Maya and the Pride

Maya was just six years old when a woman with red fingernails pushed her into a lion enclosure. The woman’s name was Antonia Shepherd, she had shoes that clacked, and long fingernails that could, and often did, cause Maya to wince with pain. Maya’s father was in love with this woman: maybe because she smelled like a department store, or maybe because she had an adorable freckle on the end of her nose. Maya often longed to peel that freckle off, but she never got the chance, and she didn’t have any freckles of her own to practice with.

“Honey, Maya and I haven’t had nearly enough bonding time. What if I took her out somewhere, just the two of us?”

Maya listened from the living room, her heart beating loud against her t-shirt. She scooted closer to the door, further away from the TV that was always on, singing gibberish cartoons at her. Antonia said the TV kept her quiet, but the TV was so much louder than Maya could be. Sometimes she wrapped a blanket around her head and pretended she was being kidnapped to get away from the noise. Today, she eavesdropped instead.

“I know that little girl of yours is a handful, and most women wouldn’t want to take their boyfriend’s daughter out like I do, but well, you know I adore her. I just want her to know it.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Dad sounded much less concerned than he should have.
“Oh, I don’t know, ice-cream, the zoo, the hairdresser?”

Maya clutched her long braid with fear. No. She loved to swing her braid and feel it slap against her face, and she hated the sound of the hair-dryer, which Antonia used every morning. She especially hated the hairdressing cape. Wearing it felt like being in the belly of a big black fish with her head poking out of its lips. No! She would not go get a haircut, especially not with that woman.

Antonia walked in, scratched her long fingernails against Maya’s scalp, and invited her out, just the two of them. Her fingers stopped Maya from turning her head to look at Dad. She could sense him though, lingering in the doorway. Her only choice was to say yes.
“Only, I don’t want a haircut.”
Antonia’s nails tightened a fraction. “Someone’s been eavesdropping,” she giggled.
Maybe, if Antonia had taken Maya to the hairdresser, things would have been different, but she didn’t. She took her to the zoo instead.

Outside, the sun was pale yellow and sweat-inducing. Maya lived in a small city in the middle of the desert, and though it was winter, it was still hot. Maya and Dad used to live in another country, but she could barely remember it. When she and Antonia got into the car, the woman blasted the A.C. until Maya was blue-lipped and shivering. Antonia saw the goose-bumps, but she didn’t turn the A.C. down and Maya refused to ask for relief. Instead, she wrapped her hand around her braid like it was a snake she could throw into the driver’s seat. They arrived at the zoo.

“Where would you like to go?” Antonia asked without looking at her.
“The crocodiles!”

But the entire reptile house was closed. From the sounds of it, a small boy had climbed into the iguana enclosure and was refusing to come down from a very high box in the top corner. The iguanas were whipping their tails at any keeper who tried to come in and get him down. This zoo was not like most others.

Maya liked the big, ferocious animals. She had no interest in the timid gazelles or the tortoises chewing leaves of lettuce with their big grandpa lips. She liked animals with teeth much sharper than her own, and claws much sharper than Antonia’s. If she couldn’t see crocodiles, lions were the next best thing.

Maya and Antonia walked over to the enclosure, and Maya felt a shiver of joy when she looked down and saw their hulking shoulders and thick paws. She wished she was a lion. She roared quietly. They were separated from the lions by a glass barrier that reached Antonia’s chest, and a gorge that made it impossible for the lions to leap up to them.

“Why don’t we take a picture to send to your Daddy?”

Antonia took out her phone and began fixing her hair in the camera. Maya looked up at her, watching with amusement as one curl stuck down stubbornly, creating a swirl on the woman’s forehead. She started to giggle until Antonia’s murderous eyes flashed down at her and swept the smile off her face. When the curl was finally smoothed back, Antonia knelt down and pulled Maya towards her so they were cheek to cheek. Maya didn’t smile.

“Why aren’t you smiling?” Antonia said, straining to keep her voice light.
Maya shrugged.
“Well, I took you here to be nice to you. The least you can do is smile.”

Maya smiled. Until Antonia pressed the button, then she quickly frowned. Antonia huffed.

“Look. Look how nice I look there, smiling. Why can’t you be a good girl and smile?”

Maya puffed her cheeks out like a blowfish in the next picture. Then crossed her eyes. Right before Antonia pressed the button, so that she wouldn’t see what she was about to do. Maya was very quick. The curl returned to Antonia’s forehead and stuck there. She dug her nails into Maya’s arm, clutching her ever closer.

“You—will—take—this—picture—nicely!” she shook the girl with every word.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to look like you,” Maya giggled.
“What?” Antonia snapped, dropping her arm, “What did you say?”
Maya wanted to take it back, Antonia’s eyes were bulging slightly.
“I just… I don’t want to look like you.”
“Why?” Antonia burst, “What’s wrong with how I look?”

A woman wearing a tennis visor and yoga pants pulled a wagon full of kids past them, and paused to give Antonia a raised eyebrow. Antonia tried to smile at her; her cheek twitched. When the woman was gone, Maya built up the courage to ask something she’d always wanted to. For once, she was having fun with Antonia.

“Can I peel your freckle off?”

Maya had been staring at it, and the urge was burning in her finger. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, her finger inched towards the woman’s face. Antonia swiped it away with a furious hiss. A stream of words came out. Maya didn’t understand much except for the end.

“—and everyone. I mean everyone. Tells me how ADORABLE. My freckle is. So, so.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She smiled like a crocodile.
“Let’s take the picture, Maya.”

Antonia lifted Maya so that she was standing on the barrier in front of the enclosure. It was sloped, not a good place to stand, not enough room for her feet. Maya tried to say so, but Antonia was lifting the phone to get both of them in the picture.

I’m not sure if Antonia intended to feed Maya to the lions from the beginning, or if it was an idea that dawned on her when she saw their yellow teeth. She loved her boyfriend, but something about his child unsettled her. Maya was always alone in her room, and Antonia could hear her, talking with different voices, thudding, shouting war-cries. Plus, who doesn’t like TV?

Maybe she didn’t mean to push her into the enclosure, or maybe she did. Either way, Maya felt a sharp elbow smack her knee, and then the ground was out from under her. She saw the sky, the glass barrier trembling, her own arms reaching out for something to grab onto. Her scream rang through the big cat section of the zoo. When she landed, the wind was knocked right out of her. Her head smacked the grass painfully, and for a moment, everything went black. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Antonia, who was peering down at her, safely behind the glass. Maya couldn’t get up, everything hurt. Then she felt the hot huff of lion breath.

When Antonia saw Maya stirring, she glanced around to see if anyone had seen the girl fall. The zoo was not busy, since it was a weekday afternoon. Nobody was around. Antonia clacked over to the pizza stand, ordered a slice, and chewed while she contemplated her next move. She rubbed her lower belly and tried to glow, the way women in her condition were supposed to. The pizza server asked if everything was okay, watching her demented smile with trepidation.
“Is the pizza not agreeing with you?”
Antonia started to retort, then simpered, “Maybe the little one doesn’t like beef-pepperoni.”
She rubbed her belly more conspicuously. The server backed away.
Antonia nodded to herself, this was as good a time as any to tell him. She clacked over to the zoo entrance, smiled at the attendant, got in her car and drove home.

Meanwhile Maya had started to regain feeling in her arms and legs. She could sense the lion nearby, but didn’t dare to look at it. Should she move? Play dead? Try to run? Before she could do anything, she felt jaws closing around her ankle. She froze. She was certain that if she screamed the lion would start to eat her right then. Her braid dragged behind her as the lion pulled her into the fake den, and down into the concrete pit underneath the enclosure.

