant in the air, a dozen mourners, the men in straw cowboy hats, the women wrapped in rebozos, everyone holding a flower or a candle in the late-afternoon light, and at the center, a small white coffin bearing the angelito, the dead child.
There is a dead child in Roma, too, stillborn but perfect, that an exhausted Cleo watches as it is carefully wrapped in its little shroud. In the past, angelitos flew from their mothers so often as to make it an ordinary occurrence. My own grandmother gave birth to twelve children, of which six survived. Women were always pregnant, and it was up to the father, if the marriage was stable, to find ways to feed five, or eight, or twelve children. Or the woman might die young, frequently in childbirth. There would most likely be a second marriage for the father, and the new wife might want to ensure sustenance for the new family by attaching the husband more to her own brood than to the one from a previous union.
Families are fragile and even dangerous things, as Cleo learns: throughout her pregnancy she has watched the breakdown of her employers’ marriage. The husband, whom we first see arriving home in an ostentatious Ford Galaxie almost too big for the driveway, has found a new love: his heart commands him to abandon his wife and family, and he follows its orders. (Cuarón, directing the film of Cleo’s life, which is also that of his life as a child, has his little revenge: the Galaxie drives straight into a neglected pile of dog shit, and the father himself steps on another of the dog’s efforts as he leaves home for the last time.)
As Roma’s producer, writer, cinematographer, editor, and director, Cuarón may have asked himself as he began to conceive this film how much of his love song to his nanny would be understood outside his country, or whether a commentary—a translation, really—would be a necessary complement for some viewers. What is evident is that he has made no concessions to foreign audiences, for whom every second of the movie is unavoidably not as transparent as it is to Mexican viewers—or for whom the film might not provide enough background to see that the central problem Cuarón is dealing with is the twisting nature of love.
I once interviewed a couple of dozen domestic servants about their work. It was hard to get young empleadas to talk to me, particularly if they were from the countryside: the fear of sounding ignorant, of saying the wrong thing, of losing their job, of speaking, made most of the young women I approached simply turn away from me. But the older women had plenty to say. A surprising number stated that they were happy with their families; an overlapping majority had loud complaints about their salaries. But what I heard most frequently was the rage they felt at previous employers who had fired them with no warning or thought for their feelings. What about the children? they would ask. They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. “They never think about the fact that we love the children,” she said.
What no one talked about, unless I asked, and then not much, was the fact that, if they were live-in nannies, most of them had their own children, who were being raised at home in faraway Oaxaca, or Hidalgo, or Guerrero, by grandmothers or aunts.
How, I wondered afterward, does a woman’s heart unravel once she is in this impossible fix? She is working to guarantee her children a better future than the one she faces, but while her child might be at home eating stringy meat and watery soup, she herself eats like an empress. The children she cares for loudly demand the latest-model cell phone every year, while at home a single phone with a cracked screen might be shared by an entire family. Her employers’ children will go on to top universities, learn smart things, move easily through the world; her children try to get enough education to graduate from the menial jobs their parents hold. She knows the household children intimately; her children do not know her very well at all. Does she resent her employers’ children for this monstrous difference? Or—let us face the thing squarely—does she love them more than her own? That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous.
And thus does Cleo love her family’s four children. She performs a miracle for them, even, saving two of the four from drowning during a trip to the beach, although she has never seen the ocean before and does not know how to swim. But here’s the thing that Cleo can admit at last: she did not want to bear her baby, Fermín the assassin’s stillborn child, and the guilt has been threatening to drown her. She did not want to give birth to her, pobrecita, poor little thing, she blurts out after she has performed her redeeming miracle. No la queria. She loves the four children more.
So much happens in Roma. It is so bursting with life, Mexican life! Geese copulate at a New Year’s party, men fly out of cannons, dogs shit and jump for joy, street vendors call out their wares, Norwegians sing, corn grows, young men are murdered, rich people dance the conga, and a poor girl from the Mixteca region loses a baby she did not want to have, saves two children, forgives herself, and climbs a rickety outdoor staircase to a rooftop sink to do the family laundry after a transformative trip. When I saw the movie in New York, the entire audience sat in silence as the credits rolled over a long, meditative shot of the staircase and the sky, until the screen blacked out over the title, and they sighed, and moved on.
In a courtroom in Zharkent, Kazakhstan, in July 2018, a former kindergarten principal named Sayragul Sauytbay calmly described what Chinese officials continue to deny: a vast new gulag of “de-extremification training centers” has been created for Turkic Muslim inhabitants of Xinjiang, the Alaska-sized region in western China. Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh, had fled Xinjiang and was seeking asylum in Kazakhstan, where her husband and son are citizens. She told the court how she had been transferred the previous November from her school to a new job teaching Kazakh detainees in a supposed “training center.” “They call it a ‘political camp’…but in reality it’s a prison in the mountains,” she said. There were 2,500 inmates in the facility where she had worked for four months, and she knew of others. There may now be as many as 1,200 such camps in Xinjiang, imprisoning up to a million people, including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and especially Uighurs, who make up around 46 percent of Xinjiang’s population.
Sauytbay’s testimony provided the first dramatic public evidence from a Chinese citizen of the expanding gulag in Xinjiang. But news of it has been emerging since 2017, thanks to remarkable reporting by Gerry Shih (now at The Washington Post) for the Associated Press and Josh Chin, Clément Bürge, and Giulia Marchi for The Wall Street Journal, as well as important early stories from other researchers and correspondents, including Maya Wang (Human Rights Watch), Rob Schmitz (NPR), and Megha Rajagopalan (BuzzFeed News). Especially important is the Washington, D.C.–based Radio Free Asia Uighur service, which has for years provided detailed, accurate coverage despite notorious controls on information in Xinjiang.
At first, officials in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) denied there were any camps. Then state media briefly floated a story that 460,000 Uighurs from southern Xinjiang had been “relocated” to “jobs” elsewhere in the Xinjiang region. There have been no further announcements about that jobs program, and the explanation seems to have been dropped. When confronted at an August 2018 UN hearing by Gay McDougal, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Chinese delegation denied that there were any “reeducation” camps, while admitting that there were “vocational education and employment training centers” and other “measures” to counter “extremism.” When pressed again at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review in November 2018, the PRC representative accused “a few countries” of “politically driven accusations” and repeated that the camps were simply providing vocational training to combat extremism.
People outside Xinjiang first began to learn about the camps in 2017. Uighurs abroad grew alarmed as friends and relatives at home dropped out of touch, first deleting phone and social media contacts and then disappearing entirely. Uighur students who returned or were forced back to China after studying in foreign countries likewise vanished upon arriving. When they can get any information at all, Uighurs outside China have learned that police took their relatives and friends to the reeducation camps: “gone to study” is the careful euphemism used on the closely surveilled Chinese messaging app WeChat.
The punitive nature of the new detention facilities springing up in the desert, ringed by high walls and barbed wire and flanked by guard towers and police boxes, became apparent from photos and reporting by the fall of 2017. Our best sense of what is happening inside the camps comes from former prisoners, one writing anonymously in Foreign Policy, and others interviewed in Kazakhstan by Shih and Emily Rauhala for The Washington Post: detainees must sing anthems of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), disavow Islam, criticize themselves and their family’s beliefs, watch propaganda films, and study Chinese language and history. They are told that their culture is “backward.” Some must memorize the moralizing Three-character classic (San zi jing), a classical Chinese children’s primer in trisyllabic verse, abandoned as a pedagogical text elsewhere in China for over a century. Cells are crowded and food is poor. Those who complain reportedly risk solitary confinement, food deprivation, being forced to stand against a wall for extended periods, being shackled to a wall or bolted by wrists and ankles into a rigid “tiger chair,” and possibly waterboarding and electric shocks.
Shohrat Zakir, chairman of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, said in an October 2018 interview with Xinhua that internees must learn Chinese,
gain modern science knowledge and enhance their understanding of Chinese history, culture and national conditions…learn legal knowledge, including the content of the Constitution, Criminal Law and Xinjiang’s Counter-extremism regulations, as well as acquire at least one vocational skill…to suit local conditions and the job market.
Given this imposing curriculum, it is not surprising that we know of almost no one who has been released after being interned in the Xinjiang prison camps, and that we don’t know what internees will face if and when they are let go. There is growing evidence from relatives’ accounts, satellite photos, and internal documents that following a course of indoctrination, internees are forced to work in factories in or near the camps.
Research by Adrian Zenz of the European School of Culture and Theology confirmed the frightening extent of the camps and provided an estimate of how many people are confined in them. Zenz has tracked the discussion of Xinjiang “de-extremification” and “transformation through education” in Chinese media and party journals for several years. He identified seventy-eight bids by contractors to build, expand, or upgrade internment camps; several of them were planned to exceed 100,000 square feet in area, and one was nearly 900,000 square feet. Documentary evidence for the rush of camp construction is corroborated by satellite photographs of the sites—many first compiled from Google Earth as a remarkable personal project by Shawn Zhang, a law student at the University of British Columbia, and since confirmed and expanded by professional remote-imaging firms working with the BBC and other media. Another indication of the breadth of the internment comes from visitors to Xinjiang, who have commented on the shuttering of Uighur shops and a noticeable lack of people, especially Uighurs between fifteen and forty-five, on the streets.
