This week in Chicago, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the first time in several years. It’s not generally my thing, contemporary art, but I’ve always found the place deeply thought-provoking. This time was no different. Howardena Pindell—an artist whose work I didn’t know. But trusting the MCA (and the nice guy at the front desk who recommended her show as he sold me my ticket), I went. I was drawn in at once by her exuberant color, and the strange, nit-picky way she numbered grid paper in her early work—an homage to her mathematician father, the labels claimed—and the intricate transition from those fetished numbers into hole punches inscribed with numbers, into hole-punched canvases, into beautiful, hand-stitched paper assemblages scattered with punched holes, bits of glitter, talcum powder, thread.

I was merrily absorbed in all of this when I was taken up short by an abrupt transition—Pindell’s car accident in 1979, from which she emerged semi-amnesiac. Now the hole-punched abstract canvases took on more urgency. She began affixing scraps of paper—images, slivers of postcards from friends, fragments relevant to her lost memories. Titles repeat the word “memory,” as if by insisting on memory she might recover it. The work is recognizably hers—the vibrant colors, the obsession with punched holes, stitched paper.

And then the show’s great revelation: a vast and brilliant blue oval of sea (or sky or both) reckoning with the Middle Passage and Pindell’s African ancestry, titled Autobiography: Water/Ancestors Middle Passage/Family Ghosts (it belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum). Here, in this impossibly beautiful blue piece, she conjures the stitched-together nature of memory, collective and personal. We see a female body, capped with a self-portrait of Pindell herself, cut from and stitched back into the broader canvas, which is scattered with images conjuring the slave trade, including the notorious diagram of a slave ship with its packed human cargo. And in its midst is this body—alive, fragrant, contemporary. The arms and legs are patched with small images of eyes. She is both an eye and an I. A witness—in a place where she was meant to be only cargo, eyeless. I-less. But here instead, like an Egyptian goddess, she sees all.

The piece feels one with Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman, a descendant of enslaved African Americans, attempts to stitch together the “gaps and silences and empty rooms” of her history. “Alongside the terrible things one had survived,” Hartman writes of those who endured the Middle Passage, “was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the will to forget.”

I’ve got evidence that my own great-great-great-grandfather purchased an imprisoned African from the illicit slave ship Wanderer in 1858. I too am working with scissored truths to reconstruct a history from this destruction. So blue and beautiful from a distance, the sea: so cruel in the details.


It’s the first of the year, the temps are dropping and evenings lengthening by the minute. On January 4, the mornings start growing longer, too—or so my Swiss brother-in-law, born on the 4th, tells me. We move toward light.

Two weeks ago, I went out at daybreak to get the paper and heard a rush of bird song. Or rather, a triple-word, triple-syllable trill by a bird I eventually spotted in the top branches of the mock orange beside our garage. Small, brown, wrenlike, with a brilliant song. What gives, I thought, when even birds are making merry in this shortest, darkest month of the year?

In another 30 days, bird song will be rampant and we’ll have gained an hour of daylight. We move toward grace.

Last week in Switzerland, I discovered the Protestant church in the town of Martigny in the heart of Catholic Valais, with its 17 stained-glass windows designed between 2011 and 2013 by the Swiss artist Hans Erni. Erni was 102 when he began the project and 104 when he completed it. A non-believer, he turned Biblical stories into charged, nearly secular images whose searing colors and often whimsical imagery struck me as profoundly sacred, inasmuch as they sanctify the everyday. Consider Eve as a farmer’s wife harvesting apples by the basketful, Jonah as a diver plunging head-first into the sea as he reaches out with one hand to play with a fish, Isaiah as a young boy charmed by the guileless snake at his knees.

Consider, above all, the faith of a painter who in his second century of life took on this massive commission. The Protestant church at Martigny is lit from the inside at night, so that residents of the town, believers and non-believers both, cannot avoid the bright vision of this spirited centenarian.

Erni died in 2015, at 106. May his optimism inspire ours.


In the midst of the debate over Confederate monuments, I’m reminded of the statue of Strom Thurmond that stands in front of the South Carolina state capitol. I saw it last year for the first time and was struck by the palimpest it’s become. The base of the statue lists both his accomplishments (minus, of course, his decades-long segregationist vitriole) and his children,  including Thurmond’s mixed-race daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, whose story did not emerge publicly until several months after her father’s death.

What’s so striking about the monument—and a partial argument, I think, for keeping some of these statues intact and in situ—is the very obvious way Essie Mae’s name has been added to the list of his children. And the very clearly edited number of those children:

Strom Thurmond Monument 1

I’ve been told the reason the number “five” is smudged is because so many hands (many, if not most, of them African-American) have reached up to touch it—as if to prove this isn’t a mirage. Like a medieval relic, that edited number bears witness to a kind of miracle: the fact that the state of South Carolina, which until 2015 flew the Confederate flag over its state house, acknowledges, even honors, Essie Mae’s existence.

Context is everything when it comes to these statues, and I’m with those in the museum world (including Lonnie Bunch III of the National Museum of African American History) who’d like to see them preserved in museums, where viewers can probe their full and complicated meanings, rather than out-and-out destroyed. Meanwhile, let’s all work to make public as much of this sorrowful history as we can. Some parts of the story have seen entirely too much public light. Some have not seen remotely enough.