“Hello sweetheart, I’m back!” Antonia sang at her boyfriend.
“Hey, you’re back soon, how was it?”
How that man loved that woman we’ll never know, but he did, truly.
Antonia smiled sweetly, “I have something to tell you!”
“Where’s Maya?”
“Well, she didn’t want to leave the zoo, see. But I had to tell you something and it couldn’t wait,” Antonia rubbed her belly in anticipation.
“You left my six year old daughter at the zoo, alone?”
He was getting hung up on the wrong detail. He wasn’t noticing her glow.
“Well yes, but–”
“I cannot believe this,” his face looked like thunder, “my daughter. My only daughter, who do you think you ARE?”
“I’m pregnant!”

Maya was scratched all over from where she’d been dragged against the concrete. The light was dim and her heart was pounding. If they were going to eat her, she hoped it would be quick. The lioness had dropped her like a rag-doll and was greeting an old lion that was lazing in the corner. The lion stood up, and both of them loomed over her with drooling jaws.

“What are you doing in our enclosure, human?”
The lion. It was speaking.
“Y-you can talk!”
The lion huffed, “Yes, and they never drop live meat into our enclosure, so I have to be sure. Have you been laced with poison? Is this how they finally get rid of me?”
“I hope I haven’t been poisoned. I fell in accidentally. Or, I guess, I was pushed.”
Maya told the old lion about Antonia, her clacking heels and her department store smell.
“I hate when humans wear perfume,” the lion growled.
Maya nodded, “Me too.”
There was a long, almost awkward pause. Maya felt the need to break it, the lions still looked angry.
“Wow, it’s pretty dark down here.”
“Dark, really? Do you see that light in the corner? It’s always on, always flickering and irritating my eyes. We’re mostly nocturnal you know,” the old lion said.
“Can’t you tell the zookeepers that it bothers you?”
The old lion snorted, “All they hear when I talk is growling. I learned to talk from my first owner. A girl who was a little older than you.”
“What happened to her?”

So the old lion told Maya the story of how he ended up in a zoo in the desert. Poachers came for his pride, in a place far away, with long grasses and wide open space. He heard gunshots and he tried to run. He got left behind. The poachers put him in a cage, and the cage went on a plane, and the plane landed here, where a man kept him in an apartment and fed him cat food, which made him feel very sick. Finally, the man put the lion in a cardboard box with holes, and when it was opened, the lion saw the smiling face of a girl in a party hat.

“You got me a lion cub?” she squealed.

The girl had never been so happy, and neither had the lion, except for during his days in the wild. But he was growing too fast, and one day the girl’s Dad put him in the back of their car, and walked him on a leash into the zoo.

“I’m not the only one. All the lions here have a story like me. And the cheetahs too.”
Maya felt anger bubbling in her stomach. She was so angry that she forgot the scrapes on her skin and the aches from where she’d fallen. She sat up and felt her head spin.
“This isn’t fair! We’ve got to do something.”
The lion roared his agreement, and Maya heard the echoes of other lions roaring back. There were at least thirty lions down there in cages, hidden from the public.

Maya’s father sprinted through the zoo, calling her name. The girl was nowhere to be found. Antonia trotted reluctantly behind him. She didn’t see why he would miss Maya when she was providing a brand new kid for him.
“Where did you leave her?” he growled.
“By the lions,” Antonia said.
They arrived in the big cats section, and Maya’s father skidded to a stop, unsure of where to look. Then, both of them heard a squealing child who was standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking in.
“Look Mummy! Look!”
“Yes, lions,”
“Look, look, there’s a girl!”

The child’s mother let out a soul-tearing scream when she saw Maya cartwheeling for the lions. The scream was so loud that Antonia was sure Maya was done for, and hurried over, doing her best to look concerned.

When she saw Maya riding on the back of a lion, she knew she was toast. She let out a shrill little scream of her own. Maya’s father was pale, and swayed like he might fall over. Maya looked up at them, smiled and waved.
“Don’t worry Daddy, I’m okay!”
Maya returned to the lions as she grew older, and told the zookeepers their grievances with the food and the lack of space. In exchange, the keepers let her play in the enclosure after visiting hours. They called her Maya The Lion Tamer, and though she hated Antonia, Maya loved her new baby brother when he arrived.

Maya also befriended the boy who lived in the iguana enclosure… but that’s another story for another time.

Artwork by Icinori

Paula Rego’s Delightful Violence

The Pain and Wonder of Childhood in Paula Rego’s Peter Pan Illustrations

Underneath a sky of milky stars and a doubled moon, Paula Rego imagines a mermaid drowning Wendy; the beloved “little mother” who was first written by J.M. Barrie in 1904 and then appropriated by Disney in 1953. Wendy half-floats, her body sprawled and still visible through a transparent black sea. She is not resisting the violence being enacted on her, and the mermaid doesn’t seem to be using much force. If Wendy is not dead already, she has accepted her looming death with a sad kind of nobility. This scene never occurs in the original novel. By situating a drowning inside a beloved and well-known children’s tale, Paula Rego reminds the viewer of an uncomfortable truth: childhood is not a landscape free from exploitation or violence. Rego’s Peter Pan illustrations are an exploration of the danger of childhood: a danger that is present in every adaptation of this text, even if it is forgotten or ignored. Rego makes explicit the trauma already lurking in this story, but she also manages to maintain the magic of Neverland, an element of this series that is often forgotten by scholars of her work. Fairy tales like Peter Pan do not create idealized, safe places for children that Rego is simply destroying by bringing in danger from the “outside” world; fairy tales have always been fraught with a danger that Rego brings to the forefront.

Academic Jack Zipes argues that Rego’s images “suggest that the world is discombobulated, and that childhood is a period of abuse and danger for children.” The mermaid lagoon is not free from the dangers that adults face, and neither is Wendy. The mermaid is larger and more powerful than her: she has two strong tails, a broad muscular back and rippling shoulders. Wendy, by comparison, is limp and lanky, only half the size of the mermaid, and is being pushed down into a black sea with nobody in sight to rescue her. Zipes calls this image of the mermaid drowning Wendy “brutal,” and in her monograph, Paula Rego, Fiona Bradley refers to this mermaid as having a “savage determination,” to kill Wendy. Critic Rosenthal argues that “Wendy for once is a helpless child rather than a solid nurturing female… Rego’s version of a siren of the deep is about as unalluring as she could be.” Yet all three critics neglect to address the calm beauty of the image, the nuances of the violence being enacted and how the characters are reacting to it.

At first glance and partially because of the title, we know the mermaid is drowning Wendy. She is undoubtedly being pushed down into water by a threatening figure. So we expect to see something brutal or savage. But Rego subverts that expectation. There is no splashing, no struggle, no fear. The sky creates a starry backdrop that looks sublime and peaceful rather than sinister. The mermaid is strong, but there is no anger on her face, her expression rather oscillates between sadness and grim determination. Her mouth could be firmly closed with a concentrated brow, or her mouth is open and grimacing with sad, upturned eyebrows, expressing regret or worry. It depends on how the viewer sees the image. If Wendy was cropped out, the mermaid could merely be doing manual labour, or massaging a lover, based on her posture and expression.

Wendy is not fighting for her life, either because she is already dead or because she has no desire to fight. Her left arm rests against the mermaid’s tail, and her right arm floats upwards, her hand awkwardly bent out of the water. Her face and ears seem to be out of the water, leading to the question of why the mermaid isn’t pushing her down by the head. Wendy seems oddly reliant on her murderer to stay afloat. Her legs are spread in a way that resembles some of the women in Rego’s “Untitled. The Abortion Pastels” series such as the one below.