Comparing data from leaked documents and statements by local officials with population data, Zenz and other researchers estimated that between several hundred thousand and over a million people are interned in the reeducation camps. In February 2018 a Uighur activist media outlet in Turkey released a document it says was leaked by a “believable member of the security services on the ground” in Xinjiang. The document, dating from late 2017 or early 2018, tabulates precise numbers of internees in county-level detention centers, amounting to 892,329 (it excluded municipal-level administrative units, notably the large cities of Urumqi, Khotan, and Yining). Though the document’s provenance cannot be confirmed, if genuine it supports the estimates of a million or more total internees. (The US State Department estimates that between 800,000 and two million Xinjiang Muslims are interned in the camps.) These estimates do not include the rapidly increasing numbers of people in ordinary prisons: according to PRC government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang increased by 200,000 between 2016 and 2017, and amounted to 21 percent of total arrests in China in 2017, even though Xinjiang has only 1.5 percent of China’s population. It is believed that the PRC has so far locked up over 10 percent of the adult Muslim population of Xinjiang.
How did the PRC come to this? I see two broad reasons: an official CCP misunderstanding of what Islam means to most Uighurs and other Muslim groups, and a recent CCP embrace of Han-centric ethnic assimilationism, an idea that runs counter to traditional Chinese modes of pluralism. (The Han are the majority ethnic group in the PRC as a whole, though not in the former colonial territories of Xinjiang and Tibet.)
The people of the Tarim Basin, the ancestors of modern Uighurs, along with Turkic tribes of the steppes and mountains (including the Kazakhs’ and Kyrgyz’ forebears), converted to Islam in several waves beginning around the year 1000. Central Asian Islam is quite different from that of the Middle East, however, and especially from that promoted in modern times by Wahhabi and Salafi groups sponsored by the House of Saud. Uighur prayer can involve chanting and dancing, and music is not forbidden. Visiting the shrines of venerated saints and telling their stories not only structure Uighur religious practice but geographically shape their identity, as the historian and Uighur scholar Rian Thum has shown in his ingenious book, The Sacred Routes of Uighur History (2014). Sufi saints were so important in Uighur Islam, Thum writes, that a circuit pilgrimage of their tomb shrines, all found within Xinjiang’s borders, was an acceptable substitute for making the hajj to Mecca.
Since 1949, Chinese policies have tended to undermine indigenous Uighur Islam and to enforce, through the party-controlled Islamic Association of China, an idealized version of Islam modeled in part on Sunni practice as promoted by Saudi Arabia. Besides reflecting Beijing’s diplomatic ties with Riyadh, these policies may echo a traditional Chinese notion, derived from experience with Buddhistic millenarianism, that religions have safe “orthodox” and dangerous “heterodox” expressions.
Although the CCP has since reversed course and rails against the dangers of “Arabization,” it has not revised its intolerance of Sufi practices in Uighur Islam. By repressing Uighur culture and discriminating against Uighurs, and inadvertently promoting a version of Islam more in line with Saudi practice, the PRC government has increased the attractiveness to Uighurs of Salafi ideas from outside while undermining indigenous defenses against such an ideology. Rahile Dawut, an internationally renowned ethnographer and scholar of Uighur culture and religion at Xinjiang University, could have explained this to Chinese authorities—but she was disappeared in late 2017, another victim of the current mass internment.*
Xinjiang is part of the PRC today only because the Manchu-ruled Qing empire (1636–1912) conquered it in the eighteenth century, in the course of a westward expansion that also included the annexation of Mongolia and Tibet. The Qing administered the Uighurs through local elites, under light-handed military supervision, while promoting trade and agricultural development. The Manchus prohibited Chinese settlement in densely Uighur areas for fear of destabilizing them, and did not interfere with Uighur religion, food, or dress. This culturally pluralist imperialism worked well, and despite a series of minor incursions from Central Asia into southwest Xinjiang, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century the region was on the whole peaceful—enough so that the Uighur population increased fivefold and the economy expanded. Troubles in the region only began when rebellions in the rest of China cut off Qing funding for its Xinjiang officials and soldiers. Corruption, rebellions, and invasions ensued.
As Beijing sought to regain and maintain control over Xinjiang, a debate emerged pitting Qing-style imperial ethno-pluralism against Han-centric nationalistic assimilationism. The nineteenth-century political thinker Gong Zizhen and General Zuo Zongtang (of the eponymous chicken dish) advocated colonial settlement of Xinjiang by Han Chinese and government by Han (rather than Manchu or indigenous) officials. Zuo’s successors tried this in a limited fashion until the Qing fell in 1912. Thereafter, during the nearly four tumultuous decades until the Communists took power in 1949, most rulers in divided Xinjiang, whether Han warlords, rebel Muslims, or Soviet puppets, built regimes around various types of ethno-pluralism, letting Uighurs govern Uighurs, Kazakhs govern Kazakhs, Mongols govern Mongols, Han govern Han, and so on, in a patchwork across the diverse region.
When the CCP took over, it applied this ethno-pluralist approach, already entrenched in Xinjiang, nationwide. As an ethnically Han Communist Party reoccupying the former Qing empire in Central Asia, the CCP faced the same problem as the Russocentric Soviets with their tsarist legacy: how to run an empire without looking like colonialists. Loosely following the Soviet example, the PRC granted fifty-five non-Han peoples official status as minzu (nationality or ethnic group), with special rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution. Some nominally autonomous administrative territories were named after minzu: hence the province-sized territories of Xinjiang and Tibet became the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of the PRC.
The PRC minzu system also echoed aspects of Qing imperial pluralism: beneath the supreme central CCP power, the fifty-six minzu (including Han) were supposed to stand as equals. Han civilization was, in theory, not considered superior. Actual practice varied, but in the 1950s and again in the 1980s the party did make a show of defending minority groups against “great Hanism,” China’s equivalent of the “great Russian chauvinism” denounced in the USSR. Except during the Cultural Revolution, the minzu system generally celebrated China’s cultural diversity, encouraging publishing in non-Han languages, putting minorities on the currency, and featuring them at public events in colorful “traditional” dress. Western observers have found the kitschy parade of singing and dancing minorities offensively exoticizing, but insofar as it bolsters their cultures, China’s non-Han minzu generally support top-down PRC multiculturalism. The strongest critique delivered by Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatism” in 2014, was simply to press for genuine observance of the minzu-friendly laws and constitutional provisions already on the books.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, which many Chinese political theorists blamed on Soviet nationality policies, a reassessment of the ethno-pluralist minzu system began. The former Qing imperial territories in Xinjiang and Tibet remained restive, despite rapid economic growth. After riots in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, some scholars of ethnic studies in Beijing who were close to CCP leaders suggested that China’s minzu system was part of the problem and began discussing how to revise it.
The strongest proponents of a radically revised “second generation minzu policy,” Hu Angang (director of the Center for China Studies at Tsinghua University) and Hu Lianhe (then a counterterrorism researcher, now a leading official at the United Front Work Department of the CCP), argued that only after assimilating minorities into a broader pan-Chinese ethnicity (Zhonghua minzu) would China be stable. The two Hus proposed, in effect, to abandon China’s traditional imperial pluralism, as continued under the PRC minzu system, in favor of a concept of unitary identity reminiscent of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European nationalism.
Terms such as “fusion,” “blending,” and “melting” entered the discussion, and in 2015 scholars and ideologues debated whether Sinicization (Hanhua), the notion that over the ages Chinese civilization spontaneously and peacefully assimilated neighboring peoples, had ever occurred. The myth of Sinicization has been long debunked by Western and many Chinese historians, who accept that acculturation between contiguous groups can happen, but is neither inevitable nor one-way. Yet the idea of Sinicization as a magical power of Chinese civilization is attractive to CCP nationalists, along with the concomitant fable that China only ever expanded peacefully.
The next stage in the PRC transition from imperial pluralism to Han assimilationism has been the demonization of religion. Although today official sources still publicly blame ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet on extremist ideas from abroad and small numbers of individuals, articles in party journals and leaked internal discussions reveal that the CCP leadership increasingly views religious belief itself as contradictory to the unitary pan-Chinese identity it desires, and it hopes to cure whole populations of supposedly deviant thinking. A speech distributed as an audio recording online in October 2017 by the Xinjiang Communist Youth League, apparently intended to reassure Uighurs, fully embraced the medical metaphor:
If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.
Although a certain number of people who have been indoctrinated with extremist ideology have not committed any crimes, they are already infected by the disease. There is always a risk that the illness will manifest itself at any moment, which would cause serious harm to the public. That is why they must be admitted to a re-education hospital in time to treat and cleanse the virus from their brain and restore their normal mind. We must be clear that going into a re-education hospital for treatment is not a way of forcibly arresting people and locking them up for punishment, it is an act that is part of a comprehensive rescue mission to save them.
The PRC does have some legitimate concerns about Uighur unrest. Sporadic incidents of resistance broke out in the late 1980s and 1990s, including student marches, a small uprising (in Baren, outside Kashgar), bombings of a bus and a hotel, and a major demonstration that turned violent in Yining (Ghulja) in 1997. Before 2001, the PRC generally attributed such “counter-revolutionary” events to “Pan-Turkism/Pan-Islamism,” designations that, although anachronistic by the late twentieth century, did recognize the ethno-national as well as religious roots of Uighur identity. After the September 11 attacks, however, taking advantage of the terminology used in the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” the PRC rebranded all Uighur dissent as Islamic terrorism. The PRC State Council issued a white paper in early 2002 that cited, with few details, 162 deaths and 440 injuries from acts of “terrorism” in the 1990s, and also listed a number of Uighur separatist groups. Only in a few cases did the white paper attribute specific acts to named groups.
In return for China’s vote in November 2002 for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 condemning Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration agreed to list one Uighur group as an international terrorist organization. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was chosen, although it was extremely small, because of evidence that it had had some contact with Osama bin Laden from its base in Afghanistan. (“East Turkestan” was a term embraced by Turkic groups who established two short-lived independent states in parts of Xinjiang in 1933 and 1944–1949. Many Uighurs in diaspora prefer it to the colonial name “Xinjiang,” which literally means “New Frontier.”)