In the Archives

When I was working on my life of Lorca, I often asked myself the question Lear asks, late in Shakespeare’s play, about Cordelia: “Have I caught thee?” It’s the biographer’s essential question: have I managed to transcend time and circumstance and geography to know what makes/made you tick?

I find myself asking it again as I try to make sense of my forebears—the Scarletts of Georgia, who built a small fortune using the labor of human beings they bought and hunted and enslaved. I’m especially curious about the man who started it all—Francis Muir Scarlett, my great-great-great grandfather, who fled from England to Georgia in 1799 and by 1812, at the age of 27, was a plantation overseer, and within another decade, a planter, slaveholder, and state legislator.

He’s a squirrely guy. I’ve got one photograph of him, above, undated. He left little in the way of a paper trail—mostly legal documents and ads for runaways. But last month I got a tiny glimpse of Francis Muir Scarlett in action.

I was trawling the Journals of the state legislature at the Georgia Archives, outside Atlanta, and found multiple references to Scarlett. One, from 1826, showed him in action, in his “room” in Milledgeville, demanding to know why a fellow legislator—a Mr. Powell, from Darien—had published a private letter. The back story is complicated and involves bank business, but the description of Scarlett caught me:

Mr. Scarlett then rose, got the document, and handed it to Mr. Powell, who read it and made no remark about it, nor evinced any surprise.

There he is, my ancestor, fleetingly alive and in action. I can see him in a firelit room, dark suit and white shirt, black tie, as he brandishes the incriminating letter and confronts his peer. It’s a rare moment.

The state legislature Journals reveal other details: that Scarlett was more interested in infrastructure (canals, bridges, ferries, roads) than in questions of slavery or Native American rights (both of which preoccupied lawmakers in the decades he served). Tto my delight, I learned that Scarlett voted in favor of divorce every time he was asked to weigh in. (For a married couple to divorce, both houses of the state legislature had to authorize it.)

But have I caught Francis Muir Scarlett? No way. Try to fathom why he embraced the slavery business, and I’m stumped. Was it simply circumstance? Geography? Need (or greed?)

Could he have said no? I go round and round, wanting to understand how and why he did what he did. It’s clear he wanted to be wealthy and powerful, and it’s equally clear that in early-19th-century Georgia, those tended to go hand-in-hand with enslaved labor.

And what about the women—Scarlett’s wife, daughters, daughters-in-law? Women confined to parlors and birthing rooms, for whom marriages were arranged and dowries compiled, for whom legal rights did not exist. (When Scarlett’s daughter Mary Ann became a widow, her vast inheritance passed directly to her father.)

Unlike the Grimké sisters or the actress Fanny Kemble, who published a chilling eyewitness account of the appalling conditions on her husband’s Georgia plantations, my female ancestors did not, so far as I can tell, speak out. They clung to the family business, it appears, and to their comforts—as I fear I would have done in their place.

I’m working, still, to catch all of them.

Lost Causes

I’ve been reading Faulkner: Sound and Fury a couple of weeks ago, now As I Lay Dying. (When I mentioned him earlier this year to the undergrads in my first-year seminar, one of my Chinese students groaned. “Faulkner!!! He’s impossible.” Tough enough for a native English speaker, I agree. I can’t imagine grappling with him if your first language is Mandarin.)

But the wonderfully self-contained Sound and Fury sheds obscurity as a dog does its coat in spring. Once I’d finished the novel, I circled back to the beginning and reread that astonishing first chapter in Benjamin’s voice. The plot and characters emerged from hiding. I was thick in the Compson fold.

It strikes me that Faulkner was of the same generation as my grandmother (b. 1898) and of Margaret Mitchell (b. 1900). I associate Mitchell, of course, and to some degree my grandmother, with the infamous Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Mitchell’s paean to that fantasy is well known. Reared on the same post-war brew of regret and recrimination, my grandmother shared Mitchell’s reluctance to forgive. While her Missouri-born husband reveled in histories of the Civil War, my Georgia-born grandmother shunned any such reading and repeatedly warned me, “There are some things we don’t talk about.”

I doubt she read Faulkner. But I’ve got my grandmother’s 1936 copy of Gone with the Wind on my bookshelf, and I remember her mentioning—proudly—Mitchell’s use of our family name (Scarlett) for her heroine.

It’s instructive to remember that Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom! just a few months after Mitchell’s novel came out. Faulkner’s novel sold around 7,000 copies, as compared to Mitchell’s millions, and then more or less vanished from bookstores. “I seem to be so out of touch with the Kotex Age here,” he complained. His only other pronouncement on the GWTW  phenomenon was that “no story takes a thousand pages to tell.”

Today, of course, Faulkner’s thorny novel holds up far better than Mitchell’s. Morally, socially, politically, it’s a much more digestible read—although Mitchell’s storytelling still slides easily down the throat.