“Untitled,” Paula Rego

Wendy is vulnerable specifically as a young girl. The more the viewer looks at the image of her and the mermaid, the more maternal the mermaid seems. She transforms into a mother who is simultaneously pushing her daughter down and keeping her alive. She doesn’t seem to want to kill Wendy — she easily could if she wanted to — and if Wendy is already dead then the question becomes: why is the mermaid still holding her up?

Behind the two figures, the pole on Marooners’ rock is the only sign of a male presence, where the pirates will later tie Tiger Lily in an attempt to murder her. This conveniently phallic object looms over both women like a flagpole, looking down on them. Not only is Rego pointing out the existence of trauma in a child’s world through this drowning, she is depicting its nuances. Sometimes it is beloved, trusted figures who enact violence on children. Sometimes one kind of violence is the only way to spare a child from another worse kind. The image of abuse can also be painted as hauntingly beautiful; throughout the Peter Pan illustrations, however, Rego shows that pain and beauty can coexist in one moment.

Jack Zipes argues that art made in reaction to fairy tales serves to undo their imagined utopias. Artists such as Rego use the fairy tale “to pierce artificial illusions that make it difficult for people to comprehend what is happening to them.” But I disagree with the assumption that fairy tales seek to create a utopia, or “soothe an anxious mind,” as Zipes calls it. In fact, much of what is explicit in Rego’s mermaid image is implicit in both Barrie’s and Disney’s versions. In Barrie’s novel, Wendy and the mermaids do not have a good relationship– they present a threat to her, “she never had a civil word from them… they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then.”

In the play version of this story, also by Barrie, Peter warns, “They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.” Their threat to Wendy is distant under Peter’s protection, but it still lurks. This fairy tale specifically warns against groups of women who live together outside of a patriarchal structure. Wendy is better off being a “young mother” than risking the unknown amongst the mermaids. The Disney adaptation picks up on this fear of autonomous women and makes it more explicit by heightening the mermaids’ threat: they grab Wendy’s clothes, try to pull her down, and splash her. When Peter tells them to stop, one mermaid declares, “we were only trying to drown her.” Rego takes this fear of autonomous women, embedded in the original text and the film, and uses it to show how women fear each other and hold each other down.

In her article “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” academic Gabriela Macedo points out how Rego violates the invisible boundaries that demarcate what can and cannot be criticised: “Rego’s career has been devoted to crossing into forbidden territories (fascism, Catholicism, patriarchy); while her rewriting of national memory aims at exorcising fear, as well as exposing guilt and hypocrisy… makes it at the very least difficult not to see.” I would extend her argument to include childhood and fairy tales as other forbidden territories that Rego violates. Childhood is treated like something sacred, and adults expect children to behave in certain ways because of their own imaginations of what it means to be a child. Fiona Bradley argues, “Rego’s subjects refuse to conform to what might be expected of them, courting ambiguity so that their situations remain mobile… tender embraces are easily confused with violent struggle.” It would be nice to imagine childhood as a period of simplicity and tenderness, but Rego uses ambiguity to violate this imagined utopia that is dreamed up in the minds of adults. In the Peter Pan series, Rego makes explicit what already anxiously lurks in fairy tales. And she violates tacit understandings that we all collectively imagine childhood as something pure, and free from trauma.

In Rego’s illustration “Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock,” a young girl in a loose white dress calmly allows herself to be bound to a rock that will soon be deep underwater. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are closed, but we know that she is awake because she squats against the rock rather than sprawls against it. Her captor is an unsmiling male figure who is emerging from the strange black shape around them, presumably Marooners Rock itself. Both he and the rock are black: parts of his body are disappearing into it, and he appears more statuesque than the other characters, creating the impression that he is a part of the rock coming to life, or has been carved out of it for the purpose of binding captives.

Two boys watch Tiger Lily’s demise with curiosity, and two mermaids do nothing to come to her aid. Similar to “Mermaid Drowning Wendy,” the violence of this image is doubtless. Tiger Lily is trapped on a rock where she will eventually die, and nobody seems interested in rescuing her, even though they easily could. Yet Rego once again subverts expectations about how violence is supposed to look, and what it can mean.

Tiger Lily, like Wendy, does nothing to resist the violence being enacted on her. Her captor has no true legs to chase her with, and he is just about to finish tying her up. So how did he force her into that position in the first place? If someone else brought her there, then why isn’t he tying her himself, and making sure that she doesn’t escape? Tiger Lily looks neither scared nor sad about her future death, and her expression remains peaceful, perhaps even joyful. If she wanted to escape, she could have easily wriggled away from the animate rock-man. So it seems that she has decided to allow this violence to happen. Maybe she even sought it out herself; maybe she enjoys it. This intersection between pleasure and pain is not supposed to occur in children’s stories because it is usually seen as disturbing or sexual. Seeing a young girl getting pleasure from violence is a violation of our collective imagination of childhood. Macedo writes about Rego’s violation of Catholicism and patriarchy, arguing that, “Whether ‘the mater’ confronts directly gender or games of power, social and political hierarchies, it always ‘defies the pain’ and gives the viewer no solace, but… a tantalizing sense of pleasure and threat.” Tiger Lily, as a child, experiences both pleasure and threat in a violent world. She is playing a game that we usually think children are exempt from.

In the background of this illustration, at a strangely small scale, a silhouetted male figure points a rifle at a mermaid tail, which is diving into the piece of land he is standing on, or into the water behind it. The presence of the mermaids to the right of the picture makes it clear that the tail is a mermaid and not a very large fish, so it is definitely a female being hunted. The image is easy to miss, but it presents a foil to Tiger Lily’s behaviour. She may have sought out the violence she is experiencing, but the mermaid runs away from it.The viewer then returns to wondering why Tiger Lily is so complicit in her own trauma.

It is possible that she desires this pain and enjoys it, but that does not make her passive or powerless. Rosenthal argues that in this image, “Rego depicts her [Tiger Lily] as just another helpless female, which is doubtless legitimate considering her plight. One would, however, have enjoyed seeing what Rego might have made of this feisty Redskin woman warrior… had she chosen to depict her in one of her more militant moments.” Rosenthal doesn’t acknowledge the power of Tiger Lily’s choice in the face of violence. Instead of being afraid, she embraces trauma and appropriates it for her own use; Rego could have illustrated this female warrior in a fight, but she chose to depict a more nuanced situation where Tiger Lily remains somewhere between freedom and constraint, despite literal bonds. She is not “just another helpless female.” Her decision to find pleasure in trauma is an act of resistance, an alternative to militancy, and a representation of how some women and girls find freedom under immense patriarchal constraint.

Tiger Lily and Wendy are both young girls who are threatened by violence. It is a threat that is implicit in Barrie’s fairy tale and exists in the lives of real children. It would be wonderful to imagine that childhood is a utopia free from trauma, but fairy tales have always hinted at the vulnerability of children and the horrors they face. Rego draws out the danger that lurks in Neverland: where female monsters drown children, men tie little girls to poles, boys shoot girls out of the sky, and a grown man is obsessed with capturing and killing a young boy. Rego’s work complicates and amplifies the anguish of childhood, whilst maintaining another seemingly paradoxical truth, which is that fairy tales, childhood and trauma are often also beautiful.