The Chinese white paper had not claimed that ETIM perpetrated any violent acts, but the US government’s public statement mistakenly attributed all ten years’ worth of incidents mentioned in the white paper to ETIM. Thus was born the notion, still prevalent inside and outside China, that an organized terrorist group is responsible for separatist violence in Xinjiang. (ETIM collapsed in 2003 after Pakistani troops killed its leader, Hasan Mahsum, in Waziristan, though someone, under the new sobriquet of the Turkestan Islamic Party, subsequently claimed in videos to have taken up ETIM’s mantle.)
Despite constant warnings in Chinese propaganda and foreign media, for years the much-prophesied Islamic terrorism failed to occur. From 1990 through the Beijing Olympics of 2008, while Xinjiang was not entirely quiet, the incidents that did occur did not fit the jihadist pattern of attacks on random civilians. Though official Chinese statements and state media call all Uighur resistance “terrorism” and “separatism,” most events of the past decade, as best we can tell through the heavy media controls on Xinjiang, are what Western observers would label “unrest” or “resistance” rather than “terrorism”: for example, street demonstrations or attacks on local government offices or police targets by farmers armed with knives or agricultural tools. One demonstration in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, after being repressed by armed police, erupted into the bloodiest civil unrest in Xinjiang since the Cultural Revolution. Nearly two hundred Han died, thousands of Uighurs were arrested, and many died when Han vigilantes took to the streets on subsequent days. The number of Uighur casualties in the riots and during the backlash has never been released. In the aftermath, authorities cut off phone and Internet service to Xinjiang for ten months. (Such Internet “kill-switch” capability has now reportedly been installed across China.)
Though horrific, the Urumqi “7-5 Incident” was a race riot, not a premeditated terrorist attack or an expression of religious extremism. However, some events since 2008 do resemble jihadi terrorism in their random targeting of civilians and possible religious motivation. In March of that year a Uighur woman allegedly tried to ignite flammable liquids on a plane after takeoff. In October 2013 a Uighur man drove an SUV with his wife and mother inside into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, killing two tourists; the occupants of the SUV perished when it then burst into flames. In March 2014 eight Uighurs armed with knives killed thirty-one people at the railway station in Kunming, in southwest China. The following month, while President Xi Jinping was visiting Xinjiang, three people used knives and (possibly malfunctioning) explosives to stage an attack at the Urumqi railway station, killing three. In May 2014 five assailants in two SUVs killed forty-three people on an Urumqi market street with explosives. And in September 2015, in a strange incident that may have been more labor dispute than terror attack, seventeen Uighurs, including women and children, reportedly killed fifty people at a mine in remote Baicheng country, in Xinjiang. They then fled to a cave in the mountains, where Chinese troops, after an extended manhunt, flushed them out with flame-throwers and shot them.
It is not the case, then, that China faces no threat of Uighur violence, but it exaggerates the threat, often mischaracterizes it as terrorism, and has adopted wildly excessive and indiscriminate measures in response. After years of “strike hard” crackdowns, the situation for Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslim groups worsened sharply after August 2016, when the new Xinjiang party secretary, Chen Quanguo, was appointed. Chen came from a poor family in Henan province, where he climbed the CCP ranks and served there under governor Li Keqiang (now China’s premier). In 2011 Chen was sent to Tibet, which had been roiled by riots and a series of self-immolations by Buddhist monks. Chen quelled resistance in Tibet through grid policing, a dense network of “convenience police stations” in urban parts of Tibet, and thousands of new police. Chen brought these techniques to Xinjiang, and from 2017 complemented grid policing with the rapidly expanding reeducation gulag. He has since been appointed to the Chinese Politburo.
Since Chen’s arrival, Xinjiang, too, has recruited tens of thousands of security personnel, making the region likely more highly policed, per capita, than East Germany was before its collapse in 1989. Chen’s security grid features police boxes every few hundred yards, constant patrols, armored personnel carriers, and ubiquitous checkpoints. Recent reporting has also revealed a vast and expanding surveillance network of facial-recognition cameras, cell-phone sniffers, GPS vehicle tracking, and DNA, fingerprint, ocular, voice-print, and even walking-gait scans that are linked to the growing database of personal information gathered from mandatory surveys of the travel history and religious practices of Xinjiang residents and their families. These surveys are scored: devout Muslims lose points for regular prayer, which the state deems a potential risk factor for extremism. Simply being an ethnic Uighur results in a 10 percent deduction.
Distinctive Uighur religious and other cultural practices are increasingly circumscribed or legally banned. School instruction in the Uighur language, once available from kindergarten to the university level, has been eliminated. Xinjiang authorities now define as “extremist” veils, head coverings, “abnormal beards,” long clothing, fasting at Ramadan, the greeting assalam alaykum (“peace be upon you” in Arabic), avoiding alcohol, not smoking, “Islamic” baby names like Muhammad and Fatima, the star and crescent symbol, religious education, mosque attendance, simple weddings, religious weddings, weddings without music, cleansing a corpse before burial, burial itself (as opposed to cremation), visiting Sufi shrines, Sufi religious dancing, praying with feet apart, foreign travel or study abroad, interest in foreign travel or study abroad, communicating with friends or relatives outside China, having the wrong kinds of books on one’s shelves or content on one’s phone, and avoidance of state radio or television. Though generally not publicly religious, members of the Uighur cultural, academic, and business elite, including top administrators of universities and chief editors of presses, have been singled out for detention.
PRC officials promote these policies as a cure for “extremism.” The official definition of “extremism,” however, has progressively expanded, and authorities confine people in the reeducation camps for mundane Islamic practice and, indeed, for much of what it means to be a Uighur. “It is impossible to be Uighur without violating these new rules,” as Rian Thum puts it. In statements obtained by Radio Free Asia, local officials have admitted that they have been given quotas of Muslims to send into reeducation. Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at the Xinjiang Party School, in a 2016 paper since removed from the Internet, warned explicitly against quotas for reeducation, on the grounds that such an imprecise numerical approach could backfire. This suggests that the Party was discussing them internally at that time. Based on figures from localities around the region, Adrian Zenz estimates that up to 10 to 11 percent of the Uighur and Kazakh populations are currently detained, though quotas of up to 40 percent have been cited for some areas, and camp capacity continues to grow.
There is a curious cultural specificity to some of the measures in Xinjiang: this is a security state with Chinese characteristics. The traditional Chinese practice of assigning groups of ten households to mutual-accountability units has been revived in parts of Xinjiang, where Uighur families are now made collectively responsible. Because some of the terrorist attacks involved knives (and Chinese believe all Uighur men must carry a blade), authorities in Xinjiang implemented strict knife control: before sale, even kitchen knives must be etched with a QR code carrying the buyer’s personal ID card number and other data. Uighur cooks in restaurant kitchens chop with cleavers chained to the wall.
In an echo of the Cultural Revolution practice of “sending down” city dwellers to the countryside, Chinese officials and intellectuals, mainly Han, have since 2014 been dispatched to live for certain periods in the homes of Uighur families. During a campaign named “Ethnicity Unity ‘Becoming Family Week’” in December 2017, a million CCP cadres moved in to live, eat, and work with Uighurs. In these repeated stays, the Han officials are meant to teach Chinese to Uighur “little brothers” and “little sisters,” instruct them in Xi Jinping Thought, and sing the Chinese national anthem, while helping out around the house.
In a music video celebrating the campaign, produced by the Xinjiang Communist Youth League, the Han arrive in the village wearing hiking boots and carrying backpacks, as if on a camping expedition. Images roll past of the Han and Uighurs looking at books, sweeping the dirt courtyards, and eating together. On the soundtrack, a singer raps in Chinese that living among the Uighurs helps one recapture the romantic revolutionary spirit of Party General Secretary Xi Jinping’s years as an “educated youth” in a rural Shaanxi village.
But a triumphant social media post from the Bingtuan Broadcast Television University (BBTU), which sent teams to the Uighur village of Akeqie Kanle, revealed that the home visits are more about surveillance than ethnic amity: “The [BBTU] work team is resolute. We can completely take the lid off Akeqie Kanle, look behind the curtain, and eradicate its tumors.” A few months after the Bingtuan work teams’ visits, a fifth of Akeqie Kanle’s adult population had disappeared into the camps.
The CCP’s mass internment and coercive indoctrination of Muslim minorities is intended to forcibly remake their identity. The word “conversion” (zhuanhua) appears in official Chinese names for the camps (jiaoyu zhuanhua peishun zhongxin, “Educational Conversion Training Center”) and in the “de-extremification” regulations. The party now increasingly finds Islamic faith and even non-Han ethnic culture to be inimical to the goal of homogeneous Chinese identity.
There are grave dangers to locking up a million people for coercive indoctrination at the hands of hastily mustered, ill-trained guards. Even if the Xinjiang reeducation gulag avoids the widespread torture, rape, and killing that have accompanied ethnic cleansing elsewhere, and Uighurs and other Turkic peoples can endure the psychological trauma of the camps, it is a tragedy for the PRC to abandon Chinese traditions for managing diversity in favor of the Western ideology of nationalism, so ill-fitted to the globalizing age the CCP wants to help shape. The CCP, after all, invented Autonomous Regions, Special Economic Zones, and the notion of “One Country, Two Systems.”
The PRC once experimented creatively with models of reallocated political and economic sovereignty in order to address frontier issues left over from the Qing imperial past (Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan). And it did so with policy ideas drawn from that same past (imperial pluralism, frontier trade enclaves, tax-free zones, treaty ports). What is sometimes called the “Xinjiang Problem” is but one dimension of a broader question: Can today’s PRC tolerate diversity? Or does it plan to resolve its Tibet Problem, its Hong Kong Problem, and its Taiwan Problem as it does its Xinjiang Problem: with concentration camps?