I was intrigued to learn this year that few of my 18-to-21-year-old students are familiar with GWTW. They know of it, that is, but unlike earlier generations, most haven’t seen the movie, let alone read the book. That strikes me as good news. For too many decades, going back to my grandmother and her peers and extending well through my own generation, readers—especially women—have warmed to Mitchell’s facile tale of chivalric masters and loyal slaves battered by vulgar Yankees.

Faulkner’s the one we need now. “What is it?” he asked of the ideology we associate with the Lost Cause:

Something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens’ children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas?

Faulkner knew Mitchell and her ilk—they were, after all, his contemporaries. He knew where their obsessions led. We need only look today at the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments in places like New Orleans to know that in the second decade of the 21st century, Mitchell’s vision breathes on.

The Actor’s Freedom

I first read Michael Goldman’s The Actor’s Freedom as a college student in the early 1970s. The book has shaped the way I think about theater ever since.

I thought about Goldman again this week after seeing Simon McBurney’s remarkable The Encounter here in Ann Arbor. It’s a one-man show about—goodness—everything. The power of story, our need for story, the utterly shady border between fiction and fact, the linguistic and cultural barriers that impede communication (and at worst, breed violence). Climate change. Cultural imperialism. Parenting. There are long disquisitions on material possessions and on time. Time, the invisible Pied Piper who hauls us along with him, sometimes willingly, mostly not.

Above all, The Encounter is about the actor. The prodigious McBurney is onstage by himself for more than two hours, no intermission. His monologue, abetted by wizardly technology, is pretty much nonstop. He alternates between an authorial figure (a McBurney think-alike) and a real-life figure named Loren McIntyre, who was briefly, and terrifyingly, kidnapped by an Amazonian tribe in the 1970s. The performance has McBurney ranting, whispering, running as he deals with a range of unseen characters: an insomniac young daughter, a tribal chief capable of telepathic communication, a blood-seeking rival, dinner guests.

Part of McBurney’s power comes from the dazzling technology (every member of the audience wears headphones, so that the story effectively unfolds inside our skulls). But most of his power comes from his sheer physical presence—what Goldman labels the actor’s “freedom.” McBurney’s mercurial transitions and transformations (from character to character, scene to scene, past to present) remind us of the actor’s uncanny ability to transcend time and space, to embody (and thus tame) what terrifies us, to act in the face of paralyzing events.

And, in this case, to enter, almost literally, our minds. It’s hard to describe the pleasures of experiencing a play spoken directly into the ears. I’d initially been put off by ads for the performance, thinking the last thing I wanted to do was spend two hours sitting in a theater wearing a headset (how would that work with a hearing aid?). But I’m a convert.

As Goldman writes, the actor “is a figure of fear or awe, and of extraordinary delight, by virtue of his skills, whose power is felt throughout the audience—and must be felt if we are to respond well to his acting. […] He is beyond us because he is disguised; he both is and is not himself.” McBurney’s Encounter is one of the most striking examples of this truth I’ve ever seen.

Reading the News


“Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation / Grant us thy peace.” —T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

The sky’s still here, the sun’s out, the first bulbs are sprouting in the garden. Everything seems OK. But I fear the ghosts—the demons, devils, tribes—inside us. I remember the months I spent in the archives in Spain, principally Madrid and Granada, trawling through newspapers from the early 1930s. In particular, I remember the small articles, the notices so tiny they nearly dissolved among the ads—offhand reports of edicts against Jews in Germany; accounts of random violence in Madrid. None was more than a ripple in a lake, the benign burbling of some creature breathing beneath the surface of things. No storm yet, no kettle-drum rolls, no ominous movie soundtrack. Just incremental history, as slow as a cake rising in the oven, even, sometimes, sweet-smelling.

But still. There I sat, a U.S. government grant recipient paid to study the life of a gay poet murdered by Fascists in 1936. I sat there with my crisp and eerie knowledge of what later unfolded—the gradual and then sudden suppression of rights not only in Spain but across Europe; the bombs; the round-ups; the mass graves. Blessed with a hindsight I wish I had now, I knew where those little articles led. As I read them, I made invisible underlinings, reminding myself—as we’ve been reminded lately by the likes of Masha Gessen—that this is how it happens. The tanks don’t just suddenly appear on the streets: we get there in increments.

So how do we function? Do we merely note the warning signs and hope to survive?

I remember sitting beside the open window of the reading room inside the archive in Granada (a repurposed Renaissance palace, one of the loveliest archives I’ve ever used), reading those terrible newspapers from the summer of 1936—the black headlines, the trucks, the guns, how the city morphed overnight into a battleground. I’d take a break midway through my morning and go across the street for a coffee, and sit there chatting with the bartender, and wonder how this peaceful and pretty city could have turned so abruptly into a killing zone in our own century. The barracks, the truckloads of victims ascending the steep road to the cemetery next to the Alhambra, where the firing squad waited.

And here I sit now, in my own country, sipping coffee, chatting with friends. The sun is out, the streets calm. I read the headlines and turn the page and every so often wonder if 50 years from now a scholar on a government grant will be poring over the articles I’m reading today, asking how did they not know.

How long before we enter the time of cords and scourges and lamentations? Or are we there already and just don’t see it?