Rosenthal, T.G. Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Works. London: Thames and Hudson. 2012.
Grey, Tobias. “Paula Rego’s Dark Fairy Tales,” Blouin Art Info.
Macedo, Gabriela. “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” University of Wisconsin Press.
Peter Pan (film). Walt Disney. 1953.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The Folio Society. 1992.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Aladdin Paperbacks. 2003.
Zipes, Jack, The Irresistible Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press. 2012.
Bradley, Fiona, Paula Rego. Tate Publishing. 2002.
Miller, Sandra, “Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes,” Print Quarterly Publications. 1991.
Rosenthal, T.G. “On Art and Essays” Andrews UK. 2014.
Fortnum, Rebecca, Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words. Taurus & Co. 2006.

Mermaid Drowning Wendy, Paula Rego (1992).
Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock, Paula Rego (1992).

Cover art by Paula Rego “Captain Hook and a Lost Boy”

Doris Salcedo’s “Plegaria Muda”

“Plegaria Muda”:  An Anti-Memorial for Young People Who Experience Daily Violence and Trauma

        The teacher pulls the blinds down, covers the small glass window on the door with black paper, and twists the lock shut. The lights are off. The class stands together against the corner of the room closest to the door. One student wonders whether black paper would really fool a shooter into thinking a classroom is empty. Another is secretly relieved to be at the centre of a huddle of bodies. But this is only a drill, a regularity in North America since the Columbine shooting in 1999, and it will be over soon. The same cannot be said for youth who experience regular violence in their country or community.

        In her work, “Plegaria Muda,” which loosely translates as ‘silent prayer’, Doris Salcedo brings together gang violence experienced by youth in Los Angeles, and violence experienced by youth living in the rural parts of Colombia. Whether the victim is a student crouched in a classroom, or a teenager hiding from the Colombian army, the sound of a shooter’s footsteps leaves them powerless to do anything but say a silent prayer. These experiences result in trauma and loss that may look the same to an outsider. The number of victims in each scenario is overwhelming. Salcedo confronts the desensitization that occurs when there are so many victims by creating an anti-memorial.

Traditional memorialization is not empathetic because it converts victims into numbers and representations of a circumstance that is over, a move that leads society to forget the individuality of those who have suffered. When a viewer has not actually experienced the circumstances being represented, memorials become distant and easy to walk away from. But it is much harder to turn away from a human story. Salcedo’s work mourns these victims, but it also creates a deep discomfort with the idea of collectivising their experiences, insisting that we remember each of them singularly, and dig for the humanity in familiar images of tragedy.

        “Plegaria Muda” is made up of a series of hand-crafted tables, one resting normally on the ground with the other placed on top on its back. Between the two tables, there is a layer of soil with seeds of grass planted, which grow up through the wood over time. The immediate impression is that of a graveyard, with coffins buried in a transparent ground. The viewer cannot step over the graves but must walk half-sunk among them. However, there is another image that gets screened onto the viewer’s imagination as she walks through the space. Each sculpture also looks like one desk piled on top of another for a long school break. The viewer can either imagine herself in a graveyard or an empty classroom. Like in her other works, Salcedo does not pair the tables with chairs. The table is then stripped of its function, and the absence of the chair creates a question of what else is missing. Where is the student who sits there? While desks bring youth, education and potential to mind, coffins connote the end of those potentials. In the imaginary space between the desk and the coffin, there is the nameless, faceless child buried in the soil.  

The number of graves is overwhelming, and as the viewer meanders through them, the path becomes less clear and the journey across the room more convoluted. At first the coffins may seem like identical replicas representing a massive tragedy, and in one sense they are meant to portray a magnitude of suffering. However, the desks are not identical. Each one is hand-crafted, and while they look similar they are actually in various shades of colour mixed by Salcedo’s team. In the face of senseless violence, it is easy to become desensitized to individual suffering, but her work insists on maintaining nuance.

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” in Berlin uses coffin imagery to overwhelm the viewer, and may seem similar to Salcedo’s work. It is also a kind of maze that the viewer is plunged into and must navigate. Upon entrance, the coffins begin waist-high, and from the outside it seems that they are all this height. Then they rise as you walk towards the middle of the work, creating the feeling that you are sinking. Each grave in the memorial is the same, aside from their differing heights. Once the viewer understands the message of the work, it is easy to walk away because there is not much else to look at, there is no individual detail on any of the graves, and the story that is being told creates a single sweeping narrative. There is no human story, no nuance. The victims are converted into their circumstance, one that the viewer understands fleetingly while she sinks, and then sets aside.

The Berlin Memorial tries to put the viewer into the metaphorical state of the victim, sinking into inescapable sky-less entrapment. But putting the viewer “into the victim’s shoes” is not how empathy works. Salcedo’s work comparatively urges you to stop and look at the differences and details, reminding you that each coffin contains an individual. The initial image that her work creates is familiar — you are in a graveyard. Once you are drawn in and comfortable, the differences between each table become apparent. It is much harder to walk away from a piece that challenges you to discover the hints of humanity in an otherwise desensitizing experience. To pay attention is a true act of empathy, and it’s one that her work demands in juxtaposition with the traditional memorial.

        “Plegaria Muda” was born out of Salcedo’s realization that the victims and perpetrators of gang violence share socioeconomic circumstances that result in a lack of empathy from broader society: the victims are faceless gangsters, who bring violence onto themselves. In an interview with art historian Tim Marlowe, Salcedo states, “These young men, before they were physically killed they were socially killed because they were living in marginal areas… and we don’t mourn them because we think they are gangsters … We ought to mourn every single life.” Salcedo also visited mass graves in Colombia and interviewed the mothers of young men who had gone missing. By putting these two tragedies in conversation, the work points out their similarities and problematizes the ways we think about the “other” in relation to violence. Youth in parts of L.A. have been deemed unworthy of help or empathy; they are imagined as an island apart from the America that society pays attention to. Similarly, Colombian youth are marginalized because they come from a country that has a history of violence so people have become numb to their tragedies. The work accuses society of thinking of them as incapable or inherently violent, and refusing to pay attention to their potential.

        The grass that grows through each piece has a double meaning similar to the tables themselves. It reminds the viewer of tenacity and strength. Salcedo calls each blade a miracle. It seems so unlikely that a delicate plant could find its way to the light through such heavy and unyielding material. Yet Salcedo points out that it also resembles the grass that grows around the walls of a ruin. While disenfranchised groups of people survive trauma every day and somehow continue living, that does not negate the loss of those who do not survive. North American youth in affluent neighbourhoods may be bored or made nervous by lock-down drills. Violence does not often creep into their backyards, but society empathizes with their fear. The potential in young people who are less privileged is destroyed every day, and Salcedo’s work demands at the very least, a restless discomfort with that fact.

“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) 2016” Nasher Sculpture Center, 2016. (Youtube)
“Doris Salcedo on A Flor de Peil and Plegaria Muda,”, 2012.
“Plegaria Muda,”Grynsztein, Madeline and Rodrigues-Widholm Julie. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2015.
“Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-10,” Brinson, Katherine., 2015
“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda at MUAC,” Vernissage TV, 2011. (Youtube)

Drag the Red

In a seventh grade classroom
a little white girl allows her
wandering mind to slip
onto the desk–
a fat wet sound
her fingers squeeze it absently
her eyes on the windowpane, soft
as fallen snow.

Public-school girl will not
(is not supposed to)
listen or remember teacher talk
“The bloody falls massacre…”
A river clinks with coppermine
Indians called Inuits
stealthy, slit, shot,
the pleasure of killing
a savage
the water runs red with copper
salty blood.

It is a history taught once
to twelve-year-olds turned
Canadians who call us
“Indigenous People”
Imagine us Pocahontasing
far away in time or
across more northern roads in
red places
I am a First Nations woman.

I only live
in history class.