—January 10, 2019
Dawut publishes mainly in Uighur and Chinese, but writes in English about mazars, or Sufi shrines, in Mazar: Studies in Islamic Sacred Sites in Central Eurasia, edited by Dawut and Sugawara Jun (Tokyo University Foreign Studies Press, 2016). A 2013 exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City of photographs by Lisa Ross highlighted the startling variety and abstract beauty of Uighur shrines (see illustration on page 40); that work is collected in her book Living Shrines of Uyghur China (Monacelli, 2013), which includes an essay by Dawut. ↩
Alan Hollinghurst [“The Impersonator,” NYR, December 20, 2018] repeats the popular legend that Lord Arran, who sponsored in the British Parliament the law that partially decriminalized male homosexuality in 1967, did so because his brother, the translator Paul Sudley, had shot himself after years of depression about his sexuality. I own a copy of Paul’s official death certificate. He died in hospital after a cerebral hemorrhage in 1958. No bullets involved.
Recently, Professor Robert Paxton did me the honor of writing a wide-ranging review of The Order of the Day [NYR, December 6, 2018], ending with a brutal conclusion. Understandably, the publication of my book in a great number of countries was unlikely to unfold without some amount of controversy and sniping. Robert Paxton, however, isn’t just any ordinary literary critic. He’s a professor of considerable renown, and the general approach of his article demands a response.
In his review, Professor Paxton scolded me first and foremost for being “opinionated,” and it’s around this admonition that his article subtly pivots. That reproach supposes the existence of a distant, neutral way of writing. With a view to a brief examination of this neutrality that supposedly draws a distinction between history and literature, I followed a lead. Robert Paxton gave a lengthy filmed interview to the INA, France’s National Audiovisual Institute. It’s an archive worth consulting.
One section quickly caught my eye. In it, Professor Paxton speaks about his maître, Raoul Girardet, and the interviewer reminds him that Girardet was a disciple of Charles Maurras, one of the leading far-right intellectuals of the years between the two world wars, as well as an activist and supporter of keeping Algeria French, jailed for his support of the Generals’ putsch. Whereupon Paxton made this strange declaration: “Raoul Girardet struck me as a man capable of being a very fair-minded historian, with an understanding of the archives and very sure-footed judgments, while keeping his own personal ideas to himself.”
As a way of illustrating just what Robert Paxton considers to be a very fair-minded historian, let us quote something that Girardet wrote in a book that Paxton mentions as having played a major role in his own intellectual development. Girardet, summoning up the soldier of what he calls the colonial saga, writes: “a true lord of war with an almost feudal appearance, in the old tradition of the Army of Africa which continues the exploits of the adventurer of the Moroccan campaigns.” Now, we’re talking about the Rif War, the first use of poison gases on the civilian populace, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Among these true lords of war, we find the future General Franco, José Millán-Astray, and Marshal Pétain. I can’t say whether the phrase true lord of war is a good reflection of Girardet’s understanding of archives or his sure-footed judgments. But I do think that one may at least safely describe these views as vaguely “opinionated.”
Basically, it’s a very common attitude in academia to consider as inappropriate all intrusions into one’s domain of expertise. That said, it’s not entirely pervasive. As great a historian as Georges Duby, for instance, thought otherwise; he certainly believed that literature could teach him something, and not merely as a human being, but also as a historian. That’s the crucial point, and the reason that I wished to reply to Professor Paxton.
The position that he adopts so casually toward literature, the idea that it ought to behave itself and keep to the art of the novel, is not merely retrograde—it also entails a concept of knowledge. Because if Professor Paxton can drape himself as he pleases in the robes of history and improvise his literary expertise, that would seem to imply that history is serious business, where only one method applies, with its variants, while literature would be little more than an offhand pursuit. Aside from smacking of a naive territoriality, this attitude betrays above all a denial of all that is entailed by writing, language, and composition, the sort of thing that he dismisses contemptuously as “piling on disparate details,” or else more amiably as a prose that is “muscular, concrete, richly inventive.” In his estimation, knowledge cannot be built in anything other than “an analytical way.” From this point of view, Professor Paxton imagines that writing is nothing more than a matter of ornamentation, and composition, a simple question of balance. He is certainly free to apply these dreary categories to his own books.
Rennes, Brittany, France (translated from the French by Antony Shugaar)
Robert O. Paxton replies:
Éric Vuillard might be surprised to learn that I required students in my university courses on twentieth-century Europe and on France since 1848 to read a classic novel of the period, and to write an essay relating it to the course. Good fiction needs no utilitarian justification, but it can contribute powerfully to history teaching. Some novels do this better than others.
A rule against racial discrimination might prevent such discrimination from recurring, but it will not eradicate and may even perpetuate the effects of the discrimination that had already occurred, sometimes over generations, or as in the case of blacks, for centuries. Writing in the December 6, 2018, issue of The New York Review, Noah Feldman defends race-based affirmative action as a means of avoiding or lessening the effects of a history of racial discrimination, but he takes a far too narrow, mostly individualistic conception of what those effects might be.
Acknowledging the nation’s long history of racial discrimination, Feldman urges university admissions officers to focus on the “ongoing effects on current applicants” of such historical practices. He charges admissions officers with the near-impossible task of determining, on a case-by-case basis, whether “intergenerational discrimination” has shaped an applicant’s experience and limited his or her opportunities and if so, to give the applicant in question an indeterminate boost—the plus of affirmative action.
Feldman defends his approach and distinguishes it from the one advocated by Marshall and Brennan and their followers on the ground that his approach is forward, not backward, looking. On this issue, however, he is mistaken. The approach to affirmative action favored by Marshall and Brennan is forward looking, it too is concerned with the present effects of past discrimination, but it concentrates on the effects that past discrimination has had, not on the fate of individual applicants, but rather on social structure—the creation and perpetuation of an underclass that is defined in racial terms. From this perspective, race-based affirmative action should be seen as a strategy for eradicating the caste-like social formation that has disfigured American society from the very beginning.
Increasing the number of blacks who are admitted to, and graduated from, elite universities such as Harvard will improve the social standing of all blacks. It will reveal to all the world the capacity of the members of this long-stigmatized group to succeed in the highest academic circles and at the same time endow them with all the benefits and privileges usually associated with a Harvard degree. The assumption is that, in time, the social standing of blacks as a group will improve, and that it will be impossible to conceive of them as pariahs.
Race-based affirmative action arose in the late 1960s, first in the building trades and then in the universities, in response to the claims of justice pressed by blacks. Although the circumstances surrounding the development of affirmative action reflect the special urgency of the claims for justice of blacks, the historical roots of this practice does not mean that administrators and courts should turn their backs on the claims of justice now advanced on behalf of other disadvantaged groups seeking greater access to jobs or education. In fact, in defending race-based affirmative action in elite universities, Feldman always couples the claim of Latinos with those of blacks. Nor should we allow the prospect of other groups seeking remedies for the injustices they have suffered to bar the claims of blacks for the justice they seek. There can never be too much justice.
Commenting on the lawsuit against Harvard that has captured the attention of the nation, Feldman is doubtful that Harvard’s affirmative-action program is the reason why more Asian-Americans had not been admitted to the university. He also expressed a doubt that the university had discriminated against Asian-Americans, but is clear that if it can be shown that Asian-Americans were, in fact, subject to admissions discrimination based on stereotypes and if an appropriate remedy resulted in an increase in the number of Asian-Americans admitted, the burden of that remedy should fall on whites, arguably cutting back on the preferences given to the children of alumni or faculty. “It should not,” Feldman wisely concludes, “reduce the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos admitted.”
Yale Law School
New Haven, Connecticut
Noah Feldman replies:
My revered teacher, mentor, and friend, Owen Fiss, has long defended a structural conception of affirmative action, according to which remediation aims to repair the racial caste-subordination of slavery and segregation. Fiss served as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice William Brennan, and has developed a sophisticated theoretical defense of their constitutional vision.
Professor Fiss faults me for committing the individualist heresy of focusing on individual rather than collective effects of affirmative action. The individualist conception of affirmative action is especially dangerous because it opened the door to Justice Antonin Scalia’s rejection of affirmative action as a violation of the due process rights of whites individually “harmed” by the practice.
Professor Fiss is the consummate hedgehog, and I admire his singlemindedness. Yet his collective view of affirmative action faces two serious difficulties.
The first is that the remedial theory of affirmative action has effectively been overruled by the Supreme Court. Although Professor Fiss insists that remedial affirmative action is actually forward-looking (because it seeks a remedy for the future), the Court has long limited remedial affirmative action to situations where it can be shown definitively that a specific institution engaged in past discrimination. This approach thwarts the structural effects of affirmative action because it treats remediation as backward-looking in the sense of repairing a concrete harm. Once the harm is sufficiently past, it becomes very difficult to justify a continuing remedy.
Professor Fiss of course holds that Justice Scalia and the other judicial conservatives got this wrong. But there is no prospect of a return to his conception in any plausible real-world scenario. In contrast, the individual conception of affirmative action in college admissions remains alive, if hanging on by a thread.
The second problem with Professor Fiss’s structural argument is that, after decades of experience with affirmative action, we cannot simply assume, as he still does, that “increasing the number of blacks who are admitted to, and graduated from, elite universities such as Harvard will improve the social standing of all blacks.”
We have had an African-American president (who was president of the law review at Harvard Law School), yet it is not clear that Barack Obama’s presidency had overall positive effects on African-American social standing—witness the shootings that actuated Black Lives Matter and the reactionary election of Donald Trump. More broadly, the emergence of a substantial African-American elite in business, law, finance, medicine, and beyond, undoubtedly a good in itself, has not had a transformative effect on the economic and social well-being of poorer African-Americans.
From this it follows that we need a conception of affirmative action that recognizes the reality of ongoing racial-structural discrimination while acknowledging that the benefits of affirmative action accrue to specific, real-world people—not necessarily to the members of the race as a whole. Those beneficiaries deserve to be treated as individuals, not as stand-ins whose admission and graduation are intended to advance racial justice in the abstract.
El Paso, Texas, is a four-hour drive south on the interstate from where I live in New Mexico. I have been going there for decades. Entering the city from the northwest, Interstate 10, once the King’s Highway, meaning the King of Spain’s highway to the capital of his western empire, Santa Fe, drops down quickly through the hills that surround the city. “El Paseo del Norte,” the pass to the North, is how the city began, at a break in the mountains of the Mexican state to the south, Chihuahua. After first passing the towering stacks of a closed copper smelter, then the University of Texas campus and the Sun Bowl, suddenly to the south you see a curtain hanging far behind the city—a wall of pastel yellows and pinks and browns, the myriad small houses of Ciudad de Juárez stretching for miles across the horizon. Today, Juárez has twice the population of El Paso.
When I first came to the Southwest in 1971, almost all the work in the chile and alfalfa fields, and often in the hotels, resorts, and restaurants, was done by Mexicans, almost all of whom were undocumented immigrants. They were called “Mojados,” an insult meaning “the Wet Ones,” then “illegal aliens,” and finally “undocumented workers.” It was pretty clear to everyone that, without their labor, the economy of the Southwest would collapse.
The undocumented worker with whom I was building my house, north of Bernalillo, was called Eddie. Eddie had been a bracero, part of the government program that brought Mexican workers across the border when we needed them. Bracero means “one who works with his arms.” As a bracero, Eddie picked cotton. He told me in Spanish, “They took out my appendix for a quarter.” The Bracero program was ended in 1964.
On Christmas Eve, ICE agents in El Paso, faced with an overcrowded facility, and following the deaths of two migrant children in their custody, took 214 migrants, drove them in vans to a park in downtown El Paso, and told them to get out. Most of them walked a few blocks to the Greyhound Bus Station, whereupon someone in the station called the police. The same thing happened in Las Cruces. After five years of coordinating these releases with Annunciation House, the largest aid group helping migrants get on their way from El Paso and Las Cruces, this time ICE agents didn’t tell anybody.
Over the next two days, ICE released another 400 members of migrant families. Men and women holding small children or traveling with teenagers, thousands of miles from the homes they had fled many months before, and after a week or ten days in detention, were now in America—they were free. All were given court dates, but until then, they could go anywhere they wanted in this country.
The neighborhood at the border crossing in El Paso is called “Chihuahuita,” Little Chihuahua. Hand-painted murals are everywhere. My favorite is of Guatémoc, the last Aztec Emperor. Hernán Cortés had him hanged. I wear an NYPD press credential, which has been called “the Shield,” around my neck with a chain. The medallion (it’s a laminated, heavy plastic square) has a picture of me in the middle. With it, I look like a cop. As we neared the Greyhound station in El Paso, I put it inside my shirt. As my wife, Nancy, pulled into the parking lot, I jumped out and walked up to a van with a CNN cameraman sitting behind the wheel.
“You can’t take pictures inside,” the newsman cautioned. Beside the van, he and his team had a large camera set up on a tripod. “We can only shoot when the sanctuary groups bring them in. There is a security guard inside the terminal.”
This kind of talk only excites me. I took a single camera, a digital Leica M9, removed the sun shade, mashed it into one of the pockets of my vest, put another lens into another pocket, pushed a spare battery into my jeans, and stepped inside. There they were, the migrants who had been making so much news. Women and men sat in clusters, each with children, often small children, clutching stuffed dolls probably given to them at the shelters.
The main waiting room had a small cafeteria next to it, and the one security guard, wearing a bright chartreuse vest, had just stepped inside to order something to eat. All I had to do was stand somewhere he couldn’t see me and make my pictures. Eventually, he got his lunch, came up to a counter facing a glass wall that looked directly into the waiting room. Unless I kept an obstruction, like a pillar between us, he could see me. I had been watching a particularly handsome man standing in a boarding lane in the terminal with his son. I moved in to take a better-composed picture when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
“You can’t take pictures in here.” It wasn’t security. It was a volunteer from the shelters who had brought the migrants to the station and was helping them get on their way. This is the kind of interruption that makes someone like me exceedingly unhappy, but I remained calm, was very polite, and walked away from my subject with him. I showed him my NYPD press pass, and said things like “I’m on your side,” none of which made any difference. “Even CNN can’t get in,” he said. Then, as I continued to protest, he pulled out his cellphone and announced that he was calling the police. “OK,” I said, “I’m leaving.”
My next stop was a small shelter run by Annunciation House. The organization now runs fifteen shelters in the area, all full. I had phoned one of them, in downtown El Paso, from the road and was told that the group’s “media person” would talk to me. It’s cold here in the Southwest right now, and it was freezing in El Paso when the media person stepped outside to speak with me. I could see through the crack of the door a few families sitting on folding chairs. “Can’t we talk inside?” I asked. “No,” she said. She also made clear that she wouldn’t help me take pictures. “We protect our people,” she said.
That was day one. The next day, I reached the bus terminal at 8 AM. A new group of another dozen or so migrants was there. A teenager walked in with a printed letter-size sheet of paper pinned to his chest that said: “I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. CAN YOU HELP ME?” Naturally, I wanted to make his picture, but there, over in the far corner, was my nemesis, the man who had threatened to call the police on me. I left.
A shelter called The Rock was a few blocks down the street. Its main room was filled with donated clothing, held in large garbage bags and pillowcases, and some food in cardboard boxes. The volunteers there couldn’t have been friendlier. Two trucks were parked in front filling up with loads to take out to the shelters. I walked up to two young women who had arrived in an old Ford 150, the truck bed now filling up with donated clothes and food. I showed them my shield, explained what I was up to, and said, “May I follow you?” Off we went.
The first place they stopped, a woman came to the door and said, “We’ll take the food.” That left the women with a truck full of clothing.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
The woman who had been driving said, “We have no fucking idea what we’re doing.”
“Oh,” I said. “I was in the civil rights movement. It was just like that.”
Nazareth House is the largest of Annunciation’s hospitality sites. It was about five miles away. They drove and I followed. The site was located on the large Catholic campus of Loretto Academy in West El Paso, but the women in the Ford were unable to find the shelter.
“Did you see those two young boys at those dumpsters we passed? Do you speak Spanish?” I asked.
“Not the Spanish they speak.” Both our vehicles headed toward the dumpsters and the next thing I knew, the two women and two Mayan teenagers unloaded the truck and were marching in a line carrying boxes and bags toward the double metal doors of the one-story building nearby. I got in the line, someone opened the door, and we marched right in. Inside, they stopped at a brightly lit room, an office, to talk to someone. I turned a corner, walked down the hall, and vanished inside. I pulled the Leica out of my pocket and began to walk down the hall looking for migrants to talk to.
The building formed a large square with dorm rooms on three sides, each with an iron door, a tag on the side with a card identifying the name and number of persons inside. Each room had three cots and an outside window. Most rooms held a parent and one or two children. On the fourth side was a chapel and the kitchen. In the center of the large square was an open playroom for children. I never knocked on a door or opened one, but if a door was partially open and I was invited in, I would step inside, make a picture, and in Spanish ask them to tell me their stories.
When I stepped into the chapel, an open room with a large crucifix in the corner, three men were on their knees in prayer. One began to crawl around the room on his knees, as he gestured with his arms. It seemed to me that he was thanking God to have reached this building on this side of the border, a building where he was warm, fed, and without threat of arrest. Most people stay here for just a few days.
At that moment, a boy stepped out of the children’s room and asked me to come inside. There was a small library on one wall. A young girl was engrossed in a book she had on her lap. The boy was holding a book and wanted to know if he was allowed to take it out into the hall to read. “Of course,” I said.
Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosA teenager from Central America in the children’s room and library at Nazareth House, El Paso, Texas, December 2018
Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosA typical room inside Nazareth House, El Paso, Texas, December, 2018; migrants are fed and cared for here, by volunteers. They usually spend two or three nights before they are aided on their way, usually to reach relatives in other parts of the US
Other young men began to come up to me to tell me their stories. When I asked one his name, he took my cellphone, and typed onto the notepad I was using: “My name is Henry. Departamento Huehuetenango. San Pedro Necta.”
Then, in Spanish, he asked me if he could use my phone. I had been hiding from authorities. I was even hiding from them inside the building. My phone was low on power. I was using it to make notes as I interviewed people. And then I thought, What am I thinking? I thought of my mother, who was fifteen when she reached New York from Russia, and my father, who came there from Germany. Both had arrived on ships in New York Harbor. Both had fled hostile, murderous governments.
Henry, too, had fled from a murderous situation at home. He had traveled by bus and on foot for forty days across Mexico. He had just been released with his father after a week in an ICE detention center. Henry was trying to get to South Carolina. He had a relative there. He was trying to learn his address.
“Two minutes, Henry,” I said in Spanish. “You can use it for two minutes.”
Henry put in the number of his relative. We both waited as the phone rang. There was no answer. The mailbox had not been set up yet. Henry gave me back the phone. I got up to leave. We hugged each other.