Meanwhile, volunteers drag that
churning river for my bloated body.
I am blue lipped
skin, bubbles
trailing behind an orange raft
my hair waves tendrils of black ink in a
mirthful mud play
I lick the Winnipeg riverbed and
spout water when
Drag the Red Searchers Get
Grim Lesson on Finding, Identifying Bones

They drop hooks and chains into
water into history into news–
recorded as an overdose
all my fingernails were pulled out of
my body
was black and blue.

The cities are not safe for me either
in Canada in 2015, a quarter of
all women murdered
were Indigenous.

I play with the goldeye
it whiskers my cheeks fish kissing
nibbles my watery flesh from bone
leave me to my calcium
and collagen frame
scatter me so
I remain

So that I only die
in history class.

Artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Wheel

This story was originally published in NYU Gallatin’s platform, Confluence.

The year was 2005. The summer was hot, the tourists were stupid, and Coney Island spun like liquid sugar in a cotton candy machine. Andy was twelve and her brother Marcus was ten. He was tugging her by the wrist towards the Ferris wheel. Everything was bright and winking as they passed a carnival game with a man trying to convince customers to play.

“Three tries to get this ball into a bucket. Three tries and you can win a big prize!”

Andy felt a trickle of sweat slide from the back of her knee down the soft fuzz of hair on her calf.

She glanced at the prizes, which were a series of dead-eyed stuffed animals in a net hung above the man’s head. She longed to cut them down and set them free; it had been a while since anyone had won that game. She could smell the dust. Even if she’d wanted to play, she didn’t have any money to waste. At the next stall, a girl wearing a plaid mini-skirt was selling temporary tattoos and pumping Missy Elliot.

Automatic, supersonic, hypnotic, funky fresh (Ha!)
Work my body, so melodic, this beat rolls through my chest (Yup)

Beside her, Marcus sang along loudly, proud that he knew the words well enough to say them on time. Andy hated his singing, and hated the eyes of the people who watched them as he got louder. She told him to “shut up!” and he pinched the inside of her palm as a response, so she jerked her hand away.

Marcus teased her as they walked.

“You’re scared, you’re too chicken for the wheel. You know I heard one time someone shook the carriage so much—”

Andy turned her head and tried to walk away from him, but still heard when he added,“that it swung off and smashed to the ground.”

Andy pictured a can of tuna she’d seen on the side of a highway once. That was back when her parents still took them places. Now they were always exploding into fights when Mom wasn’t sleeping or staring at the TV. You haven’t moved in three days. You need to shower Lydia. Are you listening? Dad was always working. He had barely answered when Andy asked for his permission to go to Coney Island alone with Marcus, but he’d left them some money on the table before leaving that morning, so they had taken that as his blessing.

Andy looked at the wheel and felt nauseous. There was something evil about it, the way it loomed over everything, like a clown that had once towered over her when she was little. It looked rusty. Every so often a shriek pierced the air. She didn’t feel as confident as she had when they left that morning.

“Can’t we just go to the beach?” she pleaded.

Marcus shook his head. She knew she was doomed to ride, especially when they arrived at the ticket booth.

“Two tickets!” Marcus said, pushing his half of the money through.

The money disappeared and two green pieces of paper slid out on their backs, pushed by long fingertips. Marcus snatched them up and he and Andy joined the line to the wheel.

“Still scared?” he teased.

Andy refused to talk to him after that, so Marcus struck up a conversation with a group of older kids standing in front of them.

In front of them, a woman with roses twisting along her forearm in a faded tattoo bounced a toddler on her hip. The line shifted forward. A man, maybe the baby’s Father, stood behind them and made faces at the baby, who periodically reacted or squirmed towards him to be held. Eventually the woman gave in and passed the baby over; it immediately grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair. The woman, the man and Andy all laughed. When the couple looked at her, Andy’s breath caught like a hard stone in her throat and she turned on the spot to stare at a poster. The line shifted forward. Andy didn’t turn around until she felt that the heat had safely faded from her face. Marcus glared at her because he hated not getting attention. Andy looked pointedly at the floor. The line shifted again so Andy, Marcus and three older kids were finally at the front.

Marcus handed Andy one of the tickets when the gate opened again.

“I’m gonna ride with these guys,” he said, and then he sprung into the carriage with them. The ticket collector closed the gate behind him, so Andy would have to ride with three strangers.

It was the meanest thing he’d ever done to her, and she felt a cresting wave of weight funnel into her throat and push with a deep ache behind her eyes. From the carriage, Marcus looked at her, and she could see regret already on his face when their eyes met. They both knew he wouldn’t shout a “sorry!” in front of those older kids though.

Andy threw him her angriest look as the carriage moved up and then she walked through the gate into the next one. She slumped in the corner and three girls climbed in after her. They were sisters, and they were bickering about something. When they noticed Andy, which took a surprising amount of time, they got quiet and this was much worse.

From the top of the Ferris wheel, which always felt like it was rocking dangerously, Andy looked down at the carnival. The airplanes on a nearby ride rose and fell and whizzed below. Things were brightly painted and swaying. Rihanna’s new song, Pon De Replay, was carried to her ears and then left soon after on the wind. On the beach, people were tanning or swimming or playing volleyball. The ride seemed to stretch on forever as she edged further from the strangers beside her.

Andy finally stepped off the wheel with an attitude prepared. Anger had surpassed betrayal now. She was too angry to cry, so she would shout at him. She would threaten to tell Dad, unless Marcus came to the beach with her and stayed there all day. Dad didn’t like to hear their whining voices after work. He would yell, and Marcus did anything to avoid Dad’s yelling.
She would take his cotton candy money too. She glanced around the exit and felt another surge of irritation. Marcus wasn’t standing there. He was supposed to be standing there. He was supposed to be leaning on the grate looking bashful and sorry. She whipped her head from side to side, her anger growing. Surely, he wouldn’t have left with those older boys for the whole day? What was she supposed to do? She leaned on the grate, not wanting to look stupid standing there. She hated him. Hated.

Andy looked around, feeling more stupid by the second. There was no way she could have gotten off the ride before him. There were no other exits… she glanced around to double check. No, this was the only place he should be. She felt a bubble of something other than anger, but shoved it down. She was angry. It was right to be angry.

Andy stomped over to the cotton candy machine and stood in line, waiting. He would see her here, when he came back with his tail between his legs. It was still close to the wheel. He would see her.

She ripped the cotton candy into pieces and let it melt on her tongue. She waited. She walked circles around the wheel. She bumped into the woman with the rose tattoo. She recognized one of the older kids who Marcus had ridden the Ferris wheel with, but she was too embarrassed to ask where he might be. How long had she been waiting?

Andy wanted to ask her parents for a watch for her birthday. Not an expensive one, just a kiddy one so she could tell the time. She envied her older cousin Lily’s cell phone, which could call and text and tell time, but she was way too young, and her family was way too poor, to ask for that. Marcus would remind Dad about her birthday, Marcus was good at remembering birthdays.

Another bubble of something rose in her chest and she pushed it down again. Marcus would jump out from where he was hiding soon. He’d apologize. She had the strange urge to shout for him.

Had she missed him somehow when she went to buy the cotton candy? The sugar glass burbled in her stomach like a witch’s brew. She felt green. She went up to the ticket booth.

“Excuse me have you seen my brother?” she gestured to the place where the top of his head landed when they stood side by side to compare heights. He was as tall as her temple. Her voice sounded weak.

“What does he look like?” the ticket seller asked Andy, a little impatient. There was a line forming behind her.

“Curly hair. He looks… like me, but he’s a boy. He’s funny and… maybe he wanted to go on the haunted house ride?”