Past the faceless concrete housing projects, the kebab joints, the corner stores, the bus stops, and the tramlines of the city of Saint-Denis in metropolitan Grand Paris, the sheep snatch at plants on weedy strips between the sidewalk and the street. Urban shepherdess Julie-Lou Dubreuilh, curly-haired and ruddy-cheeked, dressed in black jeans and a royal-blue down jacket, clicks the end of her long staff on the pavement, urging her flock along with low cries of “ehh.” The sheep quicken their pace, ivy yanked from chain-link fences disappearing into their mouths like strands of spaghetti.
Located just north of Paris, the administrative department of Seine-Saint-Denis is France’s poorest and most ethnically diverse. Its Brutalist public housing complexes, once triumphant monuments to socialist modernism, are now sites of social marginalization. It’s the last place one would imagine seeing wandering shepherds tending their flocks. Yet here, and elsewhere in metropolitan Paris, an urban agricultural revolution is taking root.
That revolution has the blessing of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. On her watch, the city pledged in 2016 to cover 250 acres of urban space with greenery by 2020. In 2017, the city launched Pariscultures, a program that solicits bids for urban agriculture projects to ensure that roughly one third of that area is dedicated to agriculture. One winning project is BienÉlevées, a play on the French expression meaning “well raised” (as in well brought-up children), founded by four sisters who grow saffron on the roof of a Monoprix supermarket.
These are small efforts compared to the intensity of agricultural production in metropolitan Paris’s past when the land traversed by Dubreuilh’s flock today was known as the plaine des Vertus, the Plain of Virtues, its rich soil producing a large variety of food for discriminating Parisians. In 1891, 80 percent of the produce sold at Les Halles, the old food market that was ripped out of the center of Paris in the early 1970s, was grown on the periphery of the city. Some of the plants favored by Dubreuilh’s sheep are survivors from that era. “That,” she said, pointing to what looked to me like a weed on the day I walked with her and her sheep, “is a variety of dandelion that was grown here for salad.”
Vintage postcard courtesy of “Argicultural Capital,” Pavillon de l’ArsenalCloches in a plot at a gardening school, Orly, south of Paris, late nineteenth century
Vintage postcard courtesy of “Argicultural Capital,” Pavillon de l’ArsenalA woodman’s cabin, Forêt-de-Marly, west of Paris, late nineteenth century
Vintage postcard courtesy of “Argicultural Capital,” Pavillon de l’ArsenalA wastewater-recycling plant at Pierrelaye, northwest of Paris, late nineteenth century
The agricultural past of peripheral Paris is the jumping off point of the exhibition “Agricultural Capital: Projects for a Cultivated City” at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, which now runs through February 10. The exhibition’s premise is that the artificial separation of the urban, the agricultural, and the natural in the Île-de-France region has been devastating to all three. As urban space in and around Paris expanded after the end of World War II, so, too, did dedicated space for nature, a tonic urban planners believed essential for city-dwellers. Environmental concerns beginning in the 1970s accelerated a trend of setting aside natural areas as sanctuaries for imperiled wildlife. Agriculture was banished from both the new urban and natural zones. Farmers were stripped of their responsibilities as custodians of an intermingled human and natural environment that produced nourishment for people and created habitat for birds, insects, wild plants, and animals.
Over the past century, exhibition curator Augustin Rosenstiehl told me, “the space reserved for nature in the Île-de-France doubled”—“yet, during the same period, the diversity of our biomass has collapsed.” The key to preserving biodiversity, essential to human survival and to making metropolitan Paris a resilient city, Rosenstiehl believes, is a new urban planning that restores the essential place that small-scale, ecologically sustainable agriculture formerly held in a habitat where people, plants, and animals thrive together.
The exhibition’s 480-page catalog is nothing less than a manifesto—a call to action by an array of architects, urban planners, geographers, agronomists, and farmers who argue that the only way for the metropolitan Paris to survive the environmental calamities and social inequities, including global warming and a sharply divided metropolis that includes some of the richest and many of the poorest people in France, that threaten the city’s future is to embrace “agricultural urbanism.” In his introduction, Rosenstiehl writes: “In the face of ecological crisis, there appears to be a tacit consensus defending the idea of a modern urbanism that goes well beyond the limits of the city to develop all the functions of the region: develop the urban and its activities, but also Agriculture and Nature.” In his remarks at the opening of the Agricultural Capital exhibition in October 2018, Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris, put the stakes more bluntly, declaring: “The new urbanism will be agricultural or it will not be.”
Whereas “urban agriculture” may include high-tech farm towers, computer-monitored, hydroponically grown tomatoes or micro-irrigated salad beds on supermarket rooftops, “agricultural urbanism” argues for the transformation of the metropolitan into a porous, diverse, interactive habitat where agriculture permeates the experience of the people, plants, and animals that live there—precisely the kind of urban habitat that existed on the periphery of Paris between 1870 and 1930.
In the nineteenth century, urbanization and industrialization drew from every region of France and countries around the world a cosmopolitan corps of migrant farmers escaping rural poverty. They brought their diverse experiences of farming to land on the outskirts of Paris, making it, the exhibition claims, the most productive fruit and vegetable acreage in history. To meet the demands of hungry Parisians and a bourgeoisie particular about the variety and quality of its food, these farmers, working small plots of land, constantly innovated and improved their production. Without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, they were able, by using techniques such as cultivation under glass cloches, to pull as many as eight harvests a year out of their plots. Carts that took fresh fruits and vegetables into Paris in the morning returned in the evening loaded with manure and other organic waste, which was plowed into the soil. Nearby forests were sustainable sources of wood products. People lived on the land they farmed and were connected to each other and to the city of Paris by a dense network of paths and roads through the cultivated and inhabited land.
This porous, symbiotic relationship between city and country resulted not only in an agricultural productivity superior to what contemporary industrial farming can muster today, but it also did so with little waste or harm to the environment. Food was produced, without chemical inputs, close to where it was consumed. Local pollinators and wild plants and animals found ready habitats in networks of hedgerows and woods. People lived on the land they farmed, in easy proximity to Paris. The farming life was not isolating.
The exhibition labels this period one of “promiscuity,” in the sense of an indeterminate mingling. This promiscuity was wiped away during the second half of the twentieth century by zoning laws that formally separated urban, natural, and agricultural spaces, strictly defining which activities were allowed in each and forbidding, for example, the construction of housing on agricultural land or the grazing of livestock in forests. Small farming plots were consolidated in the service of large-scale, machine-based agriculture. Labor-intensive production of fruits and vegetables disappeared from the riverine valleys around Paris, which became natural corridors for new highways and rail lines, and the development of new urban hubs. In the Île-de-France region around Paris, nearly all the farming that is left is industrial grain production—acre after acre of mono-cropped wheat with nary a person, let alone a bee or bird or animal, in sight.
Using original artwork created for the exhibition, archival photographs, botanical documentation, and comparative maps of land use and population density in the Île-de-France in 1900 versus today, “Agricultural Capital” takes the visitor on a comprehensive tour of more than a century of the evolution of Paris and its environs. It also offers a series of utopian alternatives to urban modernity from the past, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Le Corbusier’s Radiant Farm, and references the return of urban agriculture to cities under duress, specifically Havana, Cuba, and Detroit, Michigan. There are large color photographs of some of the urban and suburban farmers who are creating a new “metropolitan rurality” today, and examples of the innovative machinery and technologies they are developing—and sharing on open-source platforms—for urban farming.
Large architectural drawings allow the visitor to envision what a new agricultural urbanism could achieve—say, a highway rest area of the future where people waiting for their electric cars to charge can buy fresh local produce from an adjoining farm, where they can stretch their legs while picking berries along a footpath between the plants. Or the sadly barren lawns surrounding the banlieues’ benighted housing towers replaced with community gardens and a field that turns into a soccer pitch after its safflowers have been harvested. New paths would allow people—as well as wild creatures such as hedgehogs—to circulate between the private gardens of suburban homes, whose standard foundation plantings and chemically dependent lawns have themselves been replaced by edible and pollinator-friendly plants.
The exhibition also imagines Paris’s tramway lines with dedicated trams for livestock, so that flocks like the one shepherded by Dubreuilh could be transported for grazing on public parks and meridians where gas-guzzling mowers and hedge trimmers would no longer be required. Abandoned factories and commercial warehouses could be converted into multi-use structures for performances, housing, food production, and restaurants, as could old barns and hangars for farm machinery, effectively bringing community and the arts to now isolated rural areas.
In late November, I visited one of the urban farming projects featured in “Agricultural Capital.” Located on what was the last remaining vegetable farm in the city of Saint-Denis, the site is a ten-minute walk from the end of the number thirteen Métro line. Standing in the middle of the fields, a McDonald’s is visible on one side of the property. The dome of the Grand Mosque of Saint-Denis rises beyond the other. Rows of multistory apartment blocks flank the back, and more are under construction across from the farm’s entrance. It’s the perfect location for an experiment in agricultural urbanism.
In 2017, a nonprofit artists’ collective, le Parti Poétique, and the for-profit Fermes de Gally jointly signed a twenty-five-year agricultural lease with the city of Saint-Denis, which owns the land. The idea was to create an interactive agricultural space for an ethnically diverse city whose residents have little opportunity to experience farming, and scant access to locally produced food.
Saint-Denis native, artist Olivier Darné, founded the Parti Poétique in 2004 after a beehive he’d set up on the roof of his home led him to think differently about the urban space around him and about the relationship between culture, nature, and food. The honey his bees produced Darné dubbed “Miel Béton,” or concrete honey—“the result of what I call the pollination of the city,” he told me. “Introducing bees was a way to ask questions about how public space functions, not only as a place to send out messages but also as a place to build relationships.”