The ticket seller shook her head, “I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of boys today.”

Andy noticed a beetle edging its way across the window of the ticket booth. It twitched its wings and it paused when it reached a dead fly crusted into the sill. Someone pushed past her to shove his money through the window. “Five tickets”. Andy allowed herself to be moved aside. Or maybe she stepped aside herself.

She walked to the front of the park, in case he was waiting for her there. Had they ever set a place to meet if they got separated? They might have said the hot-dog stand. She checked there. There was a boy with curly hair. Marcus! She stepped forward, and then he turned around. He wasn’t Marcus. She imagined her guts crawling up into her mouth and splattering on the ground. Everything was too loud. She kept thinking about Marcus’ story of the rocking people who got smushed at the bottom of the wheel, like tuna run over by a transport truck.

I’ll take you to the candy shop (yeah)
Boy, one taste of what I got (uh-huh)

The sun was much lower in the sky now. She thought of what her Dad would say if she showed up at home without her brother. She pictured a home without him. No. Marcus was already home, trying to wake Mom up. Sometimes he got worried about Mom and crawled into bed to watch TV with her. He said he was trying to make sure Mom didn’t forget about them. A group of tourists crowded around her. Andy could tell they were tourists because they blinked slow and stupid. If they’d been from New York they wouldn’t have dressed up so much for Coney Island. What if she couldn’t find him all night? Where was he?

Andy felt a surge of sick heat hit the backs of her knees and she sunk to the floor in front of the hotdog stand, with the pigeon poop. She was supposed to go tell someone now. She pictured Marcus’ face, his laugh. She smelled blood. People were looking at her. She stood up.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Andy gulped, she didn’t want to cry in front of a stranger. She couldn’t say the word ‘brother’ or the word ‘missing’. Across the road a man was stumbling around in a long black trench coat, slurring nonsense words and shouting.

“I’m good, thank you,” the words came out in a gasp. She’d find him herself. The stranger’s eyebrows came together and Andy sensed the adult’s impulse to intervene. She smiled. One corner of the mouth, then the other. She willed her lips not to shake.

“Where are your–”

Before the adult could finish that question, Andy sprinted back into the park. She kept the smile on her face, but people still looked at her funny so she slowed to a walk. She passed the same mini-skirt girl. She wiped her wet cheeks.

And Sugar, we’re going down swinging
I’ll be your number one with a bullet …

Marcus liked Fall Out Boy and Marcus liked macaroni. Marcus liked transformer toys. He liked Kim Possible and The Proud Family. He liked watching Prison Break with Mom when Dad wasn’t home to tell them no. It’s fucked up that you’d let him watch this crap, Lydia. Are you listening? Did you notice that your son was watching that? Andy passed two strangers talking to each other in low voices, their hands exchanged a small clear bag with something in it, and a wad of money. Marcus knew how to make scrambled eggs. Marcus learned how to ride a bike before Andy did and he could ride it with one hand. Marcus could whistle and blow bubble gum. Marcus hated cucumber and he could get Mom to eat on the days when everyone else gave up. Marcus liked hot wheels and his tamagotchi had only died twice since he got it. There was a needle mixed in with the broken glass on the pavement.

Andy stumbled into a man who smelled like pee and dodged under his arm and his leering grin. She found herself on the beach. She wanted to go somewhere that nobody would look at her or hear her. She couldn’t say those words. My brother is gone. My brother. My…

A woman shouted in Andy’s face when she knocked into her. Andy stared back blankly until the woman walked away. Andy closed her eyes and walked into the water still wearing her tennis shoes. Marcus liked to swim doggy paddle. Marcus with those stupid goggles that stretched his stupid face. Mom taught them both how to doggy paddle before she stopped going outside. Andy walked in the water towards the pier. It got too rocky so she clambered up the beach and into the shade. There were fewer people here. Someone was asleep under a tarp. It smelled like rotten fish.

It was her fault. She was the one who had been so sure that the money on the table was for Coney Island. Dad never actually said it was okay. Dad didn’t talk much these days but she should’ve made sure. She should’ve known it wasn’t safe for a little kid like Marcus. He was just a little kid. The sun sank lower in the sky and the waves bit at the shore.

When bad things happened at home, Marcus always slept in her bed, and the sound of him sleeping made it all easier. When they woke up things were usually better. When Dad forgot to buy food and didn’t come home, Marcus went around to the neighbours asking for leftovers. The sand was crusted on Andy’s shoes. They would be hard to wash. Dad would be angry.

The man under the tarp woke up and looked directly at her with pure black eyes. Andy felt sick. Her and Marcus were supposed to be home now, Dad would be home now, and she should have gone to a police officer. She couldn’t stand it. She scuttled backwards towards the pier when the man wasn’t looking. She crawled into the dark space underneath the pier and listened to her own breaths. It got dark outside. She realized she wasn’t alone under there.

Andy fell asleep and woke up crying and cold.

His face with a smile on it. Gone. Lost kid on a milk box. Eggs in a bowl with a fork. Hot wheels. She shook. What if he was. He liked those toys. Dead eye prize in a net. He can blow gum and snap. Can you hear me you bitch? He fed Mom. He rode his bike with one hand. He liked shows. Your son saw that. A bug on the sill. Gone.

If he was gone her Mom would die and her Dad would leave.

Someone was calling her name.

It was so dark and she was very cold. She could not go home. Not if he was gone. More voices. Under the pier was rustling with other people. Angry shadows around her. Shadows like people on the prison break show. Her teeth felt glued together. If Dad found her she’d have to tell him. She felt the sharp jab of a finger in her back and she ignored it.


A voice that sounded like it was full of sand spoke right behind her ear, “Are they looking for you?”

In her head she screamed. Run! Towards her name and away from the sharp finger. She couldn’t move. It was like her whole body had pins and needles.

“Andy!” another voice sounded closer.

A hand grabbed her by the hair and lifted her into a sitting position. The hand smelled bad.

“I said are the police fucking looking for you?”

She didn’t answer.

“Hey! We can’t have some missing kid here. Do you know how much shit we could be in?” the voice said.

Andy tried to squirm away from the face so close to hers, but the hand was tangled in her hair.

“Andy, please!”
That was Marcus. Marcus’ voice. Marcus.
He was safe. He was here.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

Fever Drain

Cleo woke up in the night to feel the gentle shift of her husband pressed against her elbow. She had been sleeping flat on her stomach, like she did on most nights. Her sleep was all elbows and pillow creases on her face, and a river of drool that she was still eager to hide from him. She was not an easy person to sleep beside, she knew that. Neither was he.

She shuffled away from him and the room changed from charcoal to wooly grey as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. God he was warm. She moved the duvet off one of her legs to expose it to the air, then put a hand on his back and felt the cotton soaked in sweat. She had the strong urge to cough, a kind of rumbling in her chest. He was often this hot in the night. They kept the room cold but he still burned up and she couldn’t seem to get used to his heat. It was like sleeping next to a fever. It made her feel like she had the flu.

This was a part of the night that she used to relish, but he liked to sleep early, and he liked to sleep next to somebody. She imagined herself slipping out of bed, smoking a cigarette on the balcony and watching the city below, or better, walking in it. How long had it been since she ventured out into the city on her own feet? But he would wake up if he felt the bed empty.

She noticed how small he seemed on the bed next to her. Was it his head that looked childlike? He was shorter than her, a fact that they both avoided talking about. Not too much shorter, but just enough to see it in pictures when they posed side by side. He’d taken to putting his arm around her and dragging her in front of him, tilting her like a heavy human shield. In so many of their pictures she was balancing on one foot, or standing lower than him on a slope. They never talked about it. Just like they never talked about his nighttime fevers or the few times he had caught her texting other men. It was always texting, nothing more, and it only happened before they were married. Still, it would have been nice, to talk about it.

They say that in dreams you cannot feel physical pain, but that’s not true. In one dream, Cleo felt her ribs compressing until they snapped and splintered. It made her afraid to sleep.

When her husband finally woke up, he kissed her on the cheek and Cleo sprang out of bed and into the bathroom. She opened the medicine cabinet, tipped her head back and took four big gulps of the cough syrup she found there. The bottle recommended two tablespoons.

She accidentally poured the last of the cereal into his bowl instead of hers.

“You don’t want any?” he asked.

“I’m not hungry,” she said, ripping a banana off the bunch.

“You should eat something.”

He wasn’t looking at her. The cough syrup was starting to feel pleasant in her body and the room swayed a bit. She tossed the peel along with half the banana.

“I’m going for the paper,” he said, after he had finished eating.

She lifted each corner of her mouth and tried to make her eyes shine at him, the way they used to. He looked at her and then looked away without smiling back.

Then suddenly, he shifted, or slid, or perhaps there was simply a glitch. It doesn’t really matter how it happened, but he got smaller. Not a lot smaller, only enough that she or his mother would notice. It was like he was a picture being reformatted on a computer. The picture wasn’t cropped, one corner had just been dragged inwards. His bowl and spoon were closer to him now, he bumped his spoon against his chin, but otherwise he didn’t seem to notice the resizing.

“Maybe, I mean, could I come with you? To get the paper?” she asked.

He stared. “Why? Is there something you need?”

“Can’t I go for a walk with my husband?”

Her answer made him more suspicious. Finally, she said she wanted tampons, he was always buying the wrong kind. She said she wanted to choose the package herself. Really, she hadn’t had her period for a while. Another thing they didn’t talk about.

His hand looked sickly and small as he gripped the keys, slotted one into the lock and turned it, with a little more difficulty than when he’d been his normal size. She had to walk slower than normal, to avoid accidentally leading him. He hated being led.

The shrinking happened whenever she wasn’t looking at him, but it wasn’t all of him that shrank every time. He stepped over a sickly pigeon and all of his head shrank except for the nose. Now the nose looked weird on his face. Cleo found a pill in her purse and dry swallowed it when he wasn’t looking. It stayed in her throat until they reached the corner store. By the time they got there, his arms were shorter, his thighs were thinner and his thumbs looked like they belonged to a child. The store-owner didn’t notice.

“Didn’t you want to get your, uh, stuff?” her husband said, once he was ready to pay.

A big shrink happened then. His hands zoomed into his arms, which shot backwards into his shoulders, his neck squished into his torso and his legs shot up into his stomach. What a small man. His nose barely reached the shop counter. She put her stuff beside his.

When they returned to their apartment he was so small that he had to clamber up the stairs. He refused her help, and the journey took them until the late afternoon. She had to pretend the stairs were equally challenging for her that day. He shrank to pocket-size. They sat on the couch together, and she was careful not to shift the cushions, otherwise she might have buried him. Then she had an idea.

“I want to have sex,” she said.

He nearly choked trying to cover his surprise.

Cleo remembered one great night they’d had that started as a bad date. It was so bad that it should have ended their relationship. They’d barely spoken over dinner, and when they got to his apartment, he flopped onto the bed and turned on the TV without looking at her. She wondered why she was there.

After a while, one of them initiated contact. A hand touched a thigh, or teeth met a shoulder, or eyes finally met eyes and it was all over. The quick slide of a skirt hiked, legs exposed, fabric moved to one side. The TV was muted. She made sounds to let him know that she liked this, or that. They took the rest of their clothes off in the middle of it and in the breaths between. He moved her like a choreographer. Then he finished and tried to turn the TV back on, but she demanded more. Maybe she bit his neck gently, or kissed it, or kissed his mouth. He said something and touched her and all of the sounds went quiet except for her sounds. He shifted her closer. Like they were close. Like they knew each other.

Now he would be too tiny for that kind of sex. It might kill him.

“Why don’t you go get in the shower, and I’ll join you?” she asked.

She thought of the shower drain. It would be like a water slide for a man his size, or a black hole. His excitement distracted him. He got smaller as he sauntered over to the bathroom, and she heard his tiny clothes dropping. She heard him turn on the hot water with an agile leap, and the rustling of the curtain as he finally got in.

Cleo went to the kitchen drawer and took out one of her husband’s secret cigarettes. She lit it using one of the matches designated for the vanilla candles that they burned through the apartment.

When she thought enough time had passed, she opened the door of the bathroom cautiously. She said his name and he didn’t answer. When she looked into the shower, it was empty. The water was flowing down into the drain.

Artwork by Dorothea Tanning, “birthday”, 1942

The Dangerous Bodies of Others: Twilight’s New Moon

Bella Swan, an empty and recently un-loved vessel, wanders into the woods and straight into the loving arms of a future werewolf, Jacob Black. He’s a native American teenage boy. In her naivety, Bella assumes that the wolf is no threat to her, even when he transforms into a monster right before her eyes. Hundreds of years earlier, Little Red Riding Hood, a tender morsel, wanders alone into the woods, and in her naivety, accidentally slips down into the slobbering jaws of the big bad wolf: “She met the wolf; but as she did not know what a bad sort of animal he was, she did not feel frightened.” Little Red Riding Hood is a story that teaches girls to see wolves (men) as a perpetual source of danger. The question that girls are left with is, which men should we fear? Male predators are not as easy to determine as canine ones, so how can we distinguish between the wolves and the huntsmen? This classic fairytale perpetuates the damaging rhetoric that it is a girl’s responsibility to stay ‘on the path’ to avoid being hunted, but it is made even worse by its retelling in New Moon. Author Stephanie Meyers introduces deeply embedded racism to this already problematic tale, by answering the question of which men should be feared with a racialized wolf.

The Twilight series, as hated as it may be in popular discourse today, was important and popular not even ten years ago. As an excited twelve-year-old, I tore into New Moon, and I’m embarrassed to admit, I rooted for Jacob in all of his creepy possessiveness. I watched the movie with girlfriends; I imagined undying romance and participating in the delicious love-triangle that it would help to popularize. It was the first depiction of female desire I ever read. It was the first wildly popular book series to come out in my lifetime that had a female protagonist, and was written by a female author. The New Moon movie grossed $7 million in the United States when it came out. Clearly, something about a girl and some monsters in the woods captured the imaginations of many pre-teens, particularly girls. It was only on re-reading New Moon as an adult that I realized how deeply troubling it is. This book came out only twelve years ago, and at the time nobody took issue with its depictions of gender and race. The novel depicts women as empty vessels, meaningless and void without men. It does something even more disturbing with men of colour, who are simultaneously sexualized and demonized, which suggests that while they may be attractive to white women, they’re ultimately dangerous, inferior and wild; the novel insists that these men are the true big bad wolves.

The introduction of werewolves to the Twilight series in New Moon establishes that not all monsters are created equal. The vampires are ancient, perfect, graceful and strong. They are also white. “Their skin was precisely the same pale shade, their eyes had the same strange golden tint, with the same deep, bruise-like shadows beneath them.” Vampires have money and power. They are doctors, they go to universities, they play classical instruments and learn European languages. All of these practices are conflated with whiteness, and so is their perfection and startling beauty. They are monsters, but they are also kind and forgivable, white monsters.