The Parti Poétique now manages some 120 hives in Saint-Denis, which, the group claims, is the largest urban apiary in Europe. It has also created a bank of fertilized queen bees to populate new hives, a boon to beekeepers and farmers who depend on honeybees to pollinate their crops. Last winter, nearly a third of France’s beehives perished, suspected victims of the pesticides and parasites that have been decimating bee colonies around the world. Metropolitan Paris, where pesticides are little used, has become a “natural” sanctuary for bees facing extinction on industrial farmland.
The new farm is an opportunity for the Parti Poétique to expand its work beyond beekeeping. Called Zone Sensible—the term used by the French state for neighborhoods troubled by disaffected immigrant youth meaning “sensitive area,” but which can also simply mean an area perceptible to the senses—the farm hosts an outdoor performance platform, artists in residence, a kitchen where people from the community can cook using produce and herbs grown on the property, and, of course, beehives.
Standing in the middle of Zone Sensible’s two-and-a-half acre plot on a chilly day this past November, Franck Ponthier, the head gardener for the Parti Poétique, explained as sirens wailed in the distance: “We call this a world garden. There are more than 135 nationalities in Saint-Denis. The goal is to grow, at a minimum, 140 varieties of plants.” A landscaper who had worked with Darné to create bee-friendly plantings in the area, Ponthier gave up landscaping for urban farming in 2016. He said he was disgusted by “seeing soil as rich as gold paved over for parking lots and housing towers.” He is dedicated to establishing an organic farm on the site that uses the techniques of permaculture—the creation of sustainable agricultural ecosystems—in place of conventional single-plant rows vulnerable to pests and disease. To that end, the garden features multitiered, interplanted rows of plants and herbs.
The rows radiate out from a central star with strips of lawn in between, mimicking the formal layout of the Potager du Roi, the kitchen garden created on the orders of Louis the XIV at Versailles. Ponthier told me the layout is in homage to the Fermes de Gally, the Parti Poétique’s partner on the site, which opened its first farm to the public near Versailles. The people of Saint-Denis now have access to a garden befitting a king.
The Fermes de Gally’s La Ferme Ouverte, The Open Farm, occupies a larger portion of the site’s original farm acreage. The Fermes de Gally—operated by the brothers Xavier and Dominique Laureau, whose family has been farming in Île-de-France for a century—now employs some 500 people across France with a mission to “cultivate nature in cities.” In 1967, the Laureaus opened one of the first garden centers in France. In 1995, they created a “teaching farm” in Saint-Cyr-L’École and, a decade later, another in Sartrouville where people could pick their own produce and interact with farm animals.
Xavier Laureau told me the Open Farm “project is atypical because Saint-Denis is atypical.” While the farm’s primary focus is public education, it also aims to create new jobs in urban farming in an area of high unemployment and “to commemorate the type of agriculture that was practiced in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” as part of a larger mission of the “agricultural reconquest” of urban space. The use in France of the greenhouse effect to heat urban, above-ground agricultural spaces dates back, he said, to the seventeenth century: “We talk about permaculture today but what they did was far more sophisticated.”
At the Open Farm, a former farm building now houses a photographic archive, old farm tools, and indoor hydroponic minitowers. There are spaces where people can bake their own bread and press their own apple juice. There are sheep, goats, and chickens. Rows of vegetables provide produce for a farm stand where several women in headscarves were buying produce on the day I visited. “We had no place to buy fresh vegetables like this before,” one told me. An old hangar next to the original farmhouse is slated to be converted into a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, meetings, and other public events.
Laureau contributed essays to the “Agricultural Capital” exhibition catalogue and in November spoke at a public meeting on urban agriculture in Paris that was organized by Enlarge Your Paris, the Métropole du Grand Paris, and the Bergers Urbains, the urban shepherds, including Dubreilh, who founded Clinamen, their sheep operation. The event, part of yearlong series on urban agriculture in greater Paris, attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Around the theme “Urban Agriculture: From Farm to Plate,” the various participants agreed that metropolitan Paris would probably never be self-sufficient in food. But they also agreed that the social and environmental benefits of urban agriculture could no longer be ignored, and that the current model of urban expansion is unsustainable. The series, designed to reveal “what is already happening in urban agriculture,” in the words of Vianney Delourme of Enlarge Your Paris, kicked off last September with a photogenic amble through the streets of northern Paris with Clinamen’s sheep; it will culminate in July with a sheep walk around the entire periphery of the city.
In a landscape that appears anything but pastoral, the sheep entrance passers-by. When I walked with them on their migration to winter quarters in a sheepfold in the Parc Georges-Valbon a few weeks ago, a group of young men stopped to take selfies with the sheep, and a shopkeeper called out an offer to buy one for 600 euros. (Dubreuilh told him the sheep weren’t for sale.) An elderly Algerian woman in traditional headscarf and robe broke into a smile as we passed her house, and when I asked another woman on the sidewalk what she thought of the sheep, she laughed and replied: “Oh, you know, I’m a country girl. I grew up with farm animals.”
After the sheep were safely corralled in their shelter, Dubreuilh invited me to join her and her fellow shepherds for lunch in their headquarters. As we prepared and ate a meal of scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables, she told me she and her shepherding partner at Clinamen, Guillaume Leterrier, “became urban shepherds because we think that when people interact with animals, they become more human.”
“When people come across a flock of sheep, they slow down, they adopt the pace of the animals,” she said. “They reflect on their own rhythm, on their daily routine. A flock of sheep brings humanity and freedom to the city.”
The rambunctious satires of Gary Shteyngart have previously had one foot rooting around the real-life New York City, the other foot dug into the rubble and riches of post-Soviet republics or the oddly similar rubble and riches of an imaginary dystopian New York. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, his first novel, he describes Vladimir Girshkin on his twenty-fifth birthday as divided almost evenly between there and here: “He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life—it added up.” Over the course of the novel, Vladimir seeks love and success in both worlds, from the smooth, pious liberality of his girlfriend’s Upper East Side parents to the cheerful greed and brutality of a tracksuited bunch of Russian mobsters in an Eastern European city based on Prague.
In Absurdistan, Shteyngart’s next book, the hero is, like Vlad, born in the Soviet Union and educated in the US. Misha, a “buttery” 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, loves rap and a girl who describes herself as “half Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish. But I was raised mostly Dominican.” Like Vladimir, Misha is a man of the old world and the new.
The hero of Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was born in a New York City that turns him into an immigrant in his own home. The text-message epistolary novel takes place in a future New York that has imploded into an authoritarian regime, the authority in question being money.
In Lake Success, his new novel, Shteyngart has shifted to recognizably American soil, specifically the United States that rolls beneath the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who escapes his obscenely wealthy New York life by running off on a red-state road trip. It is just before the 2016 presidential election. And because of the timing, the geography of the South and the West, the political references, and the poor and middle-class people Barry meets on his travels, Lake Success presents itself as a book about America. But Barry is just a tourist in America. Lake Success is really a New York story, and a good one.
New York towers avariciously above the other places Barry visits, the moral squalor of its Wall Street elite meticulously rendered. Barry gauges his place in the world with the precision of the rare watches he collects, and measures his rise quite literally floor by floor of the building where he lives, in a condo just one floor below Rupert Murdoch’s. During dinner with neighbors—on the lowly third floor—Barry looks up their two-bedroom apartment on Zillow to see how much they paid for it: a mere $3,800,000, less than a fifth the price he paid for his floor-through place high above.
Barry is not a nice guy, and like most of Shteyngart’s heroes his obnoxious qualities are so complete and so overwhelming as to create an almost sympathetic innocence and naiveté. His self-centered inhumanity is part of what humanizes him for the reader. He has had to work not only at getting rich but also at cultivating an acceptable personality: as a kid he practiced his “friend moves” in front of the mirror so successfully that he is known now as “the friendliest dude on the Street.” His wife, Seema, trained as a lawyer but, in the way of the new-age trophy wife, leaving her career behind, describes him as “that boyish, goofy, preprogrammed, backslapping, Tiger Inn, let’s-be-friends, one-of-the-guys bullshit Barry.” But she also sees “the desperately struggling, scared-of-getting-it-wrong, always-on-the-lookout-for-hurt Barry. Or maybe they were one and the same.”
The third-floor apartment Barry is so curious about and contemptuous of belongs to Julianna, a doctor who has made friends with Seema in the lobby, and her husband, Luis, a writer (“I’m what they call a ‘writer’s writer’”) whose sales rankings (1,123,340) Barry has already checked out on Amazon. Luis affects a certain cynicism, but Shteyngart does not excuse him from the city’s ludicrous social climbing. Luis complacently explains the discrepancy between his low book sales and his condo as the result of lecturing for $20,000 a pop: “You do fifty of those a year, and, well, a million bucks ain’t a lot in New York these days, but you’re at least welcomed into the anthills of the one percent.”
Barry notices there is no art in the apartment except a vintage Spanish-language James Bond poster:
It didn’t have the uniqueness or value of Seema’s Miró or the neglected Calder in their library, but it was a found object that signaled that the writer had an identity. It didn’t matter if it was invented. He had invented it. He was the fucking writer! That’s what he did.
Writer, hedge-fund manager—they are both assholes.
Shteyngart understands both Barry and Luis with that Shteyngartian eye for weakness, for posing, for fraud. “Luis was still on some kind of meta-riff about both candidates being sleaze,” he writes delightedly, “even though he said it was costing him Twitter followers.”
Seema ends up having an affair with Luis, but by then Barry is long gone. He has run away from home (where he terrified his wife and young child with a violent outburst) and is on the lam (he’s under investigation for insider trading). He throws away his phone and his credit cards and, like a hobo on a freight train, rides through the South with nothing but $200 and a suitcase filled with priceless watches. In Atlanta, he looks up a former employee, a young man named Jeff Park who was fired a few years ago (he had accidentally omitted a minus sign in an Excel spreadsheet, costing the firm $150 million). Jeff is doing fine now, to Barry’s confused surprise. A big financial fish in the relatively small pond of Atlanta, Jeff lives close to his parents in a floor-through apartment that would cost ten times as much in New York. When he isn’t making money at his computer he works out and drives fabulous cars. The Wall Street dream life. And he’s happy enough to be able to understand that he’s been lucky. Barry’s been lucky, too, he says:
“You found yourself working in the right industry at the right time. No regulation. All the leverage you could eat from the banks. I’m not even going to mention the insider trading that’s just part of being in the old boys’ club…. Hey, I’m not knocking what we do,” Jeff said. “It takes smarts. But so much of it is luck. You execute one good trade, and people will listen to everything you say for the next five years.”
But Barry disagrees. “All I know is I never had any advantages,” he tells the Korean-American he still thinks is Chinese. “I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.”
His wife, however, was. Seema’s mother is that most wonderful thing, a Gary Shteyngart mother, a formidable first-generation mother seething with love, unerring in her cruelty. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, the mother is a Russian Jew. In Absurdistan, she is Korean. In Lake Success, she is Tamil. In every case, she is a wonder, a monster of cold, smothering love. When Seema calls her mother for comfort in the midst of her sadness and abandonment, she says, “Oh Mommy…I wish you would say a nice thing right now.”
“Try to be a better daughter,” her mother said.
“That’s not a nice thing.”
“Nice is not my specialty. Call your father if you want to hear something nice.”
“Can you tell me you love me?”
“That you should know already.”
“What if I don’t? What if I got bonked on the head and had amnesia or something? Like in that Tamilian movie. Whatever. Something.”
Seema could hear her mother start up her car again. “Is that what happened to you, Seema-konde? Because that would explain a lot.”
“That’s what happened to me.”
“Then fine,” she said. “Then I love you.”
When Seema first told her mother she was going to marry Barry, her mother treated it as her due, “like it was one of two acceptable choices, a white-shoe law firm partnership being the other one.” And Seema remembers how, when she was younger, her mother
would hover over her bed at all hours of the day and night (good luck finding the word “privacy” in Tamil), imparting all those ludicrous and painful life lessons. Freshman year in high school she had drawn Seema a chart of the social acceptability of her friends. Jews and WASPs fared at the very top, one had “money (increasing),” the other “social power (decreasing).” The Asians were separated into several tranches, with the Japanese—who had bought up so much of our country just the previous decade—leading the pack. Tamils hovered several blank spaces above Hispanics, who themselves rested on the shoulders of blacks.
The precarious footing of the immigrant and the ugly parochialism it engenders are never far from Shteyngart’s work, and among his great gifts are his intimate descriptions of how violently they distort motherly love. Here is a passage from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:
“Vladimir, how can I say this? Please don’t be cross with me. I know you’ll be cross with me, you’re such a soft young man. But if I don’t tell you the truth, will I be fulfilling my motherly duties? No, I will not. The truth then…” She sighed deeply, an alarming sigh, the sigh of exhaling the last doubt, the sigh of preparing for battle. “Vladimir,” she said, “you walk like a Jew.”
“What? The anger in his voice. What? he says. What? Walk back to the window now. Just walk back to the window. Look at your feet. Look carefully. Look at how your feet are spread apart. Look at how you walk from side to side. Like an old Jew from the shtetl. Little Rebbe Girshkin.”
Seema is a different kind of mother, and her child, Shiva, is different too. Three years old and recently diagnosed with autism, Shiva is part of the reason Barry ran away. Seema and Barry have kept “the diagnosis” secret from everyone, but when Julianna, the doctor from the third floor, insists on bringing Arturo, her own ostentatiously cute three-year-old, to play, Seema’s new friend figures it out. One of the few unquestionably decent characters in the novel (she is a doctor who is doing research on the Zika virus), Julianna is not only unfazed by the screaming child banging his head against the wall, she is able to calm him, to touch him, to teach her own little boy to appreciate Shiva. The big bouncy ball and the horsehair brush, telltale signs of therapy, are novelties, interesting new toys for Arturo. And Seema watches with relief, and a new confusion:
Seema breathed in and out, in and out, with great force, the way she had been taught by a meditation app she had abandoned a few months ago, because it had only made her more anxious. So now what? She had made a new friend and was sleeping with that new friend’s husband. Her disabled child had made friends with the woman’s son, also her lover’s son…. Where would it all end? And where the fuck was Barry?
Barry is in San Antonio trying to rekindle a college love affair; he is trying to connect with his college girlfriend’s son, to teach the withdrawn boy to swim and to come up with his own “friend moves,” just as Barry did as a lonely child. “I don’t like friends,” Jonah tells him, something Barry understands all too well. He is trying to carve out a life that will work better than the one he left behind, but his fantasies for a more authentic life are just that, fantasies, standing in for real hopes and real dreams, the way his “friend moves” stood in for friendliness. His dream of a happy family, after all, involves three children brushing their teeth at a long, custom-built vanity with three sinks. Not three children, but three children at three sinks. The material expression of love and family has swallowed both love and family for Barry.
Shteyngart offers Barry’s shallow materialism as an illustration of America’s malaise, not news to anyone since Tocqueville, or Trollope’s mother. But he always rescues himself with detail, and the three sinks, one after the other, is an image so preposterously empty of the beauty of family that it is touching.
When Barry does finally come back to New York, Seema explains,
in essence, that she didn’t like what Barry was. Not who, but what. We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win…. How could people who didn’t live in a Central Park West penthouse believe in anything anymore?…
“Oh, honey,” she said, “can’t you see what’s around you? You’re not Shiva. You don’t have excuses. You’re a man who makes tons of money while the world goes to shit around you. You make money because the world goes to shit around you. In the end, that’s who you are.”
That’s a heavy load for any one character to carry, and it is something of a miracle that we feel any sympathy for Barry at all. But we do. That is the magic of melancholy.
Festering corruption is a given in a Shteyngart novel, but more important are the festering emotions of the people forced to live, and even prosper, in his flamboyantly tainted landscapes. Lake Success follows someone trying to find an answer, a simpler and purer life. But the novel is not about simplicity or purity at all. It is about complications, tangles and knots, muddied expectations and outcomes. Emotions ripple any surface, shudder against conflicting emotions, leaving waves of questions and doubt. Seema’s response to her child is as nuanced, as alive, as Barry’s watches are not. Barry “couldn’t live without their insistent ticking and the predictable spin of their balance wheels, that golden whir of motion and light inside the watch that gave it the appearance of having a soul.” That balanced movement, tiny and delicate but tied so intimately to the grand movements of the earth itself, has cracked. There is no predictability or order in the real world of real wives and real children on the spectrum.
Unlike Barry, Seema is ultimately able to make her peace with the wayward nature of reality. She tells her parents about the diagnosis, and they come to live with her, her mother loudly blaming Barry for everything and her father stubbornly working with Shiva’s obsessive behavior rather than against it. The big gold W of the W Hotel, which Shiva stares at? His grandfather makes a W with his fingers and touches Shiva’s hand:
Now…they would chart their way through Manhattan by following an endless series of signs with Ws, Walgreens being the ultimate beacon by which Shiva could navigate, although McDonald’s arches also appeared to be an upside-down W as far as the young speller was concerned…. It used to be she would ask herself: Who is my son? What’s in his head? Well, now she knew. W was in his head…. If she had to see the world as being either in service to her son or not, then that’s how she would see the world. She should put up the Internet ad right away: “Not-yet-divorced wife of missing husband seeks man to be peripheral to her disabled son. Must be at least five foot ten.”
Barry, meanwhile, is in a bus station in Phoenix, his suitcase with all his watches stolen, holding a cardboard sign:
THEY STOLE ALL MY MONEY.
I HAVE AN AUTISTIC SON.
PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.
ANY LITTLE BIT HELPS!
☺GOD BLESS YOU☺
Shteyngart writes about the details of failure: economic, romantic, filial, and, perhaps most strikingly, physical. He describes urban landscapes as if they are alive, like the “contorted insect of a building, its chimney pumping effluent into the night” in Absurdistan; or breathing sorry music like “the ugly gigantism…of a collection of buildings that, with their rows of balconies on both ends, resembled soot-covered accordions” in Super Sad True Love Story. If his cities are pictured in all their dark, pulpy corporeality, the bodies of his characters are equally sordid, and treated similarly as landscapes swollen or shrunken with meaning.
It’s interesting that Barry, unlike his predecessors, exhibits physical charm. He is tall and broad-shouldered with a swimmer’s physique. He smiles. There is the merest mention of an incipient bald spot. Shteyngart’s other men, fat and oily and, for good measure, buttery like Misha in Absurdistan, or sweaty with hideous feet like Lenny in Super Sad True Love Story, or waddling shamefully on Jew feet like Vlad in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, are the satirical, fleshly manifestations of failure, matched by the politically and socially satirical decrepitude of buildings crumbling and sinking into politically, ethically polluted mud.
Failure has a stink, and Shteyngart’s prose sniffs out the physically grotesque with an almost unseemly joy. His satire shakes as resplendently as Misha’s belly. His plots are clammy, fantastical, a snarl of personal and political absurdity. If he is often overwrought, and he is, he is also sharp and refined in his understanding of self-consciousness. Lake Success is moodier, less showy than his earlier novels, closer in tone to Little Failure, his brilliant, funny, heartbreaking memoir. Barry may be a man with many millions, he may live high above the rest of us, looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows we will never press our noses against, but everyone can recognize his view: the vantage of despair. And, gently, incrementally, of hope.