The ‘others’ are the werewolves, who are also explicitly racialized. “The bright teeth standing in vivid contrast to the deep russet color of his skin. I’d never seen his hair out of its usual ponytail before. It fell like black satin curtains on either side of his broad face.” The word “russet” is used twelve times in the novel, not only to describe Native American skin colour, but also the colour of the wolf’s fur. Jacob’s skin colour is the visual marker that defines him in Bella’s human descriptions, and it is also essential in recognizing him when he is in his monstrous form. Thus the Native Americans in the novel are rendered inextricably wolf; it’s part of their heritage—their race. They are destined to be wild from birth because it is in their DNA to transform, whereas the vampires are only made monstrous when one chooses to ‘turn’ a human into one of them. The distinction is important because the vampires are not predetermined by nature, but are instead created by circumstance. Their monstrosity is a choice, something they can fight off and overcome if they wish. While the vampires were once human, the werewolves never were; they have monstrosity lurking in their blood from birth. The vampires are rational if occasionally bloodthirsty, but the werewolves are hot-tempered, violent and adolescent by nature.

Nature as it is imagined in New Moon is threatening, a place where monsters lurk and Bella is repeatedly injured. Even before the Native Americans are made monstrous, they are closely associated with this type of imagined nature. They live on the outskirts of town, they go cliff-diving and hiking. Nature is more closely linked to them than it is to the white characters. It offers Bella a place to be reckless, and so does her relationship with Jacob. Feeling empty (and how could a woman not, when abandoned by her man?) Bella attempts to feel alive again through encounters with the wild, accessible to her through Jacob. Bella’s feelings of intrigue and danger while she is with him are perhaps the same ones Little Red felt, when she first encountered a wolf in the woods. Jacob is threatening before he ever becomes a werewolf because he allows Bella to be reckless in nature, and the threat to Bella’s safety continues to grow the closer they become.

Before Jacob transforms, he and Bella observe the werewolf pack from the outside, thinking that it is a fanatical facet of Jacob’s tribe. The novel reimagines the idea of tribe through Bella and Jacob’s encounter with the pack, and thus tribal culture is made monstrous. Before his DNA forces his transformation, Jacob describes the pack as a cult, with the young men brainwashed and mindless. “They’re all about our land and tribe pride… it’s getting ridiculous. The worst part is the Council takes them seriously.” Jacob’s disdain for Native Americans wanting to protect their own land is never questioned by Bella or by the narrative. It is a given that demanding rights is ‘ridiculous’ and that these claims should not be taken seriously. Jacob doesn’t want to be part of the cultish pack, which suggests that wanting to be part of a tribe and to take action against injustice is monstrous rather than rational. However, for Jacob this desire is also inevitable; it is in his nature to eventually make ‘ridiculous’ demands about land. He cannot escape his tribe, his race, or his monstrosity.

When Jacob transforms, we learn that the pack members are not allowed to rebel against the alpha’s commands. They hear thoughts and know each other’s emotions telepathically, as one mind. The novel does not present this connection as male bonding, brotherhood or empathy, but rather suggests that members of the pack are individually thoughtless. The novel asserts that living in a tribe means that everyone thinks the same way, has no privacy, and is essentially brainwashed. In a tribe, violence and recklessness also become a part of life. “They were snapping and tearing at each other, their sharp teeth flashing toward each other’s throats.” It is in the werewolves’ nature to have random outbursts of fury, which go unchecked by the alpha. This inevitable and even sanctioned violence makes them more threatening than the vampires.

Not only are the wolves violent, they are also sexualized. Jacob is often subject to the female gaze as a sexual object. “He’d passed the point where the soft muscles of childhood hardened into the solid, lanky build or a teenager; the tendons and veins had become prominent under the red-brown of his arms, his hands.” While Bella does not want a romantic relationship with Jacob, she is aware of his body and how attractive he is. Her inability to view him romantically, though she sexualizes him, suggests that there is another barrier to their relationship. It would seem that as a ‘pale’ girl, the novel asserts that Bella is ‘destined’ to be with other ‘pale’ people—the vampires. Even Bella and Jacob’s last names suggest that they are at opposite ends of a spectrum, destined to be kept apart. Jacob’s last name is Black and Bella’s last name is Swan, a very white feminine creature. They are othered from each other, unable to cross this barrier. Yet the novel continues to sexualize Jacob and the other werewolves; their clothes come flying off every time they transform, and they have to walk around half-naked and shoeless. Their nakedness upholds the old rhetoric that men of colour are uncivilized and closer to a nature that is dark and threatening. While this type of entanglement may be an exciting diversion for white women, the novel insists that it is a dangerous one.

Jacob is not the first POC to threaten a white woman, and the idea that interracial relationships are dangerous can be traced back to Shakespeare. In the play Othello, a man of colour and a white woman elope, much to the dismay of the community. What the woman doesn’t know is that there is monstrosity lurking in her husband’s blood: violent rage and jealousy that is easily teased out by the play’s antagonist. Violence and jealousy are in Othello’s nature, they are inevitable– his tragic flaws. In the end, Othello strangles his wife in their bed because he believes she has been unfaithful. The play could be read as a warning against the perils of jealousy, entirely separate from race, however the image of a male POC standing over the lifeless form of his pure, saintly white wife still remains stark in popular imagination. The fear that men of colour will steal and harm white women can be traced through all kinds of literature and lands in Jacob the wolf. Bella is in even worse danger with him than with the vampires because like other male POC in literature, he has monstrosity in his blood, and with the right triggers he will inevitably harm her.

It could be argued that Bella and Jacob’s friendship ultimately traverses racial boundaries, suggesting that there is only ever equality between them through their platonic friendship. Jacob is not entirely dehumanized because he is important to Bella and they have mutual love. However, their relationship is incredibly dysfunctional and damaging. Bella uses Jacob as an inferior substitute for her ‘true love.’ He is closer to nature and so closer to danger, which she craves, and he graciously overlooks her lack of personality and moroseness, remaining bizarrely in awe of her. Jacob doesn’t take no for an answer. He is threatening, because he desires Bella and doesn’t care that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with him. He becomes jealous over her other male friends, and is possessive of her body. This possessiveness is particularly apparent in the end, when the pack declares that if Bella is bitten it will mean war. Bella and Jacob’s friendship is overshadowed by the fact that Bella belongs more with the vampires as a white person, and that Jacob’s nature is threatening and irrational.

The wolf pack is threatening to women, more so than the vampires are, even if those vampires intend on biting Bella, and have the constant urge to kill her. The werewolves are worse. Bella meets Emily, a woman whose face has been ravaged by her husband’s wolfish outburst. “The right side of her face was scarred from hairline to chin by three thick, red lines, livid in color though they were long healed.” Like the big bad wolf, the werewolves are specifically threatening to women as the recipients of their uncontrollable rage. It is not dangerous for the werewolves to attack and bite each other, or other men; it is only Bella and the other women who could become seriously injured by them. The idea that victimhood belongs solely to women is rooted in fairytales, we learn that in childhood. Women who are curious, ignorant or unafraid will be hurt.

In the end, Little Red Riding Hood is saved by the Huntsman, and Bella is saved by her reunion with Edward. Had they never reconciled she might have ended up with Jacob, the violent ‘other’ who could never measure up to the ‘pale’ perfection of Edward. Jacob and the pack are rough, adolescent and inferior, and these qualities are intertwined with their race. Thus, this novel upholds white superiority, and discourages romantic entanglements with the dangerous bodies of ‘others’.

Some books are irredeemable. Some books should only be read as historical documents, revealing how strange American culture used to be, and still is. This book came out a little over ten years ago, but perhaps it should be put into the vault for good.